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.

 

A PERONAL AFFRONT

In 1950, President Harry S. Truman authorized the establishment of the United States Advisory Group, Vietnam and dispatched the Army to Vietnam, ostensibly to advise the French Foreign Legion in their campaign to restore Indochina to the French Empire.  The moral implications of this should be obvious.  Apparently unbeknownst to Washington, however, the French have never willingly accepted anyone’s advice –about anything.  So, the crafty Truman added some cash into the mix: The United States would funnel to the French some $10 million in revenues extorted from the American people, if, in return, the French would heed the advice of their American advisors.

By 1953, at a time when 99% of the American people had never heard of Vietnam, the amount of US military aid to the French had climbed to $350 million.  In 1954, thousands of North Vietnamese began streaming into what became the Republic of (South) Vietnam.  Many of these were refugees who simply did not want to live under an oppressive communist regime, but a large number were Northern agents disguised as refugees.  Their mission was to cause as much disruption in South Vietnam as possible —and this they proceeded to do.

The onslaught was so overwhelming that Ngo Dinh Diem’s Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) couldn’t keep up.  Senior ARVN officers complained that their troops couldn’t find these insurgents.  This wasn’t so much a problem with the ARVN ground troops as it was with cowardly senior officers –men who  were corrupt beyond belief.

Of course, the war never went according to the way the eggheads in Washington DC wanted it to go.  It was all a terrible misunderstanding, of course.  By 1956, the United States was firmly convinced that Ho Chi Minh wanted to seize South Vietnam, which of course he did, and that South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem wanted to defend the South, which of course he didn’t.  Ho and Ngo had the same goal of reunifying Vietnam, albeit under their own presidency.  After 1960, Diem’s true motivations were part of the US government’s greatest lies by omission to those who served in the Vietnam War after 1965.

Vietnamese officials looking for an excuse to do nothing continued to complain about northern insurgents being able to remain cleverly concealed within the lush tropical vegetation.  Stepping to the plate to solve this problem was (then) Vice Admiral Elmo Zumwalt (later to serve as Chief of Naval Operations), who served in a dual-hatted role as Commander, Naval Forces, Vietnam and Chief, Naval Advisory Group, Vietnam[1].  It was Zumwalt who ordered the use of carcinogens (Agent Orange) to defoliate Vietnam —an act that has had dire consequences to thousands of Vietnam veterans, as well as to his own family[2].

Agent Orange was a powerful mixture of toxic chemicals used by U.S. military forces during the Vietnam War to eliminate forest cover for North Vietnamese and Viet Cong insurgents, as well as crops that might be used to feed them. The U.S. program of defoliation, codenamed Operation Ranch Hand, sprayed more than 19 million gallons of herbicides over nearly five million acres of land in Vietnam from 1968 to 1972. Agent Orange, which contained the chemical dioxin, was the most commonly used of the herbicide mixtures (and the most effective).  The results of this use have been the growth of tumors, severe birth defects, rashes, psychological symptoms, and a wide variety of cancers among hapless civilian populations in Vietnam and returning American servicemen and their children.

Exposure to Agent Orange no longer receives as much press attention as it used to, but it has had profound lingering effects as a significant international health issue.  Hundreds of thousands of American servicemen have died, or are still suffering, because of Zumwalt’s chemical bomb.  More than three million Vietnamese are also affected, including more than 150,000 children who were born with serious defects.  When the Vietnamese attempted to sue the US for having used these chemicals, for having caused so much suffering among innocent people, American judges dismissed the case out of hand.

Recently, we’ve lost another fine American.  I’ll call him Jack.  He answered the call to duty and served with distinction in Vietnam during the late-1960s within the US Army’s II Corps tactical zone.  Jack passed away on 10 June 2017; he suffered the effects of Agent Orange for over six years.  He’s at peace now, and no doubt his family much relieved that his suffering has come to an end … but here is a man who literally began dying during the time he served in the deep jungles of Vietnam —and whose name will never appear on the Vietnam Wall Memorial.

If this doesn’t seem right, it’s because it isn’t.

Notes:

[1] In the former position, Zumwalt commanded all “brown water” naval forces serving in Viet Nam, and in the second position he served as the overall commander’s naval advisor.

[2] Zumwalt’s son served in Vietnam as a riverine boat commander; after much suffering, he later died from exposure to Agent Orange and his son (Zumwalt’s grandson) was born with severe physical handicaps.

Task Force MacLean-Faith

As stated in my banner, this blog mostly contains stories about Marines … but I have also included articles involving Air Force, Army, and Navy personnel.  This article will be about a U. S. Army unit in Korea.  It should be read within this framework: elements of the 7th US Infantry Division operated in conjunction with the 1st Marine Division at a place in North Korea known as the Chosin (Changjin) Reservoir.  One of these elements was effectively destroyed in the fighting that took place there.

Background

In 1950, General Douglas MacArthur (shown at right) served as Supreme Allied Commander, United Nations Command (Far East).  He concurrently served as Commander, U. S. Army Forces (Far East).  It was MacArthur’s responsibility to establish an allied force order of battle —essentially an organizational outline reflecting a chain of command within the operating forces.

Responsibility for military operations in Korea was assigned to the Eighth US Army, then commanded by Lieutenant General Walton H. Walker, USA.  On paper, Walker’s Army consisted of the Army’s I Corps, IX Corps, and X Corps.  Walker’s direct superior in the chain of command was Douglas MacArthur.  Whether MacArthur lacked confidence in General Walker’s command of a field Army is far beyond my paygrade, but the fact is that General MacArthur stripped 8th Army of its X Corps making it independent of General Walker’s command, answerable directly to himself.

Matters were further compounded by MacArthur’s selection of the officer to command X Corps.  In addition to command of X Corps (a combat command) Major General Edward M. (Ned) Almond concurrently served MacArthur as Chief of Staff, U. S. Army Forces, (Far East) (a senior staff position).  Apparently, because Major General Almond reported directly to General of the Army Douglas MacArthur, he felt there was no reason to keep Walker informed of X Corps operations.

In combat, as we shall see, this is a recipe for disaster.

Major General Almond previously commanded the 2nd Infantry Division (8 months) and the 92nd Infantry Division[1].  It is difficult for me to understand how any officer as inept, or as maladroit as Almond could ever have reached flag rank.  Almond eventually rose to the rank of Lieutenant General, but in my opinion, he should never have been promoted beyond major.

In 1950, the United States was unprepared for war.  In the aftermath of World War II, President Truman reduced the strength of Army, Air Force, and Navy commands such that they were no longer combat effective.  Worse, Secretary of State Dean Acheson delivered a speech on 12 January 1950 which failed to mention the Korean Peninsula as part of the United States’ post-war defense perimeter.  The inference here was that the United States government did not view South Korea as having much importance in Truman’s domino theory.  Accordingly, Joseph Stalin and Kim Il-sung believed that they had a “green light” to invade South Korea.  This level of incompetence would guarantee the loss of the lives of military personnel from the United States and United Nations member nations.

Invade South Korea is exactly what Kim Il-sung did, with the full support of the Soviet Union.  At this juncture, it would take some time to rebuild America’s Armed Forces.  The problem is, of course, there was no time for renewal, so most of the commands Truman committed to the Korean War went as they were. In this post-war environment, Army combat and combat service support units were understrength, poorly trained, and poorly led.

Standardized military organizations have existed since the days of the Roman Republic; in the United States, ground forces are organized as follows: armies have three corps and very often include other supporting units; a corps is composed of three divisions (with additional, reinforcing elements); there are three infantry regiments in a division (with additional reinforcements), three battalions in a regiment, three infantry companies and a weapons company in a battalion, three platoons and a weapons platoon in a company, and three squads in an infantry platoon.

Because American ground forces were dramatically understrength in 1950, the Department of Defense relied upon UN forces to bolster US combat forces.  In June 1950, the Army’s X Corps included  the US 7th Infantry Division (Major General David G. Barr), US 3rd Infantry Division (Major General Robert H. Soule), and the 1st Marine Division (Major General Oliver P. Smith).  All three of these divisions were initially understrength.

At the beginning of the Korean conflict in mid-July 1950, General MacArthur began pulling soldiers away from the 7th Infantry Division and sending them to fill in the ranks of the 25th Infantry Division in Korea.  Within a short time, the 7th Infantry Division only consisted of 9,000 men; its wartime strength was 25,000.  The U. S. Army Service Command (Far East) began to augment the 7th with 8,000 poorly trained Korean conscripts; to this was later added a battalion of Ethiopians.  Similarly, the 3rd Infantry Division had but two regiments; this division was augmented by Koreans, Belgians, and Greek infantry.  General Almond directed one full regiment to serve as X Corps reserve, resulting in only two-thirds of a division remaining available to the 3rd Infantry Division commander for combat operations.

President Truman wanted a quick end to the Korean War, but he didn’t want to precipitate another world war.  So Truman did what we have come to expect from politicians: he vacillated.  He wanted MacArthur to move with speed to occupy North Korea and, if possible, push the North Korean army completely off the map, but he also restricted MacArthur’s operations at or below the 38th parallel.  The JCS later rescinded this restriction, telling MacArthur to operate as he saw fit.  Accordingly, MacArthur ordered the 8th (VIII) Army and Ten (X) Corps to proceed to the Yalu River (North Korea’s border with China).  Observing MacArthur’s movements, China warned him not to approach China’s border; MacArthur wasn’t listening.

North Korean terrain ranks among the most mountainous in the world.  This is significant because mountains hinder communications and terrain dictates ground movement.  With mountain ranges running generally north to south, military units were separated from one another by high elevations.  Moreover, limited roads were vulnerable to blockage by enemy units.  There was a single main supply route (MSR) from Wonsan to the point of furthest advance, Chosin (Changjin) Reservoir.

The location of Marine and Army units in the Chosin operating area is reflected on the map (right).  This map tells us two stories: the first underscores Ned Almond’s ineptitude.  He pushed units so far forward that resupply of these units became a major undertaking.  Forward units were disbursed, exposing them to enemy attack.  Both Almond and MacArthur refused to acknowledge what everyone else knew to be a fact: the presence in North Korea of large numbers of Chinese troops.    The second story tells us what happened to Regimental Combat Team-31 (commonly referred to today as Task Force Faith) —and why.

Almond ordered Major General Barr (7th Infantry Division) to provide a regimental sized force to operate on the right flank of the 1st Marine Division.  In earlier operations, the 7th Infantry Division had become widely dispersed and isolated from one another.  The immediacy of Almond’s directive made it impossible to assemble a full-strength RCT before moving north.  Complying with X Corps orders, RCT-31[2] moved forward to cover the eastern flank of the Marine division with incomplete coordination with the Marines, who were then operating south and west of the Chosin Reservoir.

RCT-31 was initially commanded by Colonel Allan MacLean; the combat team included 3/31, 1/32, two batteries of the 57th Field Artillery Battalion, and one platoon of Battery D, 15th Anti-aircraft Battalion.  It was short one full battalion of infantry and a tank company.

MacLean moved forward on 27 November 1950 and occupied two separate positions along a ten mile stretch along the east side of the reservoir.  Not anticipating enemy activity[3], MacLean’s battalions prepared inadequate perimeter defenses (which is to say linear rather than 360 degrees of security, or “an all-around” defense).  Colonel MacLean intended to move his command forward the next morning (28 November 1950).  During the night, however, undetected Chinese forces infiltrated the area; once in place, they launched a devastating attack on elements of RCT-31 and the Marines.  MacLean asked for, and received a temporary postponement of the planned offensive.

Early the next morning, General Almond flew to RCT-31’s position and after conferring with MacLean, concluded that here was no evidence of any presence of Chinese Communist Forces (CCF). Almond demanded that MacLean continue his northern movement, but then contradicted himself by saying, “The enemy who is delaying you for the moment is nothing more than remnants of Chinese divisions fleeing north.  We’re still attacking and we’re going all the way to the Yalu.  Don’t let a bunch of Chinese laundry-men stop you.”

Convinced that RCT-31 was strong enough to begin its attack and deal with these so-called remnants of enemy troops moving north, Almond returned to his headquarters.  Meanwhile, large numbers of Chinese forces occupied the eastern hills overlooking RCT-31’s southern-most position.  MacLean continued to anticipate the arrival of his third infantry battalion and a tank company.

The reinforcements never arrived.

Unknown to Colonel MacLean, China’s reinforced 80th Infantry Division soon surrounded RCT-31.  When RCT-31’s much-awaited tank company reached Hagaru-ri, the column discovered the presence of a well-situated Chinese blocking force.  During this engagement, the tank company lost four of its tanks and withdrew to consolidate its remaining forces.  The tank company renewed its attack on the next morning, but it too failed; the remnants of the tank company withdrew to the small village of Hudong, 4 miles south of RCT-31’s position.

The Marines to the west were also under an overwhelming attack; as a result, they were unable to assist RCT-31.  MacLean’s missing battalion never materialized, but he made no effort to contact his higher headquarters to inform them of his situation.  Perhaps MacLean was intimidated by the blustering Major General Almond.

Chinese forces made another attack on the night of 28 November and succeeded in overrunning several RCT-31 positions.  Their attack against 1/32 included North Korean tanks and self-propelled artillery.  During the attack, weather conditions rapidly deteriorated; heavy snow began to accumulate and temperatures plunged to minus 30 degrees Fahrenheit.  Low visibility denied the RCT defenders any clear picture of the enemy’s movements.  That night, American troops suffered from intense cold; several soldiers froze to death in their foxholes.  Colonel MacLean decided to develop a stronger defense position.  He ordered 1/32 to pull back south into the main perimeter.

China’s 27th Corps then committed its 241st Regiment and RCT-31 was now facing two Chinese infantry divisions.  While 1/32 moved south under the protection of 40 Marine ground support aircraft, Air Force cargo planes dropped supplies into RCT-31’s southern-most position.

After consolidating his force, Colonel MacLean observed what he believed was the approach of long-awaited reinforcements.  What Maclean observed was the approach of a Chinese force.  In this encounter, MacLean was mortally wounded.  Command of RCT-31 now fell to the next senior officer, Lieutenant Colonel Don Faith, commander of 1/32.

Faith immediately consolidated his force and formed a proper perimeter.  The Chinese intensified their attack.  The severely understrength RCT fought off a massive assault by two full enemy divisions.  Marine aircraft supported the RCT throughout the day.  The battle continued for two additional days.

All attacks against the RCT’s perimeter were successfully repulsed, but Faith was running low on ammunition.  Half of his force had been killed or wounded.  Realizing that he was surrounded and outnumbered, Colonel Faith decided to break out of the defense and fight his way toward Marine lines to his west.  He intended to take as little of his equipment as possible —only enough vehicles to carry his wounded.  He destroyed excess equipment, permitting the assignment of additional soldiers to infantry roles.

Faith’s break out began on 1 December; Navy and Marine Corps aircraft strafed and bombed Chinese positions as Task Force Faith made its way down a gravel road east of Chosin.  Faith’s progress was interrupted, however, when Corsairs mistakenly dropped ordnance on Faith’s southward moving lead elements; several troops were killed; others horribly burned by napalm.  This unfortunate incident seriously demoralized soldiers already under great stress.  Then, as the forward elements continued their southern movement, heavy small arms fire caused the rear-guard echelon (operating further north along the MSR) to seek shelter in a gully below the roadway.  In doing so, they abandoned their wounded comrades.  Enemy fire killed many of the RCT’s wounded and the drivers of the trucks.  By late afternoon, Faith was able to get the column moving again but he soon ran into a reinforced Chinese roadblock.  Several companies attacked the Chinese; one of these was led by Colonel Faith, who was mortally wounded.

It was at this point that darkness closed in … and with it, the end of protective air support.  Chinese infantry assaults grew bolder, penetrating ever closer to the remnants of RCT-31.  With their commander now dead, the combat team disintegrated; most of the officers and senior NCOs were either dead or wounded.  Leaderless soldiers wandered off across the frozen reservoir seeking safety.  Army tanks and soldiers previously encamped at the small village of Hudong might have saved some of these soldiers, but they had been ordered back to Hagaru-ri the previous day.

The Chinese stepped up their assault with intense small arms fire and white phosphorus grenades, wantonly murdering the wounded and incapacitated; within some elements of RCT-31, the situation quickly degenerated into every man for himself.

Eventually, nearly 400 able-bodied survivors of Task Force Faith were formed into an Army provisional battalion that fought alongside the Marines during their withdrawal from the Chosin Reservoir.  Other Army units were brought into the Marine lines as well, including what was left of the 31st Tank Company —assigned to reinforce the 5th Marine Regiment.

Eleven hundred soldiers were too badly wounded or frostbitten to fight; they were evacuated through the heroic efforts of U. S. Air Force pilots and support personnel.  Of its original strength of 3,000 soldiers, one-third of RCT-31 were killed in action.

RCT-31 was the largest American unit ever destroyed in combat.

Commentary

There is ample room for criticism in any discussion about the Chosin Reservoir campaign.  In my view, the strongest criticism is properly assigned to Harry S. Truman and his defense secretary, but with equal measure to Douglas MacArthur and Ned Almond.

Major General Barr sent a regimental combat team into hostile territory at about two-thirds of its combat strength.  Considering the weight of the Chinese forces thrown against RCT-31, we must wonder if an additional battalion would have made a difference.  Still, General Barr deserves censure for lacking the moral courage to refuse the inane order from Almond to advance further north.

Colonel MacLean executed his orders, but one should imagine that a senior infantry officer would have prepared a better defense during hours of darkness.

The mistaken bombing of forward elements of RCT-31 by Marine aircraft is an unspeakable tragedy; these things do happen.  I cannot imagine how the pilot felt when he later learned what he’d done.  It is bad enough losing good men to the enemy; being killed by friendly fire is the worst of all scenarios.

The soldiers of RCT-31 were young, inexperienced, and poorly trained.  They were certainly poorly led by their field generals.  The battle-loss of senior officers and NCOs provided an opportunity for junior officers to seize the moment; they didn’t.  Who were the officers in the rear-guard?  Why did they allow their troops to sacrifice their incapacitated comrades?

I do believe that RCT-31 has been unfairly maligned in statements made by Marines at the time, and in subsequent years.  Part of this “rivalry” stems from the Battle for the Pusan Perimeter, when Marines were constantly thrown into the breech to retake real estate lost by Army units.  At Pusan, Marines were dying because Army units weren’t pulling their own load.  Whether objective, this was the genesis of “hard feelings” between Marines and soldiers.  In effect, the experience of the 1st Provisional Marine Brigade at Pusan seemed to reinforce what everyone already knew about the poor combat record of the US 27th Infantry Division at Saipan and Okinawa.

Noted military historian Eric Hammel observed, “Marines [in Korea] evidenced a growing hostility to the army men in their midst.  It was unfair of them to do so, but there was not a member of the 1st Marine Division who did not feel that his plight in some way reflected a lack of concern on the part of the Army officer who ran X Corps.”

Similarly, Colonel Edward L. Magill, USA (a veteran of the Chosin campaign) wrote a piece titled Soldiers of Changjin, saying “The condition of the units at the time of the breakout has never been properly weighed… The soldiers were suffering from hunger, dehydration, lack of sleep, long exposure to severe cold, and the physiological effects of prolonged combat.”

While I agree with Magill —it is also true that Marines experienced these same difficulties and yet did not abandon their wounded, their dead, or their equipment.  The difference, or so it would seem, was in the quality of leadership within the 1st Marine Division.

One of the individuals responsible for criticism of RCT-31 was a Marine officer who helped rescue hundreds of RCT-31 survivors: Lieutenant Colonel Olin L. Beall who, at the time, commanded the 1st Motor Transport Battalion.  In 1953, Beall wrote a scathing report against the Army in the Chosin campaign.  He was there, of course, but I think his criticism reveals a lack of insight.  Were it not for the tremendous fight RCT-31 put up against two enemy infantry divisions, the Chinese would have mauled the Marines of the 1st Marine Division.  In this sense, it should possible for us today to give due credit to the intense bravery displayed by the soldiers of RCT-31.  In the face of extreme adversity, these men put up one hell of a fight.

Notes:

[1] General George C. Marshall served as the U. S. Army Chief of Staff during World War II.  Marshall, a VMI classmate of Almond, was instrumental in Almond’s promotion to major general and his subsequent assignment to command the 92nd Infantry Division between October 1942 and August 1945.  Almond led the division in combat throughout the Italian Campaign.  Almond’s performance, however, was rated as inept.  Rather than taking responsibility for his professional shortcomings, Almond placed the blame for his incompetence on his mostly African-American troops —the source of his failure as a field general.  Almond later advised the Army against using blacks as infantry in combat.

[2] A regimental combat team is a task-organized unit consisting of infantry and supporting units.  The size of infantry and supporting organizations depends upon the assigned mission.  RCT-31 was formed from the 31st Infantry Regiment, and attached supporting units.  Total manpower complement numbered just at 3,200 troops; of these, 600 were Korean augmentees to the US Army (called KATUSA).  General Barr removed the 1st Battalion, 31st Infantry Regiment (1/31) and replaced it with the 2nd Battalion, 32nd Infantry Regiment (2/32).

[3] X Corps insisted that there was no significant Chinese presence in North Korea.  Almond ignored the intelligence gained from Chinese prisoners of war and information gathered by forward reconnaissance units.  Colonel MacLean erred when he believed what his seniors were telling him, rather than relying on his own judgment while operating deeply inside “Indian” territory.

Colonel Commandant John Harris

In 1798, there were only 83 U. S. Marines serving in uniform.  On 12 July of that year, President John Adams appointed William Ward Burrows to the post of Major Commandant of the United States Marine Corps.  Burrows was the second man to serve in this post, tradition giving Samuel Nicholas the title Commandant of Continental Marines (serving 1775—1783).  Burrows was the first to serve as Commandant of the United States Marine Corps, serving from 1798 to 1804; during this time, the strength of the Marine Corps increased to 389 officers and enlisted men.[1]

Both the Navy and Marine Corps were born out of necessity, for once Congress realized that the United States must emerge as a maritime power, men were needed in both services to man American ships of war.  In 1798, the threat of war came from France; a few years later, from Islamist pirates operating in the Mediterranean Sea and along the west coast of Africa.

In these early days, Marines were needed to man the Navy’s frigates; it initially fell to Burrows to supply these Marines with uniforms and equipment, whereas Marine officers serving aboard ship had responsibility for training their own men.  Initially encamped at Philadelphia, Barrows relocated his headquarters to the new city of Washington in 1800.  Its present location occupies that initial site at Eighth & I Streets, Washington DC.

Within twelve years, the United States and Great Britain once more went to war.  From the American perspective, there were several reasons for war in 1812: (a) trade restrictions imposed on the United States by England’s war with France, (b) the illegal impressment of (several thousand) American merchant seaman into the Royal Navy, (c) British instigation of violence against the American frontier by natives, (d) outrage in the United States over the Chesapeake-Leopard Affair[2] (inset drawing by Fred Cozzens, 1897), and British objections to America’s westward expansion.  Commenting on the British perspective, historian William Kingsford once observed, “The events of the war of 1812 have not been forgotten in England, for they have never been known there.”

What we know about the performance of early Marine Corps commandants comes to us in the bits and pieces from the works of several authors producing other works; some of these are first-hand accounts that are tinted by individual biases or relevant politics.  The writings of Brigadier General Henry Clay Cochrane (service from 1861 to 1903), suggest that in many instances, early commandants were somewhat orthodox in their thinking —happy to maintain the status quo because in the doing of it required little effort or political risk.  In these early times, officers harbored the view that the commandancy was an entitlement of the most senior officer.  While generally true, there were occasions when the Secretary of the Navy selected someone junior to the most senior officer.  Whenever this occurred, the more-senior officer(s) would be forced into retirement.  By forcing the most senior officers into retirement, junior officers developed the hope of future promotion —and perhaps themselves, one day, being elevated to the commandancy.

In the early days, the relationship between the navy and Marine Corps was at best strained.  In the first place, few navy officers even believed that the Marine Corps belonged to the naval establishment; others opined that if there was a legitimate role for the Marine Corps in the naval service, such service should be part of the ships company.  Marine officers, they believed, should serve the ship’s captain as heads of divisions: gunnery officers or officers in charge of munitions and ordnance.  Marines saw it differently; they were naval infantry whose task was to provide naval artillery (manning ship’s guns), maintain law and order aboard ship (prevent mutinies), and project naval power ashore as part of a landing force.  Some of the early commandants (the better ones) insisted that the navy respect these roles; others were easily swayed into the lethargy of politics: they sought to maintain the favor of senior naval officers and the Secretary of the Navy at the expense of an appropriate role and mission for his Marines.  In short, if ever there was a marriage between the navy and Marine Corps, it was one of convenience.

Prior to the commencement of the Civil War, Lieutenant Colonel John Harris was elevated to the office of Commandant.  Harris (20 May 1793—12 May 1864) served as the sixth Commandant, serving on active duty for more than fifty years.  The Harris family lived in Whiteland Township, Chester County, Pennsylvania and produced several career military officers.  John’s father William served as an officer during the Revolutionary War.  An elder brother served as a naval surgeon who ultimately led the Navy’s bureau of medicine and surgery.  A younger brother Stephen married the granddaughter of Persifor Frazer, a prominent citizen during the Revolutionary period.

John Harris received his commission as a Second Lieutenant on 23 April 1814; in two months, he had already been promoted to First Lieutenant.  Harris served with the Marine force opposing the British at the battle of Brandywine, Maryland.  It was the distinction of these Marines in combat that may have prompted the British Army to spare the Marine Barracks in the city of Washington during the War of 1812.  All other government buildings were destroyed by fire.

In 1815, Harris assumed command of the Marine Detachment aboard USS Macedonian, flagship of the squadron of Commodore Stephen Decatur.  It was this squadron that sailed from New York to punish the Barbary Pirates.  After several periods of shore duty, Harris commanded Marines aboard USS Franklin, which included a South Pacific tour from 1821—1824.  Harris was brevetted to Captain on 3 March 1825, followed by tours of duty in Boston, aboard the USS Java, USS Delaware, and USS Philadelphia.  In 1836, Harris joined the Marine Detachment at Fort Monroe, Virginia where he served with the Army during the Florida Indian Wars.  He served with distinction in the Creek campaign in Alabama, and the Seminole conflicts in Florida.  Colonel Commandant Archibald Henderson gave a good report on Captain Harris, stating, “Captain Harris while in Florida commanded mounted Marines and did good service in that capacity.”

In 1837, Harris was advanced to brevet major, “for gallantry and good conduct in the affair of Hatchee Lustee”.  He was received a regular commission to major on 6 October 1841, serving in Philadelphia, Washington, and Norfolk until the outbreak of war with Mexico.

In March 1848, Major Harris sailed with a battalion of Marines to Veracruz, Mexico but since the armistice had already been concluded, he was ordered to garrison Alvarado.  He was ordered to Marine Corps headquarters in Washington in late summer of that year, subsequently serving as the Commanding Officer of the Marine Barracks in Philadelphia and New York.  In 1855, Harris was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel and placed in command of the Marine Barracks, Brooklyn where he remained until 7 January 1859.  On that date, he assumed the office of Commandant in grade of Colonel, U. S. Marine Corps.

There is little doubt that Colonel Harris was embarrassed on the eve of the American Civil War as half of his officers resigned their commissions to serve in the armed forces of the Confederate States; he labored to reconstitute a much-weakened Marine Corps.  Added to this, Harris was tasked to send Marines to serve as United States Secret Service agents in Maryland to stem the flow of contraband: this mission depleted the ranks of the Marine Corps by a full battalion.

Following a brief illness, Colonel Harris died while serving in office at the age of 70 years.  His death left Secretary of the Navy Gideon Wells in a dilemma: there were few Marine Corps officers qualified to assume the post of Commandant.  Secretary Wells delayed selecting a replacement for a full month; his final selection forced several senior Marine Corps officers into retirement.  This delay, and the Secretary’s final choice, was probably a good thing for the Marine Corps as it was about to embark on a much-needed period of reform.  Some say that this reform movement continues in the Marine Corps today; I am one of those.  You see, in the Marines, nothing is ever good enough; I think this attitude benefits the United States of America —and her people.

Notes:

[1] Department of Defense, Selected Manpower Statistics, FY-1997, Table 2-11.

[2] HMS Leopard gave chase to the American frigate USS Chesapeake, which ended when the American captain surrendered his ship having fired only one shot.  The British tried and executed four members of the Chesapeake’s crew for desertion.  The balance of the crew was released and sent back to port in disgrace.