The Cousin

Preface

Lieutenant Colonel William Washington of the 3rd Continental Light Dragoons rode quietly at the head of his regiment.  He was a large man for a light horseman.  He was over six feet tall with bear-like shoulders, a ruddy face, and clubbed brown hair.  One of his commanding generals described him as the “Hercules” of his day.  Perhaps.  That isn’t what we see in his portraits.  We see an ordinary-looking man with no wig or hat, a round, honest face, and a casual open stare.

By September 1781, Colonel Washington was 29 years old.  A wounded veteran of six years’ service, a former minuteman in Stafford County, Virginia, and a member of the Old Dominion gentry.  His cousin, of course, was the Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army.

William did not share those aristocratic attributes — he was more comfortable in the saddle than in parlors and drawing rooms drinking tea and discussing politics.  No, William was a fighter.  He amused himself with horse racing, good cigars, fine whiskey, and a modest wager.  He was unassuming, respectful of others, self-confident, good-humored, and friendly.  But there was also another side to William Washington: he was hot-tempered when his blood was up.  When he led his regiment into the fight, he was always the first man across the line of departure.  Like a badger, once he had hold of his enemy, he wouldn’t let go.  But, as with all good soldiers, it was only a matter of time before his luck ran out.

Beginnings

George Washington was 20 years old when Cousin William was born in 1752 — and only two years away from igniting the Seven Years’ War.  William’s parents were Bailey Washington, Sr., and Catherine Storke Washington, who were married in 1749.  William was their second-born child, whom Bailey named William after Catherine’s father, William Storke, the Sheriff of Stafford County.[1]  Bailey was moderately wealthy — the owner of 1,200 acres of prime agricultural land near Aquia Creek.  The bad news for William was that he would not stand to inherit this property.  Still, he was raised in a privileged environment, and while 1,200 acres wasn’t as large as the estate at Mount Vernon, it was large enough to require an investment in horses.  William Washington was raised in an environment of horse breeding, horsemanship, and horse racing.

At one time, Stafford County was part of Westmoreland County, created in 1664 as the Virginia colony sought to organize itself through a series of commonwealth structures.  In time, Stafford County (named after Staffordshire, England) gave way to such jurisdictions as Arlington, Fairfax, and Prince William counties and the city of Alexandria.

As a southern planter, Bailey Washington raised his children within the context of Anglo-Virginian culture, suggesting that William was brought up as a gentleman.  Beyond his primary education, William trained to become a church minister.  His post-primary education included Greek, Latin, mathematics, and theology.  William was well into training when the American Revolution sent him in a completely different direction.

In 1775, William Washington was 23 years of age with an incredibly acute sense of duty and of right and wrong.  When Virginia began raising troops to resist Great Britain, William gave up his studies and life as a planter’s son to join the patriot cause.  Patrick Henry delivered his Liberty or Death speech to the Virginia Convention in March.  Lord Dunmore, Virginia’s governor, wisely removed gunpowder from the public warehouse in Williamsburg to prevent it from falling into “local” hands, which only aroused the patriots even more.

Subsequently, news arrived from Massachusetts detailing the Battles of Lexington Green and Concord.  Like many of his fellow citizens in Stafford County, he was raised in the tradition of the Common Burden.  He was among the first of Virginia’s youth to answer the call “to arms.”  Already a member of the minutemen organization in Stafford County, he formed a militia company in the early summer.[2]  In Richmond, the convention created three infantry regiments commanded by Patrick Henry, William Woodford, and Hugh Mercer.[3]  On 12 September, at a meeting at the Spotsylvania Courthouse, local minutemen elected William Washington and Townshend Dade to serve as captains in Hugh Mercer’s 3rd Regiment of Infantry.  Assisting Mercer was Lieutenant Colonel George Weedon and Major Thomas Marshall.  Later that year, the regiment became part of Brigadier General Hugh Mercer’s Brigade of the Continental Army in New York and was assigned to the command of Major General Nathaniel Greene.

Fighting in the mid-Atlantic region, young Captain Washington commanded the 7th Company.  Lieutenant James Monroe, later the 5th President of the United States, served as Washington’s second-in-command.[4]  During the Battle of Trenton, Captain Washington and his XO distinguished themselves by leading a charge against a battery of Hessian artillery.  Washington and Monroe received serious wounds; both received the personal thanks of their Commander-in-Chief, General George Washington.  While recovering from his injuries, the Continental Army advanced William Washington to the rank of major and, on 27 January 1777, provisionally assigned him to serve in the newly created 4th Regiment of Continental Light Dragoons.[5]

Transition

During the night of 26 September 1778, the 3rd Regiment of Continental Light Dragoons, serving under the command of Lieutenant Colonel George Baylor, had found billeting in the town of Old Tappan, New Jersey.  A town citizen with loyalist sentiments notified British forces, and Baylor’s command was attacked in their quarters while still asleep.  Colonel Baylor, wounded in the lung by a British bayonet, was captured and taken prisoner.  A short time later, Baylor’s XO, Major Alexander Clough, also injured, died of his wounds.[6]  In light of the loss of the regiment’s two principal command officers, Continental Army HQ advanced Major William Washington to Lieutenant Colonel and ordered him to assume command of the 3rd Dragoons.

Between September 1778 and the late summer of 1779, Colonel Washington recruited replacements and supervised their training.  On 19 November, the Army HQ ordered Washington to join the command of Major General Benjamin Lincoln in Charleston, South Carolina.

Southern Department Fights

On March 10, 1780, Washington’s regiment joined forces with the remnants of the 1st Continental Light Dragoons at Bacon’s Bridge, South Carolina.  His mission was to reconnoiter and screen against advancing British troops.  On 26 March, Washington had his first encounter with the British Legion, a brigade-sized unit of dragoons under Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton.[7]  It was a minor victory near Rantowle’s Bridge on the Stono River.  Afterward, on the Ashley River during the fight at Rutledge’s Plantation, Colonel Washington again bested a detachment of Tarleton’s Dragoons.

On 14 April 1780, Colonel Tarleton assaulted the encampment of General Isaac Huger at Monck’s Corner, successfully routing the Continental force (including Washington’s Dragoons).  Washington’s losses included 15 dead, 17 wounded, 100 captured, and the loss of 83 horses.

Colonel Washington led his remaining troops across the Santee River to escape capture.  The severe attrition of Washington’s command forced its amalgamation with the 1st Continental Light Dragoons under Lieutenant Colonel Anthony Walton White.  While waiting to cross the flooded Santee River, British forces surprised and defeated Colonel White’s dragoons at Lenud’s Ferry on 6 May 1780.  With Colonel White’s capture, command of the dragoons passed to Colonel Washington.  Washington moved the regiment to North Carolina for recruitment, provision, and training when General Lincoln surrendered the southern army and the city of Charleston to Cornwallis on 12 May.

British forces defeated the reconstituted southern army, formed under General Horatio Gates, at the Battle of Camden, South Carolina, on 16 August 1780.  This loss opened up the south to British control.  General Nathanael Greene soon replaced Gates, whose cowardice in the field permanently discredited his former service in the northern theater

General Greene divided his army between himself and General Daniel Morgan.  Colonel Washington was placed under Morgan, who tasked Washington with conducting raids in western South Carolina.  Washington’s two notable successes included capturing Rugeley’s Mill on 4 December.  In this engagement, Washington bluffed 112 loyalists into surrendering a strongly fortified structure without firing a single shot.  To achieve the bluff, Washington used a Quaker Gun — a felled tree placed in the wagon bed and shaped to look like a large cannon.

In the second engagement at Hammond’s Old Store in the Little River district, Colonel Washington defeated 250 Georgian loyalists, killing or wounding 150 men and capturing the remaining one-hundred troops.

Colonel Washington’s successes became a source of irritation to General Charles Cornwallis, who soon turned to Colonel Tarleton and ordered him to “chase down” General Morgan’s “flying corps.”  Tarleton’s orders led directly to the Battle of Cowpens on 17 January 1781.

General Morgan’s battle plans called for Washington’s group of 80 Continental dragoons and 45 mounted Georgia infantry to serve as either a defensive or offensive unit (as the situation required).  Washington’s first encounter with the enemy involved the rescue of a South Carolina militia unit as it was reloading behind the front lines of Morgan’s left flank.  The unit was under an aggressive assault by Colonel Tarleton’s Legion.  Colonel Washington crushed the attackers, regrouped, and then pursued the British left flank infantry.  After repeated assaults by Washington, the Americans moved through the British infantry and attacked a small artillery position behind Tarleton’s front lines.

Surrendering troops create battlefield confusion.  This is what happened when the main British infantry decided to surrender their arms after Tarleton attempted to withdraw.  Washington, in close pursuit, found himself in an isolated position and, because of it, soon found himself the focus of an attack by Colonel Tarleton and two of his aides.  The courageous Washington met Tarleton head-on, calling out to him, “Where is now the boasting Tarleton?”

A young coronet of the 17th Dragoons, Thomas Patterson, rode up to strike Washington but was shot by Washington’s orderly as Washington struck Tarleton with a blow from his sword.  Colonel Tarleton returned the favor by shooting Washington in the leg, which luckily only creased his knee but also wounded Washington’s horse.[8]

Colonel Tarleton turned his horse and withdrew from the engagement.  Washington, whose temper had not yet cooled, pursued him for sixteen miles — eventually giving up the chase at Thickitty Creek, near the plantation of Adam Goudylock.  For his valor at Cowpens, Colonel Washington received a Congressional silver medal.[9]

After the Battle of Cowpens, Washington’s dragoons assisted the withdrawal of General Nathanael Greene to Dan River, Virginia, by providing rearguard actions against British forces under General Cornwallis.  Subsequently, Colonel Washington returned to North Carolina as a vanguard for Greene’s re-emerging army.

In March 1781, Washington’s dragoons fought at the Battle of the Guilford Court House, Greensboro, North Carolina.  This battle successfully fought as a defensive action gave General Cornwallis a victory — but an expensive one.  The fight only lasted around 90 minutes, but in that time, Cornwallis gave up a quarter of his men to death or incapacitation.  Upon learning of the battle’s details, Sir Charles James Fox, a British Member of Parliament, quipped that with another victory, such as at the Guilford Court House, the British Army in North America would be in ruins.

According to Cornwallis’ report, the British gave up three officers and 88 men of other ranks killed, with 24 officers and 374 men of other ranks wounded, with 25 men “missing in action.”  Colonel Tarleton was one of the wounded officers.

The Battle of Hobkirk’s Hill (also, the Second Battle of Camden) occurred on 25 April 1781 when British forces under Major General Francis Rawdon assaulted Continental troops occupying Hobkirk’s Hill.  After a fierce clash of arms, during which Colonel Washington could not assault Rawdon’s flank, General Green ordered a withdrawal, leaving Rawdon’s smaller force in possession of the hill.  Despite the British victory, Rawdon eventually fell back to Camden, abandoned it, and withdrew to Charleston.  Greene was willing to accept defeat in this and three other engagements for the longer-term benefit of depriving the British of their control of South Carolina beyond the city of Charleston.

The last Carolinas engagement during the American Revolution occurred at the Battle of Eutaw Springs.  In early 1781, Major General Greene initiated the campaign to end British control over the South Carolina backcountry.  His first objective was to capture a village designated as Ninety-Six.  On 22 May, Greene laid siege to the fortified village — but its loyalist residents would not budge.

Within thirty days, Greene became aware that General Rawdon was leading reinforcement to offer relief to Ninety-Six.  A Continental assault against the village was repelled, so to avoid having to confront Rawdon, General Green withdrew toward Charlotte, N.C.

General Rawdon did pursue Greene for several days but abandoned the pursuit because his men were exhausted and in need of resupply.  Ninety-Six was the only remaining inland British outpost after the fall of Augusta. Unable to sustain the outpost, General Rawdon decided to burn the village and withdraw to Charleston.  General Rawdon, being in poor health, decided to return to England, leaving command of Charleston in the hands of Colonel Alexander Stewart.

By mid-July, General Greene moved his exhausted army to a bivouac on the High Hills of Santee.  The men needed the rest, and Greene needed a place to await the arrival of reinforcements. 

On 13 August, Colonel Stewart led around 2,300 men to Thompson’s plantation (south of the Congaree River).  He then fell back to Eutaw Springs on 27 August (about 2 miles east of present-day Eutawville).  The Battle of Eutaw Springs was Colonel Washington’s final Revolutionary War action.  Midway through the fight, Greene ordered Washington to assault a portion of the British line positioned in a blackjack thicket along Eutaw Creek.[10]  The order was not only stupid, but it was also a needless sacrifice of good cavalry: the thicket proved impenetrable and British fire repulsed Washington’s mounted charges.  During the last charge, Washington’s mount was shot from under him, and he was pinned beneath his horse.  British troops bayonetted Washington, and he was taken prisoner and held under house arrest until the end of the war. 

On September 8, 1781, Washington’s final action was the Battle of Eutaw Springs, the last major battle in the Carolinas. Midway through the battle, Greene ordered Washington to charge a portion of the British line positioned in a blackjack thicket along Eutaw Creek. The thicket proved impenetrable and British fire repulsed the mounted charges. During the last charge, Washington’s mount was shot out from under him, and he was pinned beneath his horse. He was bayoneted, taken prisoner, and held under house arrest in the Charleston area for the remainder of the war.  General Charles Cornwallis said of Colonel William Washington, “There could be no more formidable antagonist in a charge, at the head of his cavalry, than Colonel William Washington.”[11]

In Conclusion

The list of patriot officers of William Washington’s quality is very small.  That Colonel Washington compares favorably with the most notable American Revolution heroes is indisputable — it is a shame that few Americans today know about this tremendously aggressive, tactically proficient, and strategically adept regimental commander.

Our schools teach that the American Revolutionary War ended with General Cornwallis’ surrender to George Washington at Yorktown, Virginia, on 19 October 1781.  The worst of it is that it isn’t true.  Considerable fighting occurred in the two years after Yorktown and even expanded to the European continent.  After Yorktown, there were at least 200 additional fights in South Carolina alone — most often between Whig (patriot) and Tory (British loyalist) militias.[12]  Moreover, a violent civil war occurred between 1781 – 1783 as Indian tribes raged against each other, offering no quarter.

After Yorktown, the British embarked on an aggressive policy to reestablish its hold on the Caribbean. After Yorktown, the British confronted the combined forces of Spain, France, and the Dutch Republic. There was also the matter of French meddling in India, British mischief in Vermont, and the role of the Dutch navy in keeping the British “on alert.”

The last British soldier withdrew from the newly created United States on 25 November 1783 — three months after the signing of the instrument of peace (known as the Treaty of Paris of 1783) — a process that was begun in 1782, after Parliament voted to suspend military operations following Cornwallis’ surrender in late 1781.

Colonel William Washington met Jane Elliott of Sandy Hill, South Carolina, when she made his regimental battle flag, which he carried with him from the Cowpens to Eutaw Springs.  Retained under arrest in Charleston through the end of 1782, Colonel Washington nevertheless made good use of his time.  He and Jane Elliott were married on 21 April 1782.  Washington, unable to inherit his father’s Virginia estate, became quite wealthy through marriage (as did his cousin George).  Miss Elliott owned the Sandy Springs plantation and several other properties in St. Paul Parish.

In 1785, William and Jane Washington purchased a townhouse at 8 South Battery in Charleston.  They pursued low-country farming and raised thoroughbred horses.  William was elected to the state legislature between 1787 – 1804 and accepted the post of brigadier general of the state militia in 1794.

Following his presidency, George Washington retired to Mount Vernon to struggle with his predicament of being land-rich and cash poor.  He had vast acreages in the Virginia piedmont but could not sell the land due to the encroachment of squatters.  Ultimately, he grew restless in retirement, prompted by tensions with France.  In 1798, as part of the continuation of the French Revolutionary Wars, French privateers began seizing American ships — the so-called Quasi-War that lasted until 1800.

On 4 July 1798, President John Adams nominated Washington to serve as a lieutenant general as Commander-in-Chief of the United States Armies.  President Washington accepted the post and served in it until his death 17 months later.  His work involved planning for a provisional army without offering specific details (to avoid political implications).  In recommending individuals to serve at high rank, Washington broke with the recommendations submitted by Thomas Jefferson.  By this time, the two men had become enemies.

While serving as Commander-in-Chief of the U.S. Army, Washington offered his cousin William a commission as brigadier general in the U.S. Army.  William accepted the commission, particularly as it involved defensive works in South Carolina and Georgia, should the French attempt an invasion of the United States.  During this period, William served as an officer on his cousin’s staff.

In his late 50s, William Washington became ill and suffered from a lingering ailment — likely cancer.  He passed away on 6 March 1810, aged 58 years.  He was survived by Jane, his wife, and their son and daughter (Elizabeth).  Elizabeth was married to Major General Alexander Spotswood, the grandson of Colonial Virginia’s lieutenant governor.

Brigadier General William Washington — was one of America’s finest Revolutionary War officers.

Sources:

  1. Babits, L. E., and J. B. Howard.  Long, Obstinate, and Bloody: The Battle of the Guilford Courthouse.  The University of North Carolina Press, 2009.
  2. Glen, J.  The Washington’s: A Family History.  Savas Publishing, 2014
  3. Glickstein, D.  After Yorktown: The final struggle for American Independence
  4. Haller, S. E.  William Washington: Cavalryman of the Revolution.  Heritage Books, 2001.
  5. Murphy, D.  William Washington, American Light Dragoon: A Continental Cavalry Leader in the War of Independence.  Westholme Publishing, 2014.

Endnotes:

[1] Do not confuse the subject of this essay, William Washington (1752 – 1810), with a distant relative, William Augustine Washington (1757 – 1810).  William Washington was George Washington’s second cousin once removed; William Augustine Washington was George Washington’s nephew.

[2] Beginning in 1774, minutemen were organized from within the ranks of colonial militia but trained specifically as an early form of special operations infantry.  These men were the “rapid reaction” force of the colonial militia.  They held themselves in readiness to report/respond to emergencies within moments of an alert.  The name derived from the fact that they were expected to respond “within a minute” of an alert.  

[3] Dr. Hugh Mercer was a Scot who eventually achieved the rank of Brigadier General in the Continental Army.  He previously fought as a Jacobite in the Battle of Culloden, in the Seven Year’s War, and in the early battles of the American Revolution.  He was killed in action at the Battle of Princeton.

[4] The “second-in-command” of an American military unit is variously referred to as “executive officer” or “deputy commander.”  The executive officer is usually referred to as simply XO, while a deputy commander is generally referred to as “deputy.”  When serving in temporary command, the XO or deputy will sign official documents as “Acting Commander.”

[5] The United States Army never had a cavalry component until 1861.  Before then, the horse-mounted troop was referred to as dragoons.  In effect, dragoons were horse-mounted infantry.  They would ride into battle, dismount, and fight as infantry.  After 1861, horse-mounted troops were called cavalry with a distinctly different mission.

[6] George Baylor previously served as General Washington’s aide-de-camp.  The 3rd Dragoons often served as security escorts for Martha Washington, who accompanied her husband during his military campaigns, and also served as Washington’s reconnaissance force, collecting and reporting information about the disposition of British Forces.

[7] The British Legion was an organization recruited and formed in the colonies of British loyalists.  A regimental-sized cavalry, the commander of the British Legion was Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton.

[8] A British version of this fight can be found in the records of the 17th Dragoons (Ch. 33)

[9] The Battle of the Cowpens was significant because the Americans totally destroyed the Brigade of Dragoons under Colonel Banastre Tarleton.  Such losses made the conflict a turning point in the war.  General Morgan’s success came as a result of his effective employment of a double envelopment of Tarleton’s force.  Of Tarleton’s 1,000 men, all of whom were British loyalists, 850 were killed or captured. 

[10] Blackjack red oak is a deciduous tree growing about 15 meters tall.  

[11] Balch, Thomas, ed., Letters, and papers relating chiefly to the provincial history of Pennsylvania. Applewood books, 2009, attributed to a letter written by Major William Jackson quoting General Lord Cornwallis.

[12] Such terms as patriot and loyalist are far too imprecise to use in any discussion about the American Revolution.  Glickman suggests using the words Whig and Tory … so that everyone knows who did what.  British loyalists were, after all, patriots as well. 


The Bloodiest Day

An-Nasiriyah, 2003

Task Force Tarawa

Task Force Tarawa was the alternate designation of the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade (2ndMEB).  Normally, a Marine Brigade exists as a cadre command element for contingency planning and operational coordination.  When a brigade is needed for a mission-specific task, it is activated by the appropriate commander, Marine Expeditionary Force (M.E.F.), who will then direct the supporting division, air wing, and logistics commanders to provide battalions, squadrons, and other units to the Brigade for combat training and field operations.

During Operation Iraqi Freedom, 2ndMEB was one of four major combat organizations subordinate to the Commanding General, I MEF.  In 2003, I MEF was operationally assigned to the Army’s V Corps.  2ndMEB included the following subordinate commands:

2nd Regimental Combat Team (RCT-2), formed from the 2nd Marine Regiment (2nd Marines).  Subordinate units of RCT-2 included 1st Battalion, 2nd Marines (1/2), with Company A, 2nd Amphibious Assault Battalion (Alpha 2ndAABn) attached, 2nd Battalion, 8th Marines (2/8), 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marines (3/2), 1st Battalion, 10th Marines (1/10) (Artillery), Company A, 8th Tank Battalion (USMC Reserve Forces), and a reconnaissance company (also from Marine Reserve Forces).

Combat Service Support Battalion 22 (CSSB-22).  Upon arrival in Kuwait, I MEF reassigned CSSB-22 to a general (logistical) support role under I MEF.

Marine Aircraft Group 29 (MAG-29).  Upon arrival in Kuwait, I MEF reassigned MAG-29 to provide tactical air support to the combined land force.

By the time 2ndMEB crossed the line of departure, it was operating solely as a ground maneuver component (rather than as a MAGTF) within I MEF.  The brigade’s mission was to secure bridges to facilitate the movement of I MEF northward toward Baghdad, thereby conserving the 1st Marine Division for ground combat with Iraqi forces.  Initially, at least to the Marines of RCT-2, the mission didn’t seem as if the combat team would play a major role in the march to Baghdad, but RCT-2 would fight one of the defining battles of the entire campaign.

Highway 1

Brigadier General Richard F. Natonski, commanding Task Force Tarawa, moved to his assembly point on 19 March.  The brigade’s position was on the far left flank of I MEF.  The 1st Marine Division (1stMarDiv) was to the brigade’s right and V Corps on its left. The battle space was limited, so for the first few days, 2ndMEB operated within the area assigned to V Corps.

Tarawa’s first mission was to seize and hold Jalibah Airfield to facilitate logistic operations.  Subsequently, Tarawa would coordinate with the Army’s 3rd Infantry Division to seize the Euphrates bridge on Highway 1, 7 miles west of the city of An-Nasiriyah.[1]  To avoid the possibility of having to engage the Iraqi army in urban fighting, and because a single crossing site was deemed insufficient for the smooth flow of combat forces and their equipment, I MEF and V Corps commanders determined to open up both the southeastern bridge (over the Euphrates River) and the Saddam Canal (northeastern bridge).  Doing so would widen the corridor for the movement of forces northward.

Coalition intelligence was aware that An-Nasiriyah was the location of the HQ of the Third Iraqi Corps (III Corps), which included the 11th Iraqi Infantry Division (guarding the city), the 51st Mechanized Infantry Division (protecting southern oilfields), and the 6th Armored Division (located at Al Amarah).  The coalition was also aware that irregular forces (Fedayeen and Ba’ath Party militia) were operating independently of the Iraqi III Corps.  These irregular forces were untrained for conventional warfare but also known as fanatical armed thugs who suppressed the civilian population and targeted regular soldiers who, in confronting Coalition troops, decided to take early retirement.

In addition to his mission of seizing the bridges, I MEF warned 2ndMEB, “ … be prepared to” confront irregular forces, which some officers anticipated would put up the fiercest resistance to Coalition forces — they had the most to lose should the Coalition succeed in removing Saddam Hussein from power.

Task Force Tarawa crossed the line of departure on 21 March.  By mid-day on 22 March, the brigade had moved forward 93 miles, seized Jalibah, and occupied the area east of the intersection of Highway 1 and Highway 8.  Its only problem was its constricted battle space.  Because V Corps needed the north-south roadway, Tarawa’s forward movement was “cross country.”  Proceeding “off track” actually facilitated the rapid movement of the brigade because the Army’s vehicle load produced bumper-to-bumper congestion on the main road.  Brigade artillery silenced the sporadic enemy fire, and 2/8 accepted the surrender of 50 Iraqi soldiers.[2]

On the morning of 23 March, Tarawa relieved elements of the US 3rd Infantry Division and prepared to seize the southeastern bridge.  Meanwhile, I MEF informed BGen Natonski that the US 3rd Infantry Division had successfully defeated both the Iraqi 11th Infantry Division and 51st Mechanized Infantry Division.  This information led Natonski to believe that seizing the bridges would not entail a difficult fight.  That night, Colonel Ronald Bailey, commanding RCT-2, received his orders to seize the Highway 1 bridge no later than 0430 on 24 March and by 10:00, seize the eastern bridges.

By this time, Bailey’s Marines were sleep-deprived, and his motorized vehicles were thirsty.  Colonel Bailey asked for more time, more intelligence, and more fuel.  Unfortunately, Brigade headquarters could give Bailey none of these things.  Bailey’s problem was that he had to move his RCT an additional 50 miles on fumes — but this is what Marines do.  Bailey mounted up with Charlie Company, 2nd LAR, and led 3/2 toward the Highway 1 bridge, arriving at around 02.30.  Two hours later, Charlie Company held the bridge on Highway 1.

RCT-2 received much-needed fuel resupply early on 23 March.  At this time, Bailey anticipated only light resistance from An-Nasiriyah; 1/2 and 2/8 moved forward at 0300.  Shortly after that, the Marines began receiving enemy machine gun, artillery, and mortar fire.  Lieutenant Colonel Rick Grabowski’s 1/2 took the lead because his Marines had mechanized vehicles (AAVs and tanks).  2/8, under Lieutenant Colonel Royal Mortensen, followed in trace.

Commanding the tank company, Major William P. Peeples’ lead element began taking enemy fire at around 0700. A short time later, Peeples noted a smoking and badly damaged Humvee heading in his direction.

Intelligence Gained by Rescue

At about 0600 on 23 March 2003, an 18-vehicle Army resupply convoy of the 507th Maintenance Company (consisting of 31 soldiers) mistakenly veered from Highway 8, turning toward the city of An-Nasiriyah on Route 7.  The convoy commander was Captain Troy King, U.S. Army — by MOS and training, a supply officer with little combat training.  Iraqi technical vehicles[3] shadowed the convoy as it drove through Iraqi checkpoints adjacent to the Euphrates River.

Once passing the Al-Quds headquarters, Captain King realized he was lost and, having turned around, retraced the route taken through the city.  As the convoy turned left onto Highway 16, at around 0700, King’s vehicles began receiving enemy small arms fire.  Confused vehicle operators panicked; in the chaos, they divided up into three separate groups, each attempting to find their way southward out of An-Nasiriyah.

Group 1 made it through the Iraqi gauntlet unscathed and continued south until it encountered Marines who were moving northward toward An-Nasiriyah.  Group 2 made it through the kill zone, but their vehicles were so badly damaged that the soldiers abandoned them and set up a hasty defensive position about three miles south of the city.  Iraqi forces defeated Group 3 by snagging them in roadblocks.  Once the Iraqis stopped Group 3 vehicles, they opened fire with RPGs, mortars, and tank fire.  Eleven soldiers died, and six were taken prisoner.[4]

At around 0730, King’s Group 1 survivors contacted Alpha Company, 8th Tanks on Highway 7, about ten miles south of An-Nasiriyah.  When Major William P. Peeples, commanding the tank company, realized that a number of soldiers had fallen into Iraqi hands, he ordered his tanks forward to rescue as many soldiers as possible, which included ten soldiers from Group 2.

Captain King informed Peeples that his convoy had been ambushed, that his soldiers had taken several casualties, and that most of his element was pinned down and in need of assistance.  Peeples moved his entire company north to assist the soldiers, informing 1/2 by radio of his intentions.  En route, Peeples’ tanks destroyed some enemy artillery, one tank, and some anti-aircraft weapons.  With the assistance of Marine AH-1s and F/A-18s, Peeples rescued ten soldiers.  At the conclusion of the mission, Peeples had to return to the rear for refueling — which meant that Grabowski’s battalion would be without tank support for nearly two hours.

Meanwhile, BGen Natonski met with Captain King, later recalling that he was astounded by his account, but it alerted him to the fact that An-Nasiriya would not be a cakewalk.  Colonel Bailey agreed with Natonski that it was necessary to seize the brigade’s objectives as soon as possible, and both officers were aware that some elements of the 507th were still inside the city.  Natonski pulled Grabowski aside and said, “Do what you can to find those missing soldiers; they’d do it for us.”

Grabowski’s 1/2 moved quickly forward to assault Nasiriyah because bridge seizure would allow elements of the 1stMarDiv to pass north through the city along Route 7.  RCT-2’s lightning strike with AAVs and Cobra gunships allowed the Marines to seize the two bridges and, in the process, defeat two or more platoons of Fedayeen and Ba’ath Party militia.  In this heavy fighting, Marines also destroyed two anti-aircraft weapons and several mortars and artillery firing positions.

A Bloody Beginning

Grabowski’s 1/2, without tank support, proceeded with two companies abreast.  Bravo Company (mounted) occupied the right flank, Charlie Company on the left.  Two miles south of the city, 1/2 encountered a bridge that spanned a railway underpass.  Grabowski redeployed his Marines into column formation with Bravo Company in the lead.  Staff Sergeant Schielein reported seven to nine Soviet-style enemy tanks and an estimated 50 dismounted infantry waiting in the underpass.  Schielein directed his TOW and Javelin weapons systems, destroying eight of the enemy tanks.[5]

Grabowski’s attack plan was sound, but the situation began to unravel rather quickly.  The rescue of the 507th had caused delays in the game plan, and the shortage of fuel/absence of tanks had slowed 1/2’s progress even more.  As Bravo Company crossed the bridge at about 12:30, the Marines began receiving enemy small arms and rocket fire.  Lead tanks, buttoned up (poor visibility) missed the first turn to the right and took the second turn with infantry right behind.  Marines fanned out in a relatively open field that looked passable, but the Marines were deceived.  Just below the surface of the field lay a thick, gooey layer of silt and sewage several feet deep.  The lead tank suddenly sank to its axles; follow-on vehicles became mired as well.  This is when the enemy opened up — and this is when Grabowski, who was with the lead unit, lost communications due to excessive radio chatter and the presence of high-tension power lines.  There was no radio link with supporting artillery, and the battalion air controller, Captain A. J. Greene, could not vector air support.

Eventually, Bravo Company’s forward air controller, Captain D. A. Santare, was able to establish communications with on-station AH-1s to suppress enemy fire from surrounding rooftops.[6]  The Iraqis were using “shoot and scoot” tactics, but once the gunships were overhead, they realized that they couldn’t scoot fast enough.  The AH-1’s also became spotters for the Marines on the ground, who were unable to observe enemy positions or movements.

Once Captain Tim Newland’s Bravo Company had crossed the bridge, Alpha followed in trace.  The Alpha Company commander, Captain M. A. Brooks, established a perimeter around the northern side of the bridge.  Captain Wittnam, commanding Charlie Company, crossed over the bridge.  He could easily identify Brooks’ position but did not know the location of Bravo Company.  Without communications, Wittnam could not establish contact with Grabowski.  Captain Wittnam assumed that Grabowski and Bravo Company had proceeded straight down the road to the battalion’s final objective, the Saddam Canal Bridge, so that is where Wittnam led his company.  It was a good decision, reflecting his battalion commander’s intent, and, as it turned out, it was what Grabowski hoped he would do.

Grabowski established contact with this XO, Major Tuggle.  He sent Tuggle back to the refueling point with instructions to get the tanks forward as soon as possible.  Peeples ceased refueling operations and moved his tanks forward.  One tank experienced a mechanical breakdown almost immediately.  Just after crossing the railroad underpass, Peeple’s four remaining tanks engaged six enemy tanks, destroying three.  Continuing forward to Brooks’ position, the two officers established tank-infantry coordination to the detriment of the Iraqis.

Charlie Company passed through Alpha Company and raced through Ambush Alley while receiving heavy enemy fire.  Iraqi militia appeared from almost every doorway, every window, and every rooftop, firing rifles and RPGs.  Some of these militias even ran into the middle of the street to engage the Marines are point-blank range.

Bad Comm’s

Charlie 1/2 Marines responded in keeping with their training.  Exiting on both sides of the elevated roadway, Marines sought cover and returned accurate and overwhelming fire.  These same militias that had so easily decimated the 507th only hours before soon discovered that they weren’t in Kansas anymore.  Charlie Company Marines on both sides of the road advanced on the enemy’s positions.

Captain Wittnam also experienced disruptions to communications.  For a brief moment, Wittnam had Grabowski on the net and informed him that he’d secured the Saddam Canal bridge.  Grabowski was elated, but then communications were cut once more.  But few besides Grabowski had heard Wittnam’s sitrep and Wittnam once again lost the ability to access air cover or his own weapons platoon.

Charlie Company continued to engage the Iraqi enemy with their organic weapons.  Occasionally, Wittnam, his artillery forward observer (2ndLt Fred Pokorney, Jr.), and his mortar platoon commander (1stLt Ben Reid) went atop the elevated roadway in the center of Charlie Company’s position to gain situational awareness and identify targets.  In this way, Reid’s mortarmen were able to deliver sporadic effective fire.  Lieutenant Pokorney was finally able to establish contact with 1/10 and called in a fire mission.  Soon after, Iraqi mortars crashed into Charlie Company’s position, killing Pokorney and wounding several mortarmen.  Marine casualties were quickly loaded into an AAV and sent back through Ambush Alley to the Battalion Aid Station.  It was the only way the Marines had to evacuate their dead and wounded because the volume of fire prohibited a helicopter medevac.

This lack of communication then took a deadlier turn.  While Charlie Company held on to their position north of the Canal, Bravo Company Marines continued working their way through the streets and alleys to the eastern side of the Saddam Canal bridge.  They were in an urban fight they’d hoped to avoid.  Behind them, AAV’s and tanks were doing all they could to extract the mired vehicles.

Both the Bravo Company commander, Captain Newland, and his forward air controller, Captain Santare, not having heard Wittnam’s report, continued to believe that Bravo was still the forward element of the battalion.  They did not know that Charlie Company had actually moved northward, beyond the Saddam Canal, and was in a desperate struggle with Iraqi militia.  Similarly, Captain Greene, the battalion air officer, had no operable radios.  It was because of this that Captain Greene passed air control to Captain Jones and Santare, allowing them to direct their own air attacks.  What Green, Santare, and Newland did know was that Bravo Company was receiving a tremendous volume of fire from north of the canal.  Newland told Santare that as soon as he could air support from A-10s, he wanted them to start running missions north of the Saddam Canal.[7]  Santare understood that the situation was dire.  He went to the guard channel, which was normally only used for emergencies, and requested immediate air support.

Friendly Fire

Within seconds, fixed-wing aircraft began checking in with Santare.  Santare waited a few moments for a Marine or Navy aircraft with a forward air controller to answer, but none were in the area.  Instead, he began working with two USAF A-10s, call signs “Gyrate 73” and “Gyrate 74.”  The A-10s were part of a squadron from the Pennsylvania Air National Guard.  Circling high overhead, the A-10s attempted to get a fix on Santare’s position east of Ambush alley.

The A-10s identified vehicular targets north of the Saddam Canal and passed the locations to Santare.  Santare verified with Newland that Bravo Company was still the forward-most unit.  Captain Santare could see neither the A-10s nor the targets they identified.  Both Santare and the A-10 pilots could see smoke pouring from a burning vehicle on the highway and used that as a reference point.  Neither Santare nor the A-10 pilots realized that the burning vehicle was a Marine AAV.

LtCol Grabow’s operation order, then in effect, prohibited the use of Type III Close Air Support without his personal clearance.  Nevertheless, Newland determined that the situation was critical at a time when the battalion commander was out of communications and, since air support is a “use it or lose it” asset, Santare authorized Gyrate 73 and 74 to engage anything north of the Saddam Canal.

Charlie Company, meanwhile, was still under intense mortar fire.  Unit leaders, on their own authority, continued loading wounded Marines into AAVs for medical evacuation.  Marines who had been advancing toward the enemy eventually returned to the roadway in the vicinity of the AAV positions.  First Lieutenant Seeley, commanding third platoon, did not understand why the Marines were returning to the highway.  He was told that the word from the AAV drivers was that they were “loading up.”  Before he could make any sense of the situation, the A-10s began strafing Charlie Company.

Lieutenant Seely had experienced friendly fire before during Operation Desert Storm.  He knew immediately what was happening.  A Marine standing next to him was hit in the chest and killed.  Seely shouted an order to 2ndLt Swantner, commanding the first platoon, to fire pyrotechnics.  Swantner immediately popped two red star clusters, the cease-fire signal, but the A-10s made several more strafing runs.  The A-10 pilots mistook the AAVs, loaded with Marine casualties, as enemy armor, as previously reported to them by Captain Santare.  In all, Charlie Company had lost 18 Marines killed and 19 more wounded due to friendly fire.  Five AAVs were completely destroyed, and two more had to be abandoned.  Captain Wittnam lost half of his company and half of his officers.

The fight for control of the An-Nasiriyah corridor on 23 March 2003 turned out to be far tougher than anyone in Task Force Tarawa (or the MEF) expected.  Inadequate intelligence was part of the problem; hardly anyone anticipated stiff resistance from the Iraqi militia.  General Natonski had been told that the US 3rd Infantry Division had defeated the 11th Iraqi Infantry Division and that any remaining Iraqi forces would melt away or surrender.  In fact, the 11th Iraqi had not been defeated, nor the 51st Mechanized, nor even the Fedayeen or Ba’ath militia.  If part of the battle plan was knowing the enemy, none of the planners for the march into Nasiriyah knew that particular enemy.

The engagements of 23 March 2003 were successful because Marine officers, NCOs, and rank and file were well-trained, competent, courageous, well-coordinated, and highly motivated.  Mistakes were made, but that is part of the business of warfare.  What matters under such circumstances is how our warriors respond to those mistakes and mishaps.  The Marines of RCT-2 responded professionally, as we expect our Marines to respond.  There were also a few important lessons learned, particularly with regard to close air support (See also: special note (below)).

Special note:

Understandably, Marine survivors of the friendly fire incident were angry/bitter about what happened.  They may still harbor that anger.  The larger picture appears relevant, however.  The A-10s were receiving heavy anti-aircraft fire, which necessitated attacks from high altitudes.  This made target recognition difficult.  It also meant that they had to rely on the ground forward air controller to give them a correct picture of the ground battle.  In this incident, they were cleared to release their weapons by the Bravo Company forward air controller.  The pilot’s failure to recognize the “cease fire” flare could have just as easily been confused with tracer rounds being fired.  No one could help the loss of communications which disconnected the key leaders from one another.  Captain Santare did his best to confirm that Bravo Company was still the lead element of 1/2.  Moreover, because the city was designated as a “restricted fire” area, there was no preplanned air support for Task Force Tarawa’s assault.  When FACs are forced to improvise, the chances of something bad happening increases tenfold.

A subsequent investigation of the incident concluded that the primary cause of the incident was Captain Santare’s violation of the battalion commander’s standing order not to use Type III CAS without his express permission.  But Marines were being killed by a stubborn enemy who was determined to resist the Marine assault.  Captain Greene authorized Santare to establish direct contact with overhead fixed-wing aircraft, which given the circumstances of poor communications, Santare was forced to do.  Captain Santare acted in what he perceived as the best interests of his fellow Marines, an effort to save their lives — and yet, in doing so, caused the incident.  It wasn’t a matter of neglect or incompetence; it was simply gut-wrenching war.

Sources:

  1. Andrew, R.  U. S. Marines in Battle: The Battle of An-Nasiriyah.  HQ USMC, Washington, 2009.
  2. Lowrey, R. S.  Marines in the Garden of Eden: The Battle for An Nasiriyah.  Berkley Press, 2006.
  3. Livingston, G.  An Nasiriyah: The Fight for the Bridges. Caisson Press, 2004.
  4. Pritchard, T.  Ambush Alley: The Most Extraordinary Battle of the Iraq War.  Presidio Press, 2007.

End Notes:

[1] An-Nasiriyah was the point at which all Army and Marine Corps ground combat units would enter Iraq from Kuwait.  A railroad, several highways, and two major waterways converged in or around the city.  There were two sets of bridges spanning the Euphrates River in the southern section of the city, including the Saddam Canal, which ran along the city’s northern border.  Since the route of march would take coalition forces through the most densely populated section of the city, I MEF planned on opening up a second corridor.

[2] A congested MSR is asking for serious trouble.  The Army has not figured this out since the Korean War.

[3] Also, Non-standard tactical vehicles (NSTVs) (usually pickup trucks with weapons mounted in the rear bed or on the roof of the operating cab.

[4] Prisoners included PFC Jessica Lynch, Specialist Shoshana Johnson, and PFC Lori Piestewa.  Piestewa died of her wounds.  Lynch was awarded the Bronze Star Medal for being a blonde chick, and Johnson sued the Army because she didn’t get a medal, too. 

[5] Tube Launched Optically Tracked Wire-guided missile (TOW) (M-220); Javelin (FMG-148) is a man-portable antitank system.

[6] Each rifle battalion in Task Force Tarawa had one air officer and two forward air controllers; two of the three rifle companies had their own forward air controllers.  Captain Jim Jones was attached to Alpha Company; Captain Santare was assigned to Bravo Company.  The battalion air officer was Captain Greene. 

[7] There are three types of close air support, usually expressed as Type I, Type II, and Type III CAS.  Type I is when the air controller can see both the attacking aircraft and its target.  Type II is when the FAC cannot see the attacking aircraft or the target or when the attacking aircraft cannot acquire the target prior to the release of its weapons.  Type III is when the FAC can see neither the aircraft nor the target. 


John Arthur Hughes

Introduction

Courage, pluck, grit, and sand — all have similar colloquial meanings.  They are terms one might have overheard in a conversation between two men (not among the ladies).  They are words that refer to someone who has stamina, is physically and mentally tough, someone with a strength of character.

Author Mark Twain used such terms as grit and sand.  In Huckleberry Finn, Clemens wrote, “She had the grit to pray for Judas if she took the notion — there warn’t no backdown to her, I judge. You may say what you want to, but in my opinion, she had more sand in her than any girl I ever seen; in my opinion, she was just full of sand.

Words reflect how we think, and Americans seem to admire someone who demonstrates a strength of character and physical and mental toughness. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, Mr. Clemens wasn’t the first to use such expressions.  They were slang in common use as early as 1862 and 1825, respectively.

Years ago, a cartoon circulated where I worked depicting a tiny mouse sitting hunched on its two hind legs, looking up into the sky.  A shadow appeared over the little mouse; it was an outline of a bird of prey.  Seconds before its demise, the little mouse displayed its pluck by giving the bird “the finger.”  The cartoon was very popular.  I may even have a copy of it among my papers.

We marvel at the toughness and resolve of our fellow man because such characteristics and attributes are part of America’s values.  This is why we read novels and develop affinities for the “good guys” who fight for justice or defend the weak.  Well, we at least used to admire such qualities.

Speaking of Pluck

The U.S. Medal of Honor is the highest combat award bestowed upon members of the Armed Forces to recognize gallant conduct in combat.  There are three medals, one each for the Army, Navy, and Air Force.  The U.S. Navy was the first to award a medal of honor in 1861.  The last Medal of Honor issued was in December 2021.  In total, the Medal of Honor has recognized the gallantry of 3,525 Americans, 618 of those posthumously.

Nineteen servicemen have received two Medals of Honor — of those, five “double recipients” received both the Army and Navy Medal of Honor for the same action, all of which occurred during World War I.[1]  Fourteen men received two medals of honor for separate actions.  Two of those men were U.S. Marines: Major General Smedley D. Butler and Sergeant Major Daniel J. Daley.  Numerous others received the Navy’s two highest awards: the Medal of Honor and the Navy Cross.  One of these men was John Arthur Hughes.

John Arthur Hughes had grit.  Some might even argue that he had True Grit.

Born on 2 November 1880 in Brooklyn, John Arthur Hughes was the son of William H. T. Hughes, a director of the Ward Steamship Line, and his wife, Olive.  John was educated at the prestigious Berkeley School, graduating in 1900.  Although John received a congressional nomination to attend the U.S. Military Academy, he failed the entrance examination.  By then, his father had died — leaving attendance at college out of the question.  Joining the U.S. Marine Corps was not out of the question.

Curious to type

John Hughes joined the Marines on 7 November 1900.  He stood roughly five feet ten inches tall, weighed less than 136 pounds, and had a slender build — which was not altogether different than most other young Americans.  Initially, Private Hughes was serious about his role as a Marine.  He focused on his duties and earned high praise from his superiors.  In 1901, John Hughes sewed on the rank insignia of a Marine corporal — and four months after that, the Marines promoted him to sergeant.

The early twentieth century was a period of opportunity in the Marine Corps.  In 1898, the Marine Corps had taken an unexpected turn from that of a group of sea-going bellhops to an amphibious force of lethal capabilities while projecting naval power ashore.  See also the First Marine Battalion, 1898.  In 1901, John Hughes was what the Marines in the 1960s might describe as “A.J. Squared Away.”

Following the American Civil War, the primary source of Marine Corps officer commissions came from graduating students of the U.S. Naval Academy.  But it was also a time when naval power projection became exceedingly complex.  The Navy had transitioned from sail to coal-fired ships, demanding sophisticated operating systems with keen instruments and electrical capacities throughout their ships.  The navy required a steady stream of highly qualified naval architects and engineers to operate and maintain these ships.  This meant that the navy could no longer afford to offer Marine Corps commissions to Naval Academy graduates; they needed men wearing the navy uniform.  But the Marines needed qualified officers, too.

In 1898, Colonel Commandant Charles Heywood petitioned the Secretary of the Navy for permission to offer commissions to well-educated individuals from civilian life (not associated with a service academy) and to highly qualified enlisted men who had proven themselves as noncommissioned officers.  With the sizeable expansion of the Navy after 1900 came the growth of the Marine Corps, as well.  In 1900, the Marine Corps needed 18 Second Lieutenants.  Congress directed that only eight of these entrants could be civilian college graduates — the remaining ten had to come from either the Naval Academy or the enlisted ranks.  Since all of the Naval Academy’s graduates went to service with the Navy in 1900, Colonel Heywood turned to the Marine Corps NCO.[2]

Stepping Up

An insurrection was going on, and the American government needed its Marines to stop it. Sergeant John A. Hughes took his oath of office as a Second Lieutenant 0n 21 December 1901.  During the swearing-in ceremony, Hughes stood next to another former NCO named Earl H. Ellis, whom everyone called “Pete.”  After their training as newly commissioned officers, Hughes and others joined a replacement battalion bound for the Philippine Islands.

Upon arrival in the Philippines, Marine officials posted 2ndLt Hughes to the Marine Regiment under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Mancell C. Goodrell and the battalion under Major Constantine Perkins, a graduate of the Naval Academy.[3]  John Hughes’ impetuousness and unpredictability caused both Goodrell and Perkins some discomfort — much like too much gas after dining for a week on navy beans — because they had little patience for Hughes’ penchant for playing pranks.  Moreover, Lieutenant Hughes drank too much and did not appear to take to heart efforts to reform him in the mold of the Old Corps.[4]  It was then that Hughes’s reputation for “grit” began.  Some Marines began to refer to Hughes as Johnny the Hard; as we’ll see, he was one tough hombre.

According to researcher Colonel Merrill Bartlett, Major Perkins (of whom little is known) rated Hughes as an average officer, observing that Hughes was reckless and careless with a disposition toward boisterousness.  Apparently, Lieutenant Hughes and his running mates liked to sing loudly at 3 a.m., which irritated the senior officers billeted in officer’s quarters.

Despite his somewhat lackluster fitness reports, Hughes passed his examination for promotion, and a promotion board recommended him for advancement to First Lieutenant.  By this time, Hughes had become known, by reputation, as a hard ass.  He preferred to resolve minor disciplinary problems with his men through one-on-one instructional periods, often involving fisticuffs and somewhat harsh language. This type of behavior was the one drawdown among mustang officers: they knew what worked for them as sergeants and took those “successes” with them into the officer ranks — where they were not appreciated. In the modern Marine Corps, Hughes would likely face a court-martial for such conduct. The Marine Corps has every right to expect better of its commissioned officers.

After leaving the Philippines, Hughes reported to the Marine Barracks, Boston, where he served for two years as an assistant quartermaster and commissary officer.  In 1906, the Commandant posted Hughes aboard the U.S.S. Minneapolis and later detached him to constabulary duty with the 1st Provisional Regiment in Cuba.

Despite Hughes’ unwillingness to change his irresponsible behaviors, the Marine Corps promoted him to Captain in 1909 and ordered him to the Marine Barracks in New York City.  A short time later, Marine officials assigned him to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, via the troop ship U.S.S. Hancock.

In Cuba, Hughes and his men transferred to the auxiliary cruiser U.S.S. Buffalo, which transported the leathernecks to Panama in March 1910.  Just thirty days later, while assigned to the Third Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, Hughes participated in the bombardment and assault of Coyotepe Hill, Nicaragua.

The Marine Corps was a small service in the early 20th century; the officer corps was small enough that nearly every officer knew every other officer — particularly since these were men with whom they competed for promotion and assignment.  In this kind of environment, it wasn’t long before everyone knew about the incident involving Captain Hughes and his commanding officer, Major Smedley D. Butler. 

These two officers, each colorful in their own peculiar way, detested each other.  Butler opined that while Captain Hughes was efficient and knowledgeable, he was excitable and disloyal (to his commanding officer).  In April 1912, Hughes’ superior ordered him confined to quarters because of getting into a fistfight with a brother officer. Fighting among officers was strictly prohibited.

The Commandant is watching

In June, Hughes earned five days’ suspension from duty for “assumption of authority and insubordination.” The nature of Hughes’ alleged offense is lost to history, except as noted on his next fitness report.  But then, less than a month later, the impulsive Leatherneck absented himself from duty without authority and received another suspension from duty due to “unwarranted evasion of orders.”

Besides noting that he had been suspended from duty, Hughes’ reporting senior added that “he knows his profession thoroughly, but he is excitable and not always loyal, in his attention to duty, manner, and bearing, to his commanding officer.” But the incident that raised the hackles of his superiors occurred in April 1912, when Hughes was confined to his quarters as a result of a fistfight with a brother officer.  We believe the identity of this “brother officer” was Smedley D. Butler.

Major Butler cabled the Commandant of the Marine Corps, Colonel William P. Biddle, stating that he considered Hughes a menace to the welfare of his command and requested that the Commandant order his return to Washington under arrest or a transfer out of his command with a preference for sending him as far away from Central America as possible — even to the extent of recommending the Philippines.  But Butler did more than that.  He turned to his father, U.S. Congressman Thomas S. Butler, who served on the House Naval Affairs Committee.

Congressman Butler turned to the Secretary of the Navy for assistance in relieving his son from the challenges caused by the unrepentant Captain Hughes.  Secretary Meyer was in no mood for tattling or seeking special favors.  He denied the congressman’s request and directed the Commandant to inform Butler that he’d have to learn to deal with his challenges without the help of his father.  Secretary Meyer also noted that Major Butler had attempted to embellish the charges against Captain Hughes by adding previous incidents for which he had already been punished.[5]

Nevertheless, at the end of 1912, officials ordered Captain Hughes to Portsmouth, Rhode Island, for service with the Marine Barracks.  Within a year, however, the Commandant ordered all East Coast Barracks to provide the human resources needed to man two regiments of the Advance Base Force (A.B.F.) (forerunner to the Fleet Marine Force).

Captain Hughes reported to the Commanding Officer, 2nd A.B.F., at the Philadelphia Navy Yard, where his commanding officer appointed him to command a rifle company.  The A.B.F. Commander was Lieutenant Colonel John A. Lejeune.

The purpose of these Navy-Marine Corps exercises was to test the concept of the A.B.F.  Still, a secondary objective, owing to declining political conditions, was to serve as a force in readiness for possible operations in Mexico.  With naval maneuvers judged successful, the A.B.F. set sail for New Orleans on 9 February 1914.  On 5 March, the A.B.F. received orders to proceed to Veracruz.

Veracruz, Mexico

In 1914, the Mexican-American War had been over for 66 years.  Still, diplomatic relations between those two countries remained strained — and the truth is that Mexicans, Texicans, and Americans had never gotten along.  Today, it is doubtful that they ever will.  U.S. policy toward Mexico hasn’t made many efforts to improve these relations, but neither has Mexico. 

In 1913, after assuming the office of president, Woodrow Wilson withdrew the United States’ official recognition of the government/presidency of Victoriano Huerta.  Wilson’s reasons for taking this action were that Huerta was using borrowed funds to purchase armaments and munitions for use against the people of Mexico to maintain his power over them.

Conditions deteriorated even more when Wilson imposed an arms embargo on Mexico in August 1913.  The final straw was the Mexican officials arrested nine U.S. sailors in Tampico, Mexico, for entering areas of the city marked as off-limits to foreign military personnel.  When this matter was not resolved to Wilson’s satisfaction, he ordered a naval force to capture Veracruz.

Captain Hughes led his 15th Rifle Company ashore on 21 April as part of the landing force.  For his conduct between 21-24 April, Captain Hughes was cited for conspicuous gallantry and was nominated to receive the Medal of Honor.[6]     

Major Butler was another nominee.  To his credit, Butler pleaded with his superiors to withdraw the medal, insisting he did nothing to deserve such a high-level award.  This issue of awarding the medal of honor to Marine officers had become political, and Butler’s complaints weren’t helping matters. Irritated, Butler’s superiors in the chain of command ordered him to stop moaning and wear the damn thing. Butler’s discomfort increased, however, when he learned that his superiors had also nominated Captain Hughes for the Medal of Honor. Modern historians believe Butler despised no man more than John A. Hughes.

While the Marine brigade was en route back to the north, Captain Hughes received orders that he would proceed to the Marine Barracks, Portsmouth.  In his final fitness report, despite his nomination for the Medal of Honor, Major Randolph C. Berkeley (also a Medal of Honor nominee) rated him poorly in leadership — for treating his men harshly.

In 1916, while serving as the Commanding Officer of the Marine Detachment, U.S.S. Delaware, Hughes landed with his Marines in response to civil unrest and banditry in the Dominican Republic.  President Wilson made a Marine presence in the Dominican Republic permanent after late October that year.

Meanwhile, Captain Hughes became eligible for promotion to major by achieving fifteen years of honorable service.  Amazingly — or possibly not, the Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels denied Hughes’ advancement.  Historians suggest that usually, the Secretary of the Navy would take no hand in the matter of a Marine officer’s promotion, but in this case, it would seem that through his father, Smedley D. Butler was involved in urging Daniels to “do the right thing” for the Corps (and for Butler).

At this time, the Commandant, Major General George Barnett, received a telegram reporting that Captain Hughes had become a combat casualty — wounded by gunshot.  Barnett promptly took the telegram to Secretary Daniels and demanded that he release his hold on Captain Hughes’ promotion.

The Marine Corps promoted Hughes to Major on 16 March 1917.  Accompanying his promotion was a strongly worded memorandum from Secretary Daniels.  Merrill Bartlett tells us that the memo warned Hughes against any future drunkenness or harshness toward his men.

After Hughes recovered from his wound, he served as a staff officer at the headquarters of the A.B.F. in Philadelphia.  When the United States entered World War I, Hughes proceeded to Quantico, Virginia, to prepare for a substantial increase in Marine Corps manpower.

An Interesting Aside

Shortly after the U.S. entered the European war, Brigadier General John A. Lejeune wrote to this friend, Major Smedley D. Butler (then serving as a major general in the Haitian constabulary), informing him that he (Lejeune) expected to command a Marine brigade in the American Expeditionary Force (A.E.F.).  Should that happen, Lejeune wrote, he would offer Butler command of an infantry battalion.

Subsequent planning revealed that the A.E.F. commander, General “Black Jack” Pershing, reduced the Marine Corps’ footprint to a single regiment.[7]  Lejeune was sad to advise Butler that a colonel would command a single regiment and he had no further say in the matter.

Colonel Bartlett assures us that Lejeune’s letter to Butler was somewhat less than honest.  By then, Butler had burdened HQMC with a constant stream of requests for relief from his duty in Haiti and assignment to the A.E.F. in France.  Commandant Barnett was unsympathetic.  He first informed Butler that his position was vital to American interests in Haiti.  Secondly, he reminded Lejeune that Butler had used all of his political leverage to gain the coveted post to command the Gendarmerie d’ Haiti and that he could damn well remain there.

But General Barnett had a problem that needed a resolution.  He required the names of qualified officers for service in the A.E.F.  He needed Lejeune’s advice — and one of the officers suggested by General Lejeune was Major John A. Hughes.

World War

When the United States declared war on Germany in April 1917, the U.S. Marine Corps included 462 commissioned officers, 49 warrant officers, and 13,214 enlisted men.  Of those, 187 officers and 4,546 enlisted men served outside the continental limits of the United States.  Six weeks later, the Marine Corps had organized the 5th Marine Regiment (consisting of around one-sixth of the Corps’ total strength).  When the regiment sailed for France in June 1917, U.S. Marines accounted for one-fifth of the A.E.F.’s expeditionary force.

Closely following the 5th Marines in July and August 1917 was the 6th Marine Regiment and 6th Machine gun Battalion (M.G.B.)  Within one year of America’s entry into the war, the Marine Corps had placed as many enlisted Marines in France as had served on active duty at the outbreak of the war.  President Wilson’s policies in Central America and the Caribbean Sea demanded a massive increase in the number of Marines serving on active duty.  In June 1918, the authorized strength of the Marine Corps was 1,323 officers and 30,000 enlisted men.  The number of Marines serving on that date was 1,424 officers and 57,298 enlisted men.[8]

Colonel Albertus W. Catlin assumed command of the 6th Marine Regiment.[9]  Catlin assigned Major John A. Hughes to command the 1st Battalion, Thomas Holcomb (later, Commandant of the Marine Corps) to command 2/6, and Berton W. Sibley to command 3/6.

Upon arrival in France, Major Hughes settled his battalion at St. Nazaire.  He joined his fellow officers for temporary duty under instruction at the I Corps School of Infantry at Gondrecourt.  Hughes’ performance as a student prompted the Army to extend his temporary assignment through February 1918 so that he could serve as an instructor.  In mid-February, Hughes asked the Army to send him back to his battalion, and they refused — so Major Hughes packed his kit and returned to his battalion without orders.  The Army high command was unhappy with Hughes, but Colonel Catlin sorted it all out.

On 27 May 1918, Imperial Germany launched the third of its spring counteroffensive operations to bring the war to a close before the United States committed the total weight of its Army to the fight.  Within four days, German soldiers reached the Marne River at Château-Thierry.  Until this point, General Pershing had consistently refused to release any American forces to serve under foreign command, but with Imperial German troops sitting a mere 35 miles from Paris, Pershing rushed three American infantry divisions to Château-Thierry to halt the German advance.  One of those divisions was the U.S. Second Infantry with the 4th Marine Brigade.

Catlin’s 6th Marines occupied a position along the Paris-Metz highway, south of a small forest called Bois de Belleau (Belleau Wood), with orders to dig in and hold at all costs.  Having halted the German advance, the Brigade received new orders: expel the Germans from Belleau Wood.  Thus began the Battle of Belleau Wood, one of the Marine Corps’ most contested and bloodiest fights.  Before the end of this battle, the Marine brigade suffered a 50% casualty rate — and it was during this fight that Major John A. Hughes earned both the Navy Cross and Silver Star.  He also suffered the effects of poisoned gas, thereby earning his second Purple Heart medal.

Following the Battle of Belleau Wood, the German high command foolishly decided to cut the highway between Soissons and Château-Thierry.  The Marines deployed south of Soissons on 18 July.  After two days of bitter fighting, the Brigade gave up an additional 2,000 casualties — with most of the dead and wounded from the 6th Marine Regiment.  One of those injured Marines was Major Hughes.

By this time, Johnny the Hard was a physical wreck.  His previous wound had opened up and made walking difficult and painful.  His gas-seared lungs sapped his strength, and he had reached the limit of his endurance.  But despite his pain and discomfort, he did his duty and persevered until his superiors ordered him returned to the United States.

Before that happened, however, again, according to Colonel Bartlett, Major Hughes took a nasty fall as a bunker collapsed.  The major cussed and asked the Marines, “Say, any of you birds got a pair of wire cutters?”  Using those wire cutters, Major Hughes sat down and cut off a shard of bone protruding from his leg.

Grit.

Second Medal of Honor Recommendation

Major Hughes’ promotion to lieutenant colonel, effective 28 August 1918, finally caught up with him — along with another Silver Star medal and two French Croix de Guerre.  But one Marine Corps icon thought that Hughes deserved more.  Colonel Hiram I. Bearss (shown right), believing that Hughes earned the Medal of Honor for his performance at Soissons, put that recommendation in writing and sent it directly to the Commandant of the Marine Corps.[10]

In writing his recommendation, Bearss reported, “During the engagement east of Vierzy, on the 19th of July 1918, Lieut. Col. Hughes (then major) conducted his battalion across open fields swept by violent machine-gun and artillery fire.  His entire commissioned and non-commissioned staff were either killed or wounded. Though suffering the severest pain from an old wound, he led his battalion forward and, by his dauntless courage, [and] bulldog tenacity of purpose, set an example to his command that enabled [it] to hold [its] position against the enemy throughout the day [and] night, though without food or water and with very little ammunition. Major Hughes’ battalion had been reduced to about 200 men, but due to this magnificent example of gallantry and intrepidity, this remnant of a battalion held a front of over 1,200 yards. As a battalion commander, he risked his life beyond the call of duty.”[11]

The Commandant returned Bearss’ recommendation, noting that it should have been submitted through the chain of command to Headquarters, A.E.F., but by then, too much time had elapsed, and Hughes did not receive a second Medal of Honor for his World War I service.[12]

After five months in the Army hospital in France, Colonel Hughes was ordered back to the United States for further treatment at the U.S. Naval Hospital, Philadelphia.  After an additional two months of treatment, Hughes attempted to ask for an assignment to the A.B.F., but to no avail.  Colonel Hughes was no longer medically qualified for Marine Corps service.  The Commandant transferred Hughes to the disability retired list on 3 July 1919.

In retirement, Hughes joined his brothers in the Hughes Trading Company[13] but left two years later to work for Mack Trucking in Cleveland — and later the first director of the Ohio Liquor Control Department.  In 1936, the square-jawed Marine became the Director of Safety at the Great Lakes Exposition.  Ill health relating to his military service forced Hughes to retire again in 1937, and he moved to Florida.  Johnny the Hard passed away on 25 May 1942 while undergoing treatment at the Veterans Hospital.

Meanwhile — back in July 1918 — Smedley Calls His Daddy

At about the time Colonel Hughes had fought his last battle in France, Smedley Butler finally made his way to France — but only after side-stepping the Commandant of the Marine Corps and calling on his father to help him achieve an assignment in the A.E.F.  Congressman Thomas S. Butler spoke with Secretary of the Navy Daniels, who ordered the Commandant to send Butler to France with the next replacement draft.  This interference resulted in Butler’s meteoric rise from major to full colonel and command of the 13th Marine Regiment.

In the summer of 1918, Secretary of War Newton Baker and his senior staff had no interest in another Marine Brigade in France, but on 15 September, within only a few weeks of his father’s interference, Colonel Butler and the 13th Marines embarked for France.

To Butler’s profound disappointment, however, General Pershing decided to break up the 5th Marine Brigade and use the Marines as replacements and for logistical duties behind the lines.  When Brigadier General Smedley Darlington Butler arrived in France, General Pershing placed him in charge of a supply depot.  Within only a few months, Butler was awarded the Army Distinguished Service Medal, the Navy Distinguished Service Medal, and the French Order of the Black Star — no doubt arranged for by his daddy in recognition of his non-combat service.  General Butler continued to cry on his father’s shoulder for the balance of his career.

No pluck, no sand, and no grit.

Sources:

  1. Bartlett, M. L.  The Spirited Saga of Johnny the Hard.  Naval History, U.S. Naval Institute, 2007
  2. Catlin, A.  With the Help of God and a Few Marines: The battles of Chateau Thierry and Belleau Wood.  Blue House Books, 2016.
  3. Sweetman, J.  The Landing at Veracruz, 1914.  U.S. Naval Institute Press, 1968.
  4. “A Brief History of the Medal of Honor, U.S. Army Center of Military History, online.

Endnotes:

[1] During World War I, Marines served with the American Expeditionary Force (A.E.F.), which placed these men under the operational authority of the Department of War, even though at the time, they were regularly assigned to the Department of the Navy.  It was a bit confusing back then, so it was possible for a Marine to receive a medal of honor from both the Army and the Navy.  After the war, service regulations changed to reflect that a medal of honor can only be awarded once for a single action.  It is still possible to receive two such medals, but only for separate actions. 

[2] The process of commissioning enlisted men to serve as officers resulted in the term “mustang,” denoting an individual who “came up through the ranks” rather than someone who was born with a silver spoon in their mouth.  A mustang was a feral animal, not a “thoroughbred.”  Over many years, the Armed Forces found that in terms of leadership, raw determination, and professional knowledge, former enlisted men made better officers.  A few former enlisted men found their way to general officer status, but for the most part, accession to flag rank was reserved for graduates of the service academies.

[3] My primary source for this information is retired Lieutenant Colonel Merrill L. Bartlett.  Were it not for his fine writing at Naval History Magazine, I would never have heard of Colonel Goodrell or Major Perkins.

[4] Certain individual Marines had severe drinking problems at the turn of the century; more than one officer succumbed to the effects of alcoholism, including Pete Ellis — which remarkably all seemed to originate in the Philippines. 

[5] The incident suggests that despite his demonstrated courage in combat, Smedley Darlington Butler would have made a perfect centerpiece for a bouquet of assholes. 

[6] The Medal of Honor is awarded by the President of the United States in the name of the Congress of the United States — hence, the medal is often termed the “Congressional Medal of Honor.”  After the incursion into Mexico, Congress amended its legislation for the Medal of Honor to include naval officers.  Within the Department of the Navy, the conflict provided an opportunity to shower the Medal of Honor on selected participants at Veracruz.  Of the Navy contingent deployed to Veracruz, 28 officers and 18 enlisted men earned the award — and nine Marine Corps officers.    

[7] History tells us that ultimately the Marines did provide an infantry brigade to the A.E.F, but in the planning stages, Pershing did all that he could to avoid having Marines in his command.

[8] The two regiments and separate battalion formed the 4th Marine Brigade, with an authorized strength of 258 officers and 8,211 enlisted men.  The brigade fought in eight major engagements and suffered 12,000 casualties.  At the same time, the Corps maintained the 5th Marine Brigade in the A.E.F. reserve, provided the U.S. 2nd Infantry Division with staff officers and enlisted men, and provided officers to command U.S. Army infantry and aviation units.

[9] See also: With the Help of God and a Few Marines by Colonel Albertus W. Catlin, USMC (deceased). 

[10] Bearss, himself a holder of the Medal of Honor, commanded an Army infantry regiment and the U.S. 51st Infantry Brigade in France.  His moniker in the Marine Corps was “Hiking Hiram,” famous for his trek across the Island of Samar in the Philippines in 1901.

[11] Source, LtCol Merrill L. Bartlett, USMC (Retired) Naval History Magazine, 2007.

[12] General Barnett was right, of course.  The recommendation should have been submitted through the chain of command.  It is also possible that Barnett knew that Secretary Daniels would never allow the approval of the Medal of Honor for Hughes.

[13] In retirement, Colonel John A. Hughes provided a falsified dossier for “Pete” Ellis’ ill-fated spy mission to the Central Pacific in 1923. (Ellis assumed the identity of a salesman for the Hughes Trading Company as a cover for his undercover and somewhat bizarre escapade).


Market Garden, 1944

Ego:

(a) Self-esteem or sense of self-importance.

(b) The part of the mind that meditates between the conscious and unconscious, responsible for reality testing and personal identity.

Introduction

A military aviator with an inadequate grasp of aeronautics, who doesn’t know the capabilities and limitations of his aircraft type, a combat pilot who hasn’t mastered air combat maneuvering, or an airman who runs out of luck, is likely only to kill himself.  On the other hand, an inadequate field commander may very well die, but he is just as likely to kill hundreds or thousands of his men in the process.

No one doubts the stress experienced by a combat pilot, and no one should believe that it is an easy matter to command troops in the field, either.  A good leader, whether in the air or on the ground, must know their profession — but more than that, they must know themselves.  A pilot must never think of himself as better than his aircraft; a ground commander must never think of himself as better than his least experienced troops.  We expect our pilots and ground commanders to demonstrate confidence, not overconfidence.

Bernard Law Montgomery

According to his account, Bernard Montgomery was a horrid child made that way by his equally despicable mother and a father who was gone from home for long periods.  When Maud Montgomery died in 1949, her son Bernard refused to attend her funeral.  Bernard had become a bully toward his peers, including those at the Royal Military College, Sandhurst.  It was something he should have grown out of long before he reached college, and his violent behavior nearly resulted in his expulsion from Sandhurst.  Nevertheless, he graduated in 1908, commissioned a second lieutenant with the 1st Battalion, Royal Warwickshire Regiment.  Later that year, Montgomery posted with his battalion in India.

Four years later, Montgomery served as battalion adjutant at Shorncliffe Army Camp, a training base in Kent, which served as a training/staging base during the First World War.  Montgomery moved to France with his battalion in August 1914.  The Royal Warwickshire Regiment became part of the 10th Brigade, 4th British Infantry Division.  In mid-October, he was twice wounded at Méteren, Belgium, and cited for conspicuous and gallant leadership.  In 1915, Montgomery served as Brigade Major (Temporary) with the 112th Brigade and later with the 104th Brigade.[1]  Between 1916-17, Montgomery served as a staff officer with the 33rd Division and the IX Corps, Plumer’s Second Army.  After the war, the Army reverted Montgomery to captain but appointed him to brevet major and command of the 17th Service Battalion.

When the British Army passed Montgomery over for attending the Staff College, placing in jeopardy any hope he had for permanent promotion or command, he directly appealed to the Commander-in-Chief, asking to have his name added to the list.

After Montgomery graduated, the Army appointed him to serve as Brigade Major, 17th Infantry Brigade, located in County Cork, Ireland, during the Irish War of Independence.  Montgomery did not believe the British could defeat the insurgency without resorting to harsh measures, but he also thought the better course of action would be to grant self-government to Ireland.

In May 1923, Montgomery was promoted to major and assigned to command an infantry company in his parent battalion.  From 1926 to 1929, he served as Deputy Assistant Adjutant at Staff College (Camberley) while serving as a temporary lieutenant colonel.

After his wife died in 1937, Brigadier Montgomery immersed himself in his military duties.  His unhappy childhood and the tragedy of his wife’s death likely contributed to his eccentricities and inferiority complex.  These factors made him over-compensate for his self-perceived inadequacies and drove him to assume the role of an overbearing bully or tyrant.  His intolerance of “lesser men” and constant suspicion that others were plotting against him produced a paranoid man who hardly anyone could tolerate, professionally or socially.

If there was one agreement among Montgomery’s associates, peers, and antagonists alike, it was that he was a difficult man to like.  British Air Marshal Arthur Tedder, a peer, could not understand why Supreme Allied Commander, Europe, General Dwight Eisenhower, didn’t fire Montgomery for his insufferable arrogance and insubordination.  Instead, Eisenhower tolerated Montgomery even though he was so full of himself that it frequently crossed the line into psychotic behavior.  The evidence for this was Montgomery’s repudiation of everything the Allied staff knew in 1944 about conducting successful military operations.  His stubbornness resulted in the combat deaths of good men — about which Montgomery seemed to care little.

It is difficult to know which of these generals hated the other more, Patton or Montgomery.  Their disputes, in the field and the press, have become the subject of many books and magazine articles.  Scholars who admired either of these men offered continuous praise; critics saw the squabbles as mean and petty, more focused on their egos than the sacred duty of leading men in combat.

A Californian by birth, Patton had ties to the Old South; his grandfather was killed in 1864 while serving as a Confederate colonel.  He attended the Virginia Military Institute (VMI) and the US Military Academy (USMA).  He was an Olympic athlete and an early advocate of mechanized warfare.  Like Montgomery, Patton sought fame throughout his long career.  He possessed a legendary temper and could not abide unmanly behavior, leading to two incidents of slapping low-ranking soldiers.   The only difference between Patton and Montgomery was that Patton exhibited a superiority complex and was behaviorally less eccentric.

Toward Market Garden

In the weeks following D-Day, the speed of the Allied advance across France, Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands produced two false impressions among Allied leaders.  The first was that the Allied forces were winning against the Germans, and the second was that the German army was crumbling.  In  September 1944, neither of these was true.  Moreover, rapid advancement produced three crises: the first was that the advancing armies were spread too thin, the second was that the advancing troops outpaced their logistics train, and the third was that the front-line troops were exhausted.  All these conditions were dangerous in the extreme, not to mention foolhardy, as Allied forces approached Germany’s formidable Siegfried Defensive Line.

Relationships between Montgomery, Eisenhower, Bradley, and Patton, became strained. By early September 1944, a crack developed within the Allied command. Montgomery became convinced that he alone could win the war and achieve it before Christmas 1944.

Prime Minister Winston Churchill knew the United Kingdom needed its alliance with the United States, so he supported General Eisenhower as Supreme Allied Commander.  President Franklin D. Roosevelt knew that maintaining a healthy partnership with the British would make them strong allies after the war.

Montgomery planned to bypass the German Siegfried Line by executing an allied envelopment into Germany through The Netherlands.  Neither General Patton nor General Bradley could support Montgomery’s plan arguing that it was logistically unsupportable.

Undeterred, Field Marshal Montgomery devised a plan of action in two parts: Operation Market and Operation Garden.  Operation Market would employ airborne forces behind enemy lines to seize German-held bridges.  Operation Garden would push land and armor forces through The Netherlands, across the bridges, and into Germany.  Together, the plan was called Market Garden.

Of the airborne units, Montgomery planned on 40,000 men parachuting into Germany.  The units earmarked for this operation were the 101st U.S. Airborne (assigned to seize five bridges), the 82nd U.S. Airborne (responsible for one bridge), the British 1st Airborne, and the Polish 1st Independent Airborne Brigade (actually focused on two bridges).  The two critical elements for the success of Montgomery’s plan were (a) seizing the bridges from the Germans and (b) holding them.

Americans back home had their favorite military heroes; some adored Eisenhower, who never held a combat command.  Other Americans idolized Patton, the epitome of a combat officer and a bull in a fine China shop.  Still, others supported Omar Bradley, the so-called “soldier’s general.”  The British needed their heroes, as well.  Political pressure pushed Eisenhower to appoint Montgomery as Commander 1st Allied Airborne Army.  General Eisenhower was fully aware that Montgomery was working on a plan, but Eisenhower (later supported by his staff) claimed that he didn’t know any of the details of Market Garden.

As an Army commander, Montgomery did not believe he needed to obtain Eisenhower’s permission to proceed.  In the aftermath of the Market-Garden disaster — even well after the war, Montgomery continued to claim that Eisenhower had approved his plan.  Every success in combat has a proud father; every disaster in war is a red-headed stepchild.

Was Field Marshal Montgomery delusional?  Evidence shows that Eisenhower “approved in principle” Montgomery’s three-pronged attack.  Still, there is no evidence that Eisenhower gave his final approval or that Montgomery asked for one.  Still, one would think that the appropriation of thousands of allied aircraft would have required Eisenhower’s approval.

Field Marshal Montgomery named Lieutenant General Sir Frederick Arthur Montague (“Boy”) Browning as Commander 1st Airborne Corps and Deputy Commander, First Allied Airborne Army, during Operation Market Garden.  Browning was a Montgomery sycophant who knew as much about generalship as he did about airborne operations. Browning shared many of Montgomery’s less appreciated traits: he was argumentative, arrogant, and full of himself.  American officers didn’t like Browning and, as important, didn’t trust him.  The relationship between Browning and US Army Air Corps Lieutenant General Lewis H. Brereton was toxic.[2]

When General Browning finally revealed his plan to the Royal Air Force staff on 10 September 1944, the RAF raised questions that were similar to those posed by General Brereton — questions about feasibility, logistics, and Northern European weather patterns.  One early problem was that in that part of Europe in September, there was insufficient daylight to conduct two airborne airlift operations in 24 hours.  Moreover, if Montgomery expected allied air cover for his assault force, then nighttime operations were out of the question.  A second issue was that General Browning expected C-47 aircraft to pull two fully manned glider craft.  Such an experiment was never tested.  General Brereton quite correctly refused to allow it.

Additionally, the Northern European weather pattern in late September is inconducive to large-scale airborne operations — or the logistics footprint required to pull it off.  In any case, the RAF and USAAC urged “Boy” Browning to reconsider his assault plan.  Browning refused, and when he did, the allied air forces refused to drop airborne troops closer than eight miles from Arnhem.   To do so, British and American air corps commanders argued, would subject the air forces to unacceptable risks.

During the operational planning phase of Market Garden, Dutch resistance leaders warned Montgomery that while the German army was withdrawing from coastal Europe, the Nazis were neither defeated nor dispirited.  Moreover, the resistance argued, it was foolhardy to march so many men 64 miles up a corridor firmly in German hands.

Major General Roy Urquhart, commanding the British 1st Airborne Division, communicated his misgivings about Market Garden to Lieutenant General Browning.[3]  Urquhart, who until then had never controlled an airborne unit, was cautioned by Browning about the effects of defeatism on unit morale.  After landing outside Arnhem, Urquhart discovered that after protecting Allied landing fields, he would have no more than a single brigade (a third of his force) to seize and hold the Arnhem Bridge.[4]  As events unfolded, only one allied unit reached the Arnhem Bridge: the British 44th Parachute Battalion under Lieutenant Colonel Johnny Frost.[5]

There were other operational disasters, as well.  None of Urquhart’s high-frequency radios were working; he had no means of communicating with higher headquarters and could not receive intelligence reports from his subordinate units.  Urquhart was operating in the dark.

Market Garden was no cakewalk for the Americans, either.  Of the five bridges assigned to the U.S. 101st Airborne Division, the Germans destroyed two — which produced a bottleneck restricting the movement of Allied forces across the Rhine.  When the American commander learned about the two destroyed bridges, General Matthew Ridgeway slowed his pace of advance.  This decision allowed German forces more time to prepare their defensive works.

Brigadier General James M. Gavin, commanding the U.S. 82nd Airborne Division, received orders from Browning to secure the Grosbeak Heights southeast of Nijmegen.  It was an order Gavin could not obey because, given shortages of boats and ammunition, he could only provide a single battalion of the 504th Parachute Regiment to hold the Nijmegen Bridge.

This operational and logistical planning failure allowed the Germans to reinforce a vital bridge, which delayed strengthening or relieving the British 1st Airborne Division at Arnhem.  Gavin’s 504th Parachute Regiment heroically seized the bridge across the Waal River, but by that time, the Germans had already killed or captured the men holding the bridge at Arnhem.

Aftermath and Conclusion

We remember Operation Market Garden as a colossal failure.  It was poorly conceived, inadequately planned, incompetently directed, and overly ambitious.  Montgomery/Brown failed to consider the most basic yet vital factors of warfare.  Montgomery underestimated the enemy’s strength, capability, disposition, and fighting spirit.  Moreover, Market Garden was logistically unsupportable, the terrain was ill-suited for corps-size operations, and weather patterns were ill-disposed to airborne operations.  Montgomery’s failure was more than negligent; it was malfeasant.[6]

Beyond losing 17,000 men to this poorly planned and executed fiasco, Market Garden had other consequences.  For instance, in seeking to establish a bridgehead across the Rhine, the Allied forces rushed offensive operations on three fronts in the south of the Netherlands.   To secure shipping to the vital port of Antwerp, the Allies advanced northwards and westwards.  The Canadian First Army seized the Scheldt Estuary.  Separately, Operation Aintree was designed to seize and secure the banks of the Meuse as a natural boundary for the established salient.  Aintree became a protracted battle, which eventually included Operation Overloon.  Operation Pheasant expanded the Market Garden salient westward.  The German counter-offensive intended to halt Allied use of the port of Antwerp, split the Allied lines, encircle four allied armies, and force a negotiated peace settlement.  In the aftermath of Market Garden, the Allied rush to victory resulted in over 90,000 men killed, wounded, or captured and the loss of 733 tanks and 1,000 aircraft.

Another unhappy consequence of Market Garden was the Dutch famine of 1944-45.  Dutch workers went on strike during the battle to aid the Allied assault.  Germany forbade food transportation in retribution, and in the following winter, more than 20,000 Dutch citizens were starved to death.

A healthy ego is as essential to field commanders as for high-performance jet pilots.  Montgomery did not have a healthy ego. Instead, the field marshal appears to have been a tormented man — one who may have suffered from Asperger’s Disorder for most of his life and a man who regularly relied on bluster and position to mask severe deficiencies as a field general.  It is one thing to make a costly mistake — our senior combat commanders are, after all, human beings with strengths and weaknesses — and tragic mistakes do happen in wars.  But it is quite another matter when a field commander risks the lives of thousands of men knowing that he’s exceeded his capability and then masks that failure by pretending there was no failure or trying to blame it on subordinate officers/commands.  This, I believe, describes Bernard Montgomery.  Browning was another matter altogether, but the men who served in the 1st Airborne Army in September 1944 deserved far better men to lead them. 

Sources:

  1. Badsey, S.  Arnhem, 1944: Operation Market Garden.  London: Osprey Publishing, 1993.
  2. Clark, L.  Arnhem: Operation Market Garden, September 1944.  Phoenix Mill: Sutton Publishing, 2002.
  3. Hoyer, B. K.  Operation Market Garden: The Battle for Arnhem.  Defense Technical Information Center, Fort Belvoir, Virginia, 2008

Endnotes:

[1] In the British Army, a brigade major serves the same function as a Brigade Executive Officer in the American Army; supervision of the several staff sections of the Brigade: Administration, Operations/Training, Intelligence, logistics, and special staff sections.  The brigade major usually held the rank of major (even if only a temporary advancement), intentionally ranked below officers commanding battalions.  The Brigade Commander directed his battalions, and the Brigade Major directed the Brigade Commander’s staff.

[2] If anyone in Europe knew about airborne operations, it was Lewis Brereton, whose entire career involved air assault operations.

[3] Robert Elliott (Roy) Urquhart (1901-88) fought with distinction at Arnhem, but in this battle, his division lost 75% of his men and was subsequently withdrawn from further combat service during World War II.  Major General Sir Richard Gale, Commander, 6th Airborne Division agreed with Urquhart’s assessment of the likely consequences of Market Garden, but Montgomery/Browning ignored him, as well.

[4] An SS training battalion was operating adjacent to the intended landing field.

[5] John Dutton Frost (1912-93) served with distinction with the parachute forces in North Africa, Sicily, and Italy.  He commanded the 44th Parachute Battalion and was responsible for seizing the Arnhem Bridge and holding it against an entire German Panzer Division for four days.

[6] Supreme Allied Headquarters received numerous reports about German troop movements, including the identity of German units.  Eisenhower was so concerned that he sent this information to Lieutenant General Walter Bedell Smith to raise the issue with Montgomery.  Montgomery dismissed Eisenhower’s/Smith’s concerns and refused to alter his plan for landing airborne units at Arnhem.  Even when briefed by his own staff intelligence officer, who showed him photographic evidence of armor units at Arnhem, Browning dismissed his evidence out of hand — and then ordered the intelligence officer placed on sick leave owing to his “nervous strain and exhaustion.”


Combat Leader

Introduction

Valor, audacity, and fortitude are words and phrases that describe (or used to do), all of America’s Armed Forces.  America’s Army, Navy, Air Force, Coast Guard, Marines are each replete with examples of individual and organizational esprit de corps.  What these men and organizations do in combat mirrors their mission and their training; how well they do it reflects the quality of their leaders and their individual fighting spirit, their willingness to improvise, adapt and overcome — their ability to sustain serious injury and keep on fighting.

America’s Marines have been at this now for going on 250 years.  The history of the Marines is replete with examples of courage under fire, refusal to quit, and victory without fanfare.  We don’t know much about the kind of training the Continental Marines experienced in preparing them for war with Great Britain in 1775, but we do know that despite the infinitesimal size of the early Corps, they displayed small unit camaraderie and self-confidence, and esprit de corps.  They were American Marines.  Their successes in battle far outnumbered their failures, and while they may have withdrawn, they never quit the fight.  Within two weeks of mustering on the stern of the Continental Navy’s flagship USS Alfred, these early Marines were en route to their first battle, which occurred at New Providence, Nassau, on 3 March 1776.  It wasn’t the bloodiest of battles, but they did their part in helping the navy accomplish its mission, and that’s what Marines do.

The British overwhelmed the Marines at Bladensburg during the War of 1812, but by that time, every other American military unit had already left the field of battle.  So well did those Marines acquit themselves that the Marine Barracks Washington was the only government building spared by the British Army when they burned that city.  Marine Barracks, Washington, is the oldest structure in Washington, D. C. today.

Outside the number of readers of this blog, few people today are aware of the Marine Corps’ battle history.  As naval infantry, American Marines protected their country’s interests from the coast of North Africa, throughout the Caribbean, in the Falkland Islands, Sumatra, West Africa, and in the Seminole Wars.  During the Mexican War, Marines seized enemy seaports along the Gulf and the Pacific Ocean.  A battalion of Marines fought under General Winfield Scott at Pueblo and carried the fight all the way to the “Halls of Montezuma.”  And during the Civil War, Marines fought at sea and onshore.  During the Spanish-American War, while the War Department and senior Army staff argued about who should do what, the Navy and Marine Corps were already ashore fighting.

The farther Marines get from one battle, the closer they get to their next.

The Crucible

The goal of military training in the United States is to ensure that when the politicians send the nation to war (as they frequently do), or send them into conflicts short of war, that America’s armed forces will be able to accomplish strategic, operational, or tactical objectives.  Ultimately, the goal of training is to develop individual combat skills within the fighting force and rehearse those individuals as a team to enable them to win battles quickly, efficiently, and with the lowest loss of life.  Because warfare continues to change in terms of technology and methodology, training is constant.  But there are no lessons in warfare greater than those learned in actual combat.

“Here lies the bones of Lieutenant Jones, a graduate of our finest institutions.

He died last night, in his very first fight, when he applied the school solution.”

During the Battle for Guadalcanal, America’s first major offensive in the Pacific War, American losses included 7,100 killed and 7,789 wounded.  The battle lasted six months and two days, from 7 August 1942 to 9 February 1943.   The Battle for Tarawa took place ten months later (between 20-23 November 1943).  Marines gave up 1,009 killed and an additional 2,101 wounded, with 88 missing/presumed dead.

There is no comparison between these two battles.  Both involved heavy fighting and horrible death, but the difference was that the Battle for Tarawa only lasted three days.  Had that fight lasted as long as the Guadalcanal campaign, it would have cost the United States well over 60,000 dead.  Another distinction is that the ratio of killed to wounded at Tarawa reflects the savagery of the fight.  Twenty percent of the Marines who landed at Tarawa were killed or wounded, but organizational losses were much higher.  The 2nd Amphibious Battalion, for example, lost half of its men and all but 35 of its 125 amphibian tractors.

The number of men lost at Tarawa within a period of only 76 hours caused a firestorm of controversy back in the United States — most of it involved heartbroken parents who found an ear with the American press, but some too from among the military hierarchy.  Douglas MacArthur was astounded by the losses and questioned the wisdom of Admiral Nimitz’s “frontal assault” strategies in the island-hopping campaign.  But the fact is that battles are not served up with clean linen.  Mistakes are always made in great undertakings, and in war, people die and receive horrific injuries.  The hard reality is that when war becomes necessary, its human and material costs are immaterial.  What matters most is winning.

But it is from within the confines of such horrors that the men who survive them learn how to conduct combat operations more efficiently — and quicker.  The one lesson never learned by politicians is that prolonged wars are never beneficial to anyone.

Additional background

At the conclusion of World War II, President Harry S. Truman wasted no time demobilizing the armed forces.  He was intent on making a smooth transition from a wartime economy to one that fulfilled the needs of a nation at peace.  Veterans were returning home from four long years of horror; they needed jobs, and Truman believed that it was the government’s duty to help create those jobs.  It was also a time of restructuring the Armed Forces.

The War Department was disbanded; in its place, a Department of Defense, which incorporated the service secretaries of the Army, Navy, and Air Force.  But, toward achieving his goals for a nation at peace, Truman placed the military services on the chopping block.  Every service experienced sharp cuts in manpower and equipment.  Truman reallocated funds away from defense toward social programs. Suddenly, there was no money to repair airplanes, tanks, or radios.  There was no money for annual rifle requalification, no money for training exercises, and hardly any money to feed, clothe, and see to the medical needs of active-duty personnel.

During this time, the Marine Corps had but one advantage over the other services.  They all “gave up” one-third of the wartime strength, of course, but while combat veterans in the Army, Navy, and Air Force dwindled to about twenty percent of their total force, the Marine Corps retained half of their combat officers and noncommissioned officers — the men who had led the way through the Pacific, and miraculously survived.

Cold War Goes Hot

When the North Korean People’s Army (NKPA) invaded South Korea in the early morning hours of 25 June 1950, they did so in overwhelming numbers.  It was a mechanized/combined arms force involving thirteen infantry divisions, an armored division of well-trained, superbly equipped troops, and to back them up, a full aviation division.[1]  Various sources tell us that the number of invading troops was between 90,000 —150,000 men.  An additional 30,000 men were part of the reserve force.

The suddenness of the Korean War caught the United States unprepared.  The men serving in forward units were young, inexperienced, and inadequately trained.  Their equipment was unserviceable.  There were shortages of ammunition and munitions.  Trucks wouldn’t run, radios wouldn’t work, planes couldn’t fly, and leaders couldn’t lead.  Within two weeks, US forces suddenly thrust into the heat of battle and suffered one defeat after another.  Within a month, the remains of thousands of young American soldiers were on the way home for burial and the United Nations forces.

General Douglas MacArthur, serving as Supreme Allied Commander, Far East, was headquartered in Tokyo, Japan.  Within this United Nations (UN) Command were several subordinate commanders, including Commander, U.S. Seventh Fleet, and Commander, U.S. Eighth Army, and Commander, U.S. Fifth Air Force.  MacArthur was least happy with the Eighth Army’s preparedness for war (although it was hardly the fault of its commander).

Commanding the Eighth Army was Lieutenant General Walton H. Walker, U.S. Army.  His subordinate commands included the U.S. 24th Infantry Division, 1st Cavalry Division, and the U.S. 25th Infantry Division — all of which were stationed in Japan as part of the post-war Allied occupation force.  In June 1950, not one of these organizations was prepared for a national emergency.[2]  The South Korean (ROK) armed forces numbered less than 70,000 men in the Republic of Korea.  One thing the South Koreans shared in common with the Eighth Army was that the men were poorly trained, poorly equipped, and poorly led.

Eventually, all UN forces were organized under the US Eighth Army.  By the time General Walker was able to organize an armed response, the NKPA had already overrun 90% of the South Korean peninsula.  The only terrain remaining in the possession of UN forces was a 140-mile perimeter around the port city of Pusan (southeast South Korea).  As previously stated, General Walker’s forces suffered one defeat after another throughout July and August 1950, racking up 6,000 casualties within around 45 days.[3]  The morale of the US/UN forces was at an all-time low.

Under these dire conditions, General MacArthur asked the JCS for a Marine regiment to help stem the tide of the invading NKPA.  A single regiment, mind you — when the NPKA had already mauled two infantry divisions within 30 days.  What MacArthur received, instead, was a Provisional Marine Brigade — the lead element of the rapidly organizing 1st Marine Division.

The New Sheriff Arrives

For the uninformed, a Marine expeditionary brigade is an awesome organization, chiefly because it incorporates ground, air, and service support elements designed to make the brigade a self-sustaining combat powerhouse.  The 1st Marine Provisional Brigade (1stMarBde) began forming around the 5th Marine Regiment (5thMar) at Camp Pendleton, California, on 7 July 1950.  Brigade combat support elements included an artillery battalion, tank company, combat engineer company, communications company, reconnaissance company, and shore party battalion.  The brigade’s air combat element was Provisional Marine Aircraft Group Thirty-three (MAG-33), which included three fixed-wing squadrons and a light helicopter squadron normally based at the Marine Corps Air Station (MCAS), El Toro, California.[4]

What made the 1stMarBde extraordinary was the circumstances under which it was formed.  Truman’s cuts were so devastating to the Marine Corps owing to its already small size, that on 25 June 1950, there was but one infantry regiment at Camp Pendleton — its personnel strength reduced by one-third and with most of its organizational equipment in depot storage.[5]  The regiment had three battalions (and a headquarters element), but each battalion was short one rifle company; each rifle company was short one infantry platoon.  These reductions simply meant that the Marines would have to fight harder.

The brigade pulled into Pusan Harbor on the evening of 2 August — with off-loading operations beginning almost immediately.  Troop leaders had already briefed their men about what to expect from this new enemy.  The Marines knew that they would be outnumbered, but they knew that not even superior numbers would save the North Koreans from their ultimate fate.  The one thing that seemed most noticeable the next morning, as battalions began to muster dockside, was the appearance of supreme confidence among those young Marines.

During the Korean War, US Marine combat commands operated within the Eighth Army.  General Walker decided to use the Marine Brigade as a stop-gap force.  Whenever the NKPA mauled and routed a US/UN Army unit, Walker sent the Marine Brigade to re-take the Army’s forfeited positions.  Had it not for these handfuls of Marines, the Pusan Perimeter would have collapsed, and the NKPA would have pushed the UN  forces into the South China Sea.

The First Provisional Marine Brigade was dangerously understrength, but what the Marines brought to the table was a foundation of exceptional officer and NCO leadership, combat experience, and an unparalleled fighting spirit.  When the NKPA met the US Marines for the first time, they quickly realized that they foolishly underestimated the lethality of the Marine Corps Air/Ground Team.

The Fire Brigade began combat operations almost immediately inside the Pusan Perimeter.  The North Korean Army may have had its way with our poorly trained army, but the Marines would have none of it.  Within a few days, American Marines began introducing NKPA soldiers to their worst (and last) day.

General Walker assigned Craig’s brigade to support the U.S. 25th Infantry Division (XX/25) under the command of Major General William B. Kean, U. S. Army.  In addition to the 1stMarBde, XX/25 included the U.S. 5th Regimental Combat Team (5RCT), U.S. 14th Infantry Regiment (III/14), U.S. 24th Infantry Regiment (III/24), U.S. 27th Infantry Regiment (III/27), and the U.S. 35th Infantry Regiment (III/35).  Altogether, Eighth Army HQ designated the division with all attachments as “Task Force Kean.”

Walker intended to initiate offensive operations against NKPA forces on 6 August.  Kean tasked the 1stMarBde and 5CT  to secure the area of Chinju from the NKPA 6th Division (NKPA/6).  Walker’s goal was the break up a suspected massing of NKPA troops near Taegu by forcing some NKPA troops southward.  Walker’s plan of attack was to move west from positions held near Masan, Seize Chinju Pass, and Secure a line as far as the Nam River.  The plan was only a contingency, however.  The success of Walker’s plan would depend on the arrival of the U. S. 2nd Infantry Division (XX/2) from the United States.

Overall command of the brigade fell to Brigadier General Edward A. Craig, USMC.  His assistant was Brigadier General Thomas J. Cushman, who also commanded Marine Aircraft Group-33.[6]  Lieutenant Colonel Raymond L. Murray (selected for promotion to colonel) served as Commanding Officer, 5th Marines.[7]  Below Murray, the 1st Battalion, 5th Marines (also 1/5) was commanded by Lieutenant Colonel George R. Newton;[8] 2/5 was led by Lieutenant Colonel Harold S. Roise,[9] and 3/5 was under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Robert D. Taplett.[10]  The skill and determination of these field commanders and the fighting spirit of their men won every battle.  The 1st Marine Brigade went to Korea with the finest combat commanders available, combat-tested Noncommissioned Officers, and a body of men who exhibited the highest qualities of the United States Marine.

To my knowledge, there has never been a shooting war without casualties.  Harkening back to the Pacific War, if there is one thing we know about amphibious operations, it is that there are no avoiding casualties during the assault phase, and this was particularly true when large numbers of Marines landed on small islands populated by fanatical enemies.  But from among the survivors of the great battles of World War II we will rediscover the gutsy Marine leaders who planned and executed America’s future battles — in Korea and Vietnam.

I have already mentioned the brigade commander, Brigadier General Edward A. Craig.  As a colonel, Craig served as the V Amphibious Corps’ operations officer during the Battle of Iwo Jima.  Craig was critical of Lieutenant General Holland M. Smith for his refusal to land the 3rd Marine Regiment when doing so would have provided much-needed relief to the Marines already ashore, and he argued, shorten the battle.

Colonel Raymond L. Murray, the Commanding Officer, 5th Marines, was an experienced combat officer with service on Guadalcanal, Tarawa, and Saipan while in command of the 1st Battalion, 6th Marines.  He was cited for conspicuous gallantry at all three battle locations, earning two Silver Star medals, the Navy Cross, and the Purple Heart.  Murray was awarded a second Navy Cross and two additional Silver Star medals during the Korean War.  Murray retired as a major general in 1968.

During World War II, Captain Kenneth J. Houghton participated in the Battle of Tarawa and the Battle of Saipan.  During the early days of the Korean War, he served as the Commanding Officer, Reconnaissance Company.  Houghton retired as a major general in 1977.

Changchon Ambush

At sundown on 11 August, Lieutenant Colonel Bob Taplett’s 3/5 dug in for the night on the road to Sachon.  The NKPA appeared to him somewhat disorganized.  For the first time since the North Korean invasion began, a sustained Eighth Army counterattack had not only stopped the communists but sent them into a withdrawal.  Taplett was about a day’s march from Sachon, while 5CT was racing along the shorter Chinju route northward, where enemy opposition had been light for the past two days.  Morale within the Army’s ranks seemed high, and radio traffic sounded optimistic.

General Craig was not at all optimistic.  Within the next 48 hours, the Marines were destined to carry out one of the most astonishing operations in the history of the Marine Corps: simultaneous battalion-sized assaults in opposite directions, 25 miles apart.  But at 0630 on 12 August, as 1/5 passed through 3/5 with the mission of seizing Sachon, there was no hint of any such development.  In fact, the front was quiet enough to make the senior NCOs nervous.  If one were to ask the company gunnery sergeant (pick any company), he’d tell you, “The enemy is up to no good, sir.”

1/5 moved out in column formation behind a 15-man detachment of the Recon Company under Captain Kenny Houghton.  Captain Tobin’s “Baker” Company followed behind.[11]  Two Marine tanks sandwiched in between the 1st and 2nd platoons.  Three more tanks were brought up to the rear of Captain Tobin’s company, followed by the rest of the battalion.

The eerie calm continued for another 4 or so hours.  At noon, with Sachon only four miles ahead, Captain Houghton led the battalion point around a bend into the thatched hamlet of Changchon.  Several Marines spied two skulking figures dashing for cover and opened fire.  When they did, the hills on both sides of the road erupted into flame.  Marine rifle fire had spooked the enemy into pre-maturely, revealing their ambuscade.  NKPA machine guns blazed away from the high ground in front and from both flanks.  It could have been a disaster for 1/5 Marines.

Captain Tobin ordered First Lieutenant Hugh Schryver’s 1st platoon forward along the roadside ditches; three Marines took hits, but the platoon reinforced Houghton’s thin line, who were busily engaged in returning enemy fire.  Tobin then sent First Lieutenant David Taylor’s 2nd platoon up behind the three tanks.  The roadway was too narrow for the tanks to maneuver, and the soil on either side of the road was too muddy to support the weight, but as mobile fortresses, they added to Marine firepower.

Within mere minutes, NKPA ambushers pinned down Tobin’s entire company, including the company headquarters further down the road, which received automatic weapons fire from higher up on Hill 250.  Lieutenant Colonel Newton requested airstrikes through his air controller, First Lieutenant James Smith.  Air support was all Newton had available.  Within a few minutes, Marine Corsairs dropped ordnance on Hill 250, after which Tobin directed 2nd Lieutenant Dave Cowling to attack the high ground.  Able Company sent forward a rifle platoon and a machine gun section.  To these reinforcements, Colonel Newton assigned the mission of attacking Hill 301.

As Cowling’s 3rd platoon crossed the roadway, tanks and mortars added their fires to the airstrikes, but enough of the enemy’s automatic weapons survived to catch the 3rd platoon in a crossfire, which forced the Marines back.  Cowling lost one man killed, and four wounded.  Meanwhile, Able Company occupied Hill 301 without meeting any resistance.

Smith notified Newton that he had two Corsairs overhead with five minutes of fuel remaining.  Newton asked that the pilot search for targets of opportunity along the road from Changchon to Sachon.  The Marine aviators visited an enemy convoy and left them with a lasting impression.

3rd platoon fell back on Hill 301 as Newton ordered the Able Company Commander, Captain John Stevens, to secure the nearby high ground on the right side of the road.  Newton’s maneuvering left Hill 250 as the center of enemy resistance on the right.  Marines dropped 113 mortar rounds on the enemy’s positions, and additional airstrikes followed.  This concentration of fire silenced the enemy machine guns, securing Baker Company’s right flank.

Meanwhile, Baker Company’s other two platoons and Captain Houghton’s Marines had their hands full on the left flank.  A brisk exchange of fire continued until Marine artillery solved the argument.  One NKPA position after another disappeared in a burst of glory.  Newton called for three more airstrikes, and these opened the door for a 2nd platoon left flank assault.

Newton’s Marines cleaned up remaining NKPA positions, the climax of which was a group of the enemy approaching the crest of Hill 202 from the reverse slope.  Lieutenant Taylor dispatched Technical Sergeant Lischeski with a squad to prepare an appropriate welcoming committee.  Thirty-nine unsuspecting communists walked into the sergeant’s trap.  There was only one survivor, but even that was temporary.

The fight at Changchon lasted all afternoon, and darkness set in before Baker Company could complete setting in for the night.  Newton estimated that his enemy opposition was a reinforced NKPA company, the rearguard element for a withdrawing battalion.  In this action, 1/5 lost 3 killed in action, and 13 WIA.  After Newton’s companies had secured the high ground, medical personnel evacuated the battalion’s dead and wounded.

This was a single action, on a single day, at the beginning of the US/UN counteroffensive. 

Sources:

  1. Catchpole, B.  The Korean War.  Robinson Publishing, 2003.
  2. Fehrenbach, T. R.  This Kind of War: The Classic Korean War History. Potomac Press, 2001.
  3. Montross, L., and N. A. Canzona.  U. S. Marine Corps Operations in Korea, 1950-1953, Volume I: The Pusan Perimeter. HQMC G-3 Branch, 1954. 
  4. Simmons, E. H.  The United States Marines: A History.  Naval Institute Press, 2003.

Endnotes:

[1] Two of these infantry divisions were mixed Chinese/Korean organizations.

[2] See also, From King to Joker.

[3] Battles are not won purely on the size of opposing armies; they are won by the skill of their commanders and the fighting spirit (and capacity) of their men.  None of these conditions existed within the US/UN armed forces on 25 June 1950.

[4] Despite several demonstrations during World War II of the advantages air/ground interface (close air support of ground forces), the Army was never interested in developing this capability until Marine aviators saved their bacon numerous times during the Korean War. 

[5] For the Marine Corps to meet this combat requirement, HQMC had to transfer men and material from the 2nd Marine Division and 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing at Camp Lejeune and Cherry Point, transfer people from the supporting establishment (supply depots, recruiting staffs, schools, and HQMC in Washington), and active Marine Corps reserve units.

[6] Lieutenant General Thomas J. Cushman (1895-1972 ) was the recipient of two Legions of Merit medals and the Navy Distinguished Service Medal.

[7] Major General Murray (1913-2004) was a highly decorated officer, having won two Navy Cross medals, four Silver Star Medals, a Legion of Merit, the Distinguished Service Cross, and the Purple Heart Medal.  Murray commanded 2/6, 3rd Marines, 5th Marines, 1st Infantry Training Regiment, and the Marine Corps Recruit Depot, Parris Island, SC.  He fought at Guadalcanal, Tarawa, Saipan, Inchon, Seoul, the Chosin Reservoir, and the Vietnam War.

[8] Colonel Newton (1915-2003 ) was a graduate of the USNA, class of 1938, retiring in 1962.  While serving with the US Marine Legation Guard in Peking, China, he was captured by the Japanese and held as a prisoner of war (1941-1945).  He was awarded the Silver Star medal for conspicuous gallantry on 23 September 1950 and the Legion of Merit for exceptionally meritorious service while commanding the 1stBn 5thMar  7 July – 12 September 1950.

[9] Colonel Roise (1916-91) was the recipient of two Navy Cross medals in the Korean War.  He served on active duty from 1939 until 1965 with combat service at Pearl Harbor, Okinawa, Pusan, Inchon, Seoul, and the Chosin Reservoir.

[10] Taplett was awarded the Navy Cross medal for his gallant service at the Chosin Reservoir.

[11] In the 1950s, Army and Marine rifle companies were phonetically designated Able, Baker, Charlie, Dog, Easy, Fox, George, How, Item, Jig, King, and Love.


Louis Cukela, U.S.M.C.

Ven I vaunt to send a damned fool, I send myself.

One of the Marine Corps’ “colorful” characters of the past was Major Louis Cukela.  Cukela was born in the kingdom of Dalmatia on 1 May 1888 (modern-day Croatia).  A “mustang,” Cukela rose in ranks from Private to Major over a career spanning 29 years.  Three things made this officer a colorful character: his broken accent, short temper, and unquestioned courage and valor in combat.   

Louis Cukela received his primary education in Dalmatia with further schooling at the Merchant Academy and Royal Gymnasium.  In 1913, he migrated to the United States with his brother, both young men deciding to settle in Minneapolis, Minnesota.  There may not have been many job opportunities in Minneapolis in the early part of the 20th century, which could explain why Cukela decided to join the U.S. Army in 1914.  Corporal Cukela accepted his discharge from the army in 1916.

Seven months later, before the United States officially entered Europe’s Great War, Louis Cukela enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps.  Officially, the United States entered the war on 6 April 1917.  In late May, President Wilson directed the Secretary of the Navy to issue orders detaching a Marine regiment for service with the U.S. Army in France.  The regiment would be known as the 5th Regiment of U.S. Marines.  And, as a demonstration of the combat readiness of these Marines, the regiment sailed for France sixteen days later.[1]

Cukela served in the 66th rifle company in the Norfolk, Virginia area.  As the Marines reformed for service with the American Expeditionary Force (A.E.F.), Marine rifle companies formed as part of infantry battalions within regiments.  The 15th rifle company (Pensacola) joined the 49th, 66th, and 67th companies to create the 1st Battalion, 5th Marines.  The 1stBn embarked aboard the U.S.S. DeKalb, arriving at St. Nazaire on 26 June.

Initially, the Army assigned these Marines to the U.S. First Infantry Division.  Many of these Marines had combat experience, but not as part of a land army.  This necessitated that the marines undergo training to familiarize them with land operations. This training involved instruction by French infantry officers and N.C.O.s in offensive and defensive operations, trench warfare, grenade throwing, bayonet fighting, and infantry-artillery coordination. Until this training could be accomplished, the Marines performed communications duties (as messengers) and certain other logistical duties.

In September 1917, the 5th Marines was assigned to serve under the U.S. Second Infantry Division.  In October, the regiment became part of the 4th Brigade of Marines (one of two infantry brigades in the 2nd Division).  Despite the regiment’s pre-combat training, General Pershing had no confidence that the 5th Marines were ready for service in the line.  In March 1918, the Marine Brigade relocated to the relatively quiet area of Toulon.  To acquaint Marines with combat service opposing German troops, the regiments rotated battalions into the trenches for a set period of time.  When the Marines were not standing watch, they were kept busy improving or repairing their trenches.

On 19 – 20 March, during a battalion relief operation, the enemy launched a raid in force.  The extraordinary effort of the 49th Company, 3rd Battalion, sent the enemy reeling back to their own trenches.  At this time, the German high command began paying closer attention to those American Marines.  On 30 May, the A.E.F. assigned the U.S. 2nd Infantry Division to the French Sixth Army, after which the Marine Brigade received the mission of stemming a German thrust toward Paris.  Retreating units and civilian refugees clogged up the lines of communication, requiring the Marines to disembark from their motorized vehicles and proceed toward  Meaux.[2]

Gunnery Sergeant (later Second Lieutenant) Cukela fought in every engagement in which his regiment participated. That’s what Marines do — but it was just as well they were focusing their attention on the Germans because, according to Major General James G. Harbord, commanding the U.S. Second Infantry Division, the French high command was a disaster.  No one knew anything — and didn’t seem to care.

On 2 June, the battalions of the 5th Marines occupied reserve and line duty north of the Marne River and west of Chateau-Thierry.  Harbord struggled to organize the lines of the French XXI Corps and cover the withdrawal of French infantry/artillery units.  Harbord finally accomplished this by mid-day on 4 June 1918.  That afternoon, 2/5 repulsed two German assaults against the withdrawing French and convinced the Germans to withdraw into defensive positions.

The French Sixth Army ordered the XXI Corps to straighten its lines; XXI Corps assigned the mission to the 2nd Infantry Division, and Harbord handed it off to the Marine Brigade.  Second Battalion, 5th Marines successfully mounted the first attack and straightened out the allied lines.  For the second attack, General Harbord sent the Marines into Bois de Belleau (Belleau Wood).  The fight set a single American infantry division against five German divisions.  By the end of the battle on 23 June 1918, the 5th Marines had suffered 2,000 killed and wounded — but the struggle also set into motion a massive German withdrawal that continued until the Armistice.

Tiffany Cross
Medal of Honor

On 18 July 1918 at Soissons, the 66th Company operated in the Forêt de Retz some 50 miles northeast of Paris, near Villiers-Cotterets, when a German strong point held up the company’s advance.  Alone, of his own volition, Cukela crawled beyond the company’s lines toward the German defenses.  Despite the enemy’s bullets zipping just above his head, he captured an enemy machine gun by bayoneting its three-man crew.  Then, using German grenades, Cukela demolished the remaining part of the enemy’s strong point.  He silenced the Germans, captured four prisoners, and captured two undamaged machine guns.  For this action, the United States awarded Gunnery Sergeant Cukela two medals of honor — one from the U.S. Army and another from the U.S. Navy. [3]

In addition to his two medals of honor, Cukela also received three Silver Star medals and several French National/Military awards: Legion of Honor (Chevalier), Military Medal, and three Croix de Guerre.

Cukela may have been entitled to two purple heart medals, as well, for wounds received while engaged with the enemy.  He did not receive these awards because, believing his wounds minor, he never reported to sick bay for treatment.

On 1 November 1919, First Lieutenant Cukela joined the 1st Marine Brigade in Haiti.  Soon after arriving and being made aware of the mission of garrisoning Marines in Haitian towns, Cukela took aside one promising young second lieutenant and observed it was a waste of time.  Instead, the Marines should pursue the Cacos into the mountains and be done with them.  It was a logical proposal, and the young lieutenant — Lewis B. Puller — never forgot Cukela’s advice.

While serving in the Caribbean, Cukela’s brigade commander charged him with executing three Haitian detainees.  A medical officer examined Cukela and reported him as highly agitated and smelling of alcohol.  Reputation-wise, Cukela was thought to have a propensity for executing Cacos.  Cukela was cleared of any wrongdoing, but the “word,” having gotten out, prompted the Commandant to reassign him to the Dominican Republic.

His battlefield appointment to Second Lieutenant took place on 26 September 1918, and a regular commission was conferred on 31 March 1919.  He advanced to First Lieutenant on 17 July 1919 and Captain on 15 September 1921. 

In 1955, Warner Brothers cartoonist and story writer Warren Foster (1904 – 1971) developed a tale he titled Sahara Hare.  It was a continuation of the epic contest between Bugs Bunny and Yosemite Sam (who appears in the tale as Riff Raff Sam).  Bugs pops up in the desert, thinking he’s arrived at Miami Beach.  Meanwhile, while riding on a camel, Sam suddenly comes upon Bugs’ tracks and exclaims, “Great horney toads!  A trespasser is getting footy prints all over my desert.”  Sam orders the camel to slow down and loudly says, “Whoa camel, whoa!  Whoa!”  Ignored by the camel, Sam whacks him on the head and tells the half conscience camel, “When I say Whoa, I means WHOA!”

Funny stuff, if you enjoy Warner Brothers Cartoons — but it makes you wonder if Warren Foster ever served in the Marines and knew or ran across one of the great Cukela stories. Captain Cukela was no Cossack; he had little interest in equestrian pursuits and rode like a sack of rice. Assigned to attend the Army Infantry Officers School at Fort Benning, Georgia, the Army emphasized infantry tactics but also demanded that its officer students demonstrate mastery of the horse. One day, his mount took off at a gallop toward Alabama, and nothing Captain Cukela did could persuade the horse from the gallop.  He ordered “Stop Horse” on several occasions — to no avail.  Finally, Captain Cukela balled up his fist and whacked the horse as hard as he could on its forehead, and the animal sank to its knees.  Dismounting, Captain Cukela admonished the horse, “I am Cukela — you are the horse.  I tell you, stop — you stop.  You not stop, damn you, I break your head.”    

On 30 June 1940, the date of his retirement, Cukela was promoted to Major — but he was recalled to active duty a month later in anticipation of war with Japan. 

During World War II, Major Cukela served as a supply officer at Norfolk, Virginia, and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  He was returned to the retired list on 17 May 1946 — achieving 32 years of active military service.

After Major Cukela suffered a stroke in 1955, he lay dying at the U.S. Naval Hospital in Bethesda, Maryland.  One afternoon, a prominent Lieutenant General visited his bedside.  Cukela, even in his weakened state, had no trouble recognizing Chesty Puller — but kept referring to him as “Lieutenant.” Cukela observed to Puller that he was dying.  General Puller answer, “That’s all right, old man.  You’re going to Valhalla — where all Marines go. 

Louis Cukela, aged 67 years, passed away on 19 March 1956.

Cukela made the famous quote, shown at the beginning of this post, after receiving a garbled and incomprehensible field message.  According to author and biographer Colonel Merrill Bartlett, USMC (Retired) Cukela’s strange comments caught on quickly in the A.E.F. — even to General Pershing, himself. 

Sources:

  1. Who’s Who in Marine Corps History.  History Division, HQMC
  2. Yingling, J. M.  A Brief History of the 5th Marines.  Washington, D.C., 1963, 1968.

Endnotes:

[1] The rapid organization, equipping, and embarkation of the regiment was the product of considerable forethought by senior Marine Corps planners. 

[2] The weather was hot, the roads dusty, and the Marines were over-burdened by carrying their supplies and equipment on their backs.  Morale was not improved with the dejected and terrorized looks appearing on the faces of French soldiers moving away from the battle site.  It was at this time when Captain Lloyd W. Williams of the 2nd Battalion told a French colonel that the Marines would not retreat — “We just got here.”

[3] Following World War I, the U.S. Navy decided to recognize two kinds of heroism.  One involving extraordinary courage in the face of the enemy, and the other recognition for non-combat service.  The ribbon pattern on the medal awarded for non-combat reflected an up-side-down star.  The new pattern medal was designed by the Tiffany Company (1919), reflecting actual combat.  It was known as the Tiffany Cross Medal of Honor but due to its similarity with the German Cross, the medal was unpopular, and several awardees requested a newer design once issued in 1942. 


Snake Eaters

De Oppresso Liber

The term “Snake Eater” originated after the U. S. Army Special Forces (also known as the Green Berets) served members of the press and visiting dignitaries a meal of snake meat following a public relations demonstration at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.  Sadly, the meal was fit for human consumption, and no journalist or politician died from ingesting snake venom.  Since then, members and former members of the Green Berets are sometimes referred to as snake eaters.

The Green Berets have nine distinctive missions: unconventional warfare, direct action, counter-insurgency operations, special reconnaissance, counter-terrorism, psychological operations, counter-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, security force assistance, and foreign internal defensive operations.  As part of the U. S. Special Operations Command, Green Berets have consistently distinguished themselves in combat arms since their establishment in 1952.  Modeled on the First Special Service Force and the covert missions of the Office of Strategic Services in World War II, its founding members included Colonel Wendell Fertig, Colonel Aaron Bank, and Lieutenant Colonel Russ Volckmann.  Since 1952, Green Berets have participated in combat operations in South Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, North Vietnam, Guatemala, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Colombia, Panama, Haiti, Somalia, Bosnia, Kosovo, Philippines, Syria, Yemen, Niger, and the so-called Gulf Wars in the Middle East.

Currently, there are around 4,000 Green Berets performing missions around the world, from the Middle East to Africa and Asia.  Most people never hear about these “quiet professionals,” and that’s the way the Green Berets prefer it.

“These guys [Green Berets] are never going to quit, they’re never going to accept defeat, and they’ll fight to the end. And it’s always been that way.  So, the American people should be proud of that.”  — Master Sergeant Matthew Williams (Awarded the Medal of Honor in 2019).

As a case in point, on 2 May 1968, Master Sergeant Raul “Roy” Perez Benavidez (1935-1998), while risking his life to save eight of his comrades, received 37 wounds, including being shot several times, shrapnel from two grenades, and a bayonet wound, but he survived and — more to the point, he completed his mission.  Benavides was awarded the Medal of Honor by President Ronald Reagan in 1981 after the Army delayed recommending him for the medal for ten years.  Freaking bureaucrats.

And now, we turn to Captain Richard J. Flaherty (1945-2015), whose short stature required a waiver for acceptance for service in the U. S. Army.  Standing 4’9” tall, Flaherty became known as the “Giant Killer” for his service to the United States.  Captain Flaherty struggled throughout his life, from the moment of his birth when he was stunted in his growth from the infusion of his mother with the wrong blood type during his birth.  From his sensitivity to being called a “shrimp” in school, Flaherty began a life-long, intensive physical fitness regimen that transformed him into acquiring a robust physique.  To put an edge on his physical strength, he became an expert in martial arts.  Richard Flaherty received his Army commission to Second Lieutenant in August 1967.

In 1968, Flaherty was assigned to the 101st Airborne Division in Vietnam, where he served as a platoon commander, with later service as a Reconnaissance Platoon Leader.  During his tour in Vietnam, he participated in fierce combat outside of Hue City during the Tet Offensive.  His tenacity and tactical superiority in combat resulted in the award of the Silver Star Medal, two Bronze Star Medals, and two Purple Heart Medals.

Upon returning to the United States, Flaherty attended the Special Forces Officer’s Course at Fort Brag, North Carolina, with subsequent service with the Third Special Forces Group (Airborne), where he served in one of the Army’s “A” Teams.  Captain Flaherty was discharged from active duty service when the Army reduced its manpower in 1971.  Freaking bureaucrats.

After his separation from the Army, Flaherty did private and military contract work in Rhodesia (present-day Republic of Zimbabwe) and Angola.  The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) recruited Flaherty in the late 1970s, which involved him in the CIA’s scheme of supplying arms and munitions to the Contra forces in Nicaragua.  The CIA dismissed Flaherty when found in possession of “silencers,” which today are legal in 42 states.

After leaving the CIA, Flaherty helped the Army uncover a smuggling ring at Fort Bragg.  He also worked as an undercover informant with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives.

Captain Flaherty was the victim of a hit-and-run incident in 2015 that cost him his life.  At the time of his death, the 69-year-old Captain Flaherty, recipient of five medals for extraordinary courage under fire, was living as a homeless man in Miami, Florida.

Homelessness among military veterans isn’t a new phenomenon.  We’ve had military veterans without proper accommodations since the post-Civil War period.  Between 1865-1880, homeless veterans made up the majority of America’s homeless population. Americans didn’t wake up to this situation until after the Vietnam War.  At present, the Veterans Administration estimates the number of homeless veterans at around 40,000 (mostly) men on any given night.  The leading causes of homelessness among veterans are post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain disorder, social isolation, unemployment, and substance abuse.  The state of California has the highest number of homeless veterans in the United States.

It’s enough to make one wonder, “What in the hell is the matter with this country?”  The answer, of course, is “Freaking bureaucrats.”

Hat tip:  Major Paul Chapman, USMC (Retired)

Operation Urgent Fury — Part 2

The Invasion of Grenada

(Continued from Last Week)

Land the Landing Force

Reveille sounded for the Marines at 0100.  They consumed their traditional pre-assault breakfast, drew live ammunition, and the squad and fire team leaders began checking their men.  ACE flight crews made ready to launch aircraft.  Only a few of the pilots in HMM-261 (or their enlisted men) had previous combat experience.  Twenty-one helicopters lifted off at 0315.  Marine pilots maintained radio silence and navigated using night vision goggles.  Intermittent rain showers delayed the launching of aircraft.

Company E 2/8, under the command of Captain Henry J. Donigan III, was “first in.”[1]  Their helicopters went ashore with AH-1 Cobra escorts.  The company’s target was LZ Buzzard, an unused race track south of the Pearls airfield.  Colonel Smith accompanied the lead element.  Smith ordered one platoon to take Hill 275, an anti-aircraft gun site.  Even though Grenadians manned the hill, they opted not to engage the Marines — which they demonstrated by dropping their weapons and fleeing down the other side of the hill.

With Hill 275 secure, Smith ordered Echo Company to push along a road toward the West side of the airfield.  Rugged terrain delayed the Marine’s progress by two hours.  As Echo Company was about to move toward the air terminal, they began receiving enemy mortar fire.  Two or three rounds landed near the terminal complex: five more landed in the vicinity of LZ Buzzard.  There were no casualties, and the firing soon stopped.

Following Echo Company an hour later, Fox Company went ashore just outside the town of Grenville.  The terrain was much rougher than reflected on aerial photographs, and the pre-designated landing site proved unsuitable.  Colonel Amos determined the only alternative landing site was an adjacent soccer field.  The problem with the soccer field was that it had a high brick wall that surrounded it.  Potentially, the field was a kill zone, but because the people of Grenada seemed welcoming of the Marines, Amos approved the landing and designated the soccer field as LZ Oriole.

Local citizens treated the Marines of Echo and Fox Companies as liberators.  In the minds of these civilians, Grenada had been cursed by thugs for far too long.  The locals led Marines to the homes of members of the Revolutionary Army; they pointed out members of the local militia.  They told the Marines where they could find concealed arms and munitions.  Locals even loaned the Marines their private vehicles to carry away dangerous munitions.

Marine Air/Army Rangers

Lieutenant Colonel Smith, who had gone ashore with Echo and Fox companies at Pearls/Grenville, was having a difficult time establishing radio contact with USS Guam.  He suspected that Colonel Faulkner was planning a surface landing at Grand Mal Bay or possibly at Gouyave, but he couldn’t know Faulkner’s intent without radio contact.  At around 1500, Smith received a radio message from his reconnaissance platoon commander informing him of the new plan.  Smith, with only sporadic radio contact, was confused.  He boarded a resupply helicopter, leaving his XO in charge, and returned to Guam.

Back aboard the ship, Smith received an update/briefing from the MAU operations officer, Major Tim Van Huss.  The objective of the Grand Mal Bay operation was to relieve Golf Company of its special mission.  The plan called for an amphibious landing at Grand Mal with Fox Company transferring by helicopter from Grenville — scheduled for execution that very evening.  Smith requested and received permission to delay the landing by two hours.

Captain R. K. Dobson, commanding Golf Company, was becoming irritated.  His company had been “on deck” since 0430; each time he received a “go” order, it was put on hold, rescheduled, or canceled.  Finally, after standing by inside the amphibious tractors for several hours aboard USS Manitowoc, Dobson ordered his Marines out of the tractors and informed them that they would go ashore by helicopter.  From 1330, the company was staged on the flight deck of the LST; Dobson fidgeted because he had no clear idea where his company would be employed — but then, neither did anyone else.

By 1750 it was growing dark; Captain Dobson instructed his platoon commanders to secure all weapons and ammunition return the men to their berthing spaces for much-needed sleep.  No sooner had Dobson given these instructions, he was called to the bridge.  Company G would go ashore at Grand Mal Bay in forty minutes; the amphibious landing was back on.  Marines were mustered and loaded aboard the AAVs … the first tractor left the ship precisely at 1830.  It was by then completely dark — there was no moon to navigate by reckoning.  The track vehicles headed for the beach in single file.  Thirty-one minutes later, the first tractor went ashore on the narrow beach with no opposition.  Captain Dobson was finally ashore, but he still had no instructions.  There was no radio communication with the BLT commander.

At around 1930, Navy LCUs began bringing in tanks, jeeps, and heavy weapons.  Within a short time, the narrow beach became congested with combat Marines and equipment.  Captain Dobson established area security with roadblock positions on the coastal road some 200 meters north and south of LZ Fuel.  After establishing flank security, Dobson sent his recon platoon to reconnoiter the roadway.

At 2300, Dobson could hear the sound of approaching helicopters.  Marines quickly rigged the LZ with red lights and a strobe to guide the aircraft, a Huey UH-1 bearing the MAU air liaison officer (ALO), Major William J. Sublette.  Sublette brought Dobson up to date on the operation and told him that there was a strong enemy force between G Company’s present position and St. George’s.  He also informed Dobson that Fox Company would arrive at his position sometime after midnight.  Dobson asked the major to contact Colonel Smith, give him Dobson’s present position, and request the battalion commander’s orders.

Lieutenant Colonel Smith arrived in a CH-46 an hour later.  The beach was so narrow, the helicopter had to unload its passengers with its back wheels in the surf; Smith and his staff had to wade ashore through the surf.  So far, the operation had been a communications disaster.  When the CH-46 returned to the ship, it carried a message to Colonel Amos asking that he airlift Fox Company from Grenville to Grand Mal Bay.

Smith directed Dobson to begin the process of moving Golf Company to the Queen’s Park Race Track; Fox Company began making its airlift movement from Grenville to LZ Fuel for a link-up with Golf at 0400 — the small LZ could only accommodate two CH-46s at a time, so the movement lasted until near daylight.  With Dobson receiving only light resistance from the Grenadians, Smith directed that he proceed to the Governor-General’s house to reinforce a 22-man special mission team and help evacuate Governor-General Sir Paul Scoon, his wife, and nine other civilians to USS Guam.

Once the Scoon party had safely departed Grenada, Smith ordered Dobson to proceed to and seize Fort Frederick, which dominated the entire area of St. George’s.  En route, local civilians informed Dobson that there remained a company-size unit and a large supply of ammunition inside the fort.

Captain Dobson sent a reinforced platoon to seize the high ground adjacent to Fort Frederick where they could provide supporting fire if needed.  With the balance of the company, Dobson proceeded through dense foliage along the ridgeline.  Nearing the fort, the Marines observed several men climbing down the outside wall as if abandoning their positions.  Within a short time, Captain Dobson’s company entered the fort unopposed, where they found randomly discarded uniforms — a suggestion that perhaps the Grenadian military had taken early retirement from active military service.[2]

Golf Company Marines quickly seized a large store of weapons and ammunition.  Additionally, in a lower chamber inside the fort, Captain Dobson discovered numerous documents purported to be arms agreements with Cuba, Nicaragua, and the Soviet Union, along with detailed maps of the disposition of Grenadian armed forces.  As Golf and Fox company consolidated their positions at Fort Frederick, the Marines of HMM-261 began preparing for the evacuation of American medical students.

Grand Anse

Colonel Amos was organizing additional lift support for BLT 2/8 when he received a directive from Admiral Metcalf to provide airlift support to the Army for NEO evacuations from the Grand Anse area.  Amos proceeded to the Salines airfield where he conferred with the CO 2nd Ranger Battalion (2/75th), Lieutenant Colonel Ralph L. Hagler, Jr., who, as it happened, was a classmate of Colonel Amos at the Virginia Military Institute.  Amos and Hagler sat down and planned the evacuation operations for the next day.  The beach at Grand Anse was narrow in width, short in length, and overgrown with heavy vegetation extending almost to the water’s edge.

The evacuation plan called for CH-46s carrying Rangers to land on the beach in three flights of three helicopters.  Four CH-53s would follow the 46s to pick up medical students.  Once the students had been taken off the beach, the 46s would return for the Rangers.  Amos would personally direct the airlift operation from an airborne UH-1 and coordinate additional air support from the Navy’s A-7 squadron from USS Independence and the USAF AC-130 detachment.  Naval gunfire would provide additional on-call fire support.

At 1600, CH-46s began airlift operations from Salines.  Artillery, mortars, and overhead aircraft opened up on suspected Grenadian and Cuban military positions five minutes later.  The bombardment continued until about twenty seconds before the first flight of 46s touched down on the beach.  The helicopter landings prompted a steady increase of enemy small arms fire. Waist gunners returned fire with their .50 caliber machine guns.

The narrowness of the beach forced the last CH-46 too close to an overhanging palm tree.  When a rotor blade contacted the palms, the pilot had to shut the aircraft down and order the crew to abandon the damaged helicopter.   

As soon as the Rangers exited the aircraft, they sprinted to the medical school dormitories.[3]  When the last of the remaining eight aircraft had departed, Colonel Amos ordered in the CH-53s.  Despite increasingly heavy fire from the Grenadians/Cubans, all students were safely evacuated.  As soon as the last 53 lifted off, the downed 46 became the focus on the enemy’s attention — which pissed off Lance Corporal Martin J. Dellerr, the downed helicopter’s crew chief.  When Dellerr saw that his helicopter was being peppered with small arms fire, he sprinted to the bird, conducted a full inspection of the aircraft, and then sprinted back to the pilot and announced that the bird could fly.[4]  The aircraft was shaking more than usual during takeoff, but it did return to Salines without further mishap.

Back to the Northeast

While Fox and Golf companies were operating in the southwest, Captain Donigan’s Echo Company continued operations in the north.  During the late afternoon of D Day, the company commander received information that armored vehicles, including one tank, were approaching from the north.  It was a false report, but it did cause Company E to suspend its operations and prepare for an armored attack.  Locals offered to help the Marines erect anti-vehicle obstacles, but the Marines urged them to vacate the area.

On 27 October, Colonel Smith ordered Captain Donigan to carry out a reconnaissance in force to the Mount Horne area, a little over two miles from Greenville.  Captured documents from Fort Frederick identified Mount Horne as the location of the headquarters element of the People’s Revolutionary Army Battalion.  Donigan led a reinforced rifle platoon to that location, encountering no enemy resistance.  On the contrary, local civilians welcomed the Marines and pointed them to two buildings that had served as a battalion command post.  One building housed a complete communications center, island maps, and modern radios.

Acting on information from residents, Donigan dispatched another reconnaissance on Mount St. Catherine, where a suspected enemy force controlled a television and microwave station.  En route, Marines weathered a heavy rain squall.  Their approach to the communications station prompted a handful of enemy soldiers to make a rapid withdrawal in the opposite direction.  The Marines discovered and confiscated several mortar and anti-tank munitions.

Smith directed Donigan to check out a report of a large cache of arms stored at the Mirabeau Hospital.  Once more, local civilians helped direct Donigan’s Marines to a large cave thought to contain ammunition.  The cave was empty, so Marines proceeded toward the hospital.  At the crest of a hill, the Marines encountered three Cubans who attempted to flee.  Marine riflemen wounded two of these men and placed them in custody.  In the fading light of day, unknown persons began firing at the Marines from a densely wooded ridgeline, but the enemy broke off contact after a few minutes.  There were no casualties among the Marines.  Donigan led his Marines back to Pearls the following morning.

St. George’s

Following the capture of Fort Frederick, Fox and Golf companies continued seizing the strong points around St. George’s.  The Marines destroyed one Soviet BTR-60 armored personnel carrier blocking the road between Fort Frederick and the Governor-General’s residence.  On 27 October, Smith was ordered to seize Richmond Hill Prison, Fort Adolphus, and Fort Lucas.  Captain Dobson’s Marines quickly took the prison, which had been abandoned, and organized his company for an assault on Fort Adolphus.  Dobson observed human activity inside the fort and reported this by radio to Smith during his approach.  After discussing the employment of prep-fire into the Fort, Smith decided against it because he believed, given the tendency of the Grenadians to flee, pre-assault fire may not be necessary.

Dobson’s Marines cautiously approached the fort.  Along the way, the Marines encountered the Ambassador to Venezuela, who informed the Marines that Fort Adolphus was, in fact, the Venezuela Embassy.  Smith’s discretion had avoided a serious international incident.

There was no enemy resistance as Marines from Fox Company entered St. George’s.  Once more, local civilians helped the Marines to discover caches of weapons and munitions and took into custody suspected members of the People’s Revolutionary Army.

Confusing Tactical Areas of Responsibility

To allow the Marines to continue their southward advance, Admiral Metcalf changed the boundary line between 82nd Airborne units (TF 121) and Marine Amphibious forces (TF 124).  The new line ran from Ross Point on the east coast to Requin Bay on the west.  This vital information never reached the Army’s operating elements and, to make matters worse, Marine and Army units had not exchanged liaison officers.   Radio call signs had not been disseminated for joint fire control center operations.  Both Marine and Army units remained unaware of their close proximities.

With the boundary shift, Colonel Smith’s Marines were no longer an adequate-sized force for controlling the new area of operations.  Since his artillery battery had remained aboard ship, Smith employed these Marines as part of a provisional rifle company and tasked them with area security in and around St. George’s.  Smith’s decision allowed him to employ Fox and Golf companies in other areas.

Smith received a report that as many as 400 Canadian, British, and American nations were located at the Ross Point Hotel, on Mattin’s Bay, south of St. George’s, and eagerly awaiting evacuation.  Fox Company Marines arrived at the hotel just after dark.  They discovered less than two dozen foreign nationals, mostly Canadians with no Americans.  Moreover — no one wished to be evacuated.

At the end of the second day, there was still no sign of Army units, so Fox Company set up a night defense around the Ross Point Hotel.  The next morning, the lead element of the 2nd Battalion, 325th Infantry Regiment (2/325th), reached the hotel.  No one in 2/325 was aware of the boundary shift, and insofar as they knew, the area of the Ross Hotel was a “free-fire zone.”  The only army people aware of the boundary shift were the division and brigade commanders, who had not passed the word to their subordinate units.  Smith became concerned that his Marines might become the targets of US Army units operating “in the dark.”

Mopping Up

By the end of the third day, peacekeeping forces from allied Caribbean nations began to arrive and take up their stations in the St. George’s area.  Smith’s provisional company continued to arrest and detain enemy personnel and confiscate arms and other equipment.  By this time, the number of “enemy” leaders had grown considerably, and these individuals also needed to be turned over to the peacekeepers.  Included in the detained number were the Deputy Prime Minister, Minister of National Mobilization, and Lieutenant Colonel Liam James of the New Jewel Movement.

Marines began preparing to turn over their positions to the 82nd Airborne Division units.  The 22nd MAU was needed in Beirut. 

Finalizing the North

On the fourth day, Captain Donigan’s Marines prepared to seize Sauteurs … an operation interrupted by the discovery of the PRA leader in the northern sector of Grenada, someone calling himself Lieutenant George.  Donigan’s first platoon took George into custody in Greenville.  With George’s surrender peacefully accepted, Echo Company moved out for Sauteurs at around 0300 the following day.  Donigan split the company into two teams.  Donigan intended his raiding team to assault the PRA camp near Sauteurs before the general advance on the town.  The company mortar section was set up on Mount Rose, halfway between Sauteurs and the Pearls airfield, and communicators set up a radio relay station at the same place.  The company’s second team readied for entering the town.

Donigan launched his raid at 0530; the camp seized without any resistance.  With no shots fired, residents awakened to find U.S. Marines in control of their town without resorting to violence.  Having been made aware that the people of Sauteurs were short on food, Captain Donigan took with him enough rations to feed the town for several days.  Red Cross workers undertook to effect fair distribution of these rations.  The goodwill of the Marines toward the town folk resulted in a cooperative attitude, and local people were happy to identify local members of the PRA.  Captured PRA couldn’t sing long enough or loud enough about other members and the locations of arms and munitions.

Meanwhile, Colonel Faulkner planned to move Fox and Golf companies to Gouyave and Victoria on the northwest coast — the only sizeable towns not already under Marine control.  Colonel Smith objected to removing Fox Company away from St. George’s, so Golf Company moved to the two towns alone.  There was no opposition in either of these towns, and both were peacefully seized.

Admiral Metcalf had one final concern: the island of Carriacou, one of two inhabited islands between Grenada and St. Vincent. Naval intelligence reported unconfirmed information that a North Korean military presence existed on Carriacou and that some PRA members had fled to the island.  Accordingly, Metcalf ordered the Marine Amphibious Unit to seize the island before daylight on 1 November 1983.  Once army units had replaced the Marines at Sauteurs, Pearls, St. George’s, Gouyave, and Victoria, the MAU returned to the sea and prepared for an amphibious/vertical landing at Carriacou.

The early morning landing at Carriacou was unopposed.  There were no North Korean soldiers on the island.  All PRA members voluntarily surrendered, and the citizens could not have been happier to see the American Marines.  One native asked if the island had become part of the United States and seemed disappointed with the negative response.  Army units arrived on 2 November to replace the Marines — which brought their role in Urgent Fury to an end.  The 22nd Marine Amphibious Unit Marines then proceeded to relieve the shattered battalion in Beirut, Lebanon.

Post Script

If the invasion of Granada proved anything at all, it was that the National Security Act of 1947 did not resolve age-old problems associated with joint missions’ interoperability.  The military services have different missions, but they also had dissimilar chains of command, incompatible equipment, different ways of completing similar tasks, and, always-present, interservice rivalry.

Service competition, in and of itself, is not a bad thing.  Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, and Marines take great pride in their service affiliation.  And, the fact is that interservice rivalry has existed since the Spanish-American War.  It continued through two world wars, the Korean War and Vietnam.  But at some point, an unhealthy rivalry is self-defeating.  During the invasion of Granada, Army Rangers had no way of communicating with Marine or Navy forces.  Senior army and air force officers routinely treated the Navy and Marine Corps as second-class citizens — as if only the Army and Air Force knew how to fight a war — and the Navy and Marines deeply resented it.[5]  Even now, under the unified command system, there is a cultural divide between Army and Marine forces, and nowhere is that better illustrated than the story of Marineistan. 

To fix this problem in 1985, Senator Barry Goldwater and Representative William Flynt Nichols developed a bill to reorganize the Department of Defense (Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act, 1986).  The Act essentially streamlined the military chain of command, designated the Chairman, JCS as the principal advisor to the President, National Security Council, and Secretary of Defense.  It also changed how the various services organize, train, equip, and fight.  The first test of Goldwater-Nichols was the U.S. invasion of Panama in 1989.

Sources:

  1. Adkin, M.  Urgent Fury: The Battle for Grenada: The Truth Behind the Largest U.S. Military Operation since Vietnam.  Lexington Books, 1989.
  2. Cole, R. H.  Operation Urgent Fury: The Planning and Execution of Joint Operations in Grenada.  Washington: Pentagon Study, 1997.
  3. Dolphin, G. E.  24 MAU 1983: A Marine Looks Back at the Peacekeeping Mission to Beirut, Lebanon.  Publish America, 2005.
  4. Moore, C.  Margaret Thatcher: At Her Zenith in London, Washington, and Moscow.  New York: Vintage Books, 2016
  5. Russell, L.  Grenada, 1983.  London: Osprey Books, 1985. 
  6. Spector, R. H.  U. S. Marines in Grenada.  Washington: Headquarters, U. S. Marine Corps, 1987.
  7. Williams, G.  US-Grenada Relations: Revolution and Intervention in the Backyard.  Macmillan, 2007.

Endnotes:

[1] Echo 2/8 was my first line unit (1963-1964)

[2] A captured Grenadian captain explained that none of the Grenadians expected a combined surface/vertical assault.  Observing U. S. Marines coming toward them from different positions became a psychological shock to defenders and senior officers alike.

[3] [3] The pilot of the last helicopter of the first flight misjudged the distance to an overhanging palm tree; when the rotor blade brushed against it, the pilot was forced to shut down his engines and abandon the bird where it came to rest on the beach.  The beach area had then become even tighter — another helicopter would have a similar problem.  

[4] Marine Corps crew chiefs become attached to their aircraft and crews.  

[5] Particularly in light of the hard feelings that existed from the earliest days of the Korean War when army units were unprepared to fight.


Operation Urgent Fury — Part 1

The Invasion of Grenada

Introduction

Grenada was (and continues to be) a member of the British Commonwealth, but that didn’t stop President Reagan from ordering a military invasion of that island in 1983.  To achieve the President’s objectives, the U.S. Department of Defense employed the following military and naval units:

U.S. Army Units

  • 1st and 2nd battalions, 75th Ranger Regiment
  • 2nd and 3rd Battalions of the 325th Airborne Infantry Regiment,
  • 1st and 2nd Battalions, 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment,
  • 1st and 2nd Battalions of the 508th Infantry Regiment,
  • 27th Engineer Battalion,
  • 548th Engineer Battalion,
  • 1st Battalion, 320th Artillery Regiment,
  • 160th Aviation Battalion,
  • 269th Aviation Battalion,
  • 1st and 2nd Battalion, 82nd Airborne Regiment,
  • 65th MP Company,
  • 118th MP Company,
  • 411th MP Company,
  • 35th Signal Brigade,
  • 203rd Military Intelligence Battalion,
  • 319th Military Intelligence Battalion,
  • 9th Psychological Operations Battalion,
  • 7th Transportation Battalion,
  • 44th Medical Services Brigade, and
  • The 82nd Finance Company.

U.S. Air Force Units

  • Detachment, 136th Tactical Airlift Wing
  • Detachments, Air National Guard Tactical Fighter Squadrons
  • Detachment, 23rd Tactical Fighter Wing 
  • 26th Air Defense Squadron, NORAD
  • 33rd Tactical Fighter Wing
  • 437th Military Airlift Wing
  • 1st Special Operations Wing
  • Detachment, 317th Military Airlift Wing 

U.S. Naval Units

  • U.S. Navy Independence Carrier Battle Group
  • 22nd Marine Amphibious Unit.

At the end of the first day, U.S. Marines from the 22nd MAU controlled 75% of the island’s 135 square miles.  It was a condition that prompted the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, U.S. Army General John Vessey, to inquire of Major General Edward Trobaugh, Commanding General of the 82nd Airborne Division, “We’ve got two companies of Marines running around all over the island and thousands of Army troops doing nothing.  What the hell is going on?”

Background

Erick Gairy (1922-1997), Chief Minister of Granada, could have been a stand-in for American actor/comedian Eddie Murphy.  Gairy was a trained school teacher and served in that capacity from 1939-1941.  For several years afterward, he worked for Largo Oil and Transport Company on the Island of Aruba.  By the time Gairy returned to Granada, he’d become a political radical of the Marxist bent.

In 1957, Gairy’s radicalism prompted the British government to ban him from political activity until 1961.  Popular among the people of Granada, however, Gairy returned to politics in the election of 1961 and, owing to his party’s majority in the legislature, became Chief Minister.  When Gairy’s party lost the election of 1962, Gairy became the legislature’s opposition leader through the end of the legislative session of 1967.

In 1967, Gairy won the general election and formed a new administration as Premier of the Associated State of Grenada, which he led until 1974.  When Grenada achieved its independence from the United Kingdom in 1974, Gairy became the Island’s first Prime Minister.  A series of civil disturbances marked his administration.  His so-called Mongoose Gang (a secret police organization) used violence and threats of mayhem to intimidate voters and political opponents alike.  Despite international observers declaring the election fraudulent, Gairy was narrowly reelected in 1976 by a thin margin, and the civil violence continued.  Gairy’s primary opponent in 1976 was Maurice Bishop, who formed and headed the New Jewel Movement (NJM).  Maurice Bishop led an armed revolution and overthrew the government when Gairy was out of the country.  Bishop suspended the constitution and ruled by fait accompli until 1983.[1]

Contentious Issues

In 1954, the British government proposed the construction of a new international airport.  The project was a cooperative effort involving Great Britain, Cuba, Libya, and Algeria; the project took shape under Bishop’s administration.  Canadians designed the airfield, the UK funded it, and a London firm won the contract for building it.

The United States objected to the airport’s construction because the 9,000-foot runway could accommodate large Soviet aircraft and facilitate Soviet-Cuban military buildups in the Caribbean.  In the view of the U. S. Secretaries of Defense and State, the Point Salines Airport would easily facilitate the transfer of weapons from the Soviet Union to Cuba and several Central American rebel groups.  CIA sources confirmed that Granada was receiving regular arms shipments from the Soviet Union, which was part of a communist scheme to destabilize the region.  Unsurprisingly, California Democrat Ron Dellums (another black radical) traveled to Grenada (at the request of Bishop) and publicly announced that, in his opinion, US concerns were unwarranted.

In March 1983, President Ronald Reagan issued a series of warnings about the Soviet Union’s threat to the United States and its Caribbean allies.  CIA analysts concluded that the Point Salines airport did not require an excessively long landing strip or quite as many fuel storage tanks to accommodate regular commercial air traffic.  Nevertheless, the airport became operational in May 1983, officially named Maurice Bishop International Airport.

In October, Granada Deputy Prime Minister Bernard Coard initiated a coup d’état and placed Bishop under house arrest.  Mass protests facilitated Bishop’s escape, enabling him to vocally reassert his authority.  Bishop, however, was tracked down and murdered along with his conjugal partner, several government officials, and loyal supporters of the labor union movement.  With Bishop out of the way, General Hudson Austin, head of the People’s Revolutionary Army of Grenada, seized power and established himself as the head of government.[2]  Austin placed British Governor-General Paul Scoon under house arrest.

On 23 October, Governor Scoon sent a secret message to the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS) asking for help.  The OECS, Barbados, and Jamaica made a joint appeal to the United States for assistance in dealing with “the current anarchic conditions, the serious violations of human rights, bloodshed, and the consequent threat to the peace and security of the region.”  Beyond these conditions, approximately 1,000 American medical students attended St. George’s University Medical School.  General Austin isolated them as hostages against any action the United States might take against his regime.

Military Intervention

Captain Carl R. Erie, U. S. Navy, served as Commander, Atlantic Amphibious Task Force.  His command included Amphibious Squadron-4 (PhibRon-4) and the 22nd Marine Amphibious Unit (22ndMAU).[3]  Colonel James K. Faulkner, USMC, commanded the MAU, which consisted of a ground combat element (GCE), an air combat element (ACE), and a combat service support element (CSSE).  The GCE was Battalion Landing Team (BLT) 2nd Battalion, 8th Marines (2/8) under Lieutenant Colonel Ray L. Smith, USMC.  Serving as the ACE was Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron (HMM) 261 under Lieutenant Colonel Granville R. Amos, USMC.  Major Albert E. Shively commanded the CSSE.  The task force was en route to the Mediterranean as part of a regular US presence there.

Once the U.S. National Command Authority decided that military intervention in Grenada was appropriate and warranted, the Chief of Naval Operations directed Captain Erie to take up station at a point five-hundred miles northeast of Granada and await further instructions.  After consulting with Colonel Faulkner, Erie assumed that the mission, if directed, would involve a non-combat evacuation operation (NEO).  At that time, Erie had no specific information about the number or location of potential evacuees.

On 23 October, the U.S. military had no worthwhile information about Grenada.  None of Captain Erie’s ships had maps of Grenada.[4]  USS Guam did have outdated nautical charts produced by the United Kingdom in 1936, but their usefulness to a modern navy was marginal.  However, Commander Richard A. Butler, USN, who was then serving as Captain Erie’s chief of staff, did have personal experience as an amateur yachtsman in the waters surrounding Granada, and he was somewhat familiar with the area — including an awareness of coastal features, tides, surf, and beaches.  It was also fortunate that Lieutenant Colonel Smith had studied Granada while an Armed Forces Staff College student.

However, until Captain Erie received specific orders, there could be no planning because a NEO requires names and national affiliations of potential evacuees.  Beyond the estimate of “about 1,000 medical students,” Captain Eric was not receiving any information from the U.S. State Department.  Faulkner’s planning would encompass more than force landing, force security, and force extraction if the amphibious group were ordered to conduct something beyond a NEO.

Captain Erie finally received instructions to dispatch a helicopter to Antigua to pick up “advisors” and return them to PhibRon-4.  Still anticipating a NEO, senior Navy and Marine Corps officers assumed these people could be State Department representatives.

At 22:00 on 22 October, Captain Erie received another message directing PhibRon-4 to proceed to Grenada; a supplemental message provided general information on Grenadian military forces’ expected strength and disposition.  Erie was told to “stand by” for intelligence updates.

Ultimately, Captain Erie learned that the Grenadian military numbered around 1,200 men.  Military hardware included 12.7mm and 37mm anti-aircraft batteries provided by the Soviet Union.  Intelligence analysts warned Erie that a Grenadian reserve/militia force of between 2,000-5,000 men and 300-400 armed police could be expected to back the Army.  US intelligence also estimated between 30 to 50 Cuban military advisors, an unknown number of Cuban civilians, and around 600 Cuban construction workers.[5]

Vice Admiral Joseph Metcalf, serving as Commander, U.S. Second Fleet (COMUSSECONDFLT) (serving also as Commander, Joint Task Force 120) (CJTF-120), messaged Erie to advise him that land operations, whatever they might entail, would fall under the authority of the U. S. Army commander.[6] An airborne assault would involve the 82nd Airborne Division, reinforced by U.S. Army Rangers.  Given this new information, Colonel Faulkner assumed that any mission handed to the Marines would be in support of Army forces, possibly in reserve.

When Erie’s helicopter returned from Antigua on 23 October, no state department personnel were onboard.  Instead, the aircraft’s passengers were U.S. Atlantic Fleet intelligence officers carrying updated information about Grenada and a draft operation order identifying Admiral Metcalf’s operational components: the 82nd Airborne Division, reinforcing components, and the Navy/Marine Corps Amphibious Force (Task Force 124).[7]

The urgency of the intervention compressed the time frame for the operation.  Still, much of the information Captain Eric needed to plan an amphibious assault remained unknown.  To Colonel Faulkner’s surprise, the operation order directed TF-124 to seize the Pearls Airport, the port of Grenville, and neutralize any opposing force within that operating area.  Army units (TF-121 and TF-123) would secure points on the island’s southern end, including the Bishop International Airport at Point Salines.  The carrier battle group (Task Group 20.5) and the U. S. Air Force elements would support the ground forces.

Colonel Faulkner, Lieutenant Colonel Smith, and Lieutenant Colonel Amos received Admiral Metcalf’s guidance a mere 30 hours before “H” Hour.  Faulkner intended to employ a combined air and surface assault to seize his assigned objectives, but he still didn’t have sufficient information to complete his assault plan.  The MAU operations officer wanted to give the GCE maximum strength and flexibility so that Smith could deal with whatever opposition might be waiting ashore.  Still, there remained questions about the suitability of a surface landing on the eastern beaches due to high winds and heavy surf.

Admiral Metcalf decided that D Day would occur on 25 October but added one constraint: no landing would occur before 0400 on D Day.  Colonel Smith and Colonel Amos wanted to launch their assault at first light to minimize the anti-aircraft threat; Metcalf’s restriction simply made that window even smaller.  Moreover, Admiral Metcalf’s rules of engagement (ROE) restricted gunplay to “… only those weapons essential for the mission’s success.”  Metcalf’s instructions ordered ground commanders to avoid disrupting the local economy as much as possible.  Marines were told to establish friendly relations with the Grenadian people whenever possible.  Colonel Smith emphasized this to his company commander: “We are liberating the Grenadians, not attacking them.”

The Marines completed their operational planning on 24 October.  Early that morning, Metcalf met with his boss and the Army commanders.  From this meeting, Admiral Metcalf changed H Hour to 0500.  PhibRon-4 rendezvoused with TG-20.5 off the coast of Barbados, and Metcalf arrived onboard USS Guam at 1745 to assume direct command of the joint task force.  Metcalf approved the operation plan.

At midnight, Navy SEALs went ashore to conduct beach reconnaissance operations.  The task force entered Grenadian waters at around 0200.  At 0400, SEALs reported a marginal beach for landing craft and tracked vehicles.  Accordingly, Captain Erie decided that the primary landing force would go in vertically.  Helicopters would land two rifle companies on the East Coast to seize Pearls Airport and the town of Grenville.  Once these Marines were “feet dry,” Erie would entertain Faulkner’s recommendation for an amphibious landing if the Marines could find a suitable beach.  As the MAU operations staff made last-minute preparations, grunts watched a film on the mess deck — The Sands of Iwo Jima.

(Continued Next Week)

Sources:

  1. Adkin, M.  Urgent Fury: The Battle for Grenada: The Truth Behind the Largest U.S. Military Operation since Vietnam.  Lexington Books, 1989.
  2. Cole, R. H.  Operation Urgent Fury: The Planning and Execution of Joint Operations in Grenada.  Washington: Pentagon Study, 1997.
  3. Dolphin, G. E.  24 MAU 1983: A Marine Looks Back at the Peacekeeping Mission to Beirut, Lebanon.  Publish America, 2005.
  4. Moore, C.  Margaret Thatcher: At Her Zenith in London, Washington, and Moscow.  New York: Vintage Books, 2016
  5. Russell, L.  Grenada, 1983.  London: Osprey Books, 1985. 
  6. Spector, R. H.  U. S. Marines in Grenada.  Washington: Headquarters, U. S. Marine Corps, 1987.
  7. Williams, G.  US-Grenada Relations: Revolution and Intervention in the Backyard.  Macmillan, 2007.

Endnotes:

[1] Maurice Bishop was a Marxist revolutionary and head of the Marxist/Leninist/Black Liberation Party.

[2] Austin had the tacit approval of the Soviet government to proceed with the coup d’état and take over the government.  Contrary to Congressman Dellums’ assessment, the threat to the United States and Caribbean allies was real.  Austin also had close ties to Communist Cuba, as did several members of the NJM movement, including Bishop, Coard, and Scoon.

[3] Today, Marine Amphibious Units are referred to as Marine Expeditionary Units (MEUs).  MEU commanders exercise operational and administrative supervision of battalion landing teams (BLTs) (reinforced battalions task organized for a specific type of mission) and composite air squadron (with vertical lift aircraft), and an expeditionary service support (logistics) group.

[4] USS Guam (LPH-9), USS Trenton (LPD-14), USS Fort Snelling (LSD-30), USS Barnstable County (LST 1197) or USS Manitowoc (LST-1180).

[5] In reality, Cuban military forces included around 800 men, a quarter of whom were regular military.

[6] Major General Edward Trobaugh commanded the 82nd Airborne Division; Major General Jack B. Farris serving as deputy commander XVIII Airborne Corps exercised overall command of ground operations during Operation Urgent Fury.

[7] On Sunday morning, 23 October 1983, terrorist bombers attacked International Peacekeepers in Beirut, Lebanon, killing 241 U.S. Marines and Navy corpsmen, 58 French military, and 6 civilians.  The Marines and Corpsmen were members of BLT 1/8, sister battalion of the GCE of the 22nd MAU (which before the Grenada warning order, were en route to relieve 1/8 on station Beirut.


Forward Air Control (FAC)

Introduction

It wasn’t very long after the invention of the airplane that men began thinking about how this marvelous invention might be used in warfare.  The truth, however, is that the airplane went onto the drafting table in 1480 and stayed there until 1903.

By 1907, the U.S. Army Signal Corps had begun preparing itself for flight.  An aeronautical division was created and staffed with three first lieutenants who agreed they had what it takes to try anything once.  In 1909, the Wright Brothers delivered its first aircraft to the Army Signal Corps.  No doubt, lieutenants drew straws to see who would go first.

The first conflict to extensively use aviation support for ground forces was the First World War when military and naval aviation was still in its infancy.  Aircraft then were small, flimsy, and slow, and the effect of rifle caliber machine guns (and light bombs) offered limited effectiveness.  Even so, military, and naval aviation psychologically affected ground troops, particularly those in static positions.  Unlike artillery, the airplane was a personal enemy; even the sound of an aircraft could make an infantryman’s blood run cold.

Although slow on the uptake, military ground officers learned that aviation support required careful planning and coordination and that the most successful attacks of the war were those where ground officers took air warfare very seriously.  To be fair, however, many of these ground officers were still thinking about the Indian wars and horse cavalry.

One significant challenge to everyone (aviator and ground officer alike) was air-to-ground communications — initially limited to using hand signals, dropping handwritten messages from the cockpit, or messenger pigeons.  The first use of air-to-ground electronic signals occurred at the Battle of Gorlice by Benno Fiala von Fernbrugg, an Austro-Hungarian pilot, who sent a morse code message to an artillery unit.

The term ground commanders use to describe aviation support provided to ground troops is “Close Air Support” (also, CAS).  The Great War began in 1914, but it was not until 1916 that the aviation community developed a specific air support doctrine.  British aviators developed two tactics that fell under the heading of CAS: trench strafing and ground strafing.  These early shapers of doctrine realized there could not be close air support without forward air controllers guiding it.

In response to the allied use of aviation close air support, the German enemy was quick to develop air combat elements of its own.  When they did — allied aviation casualties increased substantially.

Navy-Marine Corps Aviation

U.S. Naval aviation began with pioneer aviator Glenn Curtiss, who contracted with the Navy to demonstrate whether aircraft could take off and land aboard ships at sea.  Pilot Eugene Ely accomplished this feat in 1910.  Eugene apparently drew the short straw.

Marine Corps aviation began on 22 May 1912 when First Lieutenant Alfred A. Cunningham began duty “in a flight status” at the Naval Aviation Camp at Annapolis, Maryland.  Cunningham was the Marine Corps’ first aviator. 

During the 1920s and 1930s, U.S. Marines employed Curtiss Falcon aircraft and Vought Corsairs equipped with radios powered by airstream-driven generators — with a communications range of about 50 miles.  Another method of communication was for the pilot to drop messages in a weighted container and swoop in and pick up messages suspended from “clotheslines” between two high poles.  Under these circumstances, Marine aviation pilots functioned as FAC and strike pilots in operations against Nicaraguan Sandinistas.  In terms of combat aviation, the Marines excel when compared to the other services because of the support rendered to Marines by Marines.  Marine Corps Aviation is a “Marine Thing.” And while the Marines may not have “invented” CAS, they certainly deserve credit for perfecting it.

Now, about America’s Marines 

The U.S. Marine Corps is a unique organization within the Department of Defense.  Marines look different from other service personnel, and they think about warfare much differently than any of the other uniformed services.

The Marine Corps’ primary responsibility is to maintain an amphibious warfare capability.  To accomplish that mission, the Corps relies on ground forces that are relatively light and highly mobile.  Lacking a heavy footprint of forward-deployed forces (tanks, for example), the Marine Air-Ground Task Force (MAGTF) turns to its task-organized aviation components to provide heavy fire support to its maneuver elements.  

The primary link between ground and aviation forces is the Forward Air Controller (FAC).  FACs are Marine Corps aviators assigned to Battalion Landing Teams responsible for coordinating and controlling air assault support and close air support within their assigned ground units.  FACs also assist more senior air officers (AOs) within ground units in advising ground commanders on the tactical employment (and safety considerations) required for sound air combat operations.

The Marine Corps invests heavily in training its FACs — from initial officer training and naval flight school to completion of tactical air control party school.  This training (and lessons learned throughout previous campaigns and conflicts) continues to improve the sophistication and effectiveness of CAS.  The effectiveness of MAGTFs hasn’t changed in well over 100 years.  When enemy troops hear the sound of Marine Corps CAS aircraft, their blood turns cold because they know what is left of their miserable lives must be measured in seconds.

Some History

World War II

The Marine Corps reached its peak aviation capability with five air wings, 31 aircraft groups, and 145 flying squadrons.  Guadalcanal became an important defining point in the evolution of Marine Air.  Marines learned that they must achieve and then maintain air superiority, that transport ships were vital targets, and that the Marines must be prepared to create and defend expeditionary airfields.  But, for the first two years, Marines could not support the Fleet Marine Forces in the way it had trained; instead, Marine aviators flew in support of the fleet and land-based installations.

After the battle of Tarawa, Marines began flying CAS missions in support of the landing force.  The first real close air support mission provided to landing forces occurred during the New Georgia campaign, Bougainville, and the Philippines.  In these missions, Marine Corps air liaison officers coordinated air support with troops on the ground.  These measures were perfected during the Battle of Okinawa.

During World War II, Marine aviators accounted for 2,355 Japanese kills while losing 573 of their own aircraft.  Marines accounted for 120 aces and earned 11 medals of honor.  After the war, President Truman reduced Marine aviation organizations to three air wings and further reduced funding so that the Marine Corps could only afford a single air wing to fight in the Korean War.

The Korean War

The first major surprise of the post-World War II period arrived on 25 June 1950.  North Korea invaded South Korea — and they weren’t joking.  The United Nations Command in Tokyo, headed by General of the Army Douglas MacArthur, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the United States Defense Department in Washington, D.C., were completely surprised.  The United States and the Soviet Union agreed at Cairo and Yalta that the Korean Peninsula should be temporarily and jointly occupied by U.S. and U.S.S.R. forces until Korea could learn to govern itself after many years of Japanese occupation.  The Americans never imagined that the Russians would launch a sneak attack to settle the issue militarily.

The expensive lesson learned by the Americans was that the USSR could not be trusted.  Ill-prepared UN and US forces were quickly overwhelmed by nine infantry divisions and one armored division of Soviet T-34 tanks.  The South Korean Army, barely a year old, only knew one tactic: run like hell.  South Korea’s capital city, Seoul, fell in three days.

In response to urgent requests for American reinforcements from the Far East Command, the 1st (Provisional) Marine Brigade was dispatched to South Korea, arriving on 2 August 1950.  The Brigade included a reinforced Marine infantry regiment and a Marine aircraft group.

The air group included Marine Fighter Squadron (VMF) 214, VMF 323, VMF 513, Marine Observation Squadron (VMO) 6, and Marine Tactical Air Control Squadron 2.  Altogether, the air group consisted of 60 Vought F4U Corsairs, 8 Consolidated OY Sentinels, and 4 Sikorsky HO3S-1s.

General MacArthur didn’t ask for an air group, but he got one anyway — that’s how Marines prepare for war.  The fact was that despite the Marine Corps’ efforts toward convincing the Army of the value of close air support in World War II, there was no Army interest in developing such a capability.  This situation only got worse once the Air Force became a separate service.  The flyboys wanted the glamor of being fighter pilots and strategic bomber drivers.  At that time, no one in the Air Force was interested in providing close air support to ground troops.  Both Navy and Marine Corps aviators are trained to provide CAS, but of the two, the Marines are better at it.  The close air support provided by Marine Corps pilots saved U.S. forces from annihilation in the Pusan Perimeter.

After the 10th Corps’ withdrawal from the Chosin Reservoir, the Korean War bogged down in a slightly modified rendition of trench warfare.  The effectiveness of Marine Corps CAS had taught the Chinese Communists that they had a better combat survival rate by conducting nighttime operations.  In any case, with no interest by the U.S. Army or U.S. Air Force in close air support operations, most CAS missions performed in the U.S. 8th Army were conducted by the Royal Air Force, British Navy, Royal Australian Air Force, South African Air Force, Greek Air Force, and Royal Thailand Air Force.

Serving on call to Marine ground forces, Marine aviators continued to employ CAS during daylight operations but also began to develop radar-guided bombing techniques for night operations.  As previously mentioned, allied air forces began contributing to tactical air strike missions.  Assisting with tactical strike missions were Airborne Forward Air Controllers (also, Fast FAC), who (according to some statisticians) should be credited with 40,000 CAS sorties and air strikes that killed 184,000 enemy troops.

Despite having agreed on a common forward air control doctrine embodied in Field Manual 31 – 35 Air-Ground Operations, a turf war broke out between the Air Force and Army over FAC doctrine for the entire war.  The Marine Corps maintained its FAC operations in support of Marine ground forces.  The Navy and Air Force operated independently.  With no common doctrine agreed upon during the Korean war, forward air control systems were shut down in 1956.

War in Indochina

When Forward Air Control was revived in 1961, it reemerged as a jumble of errors — unreliable radios, inadequately configured aircraft, differing concepts of close air support, and impeding jungle terrain.  Control of Marine Corps aviation in Vietnam became a very sensitive issue from the outset of the Marine Corps’ in-country operations.

Senior Marine aviators remembered their experience in Korea, where the 1st Marine Aircraft Wing had been under the operational control of the U.S. Air Force.  They believed Air Force managers had unwisely employed Marine aircraft and aviation capabilities.  In particular, they deeply resented being denied “permission” to provide close air support to their Marine infantry brothers, which caused increased death and injury to Marines that would have otherwise been avoided.  In Vietnam, Marine aviation generals were determined not to allow a repeat of the Korean War experience.

In 1964, when air operations were undertaken over Laos and North Vietnam, Admiral U.S. Grant Sharp[1] authorized General Westmoreland to designate the senior U. S. Air Force commander in Vietnam as coordinating authority since both Air Force and Navy air units were participating in these operations.  A year later, when the decision was made to “land the Marines” at Da Nang, it was natural for Admiral Sharp to direct that a similar arrangement be devised to coordinate fixed-wing aviation in support of the 9th Marine Expeditionary Brigade (9thMEB).

The Commanding General, 9thMEB reported to the Commander, U.S. Military Assistance/Advisory Command, Vietnam) (COMUSMACV).  Major General Joseph H. Moore, Commander, 7th U.S. Air Force, Vietnam, exercised coordinating authority over tactical air support and traffic control.  CINCPAC reaffirmed the Air Force’s authority just before assigning a Marine F-4 fighter squadron to 9thMEB — General Westmoreland, COMUSMACV intended to place the Marine squadron under the operational control of General Moore, but Admiral Sharp objected.  Thirty days later, Admiral Sharp published a directive governing the conduct and control of close air support.  Admiral Sharp stated that close air support was the chief mission of U.S. aviation in South Vietnam.

After receiving CINCPAC’s instructions, Westmoreland ordered revisions to his “air support” directive.  The new order reiterated CINCPAC’s appointment of General Moore.  The CG III MAF (LtGen Walt) retained operational control of Marine aviation, but to ensure maximum utilization of all US aircraft, Walt’s instructions were to notify General Moore (2nd Air Division) of any un-utilized USMC aircraft so that they could be used in support of non-Marine Corps MACV operations.

The CG 1stMAW, Major General McCutcheon, met with General Moore to coordinate air efforts relating to air defense operations.  Moore wanted operational control over all air defense assets — General McCutcheon demurred.  The F-4 aircraft was a dual-purpose airframe, capable of CAS and air-to-air operations.  To relinquish these aircraft to the USAF would deprive Marine ground commanders of their most important (and most lethal) supporting arm.

There was not a lot of love between the Air Force and Marine Corps Aviators.[2]  According to the former Chief of Staff of the 1stMarine Aircraft Wing (1stMAW), Colonel Thomas J. O’Connor, “The arrival of Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 531 (VMFA-531) and Marine Composite Reconnaissance Squadron One (VMCJ-1) (in Vietnam) marked the end of a long period of planning, coaxing, cajoling, begging, and outright pressure to obtain space for the units to operate out of Da Nang Airbase.  During the early planning stages [for the deployment], high-level commands battled at the Pentagon, CINCPAC, and in the Far East over [the question of] who would conduct air operations out of Da Nang.  Navy and Marine Corps commands invoked the nebulous authority of Marine Air-Ground Task Forces.  Events overtook the plans.  The Air Force was there [Da Nang] — and they invoked the military equivalent of “squatters rights” — they occupied the entire east side of the airfield.  The Air Force was unwilling to move around and vacate more space for the deploying Marine fixed-wing units.  Finally, under the weight of plans approved at high levels, and with Marines, deployment dates irrevocably approaching, the Air Force finally gave in.  Some promises about future construction to enlarge their area, commitments of Marine support of various projects, and a lot of sweet talks did the trick.”

This situation described by Colonel O’Connor would not change until the Marines constructed an expansion of airfield facilities at Da Nang, Chu Lai, and Marble Mountain.

The Number of Planes

Marine Corps aviation units also increased as the number of ground units increased within the III MAF.  In March 1965, two F-4 squadrons supported 9thMAB.  In April, Marine Aircraft Group 16 (MAG-16) (initially a composite helicopter air group) arrived to absorb the fixed-wing squadrons.  In May, advance elements of the 1stMAW headquarters arrived in Vietnam.  In June, MAG-12 arrived at Chu Lai; in July, MAG-11 joined the fight by assuming operational control over all fixed wing squadrons at Da Nang (from MAG-16), including VMCJ-1 VMFA-513, VMFA-542.  At the end of July, another helicopter air group arrived (MAG-36), along with a missile battalion (2d LAAM Bn).  In September, MAG-36 began operating out of Chu Lai with squadrons HMM-362, HMM-364, VMO-6, H&MS-36, and MABS-36.  HMM-363 operated at Qui Nhon.  MAG-16 at Da Nang operated with HMM-261, HMM-361, VMO-2, and two support squadrons (H&MS-16 & MABS-16); HMM-161 operated from Phu Bai.  HMH-462 arrived in Vietnam in late September 1965 and joined MAG-16.  Helicopter squadrons rotated between South Vietnam, the U.S. Seventh Fleet, and Marine Corps Air Stations on Okinawa.

The Control Factor    

General McCutcheon did not intend to deprive Marines of their aircraft, but he did understand the necessity of having one overall air defense commander.  A memorandum of agreement between the USAF and Marines highlighted the basic policies, procedures, and air defense responsibilities.  The Air Force had overall air defense responsibility.  McCutcheon designated Marine units to support the general air defense effort.

The system of CAS employed by Marines in South Vietnam was the product of innovative thinking during the island campaigns of World War II.  By 1965, the Marine air support doctrine had been continuously modified to keep pace with technological advances.  Marine attack aircraft were required to fly close air support missions against enemy troops within fifteen meters of friendly lines.  To reduce the risk to allied infantry, CAS was a controlled event by tactical air controllers (airborne) (also, TAC (A)) in high-performance aircraft, a forward air controller (airborne) (FAC (A)), or a forward air controller (ground) (FAC (G)).

Most III MAF aerial observers (AOs) performed their missions in light observation aircraft.  The AOs were also air controllers qualified to direct air strikes, artillery, and naval gunfire support.  Airborne controllers (familiar with the tactical situation on the ground) remained “on station” for extended periods.  AOs established and maintained contact with supported infantry units on Frequency Modulated (FM) tactical radios while directing attack aircraft over an Ultra High Frequency (UHF) net.  Communications for air support control was a “flexible” arrangement that depended on the circumstances and availability of ground radios.  FM radios of ground forces were incompatible with UHF radios of jet aircraft.  Moreover, UHF radios in ground units, usually at the battalion level or higher, were unavailable to company or platoon size units — where the fighting usually took place.

After the air controller relayed pertinent targeting information and mission requirements to the attack pilots on station, he then marked the target with a white phosphorus rocket or a colored smoke grenade.  Once the AO was certain the attack pilot had identified the intended target, he cleared the attack aircraft to make their firing run.  Once cleared, the lead pilot rolled in toward the target marker and dropped his ordnance.  Using the lead pilot’s “hits” as a reference, the controller furnished the second plane in the flight with whatever corrections were necessary and cleared the aircraft to make its run.  The above procedure continued until all attack aircraft had completed their mission.

The two types of CAS missions flown by Marines in Vietnam were preplanned and on-call.  The preplanned mission was a complex process.  First, a battalion commander would submit a request for fixed-wing aircraft through the air liaison officer — usually the day before his battalion began an operation.  The request would go to the Direct Air Support Center (DASC) and the Tactical Air Direction Center (TADC) of the air wing headquarters at Da Nang.  All CAS requests were assimilated at that level, and orders were issued to fixed-wing air groups (MAG-11 and MAG-12).

On-call missions could be processed and executed almost instantaneously — they were flown either in support of troops in contact with the enemy or against targets of opportunity located by airborne or ground controllers.  Once the air groups received their orders, they scheduled flights and issued mission requirements to the individual squadrons.  This procedure required approximately 20 hours from the initial time of request to deliver the ordnance to the target.

In the case of an emergency (on-call) mission, the TADC or DASG could divert in-flight aircraft from their original missions to a new target.  The TADG could also call on aircraft, which each air group maintained “on call” around the clock for just such contingencies.  Marine air also provided this combat support for other than Marine Corps units.  During the battle of Ba Gia in June 1965, the A-4s of Colonel Noble’s MAG-12 took off on their first night launch from Chu Lai to support the embattled outpost 20 miles to the south.

For three days, MAG-12’s Skyhawks and (F-4B) Phantoms bombed and strafed the enemy positions around the clock.  Four months later, F4Bs from Colonel Anglin’s MAG-11 and the A-4s from Colonel Brown’s MAG-12 flew 59 sorties in support of U.S. and South Vietnamese troops at the Plei Me outpost (20 miles southwest of Pleiku in northwestern II Corps).  The air assault against the outpost resulted in a significant engagement, the Battle of Ia Drang Valley, in which the U.S. Army’s 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile) killed 1,238 enemies in 12 days.  In the third quarter of 1965, MAG-11 and MAG-12 flew 4,614 sorties in support of Marine units and 1,656 sorties for the ARVN units.

Marine attack aircraft performed several other missions besides their primary task of close air support.  Both the F-4 and A-4 communities flew direct air support missions.  Similar to close air support, these strikes were not conducted near friendly lines and did not require integration with the ground unit’s fire support plan, although coordination did take place at an echelon of command above that of the maneuver unit.  The aim of the direct air support strikes was to isolate the enemy from the battlefield and destroy his troops and support mechanism.  The two fixed-wing groups also played a vital role in protecting the MAG-36 and MAG-16 helicopters.

During the Vietnam War, the United States introduced several fixed and rotary wing gunships, including several cargo aircraft modified to support gun platforms.  These performed as CAS and interdiction aircraft.  The first of these was the C-47 (Spooky) — converted from the Douglas C-47 airframe (DC-3).  It was highly effective in the CAS role.  The troops loved it.  The USAF also developed the Fairchild AC-119 and the Lockheed AC-130 gunship.  The AC-130 has been around for a long time; it is one of the finest airframes ever produced for defense purposes.  Multiple variants of the AC-130 exist and continues to undergo modernization.

Usually, close support is thought to be only carried out by Fighter-bombers or dedicated ground-attack aircraft, such as the A-10 — but even high-altitude bombers capable of high-precision guided munitions are useful in a CAS role.

During Operation Enduring Freedom, the scarcity of fighter aircraft forced military planners to rely on B1B aircraft relying on GPS-guided munitions and laser-guided JDAMS.  One benefit of the high-altitude airframe, aircraft can be utilized on 12-hour in-flight missions.  The USAF employed many of these airframes in Afghanistan.  International CAS missions were flown by Belgium, Denmark, France, the Netherlands, Norway (F-16s), the U.K. (Harriers, Tornados), and several U.S. aircraft.

Finally, using information technology to direct and coordinate precision air support has increased the importance of intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance in using CAS, laser, and GPS to communicate battlefield data.  Recent doctrine reflects the use of electronic and optical technology to direct targeted fires for CAS.  Air platforms communicating with ground forces can also provide additional aerial-to-ground visual search, ground-convoy escort, and enhancement of command and control (C2), which can be particularly important in low-intensity conflicts.

For an interesting first-hand account of the Fast FAC mission, see The Playboy Club.

Sources:

  1. Blair, C.  The Forgotten War: America in Korea, 1950-1953.  Random House, 1987.
  2. Corum, J. S.  Airpower in Small Wars: Fighting insurgents and terrorists.  Kansas University Press, 2003.
  3. Dorr, R. F.  Vietnam Air War Debrief.  London Aerospace Publishing, 1996.
  4. House, J. M.  Combined Arms Warfare in the Twentieth Century.  Kansas University Press, 2001.
  5. Krulak, V. H.  First to Fight: An Inside View of the U.S. Marine Corps.  Naval Institute Press, 1984
  6. Tenenbaum, E.  The Battle over Fire Support: The CAS Challenge and the Future of Artillery.  PDF, Focus Strategique, Institute Français, 2012. 

Endnotes:

[1] U.S. Grant Sharp, Jr., USN (1906 – 2001) served as Commander-in-Chief, U. S. Pacific Fleet (1963 – 1964) and Commander-in-Chief, U. S. Pacific Command (1964 – 1968).  

[2] Despite their carnal relationships since 1947, there remains no true love between the USAF and USMC aviation community.