The Perdicaris Incident

Introduction

Admiral Mahan

Few Americans stand out as much as Alfred Thayer Mahan as one of the foremost thinkers on naval warfare and maritime strategy.  Some even say that Mahan was THE leading thinker on sea power and the conduct of war at sea.  Admiral Mahan was respected as a scholar in his own time, served as President of the American Historical Association, and is remembered as the author of The Influence of Sea Power Upon History.  Mahan’s studies examine the role of navies in determining the outcome of wars fought by the great European powers during the period between the end of the seventeenth and the beginning of the nineteenth centuries and remain valuable for their insight into sea power and strategy.

Admiral Mahan was also a student of international relations and attempted to apply the study of history toward an understanding of foreign policy and strategic problems of his day.  For a quarter of a century, he was a visible scholar and was sought by news outlets and public figures for his insight and advice.  Theodore Roosevelt was his friend, Franklin Roosevelt was a student, and Woodrow Wilson sought to silence him.  In President Wilson’s opinion, no good could come from military or naval officers who could think for themselves.

Mahan was, himself, a student of Thucydides — placing a high value on understanding the strategies pursued by the ancient Greeks, but he was dubious about the ability of states to promote cooperation by employing international law or the organization and political activity of peace societies because arbitration agreements among states, or the establishment of norms for conduct in the international arena were likely to work only so long as the issues at stake were limited in importance.  Once a great power’s vital interests were threatened, Mahan believed that international agreements to promote cooperation would give way to armed forces searching for security.  Mahan had no faith in the ramblings of liberal globalists who thought that agreements between nations would ensure peaceful relations — and as it turned out, Mahan was right.  In Mahan’s view, the best way to prevent war was for a country to be so well-armed that potential adversaries would be deterred from risking a conflict.

Paying very close attention to Mahan was a young politician with so much personal energy that he made others nervous.  It is fair to say that Theodore Roosevelt was an admirer of Admiral Mahan, but it would be a mistake to argue that Roosevelt owed Mahan for all his brilliant pragmatism.  Theodore Roosevelt was no shrinking violet in the study of history — and one wonders how much influence Roosevelt may have had on Mahan.  In 1879, while still an undergraduate at Harvard, Theodore Roosevelt began his study of the War of 1812, which became a prodigious effort.  In his research, what may have struck Roosevelt was that the American Navy had been unable to gain command of the sea despite its successes.  This revelation may have driven him toward a keen interest in what Mahan had to say about sea power.

A few years later, Vice President Theodore Roosevelt participated in the opening of the Minnesota State Fair in Minneapolis, where he was asked to deliver a speech.  He called it his “National Duties” speech.  Historians suspect that few people were paying much attention to Roosevelt when, toward the middle of his talk, he said, “Speak softly and carry a big stick — and you will go far.” Roosevelt borrowed this phrase from an African proverb. But in short order, Roosevelt began to address questions of international relations in the context of “big stick” foreign policy. Nine days later, Theodore Roosevelt would become President of the United States, and while assuring McKinley’s cabinet that he intended to continue their president’s policies, Roosevelt was an ardent imperialist who made the McKinley cabinet a nervous wreck.

Background

In 1826, a young man from Greece arrived in the United States for studies.  He was the son of an influential medical doctor and politician named Anthony Perdicaris. Anthony’s father, Licinius, was a physician to the Ottoman Sultan and later named a Count of the Republic of Venice for his services.  The Republic of Venice later beheaded Licinius for essentially the same reasons.

In 1822, during the Greek War of Independence, Ottoman forces attacked the city of Naousa and began killing all males and enslaving all Greek women and children.  Anthony gathered up his family and fled into the mountains.  Gregory was around twelve years old at the time.  Within a short time, Gregory had learned that his two brothers-in-law had been killed and that his mother and four sisters were taken captive and sold into slavery.  After his separation from his father, Gregory made his way to Jerusalem, where he met and befriended Pliny Fisk, an American missionary who helped arrange his passage to the United States.

Gregory was no slouch.  He learned English well enough to attend studies at Washington College (now Trinity) in Connecticut and graduate with a bachelor’s and master’s degree.  He later taught Greek and wrote several influential essays about the plight of the Greeks within the Ottoman domain.  In time, Gregory Perdicaris would become a naturalized American, and he would marry a young woman named Margaret Hanford, the granddaughter of William DeWitt, sister-in-law to Governor David Williams.  Hanford, although an orphan, came from a prominent South Carolina family.

Gregory returned to Greece in 1837 to serve as U.S. Ambassador.  When he returned to the United States in 1845, he resumed his life as an academic and a lecturer.  Politically associated with the Democratic Party, Gregory Perdicaris became an early investor in the Trenton Light Company and later served as one of its directors.  By 1852, he was also the Trenton Mutual Life Insurance Company president, with substantial investments in utility companies in Charleston, South Carolina.  In 1858, Gregory sent his son, Ion, to London, England, to study art.

Meanwhile, Margaret’s nephew, Henry McIver, began to demand that Ion be returned to South Carolina where he could participate in the Civil War.  Gregory had no intention of recalling his son from Europe.  On this basis, McIver sequestered the Perdicaris investments in South Carolina, which in 2020 value amounted to just over a million dollars.  In 1867, Gregory Perdicaris and several prominent Americans established a charitable fund for Greek refugees.  One of these investors was Theodore Roosevelt, Sr., father of the man who would become president.

Ion Hanford Perdicaris was born in Athens in 1840, grew up in Trenton, New Jersey, but fled to England at his father’s insistence to avoid participating in the American Civil War.  This prompted Henry McIver (a signer of the Ordinance of Succession) to confiscate the Perdicaris fortune, of which 1300 shares belonged to Ion.  To prevent the sequestration, Ion renounced his American citizenship (which was not permitted until 1868).  The issue of sequestration of the family’s wealth eventually made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1877.

Still a U.S. citizen, Ion traveled back and forth to London as a journalist for The Galaxy.  He was young, unattached, and somewhat of a playboy.  In 1870, he began attending supernatural rituals with Cromwell F. Varley (an electrical engineer) and his wife, Ellen.  Cromwell’s profession required a good bit of travel back and forth between the United States and the United Kingdom — and because he and Ellen had four children, it was not practical that his wife should accompany him on his trips.  During these business trips, Ion Perdicaris and Ellen Varley began having supernatural seances of their own.  When Cromwell discovered the infidelity, he promptly divorced Ellen.  Ion, striving either to do the right thing or avoid scandal, promptly married her (1873), and assumed responsibility for raising the children.

Ion H. Perdicaris

In the late 1870s, Ion Perdicaris purchased a substantial home and estate in Tangier, where he collected exotic animals, dabbled in the arts, and maintained ties to influential people in the United States.  Ion and Ellen moved (with her children — two boys and two girls) to Tangier in 1882.  Ellen Perdicaris (and her children) retained their British nationality.  In Tangier, Ion became active in the fight for the rights of the Moors, led several civic commissions, and, as a de facto spokesman for the foreign community, argued for recognition of Tangier as a free port city.  Ion retained business interests in England and the United States throughout this period with frequent visits to both countries.

In 1886, after Perdicaris strenuously objected to the treatment offered to a native Moroccan by the American Minister in Tangier, a man who Consul General Felix Matthews accused of rape, the Moroccan government arrested Perdicaris and fined him for interfering in a legal matter.  Subsequently, Perdicaris filed charges against Matthews, and the Consul was removed from his post and ordered back to the United States.

In May 1904, despite his reasonable efforts on behalf of the Moroccan people, Mulai Ahmed er Raisuni (also, Raissoulli) kidnapped and held for ransom Ion Perdicaris and his step-son, Cromwell Varley, Jr.  A Hollywood film about the abduction was released in 1975 titled The Wind and the Lion starring Sean Connery, Brian Keith, Candace Bergen, and Steve Kanaly.  The film, while entertaining, completely misrepresents what transpired during the so-called Perdicaris Affair.

The Raissoulli

 Ahmed al-Raissoulli was the leader of three Moroccan tribes near Tangier.  In 1903, the Moroccan government arrested and jailed five of Raisuli’s men, no doubt charging them with brigandry — because that’s what they were.  That same year, Raisuli learned about the Stone Affair, where Bulgarian revolutionaries kidnapped an American Missionary and held her for ransom.  A quick study, Raisuli promptly kidnapped a newspaper correspondent named Walter Harris and held him for ransom.  This worked out so well for Raisuli that he then targeted Ion Perdicaris, assuming that the wealthier American would net a larger ransom.

The Incident

Ion, his wife, and stepson Cromwell Varley, Jr., relocated from their townhome in Tangier to their summer estate, Aidonia, on 16 May 1904.  Late in the afternoon of 18 May, Raisuli and a band of ruffians abducted Perdicaris and his stepson from Aidonia.  The number of ruffians is unknown, but estimates range from nine to 150.  Raisuli’s men cut telephone wires and assaulted several of Ion’s servants, leaving Ellen unmolested at the house.  She later contacted authorities, including the U.S. and British Consul and Moroccan officials.

American Consul Samuel Gummeré notified the U.S. State Department: 

Mr. Perdicaris, the most prominent American citizen here, and his stepson Mr. Varley, a British subject, were carried off last night from their country house, three miles from Tangier, by a numerous band of natives headed by Raisuly. . I earnestly request that a man-of-war be sent at once. . . the situation most serious.

Raisuli carried Perdicaris by horseback through the Rif Mountains.  Raisuli demanded $55,000 (later $70,000), the removal of all government troops from the region, a promise to end all harassment of the Riffian people, and the removal and arrest of the Pasha of Tangier (then part of the Ottoman infrastructure) and several other government officials.  He also demanded that the United States and Great Britain “guarantee” these demands would be met.

When the State Department received Gummeré’s communiqué, the Secretary of State, John Hay, was out of town. When notified of the incident, President Theodore Roosevelt resolved that the United States would not pay the ransom.  The mantra that evolved was “Perdicaris Alive or Raisuli Dead.” Under-Secretary Francis Loomis dealt with the crisis by diverting seven of sixteen U.S. Navy ships from the Mediterranean to the port of Tangier. Admiral F. E. Chadwick was ordered to send a ship from the South Atlantic to Tangier.  Simultaneously, the British dispatched a Royal Navy vessel from Gibraltar.

Al-Raisuli

On 21 May, the Sultan’s representatives were sent to begin negotiations with the Raisuli.  Two days later, negotiations were in the tank.  On 29 May, Raisuli threatened to kill his prisoners if his demands were not met within the next two days.  Raisuli’s threats revealed internal tensions: the foreign minister of Morocco allied himself with Raisuli’s enemies.  The Sharif of Ouazzane was credited with progress in the negotiations.  The Sultan sent a messenger to Raisuli, but upon the messenger’s arrival, Raisuli had his throat cut.  (Pictured right, Ahmed al-Raissoulli).

The Navy Department ordered Admiral T. F. Jewell to send three additional ships on that same day.  The armored cruisers USS Brooklyn and USS Atlanta reached Tangier on 30 May, and Admiral Chadwick conferred with the Sultan’s representative.  Two additional gunboats arrived on the following day.  France assured the United States that they would do all they could to rescue the prisoners.  On 1 June, Raisuli increased his ransom demand to $70,000.00.

Admiral Jewell arrived with USS Olympia, USS Baltimore, and USS Cleveland a few hours later.  With ships at anchor, Jewell appointed Major John Twiggs Myers to overall command of the ship’s Marine Detachments.  Washington ordered Jewell to keep a leash on the Marines until he was specifically authorized to employ them against Raisuli.  Roosevelt did not want to risk the possibility of Raisuli executing his prisoners.  The only Marines sent ashore was a team of four (4) men carrying sidearms, ordered to protect the U.S. Consulate and Mrs. Perdicaris.  On 8 June, two additional Marines were dispatched to protect the Belgian legation.

The State Department intended that if Morocco did not meet the United States’ demands, American Marines would seize Morocco’s custom houses, which supplied much of the country’s revenue.  Secretary Hay wanted the Sultan to persuade Raisuli to release Perdicaris; if not, or if Perdicaris or his stepson was harmed, the Marines would enter the fray.

On 30 May, Secretary John Hay learned that there was a question about Perdicaris’ citizenship.  Hay was given to understand that Perdicaris was a Greek.  President Roosevelt’s resolve weakened, but he decided to stay the course and attempted to get Britain and France to join the U.S. in a combined military operation.  Neither country was interested because they worked with the Sultan behind the scenes, urging him to accept Raisuli’s terms.  Tensions rose substantially on 2 June when an Italian warship dropped anchor in Tangiers harbor.

The international aspects of the Perdicaris Affair increased on 6 June two when two Spanish warships dropped anchor in Tangier.  Spain’s concern was that the U.S. would attempt to force Tangier into giving the American Navy portage rights.  HMS Prince of Wales arrived two days later.

On 8 June, the Sultan granted Raisuli’s demands by appointing Herid el Barrada as the governor of Tangier.  The appointment angered tribesmen, who raided the home of an Englishman.  Negotiations dragged on as the Sultan removed his troops from Raisuli’s province on the following day.  Tribesmen were still not happy.  On 14 June, an attempt was made to kidnap the Italian Consul.  On 15 June, Raisuli increased his demands to control six (rather than two) Moroccan political districts.  Four days later, the Sultan accepted Raisuli’s demands, and 21 June was the date agreed for the release of Perdicaris and his stepson.

On 20 June, a hitch in negotiations occurred when a man named Zelai, governor of an inland tribe, refused to act as an intermediary.  The ransom money was deposited on 21 June.  On 22 June, Raisuli demanded that the Sultan place another district under his authority.  Although a settlement had already been reached, a cable from Samuel Gummeré accused the Sultan of holding up negotiations.  At the Republican National Convention, Secretary Hay stated, “We want Perdicaris alive, or Raisuli Dead.” There was no doubt that Roosevelt would get the Republican nomination, but Hay’s declaration electrified the convention.  Raisuli released Ion Perdicaris on 24 June.

Afterward, Perdicaris and his family moved to Turnbridge Wells, England  Raisuni used the money he gained from ransoming Perdicaris to build his palace, known as the “House of Tears.”

It was an interesting incident in history.  But the movie was better.

Film Clip: The Wind and the Lion

Marine Corps Artillery — Part 3

Post-World War II and Korea

Lessons Learned

Artillery equipment and technology may be an art form, but its application is pure science.  Training Marine Corps cannon-cockers for service in World War II included lessons learned from every engagement in which the Marine Corps participated from the beginning of the First World War.  Colonel Georg Bruchmüller of the Imperial Germany Army, an artillerist, pioneered what became known as accurately predicted fire.  Predicted fire is a technique for employing “fire for effect” artillery without alerting the enemy with ranging fire.  Catching the enemy off guard is an essential aspect of combat.  To facilitate this, the U.S. Army Field Artillery School developed the concept of fire direction control during the 1930s, which the Marine Corps incorporated within all artillery regiments as they came online in the early 1940s.  However, the proximity of artillery targets to friendly forces was of particular concern to the Marines, operating as they did on relatively small islands.  There is nothing simple about providing accurate and on-time artillery support to front-line forces; the performance of Marine artillery units during World War II was exceptional.

Period Note

In early May 1945, following the defeat of Nazi Germany (but before the collapse of Imperial Japan), President Truman ordered a general demobilization of the armed forces.  It would take time to demobilize twelve-million men and women.  Military leaders always anticipated demobilization following the “second war to end all wars.”  While men were still fighting and dying in the Pacific War, those who participated in the European theater and were not required for occupation duty prepared to return home to their loved ones.  The plan for general demobilization was code-named Operation Magic Carpet.  Demobilization fell under the authority of the War Shipping Administration and involved hundreds of ships.

Men and women of all the Armed Forces were, in time, released from their service obligation and sent on their way.  Many of these people, aided by the Serviceman’s Readjustment Act (1944) (also called the GI Bill), went back to academic and trade schools.  Between 1945 and 1946, America’s war veterans returned home to restart their lives — they married, started families, built homes, and settled down.

But to suggest that life was a bowl of cherries in 1946 would be a gross over-simplification of that time because the transition to peacetime America was difficult.  War costs were tremendous.  President Truman believed he should transfer funds earmarked for the armed forces to social programs.  He and others in his cabinet were concerned that if the government did not pursue frugal policies, the United States might once more enter into an economic depression.

Having been asked to suspend wage increases during the war, the ink was still wet on the surrender documents when labor unions began organizing walk-outs in the steel and coal industries.  Labor strikes destabilized U.S. industries when manufacturing plants underwent a massive re-tooling for peacetime production.  Americans experienced housing shortages, limited availability of consumer goods, an inflated economy, and farmers refused to sell their yield at “cost.”

Still, even in recognizing the administration’s challenges, President Truman’s response was inept and short-sighted.  Our average citizens, the men, and women who the government imposed rationing upon for four years, deeply resented the high cost of consumer goods.  This condition only grew worse when Truman accelerated the removal of mandatory depression-era restrictions on goods and services.[1]  Increased demand for goods drove prices beyond what most Americans could afford to pay.  When national rail services threatened to strike, Truman seized the railroads and forced the hand of labor unions —which went on strike anyway.

But for Some, the War Continued

In the immediate aftermath of Japan’s unconditional surrender, the 1stMarDiv embarked by ship for service in China.  The 11th Marines, assigned to Tientsin at the old French arsenal, performed occupation duty, which involved the disarmament and repatriation of Japanese forces.  Officially, our Marines took no part in the power struggle between Chinese Nationalists and Communists.  What did happen is that the Marines had to defend themselves against unwarranted attacks by Chinese Communist guerrillas.   By the fall of 1945, China was, once more, in an all-out civil war. 

The task assigned to Marines was more humanitarian than military.  By preventing communists from seizing land routes and rail systems, and by guarding coal shipments and coal fields, Marines attempted to prevent millions of Chinese peasants from freezing to death during the upcoming winter months.  But suffering peasants was precisely what the Chinese Communists wanted to achieve, and Marines standing in the way became “targets of opportunity.”

Truman’s rapid demobilization placed these China Marines in greater danger.  As the Truman administration ordered units deactivated, manpower levels dropped, and unit staffing fell below acceptable “combat readiness” postures.  Some replacements were sent to China, but they were primarily youngsters just out of boot camp with no clear idea of what was going on in China.  Losses in personnel forced local commanders to consolidate their remaining assets.  Eventually, the concern was that these forward-deployed Marines might not be able to defend themselves.

In September 1946, for example, the 3rd Battalion, 11th Marines (3/11) vacated Tientsin and joined the 7th Marines at Pei Tai-Ho.  Within 30 days, most Marine guards along railways and roadways withdrew, turning their duties over to the Nationalist Chinese Army.  Some of us may recall how Truman’s China policy turned out.[2]

In preparation for the 1948 elections, Truman made it clear that he identified himself as a “New Deal” Democrat; he wanted a national health insurance program, demanded that Congress hand him social services programs, sought repeal of the Taft-Harley Act, and lobbied for the creation of the United Nations — for which the United States would pay the largest share.[3]

It is customary in democratic countries to deplore expenditure on armaments as conflicting with the requirements of the social services.  There is a tendency to forget that the most important social service that a government can do for its people is to keep them alive and free.”

—Sir John “Jack” Slessor, Air Marshal, Royal Air Force

Harry Truman ignored this and other good advice when he decided that the United States could no longer afford a combat-ready military force, given all his earmarks for social programs.  Truman ordered a drastic reduction to all US military services through his Secretary of Defense.[4]

By late 1949/early 1950, Truman and Secretary of Defense Louis A. Johnson gutted the military services despite multiple warning bells in Korea.  Johnson gave the Chief of Naval Operations a warning that the days of the United States Navy were numbered.  He told the CNO that the United States no longer needed a naval establishment — the United States had an air force.  In early January 1950, Secretary of State Dean Acheson, during a speech at the National Press Club, outlined America’s global defensive sphere —omitting South Korea and Formosa.  The Soviet Union, Communist China, and Communist North Korea were very interested in what Mr. Acheson did not say.

In June 1950, budget cuts reduced the entire Marine Corps FMF from a wartime strength of 300,000 Marines to less than 28,000 men.  Most artillery regiments were reduced to an understaffed regimental headquarters and a single battalion with less than 300 men.  After digesting Acheson’s January speech for six months, North Korea (backed by the Soviet Union), invaded South Korea three hours before dawn on 25 June 1950.

New War, Old Place

In March 1949, President Truman ordered Johnson to decrease further DoD expenditures.  Truman, Johnson, and Truman-crony Stuart Symington (newly appointed Secretary of the Air Force) believed that the United States’ monopoly on nuclear weapons would act as an effective deterrent to communist aggression.  There was no better demonstration of Truman’s delusion than when North Korea invaded South Korea.

North Korea’s invasion threw the entire southern peninsula into chaos.  U.S. Army advisors, American civilian officials, South Korean politicians, and nearly everyone who could walk, run, or ride, made a beeline toward the southern city of Pusan.  President Truman authorized General MacArthur, serving as Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers (SCAP) (whose headquarters was in Tokyo), to employ elements of the Eighth U.S. Army to Korea to stop the NKPA advance.  The problem was that the U. S. Army’s occupation force in Japan was not ready for another war.  Truman’s defense cuts had reduced military manpower levels, impaired training, and interrupted the maintenance of combat equipment (including radios, motorized vehicles, tracked vehicles, artillery pieces, and aircraft) to such an extent that not one of the U.S. Armed Forces was ready for the Korean emergency.

The military’s unpreparedness for war was only one of several consequences of Truman’s malfeasance.  U.S. forces in Europe and Asia, whose primary interest was indulging the mysteries of Asian and German culture, were dangerously exposed to Soviet aggression.  Had the Soviet Union decided to launch a major assault on Europe, they would have slaughtered U.S. military forces.  Military personnel had become lazy and apathetic to their mission.  Mid-level and senior NCOs enriched themselves in black market activities, senior officers played golf and attended sycophantic soirees, and junior officers —the wise ones— stayed out of the way.  But when it came time for the Eighth U.S. Army to “mount out” for combat service in Korea, no one was ready for combat — a fact that contributed to the worst military defeat in American military history — all of it made possible by President Harry S. Truman.

In July 1950, General MacArthur requested a Marine Corps regimental combat team to assist in the defense of the Pusan Perimeter.  What MacArthur received, instead, was a Marine Corps combat brigade. HQMC assigned this task to the Commanding General, 1stMarDiv, at Camp Pendleton, California.

The challenge was that to form a combat brigade, HQMC had to reduce manning within every other organization inside the United States and order them to proceed (without delay) to Camp Pendleton.  It wasn’t simply an issue of fleshing out the division’s single infantry regiment, the 5th Marines.  A combat brigade includes several combat/combat support arms: communications, motor transport, field medical, shore party, combat engineer, ordnance, tanks, artillery, supply, combat services, reconnaissance, amphibian tractors, amphibian trucks, and military police.  The brigade would also include an aviation air group formed around Provisional Marine Air Group (MAG)-33, three air squadrons, an observation squadron, and a maintenance/ordnance squadron.

Marine supporting establishments cut their staff to about a third, releasing Marines for combat service from coast-to-coast.  HQMC called reservists to active duty — some of these youngsters had yet to attend recruit training.  All these things were necessary because, in addition to forming a combat brigade, the JCS ordered the Commandant to reconstitute a full infantry division before the end of August 1950.

Within a few weeks, the 1st Provisional Marine Brigade formed around Brigadier General Edward A. Craig and his assistant (and the air component commander), Brigadier General Thomas J. Cushman.[5]  Lieutenant Colonel (Colonel Select) Raymond L. Murray commanded the 5th Marines, including three understrength infantry battalions: 1/5, 2/5, and 3/5.

HQMC re-designated the three artillery battalions of the 10th Marines (at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina) as the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Battalions, 11th Marine Regiment, and immediately transported them to Camp Pendleton.  The Korean situation was so dire that the newly appointed Commanding General, 1stMarDiv, Major General Oliver P. Smith, began loading combat units and equipment aboard ships even before the division fully formed.  Again, owing to Truman’s budgetary cuts, the re-formation of the 1stMarDiv consumed the total financial resources of the entire Marine Corps for that fiscal year.

One of the more famous engagements of the 11th Marine Regiment during the Korean War came on 7 December 1950 during the breakout from the Chosin Reservoir.  Machine-gun fire from a Chinese infantry battalion halted the progress of Marines along the main supply route.  Gulf and Hotel Batteries of 2/11 moved forward.  In broad daylight and at extremely close range, the cannon-cockers leveled their 105-mm howitzers and fired salvo after salvo into the Chinese communist positions.  With no time to stabilize the guns by digging them in, Marines braced themselves against the howitzers to keep them from moving.  When the shooting ended, there were 500 dead Chinese, and the enemy battalion had no further capacity to wage war.  One Marine officer who witnessed the fight later mused, “Has field artillery ever had a grander hour?”

In a series of bloody operations throughout the war, the men of the 11th Marines supported the 1st Marines, 5th Marines, 7th Marines, and the U.S. 1st Cavalry Division.  On more than one occasion, accurate artillery fire devastated Chinese communist forces, made more critical given that poor weather conditions frequently inhibited airstrikes in the battle area.

Despite North Korea’s agreement to open peace talks in June 1951, the brutality of the Korean War continued until 27 July 1953.  North Korea frequently used temporary truces and negotiating sessions to regroup its forces for renewed attacks.  At these dangerous times, the 11th Marines provided lethal artillery coverage over areas already wrested from communist control, provided on-call fire support to platoon and squad-size combat patrols, and fired propaganda leaflets into enemy-held territories.  The regiment returned to Camp Pendleton in March and April 1955.

(Continued Next Week)

Sources:

  1. Brown, R. J.  A Brief History of the 14th Marines.  Washington: Headquarters, US Marine Corps, 1990
  2. Buckner, D. N.  A Brief History of the 10th Marines.  Washington: US Marine Corps History Division, 1981
  3. Butler, M. D.  Evolution of Marine Artillery: A History of Versatility and Relevance.  Quantico: Command and Staff College, 2012.
  4. Emmet, R.  A Brief History of the 11th Marines.  Washington: Headquarters, U. S. Marine Corps, 1968
  5. Kummer, D. W.  U. S. Marines in Afghanistan, 2001-2009.  Quantico: U.S. Marine Corps History Division, 2014.
  6. Russ, M.  Breakout: The Chosin Reservoir Campaign, Korea 1950.  Penguin Books, 1999.
  7. Shulimson, J., and C. M. Johnson.  U.S. Marines in Vietnam: The Landing and the Buildup, 1965.  Washington: Headquarters, U.S. Marine Corps, 1978.
  8. Smith, C. R.  A Brief History of the 12th Marines.  Washington: Headquarters, US Marine Corps, 1972.
  9. Strobridge, T. R.  History of the 9th Marines.  Quantico: Gray Research Center, 1961, 1967.

Endnotes:

[1] The situation was much worse in Great Britain.  Not only were their major cities destroyed by German bombing, but war rationing also lasted through 1954 — including the availability of coal for heating. 

[2] This might be a good time to mention that all the U.S. arms and equipment FDR provided to Mao Ze-dong, to use against the Japanese, but wasn’t, was turned against U.S. Marines on occupation duty in China.  Providing potential enemies with lethal weapons to use against American troops is ludicrous on its face, but this practice continues even now.

[3] Restricted the activities and power of labor unions, enacted in 1947 over the veto of President Truman.

[4] President Truman had no appreciation for the contributions of the US Marine Corps to the overall national defense; he did not think the nation needed a Corps of Marines, much less afford to retain the Corps, because the US already had a land army (of which he was a member during World War I).  He never accepted the fact that the Marine Corps, as a combat force, provided unique strategic skills and in fact, Truman initiated several efforts to dissolve the Marines prior to the National Security Act of 1947, which ultimately protected the Marine Corps from political efforts to disband it.

[5] See also: Edward A. Craig — Marine.


Marine Corps Artillery — Part 2

The Interwar Years and World War II

In between wars

LtCol E. H. Ellis USMC

In seeking to reduce military expenditures between 1921 and 1941, the U.S. government demobilized (most) of its armed forces.  Although somewhat reduced in size following the First World War, the Marine Corps served as an intervention force during the so-called Banana Wars.  While roundly criticized by anti-Imperialists, the Banana Wars nevertheless prepared Marines for the advent of World War II.  Had it not been for those interventions, there would have been no “seasoned” Marine Corps combat leaders in 1941.  Moreover, had it not been for the efforts of Colonel Earl Hancock “Pete” Ellis, author of a thesis written at the Navy War College concerning advanced naval bases (1910) and later, the author of Operation Plan 712: Advanced Base Force: Operations in Micronesia, there would have been no amphibious warfare doctrine in 1941, which was critical to the defense of American interests in the Pacific leading up to World War II.[1]

On 7 December 1933, the Secretary of the Navy established the Fleet Marine Force (FMF).  Its purpose was to modernize the concept of amphibious warfare — initially published and implemented as the Tentative Landing Operations Manual, 1935.  This manual was a doctrinal publication setting forth the theory of landing force operations, organization, and practice.  The Landing Operations Manual prescribed new combat organizations and spurred the development of state-of-the-art amphibious landing craft and ship-to-shore tractors.  The document also addressed aerial and naval support during amphibious landings.  To test these new ideas, the Secretary of the Navy directed a series of Fleet Landing Exercises (FLEX).  FLEXs were conducted in the Caribbean, along the California coast, and in the Hawaiian Islands.  All FLEX exercises were similar to, or mirror images of exercises undertaken by Colonel Ellis in 1914.[2]

The Marine Corps continued this work throughout the 1930s by identifying strategic goals for the employment of FMF units, along with training objectives for all FMF-type units: infantry, artillery, aviation, and logistics.  Oddly, during this period, Major General Commandant Ben H. Fuller decided that the Marine Corps did not need organic artillery.  Fuller reasoned that since landing forces would operate within the range of naval gunfire, artillery units were an unnecessary expense.

General Fuller’s rationale was seriously flawed, however.  The Navy could be depended upon to “land the landing force,” but the safety of combat ships in enemy waters prevented naval commanders from committing to the notion of “remaining on station” while the Marines conducted operations ashore.[3]  Accordingly, the Secretary of the Navy overruled Fuller, directing that FLEX exercises incorporate Marine Corps artillery (provided by the 10th Marines), which at the time fielded the 75-mm pack howitzer.[4]

With its new emphasis on amphibious warfare, the Marine Corps readied itself for conducting frontal assaults against well-defended shore installations — with infantry battalions organized to conduct a sustained operation against a well-fortified enemy.  When Germany invaded Poland in 1939, President Franklin D. Roosevelt announced a “limited national emergency.”  Doing so permitted the Marine Corps to increase its recruiting to authorized wartime strength — including Advance Defense Battalions (ADB).

At first, ADBs operated as expeditionary coastal artillery units capable of occupying an undefended beach and establishing “all-around” sea-air defenses.  The average strength of the ADB was 1,372 Marines; their armaments included eight 155-mm guns, 12 90-mm guns, 25 20-mm guns, and 35 50-caliber machine guns.[5]  The staffing demand for twenty (20) ADBs initially fractured the Marine Corps’ artillery community, but approaching Japan’s sneak attack on 7 December 1941, HQMC began organizing its first infantry divisions, including a T/O artillery regiment.

World War II

During World War II, the Marine Corps formed two amphibious corps, each supported by three infantry divisions and three air wings.  In 1941, the capabilities of artillery organizations varied according to weapon types.  For instance, the 10th Marines might have 75mm pack howitzers, while the 11th Marines might field 155-mm howitzers.  But, by 1942, each artillery regiment had three 75-mm howitzer battalions and one 105-mm howitzer battalion.  An additional 105-mm howitzer battalion was added to each regiment in 1943.  By 1945, each artillery regiment hosted four 105-mm battalions.

The Marine Corps re-activated the 11th Marines on 1 March 1941 for service with the 1st Marine Division (1stMarDiv).  The regiment served on Guadalcanal (1942), Cape Gloucester (1943), Peleliu (1944), and Okinawa (1945).  At the end of World War II, the 11th Marines also served in China as part of the Allied occupation forces, returning to Camp Pendleton, California, in 1947.

HQMC re-activated the 10th Marines on 27 December 1942.  Assigned to the 2ndMarDiv, the 10th Marines served on Tarawa, Saipan, Tinian, and Okinawa.  During the Battle of Okinawa, the 10th Marines served as a reserve artillery force.  After Japan’s surrender, the 10th Marines performed occupation duty in Nagasaki, Japan.  The regiment returned to the United States in June 1946.

HQMC activated the 12th Marines on 1 September 1942 for service with the 3rdMarDiv, where it participated in combat operations at Bougainville, Guam, and Iwo Jima.  The 12th Marines were redeployed to Camp Pendleton, California, and de-activated on 8 January 1946.

The 14th Marines reactivated on 1 June 1943 for service with the 4thMarDiv.  The regiment served at Kwajalein, Saipan, Tinian, and Iwo Jima.  Following the Battle of Iwo Jima, the 14th Marines returned to Hawaii, then to Camp Pendleton, where it disbanded on 20 November 1945.

HQMC activated the 13th Marines for service with the 5thMarDiv on 10 January 1944.  Following operations on Iwo Jima, the regiment performed as an occupation force at Kyushu, Japan.  The 13th Marines deactivated at Camp Pendleton, California, on 12 January 1946.

The 15th Marines was activated to serve with the 6thMarDiv on 23 October 1943.  This regiment participated in the Battle of Okinawa and later as an occupation force in Tsingtao, China.  The 15th Marines deactivated on 26 March 1946 while still deployed in China.

(Continued Next Week)

Sources:

  1. Brown, R. J.  A Brief History of the 14th Marines.  Washington: Headquarters, US Marine Corps, 1990
  2. Buckner, D. N.  A Brief History of the 10th Marines.  Washington: US Marine Corps History Division, 1981
  3. Butler, M. D.  Evolution of Marine Artillery: A History of Versatility and Relevance.  Quantico: Command and Staff College, 2012.
  4. Emmet, R.  A Brief History of the 11th Marines.  Washington: Headquarters, U. S. Marine Corps, 1968
  5. Kummer, D. W.  U. S. Marines in Afghanistan, 2001-2009.  Quantico: U.S. Marine Corps History Division, 2014.
  6. Russ, M.  Breakout: The Chosin Reservoir Campaign, Korea 1950.  Penguin Books, 1999.
  7. Shulimson, J., and C. M. Johnson.  US Marines in Vietnam: The Landing and the Buildup, 1965.  Washington: Headquarters, U.S. Marine Corps, 1978.
  8. Smith, C. R.  A Brief History of the 12th Marines.  Washington: Headquarters, U.S. Marine Corps, 1972.
  9. Strobridge, T. R.  History of the 9th Marines.  Quantico: Gray Research Center, 1961, 1967.

Endnotes:

[1] The Advanced Base Force later evolved into the Fleet Marine Force (FMF).

[2] Embarking a Marine combat force aboard US Navy ships or conducting amphibious operations is not a simple task.  The officers and men who plan such operations, and those who implement them, as among the most intelligent and insightful people wearing an American military uniform.

[3] In August 1942, the threat to the Navy’s amphibious ready group by Imperial Japanese naval forces prompted Vice Admiral Frank J. Fletcher, Commander, Task Force 61, to withdraw his force from Guadalcanal before the 1stMarDiv’s combat equipment and stores had been completely offloaded.  Fletcher’s decision placed the Marines in a serious predicament ashore, but the Battle of Savo Island on 9 August proved that Fletcher’s decision was tactically sound. 

[4] A howitzer is a rifled field gun that stands between a cannon and a mortar.  Howitzers are organized as “batteries.”  The 75-mm Howitzer (M-116) was designed in the 1920s to meet the need for a field weapon capable of movement across difficult terrain.  In other words, the weapon could be “packed” into barely accessible areas and used to provide direct artillery support to infantry units.

[5] Such was the 1st Defense Battalion at Wake Island between 8-23 December 1941.


Marine Corps Artillery — Part 1

The Early Years

Mission

— Furnish close and continuous fire support by neutralizing, destroying, or suppressing targets that threaten the success of supported units.  To accomplish this mission, Marine Corps artillery (a) provides timely, close, accurate, and continuous fire support.  (b) Provides depth to combat by attacking hostile reserves, restricting movement, providing long-range support for reconnaissance forces, and disrupting enemy command and control systems and logistics installations.[1]  (c) Delivers counter-fire within the range of the weapon systems to ensure freedom of action by the ground forces.

Historical Note

For half of its 245-years, the U.S. Marine Corps has operated as a task-organized, mission-centered expeditionary force capable of quickly responding to any national emergency when so directed by the national military command authority.  The term “task organized” simply means that the size of a Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) depends entirely on the mission assigned to it.  A Marine Corps combat team could range from a rifle company to a reinforced brigade.

Before the Spanish-American War, when the mission of the Marine Corps was limited to providing sea-going detachments of qualified riflemen, the size of the Corps depended on the number of ships that required Marine Detachments.[2]  The mission of the Marine Corps has changed considerably since the Spanish-American War.  The U.S. Navy’s evolving role is one factor in the changing Marine Corps mission, but so too is advancing technological development and a greater demand for the Corps’ unique mission capabilities.  One thing hasn’t changed: The Marine Corps has always been —and remains today— essentially a task-organized service.  Today, we refer to all forward-deployed Marine Corps combat forces as Marine Air-Ground Task Forces (MAGTFs).

The Basics

Artillery lends dignity to what would otherwise be an ugly brawl.

—Frederick the Great

Artillery is a weapons platform used for launching munitions beyond the range of infantry weapons.  Modern artillery evolved from much-simpler weapons in ancient times — used to breach fortifications and by defensive forces to withstand an enemy assault.  Although not referred to as artillery, siege engines such as the catapult have been around since around 400 BC.  Until the development of gunpowder, the effectiveness of artillery depended on mechanical energy.  If one wanted to increase the effectiveness of such weapons, then one would have to construct larger engines.  Gunpowder changed all that.  For instance, first-century Roman catapults launching a 14-pound stone could achieve kinetic energy of 16,000 joules.[3]  A 12-pound gun in the mid-19th century reached kinetic energy of 240,000 joules.

In the Middle Ages, artillerists adapted their weapons to support land armies.  They accomplished this by constructing horse-drawn wagons to provide mobility to heavy weapons.  Before the 20th century, when artillerists (gun crews) marched along beside the horse-drawn wagons, field artillery was commonly referred to as “foot artillery.”  There was also a distinction between field artillery and horse artillery; the latter was used to support cavalry units, employing lighter guns and, eventually, horse-mounted gun crews.  During World War I, technology changed horse-drawn artillery to wheeled or tracked vehicles.

Marine Corps Artillery: The Early Years

In addition to serving as shipboard riflemen, early Marines also manned naval guns.  This may be the Corps’ earliest connection to the use of artillery.  There are differences between the employment of naval vs. land artillery, but the fundamentals are similar.  Nevertheless, the evolution of Marine artillery is linked to the growth of the Corps, and the modern development of the Corps began at the outset of the Spanish-American War.  Marines have performed amphibious raids and assaults from its very beginning, but only as small detachments, often augmented by members of the ship’s crew (ship’s company).  The Marine Corps formed its first (task-organized) amphibious battalion in the Spanish-American War.  In that episode, the Corps distinguished itself as a naval assault force and proved its usefulness in projecting naval power ashore.  See also: The First Marine Battalion.

As the U.S. Navy grew into a global force, the Marine Corps grew with it.[4]  Within a few decades, the Marine Corps evolved from shipboard detachments and providing security for naval yards and stations to a force capable of seizing and defending advanced bases and forming and employing expeditionary assault forces.  Artillery played a vital role in this evolution. From that time on, innovative thinkers helped make the Marine Corps relevant to the ever-evolving nature of war and its usefulness to our national defense.

The Marine Corps developed tables of organization and equipment (TO/E) to standardize requirements for combat and combat support personnel and their equipment.  For example, all infantry, artillery, and combat support battalions are uniformly organized.  Artillery regiments (generally) have the same number of battalions, battalions have the same number of batteries, and all headquarters/firing batteries are likewise similar in composition.[5]  Organizational standardization remains a key element used by headquarters staff in determining whether or the extent to which Marine Corps units are combat-ready.

Infantry is the mission of the Marine Corps — projecting naval power ashore.  The mission for anyone who is not an infantryman is to support the infantryman.  The mission of Marine Corps artillery reflects this reality.

Following the Spanish-American War (1898), the Marine Corps developed the Advanced Base Force.  This was essentially a coastal and naval base defense battalion designed to establish mobile and fixed bases in the event of major landing operations outside the territorial limits of the United States.  The Advanced Base Force was a significant shift away from the Marine Corps’ mission up to that time.  It marked the beginning of Marine expeditionary forces.

The Advanced Base Force was useful because it enabled the Navy to meet the demands of maritime operations independent of the nation’s land force, the U.S. Army.  This decision was far more than an example of service rivalry; it was practical.  In many cases, troops, and supplies (as the Army might have provided) were simply unavailable at the time and place the Navy needed them.  The General Board of the Navy determined, at least initially, that no more than two regiments of Advance Base Forces would be required from the Marine Corps.[6]  In those days, Advanced Base Battalions had one artillery battery (to provide direct fire support to the battalion) and naval shore batteries to defend against hostile naval forces.

In July 1900, a typical Marine artillery unit was equipped with 3-inch guns and colt automatic weapons.  The Marine Corps organized its first artillery battalion in April 1914 at Vera Cruz, Mexico.  This battalion would become the foundation of the 10th Marine Regiment, which distinguished itself in combat in the Dominican Republic in 1916.

First World War

Global war didn’t just suddenly appear at America’s doorstep in 1917; it had as its beginnings the Congress of Vienna in 1814.  By the time the United States entered World War I,  the war to end all wars was already into its third year of bloody mayhem.  During those three years, the American press continually reported on such incidents as German submarine attacks on U.S. commercial shipping and a German proposal to Mexico for an invasion of states in the U.S. Southwest.  There is no evidence that Mexico ever gave serious consideration to Germany’s proposal.

To prepare for America’s “possible” involvement, Congress authorized an expansion of the Marine Corps to include two infantry brigades, two air squadrons, and three regiments of artillery.  The three artillery regiments and their initial date of activation were: the 11th Marines (3 January 1918), the 10th Marines (15 January 1918), and the 14th Marines (26 November 1918).

Major General Commandant George Barnett wanted to form a Marine infantry division for duty in France; General John J. Pershing, U.S. Army, commanding the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) not only opposed the formation of a Marine infantry division, but he also wasn’t fond of the idea of Marine Corps artillery regiments.[7], [8]

When the Commanding Officer of the 11th Marines became aware of Pershing’s objection to Marine artillery, he petitioned the Commandant to re-train his regiment as an infantry organization.  Thus, in September 1918, the 11th Marines deployed to France as an infantry regiment of the 5th Marine Brigade.  However, once the 5th Brigade arrived in France, General Pershing exercised his prerogative as overall American commander to break up the brigade and use these men as he saw fit.  Pershing assigned most of these Marines to non-combat or combat support duties.  Upon returning to the United States in August 1919, Headquarters Marine Corps (HQMC) deactivated the 11th Marines.

The Commanding Officer of the 10th Marines also pushed for service in France.  The regiment was equipped with 3-inch guns.  Since there were no 3-inch guns in France, the War Department (Army) barred the 10th Marines from European service.  When the Navy offered to convert 14-inch naval rifles for use as rail guns (mounted on train cars), the War Department conditionally approved the suggestion (along with a 7-inch weapon) — but only so long as the Navy used sailors to man the guns, not Marines.[9]  Eventually, the Navy negotiated a compromise with the Army: sailors would handle the 14-inch guns, and the 10th Marines would service the 7-inch guns.  The 10th Marines began training with the 7-inch guns in early October 1918.  The war ended on 11 November 1918.  On 1 April 1920, the 10th Marine regiment was re-designated as the 1st Separate Field Artillery Battalion, which had, by then, incorporated French 75-mm and 155-mm howitzers.

The 14th Marines, having been trained as both infantry and artillery, never deployed to Europe.  The result of political/in-service rivalry was that no Marine Corps artillery units participated in World War I.

(Continued next week)

Sources:

  1. Brown, R. J.  A Brief History of the 14th Marines.  Washington: Headquarters, US Marine Corps, 1990
  2. Buckner, D. N.  A Brief History of the 10th Marines.  Washington: US Marine Corps History Division, 1981
  3. Butler, M. D.  Evolution of Marine Artillery: A History of Versatility and Relevance.  Quantico: Command and Staff College, 2012.
  4. Emmet, R.  A Brief History of the 11th Marines.  Washington: Headquarters, U. S. Marine Corps, 1968
  5. Kummer, D. W.  U. S. Marines in Afghanistan, 2001-2009.  Quantico: U.S. Marine Corps History Division, 2014.
  6. Russ, M.  Breakout: The Chosin Reservoir Campaign, Korea 1950.  Penguin Books, 1999.
  7. Shulimson, J., and C. M. Johnson.  U.S. Marines in Vietnam: The Landing and the Buildup, 1965.  Washington: Headquarters, U.S. Marine Corps, 1978.
  8. Smith, C. R.  A Brief History of the 12th Marines.  Washington: Headquarters, US Marine Corps, 1972.
  9. Strobridge, T. R.  History of the 9th Marines.  Quantico: Gray Research Center, 1961, 1967.

Endnotes:

[1] Also, shaping the battle space.

[2] The size of the detachment depended on the size of the ship.

[3] A measure of energy equal to the work done by a force of one newton when its point of application moves one meter in the direction of action of the force, equivalent to one 3600th of a watt hour.  A newton is equal to the force that would give a mass of one kilogram an acceleration of one meter per second – per second.

[4] If there is a “father of the modern navy,” then it must be Rear Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan (1840-1914), whom historian John Keegan believes is the most important strategist of the 19th Century and, perhaps, the most influential American author of his time (1890).  Mahan’s writing so influenced Theodore Roosevelt that it led him to pursue modernization of the US Navy as the key to achieving America’s full potential as an actor on the world stage.

[5] Currently, infantry battalions consist of “lettered” rifle companies.  Artillery battalions consist of “lettered” firing batteries.  In the past, when the primary mission of a combat organization was infantry, subordinate units were generally referred to as companies, even when one of those subordinate units was an artillery unit.

[6] Established in 1900, the General Board of the Navy was tasked to anticipate and plan for future tasks,  missions, and strategic challenges and make recommendations to the Secretary of the Navy on matters of naval policy, including the task organization of naval expeditionary forces.

[7] Senior army officers had legitimate concerns with regard to the incorporation of Marines into field armies during World War I.  Beyond the fact that army officers did not see a need for a Corps of Marines, and regarded them as a “waste of manpower” that could be better utilized in the army, the naval forces operated under a different system of laws and regulations.  Perhaps the question in the minds of some senior army officers was whether the Marines would obey the orders of their army commanders.

[8] Prior to World War I, it was common practice for shipboard Marine Detachments to form provisional (temporary) organizations for specific purposes.  In most instances, such organizations involved provisional battalions, but occasionally the Marines also formed provisional regiments and brigades.  When the mission assigned to these provisional organizations was completed, brigades, regiments, and battalions would deactivate, and the Marines assigned to such organizations would return to their regular assignments.  Marine regiments did not have formally structured battalions until after World War I.  Instead, regiments were composed of numbered companies (e.g., 24th Company).  One of the army’s concerns was that the use of Marine formations within Army units would only confuse ground commanders and further complicate the battlefront.  It was during World War I that the Marine Corps adopted the Army’s regimental system.  Rifle companies were formed under battalions, and battalion commanders answered to their respective regimental commanders.

[9] Before 1947, the Secretary of War (Army) and Secretary of the Navy operated as co-equal cabinet posts.  After the creation of the Department of Defense, all military secretaries, service chiefs, and combat forces operated under the auspices of the Secretary of Defense (except the Coast Guard, which at first operated under the Treasury Department and now operates under the Department of Homeland Security).


No Excuses — Fight or Die

Introduction

Archaeologists and historians will say that maritime history dates back “thousands” of years, citing evidence of sea trade between ancient civilizations and the discovery of pre-historic boats, such as dugout canoes developed somewhat independently by various stone age populations.  Of course, fashioning out a handmade canoe and using it to cross a river may not exactly qualify as “maritime.”  Nor should we conclude that Austronesian explorers qualified as a naval force, per se, but it was a start.

Egyptians had well-developed trade routes over the Red Sea to Arabia.  Navigation was known to the Sumerians between 4,000-3,000 B.C., and it was the search for trade routes that led the world into the Age of Exploration and Discovery.

Minoan traders from Crete were active in the Mediterranean by 2,000 B.C., and the Phoenicians (ancient Lebanese) became a somewhat substantial maritime culture from around 2,500 to 64 B.C.  What the ancient Syrians, Greeks, and Romans knew of sailing vessels, they learned from the Phoenicians.  At least, that’s what we believe.

Ancient Rome

The Romans were an agricultural/land-based culture.  There is evidence of a “warship” that carried a Roman ambassador to Delphi in 394 BC, but history’s first mention of a Roman navy didn’t occur until 311 B.C.  In that year, citizens of Rome elected two men to serve as “naval officers,” charging them with creating and maintaining a fleet of ships.  They were called Duumviri Navales (literally, “two men for dealing with naval matters).  Each officer controlled twenty ships.  There is some confusion, however, whether these officers exercised command over Roman ships or those of Roman allies. The ships were very likely triremes — a type of galley with three banks of oars (one man per oar).

Because Rome was a land-based culture, its primary defense and expansionist element was its land army.  Maritime trade did become an important element of the Roman economy, but this trade involved privately owned ships who assumed the risk of losses at sea due to storms and pirates rather than “Roman flagged” vessels.  When Rome did incorporate naval warships, they always served in a support role and as part of the Roman Army.  Any career soldier today will tell you that’s the way it should be — but then this would be the same kind of soldier who thought it would be a good idea to use camels in the U.S. Cavalry.

Artist’s rendition of a Roman Galley

Ships capable of survival at sea were always an expensive proposition, and comparatively speaking, there were never large numbers of people standing in line to go to sea.  Men of the ancient world were always fearful of the sea (as they should be even now).  To avoid the expense of building and maintaining ships, a Roman legate generally called upon Greeks to provide ships and crews whenever necessary to impose blockades.

It wasn’t until the Romans set their sights on Sicily in 265 BC that they realized that their land-based army needed the support of a fleet of ships to maintain a flow of supplies and communicate with the Roman Senate.  This realization prompted the senate to approve the construction of 100 quinqueremes and 20 triremes in 261 B.C.[1] [2]  Note also that quinqueremes were referred to as “the fives” because the rowers were arranged in groups of five. The Romans arranged their ships’ company as centuries (100 men per ship).  Contrary to Hollywood films, Roman crews, particularly the rowers, were seldom slaves.  Roman crewmen were free-born citizens or provincials who signed on as rowers, artisans, riggers, or Marinus (Marines).

To the Marines (naval infantry) fell the task of defending their ship or assaulting an enemy vessel.  This was accomplished by archers, followed by boarders armed with the Roman gladii (short sword).  Thus, the primary tactical objective at sea was to board and seize enemy ships.  What a fantastic experience that must have been.  Boarding activities remained prevalent long after the advent of sailing ships, gunpowder, and massive cannon.

Naval Forces in the Middle Ages

Beginning sometime after 1300 rowed A.D. galleys were replaced by sailing ships armed with broadside-mounted cannons. It is impossible to over-emphasize the importance of this innovation because combining the striking power of massed artillery with shipboard Marines firing from the topsail rigging was an enormous leap forward in naval warfare.  Equally significant, naval power became the means by which Europeans created and maintained their overseas empires.

However, early in the Elizabethan era, ships were thought of as little more than transport vehicles for troops. The goal then was to corral an enemy ship, storm it, and capture it.  There was no value to sinking an enemy ship.[3]  A sea captain could sell a captured ship, its cargo, and occasionally, he could ransom passengers and crew or sell them into slavery.[4]

Beginning in medieval times, the design of ships emphasized resistance to boarders.  A ship’s aft and forecastle, for example, closely resembled towering fortresses bristling with archery and gun slits.  Necessity being the mother of invention, maritime tactics evolved further when it became apparent that defeating the enemy would require “other means.”

The Royal Navy’s Articles of War

What the United States Navy knew about operations at sea it learned from the British Royal Navy, and if we are to understand how the Royal Navy became the world’s most formidable sea power, then we must look to the British Navy’s Articles of War.  The Articles of War governed how men in uniform conducted themselves under almost every set of circumstances, including during combat.

To begin with, a British navy commander’s defeat at sea was never acceptable to either the sovereign, the admiralty, or to the Parliament.  The commanding officer of a British warship must engage the enemy and defeat him, or he must die in the attempt — even if the British ship was “outclassed.”  The standard applied to naval warfare in the 1700s and 1800s was that a British naval commander entrusted with the control of a warship should defeat an enemy ship twice as large as his own.  Fighting the vessel was the British commander’s first critical mission; winning the fight was the second.

Article XII, Articles of War, 1749: 

Every person in the Fleet, who through cowardice, negligence, or disaffection, shall in time of action withdraw or keep, or not come into the fight or engagement, or shall not to do his utmost to take or destroy every ship which it shall be his duty to engage, and to assist and relieve all and every of His Majesty’s Ships, or those of his allies, which it shall be his duty to assist and relieve, every such person so offending, and being convicted thereof the sentence of a court-martial, shall suffer death.”

Before 1749, British naval officers had demonstrated a tendency to refuse to engage the enemy if there was any possibility that the British ship would be lost.  This behavior was, perhaps, caused in part by common sense and the fact that naval courts refused to inflict severe punishments on such officers.  The Articles of War of 1661 allowed that losses at sea could result from the ill fortunes of nature, but Article XII ruled out all such excuses. 

Nor was there, after 1749, a great deal of “special trust and confidence” in the fidelity and ability of British naval commanders.  We know this because it was the duty of the ship’s First Lieutenant to maintain a log of his captain’s actions — he was the ship’s watchdog.  If the First Lieutenant had formed a too-personal relationship with his captain, other lieutenants were encouraged to watch and record the actions of the First Lieutenant.  The ship’s master also maintained a journal.[5]  The Royal Navy’s intent was clear: there would be no lying or “fudging” journals in His or Her Majesty’s navy.[6]

Nothing was more motivational, however than case law.

The island of Minorca had been a British possession since 1708, captured during the War of Spanish Succession.  In 1748, government cost-cutting measures reduced the Royal Navy to three ships of the line in the Mediterranean Sea.  As the British sought to expand their territory in North America in 1754, hostilities broke out between the British and French (and their Indian allies), quickly spreading to British and French allies in Europe.

In 1755, France began the process of constructing twelve new warships.  British diplomats warned the Home Office that France would soon be in a position to attack Minorca.  Lord High Admiral George Anson, out of his concern of a possible French invasion of England, recalled the Mediterranean squadron and assigned them to patrol duties along England’s long coastline.  The Royal Navy could not afford to lose three ships of the line.

On 11 March 1756, the British Admiralty ordered Admiral John Byng to raise a fleet of ten ships, proceed to Toulon to protect the British garrison at Port Mahon.  However, only six ships were present in Portsmouth, and all of them were in a state of disrepair (not ready for sea).  Moreover, none of those ships were fully manned.  Admiral Byng, realizing that there was no money to repair the vessels or construct four additional ships and because no one in England was willing to enlist in the Royal Navy, struggled to find a solution to the problem.  There were no solutions.  Admiral Byng promptly protested his orders.  What the Admiralty demanded of him was impossible to achieve.

The Admiralty eventually provided funds for ship repairs and instructed Byng to carry out his orders.  When shipwrights informed Byng that repairs would take longer than expected, the Admiralty ordered Byng to outfit channel ships and proceed to Port Mahon in advance of his somewhat diminished fleet.[7]

On 6 April, still short of men, the British army loaned the navy Colonel Robert Bertie’s fusilier regiment, enabling Admiral Byng to set sail from Portsmouth.[8]  While Byng was en route to Toulon, a fleet of French naval vessels escorted 1,000 tartanes and other transports carrying 15,000 French troops to the far western side of Minorca.[9]

Upon his arrival at Gibraltar, Admiral Byng reported to the senior officer, Lieutenant General Thomas Fowke.  In their meeting, Byng presented Fowke with a letter from the British Home Office instructing him to provide Admiral Byng with such troops as he may require toward completing his mission.

When Byng realized that the French had landed a large force of soldiers at Minorca, he requested a regiment of Royal Marines to bolster his forces.  General Fowke refused.  His refusal may have had some justification if, for example, providing the Marines would have reduced Fowke’s ability to defend the British garrison as Gibraltar.  In any case, Admiral Byng’s problem was further complicated because the ship repair facility at Gibraltar was inadequate to the task of repairing his ships.  Frustrated, Byng dispatched a terse note to the Admiralty explaining his situation and then, despite his dire circumstances, sailed toward Minorca to assess the situation first hand.

The Battle of Minorca was fought on 20 May 1756.  Byng had gained the weather gauge[10] and ordered a lasking maneuver[11] but his lead ship, HMS Defiance, rather than steering directly toward the enemy’s front, took a course parallel to that of the French fleet — with HMS Portland, Buckingham, and Lancaster, following in trace.  The delay in getting his ships back into the proper formation allowed the French to make the rest of the battle a running fight.

After a battle of around four hours in duration, the French successfully withdrew from Minorca with 38 dead seamen and 168 wounded.  Admiral Byng suffered extensive damage to one ship and the loss of 43 sailors killed and 173 wounded.  Still, Byng took up station near Minorca for four days.  After holding a council of war with his captains, Admiral Byng decided to return to Gibraltar for repairs, arriving on 19 June.

Before Byng could return to sea, a ship arrived from England with dispatches.  The Admiralty relieved Byng of his command, the Home Office relieved General Fowke of his command, and both men were ordered back to England to face court-martial charges. 

Upon arrival in England, authorities took Byng and Fowke into custody; both men received courts-martial.  The Home Office charged General Fowke with disobeying an order to support Byng with troops.[12]  The Admiralty charged Byng with violating Article XII, failing to do his duty against the enemy.

Admiral Byng’s court-martial resulted in an acquittal on the charge of cowardice, but he was found guilty of failing to exercise command of his fleet and failing to engage the enemy.  He was sentenced to death by firing squad.

Admiral of the Fleet John Forbes, Lord Commissioner of the Admiralty, was the officer who defeated the French at the Battle of Toulon in 1744.  It fell upon Forbes to sign Byng’s death warrant.  Forbes refused to sign the warrant because he believed Byng’s sentence was excessive and illegal.  King George II refused to grant clemency to Byng and further declined to approve Prime Minister William Pitt’s recommendation for commutation.  Thus, on 14 March 1757, Admiral Byng was escorted to the quarterdeck of HMS Monarch and shot dead by a squad of Royal Marines.

Article XII established the standard for command responsibility, but Byng’s court-martial set the legal precedent: a commanding officer is responsible for the actions of his subordinates.  If a junior officer runs the ship aground, the captain is responsible.  If a ship’s commander fails to maneuver his vessel properly, his senior officer is responsible.  If a captain fails to fight his ship, his admiral is responsible.

The American Navy

The power of Congress to regulate the Army and Navy was first established during the Second Continental Congress, which on 30 June 1775, legislated 69 Articles of War to govern the conduct of the Continental Army (which, at the time, also included the Navy).  The Articles of War, 1775, were not identical to the Articles of War promulgated by Great Britain but quite similar.  Congress retained this power in the U.S. Constitution, promulgated within Article I, section 8, stating, “It shall be the power of the Congress to make rules for the government and regulation of the land and naval forces.”

On 10 April 1806, Congress enacted 101 Articles of War.  These were not significantly revised until 1912 and remained in effect until 31 May 1951, when Congress developed and implemented the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ).

Notably, Article 52 of the Articles of War (1806) stated:

 “Any officer or soldier, who shall misbehave himself before the enemy, run away, or shamefully abandon any fort, post, or guard, which he or they may be commanded to defend, or speak words inducing others to do the like, or shall cast away his arms and ammunition, or who shall quit his post or colours [sic] to plunder and pillage, every such offender, being duly convicted thereof, shall suffer death, or such other punishment as shall be ordered by the sentence of a general court-martial.”

About navy fighting formations

There were only a few fighting formations of a naval fleet under sail.  Responsibility for selecting which formation (or variation) employed during a sea battle fell to the fleet admiral (or commodore): line ahead,[13] line abreast, and line of bearing.  The admiral also determined sailing order — first ship in line, second, and so forth.  In establishing his combat formation, the fleet admiral would attempt to gain the weather gauge and signal his intent to subordinate commanders through signal flags.

The line ahead formation did not allow for concentration of fire because, for naval guns to be effective on a rolling platform, combatants had to close to 300 — 500 yards of the enemy.  The most devastating assault came from raking fire, initiated either from the bow or stern where cannon shot would do the most damage by traveling the length of the enemy ship.

Admiral Horatio Nelson was the first British officer to break the line in 1797 and again in 1805.  His instruction to his captains was, “No captain can do very wrong if he places his ship alongside that of his enemy.”  Breaking the enemy’s line disrupted the enemy’s cohesion and made it possible to overwhelm individual ships and seize them.  Again, the primary aim of the battle formation was to board and capture the enemy’s ships.

Boarding Operations

Boarding Operations may be the world’s oldest example of naval warfare.  The boarding of an enemy vessel, or a friendly one to capture it from pirates and other low vermin, is an example of up close and personal extremism — which more or less defines all close combat.  To achieve cross-ship boarding, the offending vessel needed to sail alongside the enemy vessel and direct an assault onto the enemy vessel.  The individuals performing this operation were sailors and Marines who were (and are) trained for such missions.  In the days of sail, sailors performed the task when the attacking ship was too small for a detachment of Marines.

Armed with swords, cutlasses, pistols, muskets, boarding axes, pikes, and grenades, the boarding party attacked the enemy crew, beginning with the helmsman and officer of the watch, or the ship’s captain if present on the bridge, all gun crews, and any other crewman left alive.  Again, the purpose of boarding operations was to seize the ship, which was always the intent of privateers and pirates — even today.

Captain John Paul Jones conducted a classic example of boarding operations during the American Revolution.  Jones’ Marines assaulted HMS Serapis from the sinking USS Bonhomme Richard in 1779.  Captain Jones’s boarding operation is exemplary because it was the only known fight during the Age of Sail when a ship’s captain captured an enemy ship while losing his own.  In 1813, the British returned the compliment by boarding and seizing USS Chesapeake from HMS Shannon.

Boarding enemy ships was also the purpose of the “cutting out” operations during the Age of Sail.  To “cut out” is to seize and carry off an enemy vessel while at anchor in a harbor or at sea.  The operation would typically target a small warship (a brig, sloop, or a two-masted ship of fewer than 20 guns).  Cutting out operations avoided larger ships because of the crew size (300 or so men).

A cutting-out party would generally include sailors and Marines who began the assault in the dark of night.  For an example of a cutting-out operation, see also At the Heart of the Corps and the capture of the Sandwich during the Quasi-War with France.

Boarding operations are rare in modern times.  U. S. Marines conducted their last boarding operation during the Mayaguez Incident in 1975, which involved a vertical assault from helicopters. Current operations may also involve small submarines and inflatable boats.  The U.S. Coast Guard routinely incorporates boarding operations as part of its maritime drug interdiction operations.

A Final Note

While the Uniform Code of Military Justice is a massive improvement over the articles of war, severe penalties are still prescribed for certain crimes.  The Manual for Courts-martial, Article 99 (Misbehavior Before the Enemy) includes, as offenses: (a) running away from a fight, (b) shamefully abandoning, surrendering, or delivering up any command, unit, place, or military property, which it is a duty to defend, (c) through disobedience, neglect, or intentional misconduct, endanger the safety of any command, unit, place, or military property, (d) casting away arms (weapons) or ammunition, (e) displaying cowardly conduct, (f) quitting one’s place of duty to plunder or pillage, (g) causing false alarms, (h) willfully failing to do one’s utmost to encounter, engage, capture, or destroy enemy troops, combatants, vessels, aircraft, or any other thing, which it is a serviceman’s duty to do, and/or (i) failing to afford all practicable relief and assistance to troops, combatants, vessels, or aircraft of the armed forces of the United States or their allies when engaged in battle.  Any person found guilty of these offenses shall face a maximum punishment of death.

Sources

  1. Abbot, W. J.  The Naval History of the United States.  Collier Press, 1896.
  2. Bradford, J. C.  Quarterdeck and Bridge: Two centuries of American Naval Leaders.  Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1955.
  3. McKee, C.  A Gentlemanly and Honorable Profession: The Creation of the U. S. Naval Officer Corps, 1794-1815.  Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1991
  4. Rak, M. J., Captain, USN.  The Quasi-War and the Origins of the Modern Navy and Marine Corps.  Newport: U.S. Naval War College, 2020
  5. The Library of Congress, Military Legal Resources, online.
  6. Warming, R.  An Introduction to Hand-to-Hand Combat at Sea: General Characteristics and Shipborne Tactics from 1210 BCE to 1600 CE.  Academia College, 2019.
  7. Winthorpe, W.  Military Law and Precedents.  Washington: Government Printing Office, 1920.
  8. United States Constitution, Article I, section 8.

Endnotes:

[1] The quinquereme was the more common Hellenistic-era warship, and the heaviest at that particular time.  The Romans seized a Carthaginian ship, took it back to Rome, reverse-engineered it, and used it as a blueprint for Roman-made ships.  The quinquereme had three to five banks of oars.  The trireme had only three banks of oars but was much lighter and faster. 

[2] Roman commanders of these ships were “Magistrates,” who knew nothing of sailing ships, but they were supported by lower-ranking officers who were seasoned sailors (most likely Greek seamen). 

[3] Sinking ships as a naval strategy didn’t evolve until the mid-1800s when nations began building ironclad ships.

[4] In time, a ship’s captain would share the prize money with his crew as a reward for their victory at sea.

[5] The term “ship’s captain” is the traditional title of the person who serves in overall command of a ship.  The naval rank of that person could be Lieutenant, Commander, or Captain — but no matter what his rank, he is called “Captain.”  A ship’s master is the person who runs the ship (rather than commanding it).  He is the most experienced seaman, and what he doesn’t know about running a ship isn’t worth knowing.    

[6] One could understand this mindset in the British Army, where aristocrats bought and sold commissions.  Under those conditions, there was never a guarantee that a colonel knew what the hell he was doing.  The Royal Navy never sold commissions.  All navy officers were promoted on merit.

[7] Channel ships (or Packet Ships) were medium-sized vessels designed to carry mail, passengers, and cargo.  They were not suitable for sea battles with regular ships of the line. 

[8] A fusil is a flintlock musket; a fusilier is someone who shoots a fusil.  Also, musketeer or in modern parlance, a rifleman.

[9] A tartane was a small coastal trader/fishing vessel.

[10] Position of advantage in sea battles.

[11] A maneuver in which all ships turn into the enemy at once.

[12] King George II dismissed Fowke from the Army.  King George III later reinstated him.

[13] Line-ahead battle formation (also, Ship of the line warfare) was a columnar formation developed in the mid-17th Century whereby each ship followed in the wake of the ship ahead at regular intervals.  This formation maximized the firing power of the broadside and allowed for rapid “melee formation” or, if necessary, disengagement.  Note that a ship of the line was of the largest (most formidable) fighting ship used in the line of battle (formation). 


That Splendid Little War

The seeds of the Spanish-American War

Background to the Modern Navy

There are naval historians who will tell you that the United States Navy never shined so brightly as it did during the American Civil War.  There may not be a better example of Navy innovation than its advancements in ship design, technology, medicine, and expeditionary (brown water) operations.  These innovations convince some that the Civil War must be regarded as the world’s first modern conflict.

At the conclusion of the Civil War, the U.S. Navy had 6,700 officers, and around 52,000 enlisted men serving aboard 670 ships.  The Navy Department consisted of 89 individuals, including the Secretary of the Navy.  But for the twenty following years, the U.S. Navy entered a period of steady decline.  The Navy’s decline was not due to the inattention of any naval officer or senior official; it was simply the result of a Congress that did not believe the nation could afford a standing navy.  Within a decade following the Civil war, all but a few navy ships had been sold off, scrapped, or mothballed for some future crisis.

In February 1880, the U.S. Navy had 65 operating steam vessels, 22 ships under sail, and 26 old ironclad vessels.  Five years later Admiral David D. Porter noted, “It would be much better to have no navy at all than one like the present, half-armed with only half-speed unless we inform the world that our establishment is only intended for times of peace, and to protect missionaries against the South Sea savages and eastern fanatics.  One such ship as the British ironclad Invincible could put our fleet ‘hor de combat’ in a short time.”

The concept of a peacetime navy was finally embraced with Congressional approval for new battleships in 1890.  Within four years, the United States Navy ranked sixth in naval power behind Great Britain, France, Italy, Russia, and Germany.  Both political parties may claim credit for restoring the U.S. Navy, but in reality, it was all due to the attention and diligence of one man: Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Theodore Roosevelt.

Background to Cuba and the Spanish Empire

Cuba, derived from the native Taino word Coabaña (Great Land), had been part of the Spanish Empire since 1494 when Columbus landed to carry out the Papal Bull of 1493, to conquer and convert West Indies pagans to Catholicism.

Inspired by the American and French Revolutions, the early 19th century witnessed three movements in Cuba: reformation, annexation, and independence.  After the removal of Ferdinand VII from the Spanish throne in 1808, Cuban creoles rebelled against Spanish authority and declared Cuba a sovereign state.  It was a brief period of independence because everyone involved was either executed or sent to prison in Spain.  The effects of Spanish authoritarianism were the development of several secret societies, all of which sought independence from Spain and all of whom became the focus of brutal suppression by Spain’s executive military commission.

 In 1868, Cuba was one of the few remaining locations of legalized slavery in the Western Hemisphere.  Cuban intellectuals felt terrible about that, of course.  Still, slavery was how Cubans achieved and maintained their vast wealth from sugar production, which explains slavery in Cuba.

The Plot to Aid Cubans

On 10 October 1868, certain landowners rallied the Cuban people to demand their independence from Spain; it later began the Ten Year’s War.  True to form, Spain employed its military to suppress the movement.  In the United States, President Ulysses S. Grant wondered if the United States should intervene; Secretary of State Hamilton Fish urged Grant to pursue a hands-off policy with Cuba.

As the insurrection continued, however, there developed an international sympathy for the Cuban people — including the empathy of the American press.  The American people responded to these press reports by actively supporting the Cuban people by purchasing bonds to help raise money for Cuban insurgents.  One patron of the Cuban insurgency was John F. Patterson, who was acting on behalf of the rebels when he purchased the former Confederate ship Virgin, lying idle in the Washington Navy Yard.  The ship was a side-wheeler designed as a blockade runner.  Patterson registered the ship in New York and renamed her Virginius.

At the same time, the United States had a vibrant business arrangement with Cuba, the consequence of which was the presence of U.S. Navy vessels charged with ensuring the protection of American citizens (and their business interests).  While in Cuban waters, the USS Kansas and USS Canandaigua protected Virginius, an American-flagged ship, from Spanish seizure. The ship operated for three years, funneling weapons, munitions, and men into Cuba.

In 1873, Patterson hired Joseph Fry as Master of Virginius.[1] Fry was an experienced seaman with fifteen years of service in the U.S. Navy before resigning in 1861 to join the Confederate States Navy.  After the war, Commodore Fry struggled to find worthwhile employment, so he understandably jumped at the opportunity to serve as the ships’ captain.

At the time Fry accepted his appointment, Virginius was moored in Kingston, Jamaica undergoing repairs.  Virginius was a tired ship in need of substantial rework, but Patterson and his Cuban allies could only afford to maintain essential seaworthiness.  The boilers were shot, but those repairs were far too expensive.  Fry discovered that most of the crew had deserted upon arriving in Jamaica, so he initiated a recruiting effort.

Of the 52 men hired, most were either American or British.  Many of these men were inexperienced seamen; most did not realize that the ship supported the Cuban rebellion.  Some of the crew were still boys, aged 13 and 14.  In those days, child labor was not an issue, and no one gave a second thought to youngsters taking on dangerous work.  While in Jamaica, the U.S. Consul met with Fry and warned him that if Spanish authorities ever captured him,  they would very likely have him executed.  Captain Fry did not believe the Spanish would execute a mere blockade runner and dismissed the warning out of hand.

The Executions

In mid-October 1873, Captain Fry and four mercenaries took the ship to Haiti, where Fry loaded ammunition and around 100 Cuban nationals.  A spy informed the Spanish when Virginius left port, and Spanish authorities dispatched the warship Tornado to capture her.  On 30 October, Tornado spotted Virginius approximately six miles off the Cuban coast and gave chase.  Virginius was heavily laden; the stress applied to barely adequate boilers made the vessel sluggish, and the ship began taking on water.  Tornado was a much faster ship — and heavily armed.  After sustaining some damage from Tornado’s guns, Fry surrendered the ship.  Spanish officers apprehended Fry, his crew, and all other passengers and transported them to Santiago de Cuba, where the Spanish military governor ordered them court-martialed for piracy.  The four mercenaries were put to death immediately, without trial.

The Executions

The Spanish court-martial found Fry and his crewmen guilty as charged.  Every man received a death sentence. U.S. Consul to Cuba, Henry C. Hall, protested the court-martial and imposed sentence, but the Spanish military authority ignored him.  As it happened, one of these condemned men claimed British citizenship.  Upon learning this, the British Consul to Cuba wired Jamaica and asked for the assistance of the Royal Navy to intervene in the scheduled executions.

The execution of Captain Fry and 37 of his crewman took place on 7 November.  If that wasn’t bad enough, the Spanish mutilated their remains and decapitated them to warn others.  An additional eight men were executed on 8 November.  However, the executions came to a halt when HMS Noble arrived and threatened to bombard Santiago — by this time, the Spanish had executed 53 men.

Until this time, the American press was reasonably conservative in reporting the Virginius incident, but when news of the executions became common knowledge, the press became aggressive in promoting the Cuban rebel’s position.  The New York Times, and other newspapers, urged war and demanded an end to Spanish colonies in the Americas.  Protests broke out all across the United States, with people demanding vengeance on Spain.  The British Ambassador to the United States even publicly opined that the American public was ready for war with Spain (which is by itself thought-provoking) and may suggest a British interest in such a confrontation.

The United States’ Response

After Consul Hall notified the State Department of Captain Fry’s arrest and court-martial on 4 November, Secretary Fish believed that it was simply another ship captured while aiding the Cuban rebellion, but at a cabinet meeting with the President on 7 November, the execution of the four mercenaries headed the agenda.  Present Grant determined that the United States would regard these executions as “an inhuman act not in accordance with the spirit of civilization of the nineteenth century.”  On the following day, Secretary Fish met with Spanish Ambassador Don José Polo de Barnabé to discuss the legality of Spain’s capture of a US-flagged ship.

At the next cabinet meeting on 11 November, President Grant (with the advice of his cabinet) determined that war with Spain was not desirable, but Cuban intervention was possible.  Then, on the following day, Secretary Fish learned that Spanish officials executed Captain Fry and 37 of his crew.  He cabled U.S. Minister Daniel Sickles in Spain, directing that he protest the executions and demand reparations for any American citizen killed.  On 13 November, Fish informed Spanish minister Polo that the United States would exercise a “freehand” in Cuba vis-à-vis the Virginius affair.  On 14 November, Grant’s cabinet agreed to close the Spanish legation unless Spain met U.S. demands for reparations.  Reports of other executions found their way into the White House.

On 15 November, Minister Polo visited Secretary Fish to inform him that Virginius was a pirate ship, that the crew posed a threat to the security of Spanish territory, and assured him that Spain would continue to act in its own national interests in this manner.  On that same day, Fish cabled Sickles again and instructed him as follows: (1) demand the return of Virginius to the United States, (2) release surviving crewmen, (3) offer a salute to the Flag of the United States, (4) punish the perpetrators of the inhuman crimes, and (5) pay an indemnity to the survivors of those killed.

The conversation between Sickles and Spanish Minister of State José Carvajal became testy, and Sickles concluded that an amicable settlement was not likely.  The Spanish press attacked the United States, Mr. Sickles, the British government and urged war with the United States.  Spanish President Emilio Castelar maintained a more relaxed attitude and resolved to settle the matter reasonably.

On 27 November, Minister Polo visited with Secretary Fish and proposed that Spain would relinquish Virginius and the remaining crew if the United States would agree to investigate the legal status of the ship’s ownership.  President Grant directed Fish to accept Spain’s proposals.  Grant suggested that the United States dispense with its demand that Spain render honors to the American flag if investigators determined that Virginius had no legal U.S. ownership.  A formal agreement to this effect was signed on 28 November — both governments would investigate the proprietorship of Virginius and any crimes perpetrated by any Spanish volunteers.

On 5 December, Fish and Polo signed an agreement that Spanish authorities would turn Virginius over to the U.S. Navy, with U.S. flag aloft, effective on 16 December at the port of Bahiá Honda.  Upon learning of this arrangement, Daniel Sickles resigned his post in protest.[2], [3]

Virginius

Virginius was returned to U.S. control as agreed on 17 December.  Spanish vessels towed Virginius to sea and turned her over to the U.S. Navy.  The ship was in complete disrepair and taking on water.  On the same day, U.S. Attorney George H. Williams determined that ownership of Virginius was fraudulent and that she was not entitled to fly the U.S. flag.  He also decided that Spain had every right to capture the ship on the open sea.

In January 1874, Spanish President Castelar was voted out of office and replaced by Francisco Serrano.  Sickle’s replacement was Caleb Cushing, a well-known attorney and Spanish scholar known for his calm demeanor.  Cushing opined that the U.S. was fortunate that Castelar had been Spain’s president up to that time because otherwise, Serrano’s temperament would have led to war between the U.S. and Spain.  Cushing’s primary duty involved obtaining reparations for the families of murdered crewmen and punishment for the official who ordered their executions.  By May 1874, Cushing had established himself with Spanish authorities as a reasonable and respectable man.

In June, Cushing notified Fish that the Spanish had agreed to proceed with negotiations for reparations.  In October, Cushing learned that President Castelar had secretly agreed to pay the British £7,700.  When President Grant learned of this agreement, he demanded $2,500 for each crewman executed. Each crewman not already identified as a British citizen would be regarded as an American.  Minister Polo’s replacement, Antonio Mantilla, agreed to the demand.  However, the actual payment was placed “on hold” when, in December, Spain reverted to a monarchy, and Alfonso XII became King of Spain.

Under an agreement on 7 February 1875, signed on 5 March, Spain paid the United States $80,000.00 for the killing of the American crewmen.  Spain’s case against General Don Juan Burriel, the officer who ordered the executions, which the Spanish government judged illegal, was taken up by the Spanish Tribunal of the Navy in June 1876, but Burriel died in December 1877 before any trial convened.

At the time of the Virginius Affair, the Spanish ironclad Arapiles anchored at New York Harbor for repairs.  During this visitation, the U.S. Navy realized that it had no ship that could defeat Arapiles; it was an awareness that prompted Secretary of War George M. Robeson to urge the modernization of the American fleet.  Congress subsequently authorized the construction of five new ironclad ships — all five of these ships participated in the Spanish-American War of 1898.

War with Spain (1898)

In 1898, the Spanish Empire was in decline.  It had experienced the Peninsular War (1807-1814), the loss of most of its colonies during the independence movements of the early 1800s, and three civil wars between 1832-1876.  Liberal Spanish elites, including Emilio Castelar, undertook efforts to bring the Old Empire into the age of New Nationalism.  Spanish conservatives, on the other hand, a prideful lot, sought to maintain their traditional sense of Spanish Imperial superiority.

In 1823, President James Monroe published his doctrine, which served as notice to European powers that the United States would not tolerate the expansion of European interests in the Western Hemisphere, nor their interference in newly independent states.  The U.S. would, however, respect the status of existing European colonies.  Before the Civil War, certain southern interests encouraged the U.S. government to purchase Cuba from Spain; they envisioned, of course, a slave state.  Known as the Ostend Manifesto, proposed in 1854, anti-slavery interests vigorously opposed it.

After the Civil War, U.S. business interests began monopolizing sugar markets in Cuba.  In 1894, 90% of Cuba’s total exports went to the United States, approximately 12 times its exports to Spain.  Thus, Spain may have exercised suzerainty over Cuba, but economic power fell within the realm of the United States.

Meanwhile, before he died in 1894, Jose Marti established “Cuba Libre” movement offices in Florida to help influence U.S. foreign policy toward Cuba.  The face of Cuban nationalism was vested in Tomas Estrada Palma.  His junta organized fund-raising events in the United States established relationships with the American press and helped organize the smuggling of weapons and munitions into Cuba.  Palma’s propaganda campaign generated enormous support for Cuba’s resistance to Spanish authoritarianism.  No one in the U.S. at the time had any interest in Spain’s other colonies in the Philippines, Guam, or Puerto Rico.  There was also no demand for an American overseas empire.

In 1895, Marti organized an invasion of Cuba from three locations — Costa Rica, Santo Domingo, and the United States.  The latter effort was stopped by U.S. authorities when they became aware of it.  The plan was sound, but its execution failed to deliver the victory promised by Marti.  Revolutionaries settled into another protracted insurrection.

In the minds of Spanish officials, the Cuban insurrection was an assault on Spain because Cuba was an off-shore province of Spain (not a colony), which was why Spanish officials resisted the insurrection with every drop of blood needed to accomplish it.  Spanish General Valeriano Weyler was both clever and ruthless in his efforts to contain the rebellion.  President McKinley regarded Weyler’s efforts as a campaign of human extermination.

No one was more effective in promoting Cuban nationalism than Joseph Pulitzer (New York Post) and William Randolph Hearts (New York Journal).  They became the face of America’s “yellow journalism.”[4]  Both papers regularly denounced Spain but had little influence outside New York.  As Cuban insurrection and suppression continued, American business interests suffered to such an extent that they petitioned President McKinley to end the revolt.  Concurrently, European businessmen petitioned Spain to restore order.

The American people overwhelmingly supported Cuban rebels.  For his part, McKinley wanted to end the insurrection peacefully — and opened negotiations with the Spanish government to accomplish it.  Initially, Spanish authorities dismissed McKinley’s efforts but offered the possibility of negotiation at some unspecified future date.

As a demonstration of the United States’ guarantee for the safety of Americans living in Cuba, President McKinley ordered the USS Maine to Havana Harbor.  Less visible to the American people, McKinley also directed additional ships of the Atlantic Squadron to take up station in Key West, Florida.  Other U.S. Navy ships quietly moved to Lisbon, Portugal, and Hong Kong.

At around 21:40 on 15 February 1898, USS Maine blew up and sank.  Two hundred fifty sailors and Marines lost their lives.  Yellow journalists told the American people that the Spanish destroyed Maine while at anchor — an overt act of war.  All Spain could do was deny the allegation, but the more they denied any involvement, the less anyone in the United States believed them.  Somewhat panicked, the Spanish government turned to other European powers to intercede with the United States.  Most of these European powers advised the Spanish government to accept U.S. conditions for Cuba.  Only Germany urged a united European confrontation with the United States.

The U. S. Navy’s investigation of the sinking of the Maine concluded that the ship’s powder magazines ignited under the ship’s hull.  No one was interested in this finding, however, including Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt.

So, America went to war.

Sources:

  1. Allin, L. C.  The First Cubic War: The Virginius Affair.  American Neptune, 1978.
  2. Auxier, G. W.  The Propaganda Activities of the Cuban Junta in Precipitating the Spanish American War 1895-1898.  Hispanic American Historical Review, 1939.
  3. Bradford, R. H.  The Virginius Affair.  Colorado Associate University Press, 1980.
  4. Calhoun, C. W.  The Presidency of Ulysses S. Grant in War and Peace.  University Press of Kansas, 2017.
  5. Campbell, W. J.  Yellow Journalism: Puncturing the Myths, Defining the Legacies.  Greenwood Publishing Group, 2001.
  6. Carr, R.  Spain: 1808-1975.  Clarendon Press, 1982.
  7. Hudson, R. A.  Cuba: A Country Study.  Library of Congress, 2001.
  8. Karnow, St.  In our Image.  Century Publishing, 1990.
  9. Nofi, A. A.  The Spanish-American War, 1898.  Combined Books, 1998.
  10. Soodalter, R.  To the Brink in Cuba, 1873.  Military History Press, 2009.

Endnotes:

[1] While we do not hear much about Joseph Fry (1826-1873) in history, this Florida-born lad graduated from the US Naval Academy in 1846.  In 1841, the 15-year old Fry traveled to Washington, made a call on the President of the United States (John Tyler), and asked for his patronage for admission to the US Naval Academy.  Tyler granted the appointment and Fry entered the Academy on 15 September 1841.  Fry had a distinguished career in the Navy, attaining the rank of Captain before 1861.  He resigned from the Navy to serve the state of Florida.  During the Civil War, while serving as a Commodore, Fry earned an exceptional reputation for his fighting spirit and combat seamanship.

[2] Daniel Edgar Sickles (1819-1914) was a member of the US House of Representatives, served as a New York State Senator, a Civil War major general, and was the recipient of the Medal of Honor.  He served as US Minister to Spain from 1869 to 1874.  While serving in the New York Assembly, Sickles received a reprimand for escorting a prostitute, one Miss Fanny White, into its chambers.  He also reportedly took her to England in 1853 while serving as a secretary to the US Legation in London and upon introducing her to Queen Victoria, used the name of one of his New York political opponents.

[3] In February 1859, when Sickles discovered that his wife, Teresa Bagioli (aged 21, half her husband’s age) was having an affair with Washington DC district attorney Philip Barton Key III, Sickles shot Key dead in the street across from the White House.  Philip Key was the son of Francis Scott Key.  Authorities charged Sickles with premeditated murder.  His attorney, Edwin M. Stanton (later, Secretary of War Stanton) won an acquittal on the basis of Sickles’ “temporary insanity.”  The plea was the first time it was used in an American courtroom.

[4] Journalism that was based on sensationalism and crude exaggeration, which continues to characterize the American media today.



Operation Al-Fajar

The Enemy

In April 2004, coalition forces in Iraq estimated around 500 hardcore non-state actors living in the city of Fallujah.  Within seven months, however, that number increased to around 3,500 armed insurgents representing just about every extremist group in Iraq, including al-Qaeda Iraq (AQI), the Islamic Army of Iraq (IQI), Ansar al-Sunna, the Army of Mohammed (AOM), the Army of the Mujahedeen, the Secret Army of Iraq, and the National Islamic Army (1920 Revolutionary Brigade). Assisting these committed extremists were an additional 1,000 part-time insurgents.

Within that seven months, the insurgents prepared fortified positions in anticipation of another coalition forces assault.  They dug tunnels, trenches, spider-holes and set into place numerous IEDs. They also set in the so-called Jersey Barriers, creating strong points behind which they could fire on approaching enemy. In some areas, they filled empty homes with bottles of propane gas, drums of gasoline, ordinance, and wired these materials for remote detonation should coalition forces enter those buildings during clearing operations.

Thanks to the liberal proliferation of U.S. manufactured arms, the insurgents were heavily armed with M-14s, M-16s, body armor, western-style uniforms and helmets, and handguns.  The insurgents also booby-trapped vehicles parked alongside roadways, streets, and alleys.  They bricked up stairwells to prevent coalition troops from getting to the roofs of buildings and established avenues of approach to deadly fields of fire.

According to coalition intelligence reports, in addition to the Iraqis, the insurgents included fighters from Chechnya, the Philippines, Saudi Arabia, Libya, and Syria — and perhaps a few from the U.K. and U.S.  As is true in almost every armed conflict, civilian residents began fleeing the city.  By late October, around 80% of the citizenry had vacated their homes and businesses.

The Coalition

In October, the U.S. and Iraqi military forces began establishing checkpoints around the entire city to prevent anyone from entering and to intercept insurgents attempting to flee — many of whom disguised themselves as members of fleeing families.  Mapping specialists began to capture aerial imagery to prepare maps of the city.  Iraqi interpreters joined coalition ground units.  While these tasks were underway, coalition forces began to deliver airstrikes and artillery fire on areas known to contain insurgents.

American, British, and Iraqi forces totaled around 14,000 men.  Of these, 6,500 U.S. Marines, 1,500 U.S. soldiers, and 2,500 U.S. Navy personnel.  Coalitions forces formed two regimental combat teams.  RCT-1 included the 3rd Battalion, 1st Marines (3/1), 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines (3/5), Navy Mobile Construction Battalion 4 (NMCB-4), Navy Mobile Construction Battalion 23 (NMCB-23), and the 2nd Battalion, U.S. 7th Cavalry Regiment (2/7CAV).[1]

RCT-7 included 1st Battalion, 8th Marines (1/8), 1st Battalion, 3rd Marines (1/3), Charlie Battery, 1st Battalion, 12th Marines (Charlie 1/12), 2nd Battalion, U.S. 2nd Infantry (2/2INF), 2nd Battalion, U.S. 12th Cavalry (2/12CAV) and the 1st Battalion, U.S. 6th Field Artillery (1/6thFLD).  Around 2,000 Iraqi troops integrated with the RCTs during the assault.  The forward elements received air support from the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing (3rdMAW) and other available Navy and Air Force fixed-wing air units.  Additional Army battalions provided artillery support, and the U.S. Special Operations Command provided snipers.

The 1st Battalion of the Black Watch Regiment (1/BWR) assisted coalition forces with the encirclement of Fallujah, designated Task Force Black.  D Squadron, SAS prepared to take part in the assault and would have, were it not for British politicians who reneged at the last minute before the assault.

The Fight

Ground operations kicked off during the night of 7 November 2004 when Marine reconnaissance teams and Navy Special Warfare teams (SEALS), moved into the city’s outer perimeter. 

With U.S. Army Special Forces Advisors, the Iraqi 6th Commando Battalion, supported by two platoons of mechanized infantry from the U.S. 2nd Brigade Combat Team, breached the city perimeter from the west and south.  Additional support elements included a platoon of Army tanks, Marine light armored vehicles, and elements of the 1st Battalion, 23rd Marines (1/23).  Initial successes included capturing the general hospital, Blackwater Bridge, and several villages on the western edge of the city next to the Euphrates River.  In the south, Marines from 1/3 entered the western approach securing the Jurf Kas Sukr Bridge.  Coalition commanders intended these early movements as a diversion to confuse the insurgent command element.[2]

Once Seabees disabled electrical power at two sub-stations at the northeast and northwest sections of Fallujah, RCT-1, and RCT-7, each supported by SEAL and Recon teams and augmented by 2/7CAV, 2/2INF, and Joint Tactical Aircraft Control (JTAC) elements assaulted the northern edge of the city.  Four additional infantry battalions followed the assault element as the second wave. Their mission focused on clearing operations and the seizure of significant buildings and intersections.

Augmented by the 2nd Reconnaissance Battalion and Alpha Company 1/5, the U.S. 2nd Brigade Combat Team infiltrated the city, searching for and destroying fleeing enemies wherever they could find them.  1/BWR set up patrolling operations in the eastern sector.  Overwatch aircraft included USAF F-15s, F-16s, A-10s, B-52s, and AC-130 gunships.  Air Force assets included MQ-1 Predator aircraft for air surveillance and precision airstrikes.

By the early morning hours of 8 November, six U.S. and Iraqi battalions began a full assault behind massive artillery and aerial bombardments.  The coalition’s initial objectives included the central train station, which was used as a staging point for follow-on assaults.  Marines entered the Hay Nib al-Dubat and al-Naziza city districts by early afternoon.  As the Marines advanced, Seabees bulldozed buildings and cleared streets of battle debris to clear the way for other coalition movements and support mechanisms.  Before dusk, the Marines had reached the city center.

Most of the heavy fighting ended by 13 November, but a series of determined enemy strongholds continued to resist coalition forces.  Marines and special operations had to flush these isolated teams, described as “mopping up” operations, which lasted until the 23rd of December 2004.  Once the city was “mostly” clear of insurgents, coalition forces shifted their efforts toward assisting residents returning to their homes — many of whom could not believe the damage inflicted on their city.

Military historians claim that the Battle of Fallujah was the bloodiest of the Iraq War and the worst battle involving American troops since the Vietnam War.  Coalition forces suffered 99 killed and 570 wounded.  Iraqi units lost eight dead and 43 wounded.  Enemy casualties are only estimates because of the lack of official records.  Coalition and Iraqi forces captured 1,500 prisoners and killed an estimated 2,000 insurgents.[3]  Considering the number of explosives deployed inside the city, a high casualty rate is understandable.  The 1st Marine Division fired 5,685 high explosive artillery rounds.  The 3rdMAW dropped 318 precision bombs, fired 391 rockets and missiles, and unleashed over 93,000 machine gun and cannon rounds.

The damage to Fallujah’s residences, mosques, city services, and businesses was extensive.  Once known as the “City of Mosques,” coalition forces destroyed 66 of 133 mosques — those primarily defended by insurgents and those used to store arms and munitions.  Of the roughly 50,000 buildings in Fallujah, between 7,000 and 10,000 were destroyed in the offensive; half to two-thirds of all remaining buildings had notable damage.  Before the attack, somewhere around 350,000 people lived in Fallujah.  Of those, approximately 200,000 were permanently displaced.

Despite the success of the battle, it proved to be less than a decisive engagement.  Important (non-local) insurgent leaders escaped from the city before the action commenced leaving mostly local militants behind to face the coalition forces.  This was a well-established trend among Islamist leaders: stir the pot and then run for it.  At the beginning of 2005, insurgent attacks gradually increased within and around Fallujah, including IED attacks.  Notable among these was a suicide car bomb attack that killed 6 Marines.  Thirteen other Marines were injured in the attack.  Fourteen months later, insurgents were once more operating in large numbers and in the open. By September 2006, the situation in al-Anbar Province deteriorated to such an extent that only the pacified city of Fallujah remained outside the control of Islamic extremists.

A third push was mounted from September 2006 until mid-January 2007.  After four years of bitter fighting, Fallujah finally came under the control of the Iraqi military — that is until ISIS pushed the Iraqis out in 2014.  This began a new round of fighting between the Iraqi army and Islamic militants.  Iraqi military forces reclaimed Fallujah and parts of Ramadi in 2016.

Courage Under Fire

The U.S. government cited the following individuals for bravery above and beyond the call of duty during the operation:

  • Staff Sergeant David Bellavia, U.S. Army — Medal of Honor
  • Sergeant Rafael Peralta, U.S. Marine Corps — Navy Cross
  • First Sergeant Bradley Kasal, U.S. Marine Corps — Navy Cross
  • Staff Sergeant Aubrey McDade, U.S. Marine Corps — Navy Cross
  • Corporal Dominic Esquibel, U.S. Marine Corps — Navy Cross (award declined)[4]

Sources:

  1. Bellavia, D. C.  House to House: An Epic Memoir of War.  Free Press, 2007.
  2. Kasal, B.  My Men Are My Heroes: The Brad Kasal Story.  Meredith Books, 2007.
  3. West, B.  No True Glory: A Frontline Account of the Battle of Fallujah.  Bantam Books, 2005
  4. O’Donnell, P.  We Were One: Shoulder to Shoulder with the Marines Who Took Fallujah.  Da Capo Press, 2006
  5. Livingston, G.  Fallujah With Honor: First Battalion, Eighth Marines Role in Operation Phantom Fury.  Caisson Press, 2006

Endnotes:

[1] NMCB = Seabees

[2] Two Marine engineers died when their bulldozer collapsed into the Euphrates River.  Forty-two insurgents died in fighting along the river.

[3] Some of the dead may have been innocent civilians trapped in the middle of the battle.  The International Red Cross estimated 800 killed civilian deaths. 

[4] Fighting alongside Dominic on the date of the cited action was LCpl David Houck, his closest friend.  Esquibel was cited for carrying two wounded Marines to safety under a hail of gunfire.  On the following day, Houck was killed in action.  Esquibel would not accept the Navy Cross because he felt that those Marines, who lived, would have done the same for him.


Symbol of Command

The Marine Leader’s Sword

Introduction

One thing that stands out about the American republic is that it was born in war.  As statesmen declared the independence of the United States in a somewhat eloquent indictment of King George III, tens of thousands of British soldiers and sailors converged on the American colonies to subdue the rebellion by force.  The war would last eight years.  The revolutionaries armed themselves with weapons that primarily served as hunting weapons; the British military was better armed.

The critical task of supplying colonial troops with the weapons needed to defeat their British enemy fell upon the Congress.  In 1775, few factories in America were capable of producing firearms, swords, and other weapons, but none were capable of producing them in the quantities needed to sustain an army for several years.

At the height of the war, more than fifty-thousand men were under arms: another thirty-thousand troop served in state guard and militia units.  To arm these men against the well-supplied British regulars, Congressional agents gathered weapons from various sources on two continents.  Patriots had begun to store weapons in anticipation of hostilities between themselves and British regulars, some of which came from British armories and storehouses, provisional magazines, and supply ships.

At the beginning of the Revolution, Continental military officers relied on soldiers to bring their weapons from home — their hunting weapons, which included fowling pieces, smooth-bore Brown Bess muskets (suitable for use with ball or shot), and after 1776, the shotgun.  These weapons also included outdated or barely serviceable firearms from the French and Indian Wars and weapons captured from enemies.  It wasn’t a sufficient number of weapons.

It wasn’t long before congressional agents began issuing contracts to produce weapons.  The domestic arms industry struggled to expand to meet demand, but they simply could not meet the need to sustain American troops through a protracted conflict.  Congressional agents turned to France and Spain, who were too happy to supply arms to the Americans.  Shipments from France began in 1776and continued through 1783.

The Edged Weapons

Edged weapons played a critical role in the Revolutionary War.  Battles such as the Guilford Courthouse (North Carolina) were decided in bloody hand-to-hand combat where bayonets, swords, axes, and tomahawks were used with lethal effectiveness.  The battle was a victory for the British, but they marched off with far fewer men than before the battle began.

Infantrymen in close combat, no longer able to load and fire their long guns, relied on hanger (hunting) swords or bayonets.  Hunting swords were short, cut-and-thrust weapons used by German Jaegers and  American riflemen.  The bayonet was the most widely used edged weapon throughout the ages because it transformed muskets/rifles into a spear — which terrified inexperienced/poorly trained troops.  The officer’s small sword was a pervasive civilian pattern worn as part of a gentleman’s formal attire and the most common sword carried by officers during the Revolution.  Officer’s swords were light, straight, and slender in design; Cavalry swords were heavier, longer, and curved.[1]  Shown right, pre-Revolutionary gentleman’s sword owned by Richard Varick, Aide-de-Camp to General Washington.

The Marines

Marine Corps officers and noncommissioned officers have carried swords since the American Revolutionary War.  Presumably, the swords carried by officers ashore were gentleman’s swords, while officers and enlisted men serving aboard ship used cutlasses.[2]  What made cutlasses appropriate aboard ships was that they did not hinder or trip fighting men as they boarded enemy ships, climbed the rigging, or battled an enemy in close-in fighting.  The broad, heavy blade of the cutlass was sufficient for crushing skulls or decapitating heads.

The Continental Navy cutlass was the cousin of the cavalry saber but designed and constructed for fighting at sea, on crowded decks, in rolling seas.  Unlike the cavalry saber, the cutlass did not have the advantage of a galloping horse behind it, so its weight and the muscled arm of an experienced sailor or Marine had to be sufficient to kill the enemy, and the shorter time it took to do that, the better for whoever wielded it.  A large, enclosed handguard shielded the swordsman’s hand.

The cutlass was a highly specialized weapon that evolved from the falchion (shown right).  Between 1740-1780, the cutlass was a sturdy but straightforward instrument with an imported blade and a crude wooden cylinder for a hilt.  The single-edged blade was curved so slightly that it might appear straight at first.  One of the first Americans to make this weapon was Richard Gridley.  Even after 1775, the American cutlass was a crude affair, so whenever possible, rebels captured and used the superior British cutlass, the hilt of which was made of blackened iron.  The grip was hollow for a better balance.

The NCO’s

When serving ashore, starting in the 1820s, Marine NCOs began wearing distinctive short sabers with a cast brass eagle head hilt and curved blades.  In 1859, a completely new sword pattern emerged, originally patterned on the U.S. Army infantry officer’s sword (model 1850).  The Marine NCO sword may be patterned after the foot officer’s sword, but with significant differences.  The Army sword had heavy wide blades, while the early Marine NCO swords had highly polished blades.  These swords were finally incorporated into Marine Corps regulations in 1875 even though they were in use since 1859, and in fact, with slight modifications, remain in service today.  The M1859 Marine Corps NCO Sword is the oldest weapon in continued (unbroken) service in the U.S. weapons inventory.

Today’s NCO Sword features a cast-brass hilt with a half-basket handguard.  It has a leather-wrapped grip bound with twisted brass wire, a slightly curved, single-edged blade, beautifully etched, with a wide central fuller and short false edge.  The NCO sword comes with a black leather scabbard with two brass mounts.

Marine Officer’s Sword

The current Marine Corps Officer’s Sword is patterned on the Mameluke Sword allegedly presented to First Lieutenant Presley O’Bannon by the Ottoman Empire, Viceroy Prince Hamet, on 8 December 1805, as a gesture of respect and praise for the Marine’s performance in combat at the Battle of Derna.  Subsequently, in 1825, the Commandant of the Marine Corps adopted the Mameluke Sword for wear by officers.[3] 

In 1859, the Marine Corps prescribed a completely new sword pattern for Marine Corps officers; it was the same sword prescribed for NCOs with differences in brass hilts, scabbard mounts, and hand grips.  The grips of NCO swords were wrapped in leather, while the officer’s grips were covered by sharkskin.  In 1875, Marine Corps regulations again prescribed the Mameluke Sword for wear by commissioned officers; it has been an item of a Marine Corps Officer’s seabag ever since.

The Mystery of O’Bannon’s Sword

Almost everyone, Marine or otherwise, knows about “Chesty” Puller.  My guess is that hardly anyone outside the Marine Corps knows about Presley O’Bannon, who has become a Marine Corps legend.  It has become a tradition in the Marine Corps to name its buildings in honor of those who distinguished themselves as Marines.  One such building at Quantico, Virginia, is O’Bannon Hall.  Literally, every Marine Corps second lieutenant wants to grow up and become like First Lieutenant Presley O’Bannon.  He is, to Marines, a man from history who embodies what a Marine should be: Courageous, daring, and resourceful.  I know something of Lieutenant O’Bannon, primarily from my research on the Barbary Wars.  What I know of his sword, however, I picked up from the writings of Brigadier General E. H. Simmons, USMC (deceased).[4]

Presley Neville O’Bannon

As indicated previously, the popular story is that O’Bannon received the Mameluke Sword from Prince Hamet in recognition for his daring exploits during the Battle of Derna.  It may be accurate, but in the absence of written records, we aren’t entirely sure.  But there is a more plausible story, which is just as interesting.

To recap the event, First Lieutenant O’Bannon, a Navy midshipman, and six privates provided the backbone to a force of mercenaries raised and hired by U.S. Naval Agent William Eaton, himself a former U.S. Army officer.  Eaton hired these mercenaries in Egypt and, with O’Bannon as his second in command, marched 600 miles across the Libyan desert, intending to reinstate Hamet Qaramanli to his rightful throne.  Hamet had been forced out of Tripoli by his brother, Yusef, who seized the throne for himself.  Normally, this family matter would not have peeked the interests of the U.S. government, except that in May 1801, Yusef cut down the flagpole in front of the U.S. Consulate and declared war on the United States of America — an insult to the United States that could not be left unanswered.[5]

President Jefferson reciprocated by sending a naval squadron to the Mediterranean (the forerunner of today’s Sixth Fleet), but not much was accomplished in “demanding satisfaction” until Commodore Samuel Barron assumed command of the squadron in September 1804.  Serving under Barron was Mr. Eaton, a scholar of Arabic language and somewhat of an eccentric.

On 27 April 1805, Eaton assaulted the walled city of Derna under cover of smoothbore naval gunfire from the 18-gun brig USS Argus (captained by one of the navy’s greatest commanders, Master Commandant Isaac Hull), the sloop USS Hornet, and the schooner USS Nautilus.  Observing the action ashore, Master Commandant Hull reported: “At about half after three we had the satisfaction to see Lieutenant O’Bannon and Mr. Mann, midshipman of the Argus, with a few brave fellows with them, enter the fort, haul down the Enemy’s flag, and plant the American ensign on the walls of the battery.  And on turning the guns of the battery on the town, they found that the enemy had left them in great haste, as they [the guns] were found primed and loaded.  In two hours, the city was taken.”

So impressed was Hamet with O’Bannon’s courage that he presented him with a jeweled Mameluke scimitar.  This operation was later quite favorably noted by British Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson, calling it “The most daring act of the age.”  The problem is not with the operation, which is well-documented.  The problem, for Marines, is whether O’Bannon actually received a Mameluke sword from Hamet Bashaw.  If he did, where is it?

According to General Simmons, there are several claims (and possible answers) to the question, noting that senior European officers popularly wore the Mameluke (style) sword.  Napoleon had one.  The Duke of Wellington had one.  Senior flag officers in Great Britain continue to wear the Mameluke sword during ceremonies while in evening dress.  In other words, there were no shortages of Mameluke Swords from the early to mid-1800s.

There is a Mameluke Sword at the U.S. Naval Academy Museum in Annapolis that has “a claim” for being the genuine O’Bannon sword.  According to the curators, after receiving the sword from Hamet, Lieutenant O’Bannon passed it to his executive officer, Midshipman George Washington Mann — and it has remained in possession of the Mann family until it was loaned to the museum.

Midshipman Mann was the son of Colonel George Mann, born in Annapolis in 1783.  Colonel Mann owned an Inn on Conduit Street, which claims to be one of many places where General George Washington rested his weary head — and might account for Colonel Mann naming his son after the nation’s first Commander-in-Chief.

Mann entered naval service in 1801 and was posted to the Mediterranean Squadron.  In 1804, Midshipman Mann served aboard USS Argus, whose Marine Detachment Commander was First Lieutenant Presley N. O’Bannon.  O’Bannon himself received his commission as a second lieutenant of Marines in 1801 and served in the Mediterranean in 1802.  Argus was the ship that transported William Eaton to Alexandria, Egypt, in 1804.  To assist Eaton in his mission, Master Commandant Isaac Hull detached O’Bannon, Mann, and six privates to accompany him ashore.  Eaton’s mission was to locate Hamet Qaramanli in Egypt and, if possible, restore him to his rightful throne.  This particular story ends with the Battle of Derna (1805).

Afterward, Midshipman Mann returned home due to an injury to his eye, presumably received during the fight, but returned to active service in 1807.  The Navy advanced him to Lieutenant in 1809, and he served until 1811 when he resigned his commission and returned home.  The Mann family continues to live in the Annapolis area.

There is no question that the Mann family’s Mameluke sword is genuine.  However, the question remains whether it is the sword presented to Lieutenant O’Bannon.  The question arises from the fact that there is a near-identical Mameluke scimitar in the USS Constitution Museum in Charlestown, Massachusetts, presented to Master Commandant Isaac Hull by William Eaton, accompanied by a letter written to Hull by Eaton on 14 January 1805.  In this letter, Eaton stated, “Kourshek Ahmet Pasha has given you a present of a superb saber which he intends for you, worth $200, all the gentlemen with me received the same compliment.”[6]

Presley Neville O’Bannon was one of the gentlemen present with Eaton when the swords were presented (i.e., more than one).  Midshipman Mann was also present.  The swords were given to “the gentlemen” in advance of the Battle of Derna, not as a reward for deeds accomplished but in anticipation of an event yet to come.  The Battle of Derna was fought between 27 April – 13 May 1805.  This brings us back to the question, “Where is Lieutenant O’Bannon’s sword?”

William Eaton returned to the United States in November 1805 through Norfolk, Virginia.  At a dinner in his honor held in Richmond, both Lieutenant O’Bannon and Midshipman Mann received toasts in absentia as “… the heroes who first planted the American banner on the walls of Derna.”  The following month, Mr. John Love, a delegate to the Virginia Assembly representing Fauquier County, where O’Bannon was born, proposed that Virginia honor O’Bannon with “… a handsome sword with such appropriate devices thereon as they may think proper.”  Mr. Love’s proposal sailed through both houses of the state legislature.  In January 1806, the governor presented the measure to the Council of State, which named a committee to select an appropriate design for the sword.

Six months later, the committee submitted its proposal to Major John Clarke, Superintendent of the Virginia Manufactory of Arms, Richmond.  The sword design was elaborate with, among other things, the head of a bearded and turbaned Moslem for a pommel and an engraving on the hilt of O’Bannon raising the flag over Derna.  Major Clarke had only just finished the blade in 1809 when he was replaced as superintendent by Mr. John Carter of Richmond.  Carter completed the sword in July 1810.

Meanwhile, Captain O’Bannon had resigned his commission, married Matilda Heard in Frederick County, Virginia, in 1809, and relocated to Kentucky in the same year.  O’Bannon didn’t receive the Virginia sword until the fall of 1812.[7]

At the time of Captain O’Bannon’s death, he was living in the home of his cousin John O’Bannon, in Henry County, Kentucky.  He also died without a will.  It wasn’t until an article about Captain O’Bannon appeared in the Louisville Courier-Journal in 1917, written by John Presley Cain (a collateral descendant of O’Bannon), that the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) began looking into the O’Bannon story.  Mr. Cain, having revealed O’Bannon’s burial place on a farm just outside Pleasureville, Kentucky, prompted the DAR to seek the permission of his descendants to move his remains to the Frankfort Cemetery.  O’Bannon was reinterred there on 14 June 1920.

At the ceremony, Miss Margaret Mosely (Kansas City), a third-great niece of O’Bannon, brought the Virginia Sword and had it displayed unsheathed and crossed with its scabbard on top of the gravestone.  In 1941, Mrs. Margaret Mosley-Culver donated the Virginia Sword to the U.S. Marine Corps Museum.  To add to the confusion, the Virginia Sword has been variously described as a Mameluke Sword, which it is not.  It more closely resembles a U.S. Army infantry officer’s sword.

There is also some myth associated with Lieutenant Colonel Commandant Archibald Henderson’s decision to prescribe the Mameluke Sword for wear by Marine Corps officers.  After the U.S. Congress disbanded the Continental Navy and Marine Corps at the end of the Revolutionary War, the only military secretary was the Secretary of War until 1798, when Congress re-established the Navy Department.  During those “in-between” years, uniform regulations fell under the purview of the Secretary of War.  It wasn’t until 1804 that the Secretary of the Navy, Mr. Robert Smith, authorized “yellow-mounted sabers with gilt scabbards” for Marine Corps officers.  The wording of the regulation allowed Marine officers to wear just about any sword that met that vague description.

Why Henderson prescribed the Mameluke Sword remains a mystery.  Part of the legend is that O’Bannon and Henderson had (at some point) served together and that Henderson so admired O’Bannon that he prescribed the Mameluke Sword for all Marine Corps officers.  It is an interesting story, but according to General Simmons, unlikely.  If the two men ever met, it was probably a brief encounter.  Henderson did not enter Marine Corps service until 1806; O’Bannon resigned in 1807.

In any case, Henderson’s uniform regulations of 26 April 1825 prescribed the officer’s sword as follows: “All officers when on duty either in full or undress uniform, shall wear a plain brass scabbard sword or saber, with a Mameluke hilt of white ivory and a gold tassel; extreme length of the sword three-feet, one-inch only to serve as a cut and thrust — the hilt in length four-inches and three-quarters, width of scabbard one-inch and seven-eighths, width of blade one-inch.”  This, according to General Simmons, describes Henderson’s own sword exactly.

Between 900-1250 A.D., Egyptian dynasties included several ethnic/cultural groups, such as the Ikhshidids, Fatimids, and Ayyubids.  They were primarily served and guarded by Mamelukes, individuals of Turkic, Caucasian, Eastern, and Southeastern European origin.  The Mameluke was both free-born warriors and indentured fighters — a class of Egyptian knights whose influence increased within the Moslem hierarchy.  The increase in political influence was worrisome to the Ayyubids, as it should have been.  One Moslem historian describes the origin of the Mameluke as “enslaved Christians.”  Accordingly, Moslems looked upon the Mameluke as “infidels,” or unbelievers who refused to surrender to the will of Allah.

In 1250, a Mameluke became Sultan of Egypt, and his heirs ruled Egypt through 1517.  But even when Napoleon invaded Egypt in 1798, Mamelukes maintained a considerable hold over the sultanate.  The word Mameluke in Arabic, by the way, means “one who is owned.”  It refers to non-Arab people “enslaved” to Moslem rulers.  Their reputation as fighters (and their uniforms) impressed Napoleon and his marshals.[8]  The French recruited Mamelukes as personal guards and adopted their swords, which, as we can see today, are displayed in numerous paintings of high French officers — such as Lieutenant General Jean-Baptiste Antoine Marcelin Marbot.

The sword’s earliest form was a light horseman’s weapon intended for slashing.  When the British manufacturer Wilkinson Swords straightened the blade, they ruined the sword as a weapon, which may no longer matter to anyone since the sword is no longer the first choice in offensive or defensive weapons.

In 1859, Marine First Lieutenant Israel Green commanded a Marine Detachment with service under Lieutenant Colonel Robert E. Lee, who was ordered to put down an insurrection at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia.  As it turned out, Colonel Lee was quite pleased with the Marines’ performance at Harper’s Ferry, but Lieutenant Green was considerably less satisfied with his Mameluke Sword.  On cue from a young cavalry lieutenant named James Ewell Brown Stuart, Green rushed John Brown and his men in the firehouse.  Green burst through the door and cut down on the older man’s neck as hard as possible, which bent the sword almost double and did little more than irritate Mr. Brown.  That would not have happened with an M1911A1 at 10 yards.

The Marine Corps prescribed a different sword for officers and NCOs in that same year — one that would cut something more resistant than a birthday cake.

Endnotes:

[1] The difference between swords and sabers is that swords are straight blade weapons, while sabers are (generally) shorter in blade length and curved. 

[2] The cutlass was a relatively short-bladed slashing sword — the shorter length most suitable for shipboard action.

[3] The Mameluke Sword (style) is also worn by flag rank officers in the British Army, and for officers of major general rank in the Australian Army.

[4] Brigadier General Edwin H. Simmons (1921-2007) served with distinction in three wars, later serving as the Director, Marine Corps History and Museums, both on active duty and into retirement.  He authored numerous books about the History of the Marine Corps; whatever General Simmons didn’t know about the Marine Corps probably isn’t worth knowing.

[5] Yusef no doubt felt confident that this insult would go unanswered because the U.S. Congress had been paying the Qaramanli family bribes for fifteen or so years; anyone who pays bribes deserves no respect — or so he thought.

[6] At the time, Egypt was a vassal state of the Ottoman Empire.  Kourshek Ahmet Pasha was the Viceroy of Egypt.

[7] Presley and Matilda’s union was, according to sketchy accounts, not a very happy one.  The O’Bannon’s were divorced in 1826, remarried in 1832, and then in 1843, Matilda was committed to an insane asylum in Lexington.  Captain O’Bannon passed away in 1850.  Their only child died of cholera in 1835.  My guess is that if O’Bannon left the Marine Corps to marry Matilda, he later in life regretted doing so. 

[8] There is evidence of Mameluke Swords in use by Europeans during the Crusades, likely taken from dead Islamists.  General Simmons believed that the Mameluke Sword may have existed before the time of Christ, notably in Damascus.


246th United States Marine Corps Birthday

In Celebration

Here’s health to you and to our Corps
Which we are proud to serve;
In many a strife we’ve fought for life
And never lost our nerve;
If the Army and the Navy
Ever look on Heaven’s scenes;
They will find the streets are guarded
By United States Marines.”

Third stanza of the Marine Corps Hymn

A bit of Marine Corps history:

As my regular readers should know by now, the United States Marine Corps celebrates its birthday on 10 November.  The Marine Corps Birthday is a unique celebration honoring all Marines and their families, past, present, and future.  It rekindles the connection of Marines since 1775.  My readers should also know that the Marine Corps has defended the United States and the American people in every one of those years.  On this day, we Marines honor our traditions with reverence and respect; we pay homage to the distinguished service of the Corps and of those who have worn our uniform.

The Second Continental Congress created the Marine Corps on 10 November 1775, eight months before America’s Declaration of Independence from Great Britain.  Congress created the Marines to serve alongside the Continental Navy — and have done so ever since.  The first Marine Corps Commandant was Major Samuel Nicholas.  During the 7-years of the Revolutionary War, the Marine Corps increased from its original two battalions to just over 2,100 Marines.  It was then, and remains, the nation’s smallest armed force.  Despite its small size, however, the battle history of the United States Marine Corps is second to none.

At the end of the Revolutionary War, Congress disbanded the Navy and Marine Corps.  Our founding fathers, having experienced the tyranny of the British Army, had no interest in maintaining “standing armies.”  In 1794, however, circumstances changed.  Beginning around 1785, Islamist pirates operating off the North African coastline seized American ships and held them, their crews, passengers, and their cargoes for ransom.

Initially, Congress thought that it might be cheaper to pay these brigands their money, but each year ransom demands increased until the United States was paying out about twenty-percent of its annual budget to Barbary Pirates.  President George Washington asked Congress to bring back the Navy and Marine Corps to deal with the pirates and guarantee America’s sovereignty at sea.  In 1794, the Navy (and Marine Corps) were placed under the Secretary of War.  However, in 1798, legislation was enacted to establish the Navy as a separate department, and the Navy and Marine Corps as separate branches of the armed forces.

Pursuant to Marine Corps General Order No. 47 (1921), the Commandant of the Marine Corps directed that the following be read aloud to all Marines on 10 November of each year:

(1) On November 10, 1775, a Corps of Marines was created by a resolution of Continental Congress. Since that date many thousand men have borne the name “Marine”. In memory of them it is fitting that we who are Marines should commemorate the birthday of our corps by calling to mind the glories of its long and illustrious history.

(2) The record of our corps is one which will bear comparison with that of the most famous military organizations in the world’s history. During 90 of the 146 years of its existence the Marine Corps has been in action against the Nation’s foes. From the Battle of Trenton to the Argonne, Marines have won foremost honors in war, and in the long eras of tranquility at home, generation after generation of Marines have grown gray in war in both hemispheres and in every corner of the seven seas, that our country and its citizens might enjoy peace and security.

(3) In every battle and skirmish since the birth of our corps, Marines have acquitted themselves with the greatest distinction, winning new honors on each occasion until the term “Marine” has come to signify all that is highest in military efficiency and soldierly virtue.

(4) This high name of distinction and soldierly repute we who are Marines today have received from those who preceded us in the corps. With it we have also received from them the eternal spirit which has animated our corps from generation to generation and has been the distinguishing mark of the Marines in every age. So long as that spirit continues to flourish Marines will be found equal to every emergency in the future as they have been in the past, and the men of our Nation will regard us as worthy successors to the long line of illustrious men who have served as “Soldiers of the Sea” since the founding of the Corps.

John A. Lejeune,
Major General Commandant

During the Marine Corps Birthday Ceremony, a traditional birthday cake is presented to those in attendance.  After the cake is cut, the first slice is first presented to the oldest Marine present, who then passes it to the youngest Marine.  It is a symbolic transfer of wisdom and understanding from the older brother to the younger.  This is a hallmark of Marine Corps training that begins at boot camp or officer’s candidate school and is repeated throughout a Marine’s entire service.  Understanding Marine Corps history and living up to the high standards of those who went before is an integral part of Marine Corps service.

Our Motto

The motto of the U. S. Marine Corps is Semper Fidelis (Always Faithful).  It reflects a Marine’s unwavering patriotism, tenacity, and their commitment to God, Country, Corps, and their brothers in arms.  The official march of the U. S. Marine Corps is titled The Semper Fidelis March by John Phillip Sousa.  Enjoy the following presentation by the United States Marine Corps Band.

The Marines are known by several nicknames, but some of these aren’t suitable for print and are largely a result of vile lies, misrepresentations, and Army-Navy jealousy.  But two of these nicknames are Leatherneck, which comes from the thick leather collar worn by Marines during the age of sail to prevent decapitation, and Devil Dog [Teufelhunden] which is what the German soldiers named Marines during World War I.

Our Hymn

The Marine Corps Hymn, is one of the most readily recognized songs in the world today and is the oldest of our country’s service songs.  The history of our hymn has been clouded by the passage of time and sometimes confused by inaccurate oral traditions, but there is never any confusion on the part of listeners of the Marine’s hymn.  It is as easily identified with the Marine Corps as the Star Spangled Banner is with the United States of America.

The Marine Corps Hymn has become a sacred symbol of the pride and professionalism of a Marine; when played or sung, all Marines rise to their feet and stand at attention for its duration.  The music to the hymn originated with the opera Geneviève de Brabant composed by the French composer Jacques Offenbach.  One listening to Couplets des Deux Hommes d’Armes will immediately recognize the tune.

We do not know who penned the words to the Marine’s Hymn — but tradition claims that it was an unidentified Marine sometime after 1867.  The first two lines of the verse were taken from the words inscribed on the Battle Colors of the Marine Corps: “To the Shores of Tripoli.”

The Battle Colors were so inscribed after the Barbary War of 1805.  Later, after the Marines participated in the capture of Mexico City and the Castle of Chapultepec (also known as the Halls of Montezuma) in 1847, the inscription on the Colors was changed to read, “From the Shores of Tripoli to the Halls of Montezuma.”  Whoever wrote the words to the Marine Corps Hymn reversed this order.

To all Marines and Friends of the Corps

Semper Fi

Naval Intelligence — Agents of Change

The early days

By 1861, America’s military traditions were already well established.  When America needed an armed force, it recruited one.  When the United States no longer needed an armed force, they disbanded it.  In the minds of our founding fathers, there was no reason to maintain a standing military force.  Why?  Because in the experience of American colonists, the British used its standing army to enforce tyrannical edicts from the Parliament.[1]

By 1875, a decade after the end of the American Civil War, the United States Navy had deteriorated due to the neglect of Congress and the Navy’s senior leadership.  The Navy’s ships were rusting away, its officers had grown apathetic and unprofessional, and (when compared to the other significant navies of the world — Britain, France, Russia, Japan) the US Navy appeared in last place.  It took the United States government another five years to realize that the condition of the Navy demanded a national discussion.  One of the young officers to lead this discussion was Lieutenant Theodorus B. M. Mason.  He was one of the Navy’s early agents of change.

Born in New York in 1848, Theodorus came from a distinguished family.  His father was a prominent attorney and a former colonel in the U. S. Army during the Civil War.  His uncle was Rear Admiral Theodorus Baily.  He adopted Mason’s surname in deference to his maternal grandfather Sidney, who had no male heirs to carry on the family name.

Mason graduated from the U. S. Naval Academy in 1868.  He was known for his intellect, his linguistic ability, and his foresight.  After serving with the Navy’s hydrographic office, he traveled extensively in Europe and South America as a naval observer charged with collecting information about foreign navies.[2]  Mason knew what information was available and how to obtain it. He recognized that for the U. S. Navy to compete with foreign navies, the United States would have to develop capacities in naval science and technology.  Mason became convinced that the U. S. Navy would require a unified intelligence agency to gather, analyze, catalog, and disseminate foreign naval developments to achieve modernization.

From the report, Mason wrote of his travels and discoveries, William H. Hunt, the Secretary of the Navy, on 23 March 1882, directed the establishment of the Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) with the Bureau of Navigation.[3]  Hunt appointed Mason as its first director.  Mason assumed his new post, Chief Intelligence Officer, in June 1882.  The Navy assigned him to a small office in what was once known as the State, War, and Navy Building, which is now the Old Executive Office Building.

Initially, the heads of the various sections of the Bureau of Navigation paid Mason little mind.  He was a comparatively junior officer, a lieutenant, and the ONI was a fledgling undertaking.  However, Mason began providing information that the various bureaus could use to justify the funds needed to expand and modernize the Navy.

His primary work, however, may not seem like much of an accomplishment today.  Titled Information from Abroad: The War on the Pacific Coast of South America Between Chile and the Allied Republics of Peru and Bolivia, 1879-81, Mason’s work in 1883 was little more than a chronology of events incorporating his and the observations of other naval officers on a singular event.  After 77 pages, Mason concluded, “Since the fall of Lima, there has been no battle of importance; many skirmishes have taken place between portions of the army of occupation and small bodies of Peruvians.  There has also been a large amount of diplomatic maneuvering, which, although belonging to history, conveys no lesson of value to the naval or military student.”

The Navy transferred Lieutenant Mason to other duties three years later, replacing him with Lieutenant Raymond P. Rodgers in April 1885.  In January 1894, the Navy promoted Mason to lieutenant commander and retired him due to ill-health in December.

The War Years

It wasn’t until 1916 when Congress authorized the first significant expansion of ONI, an increase in funding to support domestic security operations in advance of World War I.  Two years into the war, Congress was finally convinced that someone should be looking after America’s ports, harbors, and defense plants.  Germany, by then, had embarked on a significant spying operation in the United States, and subversion and sabotage had become a valid concern.  ONI worked closely with the Departments of State,  War, Justice, Commerce, and Labor to help prevent unauthorized disclosure of sensitive defense information.  The number of ONI agents employed to accomplish such a feat was undoubtedly substantial.

ONI agents continued their counter-intelligence investigations throughout World War II — a mission assigned to its Special Activities Branch.  ONI also expanded its efforts to discover critical intelligence on German submarine operations, tactics, and technologies.  Most of this information came from interrogations of captured German submariners.  Within this period, ONI produced thousands of ship and aircraft recognition manuals for front-line forces.  Also initiated during this period was a sophisticated photo-interpretation effort and a related topographical model section that aided in the planning for combat operations by amphibious planners of the Navy, Army, and Marine Corps.  ONI also established two schools for the training of fleet intelligence officers.

In 1945, the Navy began hiring civilian scientists and technologists to guide advancements in a wide range of fields.  The Sound Surveillance System, acoustic intelligence, the Navy Scientific and Technical Intelligence Center, and the Navy Reconnaissance and Technical Support Center came from this effort.

In 1946, ONI established the Office of Operational Intelligence.  This particular office inherited the mission of the Navy’s Combat Intelligence Division, created by Fleet Admiral Ernest J. King during World War II.  Its “Special Section,” known as Y1, evolved from the Joint Intelligence Center, Pacific Ocean area (JICPOA) that successfully operated against the Imperial Japanese Navy in the Pacific War.

After World War II (faced with ongoing budget cuts), the ONI returned to its somewhat abbreviated peacetime mission.  This changed with the beginning of the Korean War in 1950.  ONI began a significant buildup of special agents whose principal mission was the security of Naval facilities and personnel and criminal investigations involving Navy and Marine Corps personnel.

In 1957, ONI incorporated a signals intelligence effort under the Navy’s Field Operational Intelligence section.  This group provided real-time information about the disposition of foreign naval and military forces during the Cold War.

In 1966, a special investigative unit was formed and named the Naval Investigative Service (NIS).  NIS became the primary investigative agency of the Department of the Navy for counter-intelligence and criminal activities.  In 1982, NIS assumed responsibility for the Navy’s Law Enforcement and Physical Security mission.  Following the Beirut bombing in 1983, NIS established the Navy Anti-terrorist Alert Center.  One notable employee of ATAC was a civilian analyst named Jonathan Pollard, convicted of spying for Israel in 1987.  Pollard was released from prison in 2015 and now lives in Israel.

Following the so-called “Tailhook Scandal” in 1991 (with pressure from the Chairman of the US Senate Armed Services Committee (Senator Sam Nunn)), the Naval Investigative Service was re-named Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS).  It concurrently became a federal law enforcement agency under civilian leadership within the Department of the Navy.

Post-Cold War

Between 1988-93, ONI joined the U. S. Coast Guard Intelligence Coordination Center and the Marine Corps Intelligence Activity supporting domestic maritime and expeditionary and littoral intelligence collection missions.  This newest facility is called the National Maritime Intelligence Center.  In 2009, the Chief of Naval Operations directed the transformation of ONI into a major naval command which included four subordinate components: scientific and technical intelligence, operational intelligence, information services technology, and expeditionary/special warfare intelligence support.

The Navy’s intelligence mission is evolving, providing critical support to national and global governments and industrial partners.  In 2016, the “Information Warfare Community,” which operates under the supervision of the Assistant Chief of Naval Operations, became the Navy’s primary conduit for global information systems.  Its primary function is command and control systems, battlespace and adversary management, and power projection.  It is an effort that employs around 52,000 military, civilian, and civilian contract employees in warfare, cryptographic, meteorological, and oceanographic disciplines.  Today, there are five separate organizations within the Office of Naval Intelligence: The Nimitz Operation Intelligence Center, Farragut Technical Analysis Center, Kennedy Irregular Warfare Center, Hopper Information Services Center, and the Brooks Center for Maritime Engagement.

The Office of Naval Intelligence is not without its critics, however.  Those who suspect the existence of a “deep state” within the U. S. government point to former ONI officer Robert Woodward and his journalistic sidekick Carl Bernstein as willing participants of a deep-state plot organized to bring down President Richard Nixon in the so-called Watergate Affair.  If true, it may have been the first time that manufactured materials targeted high-ranking US officials.  Such accusations are easier made than proved, which goes to the secrecy of official intelligence operations and ONI’s long involvement in domestic spying operations.

Giving some credence to the concerns of “deep state” theorists, in the aftermath of President Biden’s disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan, the Director of Naval Intelligence recently warned active duty and retired military personnel that any criticism made by them toward the President of the United States, Vice President, cabinet officials, and members of congress may subject them to court-martial proceedings for violations of the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ), and a warning to civilian employees that they may be censored pursuant to Department of Defense Instruction 1344.10.  It is enough to cause one to wonder how far the role of ONI now extends into matters of America’s Constitutional guarantee of expressing personal opinions.

I have no answers.

Sources:

  1. O’Brien, P. P.  British, and American Naval Power: Politics and Policy, 1900-1936.  Greenwood, 1998. 
  2. “Our Heritage,” The Office of Naval Intelligence online.

Endnotes:


[1] After the revolutionary war, Congress disbanded America’s land and naval forces.  At the end of World War I, the United States demobilized the US armed forces.  President Truman ordered the demobilization of the armed forces in 1946.  Truman saw the error of his ways in late June 1950 when the United States came within a hair’s width of being physically thrown off the Korean Peninsula.

[2] Hydrographic is the study and process of measuring the physical characteristics of waters and marginal land

[3] Secretary Hunt served only briefly as Secretary of the Navy, under President James Garfield.  His one enduring achievement, beyond creating the ONI, was a Naval Advisory Board, which he tasked with reviewing and evaluating suggestions for rebuilding the U. S. Navy.  It wasn’t until 1915 that Secretary Josephus Daniels established a permanent advisory board — a suggestion by famed inventor Thomas A. Edison.