National Security and the U. S. Marine Corps

War Office 001Shortly after the inauguration of President George Washington in 1789, Congress created the United States Department of War (also, War Department) as a cabinet-level position to administer the field army and Naval Affairs under the president’s constitutional authority as Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of the United States and the United States Secretary of War.  The first Secretary of War was retired army general Henry Knox.  With the possible exception of President James Madison “lending a hand” alongside U. S. Marines at the Battle of Bladensburg in 1814, George Washington is the only Commander-in-Chief to lead a field army in 1794 during the so-called Whiskey Rebellion.

President John Adams considered the possibility of reorganizing a “new army” under the nominal command of retired President Washington to deal with the increase of maritime incidents between the United States and the French Republic in 1798.  Adams considered this possibility owing to his concern about the possibility of a land invasion by the French and his perceived need of consolidating the Armed Forces under an experienced “commander in chief.”  A land invasion would come, but not from France.

Also, in 1798, Congress established the United States Department of the Navy, initiated on the recommendation of James McHenry[1] to provide organizational structure to the emerging United States Navy and Marine Corps (after 1834), and when directed by the President or Congress during time of war, the United States Coast Guard (although each service remained separate and distinct with unique missions and expertise).  Until 1949, the Secretary of War and Secretary of the Navy served as members of the presidential cabinet.

Following World War II, particularly as a consequence of evolving military technology and the complex nature of war, Congress believed that the War and Navy departments would be better managed under a central authority.  James Forrestal, who served as the 48th Secretary of the Navy, became the first United States Secretary of Defense[2].  A restructuring of the US military took the following form under the National Security Act of 1947.

  • Merged the Department of the Navy and Department of War into the National Military Establishment (NME). The Department of War was renamed the Department of the Army.  A Secretary of Defense would head the NME.
  • Created the Department of the Air Force, which moved the Army Air Corps into the United States Air Force.
  • Protected the U. S. Marine Corps as a separate service under the Department of the Navy.
  • The secretaries of military departments remained nominal cabinet posts, but this arrangement was determined deficient given the creation of the office of the Secretary of Defense.

While the National Security Act of 1947 did recognize the U. S. Marine Corps as a separate naval service, it did not clearly define the service’s status within the Navy Department. Under this new arrangement, the Commandant did have access to the Secretary of the Navy[3], but many operational matters involving the Marine Corps continued to fall under the purview of the Chief of Naval Operations.  As an example, the U. S. Navy funded Marine Corps aviation, determining types of aircraft made available to the Marine Corps as well as matters pertaining to air station operations.  Accordingly, the Marine Corps, as an organization, remained vulnerable to the dictates of others in terms of its composition, funding, and operations limiting the role of the Commandant in deciding such matters.

USMC SealWithin three months of assuming the office of Commandant on 1 January 1948, General Clifton B. Cates was forced to confront a difficult political situation.  In March, Defense Secretary Forrestal convened a meeting of the military secretaries and service chiefs in Key West, Florida to discuss and resolve their respective roles and missions within the National Military Establishment.  Since General Cates was not invited to the meeting, Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Louis E. Denfield, undertook the representation of the Marine Corps as part of the Navy.  The problem was that the Marine Corps has never been part of the U. S. Navy.

Part of the Key West conference involved a discussion concerning likely future conflicts, with everyone agreeing that America’s next war would involve the Soviet Union in Europe.  Should this happen, given President Truman’s mandate to cut Defense spending, then the Army and Air Force would require substantial defense allocations for reinforcements.  In order to fund this potential threat, the meeting concluded that the Marine Corps must receive less money.  Besides, argued the Army and Air Force, there would be no need for an amphibious force in a European war.  The Key West meeting concluded with an agreement that the Marine Corps would be limited to four infantry divisions, that the JCS would deny Marine Corps leadership any tactical command above the corps levels, and a prohibition of the Marine Corps from creating a second land army[4].

When General Cates learned of this meeting, he protested making such decisions without his participation claiming that it violated the intent of the National Security Act of 1947 and impaired the ability of the Marine Corps to fulfill its amphibious warfare mission.  General Cates protestations fell on deaf ears.

Louis A. Johnson replaced James Forrestal as Secretary of Defense in March 1949.  Johnson shared Truman’s commitment to drastic reductions in defense spending in favor of domestic programs.  Both Truman and Johnson made the erroneous assumption that America’s monopoly on atomic weapons would act as a sufficient deterrence against Communist aggression[5].  Neither of these men, therefore, believed that a military force-in-readiness was a necessary function of the Department of Defense.

Given the relative autonomy of the service secretaries and military chiefs under the National Security Act, and as a means of thwarting independent lobbying by either the Navy or the Air Force, President Truman pursued two courses of action.  (1) Truman sought (and obtained) an amendment to the National Security Act that made the Department of Defense a single executive department, which incorporated as subordinates, each of the service secretaries.  The amendment also created the Office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff[6], subordinating its members to the chairman, the first of these being General Omar Bradley[7].  (2) Both President Truman and Johnson demanded that the service secretaries and senior military leaders “get in line” with the President’s defense cuts.

The intimidation apparently worked because General Omar Bradley changed his tune once he was nominated to become Chairman of the JCS.  In 1948 he moaned, “The Army of 1948 could not fight its way out of a paper bag.”  In the next year, both he and Army Chief of Staff General Collins testified before Congress that Truman cuts made the services more effective.

At about the same time, in a meeting with the Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Richard L. Conolly, Johnson told him, “Admiral, the Navy is on its way out.  There is no reason for having a Navy and Marine Corps.  General Bradley tells me amphibious operations are a thing of the past.  We’ll never have any more amphibious operations.  That does away with the Marine Corps.  And the Air Force can do anything the Navy can do, so that does away with the Navy.”

Truman hated the Marine Corps with intense passion, which might afford psychologists years of interesting study.  He did not think the nation needed a corps of Marines when there was already a land army.  In implementing Truman’s budget cuts, Secretary Johnson intended that the Marine Corps be disestablished and incorporated into the U. S. Army.  Toward this goal, Johnson initiated steps to move Marine Corps aviation into the U. S. Air Force.  He was soon reminded that such a move would be illegal without congressional approval.

Neither Truman nor Johnson ever accepted the fact that the Marine Corps, as a combat force, provided unique strategic and tactical strengths to the national defense structure.  What the law would not allow Secretary Johnson or President Truman to do, they attempted to accomplish through financial starvation[8].  Under the chairmanship of Omar Bradley, the JCS was bitingly hostile to the Marine Corps.

The Marine Corps, however, was not the lone ranger.  Less than a month after assuming office, Secretary Johnson canceled construction of the USS United States, a then state-of-the-art aircraft carrier.  Secretary of the Navy John L. Sullivan[9] resigned his office, and a number of Navy admirals joined him, effective on 24 May 1949.  The incident is remembered as the Revolt of the Admirals.

Major Denfeld
Admiral Denfield USN

The revolt of admirals prompted the House Armed Services Committee to convene hearings during October 1949.  A number of active duty and retired admirals appeared before the committee and gave their testimony, including Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Denfield[10].  They had little good to say about Louis Johnson or newly appointed Navy Secretary Francis Matthews.  General Cates also gave testimony, giving his unqualified support to the Navy.  Along with this, he protested the fact that he had not been consulted in matters pertaining to the Marine Corps and the impact of these decisions on the national defense.  Said Cates, “… the power of the budget, the power of coordination, and the power of strategic direction of the armed forces have been used as devices to destroy the operating forces of the Marine Corps.”  The House committee also called General Bradley, who, in arguing in favor of disestablishment of the Navy and Marine Corps rejected the notion that the United States would ever again have a use for amphibious operations.

Replacing Admiral Denfield as CNO was Admiral Forrest P. Sherman, who immediately repudiated General Vandergrift’s agreement with Secretary Sullivan.  He instead approached the Secretary of Defense and requested “a free hand” in matters pertaining to the Marine Corps.  Johnson granted Sherman’s request.  At the beginning of 1950, after two years of forced budgetary cuts, Sherman slated the Marine Corps for additional cuts.  The Marine Corps would be reduced to 24,000 officers and men, a reduction from eleven infantry battalions to six, from twenty-three aviation squadrons to twelve.  Additionally, Secretary Johnson ordered the curtailment of appropriations for equipment, ammunition, supplies, and people and excluded Marine Corps units from various tactical training.  Admiral Sherman assigned the bulk of amphibious ships to support Army training, leaving the Marines with little to do.

War did return to the United States, of course.  When it did, it proved General Omar Bradley and the other joint chiefs were completely wrong in their predictions.  Worse, it demonstrated how unprepared the United States was for its next martial challenges. 

Support for the Marines

Although Representative Carl Vinson (D-GA) proposed a bill that gave full JCS membership to the Commandant of the Marine Corps, the measure failed but generated much attention in the American press, particularly in the Hearst news organization.  Public support was already growing for the Navy-Marine Corps when the war clouds once more gathered in the Far East.

Among Truman’s staunchest congressional foes was Representative Gordon L. McDonough (R-CA).  McDonough wrote a letter to President Truman noting how the Marine Corps has always rushed to the nation’s defense.  With this in mind, the congressman urged the president to include the Commandant as a full member of the JCS.  The president’s response to McDonough tells us far more about Truman than is possible in an entire essay.  Truman wrote, “For your information, the Marine Corps is the Navy’s police force, and as long as I am President, that is what it will remain.”  Apparently, Truman failed to consider that he was writing to someone who might use the president’s blistering comments against him later on.  Truman continued, “They [Marines] have a propaganda machine almost the equal of Stalin’s.  When the Marine Corps goes into the Army it works with and for the Army and that’s the way it should be … The Chief of Naval Operations is the chief of staff of the Navy of which the Marines are a part.”

McDonough inserted Truman’s response into the Congressional Record, and it wasn’t long before the press picked it up and printed it.  Press reporting created a firestorm in the United States.  Conservative politicians of both parties and journalists excoriated Truman for his remarks.  The White House was overwhelmed by mail from the public, many who lost loved ones during World War II, expressing their indignation of Truman’s remarks.  Presidential aides scrambled to construct a letter of apology, which Truman personally handed to General Cates at the White House.  He then released a copy to the press.  Afterward, when Truman fired Louis Johnson after only 18 months as Defense Secretary, the matter moved to the back burner.

The nation responds

Immediately following World War II, the Eighth US Army was assigned to occupation duty in Japan.  Initially, there was much work to be done: disarming former Japanese soldiers, maintaining order, dealing with local populations, guarding installations, and prosecuting war criminals. According to the Eighth Army Blue Book[11], “On 31 December 1945, Sixth Army was relieved of occupation duties and Eighth Army assumed an expanded role in the occupation, which encompassed the formidable tasks of disarmament, demilitarization, and democratization.  The missions were flawlessly executed at the operational level by Eighth Army …”

The statement may be undeniably true, but as the Japanese people settled comfortably into their new reality, demands placed on soldiers and their officers lessoned.  What the Blue Book’s history section omits, a dangerous precedent for future soldiers, was that this major combat command became lethargic, pleasure-seeking, and in the face of severe budgetary restraints imposed on it by the Truman administration, reached an unbelievable level of incompetence and ineptitude.

In the early hours of 25 June 1950, the (North) Korean People’s Army, numbering 53,000 front line and supporting forces followed a massive artillery bombardment into South Korea.  There were only a handful of Army advisors in South Korea at the time.  Those who wanted to continue living made a beeline toward the southern peninsula.

In Japan, there was a single battalion in the 21st Regiment of the 24th Infantry Division capable of “mounting out” to interdict the overwhelming KPA army.  The battalion, composed of mostly untrained teenagers capable of little more than standing guard duty in Japan, never stood a chance.

The Marines Respond

At the time of the North Korean invasion, senior officers of the U. S. Marine Corps knew that they would be called upon to address this new crisis.  Lieutenant General Lemuel C. Shepherd, Commanding General, Fleet Marine Force, Pacific, in Hawaii, flew to Tokyo to confer with General Douglas MacArthur, Supreme Commander Allied Powers (SCAP), in Tokyo.  At the conclusion of their meeting, MacArthur sent a dispatch to the JCS in Washington requesting the immediate assignment of a Marine regimental combat team to his command.

In Washington, General Bradley delayed his response for a full five days.  By the time the JCS did respond, the North Korean Army had already mauled the 1st Battalion, 21st Infantry Regiment, 24th Infantry Division at the Battle of Osan, rendering it combat ineffective.  Closer to the truth, 1/21 was combat ineffective even before it arrived on the Korean Peninsula.  For these young men, the land of the morning calm had become a bloody nightmare.

In late June 1950, Marine Corps manpower equaled around 74,000 men.  The total number of Marines assigned to the Fleet Marine Forces was 28,000, around 11,000 of these were assigned to FMFPac.  Neither the 1st Marine Division at Camp Pendleton nor its east coast counterpart, the 2nd Marine Division, could raise more than a regimental landing team (RLT) of combat-ready troops, with supporting air.  To fully man a combat division, it would be necessary to transfer Marines to Camp Pendleton from posts and stations, recruiting staffs, supply depots, schools, depots, districts, and even Marine headquarters.

General MacArthur had requested an RLT, he would get a Marine brigade, the advance element of the 1st Marine Division that had been ordered to embark.  The officer assigned to lead the Brigade was the senior officer present at Camp Pendleton, Brigadier General Edward A. Craig, an experienced combat leader with 33 years of active duty service.

The ground combat element of the Brigade would form around the 5th Marine Regiment under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Raymond L. Murray.  Murray was already selected for promotion to colonel.  Marines reporting for duty at Camp Pendleton were rushed to the 5th Marines where they would flesh out Murray’s understrength battalions[12].  1st Battalion 11th Marines (artillery) would serve in general support of the brigade with additional detachments (company strength) in communications, motor transportation, field medical, support, engineer, ordnance, tanks, and special weapons.

At the Marine Corps Air Station, El Toro, California, Marine Aircraft Group 33 was being formed around Brigadier General Thomas H. Cushman.  Cushman would serve as Craig’s deputy and command the brigade’s air element, consisting of a headquarters squadron, service squadron, VMF 214, VMF 323, VMF(N) 513(-), and Tactical Squadron-2 (detachment).

In total, the 1st Provisional Marine Brigade arrived in Korea with 6,534 Marines —its equipment, brought out of mothballs dating back to World War II: trucks, jeeps, amphibian tractors, all reconditioned and tested for service.

MajGen Frank E. Lowe USA
MajGen Frank Lowe USA

Major General Frank E. Lowe, U. S. Army (Retired) was dispatched to Korea as the personal envoy of President Truman.  His task was to observe the conduct of the conflict and report his findings directly to the President.  General Lowe advised President Truman that the Army, its senior leadership and combat doctrine were dangerously lacking.  Of the 1st Marine Division, General Lowe reported, “The First Marine Division is the most efficient and courageous combat unit I have ever seen or heard of.”  General Lowe recommended that the Marine Corps have a permanent establishment of three divisions and three air wings.

Whether General Lowe’s report influenced Truman is unknown.  What is known is that the Secretary of Defense, Joint Chiefs of Staff, Secretary of the Navy, and Chief of Naval Operations continued to oppose recognition of the Marine Corps as a viable service and its leader as someone entitled to become a member of the JCS.  Still, public and congressional support for the Marine Corps increased steadily.  The issue of the Douglas-Mansfield bills was deferred until the 1952 legislative session.  Before then, however, Admiral Sherman died suddenly in July 1951, and General Lemuel C. Shepherd succeeded Cates as Commandant of the Marine Corps.

As a result, the 1952 legislative session worked in the Marine Corps’ favor.  The Marine Corps was approved for a peacetime force of three infantry divisions, three air wings, and a manpower ceiling of 400,000 men.  The Commandant was granted access to the Joint Chiefs of Staff with voting rights on matters pertaining to the Marine Corps, as determined by the Commandant of the Marine Corps, and on 20 June 1952, President Truman signed into law the Douglas-Mansfield Act.  Some pundits claim that politically, Truman did not dare veto the bill —others argue that Truman finally realized the value of the Marine Corps as our nation’s premier combat force.

Sources:

  • Catchpole, L. G. The Korean War.  London: Robinson Publishing, 2001
  • Davis, V. The Post-Imperial Presidency.  New Brunswick: Transaction Press, 1980
  • Fehrenbach, T. R. This Kind of War: The Classic Korean War History.  Washington: Potomac Books, 2001
  • Krulak, V. H. First to Fight: An Inside View of the U. S. Marine Corps.  Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1999.
  • Montross, L. and Nicholas A. Canzona. S. Marine Operations in Korea, 1950-1953 (Volume 1): The Pusan Perimeter.  Historical Branch, Headquarters, U. S. Marine Corps, Washington, D. C., 1954.
  • The United States Naval Proceedings Magazine, Volume 33, Number 3: A Propaganda Machine Like Stalin’s, Alan Rems, June 2019

Endnotes:

[1] A supporter of the United States Constitution, Representative from Maryland, and third Secretary of War.  He was also a noted surgeon with many successes during the Revolutionary War.  Fort McHenry, outside Baltimore, is named in his honor.

[2] Forrestal had served in the Navy Department as Under Secretary since 1940 and appointed as Secretary of the Navy in 1944.  Forrestal served as Secretary of Defense from 18 September 1947 until 28 March 1949 when President Harry S. Truman asked for his resignation and replaced him Louis A. Johnson.  Forrestal’s wartime service had taken its toll and he was personally shattered when fired by Truman, with whom he had little patience.  He took his own life on 22 May 1949 while undergoing treatment for severe depression.

[3] During World War II, Chief of Naval Operations Ernest J. King was well-known as a micro-manager.  He treated the Commandant of the Marine Corps as another one of his bureau chiefs and denied the Commandant access to the Secretary of the Navy.  This restriction changed when Admiral Nimitz became CNO, but the relationship was a gentleman’s agreement between Secretary of the Navy John L. Sullivan, Admiral Nimitz, and Marine Commandant Alexander A. Vandergrift.  The National Security Act of 1947, however, did not clarify the status of the Marine Corps within the Department of the Navy.

[4] During World War II, the Marine Corps fielded six infantry divisions.

[5] Nearly every newly created U. S. Air Force general was a proponent of the use of strategic bombing and atomic warfare as the United States’ principal defense strategy.  Standing in opposition to this ludicrous mindset was nearly every active duty and retired Navy admiral.

[6] The JCS evolved from a relatively inefficient joint board of senior Army and Navy officers who seldom agreed in matters of operational planning or execution.  The Joint Board performed as presidential advisors but had no authority to initiate programs or policies.  Following World War I, the Joint Board was renamed the Joint Planning Committee with the authority to initiate recommendations but had no authority to implement them.

[7] General Bradley detested the Marine Corps almost as much as President Truman and Secretary Johnson.

[8] Because of Truman and Johnson’s defense cuts, the United States had no combat-ready units in June 1950.

[9] Replacing Sullivan was Francis P. Matthews, a former director of the USO who admitted to having no expertise that would qualify him for service as a Navy Secretary beyond his contempt for the Marine Corps.

[10] President Truman demanded Denfield’s resignation and took action to demote the other admirals.

[11] Dated 3 July 2019.

[12] Each of Murray’s battalions were organized with an H&S Company, two rifle companies, and one weapons company.

Chinese Gordon – Part I

Gordon 001
MajGen Charles G. Gordon

All the Gordon’s sons were army officers —descendants of military officers who devoted themselves to the idea that their children would inherit this tradition.  And so they did.  Major General and Mrs. Henry William Gordon were the parents of Charles George Gordon, Major General, British Army, Commander of the Bath (1833-1885).  Owing to his father’s duty stations, Charles grew up in England, Ireland, Scotland, and Ionia.  Charles’ education included the Fullande School in Taunton, the Taunton School, and the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich.

While still a young lad, Charles’ younger sister succumbed to consumption; her passing devastated him and for several months he withdrew from the family.  An older sister named Augusta, a particularly religious young woman, embraced Charles and she influenced him for the rest of his life.  It was because of Augusta, for example, that Charles grew up to become a staunchly religious person.  Despite his religious beliefs, Charles was a spirited and highly intelligent young man, one who developed the (then) deplorable habit of ignoring authority whenever he believed that its rules were foolish or unjust.  This was a trait that held him back for two years at the military academy,.  At the same time, Gordon had marvelous talents.  He developed into an accomplished cartographer and engineer.  He received his commission to Second Lieutenant of Royal Engineers in June 1852, completed his training at Chatham, and advanced to First Lieutenant in February 1854.  Although trained as a sapper [Note 1], he became adept at reconnaissance, leading storming parties, demolitions, and providing rearguard actions.

His inclination to question or disregard orders aside, Charles Gordon evolved into a fine military officer.  He had charisma, a superior leadership ability, and an unparalleled devotion to his assigned task or mission.  His only problem was that in refusing to obey what he considered an unlawful or poorly conceived orders, many senior officers regarded him as rogue.  Yet it was this very same trait that caused his men to love him.

Over time, Gordon became even more devoted to his religious principles.  He was no zealot by any measure, at least not initially, but someone who maintained the strength of his convictions —and was steadfast in living his life according to those beliefs.  In many ways, Gordon was a fatalist; believing in the after-life, he was not afraid of death and some say, in time, he began to pursue it.

During the Crimean War, Gordon performed his duties at the siege of Sevastopol, took part in the assault of the Redans as a sapper, and mapped the strongpoints of the city’s fortifications.  What made this a particularly dangerous duty was that it subjected him to direct enemy fire from the fortress and he was wounded during one such sortie.  During this war Gordon made several friends who remained so for the rest of his life; friends that would later defend him.

In 1855, the British and French initiated a final assault on Sevastopol.  Following a massive bombardment, sappers assaulted the fortress at Malakoff Hill.  The engagement was a massacre of British and French soldiers and none of the operation’s planned objectives were achieved.  As a participant, Gordon distinguished himself by his courage under fire and his tenacity as a combat leader.

Following the end of hostilities in the Crimea, Gordon served the international commission charged with marking a new border between the Russian Empire and the Ottoman Empire in Bessarabia.  He later performed similar services on the frontier between Ottoman Armenia and Russian Armenia.  It was during this time that Gordon became fascinated with a new American invention and took it up as a hobby: the camera.

Seeking adventure, Gordon volunteered to serve in China during the Second Opium War (1860).  By the time he arrived in Hong Kong, however, the fighting was over.  He had heard of the Taiping Rebellion [Note 2] but didn’t understand it.  En route to China, he read all he could about the Taiping and initially found sympathy for the movement.  Gordon was a young man, reading one individual’s opinion, and allowed himself to be influenced by it, but what made his empathy a bit odd was that the leader of the Taiping —a man named Hong Xiuquan— believed himself to be the younger brother of Jesus of Nazareth.

After disembarking in Shanghai, Gordon made a tour of the Chinese countryside.  The atrocities he witnessed committed by the Taiping against local peasants appalled him and he began to see the Taiping for what they were: cold-blooded killers.  

During the early period of his tour in China, Gordon served under General Charles William Dunbar Staveley [Note 3], who occupied northern China until April 1862.  During the war, Taiping armies came close enough to Shanghai to alarm European residents.  European and Asian legations raised a militia to defend Shanghai.  Legates detailed Frederick Townsend Ward [Note 4] to command this militia.  Apparently, the British arrived in the nick of time.  General Staveley decided to clear the rebels within 30 miles of Shanghai.  He planned these operations in cooperation with Ward and a small force of French soldiers.  At the time, Gordon served on Staveley’s staff as an engineer.

Henry Andres BurgevineAfter Ward’s death, command of his Asian army passed to another American, Henry A. Burgevine (shown right).  It was an unhappy choice because Burgevine was ill-suited to the task of commanding a multi-ethnic mercenary force: he was inexperienced in leading a large body of men, lacked the necessary self-confidence of command, and consumed copious amounts of alcohol, making him unreliable.  The Taiping rebellion was a civil war, of course, but unlike any other in the history of the world and Henry Burgevine was no Frederick Ward.  He was much detested by the Chinese —so much, in fact, that the governor of Jiang-su Province asked General Staveley to appoint a British officer to command this largely mercenary force.  The officer Staveley selected was Brevet Major Gordon.  The British government approved Gordon’s appointment in December 1862.  Gordon, it seems, was exactly the kind of man Governor Li Hong-Zhang was looking for: a man of good temper, clean of hands, and a steady economist.

Major Gordon, unlike many (if not most) Chinese officers, was honest and incorruptible.  He did not steal the money that was earmarked to pay his men, and he insisted on paying the men on time and in full.  Of course, the Chinese bureaucrats did not understand why Gordon insisted on paying his men.  In their view, he should have allowed his men to loot and plunder the countryside for their pay —this was the way of things in China.  Gordon would not have any of that sort behavior among his men.  To instill a sense of pride in his men, Gordon designed their uniforms.  He dressed his regulars in green, while designating blue uniforms for his personal guard.

Major Gordon assumed command of his army in March 1863 and led them at once to relieve the town of Chansu some forty miles northwest of Shanghai.  Gordon quickly accomplished this first test, which was securing the respect and loyalty of his troops.  As a means of encouraging the Taiping to either desert or surrender, he treated all prisoners of war with dignity and respect.

As an engineer, it occurred to Major Gordon that the network of canals and rivers that flowed through the Chinese countryside would be useful for moving his troops and establishing an expedient supply line.  In matters of training and rehearsing his army, Gordon’s ideas were innovative and efficient.  He was vocally critical of the methods Chinese generals used in war fighting.  In contrast, Gordon was sought to avoid unnecessary casualties or large battle losses.  By maneuvering his forces to deny enemy retreat, he found that enemy troops would quickly withdraw from the battlefield [Note 5].  Gordon believed that frontal assaults produced unacceptably high numbers of casualties (which is true).  As his subordinate commanders were Chinese, they did not object to unnecessary carnage, but Gordon insisted on attacking the enemy’s flank whenever possible.  Gordon’s innovative thinking, such as his creation of a riverine force, caused the Taiping army to avoid Gordon’s army on several occasions.  Of some value to Gordon, once the peasants realized that Gordon’s strategy had a telling effect on the Taiping, they were more disposed to coming to his aid, which did occur on several occasions.   The peasants, tired of Taiping terrorism, attacked the retreating Taiping and hacked them to death with simple farming implements.  Among Gordon’s peers, he was“thoughtful and fearless in the face of grave danger.”

Because Gordon’s force was mercenary, their only loyalty was to money and the men willing to pay them.  It was only Gordon’s stern disciplinary policies that kept his force from plundering the peasants, whom they were supposed to protect.  At one point, Gordon ordered the execution of one of his Chinese officers who conspired to take his unit over to the Taiping.  It was a distasteful duty and one that would never survive the modern evening news, but in China, it was a necessary and prudent step to avoid mass desertion.  The fact is that Gordon’s mercenary force consisted of some of the worst elements of Chinese, British, and American society.  Prior to Gordon’s assignment in command, it was commonplace for these mercenaries to enter a town or district, steal everything they could get their hands on, rape the women, and indiscriminately murder local citizens.  It was only Gordon’s harsh discipline that changed this behavior.  Any of his men who were accused of crimes against the people would very likely face a firing squad —from which there was no appeal.

When Gordon defeated Burgevine’s new mercenary force, which had aligned themselves with the Taiping, he had Burgevine arrested and deported.  Burgevine, however made his way back to China, was promptly arrested by the Qing secret service, and was “shot while trying to escape.”  Burgevine was many things but exceedingly bright wasn’t one of them.

Major Gordon was appalled by the poverty and suffering of the Chinese people.  It was this hardship that strengthened his faith because, as he would frequently argue, there had to be a just and loving God who would one day redeem humanity from wretchedness and misery [Note 6].  Nevertheless, it was Gordon’s humanity that brought him the respect and friendship of those who opposed him politically.  He led his mercenary army from the front, never personally armed with anything more than a rattan cane.  His coolness in battle led many Chinese to believe that he possessed supernatural powers; it was only that Gordon was a fatalist and predestinate.  

Imperial troops joined Gordon’s force in capturing Suzhou.  He had let it be known that any Taiping soldier who surrendered would be humanely treated.  After pacifying surrounding towns and villages, Gordon himself entered Suzhou but, given the tendency of his men to loot, he denied them entry into the confines of the city.  Only the Imperial forces [Note 7] would be allowed to enter the city, and when they did, much to Gordon’s anguish, they promptly executed every Taiping who had surrendered.  Angry, he wrote, “If faith had been kept, there would have been no more fighting, as every town in China would have given in.”  Of course, what Major Gordon did not understand was that while it is possible to take a Chinese man out of China; it is impossible to take China out of the Chinese man.  Even today, most Chinese are devoid of a sense of humanity.

As a measure of the man and his integrity, the Emperor of China, in recognition of Gordon’s achievements, subsequently awarded Gordon ten-thousand gold coins, laudatory flags, fine silk clothing, and a title equivalent to Field Marshal.  All of these things Gordon refused —and all because the Imperial troops, in executing the Taiping prisoners, had made Gordon out to be a liar.   Rebuffing the Chinese emperor did nothing to solidify their relationship, but it was consistent with Gordon’s sense of self.  It was after his service in China that the press and his peers began to refer to him as “Chinese Gordon”.  The nickname stayed with him to the end of his days.  Gordon’s father did not approve of his son working in the service of the Chinese government and it was an estrangement that had not been settled before his father’s death.  Charles, of course, felt guilty about his failure to reconcile with his father and deeply regretted it for the rest of his life.

After Gordon’s return to England, he was promoted to lieutenant colonel and placed in command of the Royal Engineers near Gravesend, Kent, and tasked to prepare fortifications in defense of the River Thames.  By then, Chinese Gordon has become a press celebrity —except that Gordon wanted nothing to do with it.  He promptly informed the press to leave him alone.  In Gravesend, Gordon volunteered to teach at a local school, called the Ragged School [Note 8].

Tasked with constructing forts, Colonel Gordon disapproved of the notion that they were in any way necessary.  He regarded them as expensive and useless.  The Duke of Cambridge [Note 9], in his role as Commander in Chief of the Forces (head of the British Army) visited one of the construction sites and praised Gordon for his excellent work.  Gordon answered, “I had nothing to do with it, sir.  It was built regardless of my opinion, and, in fact, I entirely disapprove of its arrangement and position.”  Gordon didn’t mince his words, regardless of who he was talking to.  And, of course, Gordon was entirely correct.  It was a waste of limited resources.

Gordon was advanced to Colonel on 16 February 1872.  Afterward detailed to inspect British military cemeteries in the Crimea, and when transiting through Constantinople, he made his manners to the Prime Minister of Egypt, Raghib Pasha.  Pasha opened negotiations with Gordon to serve under the Khedive (Viceroy) Ismai’il Pasha.  French educated, Isma’il admired Europe as a model of excellence, but favored most France and Italy.  He was a devout Moslem who enjoyed Italian wine and French champaign.  The language of Ismai’il’s court was French and Turkish, not Arabic.  It was the Viceroy’s dream to make Turkey culturally part of Europe and he spent enormous sums of money in the modernization and Westernization of Egypt.  The doing of this sent Egypt deeply into debt —even after the American Civil War had transformed Egyptian cotton into “white gold,” Ismai’il’s spending increased Egyptian debt to more than 93-million pounds sterling.

Ismai’il’s love affair with western culture alienated the more conservative members of Egyptian Islamic society.  Ismai’il’s grandfather, Muhammad Ali (The Great) attempted to depose the ruling Ottoman family in favor of his own, but failed due to the interference of Russia and Britain.  With this knowledge, Ismai’il turned his attention south with the notion of building an Egyptian empire in Africa.  Toward this end, Ismai’il hired westerners to work in his government, including Colonel Gordon, both in Egypt and the Sudan.  His chief of general staff was the American brigadier general Charles P. Stone [Note 10].  He, and a number of other American Civil War veterans commanded Egyptian troops.  In the opinion of some, American officers in the employ of Egypt were mostly composed of misfits in their own land.  As harsh as this criticism sounds, it may be based on fact.  Valentine Baker was a British officer who was dishonorably discharged after his conviction of rape.  After Baker was released from prison, Ismai’il Pasha hired him to work in the Sudan.  In any case, Colonel Gordon, with the consent of the British government, began working for Ismai’il Pasha in 1873—his first assignment was as governor of Equatoria Province (present-day Southern Sudan and Northern Uganda).  His mission included extending Equatoria into Southern Uganda with the goal of absorbing the entire Great Lakes region of East Africa.

Gordon 002jpg
Gordon Pasha

While serving in Sudan, Colonel Gordon undertook efforts to suppress the slave trade, and doing this while struggling against a corrupt and inefficient Egyptian bureaucracy—and one with no interest in suppressing the slave trade.  Gordon was later distressed to learn that his immediate superior was heavily engaged in slaving and actively countermanded many of Gordon’s efforts.  Despite his lofty position in the Egyptian government, Gordon believed that the Egypt was inherently oppressive and cruel and he was soon in direct conflict with the system he was supposed to lead.  What Gordon did achieve was close rapport with the African people, who had long suffered from the activities of Arab slave traders.  These same people were being converted from animists to Christians by European and American missionaries, and this gave Gordon some encouragement.  What made the effort a struggle was the fact that the basis of Sudan’s economy was slavery.  Gordon did manage to shepherd a number of reforms that materially improved the lives of the common man, such as in abolishing torture and public floggings.

(Continued next week)

Sources:

  1. Cleveland, W. And Martin Bunton.  A History of the Middle East.  Boulder: Westview Press, 2009
  2. Karsh, E.  Empires of the Sand: The Struggle for Mastery in the Middle East, 1789-1923.  Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999.
  3. Marlowe, J.  Mission to Khartoum: Apotheosis of General Gordon.  Littlehampton Press, 1968

Endnotes:

  1. A sapper is a soldier responsible for the construction of roads and bridges and laying and clearing mine fields.  They are combat engineers (sometimes called pioneers) who remove enemy obstacles in order to keep the attack in progress.
  2. The Taiping Rebellion was one of the bloodiest conflicts in world history.  It lasted from 1850 to 1864 with estimated dead numbering in excess of 40-million people.
  3. General Staveley’s sister was married to Gordon’s brother.
  4. Ward was born in Massachusetts in 1831.  Because of his rebellious nature, his father consigned him to work aboard a clipper ship commanded by a friend.  The ship made frequent voyages to China.  While in China, Ward became a filibuster.  He was killed while commanding the “Ever Victorious Army” at the Battle of Cixi on 21 September 1862.
  5. The problem with allowing the enemy to withdraw is that they live to fight another day, perhaps under conditions or on terrain of their choosing. 
  6. It is true that there was much wretchedness in the world in Gordon’s day; to find it, he might have looked closer to home —in London, for example.
  7. Gordon referred to the Imperial army as “Imps.”
  8. Prior to 1870, there was no universal school system in the United Kingdom.  The so-called Ragged Schools were a network of privately funded schools that offered free education to children whose parents were too poor to afford the fees associated with available schools.  Unhappily, as with a few other senior British officers, 21st Century writers have used such examples of humanity to suggest, in Gordon’s and William Slim’s cases, that their compassion was likely motivated by their attraction to young boys.  The claims are ludicrous, of course, but this is what revisionists do to in their attempt to destroy the reputations of men (after their death) who occupied prominent footnotes in history.
  9. George William Frederick Charles, also known as Prince George of the House of Hanover, was a professional army officer with the rank of field marshal.  He served as commander in chief for 39 years, a period of time when the British Army became a moribund and stagnant institution.   I am quite sure he had something to say in response to Gordon’s caustic remark.
  10. ‘Urabi was a serving Egyptian officer who participated in the 1879 mutiny that developed into a general revolt against the Anglo-French dominated administration of Khedive Tewfik.  He was promoted to a place in Twefik’s cabinet and began reforms of Egypt’s military and civil administrations, but demonstrations in Alexandria in 1882 prompted a British naval bombardment and invasion.  ‘Urabi was deposed and the British occupied Egypt.

U. S. Marines in Haiti—Overview

Except among those whose interests lie in lost civilizations, the high number of natives destroyed by European diseases[1] has made Hispaniola’s early history mostly irrelevant —and owing to the savagery demonstrated by both native populations and Spanish settlers, none of the earliest Spanish colonies on Hispaniola fared well, either.

Christopher Columbus arrived at Hispaniola in 1492.  He established a small settlement he named La Navidad near Cap-Haïtien; within its first year, all 39-settlers were set upon and murdered.  A similar fate was shared by several more Spanish settlements between 1493 and 1592 —if they were not completely destroyed by native populations, then they were set aflame by either French pirates or squadrons of British Royal Navy.

At this same time, the Spanish Netherlands was in disarray; a rebellion had been ongoing for some twenty years.  The conflict was due in large part to the religious differences between Spanish masters and Dutch subjects.  By 1590, the Spanish had become thoroughly disgusted with the Dutch and ordered all Spanish home ports closed to Dutch shipping.  The Dutch responded by tapping into the trade network of colonies in Spanish America, people who were more than happy to establish illicit trade relations with Spain’s competitors.  Consequently, large numbers of Dutch traders joined with English and French privateers to deprive Spain of its customs duties —many of these trading depots were located on the island of Hispaniola.

In 1605, infuriated that Spanish settlements on the northern and western coasts of Hispaniola persisted in carrying out large scale (and illegal) trade with its enemies, Spain decided to resettle its populaces closer to Santo Domingo.  Known as the Devastaciones de Osorio, the forced resettlement led to death by starvation of half of Spanish colonial populations.  More than one-hundred thousand cattle were abandoned; slaves escaped into the wilderness, and Spanish troops destroyed five out of thirteen colonies.  This Spanish behavior was counter-productive because escaped settlers, slaves, and English, Dutch, and French privateers were then free to establish bases on what would become Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

Within a short time, French, Dutch, and English buccaneers formed a lawless community on the island of Tortuga; Spanish shipping and colonies became their principal targets of opportunity.  The Spanish, of course, sought to defend their interests through a series of sorties in 1629, 1635, 1638, and 1654 by destroying pirate enclaves, but on each occasion the scoundrels soon returned.  In 1655, the English at Jamaica sponsored the reoccupation of Tortuga under an English governor named Elias Watts.  Five years later, the English proposed a replacement for Watts in the person of Frenchman Jeremie Deschamps.   This was not one of England’s more brilliant moves since Deschamps soon declared his loyalty to France … and the French took charge of the island, renaming it Saint Domingue.  The French maintained this control until 1790, when civil unrest in France and a slave revolt in Haiti eventually resulted in Haitian independence.

Haiti is the world’s oldest surviving black republic, but even though prominent Haitians actively assisted Latin American independence movements, the so-called great liberator, Simon Bolivar, worked to exclude Haiti from the hemisphere’s first regional meeting of independent nations (1826).  Neither did Haiti receive diplomatic recognition from the United States until 1862, thanks in large part to Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner.  Yet, it is fair to say that Haiti has struggled to find itself since 1806 and certainly, by 1911, Haiti was a failed state —as many African and hyphenated African nations are today, as well.

In any case, by 1915, Haitian instability was colossal: a series of political assassinations and forced exiles resulted in six separate presidential administrations (a record only rivaled by France’s 21 governments of the Fourth Republic following World War II).  Several Haitian “revolutionary armies” operated independent from one another, and each was formed by cacos[2] directing affairs from mountain enclaves in the north or along the border with Dominica.

In 1915, World War I had been raging for a year; the United States became apprehensive about the roles played by Imperial Germany in the Western Hemisphere.  Now in control of Tortuga, Germany had intervened in Haiti and other Caribbean nations several times during previous decades, seeking to increase its influence as a rival power in the Americas[3].

All was not well between Germany and the United States.  In several instances, Germany demonstrated its increasing hostility to the United States by establishing robust intelligence networks on Hispaniola and throughout Latin America.  Essentially, Germany dismissed the Monroe Doctrine[4] out of hand.  Another consideration was that, in the months leading into world war, the ports, port facilities, material wealth, and manpower of Hispaniola assumed a strategic importance to both Germany and the United States.  Added to this, the United States was cognizant of the rivalry in Haiti between American businessmen and their German counterparts.  Although the German community was relatively small, it wielded a significant economic influence over the Haitian government: German citizens wielded control over 80% of the Haiti’s international commerce, owned and operated port facilities at Cap-Haïten, Port-au-Prince, the tramway into the capital, and a major railway line.

Wilson 001When American financiers complained to the President of the United States in 1915 that Haiti (by then deeply in debt to US banks) had steadfastly refused to repay a sizeable American loan, Woodrow Wilson (shown left) ordered a military expedition to Haiti.  From the American perspective, Wilson’s momentous decision was thoroughly justified.

US political interests in Haiti extended back in time over many decades —its political and economic stability long a concern to our diplomats.  These concerns increased over time because as Haiti borrowed money from foreign governments, it found itself unable to repay these loans.  Consequently, there was an increased likelihood that a foreign power might seize Haiti for its own purposes.  See also: How Haiti became indebted[5].

In 1868, President Andrew Johnson went so far to suggest annexation of Hispaniola to secure an American claim to the West Indies.  In 1889, Secretary of State James Blaine attempted to lease the city of Mole-Saint-Nicholas so that the US could construct a naval base along the northern coast.  Then, in 1910, President Taft granted Haiti a large loan with the expectation that Haiti could pay off its international debt, thus lessening the possibility of foreign influence[6].

Jean Vilbrun Guillaume Sam (1859 – 1915) served as President of Haiti from 4 March – 27 July 1915.  He was a cousin of Tirésias Simon Sam, Haiti’s president from 1896 to 1902.  Sam was the commander of Haiti’s Northern Division when he led the revolt that brought President Cincinnatus Leconte to power.  He later headed the revolt that toppled President Oreste Zamor.  When Cacos realized that President Joseph Davilmar Théodore was unable to pay them for their service, they forced his resignation —Sam was proclaimed president in his place.

As the fifth president in five turbulent years, Sam was forced to contend with a revolt against his own regime, led by Dr. Rosalvo Bobo, who opposed the government’s expanded commercial and strategic ties with the United States. Fearing that he would share the same fate as his predecessors, Sam acted harshly against his political opponents, particularly the better educated and wealthier mulatto population. The culmination of his repressive measures came on 27 July 1915, when he ordered the execution of 167 political prisoners, including former president Zamor, who was being held in a Port-au-Prince jail. An infuriated the population rose up against Sam.

Fearing for his own safety, Sam fled to the French embassy where he received asylum. The rebels’ mulatto leaders broke into the embassy, however, found Sam, and dragged him out into the courtyard where they beat him senseless.  They then threw his unconscious body over the embassy’s iron fence to the waiting populace, who proceeded to rip his body to pieces.  For the next two weeks, Haiti was in chaos.

News of Sam’s murder soon reached US Navy ships anchored in the city’s harbor; President Woodrow Wilson, wary about the possibility that Bobo would seize power, ordered Marines to take the capital, claiming that the unrest might precipitate a German invasion of the country.  Two companies of Marines landed the next day under the command of Captain Smedley D. Butler.

Caco 001Soon after the Marines landed in Haiti[7], they removed $500,000 from the Haiti National Bank for safekeeping in New York, thus giving the United States control of Haitian finances.  This Marine presence averted long-term anarchy after Sam’s assassination, and prevented a possible German invasion. (Shown right, a trussed Caco, having been accused of murdering a US Marine).

The Marine expedition resulted in the Haitian-American Treaty of 1915 —and an agreement that, among other things, created the Haitian Gendarmerie.  The Gendarmerie was a military force composed of Haitian citizens, supervised and controlled by U. S. Marines.  Additionally, the United States gained complete control over Haitian finances, and the right to intervene in Haiti whenever the U.S. Government decided that was necessary or prudent to do so.  A general election was also held, resulting in the election of Philippe Sudré Dartiguenave—a pro-US politician who, unfortunately, was not the choice of the Haitian population[8].

President Wilson attempted to convince the Haitian legislature that it was time for a new constitution.  In 1917, a US proposal would have permitted foreign ownership of land, but Haitian lawmakers balked and refused to ratify the document.  When, instead, the lawmakers began to draft an anti-American constitution, President Dartiguenave dissolved the legislature; it did not reconvene until 1929.

Some of the Gendarmerie’s more unpopular policies —including racial segregation, press censorship, and forced labor— led to a peasant rebellion from 1919 to 1920. The U.S. Senate sent an investigative committee into Haiti in 1921 to examine claims of abuse, and subsequently the U.S. Senate reorganized and centralized power in Haiti. After this reorganization, Haiti remained fairly stable and a select group achieved economic prosperity, though most Haitians remained in poverty.

In 1929, a series of strikes and uprisings led the United States to begin its withdrawal from Haiti. In 1930, U.S. officials began training Haitian officials to take control of the government. In 1934, the United States, in concert with President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Good Neighbor Policy, officially withdrew from Haiti while retaining economic connections.

Notes:

[1] Contact between Europeans and Native American populations led to an unprecedented demographic disaster.  Many epidemic diseases well established in the Old World were absent from the Americas before Christopher Columbus’ arrival in 1492.  The catastrophic epidemics that accompanied European conquests destroyed indigenous populations in the Americas.  Diseases included influenza, smallpox, measles, and typhus fever.  Native Americans were unable to escape diseases, the effects of new seeds, weeds, and draft animals; the effect of these were irreversible.  Within only a few years, the plight of Native Americans led Spanish settlers to the importation of African slaves, which were enthusiastically sold by African Islamists.  In this way, the Americas rapidly became a center for the mixing of races and infectious agents.

[2] A word used by Marines, meaning peasant bandit.  Although of Spanish usage, the origin of the term is Greek “Kakos” meaning “bad,” or “low quality,” or “low life.”  It is similar in usage to the British “townie” or in the Americas, “wigger,” or white nigger.

[3] On 21 September 1897, Haitian police were seeking a suspect in a theft case—a man by the name of Dorléus Présumé.  Présumé was discovered washing a coach near the central stables of Port-au-Prince, whose proprietor was Emile Lüders.  Présumé resisted arrest, and Lüders came to his defense.  On that same day, a police tribunal sentenced both men to one-month’s confinement.  The accused appealed to a higher authority, but this time they were charged with resisting arrest —their sentence was increased to one-year in prison.  On 17 October, the German Chargé d’affaires demanded the immediate release of Lüders, whose father was a German citizen, along with the dismissal of the judge and all police officers involved in the matter.  Lüders was released from prison a few days later and promptly left the country.  Then, on 6 December, two German warships anchored at Port-au-Prince harbor and issued an ultimatum: the Haitians were to pay $20,000.00 paid to Lüders, Haiti’s permission for Lüders to return to Haiti, a letter of apology to the German government, a 21-gun salute rendered to the German flag, and a demand that the President of Haiti raise a white flag on the presidential palace as a token of his surrender.

[4] In 1917, Germany proposed an alliance with Mexico against the United States.

[5] After the revolution, France retained strong economic and diplomatic ties with the Haitian Government. France agreed to recognize Haitian independence in the Franco-Haitian Agreement of 1824, and in exchange, Haiti agreed to pay France a huge indemnity.  The payment of this obligation kept Haiti in a constant state of debt, giving France a unique influence over Haitian trade and finances.

[6] That attempt failed due to the enormity of the debt and the internal instability of the country.

[7] Only one Haitian soldier resisted the Marines; when he did, Mr. Pierre Sully was promptly dispatched.

[8] This may have been important psychologically, but the truth is that the Haitian people had demonstrated their electoral incompetence for more than 100 years.

A Time for Thanksgiving —and reflection

I cannot say that Thanksgiving is a uniquely American experience; I have read stories of Spanish conquistadors offering thanks in the Americas as early as the mid-1500s, but maybe “ownership” isn’t really the issue at all.  Our first official recognition of Thanksgiving was issued by proclamation by the Second Continental Congress in 1777 at a time when the future of the American colonies was still very much in doubt.  Philadelphia, then our national capital, was then occupied by British forces.  In spite of this, Americans offered prayers of thanks to God for all His blessings —they prayed also for success in battle.  The war didn’t progress very well for the Americans over the first few years; offering thanks disappeared until reintroduced by James Madison during our second war in 1814.  Then we prayed for the protection of our new union —and for the wisdom to maintain it.

Thanksgiving became official and permanent during the presidency of Abraham Lincoln, who in 1863 issued his own proclamation.  It was written in the context of our great civil upheaval; we prayed for reunification of a badly torn nation.

Nationally, thanksgiving celebrations have changed over generations, but it may also be fair to say that thanksgiving changes over the course of our lives.  The Thanksgiving holiday we experienced as children, sitting around tables laden with more food than we could possibly eat, is not the same as when we were sitting at similar tables as mid-life adults.

This is especially true among those who experienced thanksgiving away from home while engaged in combat.  After such experiences as these, pick any war, the holiday is never again quite the same.  Among our Marines and soldiers, the sweltering jungles of the South and Central Pacific while facing the fanatical Japanese stood in stark contrast with the bitter cold of the Korean peninsula.  In the latter case, some of our troops were provided with a hot, freshly roasted turkey with all the trimmings, but that was just moments before the 13 Chinese infantry divisions launched a massive assault against forward elements of the US 4th Infantry Division and 1st Marine Division at the Chosin Reservoir and along the entire front of the Eighth US Army in the west.  It involved some of the fiercest fighting of the entire Korean War —it was a Thanksgiving Day that thousands of men would not survive; that thousands more would never forget.

Only a few years later, our troops returned to jungle warfare —this time in Vietnam, where once more the Thanksgiving holiday became just another day “in the suck.”  In these circumstances, the memories of earlier festivities, of happier times, are best locked away, along with feelings of loneliness.  The North Vietnamese guards never hesitated to use isolation to enhance despair among our troops who had become prisoners of war.

The engagement in hostile conflict has become more or less constant for the United States, although I suspect that this is more reflects the incompetence of our politicians than it is upon who we are as a people  —yet, we continue to send our troops in harm’s way, and every Thanksgiving Day for far too many years, our young men and women become separated from their families and spend the day in lonely isolation from those who mean the most to them.  At home, families pray for the safe return of their children, husbands, wives, brothers and sisters.

Perhaps it is time to stop sending our troops into hostile areas when there is no clear national interest in doing so …

 

The Honor of Our Corps

by Robert A. Hall

Marine Corps Seal

When the beer, it flows like water,

And the talk, it turns to war,

Then we speak of absent comrades

And the Honor of our Corps.

Of the fights in distant places
,

And the friends who are no more,

Dying faithful to the nation
,

And the Honor of our Corps.

Though our bones are growing brittle,

And our eyes are growing poor,

Still our hearts are young and valiant
,

For the Honor of our Corps.

Should the Eagle, Globe and Anchor
,

Call us to the field once more,

We would muster at the summons
,

For the Honor of our Corps.

When the years have told our story,

And we close the final door,

We will pass to you for keeping

Bright the Honor of our Corps.

Will you take the awesome burden?

Will you face the fire of war?

Will you proudly bear the title

For the Honor of our Corps?

Marines in Nicaragua, Part X

Terror of the Bandits, Tiger of the Mountain

At the end of 1930, the Sandinistas were fighting smarter, and harder.  They were better armed.  On 31 December, a patrol of ten Marines were detailed to check the telegraph lines north of Ocotal when they walked into an ambush of an estimated 100 rebels.  After an hour of fighting, the Sandinistas withdrew leaving eight dead Marines along the trail; the remaining two were seriously wounded.  On the next day, a Central Area patrol struck a large rebel force behind a stone wall and were unable to dislodge them until reinforcements arrived.  That night, rebels employed machine guns to fire on Ocotal from long-range.

1931 was shaping up to be a bad year for the Guardia Nacional, which was still trying to establish itself as a national force.  At the end of 1930, from a total strength of 2,200 men, the Guardia lost 12 men killed in action; 200 more were sent to prison for various crimes, and 323 deserted.  Colonel Julian Smith, a proponent of four-man patrols, was stymied about what to do.  The small sized patrols were completely ineffective against large bandit groups.  He requested additional men, more automatic weapons, arguing that the Guardia in its present configuration could not sustain a war of attrition against significantly larger forces.

Lieutenant Puller briefly rejoined Company M in January and immediately took to the field.  Being almost constantly on patrol through mid-month, his roving patrols made intensive efforts to establish contact with rebel forces.  He made not a single contact during this period.  Part of the reason for this was that the Sandinistas had shifted their activities to the northern area.  There were 13 separate engagements in the northern area, only five in the Central region.  Through February and March, the Central Area established enemy contact on but two occasions; in the same period, the northern region experienced seventeen firefights.

Puller was pulled from the field in February; he had incurred severe skin ulcers on both legs.  He was on light duty for over a month while undergoing medical treatment.  In spite of this debilitation, which Gunnery Sergeant Lee described as “bad,” Puller continued to work as a staff officer and supernumerary.  He supervised escort missions to the aviation field outside of Jinotega, or led half-way patrols to nearby outposts to transfer personnel or deliver supplies.

On 31 March, Managua experienced a significant earthquake.  Within two minutes, the entire city was devastated.  In the aftermath, fires broke out and raged through the rubble for several days.  The Marine Brigade joined the Guardia in a massive rescue effort: fighting fires, providing medical treatment to the injured, digging out trapped Nicaraguans, and feeding the homeless.  Of the city’s 35,000 inhabitants, ten percent were injured, another five percent were killed outright or later died of injuries.

Puller was detached from the Central Area on 2 April to help convey relief supplies into the capital city from Jinotega; he remained in the city until 20 April leading the graves registration effort.  Two weeks later, Puller was back in Jinotega.  He was assigned one last patrol toward Poteca, formerly the stronghold of Captain Merritt Edson and his Coco River Patrol.  The withdrawal of Marines without Guardia replacements had left this area unprotected and available intelligence suggested that Sandino might be located in this region.  Puller discovered that it had been so long since patrols operated in this area that the trails were once more overgrown with vegetation.

Puller’s patrol reached the Rio Cua on 9 May and then proceeded southeast along its banks.  At mid-morning, four bandits appeared in canoes near a bend in the river.  The opposing efforts spotted each other at about the same time, but quick reaction among the Guardia resulted in two rebel deaths.  The remaining two escaped. Having captured the canoes and two weapons, Puller noted the absence of food and surmised that a bandit camp must be nearby.  Puller continued his march up the river to the mouth of the Rio Kilande, where his point man discovered a large abandoned bandit camp.  Company M torched nine buildings and a large quantity of supplies and equipment, including several pole-climbing kits, which Puller guessed had been taken from the Marine patrol the previous December.

Puller then ordered his patrol to backtrack to the Rio Cua, where he joined up with another patrol along the river.  The next morning, the combined force moved north along the Rio Coco, but high water forced the Guardia to cut a new path through thick vegetation on higher ground.  Puller returned to Jinotega on13 May having averaged 16 miles each day.

Puller’s 30-month tour of duty was drawing to a close.  With orders to attend professional schooling at the US Army’s Infantry School, Puller departed Nicaragua on 12 June.  His last official act was to recommend Gunnery Sergeant Lee for an appointment as a Marine Gunner (Warrant Officer).  Subsequently, Puller was awarded the Nicaragua’s highest military decoration (Presidential Medal of Merit).  Lieutenant Colonel McDougal rated Puller as, “… the most active patrol leader in the Guardia.”  Colonel Smith observed, “[Puller] is an excellent officer in every respect.  Possesses highest moral and physical courage, persistence, patience, loyalty, endurance, and sound common sense.  He is one of the best officers I have ever known.”

The citizens of Jinotega were not happy to see Lieutenant Puller transferred —they petitioned the Marines to allow him to stay in Nicaragua.  They referred to Puller as the Terror of the Banditos and Tiger of the Mountains.  El Tigre had earned more than a nickname in Nicaragua … he became one of the Marine Corps’ best junior combat leaders.

But Puller wasn’t done in Nicaragua … he would be back for another tour.

(To be continued)

 

Marines in Nicaragua, Part IX

El Tigre is out of his cage

The rebel camp was located in an excellent position along a ridge bisecting the trail.   Deciding on a double envelopment maneuver, Puller ordered two-thirds of the company into a frontal assault, while he and a dozen guardias executed a flanking movement.  The bandits thwarted the attack by fleeing on their horses after firing a few rounds. Lieutenant Puller pursued the band, eventually forcing the bandits to abandon their mounts in order to make better time over difficult terrain.  Puller called off the chase at nightfall. A large quantity of equipment was found in the area of the rebel camp, including fifty-two animals, two rifles, and food rations.  Puller burned anything that could not be carried back to his base, returning there on 21 August.  For their gallantry under fire, Colonel McDougal recommended Puller and Lee for the Navy Cross.

Puller and Lee continued offensive operations into September.  A three-day patrol departed Jinotega on 28 August, and within nine-hours of their return, set out again for a nine-hour sortie.  Puller and Lee both led small patrols two nights later, which were likely security ambushes just outside the town.

On 5th September, Puller and Lee departed Jinotega with thirty-five men, and joined up with another twenty-three guardias from Corinto Finca.  Their initial destination was in the region of Mt. Guapinol.  In the absence of any sign of bandits, Puller ordered Lee and part of his men back to base.  Puller continued on with 35 guardias heading southeast toward Río Gusanero.

Puller and his men discovered a well-used path on 10 September and followed it.  The next morning, Puller sighted a rebel camp.  Since the terrain prohibited any off-track movement, Puller ordered an immediate assault.  Surprised rebels scattered, of course, but not before guardias mortally wounded three.  One rebel survived long enough to inform Puller that Sandino had been there a week before.  Puller’s patrol took possession of the normal assortment of weapons; documents confirmed the earlier presence of Sandino.  Due to shortage of rations, Puller decided to return to Jinotega.  Once resupplied, Puller and his company returned to the field for another 30 days.

A new central area commander arrived in mid-October; a seasoned veteran by the name of Julian C. Smith[1].  Smith had a few “new” ideas about the Nicaraguan campaign.  He instructed his subordinates, “Action promptly initiated and rapidly carried through will invariably produce better results under present conditions than plans requiring elaborate preparations and considerable time.”  Smith placed less emphasis on combat patrols, and greater importance on frequent police patrols of fewer men.  He wanted these patrols to safeguard the fincas and rural population.  By protecting the people from rebel depredations, he felt he could win the hearts and minds of the civilian population.  Under these circumstances, there was nowhere the rebels could hide.  Smith reduced Company M from 35 men to 25 and armed them with two BARs, three Thompsons, and six grenade launchers mounted on Springfield Rifles.  The standard rifle continued to be the Krag.

On 6 November, a force of 150 rebels attacked the ten-man garrison at Matiguás.  Held off throughout the night, the rebels abandoned their attack at next light when they ran out of ammunition.  Lieutenant Puller and Lee mustered twenty-one men to search for the rebels, but had no luck in discovering where they had gone.  They did find the trail of about 30 or so rebels who had been terrorizing the people of San Isabel, closing with them on 19 November.  A running gunfight ensued in which several of the rebels were wounded, but made good their escape[2].

On 20 November, Puller and his men reported in to Corinto Finca where they were resupplied with fresh pack animals and supplies.  They left on the same day with orders to check out the report of rebel concentrations commanded by El Patron near Mount Guapinol.  Heavy rain and muddy trails slowed Puller’s progress, but did not deter him.  On 25 November, Puller’s patrol encountered a bandit trail and decided to follow it.  The Guardia eventually sighted about ten rebels resting among some fallen trees.  The moment Puller’s men opened fire, the rebels took off running.  About 1,000 yards further on, Puller discovered a rebel camp consisting of four buildings with well-constructed log barriers in the front, and a hundred-foot cliff in the rear.  The forty or so rebels fought briefly before throwing their belongings (and their wounded) into the ravine, and then climbed down into it themselves using robes and ladders.  These were pulled down after them, preventing Puller and his men from following.  Eventually, one of the Guardia found another way into the gully, which the patrol immediately advanced.  At the bottom of the draw, Puller found two dead bandits and some supplies.  Captured documents also revealed that Puller’s patrol had killed a minor chief during an earlier engagement.  Puller returned to his base on 27 November.

In December, Colonel Smith congratulated Puller and his company for having displayed the qualities of courage, persistence, physical endurance, and patience.  At this small ceremony, Lewis B. Puller received his first Navy Cross medal and was granted a few weeks of R&R.

With Puller on leave, command of the company fell to Guardia Second Lieutenant (Gunnery Sergeant) Lee, who initiated aggressive patrolling on the 12th, 15th, and 19th of December.  Lee’s patrol resulted in four bandits KIA, but Company M had lost its first battle casualty: a private was killed at the engagement at Vencedora —the most severe fight Company M had experienced up to that time.

At Vencedora, Lee and his patrol aggressively attacked a bandit group numbering around two-hundred.  Lee expected the rebels to scatter, as they had always done before, but this time they decided to dance.  The rebel force was buoyed by two Lewis guns and four Thompsons, from which the fire was so intense that it forced Lee to break off their assault and take cover.  The fight lasted for thirty minutes, during which the rebels attempted to employ an envelopment of the Guardia Patrol.  After attacking Lee’s patrol, the rebels quickly retired.  After their second withdrawal, Lee began receiving fire from his flank.  Lee began to consider withdrawal himself in order to avoid being overwhelmed by this superior force.  In desperation, Lee rallied his men and led a new assault on the enemy’s forward position, which caused the rebels to flee the battle site.

At the end of 1930, the war in Nicaragua was beginning to take on a new and deadlier character.

(To be Continued)

Notes

[1] Smith served in the Marines from 1909 to 1946, retiring as a lieutenant general.  Serving for more than 37 years, Smith participated in the battles of Veracruz, occupation of Nicaragua, and in World War II commanded the Marines at Tarawa and Peleliu.

[2] In his book Chesty, Colonel Jon Hoffman explained the difficulty of operating in the jungles of Nicaragua.  At one point, Puller’s company was well-concealed at an ambush site along the trail.  Suddenly, the manager of a local finca walked up to where Puller was concealed and began to engage him in conversation about where Puller might find the rebels.  The man knew exactly where to find Puller, which educated Puller to the fact that the enemy was always well-informed about Guardia Nacional operations.  Captured letters from Sandino warned the elements of his army of pending Guardia operations, telling them when the operations would commence and what areas the rebel forces should avoid.  Apparently, local telegraph operators were one source of Sandino’s expanded intelligence network.