Tampico & Veracruz, 1914

Porfirio Diaz

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

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

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

Admiral Mayo

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

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

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

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

USS Dolphin, 1914

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On to Veracruz

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sources:

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

Endnotes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Road to War

U. S. Marine Corps Defense Battalions

Some Background

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

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

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

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

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

Sea Change

1898

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SgtMaj Dan Daly USMC

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

At Pearl Harbor

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

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

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

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

Guam

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

Johnston Island

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

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

Palmyra Island

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

Wake Island

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

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

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

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

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

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

Midway

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

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

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

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

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

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

Guadalcanal and beyond

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

Sources:

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

Endnotes:

[1] Incorporated as War Plan Red.

[2] Incorporated as War Plan Black.

[3] Incorporated as War Plan Orange.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


One Face of War

Private First Class John Wilson Hoffman, USMC

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

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

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

J. W. Hoffman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some gave all.

Sources:

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

Endnotes:

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

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


The 8th Marines Go To Texas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Send in the Marines

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

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

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

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

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

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


Endnotes:

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

The Atlantic War, 1939-45

Some background

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Battle of the Atlantic

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

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

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

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

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

American Attitudes, 1939-41

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

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

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

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

Carriers and Their Functions

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

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

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

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

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

The Turning Point

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

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

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

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

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

Marines in the Atlantic

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

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

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

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

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

Colonel Jeschke (1894-1957)

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

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

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

Sources:

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

Endnotes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Marine Who Commanded Ships

Historically, one of a kind

The first American ship to carry the name Essex was a 36-gun frigate [Note 1] constructed by Mr. Enos Briggs of Salem, Massachusetts, a design of Mr. William Hackett, and named in honor of Essex County, Massachusetts [Note 2].  United States Ship Essex was launched on 30 September 1799, presented to the United States Navy in December, and accepted for service on behalf of the Navy by Captain Edward Preble, USN, the ship’s first Commanding Officer.  In January 1800, USS Essex departed Newport, Rhode Island in company with USS Congress; their mission was to serve as escorts for a convoy of merchant ships.  The United States was then engaged in the Quasi-War with France [Note 3]; Essex and Congress were ordered to protect these merchant vessels from assault and confiscation by the French Navy.  After only a few days at sea, a storm de-masted Congress and she was forced to return to the American coast.  Essex continued on alone.  USS Essex was the first US Navy ship to cross the equator and the first American man-of-war to make a double voyage around the Cape of Good Hope (March, August 1800).

The second cruise of the Essex took her to the Mediterranean under the command of Captain William Bainbridge, serving in the squadron of Commodore Richard Dale [Note 4].  During this journey, Essex participated in the Barbary Wars through 1806.  Upon return to the United States, Essex underwent refit until 1809 when she was re-commissioned as a patrol vessel along the East Coast of the United States.

Period Note

The Jay Treaty of 1795, more formally The Treaty of Amity, Commerce, and Navigation Between His Britannic Majesty and the United States of America, was the framework of Alexander Hamilton, supported by George Washington, and brokered by John Jay.  The Jay Treaty was intended to resolve certain deficiencies in the Treaty of Paris (1783) whose sole purpose was to avoid further confrontations with Great Britain.  The goals of the Jay Treaty were mostly fulfilled (withdrawal of British Army forces in the Northwest Territory, cessation of US confiscation of property belonging to British loyalists, etc.) but several issues remained unresolved, such as Great Britain’s impressment of American sailors from ships and ports.  From 1803, when Great Britain went to war with Napoleonic France, the British established a naval blockade to choke off trade with France.  The United States disputed this blockade, proclaiming it illegal under internationally recognized laws of the sea.  But to enforce the British blockade, and to make its point of naval supremacy, the British navy increased its impressment of American merchant sailors into the Royal Navy.  This behavior, more than any other, inflamed the passions of the American people.  In 1811, USS President closed with a Royal Navy sloop operating off the coast of North Carolina, challenged her, and then fired upon the smaller vessel.  Eleven British sailors were killed.  So now the passions of the British people were inflamed.  As a result of this incident, the British became greatly annoyed and began arming North American Indians and encouraging them to attack American frontier settlements.  The United States declared war against the United Kingdom on 18 June 1812.  It became known as Mr. Madison’s War.

With the outbreak of war, David Porter [Note 5] was promoted to Captain on 2 July 1812 and assigned to command USS Essex.  Sailing his ship to Bermuda, Porter engaged several British transports, taking one of these as a prize of war.  On 13 August, Porter captured HMS Alert, the first British warship captured during the conflict.  By the end of September, Essex had taken ten British merchantmen as prizes.

In February 1813, Porter sailed Essex into the South Atlantic where he sought to disrupt the British whaling fleet.  His first action in the Pacific was the capture of the Peruvian vessel Nereyda.  His purpose in seizing this vessel was that it held captive and impressed American whaling crewmen.   Over the next year, Porter captured 13 British whalers; one of these was a French registry vessel, captured by the Royal Navy, sold to the owner of a British whaling fleet, and re-named Atlantic.  In capturing these ships, Porter also took 380 British seamen as prisoners.  In June, Porter offered parole to these captives, providing that they would not again take up arms against the United States.  Porter renamed Atlantic as Essex Junior and appointed his executive officer, Lieutenant John Downes, to command her.

John Marshall Gamble (1791-1836) was only eight-years old when Essex went into service in 1799.  Born in Brooklyn, New York, Gamble received his appointment to second lieutenant of Marines on 16 January 1809 when he was only 17 or 18-years old.  At the outbreak of the War of 1812, Gamble commanded the Marine Detachment, USS Essex [Note 6].  Gamble was an accomplished Marine Corps officer but he is distinguished as the only Marine officer to command a United States Navy ship of war.  Actually, Lieutenant Gamble commanded two ships, both British prizes pressed into United States service — seized and renamed USS Greenwich [Note 7] and USS Sir Andrew Hammond.  Gamble also distinguished himself during a land action on an island called Nuku Hiva where Captain David Porter established the first US Navy Base in the Pacific Ocean.

Nuku Hiva is the largest of the Marquesas Islands (French Polynesia).  Captain Porter arrived at Nuku Hiva at a time when island natives were at war with one another.  Shortly after landing his shore party, Porter claimed the island on behalf of the United States and ordered the construction of a fortification and an adjacent village, which he named Fort Madison and Madisonville, respectively, after President James Madison.  He also constructed a dock that was needed to facilitate repairs to his growing fleet of ships.  For reasons known only to himself, Porter involved himself in the tribal conflict —possibly to curry favor with the majority of the warring natives.

Porter’s first expedition into the interior was led by Lieutenant Downes.  He and forty others, with the assistance of several hundred native islanders called Te I’is, captured a redoubt held by as many as 4,000 Happah warriors.  Afterwards, the Happah joined the Te I’is and Americans against another island group called Tai Pi.  Captain Porter led a second expedition, which involved an amphibious assault against the Tai Pi shoreline.  This second expedition, with Captain Porter in overall command, included 30 American sailors and Marines (with artillery), under Lieutenant Gamble, and 5,000 native warriors.  From this point on, however, Captain Porter’s fate took an unfortunate turn.

On or about 13 July 1813, following a sharp naval engagement, Lieutenant Gamble, commanding USS Greenwich, captured the British armed whaler Seringapatam. [Note 8]  The engagement was significant because, at the time, Seringapatam posed the most serious British threat to American whalers in the South Pacific.  Subsequently, Captain Porter wrote to Lieutenant Gamble, stating, “Allow me to return to you my thanks for your handsome conduct in brining Seringapatam to action, which greatly facilitated her capture, while it prevented the possibility of her escape.  Be assured sir, I shall make a suitable representation of these affairs to the honorable Secretary of the Navy.”

Captain Porter reported Gamble’s conduct to the Navy Department: “Captain Gamble at all times greatly distinguished himself by his activity in every enterprise engaged in by the force under my command, and in many critical encounters by the natives of Madison Island, rendered essential services, and at all times distinguished himself by his coolness and bravery.  I therefore do, with pleasure, recommend him to the Department as an officer deserving of its patronage.”

During the sea battle between Greenwich and Seringapatam, which took place off the coast of Tumbes, Peru, damage to Seringapatam was not particularly significant, but did necessitate repairs to return the vessel to a state of sea worthiness.  There were no human casualties on either side.  Once the Americans repaired Seringapatam Captain Porter assigned Masters Mate James Terry of the USS Essex as prize master, and Seringapatam joined Porter’s squadron.

In September 1813, Porter returned Essex to Nuku Hiva (along with four prizes) for repairs.  Around mid-December, Porter ordered Essex re-provisioned and readied for sea.  With Essex Junior as an escort Porter began a patrol of the Peru Coast.  Seringapatam, Hammond, and Greenwich remained at anchor under the guns of Fort Madison and Gamble assumed command of the garrison.  Many of the crewmen of the captured ships were American; they and several British crewmen volunteered to serve under Porter.  There were also six British prisoners of war who refused to serve the United States.  Not long after Porter set sail, local natives became so troublesome that Gamble was forced to land a detachment of men to restore order.  At this point, Gamble’s mission was to maintain order, guard the captive ships, guard prisoners of war, and do so with but a hand full of men.

Four months later, Lieutenant Gamble despaired of Porter’s fate [Note 9] and ordered repairs and rigging for sea of Seringapatam and Hammond.  When signs of mutiny appeared among the men, Gamble ordered all arms and ammunition placed aboard Greenwich.  Despite these precautions, mutineers freed the British prisoners of war and captured Seringapatam on 7 May, wounding Lieutenant Gamble in the scuffle.  Mutineers placed Gamble in an open boat and Seringapatam sailed for Australia.  

Gamble, returning to Hammond, set sail with a skeleton crew bound for the Caribbean Leeward Islands but was intercepted en route by the British sloop HMS Cherub.  As it turned out, Gamble’s capture served the interests of the United States.  At the time of his capture, Gamble was in possession of gifts intended for the King of the Leeward Islands.  Captain Tucker of HMS Cherub seized these gifts as prizes of war.  More than that, Tucker, having discovered several American ships in the Leeward Islands harbor, sent demands to the king to surrender these ships to him at once.  When the king refused, Tucker landed a detachment of Royal Marines to enforce his demands.

Upon landing, the Royal Marines discovered that it was literally impossible to enforce their captain’s demands while surrounded by very angry Caribs [Note 10].  Captain Tucker wisely withdrew his force and sailed away.  Meanwhile, when the king learned that his gifts had been confiscated by the Royal Navy, he was incensed and diplomatic relations between Great Britain and the Leeward Islands deteriorated.

At the conclusion of the War of 1812, Gamble returned to his duties as a Marine officer.  He was promoted to captain on 18 June 1814, advanced to Brevet Major on 19 April 1815, and to Brevet Lieutenant Colonel on 3 March 1827.

John M. Gamble died on 11 September 1836 at the age of about 44-45 years.  In terms of the family’s legacy, the destroyer USS Gamble (DD-123) and Port Gamble, Washington were named in honor of John Gamble and his brother, Peter, who served as a Navy lieutenant during the War of 1812.  USS Gamble served as a destroyer in World War I and a minesweeper in World War II.  Owing to the ship’s condition after two world wars, the Navy scuttled the ship in July 1945.

Sources:

  1. 1.Daughan, G. C.  The Shining Sea: David Porter and the Epic Voyage of the USS Essex During the War of 1812.  Basic Books, 2013.
  2. 2.Captain David Porter, USS Essex, and the War of 1812 in the Pacific.  U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command, 2014.  Online.
  3. 3.Porter, D. D.  Memoir of Commodore David Porter of the United States Navy.  Albany: J. Munsell, 1875.
  4. 4.Toner, R. J.  Gamble of the Marines: The Greatest U.S. Marine Corps Stories Ever Told.  I. C. Martin, 2017.
  5. 5.Turnbull, A. D.  Commodore David Porter, 1740-1843.  New York and London: Century Press, 1929.

Endnotes:

[1] A frigate in the days of sail was a warship that carried its principal batteries on one or two decks.  It was smaller in size than a ship of the line (which is to say, smaller than the warships that were used in the line of battle), but full rigged on three masts, built for speed and maneuverability and used for patrolling and escort duty.  They were rated ships having at least 28 guns.  The frigate was the hardest-worked warship because even though smaller than a ship of the line, they were formidable opponents in war and had sufficient storage for six-months service at sea.  A “heavy frigate” was a ship that carried larger guns (firing 18-24 pound shot) developed in Britain and France after 1778.

[2] Essex County, Massachusetts was created by the General Court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony on 10 May 1643.  Named after the county in England, Essex included the towns of Salem, Lynn, Wenham, Ipswich, Rowley, Newbury, Gloucester, and Andover.  Essex County was the home of Elbridge Gerry, known for creating a legislative district in 1812 that gave rise to the word gerrymandering, which suggests that politicians in Massachusetts have been corrupt for at least the past 208 years.

[3] An undeclared war between the US and France from 1798 to 1800.  John Adams was president.  When the US refused to repay its debt for the Revolutionary War, American politicians argued that after the French overthrew their king, the nation to whom this debt was owed no longer existed; accordingly, said certain members of the US Congress, the debt was null and void.  In response, France began seizing US flagged ships and auctioning them for payment.

[4] After 1794, the US Congress was unwilling to authorize more than four officer ranks in the Navy.  These were Captain, Master Commandant, Lieutenant, and Midshipman.  Commodore, therefore, was a title only, temporarily assigned to a U.S. Navy captain who, by virtue of seniority, exercised command over two or more U.S. naval vessels, and the rank Master Commandant was later changed to Commander.

[5] David Porter (1780-1843) was a self-assured naval officer who served on active duty with the U.S. Navy from 1790-1825, and as Commander-in-Chief of the Mexican Navy from 1826-1829.  He later served as Chargé d’Affaires of the United States to the Ottoman Empire (1831-1840) and United States Minister to the Ottoman Empire (1840-1843).  Porter was the adoptive father of David G. Farragut, the U.S. Navy’s first admiral.

[6] Gamble was promoted to Captain USMC in June 1814.

[7] Captain Porter later decided to burn Greenwich to keep the ship from being recaptured by the British South Atlantic squadron; it was a sensible decision because destroying the ship deprived the British of valuable whale oil, which at the time, was in high demand in England.

[8] Seringapatam was constructed in 1799 as a warship for Tippu Sultan, the ruler of Mysore.  The British stormed his citadel at Seringapatam, and Sultan was killed.  The British then sailed the ship to England where it was sold to British a whaling merchant.  The ship made six voyages to the Southern Atlantic and Pacific until captured by Greenwich.

[9] Gamble’s concern was well-founded.  On 28 March 1814, Royal Navy Captain James Hillyar forced Captain Porter’s surrender at the Battle of Valparaiso.  HMS Phoebe and HMS Cherub disabled Essex to the point where he could no longer resist.  Following the battle, Captain Hillyar provided care and comfort to Porter’s wounded crew, disarmed Essex Junior, and gave Porter his parole to return to the United States.  Captain Hillyar sailed the Essex to England, where it was used as a transport ship, prison ship, and then ultimately sold at public auction for £1,230.

[10] The Caribs (now called Island Caribs) for whom the Caribbean was named, inhabited the Windward Islands of the Lesser Antilles.  They were noted for their aggressive hostility and fiercely resisted European colonization.  They identified themselves with the Kalina people, or mainland Carib of South America.  They continue to exist within the Garifuna people, also known as black Caribs in the Lesser Antilles.

 

The Cactus Air Force

Guadalcanal — 1942

Some Background

After the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, Hawaii on 7 December 1941 (an event that crippled the United States Pacific Fleet), Japan intended to seize a number of Pacific atolls for their own use.  Doing so would increase their access to natural resources and locations suitable as advanced military and naval bases.  Advanced Pacific Rim bases would extend the defensive perimeter of the Japanese home islands.  In addition to their successful attack against the US Fleet, the Japanese also seized control of Hong Kong, the Philippine Islands, Thailand, Malaya, Singapore, the Dutch East Indies, Wake Island, New Britain, and Guam.

The Battle of the Coral Sea (May 1942) and the Battle for Midway Island (June 1942) thwarted additional Japanese efforts to seize advance bases.  Both battles were significant because (1) the Allied forces [Note 1] demonstrated to the world that the Empire of Japan was not invincible, and (2) the battles enabled the Allies to seize the initiative and launch a counter-offensive against the Japanese.  The United States, United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand chose the Solomon Islands as their place, and August 1942 as their time.

Allied intelligence learned that the Japanese Imperial Navy (JIN) occupied Tulagi in May 1942 and had established a seaplane base in the Solomons.  They also discovered that the Japanese had embarked on the construction of an air base suitable for long-range bombers at Lunga Point on the island of Guadalcanal.  If the Allies failed to interdict Japan’s efforts, Japanese air forces would be in a position to disrupt allied lines of communication between Australia/New Zealand, and the United States.  Only one month earlier, in July, Australian reserve (territorial) battalions fought a stubborn action against Japanese advances in New Guinea.  Although victorious, Australian reserves were seriously depleted.  The arrival of the Second Imperial Force (Australia) in August (returning from the Mediterranean) allowed Australian forces to deny Japan’s seizure of Port Moresby, and Milne Bay.  The Australian victory, with supporting American forces, was Japan’s first land defeat in World War II.

The author of the plan to attack the Solomon Islands was Admiral Ernest J. King, Commander-in-Chief, U. S. Fleet.  The US Marines invaded Tulagi and Guadalcanal on 7 August 1942 [Note 2], capturing the partially completed airfield at Lunga Point, although the airfield required additional work before the allied forces could use it.

Assembling Air Forces

Major Lofton R. Henderson, USMC

The Americans renamed the field after Major Lofton R. Henderson, USMC [Note 3], who lost his life during the Battle of Midway while in command of VMSB-241.  The first allied aircraft to land on Henderson Field was a patrol bomber (designation PBY) on 12 August.  Eight days later, 31 Marine Corps Wildcat (F4F) fighters and Dauntless (SBD) dive bombers landed from the fast carrier USS Long Island.  Following them on 22 August was a squadron of U. S. Army Air-Cobra (P-39).  Additionally, B-17s began operations from Henderson Field (although the large bombers had an abysmal record against Japanese targets) [Note 4]. 

This ensemble of multi-service personnel and their dwindling collection of outdated, dilapidated, and inferior combat aircraft became known as the Cactus Air Force — “Cactus” being the Allied code name for Guadalcanal.  Henderson Field barely qualified as an airfield.  The Japanese designed it in an irregular shape, half of it sitting within a coconut grove, and its runway length was inadequate the wide range of for Allied aircraft.  Even after combat engineers began their work to improve the field, it remained in such poor condition that it caused as many losses to aircraft as those lost in air combat.  Rain, which was ever present on Guadalcanal, transformed the field into muddy swamp.  Some of the allied aircraft were too heavy for the matting used for expeditionary airfields; takeoffs and landing also damaged the field.  Despite these on-going problems, Henderson Field was essential to the U.S. effort of confronting the Japanese, distributing critical combat resupply, and evacuating wounded personnel.  Henderson Field was also vital as an alternate airfield for Navy pilots whose carriers were too badly damaged to recover them.

In mid-August 1942, Guadalcanal was very likely one of the most dangerous places on earth.  Allied naval forces were under constant threat of attack by Japanese air and naval forces.  To safeguard carriers and their air groups from possible submarine or enemy carrier aircraft, once the amphibious force disembarked at Guadalcanal, the U. S. Navy withdrew its carriers, transports, and resupply ships from the Solomon Islands.  This placed Allied ground forces at risk from Japanese naval artillery and air attack.  The Allies needed aircraft—badly.  Marine Fighter Squadron (VMF)-123 (flying F4Fs) began its operations at Henderson Field in mid-August.  One squadron was insufficient to demand, however.  The Allies needed more aircraft —sooner rather than later.  Higher headquarters scheduled the arrival VMF-223 and VMTB-232 on Guadalcanal around 16 August.  The pilots and aircraft arrived on 20 August, but because the demand for shipping exceeded available transport, ground crews became stranded in Hawaii; ground crews would not arrive on Guadalcanal until early September.  The formula was simple —no ground crews, no operational aircraft.

The delay of ground crew at a critical period prompted Admiral John S. McCain, Sr. [Note 5] to order Major Charles H. “Fog” Hayes, serving as the Executive Officer, Marine Observation Squadron (VMO)-251 to proceed to Guadalcanal with 120 Seabees of the advance base force (operationally known as CUB-1) [Note 6] to assist the 1st Marine Division combat engineers in completing Henderson Field and then serve as ground crewmen for the Marine fighters and bombers presently en route.  Ensign George W. Polk, USN [Note 7] commanded the Seabee detachment.

Henderson Field, OFFiCIAL USMC PHOTO

The men from CUB-1 embarked aboard ship and departed Espiritu Santo on the evening of 13 August, taking with them 400 55-gallon drums of aviation fuel, 32 55-gallon drums of lubricant, 282 bombs (100 to 500 pounds), belted ammunition, tools, and critically needed aviation spare parts.  They arrived on Guadalcanal on 15 August and began assisting Marine engineers with their task of enlarging the airstrip.  Despite daily assaults by Japanese aircraft, Marine engineers and Seabees completed the field on 19 August.  CUB-1 technicians installed, tested, and operated an air-raid warning system in the Japanese-built field control tower.

VMF-223 with 19-aircraft and VMSB-232 with 12 planes arrived on 20 August; all aircraft arrived safely at Henderson Field and the pilots immediately began combat operations against Japanese aircraft over Guadalcanal.  As immediately, the Sailors of CUB-1 began servicing these aircraft with the tools and equipment at their disposal.  Aircraft refueling was by hand crank pumps when they were available but otherwise tipped over on the wings and funneled into the gasoline tanks.  Loading bombs was particularly difficult because hoists were rare; bombs had to be raised by hand … 100-500-pound bombs.  Belting ammunition was also accomplished by hand.  The gunners on the dive bombers loaded their ammunition by the same laborious method.

CUB-1 personnel performed these tasks for twelve days before the arrival of Marine ground crews.  As with all military personnel on Guadalcanal, CUB-1 crews suffered from malaria, dengue fever, fungus infections, sleepless nights, shortages of food, clothing, and supplies.  Living conditions on Guadalcanal were some of the most difficult ever faced by Marines.  Pilots and ground crews lived in mud-floored tents in a flooded coconut plantation called Mosquito Grove.  Everyone on Guadalcanal was subjected to mortal danger.  Japanese aircraft and artillery bombarded the airfield nearly every day.  On the night of 13-14 October 1942, two Japanese battleships fired more than 700 heavy shells into Henderson Field.  Ensign Polk’s men remained on the island until 15 February 1943.

For the first five days after the arrival of the Marine aviators, there was no “commander” of the air component; instead, the senior aviator reported directly to Major General Alexander A. Vandegrift, Commanding General, 1st Marine Division.  Technically, the Cactus Air Force was under the authority of Rear Admiral McCain, but as the local senior-most commander, Vandegrift and his operational staff exercised direct authority over all air assets, whether Army, Navy, or Marine.

Colonel William W. Wallace served temporarily as the first air group commander.  On 3 September, Brigadier General Roy S. Geiger [Note 8] arrived to assume command as Commander, Aircraft, Guadalcanal (also, COMAIRCACTUS) and of the 1st Marine Aircraft Wing.  By the time of Geiger’s arrival, air squadrons had already suffered significant losses.  The pilots were sick, undernourished, and demoralized.  Geiger changed that.  By his personality, energy, and positive attitude, General Geiger raised the collective spirits of squadron survivors.  The cost to Geiger, in the short-term, was that within a few months, the 57-year-old Geiger became seriously fatigued.  Eventually, General Vandegrift relieved Geiger of his duties and replaced him with Geiger’s Chief of Staff, Brigadier General Louis E. Woods [Note 9], who was one of the Marine Corps’ outstanding aviators.

Ground Combat Interface

As previously mentioned, the Japanese started construction of the airfield at Lunga Point in May 1942.  The landings of 11,000 Allied forces on Guadalcanal, Tulagi, and the Florida Islands on 7-8 August 1942 was a complete surprise to the Japanese—and they weren’t too happy about it.  As a response to the Allied landings, the Imperial General Headquarters ordered the Imperial Japanese Army’s (IJA) 17th Army (a corps-sized command under Lieutenant General Harukichi Hyakutake), to retake Guadalcanal.  His advance force began to arrive on Guadalcanal on 19 August.  Allied planes operating from Henderson Field challenged Japan’s slow-moving transport ships, which had the effect of impeding Hyakutake’s efforts.  On 21 August, General Hyakutake ordered a force of just under a thousand men to seize the airfield.  Known as the Battle of Tenaru, Marines soundly defeated the IJA’s first attempt.

The IJA made a second attempt on 12-14 September, this time with a brigade-size force of 6,000 men.  Known as the Battle of Edson’s Ridge, the Marines repelled that attack, as well.  Convinced that the Japanese were not through with their attempts to reclaim Lunga Point, Major General Alexander A. Vandegrift, commanding all Allied land forces in the Solomon Islands [Note 10], ordered the strengthening of defenses at Henderson Field.  He additionally ordered his Marines to increase combat patrolling in the area between Lunga Point and the Matanikau River.  IJA forces repulsed three different company-sized patrols operating near the Matanikau River between 23-27 September.  Between 6-9 October, a battalion of Marines crossed the Matanikau and inflicted heavy losses on the IJA 4th Infantry Regiment, forcing a Japanese withdrawal [Note 11].  

By 17 October, IJA forces on Guadalcanal numbered 17,000 troops, which included the 2nd Infantry Division (under Lieutenant General Masao Maruyama), one regiment of the 38th Infantry Division, and artillery and tank units.  The IJN ordered heavy and light cruisers to support Hyakutake and conduct bombardments of Allied positions, including Henderson Field, warranted because the Cactus Air Force posed significant threats to Japanese transports ferrying replacements and supplies from Rabaul [Note 12].  On 13 October, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto dispatched a naval force under Vice Admiral Takeo Kurita to bombard Henderson Field.  Kurita’s force included two battleships, one light cruiser, and nine destroyers.  Beginning at 01:33, the Japanese Navy fired just under 1,000 rounds into the Lunga Point perimeter.  The Japanese attack destroyed most of the aviation fuel, 48 of the Cactus Air Force’s 90 aircraft, and killed 41 men —of which were six CAF ground crewmen.  As devastating as this attack was, Seabees restored the airfield to operating conditions within a few hours.

As Japanese infantry under Lieutenant General Maruyama began their march toward Lunga Point, aircraft of the 11th Air Fleet at Rabaul attacked Henderson Field with 11 G4M2 bombers and 28 A6M2 Zero fighters.  The Cactus Air Force responded with 24 F4F Wildcats and 4 P-39s.  A large and complex air battle ensured.  Allied aviators could not determine how many losses they imposed on the Japanese, but on F4F received extensive battle damage with no loss of its pilot.   

Just after nightfall on 23 October, two battalions of Japanese infantry (supported by tanks) attacked Marine positions behind a barrage of artillery.  Marines quickly destroyed all nine tanks and responded with devastating artillery fire.  Forty Marine howitzers fired 6,000 rounds into the attacking Japanese.  The Japanese broke off their attack shortly after 01:00 hours.  Partly in response to this attack, 2/7 (under LtCol Hanneken) redeployed to the Matanikau and assumed advanced defensive positions.  LtCol Louis B. “Chesty” Puller’s 1/7 (with around 700 men) was the only battalion left to defend Henderson Field, a 2,500-yard perimeter on the southern face of Lunga Point.  Puller’s outposts reported enemy movement at around 21:00 hours.

Heavy rain began falling an hour or so before, the torrential downpour inhibiting the advance of a Japanese infantry regiment.  In the dark of night under a pouring rain, a Japanese battalion more or less stumbled into Puller’s defensive line at around 22:00.  The Marines repulsed the Japanese advance, but the Japanese commander believed that his battalion had taken Lunga Point.  At around 00:15, the IJA’s 11th Company of the 3rd Battalion assaulted the perimeter held by Marines from Alpha Company.  Within thirty minutes, the Marines destroyed the 11th Company.

Further west, at around 01:15, the 9th Company charged into positions held by Charlie 1/7.  Within around five minutes, a machine-gun section led by Sergeant John A. Basilone, killed nearly every member of the 9th Company.  Ten minutes after that, Marine artillery had a murderous effect on the IJA regiment’s assembly area.  Puller requested reinforcement at 03:30.   The 3rd Battalion, 164th US Infantry rushed forward and quickly reinforced Puller’s perimeter.  Just before dawn, the Japanese 3rd Battalion, 29th Infantry penetrated Allied artillery and assaulted the Marine position.  1/7 Marines killed most of these men, but about one-hundred Japanese broke through the American defense and created a bulging salient in the center of Puller’s line.

With daybreak on 24 October, the Japanese 2nd Battalion joined the assault, but the Marines soon defeated them, and they withdrew almost as quickly as they had appeared.  Puller ordered his Marines to attack and eradicate the 100-or-so enemy soldiers within the salient, and to search and destroy any Japanese remaining alive forward of the battalion’s perimeter.  Marines performing these tasks ended up killing around 400 additional enemy troops.  But the battle was far from over.  IJN platforms began to pummel the Marines just after midnight.  A destroyer assault force chased away to US minesweepers, destroyed the US tugboat Seminole and an American Patrol Torpedo Boat.  Just after 10:00, Marine shore batteries hit and damaged one Japanese destroyer.  Cactus Air Force dive bombers attacked a second Japanese navy assault force which caused the sinking of a Japanese cruiser.  While this was going on, 82 Japanese bombers and fighters from the 11th Air Fleet attacked Henderson Field in six separate waves throughout the day.  The Cactus Air Force also attacked Japanese Aircraft, inflicting the loss of 11 fighters, 2 bombers, and one reconnaissance aircraft.  The Allies lost two aircraft, but recovered the crews.

After completing mop-up operations, ground Marines began improving their defense works and redeploying troops to strengthen the line.  In the West, Colonel Hanneken tied in with the 5th Marines; Puller’s Marines and the soldiers of 3/164 disentangled and repositioned themselves to form unit cohesive defenses.  The 1st Marine Division reserve force, 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marines (3/2) moved in behind 1/7 and 3/164.  The IJA still had more to say to the Allied forces at Lunga Point.

General Maruyama regrouped his beleaguered forces, adding the 16th Infantry Regiment from his force reserve.  At around 20:00 on 25 October and extending into the early morning hours of the 26th, the Japanese made numerous frontal assaults against the Marine/Army line (Puller/Colonel Hall).  The Marines employed well-aimed small arms, automatic weapons, artillery, and canister fire from 37-mm guns directly into the attacking force with devastating effect.  Marines completely wiped out the headquarters element of the 16th Infantry Regiment, including the regimental commander and four of the regiment’s battalion commanders.  Another attack came at 03:00 on 26 October.  Colonel Akinosuke Oka’s 124th Infantry Regiment hit the Matanikau defenses manned by LtCol Hanneken’s 2/7.  Fox Company received the brunt of Oka’s attack.  Machine-gun section leader Mitchell Paige destroyed many of his attackers, but the Japanese managed to kill all of the Marines except for Paige and an assistant gunner in their assault.  By 05:00, Oka’s 3rd Battalion managed to push the remains of Fox Company out of their defensive positions.  Major Odell M. Conoley, Hanneken’s executive officer, quickly organized a counter-attack, leading the survivors of Fox Company and elements of Golf and Charlie companies to retake the ridge line.  Within an hour, the Japanese pushed the Japanese back, which ended Colonel Oka’s assault.  2/7’s casualties included 14 killed and 32 wounded.  Oka’s losses exceeded 300 dead.

Aftermath

Six Marine aviators in the Cactus Air Force received the Medal of Honor: Major John L. Smith, USMC, CO VMF-223; Major Robert E. Galer, USMC, CO VMF-224; Captain Joseph J. Foss, USMC, XO VMF-121 (Former Governor of South Dakota); Lieutenant Colonel Harold W. Bauer, USMC, CO VMF-212; First Lieutenant Jefferson J. DeBlanc, USMC, VMF-112; and First Lieutenant James E. Swett, USMC, VMF-221.

Medals of honor awarded other personnel included Major Kenneth D. Bailey, USMC (KIA), Sergeant John Basilone, USMC, Corporal Anthony Casamento, USMC, Platoon Sergeant Mitchell Paige, USMC [Note 13], Major Charles W. Davis, USA, Colonel Merritt A. Edson, USMC, Sergeant William G. Fournier, USA, Specialist Lewis Hall, USA (KIA), Signalman First Class Douglas A. Munro, USCG, (KIA), Rear Admiral Normal Scott, USN (KIA), and Major General Alexander A. Vandegrift, USMC.  

In all, 20 Marine Corps aviation squadrons served on Guadalcanal.  Joining them, at various times, were ten U. S. Navy air squadrons (5 operating from USS Enterprise), two USAAF squadrons, and one Royal New Zealand air squadron.   

Sources:

  1. 1.Braun, S. M.  The Struggle for Guadalcanal (American Battles and Campaigns).  New York: Putnam, 1969.
  2. 2.Christ, J. F.  Battalion of the Damned: The First Marine Paratroopers at Gavutu and Bloody Ridge, 1942.  Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2007
  3. 3.De Chant, J. A.  Devilbirds.  New York: Harper Bros., 1947.
  4. 4.Mersky, P. B.  U.S. Marine Corps Aviation—1912 to the Present.  Nautical Publishing, 1983.
  5. 5.Paige, M.  My Story, A Marine Named Mitch: The Autobiography of Mitchell Paige, Colonel, United States Marine Corps (Retired).  Palo Alto: Bradford Adams & Company, 1975.
  6. 6.Sherrod, R.  History of Marine Corps Aviation in World War II.  Washington: Combat Forces Press, 1952.
  7. 7.Simmons, E. H.  The United States Marines: A History (Fourth Edition).  Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2003.

Endnotes:

[1]The Allied forces in the Pacific during World War II were the US, UK, Australia, New Zealand, Soviet Union, and China.  As a practical matter, given the requirements of global war at other locations in the world, and limitations of certain Allied countries to participate in the conflict, the US played the largest role in the Pacific War.

[2] The Guadalcanal campaign lasted through 9 February 1943.

[3] Initially identified by the Japanese as simply Code RXI, the incomplete airfield became the focus of one of the great battles of the Pacific war in World War II.  Major Henderson (1903-1942) was a graduate of the U. S. Naval Academy (Class of 1926) and served in China, various Caribbean stations, and aboard the carriers Langley, Ranger, and Saratoga.

 [4] B-17 aircraft were unsuitable for use against Japanese ships at sea.  High altitude bombing of moving targets could hardly yield the results of Torpedo/Dive Bomber aircraft.  Moreover, B-17 crews were young, inexperienced airmen who, while doing their level best, could not engage enemy ships with precision.

 [5] At the time, Admiral McCain served as Commander, Aircraft South Pacific (1941-42).  He was the grandfather of John S. McCain III, former Navy aviator POW and US Senator from Arizona.

[6] See also: Building the Hive.

[7] George W. Polk enlisted with the Naval Construction Battalion at the beginning of World War II.  He also served as a “volunteer” dive bomber and reconnaissance pilot, receiving combat wounds and suffering from malaria, which required nearly a year of hospitalization.  After the war, Polk joined CBS news as a journalist.  Communist insurgents murdered him while he was covering the Greek Civil War in 1948.

[8] Roy Stanley Geiger (1885-1947) was a native of Florida who completed university and law school before enlisting in the US Marine Corps.  While serving as a corporal in 1909, Geiger completed a series of professional examinations to obtain a commission to second lieutenant on 5 February 1909.  After ten years of ground service, Geiger reported for aviation training in 1917 and subsequently became Naval Aviator #49 on 9 June.  Geiger was variously described as curt, cold, ruthless, and determined.  Geiger became the first Marine Corps general to command a United States Army during the Battle of Okinawa. 

[9] Lieutenant General Woods later commanded the tactical air forces under the 10th U.S. Army during the Battle of Okinawa.

[10] The 7th Marine Regiment arrived on Guadalcanal on 18 September, adding an additional 4,157 men to Vandegrift’s ground combat element.

[11] Meanwhile, Major General Millard F. Harmon, Commander, U. S. Army Forces, South Pacific, convinced Admiral Robert L. Ghormley, Commander, Allied Forces, South Pacific, to reinforce the Marines immediately; one division of Marines, he argued, was insufficient to defend an island the size of Guadalcanal.  Subsequently, the U. S. 164th Infantry Regiment (North Dakota Army National Guard) arrived on Guadalcanal on 13 October 1942.

[12] Allied naval forces intercepted one of these Japanese bombardment missions on the night of 11 October, resulting in a Japanese defeat at the Battle of Cape Esperance. 

[13] Colonel Paige died on 15 November 2003, aged 85 years.  He was the last surviving Medal of Honor recipient of the Guadalcanal campaign.

Sugar Loaf

The bended knee is not a Marine Corps tradition

Island of Okinawa

In 1944, the Japanese Empire was in agony.  Its Pacific defensive perimeter had been shattered and was suddenly a very narrow band.  The Co-Prosperity Sphere was little more than a memory.  The motherland was under threat of invasion.  Japanese industries were unable to replace the hundreds of airplanes destroyed by the Americans and their allies.  Worse, there were no experienced pilots to train them and no facility suitable for educating a new generation of combat aviators.  There were also limited quantities of fuel to propel aircraft.  The Imperial Japanese fleet was sitting at anchor at death’s door.  The Japanese high command was well aware of this, of course, but had no intention of surrendering to Allied forces.  National pride would not allow it.  There would be no withdrawals and no surrender.  Japan’s new strategy was to cause so many casualties that American public opinion would demand that Roosevelt end the war on terms favorable to the Japanese.

The island of Okinawa lies 330 miles southwest of the southernmost Japanese island of Kyushu.  If an invasion of the Japanese home islands became necessary, Okinawa would be the place from which the allied attack would come.  The Japanese high command knew this.  In the White House, there was some doubt about whether a new wonder weapon under evaluation in the United States would work.  If it didn’t work, then an invasion of Japan would be inevitable.  General Douglas MacArthur told Roosevelt that he estimated a million more Americans would die in a land battle in Japan.  

On 7 September 1944, anticipating the need for an invasion of the Japanese home islands, Marine Corps headquarters ordered the formation of the Sixth Marine Division (6thMarDiv) in the southern Solomon Islands.  It was a typical Marine infantry division; three rifle regiments with three battalions each, and direct support battalions of engineers, artillery, field medical personnel, pioneer, motor transport, tanks, and headquarters and service battalions.  The division organization included the newly reconstituted Fourth Marine Regiment, the 22nd Marines, and 29th Marines.

The division was “new” to the Marine Corps, but it was in no way a “green” division.  The men who formed the division previously fought as part of the 1st Provisional Marine Brigade on Guam and with the 2nd Marine Division on Saipan.  Half of the force in three regiments were combat veterans.  The division received its initial training as a combat organization on Guadalcanal.  Its first stop on the way to Japan was the island called Okinawa.

The Allied force landed on Okinawa on 1 April 1945.  The 6th Marine Division was but one element of the US Tenth Army, consisting of the XXIV Corps (four Army infantry divisions) and the III Amphibious Corps (three US Marine infantry divisions).  The 6th Marine Division was one of those.  To everyone’s astonishment, there was no opposition to the allied landing.

The Japanese had set their trap, and the Allies walked straight into it.  Japan’s strategy called for a defense in depth of Okinawa —a fierce defense similar to that of Iwo Jima, but with significant differences.  Commanding a Japanese force of between 96,000 and 130,000 troops [Note 1], General Mitsuru Ushijima would allow the Americans to land ashore unopposed. Once they had, a large Kamikaze force would destroy the allied fleet, thus cutting the allies off from their supply line and leaving the Americans with no opportunity for withdrawal.  In this setting, the Imperial Japanese Army (IJA) would systematically annihilate the men stranded onshore.  The construction of Japanese defensive positions had begun in the summer of 1944, which included the use of existing caves, constructing tunnels and underground command posts, establishing interlocking fields of fire, ranged artillery, and spider holes for snipers.  Ushijima’s defensive line was along the island’s southern tip, stretching from the Pacific Ocean to the East China Sea. 

Hiromichi Yahara

The architect of the Japanese strategy for Okinawa was Colonel Hiromichi Yahara, who served as Chief of Staff to General Ushijima.  Yahara prohibited any of his defensive troops from adopting the popular philosophy of “self-sacrifice.”  Such notions were self-defeating at a time when Japan needed more, not less, manpower.  Instead, he intended that the IJA outlast the allied forces.  He intended to accomplish this by establishing a defensive structure incorporating snipers, artillery, mortars, and well-constructed pillboxes.  Should the Allied forces continue to press the Japanese defense, then the IJA would fight these Americans in close quarters combat, where they could not use artillery or mortars against the Japanese.

With great cunning and ingenuity, General Ushijima and Colonel Yahara organized their ground defense in the Shuri area of southern Okinawa.  Japanese security included a series of concentric positions adapted to the contour of the terrain.  Caves, emplacements, blockhouses, and pillboxes were built into the hills, connected by elaborate underground tunnels and skillfully camouflaged and concealed positions.  Many Okinawan burial tombs were fortified by the Japanese, as well.  They even reinforced the reverse slopes of hills.  Artillery was placed in the caves and thoroughly integrated into General Ushijima’s defense plan.

The Japanese defensive line consisted of three perimeters.  There was no greater example of Japanese ferocity in battle than their defense of Okinawa.  The battle for hacksaw ridge began on 24 April; it did not end until 6 May, and then only after imposing massive casualties on the attacking allied forces —and at which time the Japanese fell back to a new position and waited once more for the Americans to attack it. 

After going ashore on 1 April 1945, Army headquarters tasked the 6th Marine Division with clearing the island’s northern end.  This operation cost the division 236 killed, 1,601 wounded, and seven missing in action.  A month later, the division replaced the Army’s US 27th Infantry Division.  By 6 May, the 6thMarDiv bivouacked near Chibana, Okinawa, less than ten miles from the battle area’s forward edge.  In replacing the army division, the Marines would participate in the Battle for Naha, Okinawa’s capital city.

On 10 May, the 6th Marine Division launched its first attack against the Japanese main line of resistance (MLR) when the 22nd Marines crossed the River Asa in the early morning hours.  A demolished bridge necessitated the construction of a footbridge.  The enemy, being fully aware of the Marines’ activities, sent sappers to destroy the footbridge.

At 0330, the First and Third Battalions crossed the Asa; the first battalion waded across upstream on the regiment’s left, while the third battalion used the partially destroyed footbridge.  At first, Japanese resistance was light, but the opposition became furious with greater awareness of the Marine advance.  Despite heavy artillery and mortar fires, the Marines advanced to the first area of ridges.  By nightfall, the 22nd Marines had established a bridgehead 1,400 yards wide and about 400 yards deep—but it was a day of heavy casualties.  

On 11 May, the regimental commander committed his reserve component, 2/22, to cover the left flank of 1/22, fighting to reduce an enemy stronghold on a formidable coral hill southeast of Asa village.  When flanking action failed to secure the hill, the troops withdrew to allow naval gunfire to access the target area [Note 2].  Meanwhile, combat engineers labored under enemy fire to construct a bailey bridge [Note 3] across the River Asa.  When completed, Marine tanks rushed across to support the rifle companies.  Then, with the added power of tanks, the 1/22 renewed its attack and was successful.  On the right, 3/22 fought for three hours before capturing the precipitous cliff area in its zone of action.

On 12 May, the 22nd Marines, with all three battalions online, continued to advance against Japanese positions and did so despite increasing enemy resistance.  The regiment was receiving fire from the front, and its left flank, an enemy entrenchment on Wana Ridge; the Shuri Heights permitted the observation of troop movements, allowing the Japanese to bring fire to bear at a moment’s notice.  With the Division’s left flank in peril, the Division Commander [Note 4] ordered 3/29 into the line.  He would have to commit another regiment to maintain the Division’s momentum.

2/22, and 3/29 continued the assault on 13 May.  All that they were able to achieve, however, is about 300 yards.  Enemy resistance was vicious.  In the late afternoon, 1/29 and 2/29 moved up behind 3/29 and prepared to attack the morning of 14 May. 

Sugar Loaf, 1945

At about this time, the Commanding General discovered the enemy’s western anchor to their main line of resistance.  He also learned that there were three terrain features, heavily fortified and manned, with mutually supporting fires, that formed this anchor.  Heavily guarded corridors led into each terrain feature, and no ground offered covered avenues of approach.  Before the Division could reach Naha, it would be necessary to pass over these features; features so small that they did not even show up on standard military maps.  Cartographers simply listed hill locations as Target Area 7672G.  They were later named Horseshoe Ridge, Sugar Loaf Hill, and Half-Moon Hill.  Of these, Sugar Loaf Hill was the highest in elevation.

The Japanese called it Suribachi Oka [Note 5]. Under normal conditions, a single Marine rifle company would have the task of seizing this hill, but there was nothing “normal” about the Battle for Okinawa.  The Marines of the 6thMarDiv would struggle with this hill for ten excruciating days.  Ownership changed eleven times.  The fighting took place under the worst of all possible conditions: unabated driving rain and rivers of mud.

The Battle for Sugar Loaf Hill is the story of a Japanese soldiery determined to keep it, and American Marines, who were more determined to take it.

By this time, the 22nd Marines’ combat efficiency was critical.  The regiment had lost over 800 Marines killed or wounded since crossing the River Asa.  The capital city of Naha lay open to the 22nd Marines, but the regiment could not advance without taking Sugar Loaf Hill and its two sisters.  The problem was that the Sugar Loaf Hill defensive area formed a triangle and was mutually supporting.  Troops attacking any one of these three hills received fire from the other two.  There was no room for extended maneuver.  On the right of the 6thMarDiv was the sea; on the left, the 1stMarDiv, which offered no protection or cover.

Late in the afternoon of 14 May 2/22 attempted a tank-infantry assault, and despite heavy enemy fire that pushed the Marine tanks back, a few Marines from Gulf Company succeeded in reaching the top of Sugar Loaf.  The attack caught the Japanese by surprise. 

Major Courtney

Ordered to hold his position in static defense for the night of 14-15 May 1945, Major Henry A. Courtney, Jr., while serving as the Executive Officer, 2/22, commanded the Marines during a Japanese counterattack.  Courtney weighed the effect of a hostile night-time counterattack against the tactical value of an immediate Marine assault and resolved to initiate that assault.

With permission to continue his advance and seize the hill’s forward slope, Courtney explained the situation to his few remaining Marines and declared his intention of moving forward.  Promptly moving toward the enemy, Courtney boldly blasted nearby cave positions and neutralized the enemy as he advanced.  Inspired by his courage, every Marine took up their arms and followed Courtney without hesitation.  Together, these intrepid Marines braved a terrific concentration of Japanese gunfire and skirted the hill on the right, reaching the reverse slope.  Temporarily halting his advance, Major Courtney sent guides to the rear for more ammunition and reinforcement.  Twenty-six Marines and a Landing Vehicle Track (LVT) soon joined Courtney and his remaining men, the LVT bringing forward several cases of hand grenades.  Courtney then stormed the crest of the hill for the purpose of crushing any possible Japanese counterattack before it could gain momentum.  Courtney pushed ahead with unrelenting aggressiveness, hurling grenades into cave openings with devastating effect.

Upon reaching the crest of the hill, Major Courtney observed a large number of Japanese forming up for a counterassault less than 100 yards away.  He instantly attacked these Japanese and waged a furious battle, killing many of the enemy and forcing the remainder to take cover in surrounding caves.  Determined to hold, he ordered his men to dig in and, with cool disregard of enemy mortar fire, rallied his weary troops.  With the Marines now “set in,” Courtney tirelessly aided his wounded Marines and assigned his men to more advantageous positions.  Although instantly killed while moving among his men, Major Courtney, by his astute military acumen, indomitable  spirit, and leadership, contributed to the campaign’s overall success against the Sugar Loaf Defensive line.

Major Courtney received a posthumous award of the Medal of Honor for this action.  Camp Courtney, Okinawa, the present location of the 3rd Marine Division and III MEF Headquarters was named in his honor.  

The Marine success was short-lived, however.  During the night, the Japanese organized a Battalion-sized counterattack that overwhelmed the remnants of Gulf Company and drove 2/22 back to the north and into the area controlled by the 29th Marines.  Major Courtney’s assault initiated the most bitter fighting yet seen by the 22nd Marines.  1/29 and 3/29 experienced the same painful refusal to give way to the American Marines.

In the corridor leading to the Half-Moon, 3/29 reduced a pocket of Japanese resistance, but the fight was so intense that it prevented further advance.  On the afternoon of 15 May 3/22 moved up to relieve 2/22, which had lost over 400 men since 12 May.  1/22 assaulted along the ridge overlooking Asato but could advance no further due to heavy fire from Horseshoe and Sugar Loaf.  Japanese mortars and artillery rained down on the Marines throughout the night of 15-16 May.  It was also raining cats and dogs.  Among these Marines, there was no rest for the weary.

Early the next morning, the 6thMarDiv, with its 22nd and 29th regiments in the assault, again attacked to seize Sugar Loaf and Half-Moon hills.  Enemy fire was withering, and it was apparent that the Japanese were rushing reinforcements to bolster the Sugar Loaf Hill system.  Working its way into position on the regimental left, 3/22 prepared to assault Sugar Loaf Hill.  Behind the battalion, tanks and artillery lobbed round after round into Sugar Loaf Hill.  On the signal to go, 3/22 rapidly advanced up the pitted slope in the face of the enemy’s entire arsenal of weapons.  Several times, the battalion reached the top of the hill and engaged the Japanese in hand to hand fighting but were driven back.  With devastating casualties, 3/22 withdraw.

The Division commander hoped that the 29th Marines might seize Half-Moon Hill.  Supported by tanks, these Marines moved forward to the edge of the ridge by late afternoon, but before they could organize defensive positions, the Japanese poured in so much fire from Shuri, Sugar Loaf, and their reverse slope positions of the Half-Moon Hill that the troops had to withdraw under cover of smoke.  Casualties were extremely heavy.  16 May was the bitterest day for the Marines of the 6thMarDiv; two regiments had fought bitterly contested battles without achieving their objectives.  The 22nd Marines had lost so many men that it was nearing combat ineffectiveness.  General Shepherd shifted the attacking force’s burden to the 29th Marines; he ordered the 22nd Marines to hold their positions.

Before the 29th Marines’ attack, Japanese positions in the Sugar Loaf defenses received a massive pounding from 16-inch naval artillery, 8-inch howitzers, and 1,000 aerial bombs.  Then, with tanks in close support, 1/29 and 3/29 edged their way to the northern edge of Half-Moon Hill.  3/29 seized a slim foothold on the hill’s northwestern border, but Japanese fire made their position untenable, and the battalion withdrew.  Meanwhile, Echo Company 2/29 maneuvered for a flanking attack on the east side of Sugar Loaf.  Despite heavy mortar fire and Japanese grenades, the company drove to the top of the hill three times.  Each time, the Japanese counterattack drove them off the hill.  Finally, around 1830, the company made a fourth assault.  This time the Marines defeated the Japanese counterattack, but there were so few men left alive that the company didn’t have enough manpower to defend it.  Echo Company pulled back to better ground for the night.

At dusk, Marines observed the Japanese rushing in troops to reinforce the hill.  Almost immediately, twelve battalions of American artillery took the Japanese under fire and inflicted so many losses that they discontinued the effort.  While it was true that Sugar Loaf and Half-Moon hills remained in Japanese hands, the 6thMarDiv had made substantial but unrealized gains at the time.  The Japanese had suffered so many losses that Ushijima was unable to sustain his stalwart defense.  As the barrage was going on, the 29th Marines moved into position for an assault on the next morning.

At 0830 on 18 May 1/29 and 3/29 again, assaulted Japanese positions on Half-Moon Hill.  Once the Marines established a foothold, the battle turned into a slugfest.  With the Japanese thus occupied, 2/29 tried to surround Sugar Loaf Hill.  Enemy mines, 47-mm fire, and artillery disabled six Marine tanks and drove the battalion back.  2/29 then launched a combined arms attack with infantry and tanks in a coordinated maneuver.  One tank managed to edge its way around the hill’s west side and commenced firing into the enemy’s reverse slope positions.  As the Japanese moved to counter this threat, another tank worked its way around to the east side of the hill and emptied its machine gun into the backs of the Sugar Loaf defenders.  It was pure pandemonium as troops swarmed over the hill and engaged in brutal fighting.  After an hour, the Marines held the hill.  Marines from Fox Company, 2/29 assaulted Horseshoe Ridge and destroyed enemy mortar positions by fire and close combat.

During the night, Japanese troops counterattacked the Company F position, driving the Marines back to Sugar Loaf.  Marine attempts to regain the hill were unsuccessful.  On the left flank, 1/29 and 3/29 held their positions at the base of the Half-Moon Hill and did so despite intense enemy fire.

To exploit the Division’s gains, General Shepherd brought in the 4th Marines to replace the 29th on 19 May.  On the right of the Division’s front, the 22nd Marines remained in their positions but were in no condition to continue the attack.  After relieving the 29th Marines, the 4th Marines prepared to attack to seize the upper reaches of the Asato River.  During the night, the Japanese made full use of their artillery to pound the Marine positions, but American casualties were light.

The 4th Marines launched their assault on the morning of 20 May and managed to seize a part of Horseshoe Ridge.  As the fighting raged, the Japanese positions on Shuri Hill massed their weapons and hit the 4th Marines’ flank with heavy fire.  At 2130, following a massive mortar barrage, the Japanese counterattacked Sugar Loaf.  The Japanese focused on 3/4 as its primary objective —their assault lasting until after midnight.  The use of naval illumination allowed artillery spotters to target the Japanese; six battalions of American artillery defeated the counterattack, but before driving the Japanese back, the 4th Marines committed part of its regimental reserve.  Nearly 300 Japanese died, with only one Marine killed and 19 wounded.

Marines made slight gains the next day within the interior of Horseshoe Ridge, but they were unable to exploit their foothold on Half-Moon Hill.  Until the Shuri Line fell, it would be impossible to seize the Half-Moon in its entirety.  On 22 May, the 4th Marines advanced slowly to the Asato.  General Shepherd was ready to exploit his gains by employing a holding attack [Note 6] on the left of the Division’s front.  After a reconnaissance, the 4th Marines moved two battalions across the river in the afternoon of 23 May.  What the Marines found was determined enemy resistance.  The situation facing the 4th Marines was challenging but not precarious.  All of its critical supplies had to be hand-carried across the river.  Massive amounts of rain made the terrain water-logged; the mud was above ankle-deep, and stretcher-bearers moved wounded Marines to the rear with much difficulty.  Marine vehicles had an impossible time navigating through the morass of mud and slime.

The 4th Marines continued their attack on 25 May, seizing most of the north-south ridge west of Machishi.  A company-sized attack by the Japanese kept 3/4 busy for most of the night, but the 4th regiment continued its advance into the eastern outskirts of Naha City.  The Division Reconnaissance Company (ReconCo) crossed the Asato near its mouth and penetrated Naha west of the north-south canal.  Enemy Resistance was light, with only a few snipers challenging the Marine advance.  The next morning, with rain falling in buckets, the 4th Marines confined its efforts to aggressive patrolling, and the ReconCo moved further into Naha.

On 26 May, the Marines observed signs of an enemy withdrawal.  Shepherd ordered all units to commence patrolling so that he could determine the extent of the enemy’s departure from the Shuri Line.  2/22 passed through the ReconCo and pushed further into Naha.  By this time, the city was almost a total wreck; only a few buildings remained standing, and these only barely.  The 4th regiment’s patrols moved 300 yards forward and found only weak opposition.

On 27 May, General Shepherd reoriented his assault by ordering the 22nd Marines to complete Naha’s capture and prepare to advance through the hills that overlooked the Kokuba River.  The 29th Marines relieved the 4th Marines and prepared to continue the attack southeast toward the Shichina hills.  The regiment completed its mission on 28 May.  Initially, the 29th Marines were to carry out a holding attack while supporting the 22nd Marines by fire.  On 29 May, the 22nd Marines crossed the north-south canal and commenced to fight through the low hills leading to Shichina, which ran parallel to the Kokuba River.  Initially, the assault progressed rapidly but slowed considerably with increasing enemy resistance, a rearguard force stationed in the hills.  Japanese resistance continued through 1 June.  From its position on the Kokuba River, Shepherd could observe the Naha-Yonabaru Cross-Island highway; across the river, he could see the materials abandoned by the withdrawing Japanese.

The Battle of Okinawa was the bloodiest campaign of the Pacific Theater during World War II.  In total, US and Allied forces gave up 14,009 dead, with 55,162 wounded in action [Note 7].  An allied estimate of Japanese killed in action was between 77,166 to 110,000.  The 6th Marine Division gave up 1,700 killed and nearly 8,000 injured from early May to 21 June 1945, making the Battle of Sugar Loaf Hill the island’s bloodiest battle.  Marine gallantry and intrepidity during this horrific battle earned the division the Presidential Unit Citation [Note 8], which reads as follows:

Presidential Unit Citation

 For extraordinary heroism in action against enemy Japanese forces during the assault and capture of Okinawa, April 1 to June 21, 1945. Seizing Yontan Airfield in its initial operation, the SIXTH Marine Division, Reinforced, smashed through organized resistance to capture Ishikawa Isthmus, the town of Nago, and heavily fortified Motobu Peninsula in 13 days. Later committed to the southern front, units of the Division withstood overwhelming artillery and mortar barrages, repulsed furious counterattacks, and staunchly pushed over the rocky terrain to reduce almost impregnable defenses and capture Sugar Loaf Hill. Turning southeast, they took the capital city of Naha and executed surprise shore-to-shore landings on Oroku Peninsula, securing the area with its prized Naha Airfield and Harbor after nine days of fierce fighting. Reentering the lines in the south, SIXTH Division Marines sought out enemy forces entrenched in a series of rocky ridges extending to the southern tip of the island, advancing relentlessly and rendering decisive support until the last remnants of enemy opposition were exterminated and the island secured. By their valor and tenacity, the officers and men of the SIXTH Marine Division, Reinforced contributed materially to the conquest of Okinawa, and their gallantry in overcoming a fanatic enemy in the face of extraordinary danger and difficulty adds new luster to Marine Corps history and the traditions of the United States Naval Service.

Sources:

  1. Astor, G.  Operation Iceberg: The Invasion and Conquest of Okinawa in World War II.  Dell Books, 1996.
  2. Frank, R. B.  Downfall: The End of the Imperial Japanese Empire.  Random House, 1999.
  3. Hastings, M.  Retribution—the Battle for Japan, 1944-45.  Knopf Books, 2007.
  4. Nichols, C. S., and Henry I. Shaw.  Okinawa: Victory in the Pacific.  Battery Press, 1989.
  5. Stockman, J. R.  The Sixth Marine Division.  Historical Division, Headquarters, U. S. Marine Corps, 1959

Endnotes:

[1] Ushijima was in dire need for ground troops.  The HQ IJA ordered the 9th Infantry Division to Formosa (Taiwan), which forced Ushijima to mobilize the entire civilian population on the Island to augment his 32nd Army.

[2] Naval gunfire was provided by the USS Indianapolis.

[3] A portable, prefabricated truss bridge developed by the British for use during World War II.  Components of the bridge are small and light enough to be carried in trucks and lifted in place without the use of a crane.

[4] Major General Lemuel C. Shepherd, Jr., a future Commandant of the Marine Corps.

[5] This Japanese word describes a bowl or kitchen implement whose purpose was to grind to a pulp whatever was placed inside it.  A mountain or elevated terrain referred to as Suribachi would resemble a bowl turned upside down.  

[6] A holding attack is one designed to hold the enemy in his position, to deceive him as to where the main attack is being made and prevent him from reinforcing his positions.  A holding attack may also force the enemy to prematurely commit his reserve force at an unwise location.

[7] The numbers of US and allied servicemen killed and wounded are estimates and vary among those who cite the statistic.  These numbers also include US and allied navy casualties that resulted from massive Kamikaze attacks off the coast of Okinawa.

[8] The Presidential Unit Citation recognizes US and foreign/allied units for extraordinary heroism in actions against an armed enemy after 7 December 1941.  To qualify, the unit cited must display such gallantry, determination, and esprit de corps in accomplishing its mission, under extremely difficult and hazardous conditions, so as to set it apart from and above all other units participating in the same campaign.  The collective degree of valor against an armed enemy by the unit nominated is the same criteria that would justify an individual award of the Navy Cross medal. 

Civil War Marines

Prologue

There are few completely spontaneous events in human history.  There are usually several causes of events, and potentially a wide range of consequences.  There can even be consequences to inaction —such as in realizing that something bad is about to happen, and then doing nothing to avoid it.  It saddens me to say that for well over two-hundred years, the American people have proven time and again that they are incapable of learning history’s lessons, or worse, lack the ability to predict the likely consequences of their behavior.

The outbreak of the American Civil War was not a spontaneous event.   The discord and virulent hatred that evolved into civil war began at a much earlier time — even, perhaps, in the formative years of the nation, during and after the Constitutional Convention (5 May – 17 September 1787) when Americans began organizing themselves into political parties.  This conflict continues to exist today.

Regional Radicalization

Owen Brown and Ruth Mills, of Torrington, Connecticut, sired eight children.  They named one of these children John, who was born on 9 May 1800.  John was named after his grandfather, Captain John Brown [Note 1].  Owen Brown was a tanner who later moved to Hudson, Ohio, which over time became an important center of anti-slavery activity and debate [Note 2].  Thinking of it as his Christian duty, Owen offered safe housing and passage to fugitive slaves.  It is likely that Owen brought his children up to abhor human slavery.  Owen Brown was also one of the founders of the so-called Hudson School, a preparatory school consumed with the issue of slavery.

From early age, John Brown believed that his calling in life was to serve God as a minister of Christian gospel.  Following prep-school in Massachusetts, Brown enrolled the Morris Academy (Litchfield, Connecticut) in preparation for becoming a Congregational Minister [Note 3].  Illness and lack of money, however, forced him to give up this ambition and he returned to Ohio where, like his father, he became a tanner.  When Owen moved his family to Pennsylvania in 1825, John (with wife and children) accompanied him.  The family settled in New Richmond where they operated a tannery and secretly provided aid to runaway slaves.  It was part of a network called the Underground Railroad.  Historians estimate that the number of runaway slaves that passed through Brown’s Pennsylvania farm was around 2,500.

Life was hard in the 1830s.  In the Brown family, John lost his wife and an infant son to disease.  In fact, of John’s six remaining children, only three survived to adulthood, but life goes on and John remarried a young woman from New York.  They produced thirteen children, and of these, only three survived to adulthood.  Due to economic depression in the late 1820s and early 1830s, John (as nearly everyone else in the country) suffered financially from a lack of business and increasing debt.

Economic depression caused thousands of people to uproot and relocate to new areas for a “fresh start.”  Some people “skipped out” owing other folks money; some of these ended up migrating to Texas.  John Brown moved his family to Franklin Mills (present-day Kent), Ohio.  To achieve his “new start,” John borrowed money to begin a business partnership with Zanas Kent.  Another economic crisis developed in 1839 and John Brown lost his farm.  When the farm was sold to another family, John Brown refused to vacate the property and he ended up in prison.  By then, John Brown had become a radical abolitionist.

In 1846, Brown moved again to Springfield, Massachusetts where he discovered people of means who emotionally and financially supported the abolition movement.  At about the same time John Brown left Massachusetts in 1850, the United States Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act [Note 4].  Brown responded by organizing armed resistance to “slavers.”  He called his group the League of Gileadites [Note 5]; they were men and women who sought to protect runaways and prevent the law from returning them to bondage.  Brown was successful in doing this over several years.

In 1855, John Brown moved to Kansas, where his adult children and their families lived, and where they were experiencing threats of violence from local pro-slavery radicals.  John apparently believed that it was his duty to protect his family from the effects of popular sovereignty, which after 1854, took on an increasingly violent tone [Note 6].  In 1856, pro-slavery activists began a campaign to seize Kansas on their own terms, which led to the term “Bloody Kansas.”  By this time, John Brown was receiving substantial financial support from wealthy abolitionists in Massachusetts and New York, among whom, John Brown had become a hero.

Radical Politics to Terrorism

John Brown’s notoriety among northeastern abolitionists prompted him to shift his tactics from that of defending and protecting runaways to planning and implementing raids against “slavers.”  To achieve his more militaristic strategies, Brown used the money donated to him by abolitionists to purchase firearms and ammunition.  In 1858, Brown initiated the Battle of the Spurs [Note 7].  After Brown met with Frederick Douglass and George de Baptiste in Detroit, Brown’s activities became even more aggressive.  De Baptiste came up with the idea of getting everyone’s attention by blowing up southern churches.

Brown’s new strategy included actively recruiting abolitionist raiders to assault southern slave owners.  Joining Brown were such notables as Harriet Tubman.  Frederick Douglass understood and sympathized with Brown’s overall goal of establishing a new state for freed slaves, but while Brown insisted on the use of force of arms, Douglass disapproved of any resort to violent action.

Brown’s radical aggressiveness led to his plan for the raid on Harper’s Ferry (then in Virginia).  Brown reasoned that if he could free slaves in Virginia, arm them, and train them, then he could instigate armed rebellion against their oppressors.  He imagined that a slave uprising would engulf the southern states.  Why Harper’s Ferry?  It was the location of a federal arsenal [Note 8].

John Brown rented a farm house with adjacent smaller cabins near the community of Dargan in Washington County, Maryland, four miles north of Harper’s Ferry.  Along with 18 men (13 white, 5 black), he took up residence there under the name Issac Smith.  Abolitionist groups shipped him 198 breech-loading .52 caliber Sharps Carbines and 950 pikes.  Brown told curious neighbors that these shipments were mining tools, which aroused no suspicion among them.  Brown would launch his raid from this property, known as the Kennedy Farm.

The armory at Harper’s Ferry was a large complex of buildings that manufactured small arms for the United States Army (1801-1861), with an arsenal (storehouse for weapons) thought to contain 100,000 muskets and rifles.  Brown imagined he needed these weapons to arm southern slaves.  

Initially, Brown’s raid at Harper’s Ferry was successful.  His men cut telegraph wires, captured he armory (defended by a single watchman), and rounded up hostages from nearby farms.  One of these hostages was Colonel Lewis Washington, a great grandnephew of President Washington.  Although Brown controlled the railroad line that passed through Harper’s Ferry, he allowed an early morning train to pass through the town.  When the train arrived at the next station, telegrams were dispatched alerting authorities about Brown’s seizure of Harper’s Ferry.  Brown was not a stupid man; he wanted a confrontation with the federal government — but this is what Frederick Douglass warned him about.  Attacking the federal government would bring down the wrath of the government upon him.

At the moment Brown commenced his raid, Lieutenant Colonel Robert E. Lee, U. S. Army, was on leave at his plantation home in Arlington, Virginia.  After Secretary of War John Floyd learned of the raid, he summoned Lee to Washington and placed him in charge of recapturing Harper’s Ferry and bringing John Brown to justice.  Colonel Lee would command all militia forces available in the area of northwest Virginia and all “available” regular forces.

The only regular force readily available at the time was a detachment of Marines from the Washington Navy Yard, and the only line officer available to command them was First Lieutenant Israel Greene, U. S. Marine Corps [Note 9].  At 23:00 on 17 October 1859, Lee ordered all militia forces gathered at Harper’s Ferry to withdraw.  The next morning, he sent First Lieutenant J. E. B. Stuart to John Brown under a white flag with his order to surrender.  Brown promptly refused.  A few moments later, Lee ordered Lieutenant Greene to attack the engine house held by Brown.

Within three minutes of Lieutenant Greene’s order to advance, Marines captured John Brown and seven of his men; ten of Brown’s men lay dead, including his sons Watson and Oliver.  Five other men managed to escape (including Brown’s son Owen).  Of Brown’s captives, four men died (including Colonel Lewis) and nine received serious wounds.

The Nation Goes to War

The Raid at Harpers Ferry was the first pre-Civil War conflict involving federal troops, but one that involved US Marines in a significant role.  In 1861, the entire Marine Corps numbered 63 officers and 1,712 enlisted men [Note 10].  It was the smallest of all services (and still is).  As the smallest armed force, the Marines had an understandably limited involvement in civil war battles.  None of America’s armed forces were prepared for war in 1861.  When war broke out, the Secretary of War and Secretary of the Navy scrambled to organize a fighting force.  Secretary of War Simon Cameron asked Secretary of the Navy Gideon Wells for a battalion of Marines for service in the field.

Secretary Wells subsequently ordered Colonel Commandant John Harris to form a battalion of “disposable” Marines for field duty.  Harris, in turn, ordered Major John G. Reynolds to assume command of a battalion consisting of four companies, each containing eighty men.  Reynolds was instructed to report to Brigadier General Irvin McDowell, U. S. Army [Note 11].  At the same time, Secretary Cameron ordered McDowell to provision the Marine battalion, which had no field service equipment.

Not every Marine was happy about the prospect of service in the field.  Second Lieutenant Robert E. Hitchcock [Note 12], who served as post Adjutant in the Washington Navy Yard, wrote a letter to his parents on 14 July 1861 informing them, “Tomorrow morning will see me and five other lieutenants and 300 Marines on our way to the Fairfax Courthouse to take part in a great battle.  This is unexpected to us because the Marines are not fit to go to the field …”

Major Reynolds was a good choice to command the battalion.  A veteran of the Mexican American War with 35 years of military service, Reynolds knew what to expect from the upcoming battle.  His troops, however, were untrained, inexperienced, and had no idea what awaited them.  All four of Reynold’s companies were commanded by noncommissioned officers.  More than a few of these 328 Marines had been in the Marine Corps for less than a week.  On average, the average length of service for the Marines of this battalion was two months.  Of the total number, only seven privates had ever smelled the stench of gunpowder.

Reynold’s executive officer was Major Jacob Zeilin and his few officers were young lieutenants assigned as staff officers, none of whom were available for line assignments.  As the battalion made its way through Washington DC, excited citizens clapped and cheered.  Once in Virginia, however, Reynold’s Marines became just another group in a long line of march behind the West Point Battery of Artillery.  Eventually, the Marines linked up with the Army of Northeast Virginia — the largest field army ever gathered in North America.

General McDowell intended to move westward in three columns.  Two of these would make a diversionary attack on the Confederate line at Bull Run; his third column would maneuver around the Confederate right flank to the South.  He believed this strategy would serve to deny reinforcements from Richmond and threaten the Confederate rear.  His assumption was that when faced with an attack from the rear, the rebels would abandon Manassas and fall back to the Rappahannock River, thus reducing the likelihood of a Confederate march on the US capital.  That was the plan [Note 13].

McDowell attached Major Reynold’s battalion to the 16th US Infantry, which was part of the brigade of Colonel Andrew Porter.  Of the Marines, Porter observed, “The Marines were recruits, but through the constant exertions of their officers had been brought to present a fine military appearance, but without being able to render much active service.”  As the Marines were not, at the time, US infantry (their duties and training being more focused on naval service), Reynold’s battalion was attached to Porter’s artillery where they could be utilized as its permanent support (ammo carriers).  With this decision, Porter seemed to have reduced the possibility that the Marines would see much fighting.

McDowell led his unseasoned army across Bull run against Brigadier General P. G. T. Beauregard.  His plan depended on speed and surprise, but his southward march took twice as long as expected, there were problems with issuing supplies, his columns became disorganized, and several regiments lost their way after darkness set in.  According to a diary kept by Major Reynolds, the artillery unit to which he was assigned contained six horse-drawn cannons.  These elements kept racing ahead of the Marines at every opportunity.  “The battery’s accelerated march was such as to keep my command more or less in double-quick time; consequently, the men became fatigued or exhausted in strength.”  Northern Virginia’s July temperature added to the Marine’s fatigue.

Union Brigadier General Ambrose Burnside’s brigade fell upon the Confederate left, which was held by Colonel Nathan Evans’ under-strength brigade.  Captain Charles Griffin’s battery, followed closely by Marines, crossed the creek and opened fire from a range of about 1,000 yards.  Their rifles had an effective range of 500 yards.  Evans was initially at a disadvantage, but the inexperienced union troops soon buckled under intense Confederate fire and began to fall back.  Porter’s brigade held firm, but the arrival by train of Confederate reinforcements under Brigadier General Joseph E. Johnson changed the dynamic of the battle.  A brigade of Virginians under a recently promoted Brigadier General by the name of Thomas J. Jackson rallied at Henry House Hill.

Griffin’s artillery was augmented by the artillery battery of Captain J. B. Ricketts.  With this artillery support, the US infantry was ordered to take Henry House Hill.  Major Reynold’s battalion lined up with the 16th US Infantry.  The fighting was intense, but indecisive until the unexpected arrival of an unknown regiment.  Griffin wanted to fire on the dark-clad soldiers, but McDowell’s artillery chief, Major William F. Barry, ordered Griffin to withhold his fire.  Barry thought the mysterious regiment was Union reinforcements.  They weren’t.  Colonel Arthur Cummings’ 33rd Virginia Regiment unleashed murderous fire on Griffin’s gunners and the Marines.  Brigadier General Bernard Bee, CSA was so impressed by Jackson and his men that he shouted, “There is Jackson, standing like a stone wall.  Let us determine to die here, and we will conquer.  Let us rally behind the Virginians!”  This is how Brigadier General Jackson became known as “Stonewall Jackson.”

The overwhelming fire delivered upon the Union force caused them to break and run.  It was the sensible thing to do, but their rapid withdrawal permitted the Virginians to overrun Griffin’s artillery.  “That was the last of us,” Griffin reported.  “We were all cut down.”  [Note 14].

Major Reynolds feverishly attempted to rally his Marines, but another confederate charge drove Reynolds from Henry House Hill.  In his after-action report, Brigadier General Porter commended the Marines: “Major Reynolds’ Marines, whose zealous efforts were well sustained by his subordinates, two of whom, Brevet Major Zeilin and Lieutenant Hale, were wounded, and one officer, Lieutenant Hitchcock, lost his life.”  In addition to Lieutenant Hitchcock, nine enlisted Marines were killed in action, sixteen received serious wounds, and twenty Marines were taken prisoner.  Nevertheless, the Commandant of the Marine Corps was not pleased.  “The first instance recorded in its history where any portion of the Corps turned their backs to the enemy,” he said.

The Commandant was unnecessarily harsh on these men.  They were untrained recruits and therefore unqualified for duty in the field.  They were the least trained troops in McDowell’s army, and yet … they gave a good account of themselves at the First Battle of Manassas.  Their 13% casualty rate was equal to every other regular army battalion, including the most experienced unit in the Union army at Bull Run.  The only people pleased with the result of the Battle of Bull Run were the Confederates — and their spy in Washington, Rose O’Neale Greenhow, of course.

With the Union army receiving priority for funding, Congress only slightly enlarged the Marine Corps … and only then because in doubling the size of the Navy, the Navy demanded an increase in the number of ships detachments.  After staffing ship’s detachments, the Marines could only man a single polyglot battalion at any given time.  Because the Marines of shipboard detachments performed most of the amphibious assaults in capturing enemy bases, there was scant need for a standing Marine battalion.  Still, capturing enemy bases was no easy task as it required more manpower that was available within a small Marine Detachment aboard ship.  More to the point, throwing Marines together under officers and NCOs they did not know hardly made them into a lethal landing force.  Fort Sumter at Charleston, S. C. in 1863 is a case in point.

Through the summer of 1863, the city of Charleston had withstood every Union offensive.  After Rear Admiral John A. Dahlgren replaced Admiral Samuel DuPont as commander of the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron, he proposed a joint Navy-Army assault to seize outlying Morris Island and then move on Fort Sumter itself.  He asked Secretary Welles for an extra battalion of Marines to be combined with another battalion assembled from several ship’s detachments.  Colonel Commandant Harris assembled a disparate group of Marines — from recruiters to walking wounded — designated them a Marine battalion, and placed them under the command of Major Zeilin, who was still recovering from his wounds.

Admiral Dahlgren and Brigadier General Quincy A. Gillmore, U. S. Army (an engineer) agreed to begin their campaign with the seizure of Fort Wagner on Morris Island.  Gillmore made good use of a new artillery piece called the Billinghurst Requa Battery Gun; it consisted of 25 rifled barrels mounted on a field carriage and was capable of rapid fire.

On 10 July 1863, Gillmore’s troops landed safely on the far side of the island, but the next day encountered stiff resistance and were repulsed.  The following week, Colonel Robert G. Shaw led a doomed assault on Fort Wagner, spearheaded by the 54th Massachusetts Infantry, a black regiment.  Shaw and 54 of his men were killed, and another 48 men were never accounted for.  Other regiments from New York, Connecticut, and New Hampshire were equally decimated by unwavering defenders.  After these overwhelming failures, Gillmore called off his planned-for all-out attack and instead ordered his engineer to dig a number of  snaking approach trenches.  As the engineers dug, Gillmore directed calcium floodlights at the defenders (another innovation), which blinded the defenders enough to disrupt accurate rifle fire.  The soil on Morris Island had a sandy top layer with a muddy base, so the engineers began uncovering the decomposing remains of soldiers killed in earlier attempts to seize Fort Wagner.  Disease, bad water, and decomposing bodies demoralized the Union engineers.

Admiral Dahlgren planned for Zeilin’s Marines to make a landing and support Army troops already ashore, but Zeilin objected.  He argued that his force was “ … incompetent to the duty assigned, that sufficient sacrifice of life had already been made during this war in unsuccessful storming parties.”  Major Zeilin also complained that too many of his Marines were raw recruits and that the climate was unsuitable to properly train them.  Admiral Dahlgren was not at all pleased by Zeilin’s objections, but he cancelled the landing.

When Major Zeilin fell ill, Captain Edward M. Reynolds (son of then Lieutenant Colonel George Reynolds) assumed command of the battalion.  After the surprising Confederate withdrawal of Fort Wagner, Admiral Dahlgren moved swiftly to attack Fort Sumter.  On the evening of 8 September, five-hundred Marines and sailors in 25 small boats, under the direction of Commander Thomas H. Stevens, prepared to assault the fort.  That very night, Dahlgren learned that Gillmore was planning a separate boat attack.  Attempts to coordinate the attack faltered over the question of whether the Army or Navy would exercise overall command.

Meanwhile, the Confederates, having captured a Union code book, deciphered Dahlgren’s signals and knew when and where to expect the attack.  Confederate fort and batteries surrounding Fort Sumter trained their guns on Sumter’s seaward approaches.  CSS Chicora (an ironclad) waited in the shadows behind the fort.  Captain Charles G. McCawley (future Commandant) was the senior Marine officer in the night assault.  He later recalled a lengthy delay before the landing boats were launched, great confusion within the landing force once they boarded the landing craft, and a strong tide that separated the landing craft once ordered ashore.

When the landing force came within range, Confederate sentries fired a signal rocket to alert harbor batteries to commence firing.  Of the 25 boats assigned to Marines and sailors of the assault force, only eleven made it to shore.  The amphibious assault collapsed within twenty minutes.  Only 105 Marines survived the assault, and they surrendered to Confederate forces because they had no other choice.  Twenty to thirty captured Marines died at the Andersonville Prison in Georgia.

In the fall of 1864, General William T. Sherman had taken Atlanta and headed east toward the sea.  Sherman requested that Major General John Foster seize the Charleston-Savannah Railroad line at Pocotaligo by 1 December.  Doing so would protect Sherman’s flank as he approached Savannah.  Foster failed to win the fight at Honey Hill (Boyd’s Neck) and the rail line remained in Confederate hands.  Sherman then turned to the Navy, who assembled 157 Marines under First Lieutenant George G. Stoddard.  According to Stoddard, “Soon after dark on the 5th, I received orders from the Admiral to form my battalion and proceed on board the Flag Steamer Philadelphia for an expedition up the Tulifinny River.  Embarked about midnight under orders to land the next morning, cover the land of artillery, and advance on the enemy.”

At dawn the next day, a combined force of Marines, sailors, and soldiers landed at Gregorie Point, South Carolina, advanced on the right of the naval battery, and came under fire at about 11:00.  Stoddard deployed his battalion as skirmishers on the right and advanced into the wood beyond Tulifinny crossroads, pushing the enemy back.  With the Gregorie Plantation house in Union possession, the force moved quickly toward the Charleston-Savannah line and surprised the 5th Georgia Infantry.  A corps of 343 cadets from the Citadel bivouacked four miles away heard the gunfire and quick marched to Gregorie Point.

Early on the morning of 7 December, the cadets and three companies of Georgia infantry mounted a surprise attack at the center of the Union position.  Marines were at the center of the line, supporting army and navy field artillery batteries.  As the cadets inched toward the Marine position, they came under withering fire.  Undaunted, the cadets fixed their bayonets and mounted a charge against the Marine perimeter but were repulsed and forced to withdraw.  Stoddard ordered a counterattack through the dense swamp.  The fog was so thick that the Marines could not see a man three feet ahead.  Citadel cadets filled the air with Mini bullets and after suffering many casualties, the Union troops withdrew to their line.

Union forces made a final assault against the Confederate line on 9 December.  The Marine battalion formed on the right of a 600-man skirmish line.  To the Marine’s right was the Tulifinny River; just ahead was the bivouac area of the cadets.  Stoddard’s men came within fifty yards of the rail line before the 127th New York volunteers, to the Marine’s left, began a retreat.  The Marines continued forward, but Stoddard soon found himself in great danger of being cut off.  Without a concerted effort, the Union attack failed with Marine losses numbering 23 killed, wounded, or missing.

Fort Fisher is located at the mouth of the Cape Fear River in Wilmington, North Carolina.  It protected the Confederacy’s last operational Atlantic port with 39 large guns and an assortment of smaller caliber weapons.  Its earthen walls were 9 feet high and around 25 feet thick.  On the morning of 14 December 1864, 75 Union warships and transports under the command of Admiral David Porter steamed south from Hampton Roads, Virginia toward Fort Fisher [Note 15].  The transports contained 6,500 soldiers under Major General Benjamin Butler.  Delayed in transit by a storm, Porter began his bombardment of Fort Fisher (an estimated 20,000 shells) on 24 December.  A landing party of 2,500 soldiers went ashore on 25 December, but withering Confederate defensive fires denied their advance.  Butler called off the attack and Porter withdrew his fleet beyond the range of the fort’s guns.

A second attempt was scheduled for 6 January, but meanwhile Butler was fired and replaced by Brigadier General Alfred Terry.  Another storm delayed the Union assault until the 13th when Porter’s ships bombarded the fort for two additional days.  Terry landed 8,000 soldiers.  Detachments of Marines and sailors assembled for an amphibious assault, numbering around 1,600 sailors and 400 Marines armed with cutlasses and revolvers.  This force was divided into four companies under Captain Lucien L. Dawson with Navy Commander Randolph Breeze appointed as landing force commander.

There is nothing simple about an amphibious assault.  In this instance, the assault boats ran aground in the rough surf leaving the Marines and sailors with no other option than to abandon the landing boats for the crashing waves and endure grapeshot and shrapnel killing them in droves.  A few hundred yards from the fort, the landing party occupied previously dug rifle trenches and waited for the order to mount a frontal assault —the deadliest of all engagements.  The signal to attack came at around 15:00, prompting sailors and Marines to approach the fort’s palisades in single file.  Observing from aboard ship, a young Navy lieutenant named George Dewey wrote of the bloody fiasco, “ … It was sheer madness.”

It was supposed to be a coordinated attack, but Brigadier General Terry held back his troops on the Confederate left.  Instead, sailors and Marines fought hand-to-hand engagements with Confederate defenders for the next six hours.  Dawson had no time to reorganize his companies after such engagements as he was constantly on the move responding to Commander Breeze’s orders to “move up.”  When the attack began to fail, Dawson rallied two companies of Marines to provide covering fires for the withdrawing sailors and Marines.  Several Marines spontaneously joined the Army’s assault on the main parapet early in the evening, thus helping to overrun Fort Fisher.  Confederate losses were 400 killed in action and 2,000 taken as prisoners of war.  Terry’s force lost 900 men, the Sailors and Marines lost an additional 200 men killed with 46 more wounded or missing.  Of the total of Marines, six were later awarded the Medal of Honor for their actions in the Battle of Fort Fisher.

Conclusion

Despite these “land battles,” which yielded mixed results, the main contribution of Marines during the Civil War was their service aboard ship on blockade duty and inland river flotillas.  At Mobile Bay in August 1864, Marines blocked an attempt by Confederates to ram USS Hartford, Admiral Farragut’s flagship.  Corporal Miles M. Oviatt, aboard USS Brooklyn, and seven other Marines, received the Medal of Honor for their role in that engagement.  Admiral Samuel DuPont once stated, “A ship without Marines is not a ship of war at all.”

Considering the enormity of the American Civil War, the role of the United States Marine Corps was small — but then, the Marine Corps was small.  Yet in the context of the missions assigned to the Marines, they excelled in every task assigned to them.  They didn’t win every engagement — for all kinds of reasons, but they gave their all.  Equally important, however, was the fact that the Marines, as an institution, learned important lessons that would prepare them for future conflicts.

Marines learned, for example, that there is no substitute for quality training, rehearsed landing operations, mastering the art and science of embarkation, the importance of unity of command, and meticulously coordinated landings with naval gunfire support.  Within 33 years, the First Marine Battalion was the first infantry force to land during the Spanish-American War; 19 years after that, they acquitted themselves with aplomb and lethality as part of the American Expeditionary Force.  In the decade following the Great War, they developed amphibious warfare doctrine, published the Landing Party Manual (which incorporated lessons learned from the failure at Fort Fisher), developed the Small Wars Manual, established the foundation of the Marine Air Wing, developed specialized equipment for advanced base defense, amphibious operations, and organized themselves for the crucible for an even greater war and dozens of unexpected crises.  Our political leaders may lack foresight, but this is not a failure of Marine Corps’ leadership.

Sources:

  1. Alexander, H. D.  The Battle History of the U. S.Marines: A Fellowship of Valor.  Harper-Collins, 1999.
  2. Heinl, R. D.  Soldiers of the Sea: The U. S. Marine Corps.  Annapolis: U. S. Naval Institute Press, 1962.
  3. Jones, J. P. And Edward F. Keuchel.  Civil War Marine: A Diary of the Red River Expeditions, 1864.  Washington: Headquarters, U. S. Marine Corps, 1975.
  4. Krivdo, M. E.  What are Marines For?  The United States Marine Corps in the Civil War Era.  College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2011.
  5. Nalty, B. C.  United States Marines at Harper’s Ferry and in the Civil War.  Washington: Headquarters, U. S. Marine Corps, 1983.

Endnotes:

[1] Captain Brown’s ancestors were Puritans in New England.

[2] One of the people apprenticed to Owen Brown to learn the tanning trade was a man named Jesse Grant, the father of Ulysses S. Grant.

[3] Congregationalists were reformed protestant assemblies that distanced themselves from centrally proscribed traditions in order to govern themselves through democratically minded parishioners.

[4] The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 required “free states” to aid “slave states” in the return of runaway slaves and imposed severe penalties on those who aided and abetted in the escape of slaves.

[5] This name is biblical in origin.  Mount Gilead is remembered as the place where only the bravest of Israelis gathered to confront an invading enemy.

[6] The Kansas-Nebraska Act mandated popular sovereignty, where territorial settlers decided for themselves whether to allow slavery within a new state’s borders.  Following secession of eight southern states in 1861, Kansas was admitted to the Union as a free state.  This was one of John Brown’s goals.

[7] The so-called Battle of the Spurs took place while John Brown and twenty-one of his followers (including women and children) escorted twelve escaped slaves from Missouri to Iowa, a free state.  Near Straight Creek, Brown encountered a posse of around 45 lawmen and bounty hunters hoping to earn the $3,000 bounty placed on John Brown.  Undaunted, Brown led his party ahead.  Brown was an imposing figure and — to be perfectly honest, he appeared deranged.  Terrorized, the posse turned their horses and fled.  The term “Battle of the Spurs” euphemistically refers to the posse “giving their horses the spur” in distancing themselves from John Brown.

[8] It wasn’t as if Brown’s intended raid at Harpers Ferry was a closely held secret.  Brown had recruited British mercenary Hugh Forbes to train his men in warfare, and Forbes held nothing back about what he was doing.  When Brown refused to pay Forbes more money for his services, Forbes traveled to Washington to meet with senators William H. Seward and Henry Wilson, informing them that Brown was a vicious man who needed restraint.  Wilson, in turn, wrote to his abolitionist friends advising them to get Brown’s weapons back.  A Quaker named David Gue sent an anonymous letter to War Secretary Floyd on 20 August 1859 warning him of a pending insurrection.

[9] Although born in New York and raised in Wisconsin, Israel Green resigned his commission in the US Marine Corps and joined the Confederacy.  What may have prompted this decision was the Greene had married a woman from Virginia.  In 1873, Greene migrated from Clarke County, Virginia to Mitchell, Dakota Territory where he worked as a civil engineer and surveyor.  He passed away in 1909, aged 85 years.

[10] Only 16 officers resigned their Marine Corps commission to join the Confederacy at the beginning of the Civil War.

[11] McDowell graduated from the USMA with initial service in the 1st Artillery.  He later served as a tactics instructor before becoming aide-de-camp to General John E. Wool during the Mexican-American War.  Between 1848-1861, McDowell served as a staff officer with no foundation in command of troops when he was appointed to serve as a brigadier general in May 1861, a product of the efforts of a close family friend, Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase.  To McDowell’s credit, he protested his assignment to command the Army of Northeast Virginia, arguing that he was unqualified to serve as a field commander.  His field of expertise was logistics.  Moreover, he realized that his troops were poorly trained and not ready for combat service.  Succumbing to political pressure, however, McDowell initiated a premature offensive against the Confederate forces in Northern Virginia and was soundly defeated on every occasion.  It did not help matters that high ranking Union civilian and military officials funneled McDowell’s battle plan to Rose O’Neale Greenhow, who sent them to Confederate General P. G. T. Beauregard.  See also, Little Known Legends.  In any case, McDowell’s plan was ambitious, imaginative, and overly complex.  None of McDowell’s subordinate commanders could execute them, nor their men execute them.

[12] Hitchcock also participated at Harpers Ferry; he was killed during the Battle of Bull Run.

[13] No battle plan survives the first shot fired.

[14] Civil War officers, if they were not friends, knew one another.  Whether serving the Union or Confederacy, they all had the same instruction at the USMA, they fought together in the Mexican-American War, served together at various posts and stations after 1848.  Field generals could, therefore, anticipate what his opponent would (or would not) do.

[15] David Dixon Porter (1813-1891) was a member of one of the most distinguished families affiliated with the United States Navy.  He was the second Navy officer to achieve the rank of admiral, after his adopted brother David Farragut, and is credited with improving the Navy as a Superintendent of the U. S. Naval Academy.  He was a cousin to Major General Fitz John Porter of the Union Army.

Those Other Marines

Fortitude

America’s naval war with Great Britain lasted eight years, and while the Continental Congress did establish and direct this war, most of the fighting involved fleets that originated with the colonies/states.  All the American colonies owned and operated fleets of ships and deployed them independent from those of the Continental Navy.  On 9 September 1776, the Continental Congress formally declared the name of the new nation the United States of America.  This replaced the term “United Colonies,” which had until then been in general use.  After 9 September, the colonies were referred to as States.

The largest state fleets belonged to Massachusetts, Connecticut, Maryland, Virginia, and South Carolina.  Only two states had no armed ships: New Jersey and Delaware.  New Hampshire had one armed ship, and Georgia operated four galleys.  In total, the number of armed state vessels exceeds those of the Continental Navy by a large number.  They weren’t huge ships, of course —only a few were suitable for deep-water engagements —because the purpose of the state navies was to defend coasts, ports, and harbors— the main source of state economies.  Offensive warfare was a secondary concern that focused, again, defending states from British commerce-destroying operations.

State Marine

Perhaps typical of these state navies was the Maryland Navy and Corps of Marines.  Throughout the Revolutionary War, British barges plundered and harassed farmers living on the Maryland and Virginia Eastern Shore creeks.  By 1782, Maryland had had enough and in the interest of defending local interests, commissioned Zedekiah Whaley to serve as Maryland’s Commodore.  His mission was to clear the Chesapeake Bay of the British threat.

On 14 January 1776, the Maryland legislature authorized a company of Marines, whose pay was less than that paid to Continental Marines —roughly $5.50/month.  Maryland paid for their initial uniform, but replacement items (shirts, shoes, stockings) were deducted from their pay.  Maryland lawmakers further determined that the uniform of land forces and Marines should differ from those of their sailors.  Marines wore blue uniforms.

Maryland Navy Captain George Smith assumed command of Defence in late 1776.  Her first voyage to the West Indies resulted in the capture of five small prizes laden with logwood, mahogany, indigo, rum, and sugar.  The Royal Navy would no doubt consider such activities as piracy, but ships at sea were fair targets for colonial navies; economically, they were struggling to survive.  Onboard Defence were 4 Marine officers, 3 sergeants, 3 corporals, 1 drummer, and 34 privates.

Maryland’s vessels were mostly galleys or barges armed with one or two medium-sized guns, crews of from 65-80 men.  Defence was Maryland’s largest ship (constructed in Baltimore).  Maryland’s emphasis on galleys led to the need for men to crew them and for the organization of small detachments of Marines for galley service.  The duties of Marines serving aboard galleys differed from those assigned to sloops or frigates.

The galley Baltimore had three appointed Marine officers before there were any privates because Maryland men would sooner serve in the land army than aboard ship.  Beyond the paucity of available men to serve in Maryland’s navy, the cost of building and maintaining ships was prohibitive.  In 1777, the Maryland legislature authorized the sale of Defence —it’s discharged Marines encouraged to join Maryland’s field artillery units.  By 1779, Maryland retained only three ships: the galleys Conqueror, and Chester, and the schooner Dolphin.  But because the British Royal Navy forced Maryland to defend communities along the Chesapeake Bay shore, in 1780, the Maryland legislature authorized the construction of four large barges, a galley, and either a sloop or a schooner.  The act included …

“That a company of one-hundred men be immediately raised to serve as Marines on board said galley and sloop or schooner, and occasionally on board the said barges or rowboats; and that the governor and council be authorized and requested to appoint and commission one captain, and two lieutenants to command the said company of Marines, and to direct such officers to procure by enlistment as soon as possible the said number of healthy, able-bodied men, including two sergeants and two corporals, to serve in such company for the term of three years, unless sooner discharged.”

Maryland offered its Marines, as payment, £2.05 monthly, and a bounty of $40.00.  It should come as no surprise that the company was not raised until 1782.  Maryland did not fare much better with its recruitment of healthy seamen; they were unable to raise 250 sailors until 1783.  None of this, however, diminishes the fighting spirit of Maryland patriots.

The Marine captain’s commission went to a gentleman named Levin Handy.  Handy previously served as a lieutenant in the 4th Maryland Battalion in 1776 and then as a captain of the 5th Maryland Battalion.  Handy was appointed to serve on the barge Protector on 3 August 1782.

Commodore Whaley, in command of a flotilla of four sail and oar-driven barges, spotted the enemy in Tangier Sound.  Determining that the British forces were too strong for his lightly manned barges, he sailed into Onancock Creek on 28 November and asked Lieutenant Colonel John Cropper to assist him with volunteers to man his barges.  Cropper gathered up three officers and 25 local men and boarded Whaley’s flagship (Protector).  Setting out to confront the British, Whaley ordered an attack in the area between Smith and South Marsh islands.  Closing to within 300 yards, Whaley’s force encountered heavy cannon and musket fire.  Three barges turned away, leaving Protector alone to fight the British.

Protector pressed on.  Gunpowder aboard the barge exploded, killing four men, others abandoned ship to avoid the flames.  A musket ball killed Commodore Whaley.  In hand to hand combat, Colonel Cropper[1] was badly wounded.  Overwhelmed by British Marines, Protector struck her colors and surrendered.  Survivors were taken prisoner but released to return to their homes on 3 December.  According to an account of the Battle of the Barges, Colonel Cropper wrote …

“Commodore Whaley was shot down a little before the enemy boarded [Protector], acting the part of a cool, intrepid, gallant officer.  Captain Joseph Handy fell nigh the same time, nobly fighting with one arm after the loss of the other.  Captain Levin Handy was badly wounded.  There went into action in the Protector sixty-five men; twenty-five of them were killed and drowned, twenty-nine were wounded, some of which are since dead, and eleven only escaped being wounded, most of whom leaped into the water to save themselves from the explosion.”


State Marines generally were stationed aboard vessels operating in coastal waterways, but one company of Marines raised in 1782 was an exception.  Major General George Rogers Clark[2] was tasked with maintaining control over the Ohio Valley.  With few men at his disposal, Clark devised several clever schemes which gave him the best possible control over a large area with limited human resources.  One scheme was establishing strong posts at key locations; the other was using armed galleys or gondolas to control the waterways.

Clark had the full support of Virginia governor Benjamin Harrison; what he did not have was the support of Virginia’s treasury.  The governor wanted several river vessels but only offered up £50 to pay for them; General Clarke would have to pay the rest of it out of pocket[3].  In early 1782, Clark reported two vessels ready for service and a third on the blocks.  Of the two gondolas, they were unsuccessful because they were vulnerable to ambush along the shoreline.  The third vessel was unusual in several ways: she would have a 73-foot keel designed for navigation on the Ohio River.  Her gunwales were four feet high and thick enough to stop arrow or bullet, and she had 46 oars and large enough to accommodate 110 men.  She carried a 6-pounder, six 4-pounders, and one 2-pounder.  This boat’s construction costs were £2 per day paid in Spanish currency.

It was no easy task to raise a company of Marines in 1782, so General Clarke authorized the recruitment of a company of Virginia State Marines.  Clark selected Jacob Pyeatt as captain, whose experience was that of a commissary officer with the Illinois regiment since 1778.  Pyeatt’s Marines would serve for six months.  When mustered, the company numbered twenty enlisted men and Lieutenant William Biggs.  Most of these men were discharged veterans who re-entered military service on the promise of £10 per month and suitable clothing.  In total, the company consisted of one captain, one lieutenant, two carpenters, three sergeants, and fifteen privates.

Rogalia (a shortened form of “row galley”).  The galley’s summer patrol of the Ohio River caused a stir among the Shawnee Indians, who assumed that Clark was preparing for an attack.  Two British officers from Fort Detroit gathered an Indian army of nearly 1,000 braves intending to raid Wheeling (present-day West Virginia) and were en route there when they received word of Clark’s Marines.  It was enough to cause the Indians to break off their march to defend their homeland.  Rogalia helped defend the frontier even though she had a short life.  Rogalia sank near Bear Grass on 1 September 1782 and Clark’s Marines were transferred to the Illinois regiment.  The state Marines never made a major contribution to the Revolutionary War, they did make a small contribution in their unique way.

But there were still other Marines …

American Privateer

In the 19th Century, a privateer was a private person or ship that engaged in maritime warfare under a commission of war.  Since robbery under arms was a common aspect of seaborne trade, all merchant ships were armed.  A sovereign or delegated authority issued commissions (also, letters of marque) during wartime.  These letters of marque empowered the holder to carry on all forms of hostility permissible at sea by the usages of war.  This included attacking foreign vessels and taking them captive (prizes), seizing the crews as prisoners for exchange.  Captive skips were subject to sale at auction with the proceeds divided by percentage between the privateer’s sponsors, shipowners, captains, and crews.  The crews included private Marines.

During the Revolutionary War, there were thousands of privateers —some of these commissioned by the Continental Congress, which added to the total of ships opposing the Royal Navy.  The fact that there were so many privateers in the service of the Continental Navy so early in the war suggests a level of preparedness for war seldom discussed by historians.  At times, these privateers were the sole source of disrupting British lines of communication and supply lines.  Their work brought millions of pounds of essential stores and war materials to the Americans while capturing or destroying British ships of war.  On 23 March 1776, the Continental Congress authorized privateering.  In less than a fortnight, Congress had approved the form of commissions for privateers and dispatched copies to the colonies, there to be issued to bonded privateer officers.

We do not know how many “privateer” Marines served in such a capacity, but it is likely in the thousands.  Over the years, historians have referred to these men as “gentlemen sailors” and “soldiers,” but their correct title, based on their duties aboard ship, was Marine.  We do know that recruiting for privateers was easy because the inducements were superior to those of the Continental or State navies.  Since their mission was to destroy commerce, there were few restrictions on behavior, larger profits, and much higher pay.  Privateers did help the Continental Congress achieve its mission, but they also hindered the regular naval service.  First, men preferred privateer service to that of the Continental or State navy, which meant fewer able seamen available to serve on US vessels.  By 1779, it was bad enough to require a Congressional embargo on privateer recruitments.

Who were these “privateer” Marines?  They came from all walks of life.  They were lawyers, physicians, army officers, politicians, merchants, and ministers of the gospel.  All these kinds of men served as Marines on privateers.  When Revenge was captured by the privateer Belle Poole, one of the Revenge’s Marines was discovered to be a woman.  What drew men away from their professions (and traditional roles) was good pay and the bounty they received from their seafaring activities, and perhaps their sense of adventure.  What we know is that the life of a privateer was fraught with battles, daring raids, and stormy seas.  The historic record is slim, as most ship’s logs have long ago disappeared and journals and diaries from the period are few and far between, but we know enough to conclude that their exciting life did have a bearing on the outcome of the Revolutionary War.

Let us not assume that privateers prioritized any service beyond their own; British loyalists were privateers, as well.  In 1782, Delaware Bay was infested with privateer barges and galleys, manned by loyalists, which preyed upon Philadelphia’s commerce.  When Congress refused to act, John Willcocks, a Philadelphia merchant, took it upon himself to defend his commercial interests by fitting out a ship named Hyder Ally and operate her under a letter of marque.  Selected to captain the ship was an obscure Continental Navy lieutenant, recently released from British captivity, by the name of Joshua Barney[4].

The 23-year-old Barney, operating with two other privateers, provided escort to a fleet of merchantmen.  Near Cape May, the privateers encountered the 32-gun HMS Quebec (a frigate) under Captain Christopher Mason, the 24-gun HMS General Monk, (a sloop of war) under Captain Josias Rogers, and a loyalist privateer named Fair American (a brig) captained by Silas Talbot.  Hyder Ally was armed with sixteen 6-pound guns; her escorts Charming Sally and General Greene were armed with ten and twelve guns, respectively.

On the evening of 7 April 1782, Barney’s convoy went to anchor due to a failing wind.  Espied by Mason, the British squadron prepared to attack the merchantmen on the next morning, focusing on Hyder Ally because she was the largest ship and therefore the most formidable.  The Americans were unaware of a British presence until the next morning.  Barney ordered the merchantmen to escape further into the bay under the protection of General Green and Charming Sally, while he engaged the British.  General Green ignored Barney and prepared for battle; Charming Sally went aground and was abandoned by her crew, and the merchantmen sallied along the shoreline for protection.

While HMS Quebec stood off in the bay, ostensibly to keep the Americans from escaping, HMS General Monk and Fair American advanced.  Barney turned about as if to flee, a tactic he used to draw Captain Rogers closer.  Talbot opened the battle at noon with two broadsides into Barney, which while accurate, had little effect.  Barney kept his gun ports closed, faking a withdrawal, Talbot broke off to engage General Greene which then turned about to fake his withdrawal, but went aground.  In his zeal for action, Captain Talbot began to pursue Greene, but he too went aground, sustaining significant damage to his hull.

Hyder Alley vs. General Monk

Captain Rogers slowed his pursuit of Barney long enough to lower a boat to seize Sally.  When within range of Barney, Rogers called out for Barney to heave-to.  Barney answered with a broadside of grape canister, which had a terrible effect on the deck crew and British Marines.  The only guns available to Rogers were his bow swivel guns, which had little effect on Hyder Ally.  Barney unleashed a second broadside.  Rogers maintained his pursuit and when in position, he answered Barney with a broadside of his own, but when he fired, General Monk’s guns ripped away from the deck and flipped over.  The two ships were side by side and Barney ordered his gunners to reload but to hold fire until his command.  Barney turned “hard a-port” to deceive Rogers further, who followed suit.  Then Barney turned to starboard, colliding with Monk and becoming entangled with her rigging.  Barney’s crew quickly lashed the ships together, and when fast, Barney ordered his broadside.  It was a devastating assault.  Barney’s Marines then began delivering withering fire onto Monk’s deck.  Within thirty minutes, Rogers was wounded, all his officers were killed, and a midshipman struck Monk’s colors.

HMS Quebec withdrew without engagement.

Much of Barney’s success against General Monk was the result of his privateer Marines, most of whom signed on from Buck County rifleman under Captain Skull, but there is no doubt that Joshua Barney was a skilled seaman and a tenacious fighter.  Within a few years, privateer and state navies and Marines passed from the scene, but we should remember them today as “those other Marines.”

Sources:

  1. Brewington, M. V.  The Battle of Delaware Bay, 1782.  Annapolis: U. S. Naval Institute Press, 1939.
  2. Burgess, D. R. Jr., The Politics of Piracy: Crime and Civil Disobedience in Colonial America. New Hampshire: University Press of New England, 2014.
  3. Coggeshall, G.  History of the American Privateers and Letters of Marque.  New York: Evans Publishers, 1856.
  4. Thomson, J. E.  Mercenaries, pirates, and sovereigns.  New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1994.

Endnotes:

[1] By every account, John Cropper (1755-1821) was a courageous, battle tested warrior.  He accepted his first commission in 1776 as a captain in command of a shore company of the 9th Virginia Regiment and served under General Washington at Morriston that year.  In 1777, he was promoted to major and appointed to command the 7th Virginia at Brandywine where he received a bayonet wound to the thigh.  In 1778, he was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel and placed in command of the 11th Virginia, participating in the Battle of Monmouth.  He was quartered with troops at Valley Forge where he established a close friendship with General Washington.  He returned to his home in 1779 to protect his family against British shore raiders.  Having moved his wife and children to a safer location, Cropper raised and commanded a shore battery of several 4-pound guns on Parramore and Cedar islands; his battery was instrumental in the sinking HMS Thistle Tender and a companion ship responsible for raiding his community.

[2] The older brother of William Rogers Clark of the Lewis & Clark Expedition fame.

[3]  George Rogers Clark died destitute, in large measure because the government of Virginia and Continental Congress refused to pay him what they owed him. 

[4] See also: The Intrepid Commodore and At Bladensburg, 1814.