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  These weapons also included outdated or barely serviceable firearms from the French and Indian Wars and weapons captured from enemies.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.  

India Three Four in Panama

Some Background

In the eighty or so years following independence from Spain, Panama was a province of Gran Colombia, a free association begun in 1821.  From that point onward, the people living in Panama made several dozen attempts to withdraw from their Colombian alliance, including the so-called Thousand Days War (1899-1902).  For the Panamanians, it was a struggle for land rights more than an issue of sovereignty.  Observing these machinations and with a growing interest in constructing a canal across the Isthmus, the United States under President Theodore Roosevelt began to engineer the separation of Panama from Colombia.

In November 1903, Panama declared its independence from Colombia.  To constrain Colombia from sending naval and ground forces to Panama, the United States re-introduced a Marine Corps presence in Panama under future commandant, Major John A. Lejeune.  Of course, this was not the Marines’ first deployment to Panama.  In 1856, Marines went to Panama to guarantee the security of American fortune hunters while en route to California via the Isthmus.

Given Roosevelt’s interest in constructing a canal, Major Lejeune realized that a Marine presence in Panama would continue.  So, with that foresight, Lejeune established a permanent barracks there in 1904.  Between 1904 and 1911, the principal mission of the Marine Corps was to safeguard the canal while under construction (and its workers/executive managers).  Marines established a permanent barracks at the US Navy’s submarine base at Coco Solo in 1923 — known simply as Marine Barracks (MB), Panama.  From that year forward, the size of the barracks expanded and contracted according to the needs of the Navy. 

In February 1945, the MB had 36 officers, three warrant officers, and 1,571 enlisted men at its peak strength.  The Marines also experienced several “re-designations” and relocations.  In 1943, Headquarters Marine Corps (HQMC)  consolidated all Marines serving in Panama under the Marine Barracks, Fifteenth Naval District, Rodman, Canal Zone.  In 1987, HQMC renamed the barracks as Marine Corps Security Force Company (MCSFC), Panama.

Responsibility for the Canal Zone (CZ) security fell to the U. S. Army under the Commanding General, U. S. Army South (CG USASouth), headquartered in San Antonio, Texas.  USASouth became a subordinate command of the United States Southern Command (USSOUTHCOM), headquartered in Miami, Florida, as one of eleven unified combatant commands.  The mission assigned to the Marine Security Forces was in providing security for U. S. Navy installations in Panama.

Panama — US Relations

The agreement between Panama and the United States vis-à-vis the canal was that the United States would lease a twelve-mile swath of land across the Isthmus for 100 years, construct the channel, and control it as sovereign US territory during the period of the lease.  Over time, with technological advances in ship sizes, the canal proved no longer adequate for the largest naval and maritime vessels.  Within this period, relations between the US and Panama were not always amiable.  Marine battalion landing teams infrequently went to Panama as a show of force and a demonstration that the United States intended to exercise its control over canal zone operations, particularly during periods of political and civil unrest.[1]

By agreement between Panama and the US in 1977, complete control of the Panama Canal would shift to the Panamanians in 2000.  In 1981, however, General Omar Torrijos, then serving as “Maximum Leader of the Panamanian Revolution,” the man who negotiated this treaty, died in a plane crash — which opened the door for General Manuel Antonio Noriega to succeed him as a revolutionary leader and de facto head of state in Panama.  During Noriega’s tenure, five men served as puppet heads of state to give Noriega’s dictatorship international credibility.

General Noriega consolidated his power in Panama by seizing control of the armed forces, renaming them as Panamanian Defense Forces.  By 1988, Noriega controlled the national police, the army and paramilitary organizations, the air forces, and the small naval force — in total (on paper), around 15,000 men.  In terms of combat troops, Noriega could field roughly 3,500 men organized as two light battalions in each of Panama’s thirteen military zones, ten independent companies, a cavalry squadron, and a handful of “special operations” forces.  Noriega’s air force consisted of 50 aircraft, and his navy operated twelve small vessels.  He also controlled 14 battalions of civilian laborers, the so-called Dignity Battalions, which consisted of unemployed workers shepherded by low-ranking officers and NCOs.

Manuel Noriega was a caudillo in the finest tradition of post-Spanish petty dictators.  He was arrogant, corrupt, dangerous, and stupid.  His arrogance led him to misjudge the United States’ continuing interest in the Canal Zone (CZ).  While the United States turned a blind eye to Noriega’s involvement in narcotics, Noriega’s time was fast running out.  In January 1988, two federal grand juries in Florida indicted Noriega on racketeering and drug trafficking charges.  Subsequently, puppet-President Eric Arturo Delvalle attempted to depose Noriega, but Noriega engineered Delvalle’s dismissal.  Civil disorder one more returned to Panama, with threats made to the lives and safety of American personnel and military installations.

The Culture War

As relations between the US and Panama deteriorated, the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) issued a warning order to various military commands ordinarily responsible for the security of the canal zone.  Marines at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, began updating their contingency plans for Panama.  With only one MCSFC in Panama, a platoon from the Marine Corps Security Force Battalion (at Norfolk, Virginia), known as a Fleet Anti-terrorist Security Team (FAST), was quickly dispatched to reinforce the Marines of MCSFC Panama. 

Of course, the FAST platoon was an inadequate measure, but the National Military Command Authority (NMCA) or JCS had yet to decide what to do about Noriega.  With so few men to provide security to naval installations, Major E. A. Keith, CO MCSFC Panama, had to prioritize his security concerns.  With the concurrence of the Commander, US Naval Forces (South), Keith identified the fuel storage facility, known as the Arraijan Tank Farm (ATF), as his first security concern. 

The ATF is located within two square kilometers of rolling grassland, surrounded by dense jungle,[2] which provided excellent avenues of approach should Noriega’s PDF attempt to seize the ATF or threaten the adjacent Howard Air Force Base.[3]  Major Keith did not have a sufficient number of men to maintain a formal defense perimeter around the ATF, so his only recourse was to employ irregular area security patrols.

Patrol leaders almost immediately reported the presence of PDF forces dressed in black field uniforms using night vision goggles (NVGs) and evidence of recently prepared foxholes in the jungle areas surrounding the ATF.  When Marines reported this intelligence up the chain of command, US Army South dismissed it out-of-hand, claiming that US troops prepared the fighting holes during recent training exercises.  US Army South also emphatically denied that Noriega’s PDF had any NGVs.  Subsequently, however, Navy intelligence officers learned that the Army had not conducted any training exercises adjacent to the ATF for several years; moreover, that the Army had (in fact) transferred NGVs to the PDF.

Despite the Army’s lack of interest in further reinforcing the MCSFC, the navy requested that the Marine Corps ready a combat brigade for possible deployment to the Canal Zone.  Accordingly, the 6th Marine Brigade (6thMEB) was issued a warning order.  In developing his operation plan, the Brigade Commander suggested an “all or nothing” approach.  Either the Brigade deployed as a fully functional combat brigade (two battalion landing teams, two combat aircraft squadrons) or not at all.

Even as the JCS fretted about a proper response to deteriorating conditions in Panama, 6thMEB received a “stand up” order on 31 March 1988.  While this was going on, the Commanding General, Fleet Marine Force, Atlantic (CG FMFLant) ordered an advance combat element to proceed to Panama to reinforce the MCSFC.  The Marines viewed this advanced element as a nucleus for a Marine Air-Ground Task Force (MAGTF) around which a brigade might later form, although one without any air support.

Why was there no aviation support for the Marines?  Given the amount of Army and Air Force assets stationed at Howard Air Force Base, COMUSSOUTHCOM did not see a need for additional Marine Corps combat aircraft.  SOUTHCOM didn’t see a need for any Marines at all, but at that stage, the employment of Marines wasn’t up to SOUTHCOM if their mission was to reinforce security for naval installations.

The unit assigned as the brigade’s advance element was Company I, 3rd Battalion, 4th Marines (India 3/4), under the command of Captain Joseph P. Valore.  Upon arrival in Panama on 6 April, Valore reported to Rear Admiral Jerry G. Gnecknow, Commander, Naval Forces, Southern Command.  Colonel William J. Conley, who served as brigade chief of staff, accompanied Captain Valore to Panama.  As part of the advance team, Conley’s mission was to arrange logistical support for the brigade, should it actually deploy.  Admiral Gnecknow assigned Colonel Conley as Senior Marine Officer, Naval Forces, Panama, when the brigade’s deployment did not appear likely.

The selection of India 3/4 (Reinforced) to serve as the brigade’s advance element was that the brigade earmarked its parent battalion as one of the brigade’s battalion landing teams and because the company, who at the time was the 2nd Marine Divisions air alert/rapid response team, had completed extensive pre-deployment training.  The 3rd Battalion, 4th Marines reinforced India Company with an 81mm mortar section, a Sensor Control and Management Platoon (SCAMP), a counterintelligence team, and a squad of combat engineers.  Colonel Conley assigned responsibility for securing the ATF  to Captain Valore, who embraced Major Keith’s aggressive patrolling strategy.  Suddenly, on 9 April, operational control of India Company passed from Admiral Gnecknow to the Commander, Joint Task Force (JTF), Panama — who also served as Commander, U. S. Army South.

At the time of his deployment, Captain Valore felt obligated to address two issues affecting his company’s performance in Panama.  The first was a standing policy decision that precluded armed Marines from chambering a round in their weapons until fired upon, and the second involved rules of engagement.  Captain Valore correctly believed that sending Marines into harm’s way with unchambered weapons was foolish; indeed, it is.  He raised this issue with Colonel Conley, who agreed with Valore and authorized the Marines to patrol with chambered weapons.  As to the rules of engagement, Conley allowed Valore’s Marines to “return fire if fired upon.”

What made these two issues “hot button” topics was the 1983 Beirut bombing incident.  Because of the restricted weapons policy, Marine sentries were unable to stop the bomb-laden truck that drove through the security perimeter and kill 241 American servicemen.  As to the rules of engagement, no one fired on the Marines standing guard that day — the terrorist simply drove through the perimeter at a high rate of speed.  Thus, Conley’s cautionary instruction, to “return fire if fired upon,” was woefully inadequate.  There are occasions when initiating hostile action is unquestionably appropriate.

But COMJTFPANAMA/COMUSARMYSOUTH had a different perspective.  He did not want Marines firing on Panamanians.  The mission, he argued, was to safeguard American interests in Panama, not make the deteriorating political condition worse.  In his view, the Marines — by their very presence — were making matters worse by their aggressive behavior.  At this point, one may wonder, what would be the purpose of arming military personnel to guard US installations if the men charged with executing that mission weren’t taking their responsibilities seriously?

This particular kerfuffle leads one to consider the cultural differences between the U. S. Army and the United States Marines.  There is a unique and very distinctive Marine Corps culture that sets the Marines apart from every other branch of service.  First, Marines never lose sight of their primary mission: winning battles.  Locating, closing with, and destroying the enemy is at the forefront of every Marine Corps mission.  It is the only reason Marines exist.  Second, a bended knee and/or erring on the side of caution in a kinder-gentler world is not a Marine Corps tradition.  Marines are warriors — it is their ethos.  There is something very different going on inside the heads of (too many) senior army officers.

So, while senior Army officers berated the Marines for doing what they’re best at, senior Marine Corps officers remained adamant: they would not employ a lethal combat company and then tie its hands by ridiculously simple-minded restrictions. 

Moreover, in 1988, a bolstered Marine presence in Panama resulted from the PDF’s aggressiveness, not the cause of it.  It may be true that army personnel in Panama were serving a fantasy tour, accompanied by their families, enjoying an exotic and leisurely lifestyle, but that wasn’t what India Company was doing in Panama.  India Company arrived in Panama in combat mode.

A test of each of the preceding presumptions transpired during the night of 10-11 April.  Soon after the arrival of India Company, unknown intruders began probing Marine positions at the ATF.  Early in the morning of 11 April, a Marine patrol operating in the northeast sector contacted an unknown number of intruders.  The patrol leader, Corporal Ricardo Villahermosa, determined to apprehend these unknown trespassers.  To accomplish that, Villahermosa split his force, intending to envelop them.  The jungle was pitch black, and the only sound was an occasional snap of vegetation, which suggested human movement.  A short time later, a flare accidentally “popped,” emulating the sound of the discharge of a weapon, and then ignited.  Marines from the split force opened fire, and Corporal Villahermosa was mortally wounded.  It was a frightful accident — but one that prompted a renewal of the ‘weapons ready’ debate.

Major General Bernard Loeffke,[4] U. S. Army, CG USASouth, also serving as JTF commander, critically challenged the Marines at a meeting on 12 April.  Major Alfred F. Clarkson, the operations officer of the MEB’s advance element, rigorously defended the “weapons ready” policy, informing General Loeffke in no uncertain terms that the Marine chain of command would not deny the use of weapons to their troops.  Doing otherwise, he said, was morally indefensible.  Colonel Conley concurred and made certain that Loeffke’s concerns did not impede Marine combat operations.

Shortly after nightfall on 12 April, remote battlefield sensors alerted Valore’s Marines that approximately 40 unknown persons were approaching the ATF perimeter.  SCAMP Marines confirmed the presence of these unknown persons, and a USAF AC-130 gunship provided the third verification.  Captain Valore immediately consolidated his force in the center of the ATF.  Soon after that, Marines received and returned fire into the line of tracers aimed at them from this unknown force.

To the west of the company, a SCAMP detachment reported another probe.  The detachment NCOIC, Sergeant Michael A. Cooper, requested illumination, revealing well-armed hostiles were moving toward his position.  Captain Valore approved Cooper’s request for a mortar fire mission, and sixteen HE rounds were dropped on the approaching hostile force.  Valore also authorized Cooper to return fire.  As Cooper engaged the hostiles, an additional force assaulted Valore’s company.  The Marines returned fire with an M19 chain gun that spits out 220 rounds of 40mm grenades, and the enemy withdrew.

At around 2200, General Loeffke arrived at Valore’s position in civilian attire, demanding to know what had transpired.  After Captain Valore briefed Loeffke, the general ordered him to cease fire and not re-engage unless first fired upon.  Loeffke also ordered the Marines to remain in place and allow the intruders to withdraw from the area.  Loeffke assured Valore that he had contacted the PDF command structure, who assured him that there were no Panamanian forces in the area.

In compliance with Loeffke’s order, Valore moved the SCAMP detachment back from the perimeter.  Through the use of NVGs, Valore witnessed several intruders administering first aid and evacuating casualties from the jungle.  Marines from the MCSFC, who had established a roadblock on the Pan American highway and observed the PDFs evacuation of dead and wounded, confirmed Captain Valore’s after-action report.

In the aftermath of this incident, Valore and his Marines were set upon by a bevy of Naval Investigative Service (NIS) and Army Intelligence Service (AIS) agents.  The repetitious questioning lasted several days.  Additionally, Loeffke ordered Valore and his Marines to submit to urinalysis testing — all of which were negative.

More than anything else, Major General Loeffke and his JTF Staff wanted to discredit Captain Valore, India Company Marines, and the U. S. Marine Corps.  Loeffke publicly stated that the Marines had fired at ghosts and shadows.  General Noriega and the anti-American Panamanian press exploited this opportunity and began planting stories about drug abuse among the Marines.  For their part, the Marine hierarchy closed ranks around Captain Valore and his Marines.  Colonel Conley rejected Loeffke’s and Noriega’s nonsense and may have even confided some concern about Loeffke’s loyalty to his superiors.

Undeterred, Loeffke replaced India 3/4 at the ATF with an Army battalion[5].  On 14 April 1988, Army sentries guarding the ammunition supply point came under fire from an unknown size of PDF forces.  The same night, an Army patrol of the 7th Special Forces Group operating west of Howard AFB came under fire.  It, therefore, became apparent to everyone (except General Loeffke) that the Marines did not imagine the PDF assault at the ATF.  In retrospect, the Marines developed the appropriate response to PDF aggression, and Loeffke’s general incompetence as a field commander countermanded it.[6]

Over the next several months, the PDF continued to initiate aggressive actions against US forces in Panama, but nothing on the scale of the firefight in April 1988, which suggested that Captain Valore’s response had the desired effect on PDF activities.  Between April and December 1988, the US decided on diplomatic maneuvers rather than military. 

This period of calm allowed the Marines to undergo additional jungle training and exercise command and control systems, particularly between the Army and Marines.  COMUSSOUTHCOM formally appointed Colonel Conley as commander overall Marine forces in Panama and Army units temporarily attached to the Marines for training.  Under Conley’s direction, Marine intelligence assets began to revise contingency plans based on needed updates to the “enemy situation” in Panama.

In mid-May 1988, India 3/4 went back on the line for another two weeks.  In addition to regular patrolling (day and night), the Marines improved their hardened observation and listening posts surrounding the tank farm and ammo depot and rehearsed rapid reaction operations.  Operations Purple Storm and Purple Blitz were joint-service exercises designed to improve command and control procedures between Marine and Army units and combat casualty evacuations.  Army and Air Force dog teams joined the Marines during their security patrols.  Army specialists installed a loudspeaker system designed to inform intruders that they were on US government property.  Air Force C-130 gunships flew nightly missions in support of the Marines.

Lima Company 3/4 relieved India 3/4 in June 1988.

Sources:

  1. Crandall, R.  Gunboat Democracy: US interventions in the Dominican Republic, Granada, and Panama.  Rowman & Littlefield Publications, 2006.
  2. Donnelly, T.  Operation Just Cause: The storming of Panama.  Lexington Books, 1991.
  3. Reynolds, N. E.  Just Cause: Marine Operations in Panama 1988-1990.  History and Museums Division, Headquarters, U. S. Marine Corps, 1996.
  4. Yates, L. A.  The US Military Intervention in Panama: Origins, Planning, and Crisis Management, June 1987-December 1989.  Army Center of Military History, 2008.

Endnotes:

[1] On 9 January 1964, grievances between native Panamanians and the “Zonians” (Americans living within the US-controlled Canal Zone) boiled over into a series of anti-American riots that resulted in an evacuation of the US Embassy in Panama City, assaults on US citizens — including the lynching of several US Army personnel — widespread looting and substantial damage to US-owned property.  The United States responded to this unrest by dispatching the 2nd Battalion, 8th Marines (BLT 2/8) to Panama to protect American lives and property.  At the time, I had the privilege of serving as a rifleman in Company E (Captain William R. Wildpret, commanding).  Echo Company was assigned responsibility for the security of the naval base at Coco Solo.

[2] The density of the jungle limited Marine patrols to about 500 yards over two hours.

[3] At this time, security for Howard Air Force Base was not a Marine Corps responsibility.

[4] USMA graduate in 1957, Loeffke has a degree in engineering, an MA in Russian language and Soviet Era studies, and a PhD in international relations.  He is a combat decorated officer, served as the Army Attaché with the US Embassy in Moscow, served on the White House staff, served as the Defense Attaché with the US Embassy in China, befriended Chinese general Xu Xin, is fluent in Chinese, and is a self-professed expert on Sino-American affairs.  After leaving the Army in 1992, Loeffke earned a medical degree and served as a physician in Bosnia, Haiti, Kenya, Iraq, Niger, and Darfur.  According to Loeffke, China is not the United States’ enemy.  While instructing at the USMA, Loeffke urged his students to increase their understanding of the Chinese and Russians as they are just like us.

[5] It normally takes an army regiment to replace a Marine rifle company.

[6] Documents uncovered after the December 1989 invasion of Panama confirmed the PDF assault on the Marines at the ATF.  Analysts subsequently concluded that the ATF was not the focus of the PDF, but rather the Marines themselves, as perpetrated by Noriega’s 7th Rifle Company, also known as Macho de Monte, one of Noriega’s few elite units, possibly reinforced by a few members of the Special Anti-terrorist Security Unit, and that they were likely augmented by several Cuban military advisors.


Digging Graves

Background

Kǒng Fūzǐ, otherwise known in the western world as Confucius (551-479 BC), was a paragon of Chinese philosophers and sages and, perhaps, one of the most influential individuals in all human history.  His teachings emphasized personal morality, justice, kindness, and sincerity — but his school of thought was only one of a hundred philosophical and legalistic academies during China’s Qin dynasty.  He once warned, “Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves.”

Charlie Wilson

Operation Cyclone was the brainchild of Texas Congressman Charles Nesbit Wilson (also known as Charlie Wilson).[1]  It was the codename for a Central Intelligence Agency program to arm and finance the Afghan mujahideen (1979-1989) during the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan.  It was one of the most protracted and most expensive covert CIA operations ever undertaken.

Wilson’s idea was to funnel black money through the CIA to financially support radical Islamists who more or less worked under the control of Pakistani military dictator Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq (1977-1988).  We don’t know how much of this money Zia diverted to his atomic weapons project, but it may have been substantial.  Between 1980-1986, the CIA sent between $20-40 million to Afghanistan annually; in 1987, this amount increased to $640 million annually.  CIA funding continued after the Soviet Union departed Afghanistan in 1989 to support the Afghan Civil War (1989-1992).  Before Zia’s death, he successfully wooed both the United States and China into a ménage à trois — which was “just fine” with Charlie Wilson, a Democrat, who leaned in that direction anyway.

The CIA’s arms deal included the state-of-the-art Stinger surface-to-air shoulder-fired anti-aircraft weapon that cost around $38,000 each.  We sent thousands of these to Afghanistan to help the Islamists rid themselves of the Soviet MI-24 (Hind) helicopter.  Once CIA operatives instructed the Islamists how to employ these weapons, no Russian helicopter was safe.  How many of these Stinger missiles remained in Afghanistan after the CIA withdrew its support is unknown.  Still, at some point, the supplies diminished — driving Islamists to employ a much cheaper and easier to obtain weapon: the Rocket Propelled Grenade (RPG).

The RPG fires a shaped charge explosive warhead.  There are various warheads, but the most common is the high explosive (HE) round and high explosive anti-tank (HEAT) round.  Either of these is devastating to helicopters.

As it turned out, the Americans instructing mujahideen on fighting a sophisticated enemy combat force did an extraordinary job.  Radical Islamists later turned these skills toward the Americans once the United States decided to replace the Russian invaders in 2003.  Americans in Afghanistan have been digging graves ever since.

Extortion One Seven

CH-47D by LCPL D. NICHOLS/USMC

Members of the U. S. Navy’s Seal Team Six assaulted a Pakistani compound on 2 May 2011, killing the founder and leader of al-Qaeda, Osama bin Laden.  It was a CIA-led operation with the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) codenamed Operation Neptune Spear.  Operating alongside the Navy’s special warfare group was an element of the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (Airborne) (Night Stalkers).  This operation ended a nearly ten-year search for bin Laden, the alleged mastermind of the 9/11 attack upon the United States.

One month earlier, the US Tenth Mountain Division turned control of Combat Outpost Tangi over to Afghan government forces.  It was an interesting “turnover” since the Afghan Defense Force (ADF) never actually occupied the base, so Taliban forces took the initiative to seize it for their use.  There could be a connection here, but I hesitate to judge.  In any event, US forces continued to operate in the Tangi area.  By 2011, the number of Taliban in Tangi was significant.  On 8 June, Taliban ground forces engaged a US Army CH-47 Chinook helicopter from five or six different locations with 14 separate RPG attacks forcing the overwhelmed helicopter to abandon its mission.

At about this same time, US intelligence determined that senior Taliban leader Qari Tahir might have operated from within the Tangi Valley.  Thus, the International Security Force (ISF) command group ordered American/Coalition forces working within Wardak Province to locate Tahir and capture or kill him.

Beginning around 22:30 hours (local time) on 5 August, a platoon of 47 Army Rangers departed their forward operating base in Logar Province aboard two CH-47D aircraft.  After a thirty-minute flight, the two helicopters landed near a compound believed to be the location of Tahir.  After disembarking the Rangers, the helicopters departed the area.  It was a high-risk operation.  Two AH-64 Apache gunships and an AC-130 gunship remained on station to provide intelligence, surveillance, and aerial reconnaissance of the area.  Seventeen SEALS served as a reserve force.

As the Rangers approached the designated compound, ISR aircraft observed numerous individuals leaving the compound, but the Rangers did not engage these people.  Apache aircraft did engage a different group of around eight insurgents, reporting six of these insurgents killed in action.  Meanwhile, ISR assets continued to observe the disengaged group, estimating between 9-11 fighters.  The on-site commander believed that these individuals might include Tahir.  At 0100, the task force commander directed the SEALS to engage these suspected insurgents.  The Aviation Brigade Commander took nearly an hour to approve a new landing zone for the SEAL infiltration.  At 02:00, the task force commander decided to increase the size of the SEAL Team from 17 to 33 warriors and then, to reduce transportation time, command authority loaded SEAL reinforcements into a single CH-47D; another aircraft served as a decoy that would land at a separate landing site.

While this part of the operation was unfolding, the Taliban force split into two sections.  At around 02:15, one team of three insurgents went to a stand of trees; the other group entered a building located 1.2 miles from the original compound.  Since the Apache helicopters were involved in tracking these two groups of insurgents, they could not offer security or fire support to either of the two in-bound CH-47Ds.

Six minutes out, the decoy CH-47D split off and returned to base.  The remaining helicopter, callsign Extortion One Seven, proceeded to the earlier landing zone.  One minute out, Extortion One Seven descended to an altitude of 100 feet and reduced its airspeed to around 58 knots.  A third group of Taliban previously undetected by the Americans fired 2-3 RPGs from a two-story building.  The second round fired struck Extortion One Seven’s aft rotor assembly.  Within five seconds, the CH-47D crashed and exploded, killing everyone on board.  It took the Apache aircraft another thirty seconds to report the 47’s destruction.

The official determination in the after-action report was “wrong place/wrong time.”  Such things do happen in war.  People die.  Suddenly.  But former Navy JAG Officer, Lieutenant Commander Don Brown,[2] disagrees.  He claims the US military intentionally concealed what happened to Extortion One Seven, much in the way the Army lied about the circumstances of Patrick Tillman’s death in 2004.

After reviewing all the evidence available to him (unclassified material), Brown concluded that military command sacrificed the SEAL Team through gross negligence during mission planning and covering up what happened.  As Brown understood the facts, seven ADF personnel slipped aboard Extortion One Seven without authority (a significant security breach), men who had no role in the operation.  Moreover, the rules of engagement (ROE) precluded pre-landing suppression fire within the CH-47D’s designated landing zone.  Brown argued that a pre-landing suppression fire would have saved Extortion One Seven from destruction.

On the issue of the seven ADF personnel, Brown contends that the remains of these men were flown to the United States and cremated, as reported in the Washington Times, leading Brown to conclude, “Something went terribly wrong inside that helicopter, and whatever went wrong was most likely beyond the pilot’s control.”  Brown also raises the question about a so-called helicopter black box, which the Army contends does not exist in that model aircraft.  But Commander Brown was adamant, asking why the Brigade commander sent Rangers back to the crash site looking for something that doesn’t exist.

Brown additionally claimed that the AC-130 gunship circling above the LZ spotted suspected Taliban insurgents moving on the ground toward Extortion One Seven’s designated landing site and requested permission to engage those insurgents.  According to Brown’s investigation, the task force commander denied the gunship permission to engage.  US Air Force Captain Joni Marquez, assigned to the AC-130 gunship at the time as firing officer, confirmed Brown’s assertions, and agreed with his conclusion that denying the gunship permission to engage sealed the fate of the CH-47D.

Conclusion

The cost in American lives from the US teaching a potential enemy how to kill our sons and daughters has been too high.  It is incomprehensible that any official of the US government would plant the seeds for a lethal future conflict for no other reason than to engage in an illicit relationship with a socialite.  Worse, Wilson soon had the full cooperation of the White House, CIA, and House of Representatives.

How many graves have we dug so far in the war on terror — graves that a US Congressman helped to dig?

Sources:

  1. Bergen, P.  Manhunt: The Ten Year Search for Bin Laden.  Crown Publishing, 2012.
  2. Bowden, M.  The Finish: The Killing of Osama Bin Laden.  Atlantic Monthly Press, 2012.
  3. Carter, S.  “Retired Air Force Captain says Pentagon covered up the real cause of deadly chopper crash.”  On-air broadcast, 18 April 2017.
  4. Herring, J. K.  Diplomacy and Diamonds: My Wars from the Ballroom to the Battlefield.  Center Street Publications, 2011.

Footnotes:

[1] Wilson’s motivation for starting the so-called Charlie Wilson War was his infatuation with Joanne Herring, a quite-wealthy anti-Communist crusader.  Herring, appalled by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, employed her feminine wiles in convincing Wilson to take up her cause of revenge against the Soviet Union.  Joanne Herring is also believed to have had an intimate relationship with Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq while serving as “Honorary Consul” at the Pakistani Consulate in Houston, Texas.  Osama bin-Laden may have been the founder and leader of al-Qaeda, but it may have been Joanne Herring who started it.  Treason, anyone?  Anyone?

[2] Brown served as legal counsel to Army Lieutenant Clint Lorance, who was charged and convicted for war crimes.  Brown’s subsequent book Travesty of Justice: The Shocking Persecution of Lt. Clint Lorance was a major factor in Lorance’s pardon by President Donald J. Trump in 2019. 


Chaplain

Background

In the days of the Merovingian dynasty (c. 450 – 751 AD), when Latin was still the language of the high-born, some people were called cappellani.  In the fourth century, the word referred to priests who dedicated themselves to preserving the religious relics of St. Martin of Tours.  St. Martin (b. 316 – d. 397 AD) was the patron saint of France, the father of the monastic life in Gaul, and the first “great leader” of Western Monasticism.  One of these relics was St. Martin’s half-cape (cappella).  St. Martin’s Cappella gave its name to the tent, later chapel, where the Cappella was preserved — over time, adding religious relics to the collection.  During the Carolingian dynasty (751 – 880 AD), and in particular, during the reign of Charlemagne, the priests who guarded St. Martin’s relics were called, in Old French, Chapelain.

In those days, Chaplains were appointed by the King, later Holy Roman Emperor.  They lived in the palace, and in addition to guarding the sacred relics, performed mass for the monarch on feast days, worked with the royal notaries[1] , and prepared any documents the emperor required of them.  In these duties, Chaplains gradually evolved into ecclesiastical and secular advisors to the king/emperor.  It became a tradition throughout western Christendom for monarchs to appoint their own chaplains.  Many of these chaplains became bishops.  This tradition continues today, as evidenced by the fact that the British Crown appoints members of the Royal College of Chaplains, although they no longer serve as the official keepers of records.

In modern usage, the term chaplain no longer addresses itself to any particular church or denomination.  Clergy and ministers appointed to various institutions (cemeteries, prisons, legislatures, hospitals, colleges, embassies, legations, and within the armed forces) are called chaplains.

Chaplains serve in the armed forces of most countries, usually as commissioned officers.  They are non-combatants and, as such, are not required to bear arms.  They may bear arms, if they choose, in defense of themselves and the sick or wounded.[2]  In the United States, Roman Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, and Moslem chaplains serve as chaplains in the Army, Navy, and Air Force.  Navy Chaplains provide the ecclesiastical needs of the Marine Corps.

U. S. Armed Forces chaplains provide religious services and advise their commander and fellow staff officers on religion, morality, and ethics.  They offer counseling services to service members and their families, operate pre-marriage counseling programs, make regular visitations to the sick and wounded, and provide opportunities for prayer services and last rites.  The Army, Navy, and Air Force Chief of Chaplains provide similar advice to the U. S. Secretary of Defense.

All military chaplains must be ordained and endorsed by a recognized religious organization.  A military chaplain’s rank is determined by years of service and criteria established by the military organization in which commissioned.  Chaplains are recognized in uniform by rank and religious affiliation.  The symbol for Christian Chaplains is the Roman Cross; a symbol of the Ten Commandments identifies Jewish Chaplains.  Moslem Chaplains wear a crescent as their religious symbol.

On 29 July 1775, the Continental Congress established the military chaplaincy, but chaplains did not wear a symbol of their faith until 1880.  In 1835, Army regulations required chaplains to wear black uniform coats without shoulder boards or symbols of rank.  The first symbol for chaplain was a shepherd’s crook or staff, approved in 1880;  the Latin Cross replaced the shepherd crook was adopted in 1898.  The first Jewish Chaplain was appointed during the American Civil War, but it wasn’t until World War I that Jewish Chaplains had their own religious symbol.

Navy Chaplains

On 28 November 1775, the Continental Navy published its regulations provided that, “The Commanders of the ships of the Thirteen United Colonies are to take care that divine service be performed twice a day on board, and a sermon preached on Sundays unless bad weather or other extraordinary accidents prevent.”  The Navy recognized the need for chaplains but did not foresee a requirement for uniformed attire or insignia of rank or religious affiliation until 1847.  At that time, the prescribed uniform was a black coat with a black collar and cuffs with no insignia.  In 1864, the Navy Department authorized Navy Chaplains to wear the standard uniform of commissioned officers and the symbol of the Latin Cross.  Essentially, Navy chaplains served “as officers without rank.”

In 1905, Navy Uniform Regulations provided that Chaplains would have ranks equivalent to line officers; they were to wear the standard navy officer’s uniform with the service braid in lustrous black (not gold as with line officers).  The Navy later modified this requirement in 1918 to include both the officer rank insignia and a gold cross.

Naval Staff Corps regulations discontinued the black braid and replaced it with the same gold braid worn by other officers – along with the Latin Cross.

In modern times, the Navy accepts clergy from religious denominations and faith groups, but an applicant’s request is contingent upon a favorable recommendation by their religious governing authority.  An applicant must meet the Navy’s requirements, including appropriate age and physical fitness.  Even after acceptance, the endorsing religious authority can revoke their endorsement at any time, the effect of which leads to the separation of the chaplain from naval service.

An applicant for service as a chaplain in the Navy must be a US citizen, be at least 21 years old, hold a post-graduate degree which includes 72-hours of study in theology, religious philosophy, ethics, and foundational writing.  Upon acceptance and commission, chaplains attend the Navy Chaplain School at Fort Jackson, South Carolina.  There is also a Chaplain Candidate Program Officer program for seminary students interested in obtaining a commission before completing their graduate studies.

The modern mission for Navy chaplains includes religious ministry, religious facilitation for all religious beliefs, caring for Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard personnel (and their families), advising their commanding officers in spiritual matters, promote ethical and moral behavior, increase combat readiness through ministerial programs, improve morale and retention, and employ modern technology to support their missions.  Assisting Navy chaplains are enlisted religious program specialists.

Several Navy chaplains have distinguished themselves in combat, including Lieutenant Vincent Capodanno (Medal of Honor), Lieutenant Commander Joseph T. O’Callahan (Medal of Honor), Commander George S. Rentz (Navy Cross), Lieutenant Thomas N. Conway (Navy Cross),[3] and Lieutenant (Junior Grade) Aloysius H. Schmitt (Silver Star).  Navy ships were named in honor of O’Callahan, Rentz, and Schmitt.

There has seldom been a Navy chaplain far from the forward edge of the battle area, whether serving aboard ship or in the field with the Marines.  Pictured right, Navy chaplains conduct religious serves on Mount Suribachi, on Iwo Jima, Easter Sunday, 1945.

My personal salute to all military chaplains, particularly those of the U. S. Navy who, at the risk of their own lives, provide injured and dying Marines with comfort in their final moments.  In many cases, the face of a Navy Chaplain or a Navy Corpsman is the last face our mortally wounded Marines see.

Sources:

  1. Burgsma, H. L.  Chaplains with Marines in Vietnam (1962-1971).  Washington: Headquarters, U. S. Marine Corps, 1985.
  2. Drury, C. M.  History of the Chaplain Corps.  Washington: Navy Publications Center, 1994.

[1] In Gaul and early France, the title of Notary was an employee of the Royal Chancelleries, titled “Notaries of the King” and served as scribes in the royal seigniorial and communal courts of justice who maintained records of all official proceedings.

[2] I have only known one chaplain who wore a sidearm in combat – a Presbyterian.

[3] A Catholic Priest, Lieutenant Conway was assigned as the chaplain aboard USS Indianapolis when a Japanese submarine torpedoed the vessel off the Philippine Island of Leyte on 30 July 1945.  More than 800 crewmen were forced into the ocean, some of whom were badly injured, and remained at the mercy of nature for three days.  These men were severely dehydrated and suffered numerous shark attacks.  Only 316 men survived the ordeal.  Conway was recognized for swimming through shark infested waters to administer to suffering crewmen, saving as many as 67 men.  Conway was one of the crew who didn’t survive; he stood by these men when they needed him most.  His award was delayed for 75 years, finally presented to family members on 8 January 2021.

Operation Buffalo

July 1967

Some Background

As summarized in McNamara’s Folly, Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara threw a costly wrench into the contest for control of the I Corps Tactical Zone (I CTZ).  His inane plan not only escalated the material costs of fighting the North Vietnamese Army (NVA), but it also dramatically increased the number of Marines, soldiers, and Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) troops who were killed and wounded while building it.[1]

Not a single Marine commander favored the so-called McNamara Line in I CTZ.  Shaking his head in disgust, one Marine officer said, “With these bastards, you’d have to build the [wall] all the way to India and it would take the entire Marine Corps and half the Army to guard it — and even then, they’d probably burrow under it.”  Even the Commandant of the Marine Corps, in his testimony before Congress, rigorously opposed the McNamara Line.

The Commander, U. S. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (COMUSMACV) assigned overall operational responsibility for I CTZ to the Third Marine Amphibious Force (III MAF).  In land area, I CTZ involved roughly 18,000 square miles.   III MAF included the 1st Marine Division (1stMarDiv), 3rd Marine Division (3rdMarDiv), 1st Marine Aircraft Wing (1stMAW), 3rd Force Logistics Command (3rdFLC), Provisional Corps, Vietnam, 1st Cavalry Division, 101st Airborne Division, Americal Division, Sub Unit 1, First Radio Battalion, 29th Civil Affairs Company, 7th Psychological Operations Battalion, and several ARVN and Vietnamese Marine Corps (VNMC) commands.

The McNamara Line placed US Forces in I CTZ in a dangerous position because in order to construct the barrier, III MAF had to divert Marines away from their combat assignments to build it.  With the 1stMarDiv operating near Chu Lai, in Quang Nam Province (65 miles south of Da Nang), responsibility for northern I Corps (abutting the demilitarized zone (DMZ)) fell to the 3rdMarDiv.  Despite the fact that the 3rdMarDiv was the largest Marine division ever formed in the history of the Marine Corps, it still didn’t have the men it needed to defend northern I Corps.

The task of building the McNamara Line fell upon Navy and Marine Corps combat engineers; Marine infantrymen provided much of the manual labor, and 3rdMarDiv regiments and separate battalions had to provide protection to those who labored in its construction.  Beside the already complicated matter of building the line, COMUSMACV wanted to project completed “yesterday.”

NVA commanders watched the construction activities with keen interest, no doubt asking themselves how the NVA could use the McNamara disruption to their advantage.  At the beginning of July 1967, the NVA had 35,000 troops assembled just north of the DMZ.  Their intention was to swarm across the Marine outpost at Con Thien, overwhelm US forces operating in Leatherneck Square,[2] and invade en mass all of Quang Tri Province.

Con Thien (The Hill of Angels) was important to the Marines because the location was situated high enough in elevation to provide an excellent observation post over one of the primary NVA routes into South Vietnam.  Moreover, anyone standing atop the 160-meter hill at Con Thien looking southeast could observe the entire forward logistics base at Dong Ha.

Operation Buffalo

The NVA (supported by heavy artillery and mortar fire) made two thrusts at Con Thien.   The first (and largest) of these attacks specifically targeted the Marine position at Hill 160.  Operation Buffalo commenced on 2 July.  Lieutenant Colonel Richard J. “Spike” Schening deployed his 1st Battalion, 9th Marines (1/9) in and around Con Thien.  Alpha Company and Bravo Company operated north-northeast of a strong point along Route 561, Delta Company and H&S Company occupied the battalion’s perimeter, and Charlie Company was detached to provide security for HQ 9th Marines at Dong Ha.

According to the 9th Marine’s commander, Colonel George E. Jerue, “The TAOR assigned to the 9th Marines was so large that the regiment did not have the option of conducting security patrols on a regular basis.  The NVA, realizing these limitations, would withdraw from the area until after a patrol had completed its mission, and then re-infiltrate the area just cleared.”  It was for this reason that Alpha and Bravo companies were sent to control Route 561.

On the morning of 2 July, Captain Sterling K. Coates led his Bravo Company into its heaviest engagement of the Vietnam War.  Bravo Company and Captain Albert C. Slater’s Alpha Company moved abreast in a northward direction along Route 561.  Both companies stepped off at 08:00.  Alpha Company was on the right.  Route 561 was a ten-foot-wide cart path bordered by waist-high hedgerows.  Unknown to either Coates or Slater, two NVA infantry battalions were waiting for them behind well-prepared fighting positions.  The next few hours would transform the Hill of Angels into a meat grinder.

Within an hour, 2nd Platoon (2ndPlt) Bravo Company achieved its first objective, a small crossroad some 1,200 meters north of the trace.  Enemy snipers began taking 3rdPlt and the company command element under fire as soon as they reached the crossroad.  As Captain Coates shifted the 3rdPlt to suppress the enemy fire, the NVA intensified its delivery.  Coates halted the 3rdPlt’s advance and directed 2ndPlt to shift right in an attempt to outflank the enemy’s position.  At the same time, Captain Coates ordered 1stPlt to move forward for rear area security and/or reinforcement if required.  NVA fire halted 2ndPlt’s advance.  Within a few moments, Bravo Company began receiving heavy small arms fire from the front and both flanks.  With the Marines halted and assuming a defense, the NVA began to deliver artillery and mortar fire.

Alpha Company Marines tripped two booby traps, injuring several Marines.  The company advance was halted while Captain Slater called for a medevac.  Once the wounded Marines had been evacuated, Slater moved forward in an attempt to link up with Coates but was prevented from doing so by heavy enemy fire.

Bravo Company casualties were mounting by the second — its position rapidly deteriorating as the NVA successfully cut 3rdPlt and the command element from 2ndPlt.  With the Marines under heavy fire, enemy soldiers armed with flame weapons ignited the hedgerows on both sides of the road.  2ndPlt launched an assault to help 3rdPlt, but enemy artillery and mortar fire increased.  With a grass fire threatening to overwhelm them, Marines withdrew only to enter into a killing zone of NVA machine guns.

Enemy artillery killed Captain Coates, his radio operator, two platoon commanders, and the company artillery forward observer.  The Forward Air Controller, Captain Warren O. Keneipp, assumed command of Bravo Company, but without a radio operator, Captain Keneipp lost contact with 2ndPlt and had no control over subsequent events (please see comment below).  The company executive officer (XO) (2nd in command) was with 2ndPlt; his radio was the only source of comms with the battalion command post (CP), but cut off from the rest of the company, the XO was in no position to influence the action.

Staff Sergeant Leon R. Burns commanded 1stPlt.  He led the platoon forward to reinforce 2ndPlt and 3rdPlt, but enemy assaults hindered his advance.  Burns called in air strikes and specifically asked for napalm.  The strike delivered the much-needed munitions within twenty meters of the 1stPlt’s position.  After the airstrike, the enemy assault faltered, which allowed Burns to move forward and incorporate what remained of the 2ndPlt.  After placing his Marines into a hasty defense, the company’s Navy Corpsmen began treating their wounded Marines.

Upon learning that Alpha and Bravo companies had run into a hornet’s nest, and the Bravo Company commander had been killed, Colonel Schening dispatched Captain Henry J. Radcliffe (the Battalion Operations Officer) to take command of Bravo Company.  Radcliffe led forward an additional rifle platoon from Delta Company and four tanks.  First Lieutenant Gatlin J. Howell (the Battalion Intelligence Officer) accompanied Radcliffe because his familiarity with the terrain surrounding Con Thien.

Radcliffe’s arrival at the point of contact was timely because his relief platoon foiled an NVA attempt to encircle Bravo Company.  As the tanks and helicopter gunships dispersed the NVA, Delta Company moved forward with its two remaining rifle platoons.  Radcliffe directed the Delta Company commander to secure a landing zone.  Within minutes, Charlie Company began to arrive by helicopter from Dong Ha.

With additional support from Charlie and Delta companies, Radcliffe continued his assault.  When Captain Radcliffe made contact with Staff Sergeant Burns, he asked, “Where is the rest of Bravo Company?”  Burns answered, “Sir, you’re looking at all that’s left of Bravo Company.”

With Burns supervising the evacuation of wounded and dead Marines, Radcliffe continued forward to Bravo Company’s furthest advance.  At that point, Radcliffe established defensive positions and began attending to the 3rdPlt’s dead and wounded.  Lieutenant Howell, who had previously commanded 3rdPlt, quickly searched for Marines and helped move them back to the corpsman for triage.  At that moment, the enemy re-initiated artillery fire and the company’s withdrawal was made more difficult when two of the supporting tanks triggered landmines.

Radcliffe shepherded the casualties into the landing zone for medevac.  While waiting for the airlift, NVA dropped mortars into the LZ, inflicting even more casualties on the medical corpsmen and litter bearers.  By this time, the fog of war had completely descended upon 1/9’s forward elements.  With officers and senior NCOs killed and wounded, corporals took charge.  The NVA’s artillery assault on the landing zone precluded additional helicopter support, so ambulatory Marines began carrying their wounded brothers back to Con Thien.

Throughout the battle, Marine and naval gunfire engaged the enemy in a furious duel.  During that day, Schening’s CP received over 700 enemy artillery rounds.  Marine aircraft flew 28 sorties, dropping 90 tons of munitions on the well-fortified enemy positions.

Meanwhile, Captain Slater’s Alpha Company remained heavily engaged.  The number of Marine casualties brought the company to a standstill, prompting Slater to order his 3rdPlt to establish a hasty landing zone defense in the company rear area.  After the first flight of evac helicopters departed the zone, NVA hit the 3rdPlt with mortar fire and a ground assault.  Slater moved his 2ndPlt and command group to reinforce the 3rdPlt.  The NVA moved to within 50 meters of the company line before Marine fire broke the attack, but owing to the number of their casualties, Alpha Company was relegated to a defensive position until the NVA force withdrew later that evening.

As Colonel Schening moved his CP forward, he sent his XO, Major Darrell C. Danielson, ahead with additional reinforcements and transport to help evacuate the casualties.  When Danielson contacted the fifty remaining Marines, he organized a medical evaluation and called for medevacs.  Several Marines were bleeding out, everyone appeared to be in a state of shock.  Despite on-going enemy artillery and mortar fire, Danielson managed to extricate Alpha and Bravo companies back to Con Thien.

Colonel Schening reported his situation to the Colonel Jerue, the regimental commander: situation critical.  Jerue ordered Major Willard J. Woodring, commanding 3/9, to reinforce Schening[3].  Upon arrival, Schening directed Woodring to assume operational control of Alpha and Charlie companies (1/9).  Major Woodring directed a five-company assault on the enemy flanks while what remained of Bravo and the LZ security platoon from Delta company withdrew into Con Thien.  Woodring’s aggressive assault caused the NVA units to withdraw.  Later in the day, Staff Sergeant Burns[4] reported only 27 combat effectives remained in Bravo Company.  In total, 1/9 had lost 84 killed in action, 190 wounded, and 9 missing.  Of enemy casualties, no precise number exists.[5]

Enemy contact continued for the next three days.  At 09:00 on 3 July, an Air Force aerial observer reported several hundred NVA soldiers advancing on Marine positions north of Con Thien.  Echo Battery 3/12 dropped a massive number of rounds on the NVA position killing an estimated 75 communists.  To the east, Major Woodring called in artillery strikes for twelve hours in preparation for an assault scheduled for 4 July.

Lieutenant Colonel Peter A. Wickwire’s BLT 1/3 (Special Landing Force Alpha) reinforced the 9th Marines and tied in with Woodring’s right flank.[6]  Colonel George E. Jerue, commanding the 9th Marines, planned his assault to push the NVA out of the Long Son area, some 4,000 meters north of Con Thien.  Woodring began his assault at around 0630, encountering heavy resistance from well-concealed enemy positions southwest of Bravo Company’s engagement on 2 July.  A prolonged battle involving tanks, artillery, and close air support ensued for most of the day.  At 18:30, when Woodring halted his advance, 3/9 had lost 15 dead and 33 wounded.  Wickwire’s 1/3 had lost 11 wounded in the same action.

BLT 2/3 (SLF Bravo) under Major Wendell O. Beard’s BLT 2/3 effected an air assault at Cam Lo, joining Operation Buffalo at mid-afternoon on 4 July.[7]  This battalion moved west and then northward toward the western edge of the battle area toward Con Thien.

At daylight on 5 July, NVA artillery began firing on Marine units located northeast of Con Thien but kept its ground units away from the Marines as they advanced.  Meanwhile, search and recovery teams had begun the grim task of retrieving Bravo Company’s dead.

On 6 July, all battalions continued moving north.  Beard’s 2/3 ran into an enemy force supported by mortars less than two miles south of Con Thien.  Within an hour, 2/3 killed 35 NVA, while suffering 5 killed and 25 wounded.  Major Woodring and Colonel Wickwire advanced their battalions under intermittent artillery fire.  At around 09:00, Woodring decided to send a reinforced rifle company 1,500 meters to the north-northwest to cover his left flank.  Captain Slater’s Alpha Company, which now included the survivors of Charlie Company and a detachment from 3rd Recon Battalion, moved into position without enemy resistance and established a strong combat outpost.

Slater’s movement went unnoticed, but that wasn’t the case with the main elements of Woodring’s and Wickwire’s battalions.  Both units encountered heavy artillery fire.  By 16:00, neither of the battalions could go any further.  Wickwire had lost a tank but due to concentrated enemy artillery fire, was forced to pull back without recovering it.  Captain Burrell H. Landes, commanding Bravo Company 1/3, received a report from an aerial observer that 400 or more NVA were heading directly to confront Woodring and Wickwire.  A short time later, accurate NVA artillery fire began blasting the Marines.  As Woodring and Wickwire prepared to meet the approaching NVA under the enemy’s artillery assault, Captain Slater’s recon patrol reported that the approaching NVA was heading directly into Alpha Company’s position.

The NVA force was unaware of Slater’s blocking position until they were within 500 feet, at which time Slater’s Marines engaged the NVA.  Since the NVA didn’t know where the Marine’s fire was coming from, they scattered in every direction, some of them running directly into the Marine line.  Once the enemy had figured out where Slater’s Marines were positioned, they organized an assault.  The Marine lines held, however.  At one point, NVA troops began lobbing grenades into the Marine position.  Lance Corporal James L. Stuckey began picking the grenades up and tossing them back.  Stucky lost his right hand on the third toss when the grenade exploded as it left his hand.[8]  Stuckey remained with his fireteam throughout the night without any medical assistance.

While the Alpha Company fight was underway, elements of the 90th NVA Regiments attacked Woodring’s and Wickwire’s Marine with blocks of TNT.  Marines called in air support, artillery, and naval gunfire.  By 21:30, the Marines had repelled the enemy assault and caused the NVA regiment to withdraw.  At around 22:00, Woodring radioed Slater to return to the battalion perimeter at first light.

Alpha Company mustered before daylight on 7 July.  As the sun began to light the sky, Slater’s Marines discovered 154 dead NVA just beyond the Marine perimeter.  About an hour later, after Slater had returned to Woodring’s lines, the NVA unleashed a terrible barrage on Slater’s old position.  In front of Woodring and Wickwire’s battalion lay an additional 800 dead communists.  Later that morning, however, an NVA artillery shell found its way to 1/9’s command bunker, killing eleven Marines, including First Lieutenant Gatlin J. Howell,[9] who had gone to the aid of Bravo Company on 2 July.  Lieutenant Colonel Schening was wounded in the same incident.[10]

Operation Buffalo ended on 14 July.  Marines reported enemy losses at 1,290 dead, two captured.  Total Marine losses were 159 killed, 345 wounded.  The NVA attack at Con Thien was relatively short in duration but particularly vicious and the communists paid a heavy price.  Since the enemy dead were so horribly chewed up from air, artillery, and naval gunfire, the Marines were forced into counting the NVA solder’s water canteens for a sense of enemy dead.

Sources:

  1. Telfer, G. L. and Lane Rogers.  U. S. Marines in Vietnam: Fighting the North Vietnamese, 1967.  Washington: Headquarters U. S. Marine Corps, 1984.
  2. Bowman, J. S.  The Vietnam War: Day by Day.  New York: Mallard Books, 1989.
  3. Nolan, K. W.  Operation Buffalo: USMC Fight for the DMZ.  Dell Publishing, 1992.

Endnotes:

[1] In this context, Robert McNamara was a war criminal.

[2] Located south of the DMZ, Leatherneck Square was a TAOR extending six miles (east-west) by nine miles (north-south); it’s corners were measured from Con Thien (northwest) to Firebase Gio Linh (northeast), and from Dong Ha to Cam Lo on its southern axis (an area of more than 54 square miles).  Between March 1967 to February 1969, 1,500 Marines and Navy Corpsmen were killed in this area, with an additional 9,265 wounded in action. 

[3] Awarded Silver Star Medal for conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action between 2 July – 9 July 1967.  Colonel Woodring passed away in 2003.

[4] Awarded Navy Cross for this action.

[5] After 14 July, estimates of enemy KIA ranged from 525 to 1,200.

[6] Colonel Wickwire was awarded the Silver Star Medal for conspicuous gallantry for service on 6 July 1967.

[7] Retired Lieutenant Colonel Wendell Otis “Moose” Beard, a former NFL football player with the Washington Redskins, served in World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam Wars.  He was the recipient of the Bronze Star Medal and Purple Heart Medal.  He passed away in 1980. 

[8] Awarded Navy Cross Medal.

[9] First Lieutenant Howell was posthumously awarded the Navy Cross for his actions on 2 July 1967.

[10] Colonel Schening was also wounded at Cape Gloucester, Peleliu, and during the Korean War.  This was his fourth Purple Heart Medal.  He was awarded the Silver Star Medal for service during the Korean War while serving as XO, Company C, 1st Battalion, 5th Marines.  Colonel Schening passed away in 1996.


Special Landing force

America’s flashing sword

Background

Late in October 1914, two Ottoman warships (operating under the command of German officers) conducted a raid in the Black Sea.  They bombarded the Ukrainian port of Odessa and sank several ships.  Two days later, the Ottoman Empire entered the First World War on the side of Germany against Russia.  Before the end of the year, the central powers had badly mauled British and French forces on the Western Front and effectively cut off overland trade routes by blockading the entrance to the Black Sea through the Dardanelles and cutting Russia off from resupply.

Winston Churchill, 1914

Although the idea to attack the Ottoman Empire originally came from French Minister Aristide Briand, the United Kingdom defeated the motion because the British hoped to convince the Turks to join the Allied effort.  Later, however, First Sea Lord Winston Churchill (who was then 41-years old) proposed a naval campaign to attack the Ottoman Empire at Gallipoli, a peninsula located in the southern portion of  East Thrace, east of the Aegean Sea and west of the Dardanelles.  Churchill’s plan intended to threaten Constantinople, protect the Suez Canal, and open up a warm-water supply route through the Black Sea.

All good plans fall apart sooner or later.  In this case, the First Sea Lord didn’t know much about military operations beyond the small unit level and virtually nothing about naval warfare.  Consequently, the intelligence used to formulate the Gallipoli campaign was flawed.  After eight months of fighting, each side lost a quarter of a million men.  It was a resounding defeat for the Entente Powers, Turkey gained international prestige, and Churchill nearly lost his political career.  However, the operation did help propel the Turks toward their war of independence eight years later and prompted Australia and New Zealand to reconsider their relationship with the British Empire.

Following the First World War, the Gallipoli campaign led many military theorists to conclude that amphibious warfare was folly.  These experts decided that given the weapons of modern warfare, there was no way that a seaborne organization could force its way ashore and defeat a well-entrenched enemy.  It was not a belief shared by intellectuals in the United States Navy and Marine Corps, who began a protracted study of amphibious warfare capability in the 1920s.  They became convinced that successful amphibious operations were possible and set about discovering how to do it.

Between 1921 and 1939, Navy-Marine Corps war planners created the capabilities necessary for success in both the European and Pacific theaters of World War II.  Through innovative thinking, trial, and error, the work accomplished by Navy and Marine Corps officers allowed the allied powers to project military power across vast oceans, wrest the continent of Europe away from the Axis powers, and seize Pacific bases on the long road to Japan.  Not only did the Navy-Marine Corps develop Amphibious Warfare Doctrine, but they also taught it to the armies of the United States and Great Britain for use in North Africa, the Mediterranean, and the invasion of the Atlantic.

Since then, the Navy and Marine Corps have continually evaluated and improved US amphibious doctrine.  Today, naval operations include pre-positioned logistics ships, carrier-borne close air support of amphibious forces, and vertical lift assault capabilities.  These competencies are what makes the Navy-Marine Corps team relevant to America’s national defense — even despite the ridiculous assertion of General of the Army Omar Bradley, who while serving as the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 1949 said, “I predict that large scale amphibious operations will never occur again.”  He could not have been more wrong.  General Bradley was apparently unaware of the observation by Karl von Clausewitz in 1832: “A swift and vigorous transition to attack — the flashing sword of vengeance — is the most brilliant point of the defense.”  Modern naval warfare capability is America’s flashing sword.  The only question is whether political leaders have the will to employ it in the nation’s defense.

Organizational Overview

The Navy and Marine Corps meet the challenges of a wide range of contingencies through task force organization.  All naval task forces are mission-centered, which is to say that both the Navy and Marine Corps organize their combat units for one or more specific missions.  All Marine Corps combat units are capable of becoming part of an air-ground task force, referred to as MAGTF, which consists of a ground combat element (GCE), air combat element (ACE), and a combat logistics element (CLE).

MAGTFs are organized under a single commander and structured to accomplish one or more specific missions.  According to official Marine Corps doctrine, “A Marine air-ground task force with separate air-ground headquarters is normally formed for combat operations and training exercises in which substantial combat forces of both Marine aviation and Marine ground units are part of the task organization of participating Marine forces.”

The basic organization of a MAGTF is the Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) — generally organized as follows:

  • The MEU command element (CE) includes a colonel (commanding officer) supported by a regular staff: S-1 (Manpower), S-2 (Intelligence), S-3 (Operations/Training), S-4 (Logistics), S-6 (Communications), naval gunfire liaison, and other special staff personnel.  The MEU CE includes about 200 Marines and sailors.
  • The GCE is a reinforced infantry battalion called a battalion landing team (BLT), commanded by a lieutenant colonel.  A BLT is a reinforced battalion consisting of three rifle companies, a weapons company, and a headquarters and service company.  Depending on the MEU’s mission, reinforcements may include an artillery battery, armored vehicle platoons, reconnaissance platoons, attached U. S. Navy field corpsmen, and a detachment of combat engineers.  All members of the BLT are trained to conduct seaborne operations in several landing craft variants and tiltrotor vertical assault operations.  A BLT will contain between 950-1,200 Marines.
  • The ACE is usually a composite air squadron (reinforced) commanded by a lieutenant colonel.  The ACE includes a medium tiltrotor squadron augmented by detachments of heavy, light, and attack helicopters, one detachment of amphibious flight deck capable jet aircraft, and a Marine air control group detachment with tactical air, traffic control, direct air support, and anti-aircraft defense assets.  The ACE also includes headquarters, communications, and logistical support personnel.  The number of personnel in a typical MEU ACE is around 600 troops.
  • The CLE is Combat Logistics Battalion.  A major or lieutenant colonel commands the CLB, responsible for providing service support, intermediate maintenance, intermediate supply, transportation, explosive ordnance technology, utilities, and bulk fuel.  The CLB consists of approximately 400-500 Marines.

The size of a MAGTF may expand if its mission increases in scope.  A more extensive operation may demand a larger MAGTF organization, such as a Marine Expeditionary Brigade (MEB).  The MEB consists of a regimental combat team (RCT), a composite Marine Aircraft Group, and a Combat Logistics Regiment.  The officer commanding an MEB is usually a brigadier general.  The MEB can function as part of a joint task force, as the lead element of a Marine Expeditionary Force, or alone.

Any mission that exceeds the capability of a brigade will involve a Marine Expeditionary Force (MEF).  A MEF commander is usually a lieutenant general who exercises operational authority over a reinforced Marine infantry division, reinforced Marine aircraft wing, and a Combat Logistics Group.

Amphibious Ready Group/Special Landing Force

The Navy’s Amphibious Ready Group consists of an amphibious task force (ATF) and an amphibious landing force called Special Landing Force (SLF).  The ARG/SLF  was first established in 1960.  The SLF deployed to the Republic of Vietnam (RVN) as part of the first deployment of American ground forces.  The 2nd Battalion, 9th Marines (BLT 2/9) served as the SLF to support the Marine expeditionary landing at Da Nang in March 1965.  In mid-April, III MAF temporarily dissolved the SLF because its amphibious assets were required to support the 3rd Marine Amphibious Brigade (3rdMAB) landing at Chu Lai.

Subsequently, the Commander-in-Chief, Pacific Fleet (CINCPACFLT) and the Commanding General, Fleet Marine Force, Pacific (CG FMFPac) outlined the advantages of maintaining an amphibious capability in support of the Commander, U. S. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (COMUSMACV) — a dedicated force for conducting amphibious raids, assaults, and floating reserve.

President Lyndon Johnson’s formal commitment of US military forces to RVN in March 1965 presented General William C. Westmoreland (COMUSMACV) with a dilemma.  As a military assistance/advisory commander, Westmoreland lacked sufficient ground combat forces to meet threats imposed by North Vietnamese Army (NVA) and Viet Cong (VC) forces operating in the central highlands.  Without adequate ground troops, General Westmoreland had no way of defending US military installations, particularly those in the area of Qui Nhon, where the threat of VC hostilities was most imminent.  US Army units and allied forces from South Korea, Australia, and New Zealand would not arrive in RVN until June.  Westmoreland didn’t like it, but he had no choice but to turn to the Marines for security.  Accordingly, the National Military Command Center (NMCC) directed the Commanding General, Third Marine Expeditionary Force (III MEF), to provide air/ground security operations until the arrival of the Army’s ground combat forces.

III MEF[1] headquarters was located in Okinawa.  Its ground combat subordinate was the 3rd Marine Division (3rdMarDiv), also located in Okinawa.  3rdMarDiv routinely provided two BLTs to the Commander, US Seventh Fleet (COMSEVENTHFLT), to satisfy the landing force requirement for two special landing forces (designated SLF(A) and SLF(B)).  Tasked to provide Marines to support COMUSMACV, III MAF requested the support of COMSEVENTHFLT), who promptly made the ARG/SLF available to Westmoreland.

Action in the Central Highlands

Qui Nhon was a densely populated agricultural region located along the coastal plain southwest of Da Nang.[2]  Population density and agricultural production were the magnets that attracted VC[3] and NVA forces in the area.  Within three days of the NMCC’s tasking, the Special Landing Force conducted combat operations in the central highlands.

Operations in and around Qui Nhơn could not have been better timed.  The Marine’s surprise assault threw the VC force structure into confusion and delayed their hostilities along the coastal plain, but the landing also helped facilitate the gathering of local intelligence and allowed the Marines to test hypotheses for the pacification of local civilians.  The actual operation was uneventful, but it did demonstrate the flexibility and responsiveness of the ARG and the SLF to achieve limited objectives within a more extensive operation. 

In mid-August 1965, Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) intelligence officers communicated their belief that the 1st VC Regiment was preparing to attack the Marines at Chu Lai in Quảng Tri Province.  The basis for this assessment was an early July VC assault that overran ARVN units stationed at Ba Gia.  Accordingly, III MAF developed a plan to launch a preemptive assault against the enemy regiment, then located on the Van Tuong Peninsula, ten miles south of Chu Lai.  Its precursor was Operation Thunderbolt, conducted adjacent to the Trà Bồng River, a two-day area security/information collection mission jointly assigned to the 4th Marines and 51st ARVN Regiment.

The Marine assault against the 1st VC Regiment, designated Operation Starlight, occurred between 18-24 August 1965.  It was the first major offensive campaign conducted by the US military in South Vietnam.  Colonel Oscar Peatross commanded the RLT.  His subordinate commanders and their battalions included Lieutenant Colonel Joseph R. Fisher, 2nd Battalion, 4th Marines (2/4), Lieutenant Colonel Joseph E. Muir, 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marines (3/3), and Lieutenant Colonel Charles H. Bodley, 3rd Battalion, 7th Marines (3/7), which operated as the SLF reserve force.

The combined arms assault of three battalions of Marines on the 1,500-man 1st VC Regiment, located in and around the village of Van Tuong, was overwhelmingly effective; the Marines reduced the communist regiment to half of its effective strength.

Meanwhile, in late July, the Commander-in-Chief, Pacific Fleet (CINCPACFLT), approved Operations Dagger Thrust and Harvest Moon.  Dagger Thrust was a series of amphibious raids on suspected enemy concentrations along the coastal regions of South Vietnam.  Of the five raids, only two produced significant contact with communist forces, but three uncovered notable stores of arms and munitions.  The raids were so effective that the enemy never knew when the Marines would come — only that they eventually would come, and the result of their visitations would not be pleasant.  As a consequence, some VC soldiers began floating their resumes for a new line of work.

In December 1965, Operation Harvest Moon was a reaction to the 1st VC Regiment’s attack on the Regional Force garrison at Hiệp Đức near the entrance to the Quế Son Valley.  Initially serving as a reserve force, heavy fighting prompted the operational commander to commit the SLF, quickly turning the tide against the Viet Cong regiment.  The staggering losses imposed on VC forces by the Marines caused General Võ Nguyên Giáp to increase the NVA’s footprint in South Vietnam, and this redirection of the American’s attention would enable new VC cadres to infiltrate population centers.  Apparently, Giáp assumed that the U. S. Marine Corps was a one-trick pony.  He was wrong.

By 1969, the ARG/SLF had conducted sixty-two amphibious landings against VC/NVA elements operating inside the Republic of Vietnam.  The SLFs made significant contributions to MACV’s operational mobility and flexibility by offering a timely striking power.

Among the significant benefits of the two SLFs were their flexibility, the element of surprise from “over-the-horizon” assaults, and their on-shore maneuverability.  Once ashore, operational control of the SLF passed from the ARG Commander to the senior ground combat commander.  Another plus was the SLF’s self-sustaining character, which stood in contrast to regular force ground units that relied on static functional organizations for airlift, logistics/resupply, fire support, and medical triage capabilities.

In the early 1990s, the Navy-Marine Corps planners began a re-examination of the ARG/SLF concept and developed an innovation they termed Expeditionary Strike Group (ESG).[4]  Currently, there are nine ESGs, ten Carrier Strike Groups (CSGs), and several Surface Warfare Action Groups (SWAGs).  ESGs allow the Navy to provide highly mobile/self-sustaining naval forces for missions in all parts of the world.  The ESG incorporates the capabilities of CSGs, SWAGs, ARGs, and MEUs to enhance the capabilities of combat commanders within six geographical regions.

Currently, there are seven Marine Expeditionary Units — three under the I Marine Expeditionary Force (US West Coast), three operating under the II Marine Expeditionary Force (US East Coast), and one operating under the III Marine Expeditionary Unit (Japan).

No one in the Navy and Marine Corps wants to go to war, but they know how to go to war.  They are America’s flashing sword.  Quite frankly, only an idiot would like to see these forces come knocking on their door, but we will need the Navy-Marine Corps combat team until the world has finally rid itself of idiots.

Sources:

  1. Bean, C.  The Story of ANZAC from 4 May 1915 to the Evacuation of the Gallipoli Peninsula.  Canberra: Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-1918, 1921 (11 editions).
  2. Broadbent, H.  Gallipoli: The Fatal Shore.  Camberwell: Viking Press, 2005.
  3. Cassar, G. H.  Kitchener’s War: British Strategy from 1914-1916.  Lincoln: Potomac Books, 2004.
  4. Halpern, P. G.  A Naval History of World War I.  Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1995.
  5. Simmons, E. H.  The United States Marines: A History (Fourth Edition).  Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2003.

Endnotes:

[1] Temporarily changed to III MAF because the government of RVN objected to the word “expeditionary.”

[2] My reference to places in Vietnam, used in past tense, speaks to events in locations that then existed.  Since the end of the Vietnam War, the government of Vietnam has renamed many of the hamlets, villages, and districts of the former South Vietnamese republic.  Qui Nhơn is now known as Quy Nhơn.

[3] Short name for the National Liberation Front of Southern Vietnam, an armed communist revolutionary organization that operated in South Vietnam and Cambodia.  The VC organized both regular and guerrilla forces to combat the South Vietnamese and United States military forces.

[4] ESGs are part of the Navy’s Expeditionary Task Force concept.


The Harsh Life

At Sea in the 19th Century

“No man will become a sailor who has contrivance enough to get himself placed in jail.”—Dr. Samuel Johnson, 1773

Samuel Johnson’s advice is not something one would expect to see in a navy recruiting pamphlet in 1800, but it was an honest appraisal of the life of a seaman in that year.  From every account, from around 1775 to the mid-1800s, life at sea was so difficult that most men avoided it in the same way they would avoid bubonic plague, and it was infrequent when a ship went to sea with a full complement of crewmen.  During the Revolutionary War, American ships remained tied up because few men were interested in taking on the harsh life.  Young boys between the ages of twelve and sixteen, on the other hand, filled as they were with romantic notions about life aboard a ship, became a primary focus for navy recruiters.

Generally …

Life at sea was about the same for Americans as it was for an Englishman, a Swede, or a Spaniard.  A grown man imbued with common sense, particularly one with previous experience at sea, did his best to avoid the sea service because sailing ships were filthy, smelly, unhealthy, and rampant with rats and other vermin.  If that wasn’t enough, sailing ships were cold, damp, and confining.  Once at sea, one may as well have been placed in jail because there was nowhere to go, but as Dr. Johnson suggested, jail should be preferred.  The general unattractiveness of life at sea was so predominant that ship’s captains often sent “press gangs” ashore to round up able-bodied seamen, many of whom, having been whacked on the head, were carried unconscious aboard ship and placed in irons until the ship left harbor.  Once the ship was at sea, the impressed men were welcomed aboard, congratulated for making a good decision, and given “the word” — the rules by which they would govern themselves while a member of the crew.  The term “able-bodied seaman” meant that a crewman had two legs, two arms, and most of his fingers.  

The Word

At a time when most Americans were illiterate, navy training was an oral tradition and “on the job” instruction.  The first task assigned to “trainers” was to make sure that all hands acknowledged the Navy’s regulations and the policies of the ship’s captain.  In most cases, “the word” lasted until the ship was again in port because this was when sailors had an opportunity to escape.  Some historians claim that desertion from the naval service numbered in the thousands, prompting ship’s captains to send out impressment crews in the middle of the night to locate and “recruit” drunken sods.  Age didn’t matter, but the younger person was always preferred, and it would help if the impressed crewman spoke English, but this was not a hard and fast rule.  French speaking sods could be whacked on the head just as easily as a Spaniard.

Manning the ships with officers

Navy officer uniforms 1803

There were two sources of recruitment for young seamen.  Generally, midshipmen were officer trainees.  The term originated in the 17th century from the place aboard ship where they worked or birthed — amidships.  Army and Navy candidates for officer service were often the sons of wealthy families not destined to inherit their fathers’ estates.  Unless the eldest son died before maturity, a younger son did not expect any inheritance.  Still, in fairness, it was believed that something should be done for the younger sons.

It may have been that if younger sons had no demonstrated ability or interest in the study of law or accountancy, or some other noteworthy profession, particularly if the younger sons were disrespectful or rebellious, then their influential fathers would try to have them accepted into the army or navy.  Obtaining officer’s commissions differed between the British Army and Royal Navy, and some of these traditions were transferred to the US Army and Navy.  Between 1683 and 1871, British Army commissions were frequently purchased; a wealthy father would pay to have a son placed at Sandhurst; afterward, the purchase of commissions was up to the officer.[1]

The Royal Navy employed a different system.  Beginning in 1661, influential fathers would obtain “letters of service” from the Crown.  The King’s letter instructed admirals and captains to “show the bearer of this letter such kindness as ye shall judge fit for a gentleman, both in accommodating him in your ship and in furthering his improvement.”  The bearer of the King’s letter was titled/rated as volunteer per order, also often known as the King’s letter boys; it distinguished them as a higher apprentice class from those of normal midshipmen ratings.

The life of a midshipman was particularly challenging — more so than for an army subaltern.  Rising to a position above midshipman required six to eight years of training at sea, the favor of ships officers under whom they trained, passing a written examination, and the approval of the ship’s captain who always had the last word.

Historically, there were four classifications of midshipman.  Between 1450-1650, a midshipman was an experienced seaman from the deck who supervised ordinary seaman below the rank of ship’s officers.  This fellow may also have called a master’s mate.  He was not an officer trainee, but perhaps more on the order of a warrant officer.  In the 1700s, midshipman extraordinary were young men serving below the rank of post-captain, paid as midshipmen until they could find a position aboard another ship.  Midshipman served as apprentice officers, and midshipman ordinary were older men who either failed to pass the examination for lieutenant or, men having passed the examination yet deemed of insufficient character for advancement.  Midshipmen did not have the luxury of “resigning.”  As a King’s letter boy, a midshipman was honor-bound to serve the six-to-eight years, after which he might resign to find other opportunities.

Manning the ships with enlisted men

Once “recruited,” the young seaman received his initial and ongoing training under the authority of the ship’s schoolmaster.  It the ship did not have a schoolmaster, the duty for training fell to either the ship’s chaplain or captain’s clerk.  Not much effort was applied to the formal training of boy-seamen, however.  Most seamen learned their tasks while “on the job.”  Life at sea was already dangerous, particularly among the youngsters who had to learn, in addition to their routine shipboard tasks, to manage their fears.  Climbing into the rigging some 80 feet above the main deck was a frightening experience — worse when at sea with the ship rolling from side to side.  The only way to conquer such fears was to ‘just do it.’  More than a few boys fell to their death.

In 1837, the U. S. Navy adopted the Naval Apprentice System for enlisted boys no younger than thirteen years, nor over eighteen years, to serve until age 21.  Occasionally, a ship’s captain offered a boy-seaman a temporary appointment to serve as an apprentice officer.  Still, generally, the boy-seaman remained in the lower ranks for the duration of his service at sea.

In 1902, the U. S. Navy published its first Bluejacket’s Manual, written and issued to recruits as an instruction for basic seamanship and shipboard life.  In 1902, as in the previous 100 years, literacy was a problem among recruits for navy service.  The Bluejacket’s Manual continues to serve this purpose with annual updates to keep pace with evolving technologies.

Health and Hygiene

In 1818, U. S. Navy Regulations required captains to keep wind sails and ventilators in continual use.  The purpose of this regulation was to keep ships at sea “well-ventilated.”  Senior officers believed that a well-ventilated ship (drying below-decks from ever-present seawater and dampness) was a healthy ship.  The proposition may have been true, except that a constant stream of cold air blowing through the ship could not have been beneficial to men with colds and may have even caused more than a few illnesses and deaths.  Navy regulations also prohibited seamen from wearing wet clothing.  The ship’s system helped dry wet clothing.  With limited facilities to store extra clothing, this too became a chore aboard ship.

Meals aboard ship today are generally tasty and nutritious but it wasn’t always that way.  In 1818, the American sailor could expect three pounds of beef per week, 3 pounds of pork per week, one pound of flour, 98 ounces of crusty bread, two ounces of butter, three ounces of sugar, four ounces of tea, one pint of rice, a half-pint of vinegar, and three and a half pints of rum.  Boy-seamen below the age of 18 were not permitted to have rum; they were paid money instead … about thirty-five cents per week ($6.86 today).  In later years, seamen were provided with raisins, dried apples, coffee, pickles, and cranberries.  Food aboard ship was always “salty.”  Before refrigeration, food subject to spoilage was packed in brine.  It was often “too salty” and unsuitable for human consumption.  These problems led some sea captains to keep livestock on board, including pigs, ducks, geese, and chickens.

Ships of the Navy carried enough fresh water to last a typical cruise, carried below decks in wooden casks.  Stagnant water was a problem, however, which frequently required the rationing of water.  When water stores became a problem, the ship’s captain would order a boat ashore to obtain fresh water when possible. Getting freshwater was no easy task, either.  Regulations stated that crewmen were not permitted to drink any water alongside the ship, that freshwater, when obtained, must be allowed to settle before consumption.  In the early 1800s, no consideration was given to the natural impurities of freshwater, which did cause sickness among the men, including cholera.  Boiling water before consumption did not evolve until many years later.

Navy enlisted uniforms, 1888

As previously mentioned, there was no heat aboard sailing ships.  The only fire allowed aboard ship the carefully controlled fire maintained for cooking in the ship’s galley.  If there were any heated spaces aboard ship, they would most likely be found in the sickbay and usually took the form of hot coals in an iron bucket.  These conditions assured that the men were always cold, and it became a worse ordeal when the men’s clothing became wet or damp.

Regulations also required crewmen to wash two or three times a week, which must have been an unhappy task while operating in the North Atlantic during winter months.  Among the common ailments of seamen were rheumatism, consumption, debility, scurvy, and syphilis.  The latter disease often endangered the operational efficiency of the ship due to physical incapacitation.  In certain seasons, ship’s crewmen experienced outbreaks of yellow fever and smallpox.  Since there was no cure for consumption (tuberculosis), men so affected continued their service until death overtook them.  Whether these men were isolated away from others is unknown.

The Slops and other Uniforms

The American sailor’s wardrobe, called “slops,” generally consisted of a peacoat, two cloth jackets, two cloth trousers, two white flannel shirts, two white flannel drawers, two pair of white yarn stockings, two black handkerchiefs, two duck cotton frocks, two duck cotton trousers, four pair shoes, one mattress, two blankets, one canvas hammock, one red cloth vest, and two black hats.

Quarters — or not

Living quarters aboard the ship were spartan.  Officers were assigned cabins according to their rank and seniority, but crewmen lived communally.  For the crew, sleeping quarters were dark, frequently awash in seawater, and almost always infested with vermin.  Despite rules for bathing, crews’ quarters were often rancid smelling was nauseous.  Part of this problem is explained by the fact that ship’s crews washed their clothing in urine and saltwater.  Presumably, this was designed to save freshwater for drinking and, perhaps, to address the problem with lice and other biters.

Religious Instruction

The US Navy always mandated religious services while at sea, but not every ship was large enough to warrant a chaplain.  In the case of small ships, it was either the ship’s captain or his clerk who conducted religious services — which included two divine services each day and sermons on Sunday.  Attendance at religious services as mandatory for everyone not on watch.  But even when there were shipboard chaplains, it was unlikely that the individual fulfilling that duty was an ordained minister.  In 1862, US Navy Regulations stated that ship’s captains “… shall cause divine service to be performed on Sunday, whenever the weather and other circumstances allow it to be done,” and recommended, “… to all officers, seamen, and others in the naval service diligently to attend at every performance of the worship of Almighty God.”

Recreation

In today’s navy, recreational pursuits are available to every member of the crew, including workout rooms, libraries, computer centers, and various thematic clubs.  It wasn’t until 1825 that the navy set aside a place for libraries, which were generally placed under the charge of chaplains and ship’s clerks.  Since most crewmen were illiterate, officers were the usual patrons of ship’s libraries.

Members of the crew who played instruments often provided music.  In the old navy, the number one recreational activity was shore leave or liberty.  Officers often went on sightseeing tours, hunting parties, or were “invited guests” to the homes of locally prominent members of society.  Enlisted men were left to their own devices, which were generally activities in contravention of every religious service or sermon heard while aboard ship — and this may be the one remaining tradition of the early American navy.

Paying the Piper

Discipline aboard ship was draconian.  Among the more severe transgression was the stealing of food.  Individual discovered stealing food were in some cases punished by nailing the offender’s hand to a mast and then cutting it off.  Flogging was also a common punishment — the number of lashes depending on the offense charged, but several dozen was not uncommon.  If it ever actually existed as a punishment, Keelhauling was, to my knowledge, never employed in the US or Royal Navy, whence American naval traditions originated.


Endnote:

[1] Primarily a system in the British Army whereby an officer would pay a sum of money to the Army for a commission in the cavalry or infantry, thereby avoiding the need to wait for a seniority or merit-based advancement.  The payment was a cash bond for good behavior liable to forfeit in the case of cowardice, desertion, or misconduct.  This system was abolished in 1871.

Mayaguez

Crisis in Command

One could refer to this incident as the last episode of the Vietnam War, but doing so would only present half the picture.  Cambodia was also involved — and Laos — and China, and the Soviet Union.  We could probably call it a Southeast Asian War or the Third Indochina War.  But no matter what one chooses to call it, by mid-May 1975, the American people were gut-wrenchingly tired of Southeast Asia.

In over 25 years of direct or indirect combat operations, the American people gave up 58,000 of their sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, husbands, wives, fathers, and mothers.  Seventy-five thousand Americans sustained severe wounds; of those, more than 23,000 were permanently disabled, including five thousand who lost limbs and over a thousand multiple amputees.

Beyond this, the United States government squandered the nation’s wealth — with untold billions spent shoring up French Imperialism, bribing Vietnamese officials, bombing North Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. In the final analysis, the United States of America walked away from the entire episode with nothing to show for its mind-numbing costs.  Not one presidential administration, from Harry S. Truman to Gerald Ford, had any intention of winning that war.

The Trigger

SS Mayaguez

In the middle of May 1975, just weeks after the fall of Saigon, the Khmer Rouge (Cambodian Reds) “coast guard” seized a United States flagged ship named SS Mayaguez.  Following Phnom Penh’s fall on 17 April, the communists moved to control Cambodia, including its offshore islands.  Khmer Rouge and (north) Vietnamese forces clashed over territory claimed by both countries.  Operating in defense of Cambodian territory, the Khmer navy/coast guard instituted coastal patrolling to prevent Vietnamese incursions — and because of their belief that the CIA used merchant shipping to conduct intelligence-gathering operations along coastal areas.[1]

Within this tense environment, the Khmer navy captured seven Thai fishing boats on 2 May and charged them with territorial violations.  They also pursued a South Korean freighter on 4 May.  On 7 May, the Khmer navy seized a Panamanian-flagged ship near the island of Poulo Wai and questioned its crew for more than 36 hours.  Five days later, the Khmer navy fired on a Swedish vessel in the same area.  On that same day, the Khmer Rouge dispatched a company-sized unit to occupy Poulo Wai.  None of the merchant ships operating off the coast of Cambodia knew about this transfer.

Cambodia asserted its sovereignty twelve nautical miles outward from the shoreline of its mainland and all claimed islands — and had done so since 1969.[2]  In 1975, Poulo Wai Island was a potential site for oil exploration, explaining Cambodia’s sensitivity to foreign trespass.  The US had no interest in Poulo Wai other than suppressing what it believed to be a base for Cambodian pirates’ operations. 

On 12 May, the US container ship SS Mayaguez (owned by Sea-Land, Inc.[3]) transited near Poulo Wai en route from Hong Kong to Sattahip, Thailand.  At 1418, a Khmer navy swift boat approached Mayaguez and fired a shot across her bow.  Seven Khmer Rouge seamen boarded Mayaguez and ordered the captain to proceed to Poulo Wai.  The ship transmitted a mayday, which was picked up by an Australian vessel.  Mayaguez was carrying 107 cargo containers, 77 of which were US government and military cargo — including material from the United States Embassy in Saigon.

SS Mayaguez’ SOS call prompted notification to the US Embassy Jakarta, which transmitted the information to the National Military Command Center in Washington.  The National Security staff notified President Ford of the incident the next morning (Washington time).  Secretary of State and National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger urged Secretary of Defense James R. Schlesinger to direct the Commander-in-Chief, Pacific Command, Admiral Noel Gayler, to launch a reconnaissance aircraft to locate Mayaguez — but even before any analysis of photographs, Kissinger and Deputy National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft had already decided that the crisis deserved a decisive response.  In the wake of the United States’ recent withdrawal from Cambodia and Vietnam, both Kissinger and Scowcroft believed that the US’s reputation was at stake.[4]  Presidential advisors also wanted to avoid another USS Pueblo incident.[5]  President Ford directed Kissinger to petition China for its help in releasing the Mayaguez.

President Ford and Kissinger drafted a press release to the American public stating that the seizure of a US-flagged ship was an act of piracy.  Technically, it was no such thing.  Meanwhile, Secretary Schlesinger ordered the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) to locate the ship and undertake measures to prevent its movement to the Cambodian mainland.  Kissinger sent a terse note to the Chinese Liaison Office in Washington demanding the “immediate release” of the ship and its crew.  The Chinese liaison office refused to accept the message, however — apparently, the Chinese were not in the mood for accepting demands from a country recently defeated by a nation of rice farmers.

In compliance with Schlesinger’s instructions, the Pacific command launched aerial reconnaissance missions from the Philippines and Thailand and diverted the USS Coral Sea from its course en route to Australia.  Pacific Command also dispatched a guided-missile destroyer with escort toward Mayaguez’s last known location.  Admiral Gayler also issued a warning order to the III Marine Expeditionary Force (III MEF), placing them on standby.  III MEF passed the mission through the 3rd Marine Division to the 9th Marine Regiment on Okinawa and to the 1st Battalion, 4th Marines (1/4) at Subic Bay, Philippine Islands.  As a rapid reaction company from 1/4 assembled at Cubi Point Naval Air Station for possible airlift to Thailand, a Battalion Landing Team (BLT) from the 9th Marines began its pre-deployment procedures on Okinawa.

On 13 May, an Orion aircraft identified a significant radar return near Poulo Wai and dropped flares on the suspected location of Mayaguez.  Young Khmer Rouge sailors, believing that they were under attack, opened fire.  Both photo-reconnaissance aircraft, already low on fuel, withdrew.  Replacement aircraft also received gunfire from Khmer ground forces.

Within a few hours after seizing the ship, the Khmer navy officials ordered the master of the Mayaguez, Captain Miller, to get underway.  He was instructed to follow a swift boat toward the Northeast.  Orion aircraft continued to track the ship’s movement.  Admiral Gayler ordered the Commanding General, 7th US Air Force, Lieutenant General John J. Burns, USAF, to assume operational control over US military recovery efforts.  Burns marshaled rotary-wing aircraft for a possible air assault mission.

A flight of two F-111’s marked the ship’s position, which was then nearing Koh Tang Island.  Soon after, F-4 Phantoms arrived and began firing into the water ahead of Mayaguez, indicating to Captain Miller that he was to halt.  It was then that the Khmer naval commander ordered the ship’s crew into two fishing boats for transfer to Koh Tang Island.

Meanwhile, the Navy’s flotilla — Coral Sea, Holt, and Wilson — signaled that they would not arrive on station until 15 May.  None of these ships carried a Marine landing force.  USS Hancock (CVA-19), with a small contingent of Marines, would not arrive until 16 May, and USS Okinawa (LPH-3), with a BLT, would not arrive until 18 May.

On Okinawa, III MAF assigned the Special Landing Force (Task Force 79.9) to recover Mayaguez.  Company D, 1/4 was designated as the unit that would actually take Mayaguez, but General Burns wanted a more significant force.  Ultimately, the 3rdMarDiv assigned BLT 2/9 as its air assault force.  The battalion flew to Thailand on the morning of 14 May.  Only a few of the 1,100 officers and NCOs of 2/9 had any combat experience.

Seventh US Air Force earmarked nineteen of its helicopters to participate in the air assault.  Nine of these were HH-53C (Jolly Green) aircraft, and ten were CH-53s.  The HH-bird was capable of aerial refueling; the CH-53 was not.  Meanwhile, General Burns developed a plan to re-take Mayaguez with an assault force from the 56th Security Police Squadron.  He intended to drop 75 SPS volunteers on the containers aboard the ship on 14 May.

En route to Cambodia’s Southeast coastal region, one of the CH-53s (call sign Knife 13) crashed, killing all on board (18 police and five crewmen).  President Ford subsequently canceled General Burns’ plan because, beyond the loss of one aircraft and 23 men, these large helicopters were too heavy to land on shipping containers.  Instead, President Ford decided to await the arrival of the Navy and Marines.  However, President Ford ordered Burns to stop any Cambodian boats moving between Koh Tang and the mainland.

Early on 14 May, at Koh Tang, the Khmer navy loaded the Mayaguez crew onto a fishing vessel and, with an escort of two swift boats, headed toward the mainland at Kampong Som.  Air Force F-4s, A-7s, and an AC-130 gunship sunk one fast boat and convinced another to turn back.  Orbiting pilots reported the presence of 30 to 40 Caucasians on the fishing boat.  One senior pilot opined that he might be able to shoot the rudder off the fishing boat to stop its progress.

By this time, communicators had established a link between the White House situation room, the Pacific Command in Hawaii, and General Burns’ headquarters at Nakhon Phanom.  General Burns relayed the pilot’s idea for shooting off the fishing boat’s rudder to the White House, which NSC staffers immediately denied.  Ford decided that if anything, the Air Force should only drop tear gas onto the fishing boat but gave the go-ahead to sink all patrol boats.

Acting JCS Chairman, U. S. Air Force General David C. Jones, provided the NSC staff with a range of military options.  One major complication for the rescue operation was that no one knew for certain the Mayaguez crewmen’s location.  There was a long list of things the forward area commander didn’t know.

The NSC decided to proceed with a Marine assault to retake Mayaguez with a simultaneous attack by Air Force and Navy assets on Koh Tang and against Khmer naval vessels.

The Air Force’s tear gas assault did not affect the fishing boat, and it proceeded to Kampong Som.  Upon arrival, the ranking Khmer area commander wisely refused to allow the boat to dock; he anticipated a massive retaliatory attack by American aircraft.  The redirected fishing boat proceeded to Koh Rang Sanloem undetected by orbiting aircraft.

Marines from Delta Company 1/4 arrived in Thailand during the early-morning hours of 14 May; insofar as the American high command knew, the Cambodians detained crew members at Kampong Som, so higher authority canceled the planned assault on Mayaguez.  Delta Company Marines did what they always do … they waited for someone higher on the totem pole to make up their minds.  Meanwhile, Marines from BLT 2/9 began arriving at U-Tapao, Thailand.

That afternoon, President Ford ordered General Burns to proceed with a simultaneous assault on Koh Tang and Mayaguez; the assault would begin at sunrise on 15 May.  Since the Americans had no information about Koh Tang, the 2/9 Commanding Officer, Lieutenant Colonel Randall W. Austin, and his operations officer boarded a Beechcraft U-21 to conduct aerial reconnaissance of the island.

The problem with Colonel Austin’s aerial reconnaissance was that he could not get close enough to the island to see anything worthwhile without compromising the upcoming assault.  All Colonel Austin could tell about Koh Tang for sure was that heavy jungle foliage covered the island and that there were only three (potential) landing zones for an air assault.  He found two of these on the northern section of the island, which he designated East Beach and West Beach, and another beach located center of the island’s eastern shore.  The center beach was too narrow for vertical assault operations.

From photographs taken by reconnaissance flights, the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) estimated an enemy footprint of between 150-200 Khmer Rouge with heavy weapons.  Colonel Austin never received this information; he proceeded with his planning on the generally held assumption that only a small number of Khmer navy irregulars were on the island.

Austin planned a two-company air assault, assigning the mission to Company E and Company G (Echo and Golf) 2/9.  They would fly to Koh Tang aboard three USAF CH-53s and three USAF HH-53Cs to seize and hold Koh Tang.  Two additional helicopters would make a diversionary thrust toward West Beach; the main assault would occur at East Beach.  From that East Beach, Austin planned to proceed to a small compound believed to be the location of Mayaguez’s crewmen.  Flight time from U-Tapao to Koh Tang was two hours.

Fifty-seven Marines from Delta Company 1/4, including a detachment of Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) technicians, a team of volunteers from the Military Sealift Command, and a Cambodian linguist, were transferred by helicopter to USS Holt, from which they would re-take Mayaguez.

Acting JCS Chairman Jones briefed President Ford and the NSC Staff on the operation plan.  Jones wanted to incorporate B-52s from Guam in bombing Kampong Som and the Ream Naval Base, but the president believed the B-52s were “excessive” and limited aerial bombing to carrier-based aircraft.  With that modification, President Ford approved the operation and gave the go-ahead.

None of the Mayaguez crewmen were at Koh Tang.  Moreover, island defenses included around 150 Khmer defenders.  These troops had not been placed on Koh Tang to counter an American assault but rather to prevent a Vietnamese takeover of the island.  The island’s commander had set up two heavy machine gun emplacements on East Beach with interlocking fires and well-developed defensive positions every twenty or so meters behind a sand berm.  The commander also set up one heavy machine gun at West Beach and armed those defenders with RPGs, 75-mm recoilless rifles, and mortars.

Meanwhile, the senior Khmer commander at Rong Sang Lem interviewed Captain Miller.  Miller was asked to contact the American military and persuade them to call off their anticipated attack; the Cambodian did not want an engagement with the Americans.  Miller told this commander that if he could return to the ship, restart her engines, it may be possible to contact his company in Bangkok, and they, in turn, could communicate with the US military.  The Cambodian military commander decided to return Captain Miller and nine of his crew to the ship the following day.

The operation to retake Mayaguez occurred the next morning, beginning at about 0600.  Delta Company Marines successfully conducted one of the few hostile ship-to-ship boarding operations since the American Civil War; the ship was secure within an hour.

On to Koh Tang

At about the same time, eight USAF helicopters approached the Koh Tang landing zones.  At West Beach, the first helicopter section (two aircraft) to arrive received heavy machine gunfire.  The aircraft with call-sign Knife 21 safely offloaded its Marines, but enemy fire destroyed one of its engines.  After disembarking the Marines, Knife 21 struggled into the air only to ditch two miles offshore.  Inbound Knife 22 also received damage while in-flight, forcing it to withdraw with Marines still on board — including the Gulf Company commander.

Thirty minutes later, CH-53s approached East Beach and encountered intense automatic weapons and RPG fire.  Knife 31 was hit by two RPGs, causing it to crash in a ball of fire fifty meters offshore.  The aircraft’s co-pilot, five Marines, and two Navy corpsmen were killed in the crash; another Marine drowned while swimming away from the wreck. Three additional Marines were killed by Khmer automatic weapons while trying to reach the shoreline.  Ten surviving Marines and three USAF crewmen were forced to swim for two hours before being rescued from the sea.  Among the surviving Marines was the battalion’s forward air controller, who used a USAF survival radio to call in A-7 strikes against the enemy position — doing so until the radio’s batteries failed.

An RPG hit Knife 23, which blew off the aircraft’s tail section, causing it to crash land on East Beach.  Twenty Marines and five aircraft crewmen safely exited the aircraft and set up a hasty defensive perimeter.  Knife 23’s co-pilot used his survival radio to direct airstrikes.  This group remained cut off for twelve hours.

Knife 32, inbound to East Beach, was hit by an RPG and aborted its landing.  After dumping his fuel, the pilot proceeded to rescue three of Knife 21’s crewmen.  The remaining inbound helicopters were diverted from East Beach to West Beach and landed their Marines; an AC-130 gunship, call-sign Specter, was called in to suppress Cambodian defensive fires.  Knife 32, Jolly 41, and Jolly 42 eventually landed 81 Marines on West Beach.  Gulf Company’s executive officer assumed command; Jolly 43 landed 29 Marines a half-mile further southwest.

By 0700, 109 Marines and five USAF crewmen were on Koh Tang, but in three isolated beach areas, each in close contact with Khmer Rouge defenders.  Marines on the northern end of West Beach attempted to link up with Colonel Austin’s command element but were beaten back by overwhelming enemy fire.  Lance Corporal Ashton Loney lost his life in this attempt.  Although isolated, the Marines could employ their 81-mm mortars for fire support, and communicators set up a makeshift radio net for directing air support operations.

An effort to extract the Marines on East Beach failed when Jolly 13 received severe damage in the attempt; with fuel lines ruptured, the aircraft flew to Rayong, Thailand.  Of the eight birds assaulting Koh Tang, enemy fire destroyed three and damaged five birds sufficiently to remove them from further operations.  Because only three helicopters of the assault force remained operational, two aircraft initially assigned to sea and rescue operations, Knife 51 and Knife 52, became part of the airlift element.  These five birds picked up the second wave of the Marine assault force and headed back toward Koh Tang.  Enemy fire damaged the fuel lines of Knife 52, which had to abort its landing; Knife 41 and Jolly 43 likewise aborted their landings and remained in a holding pattern offshore.

Meanwhile, Cambodia’s press minister announced that the crew of Mayaguez would be released and went further to explain why the ship had been “detained” in the first place.  The White House then engaged the Cambodian government in a war of press releases.  President Ford immediately took credit for the release of Mayaguez crew members when their release had nothing to do with Ford.  Meanwhile, the president ordered airstrikes to continue until the successful withdrawal of the assault force.

Acting JCS Chairman Jones determined that since the Mayaguez’s crew had been returned to US control, there was no reason to reinforce the Marines at Koh Tang.  The JCS notified all American forces to “ceasefire” and withdraw.  General Burns ordered the return of Austin’s second wave, but Austin convinced him that reinforcements were needed to prevent the Khmer Rouge from overrunning the Marine positions.  Austin ordered an additional one hundred additional Marines ashore.  At that point, there were 225 Americans on Koh Tang, 205 Marines on West Beach, and 20 Marines and five airmen at East Beach.

By 1400, enemy fire at West Beach had diminished substantially; the Khmer defenders’ main force had moved back from the shoreline with a minimal force remaining to keep pressure on the Marines.  Colonel Austin contacted the airborne command post for permission to push across the northern end of the Island to link up with the isolated Marines at East Beach.  He was advised to hold until another helicopter extraction attempt was made.  Jolly 11 and Jolly 43 made their attempt at 1415 but were repulsed by heavy fire.  Jolly 43 was forced to land aboard the Coral Sea.  Jolly 43’s pilot reported that he had received fire from one of the swift boats partially sunk the previous day. A-7’s soon arrived to destroy the boat.

At 1610, a USAF OV-10, call-sign Nail 68, arrived to take over air support functions above Koh Tang.  The arrival of Nail 68 was the first time the Marines had dedicated overhead fire support direction.  At 1700, the Khmer Rouge commander moved his men back to a previously established ammo dump.  Thus, resupplied with ammunition, the Khmer Rouge could re-engage the Marines.  At 1815, Jolly 11, though sustaining battle damage, was able to extract the Marines and airmen from East Beach.  Once the bird was clear, a C-130 dropped a daisy-cutter 15,000-pound bomb on the area of East Beach.  The bomb’s massive shockwave extended over the Marines at West Beach.  Colonel Austin directed that no more such bombs be employed, as they endangered his Marines.

In the darkness of the night, Knife 51, Jolly 43 (hastily repaired), Jolly 44 (brought online from a repair facility at Nakhom Phanom) began extracting the Marines from West Beach.  Knife 51 extracted forty-one Marines and flew them to the Coral Sea.  Jolly 43 extracted fifty-four Marines.  As Jolly 44 picked up forty-four Marines, the 66 remaining Marines came under intensive Khmer fire and were in danger of being overrun. 

The flight time to Coral Sea was around thirty minutes; to shorten the extraction time, First Lieutenant Robert Blough, USAF, delivered his Marines to USS Holt, which in a moonless night was a difficult maneuver.  Once the Marines had been offloaded, Blough returned to Koh Tang and picked up an additional thirty-four Marines.  Lieutenant Blough, whose aircraft began experiencing mechanical issues, flew the Marines to Coral Sea.

At 2000, Knife 51 landed and began loading Marines in the dark.  The only light available came from the muzzle flashes of enemy weapons.  Captain Davis and Gunnery Sergeant McNemar began combing the beach, looking for stragglers.  USAF Technical Sergeant Wayne Fisk stood on the ramp of his aircraft as two additional Marines appeared from the brush.  Fisk asked Davis if all his Marines were accounted for; Davis replied in the affirmative.  Nevertheless, Fisk combed the beach one last time, looking for stragglers and finding none, Knife 51 launched for the Coral Sea.

Because of the intensive enemy fire and no way to communicate with the Khmer defenders, the bodies of Marines and airmen killed in action were left where they fell, including LCpl Loney at West Beach.

As the Air Force birds pulled Marines off the beach, the Marine’s defensive perimeter was contracted to facilitate force protection.  Lance Corporal John S. Standfast, the squad leader of the third squad, third platoon, Echo Company, provided cover for Gulf Company during its withdrawal; Standfast directed the pullback of his own men.  As his men contracted, he and platoon guide Sergeant Anderson continually checked to account for all hands.  Before boarding his extraction helicopter, the Echo Company commander, Captain Mike Stahl, informed Captain Davis from Gulf Company that all his men were inside the perimeter.  Captain Stahl did not realize that three Marines of one of his machine gun teams had set up a firing position behind a rocky outcrop beyond the perimeter’s right flank.

As Knife 51 lifted off, Marines began insisting that some of the men were missing.  Knife 51’s pilot, First Lieutenant Brims, radioed the FAC that he believed there were still Marines on the island.  Captain Davis assured the FAC that all Marines were off-island.  Two hours later, Captain Stahl discovered three of his Marines were missing: Lance Corporal Joe Hargrove, Private First Class Gary Hall, and Private Danny Marshall — the machine gun team — were missing.  Sergeant Anderson was the last to see these Marines alive when he ordered them back to the shrinking perimeter.

At 2020, USAF Staff Sergeant Robert Veilie at the airborne command post received a radio transmission from an unidentified American asking when the next helicopter was coming to pick them up.  Veilie authenticated the transmission and radioed to advise Holt that Marines were still on the island.  Holt instructed Veilie to pass the instruct the Marines to swim out to sea where they could be rescued.  The Marines declined because only one of the three Marines could swim.  Veilie advised the caller to take cover since airstrikes were scheduled at their likely position.  After acknowledging Veilie’s instructions, whomever Veilie talked to went off the air, and no more was heard from him.

Aboard Coral Sea, the Commander, Task Force 73, Rear Admiral Robert P. Coogan, met with Colonel Austin, Commander Coulter, who had just arrived from Subic Bay with a 14-man Seal Team, Captain Davis, and Gunnery Sergeant McNemar to discuss possible courses of action.  Admiral Coogan suggested that Coulter take the Wilson’s gig ashore at first light with a white flag to see if he could recover the remains of those killed in action and any possible stragglers.  Coulter was cool to the idea; he preferred taking his men ashore for a nighttime reconnaissance.  Coogan refused this notion; his orders from COMSEVENTHFLT were to cease hostilities — and he had no confirmation that these “missing” men were still alive.  Despite Wilson’s efforts to spot Marines between East Beach and West Beach, which included cruising offshore and loudspeaker announcements in English and Cambodian, there was no indication that the three Marines were still alive.  Moreover, Coogan was certain more lives would be lost during any forced rescue attempt.

On 16 May, Hargrove, Hall, and Marshall were declared “missing in action.” On 21 July 1976, all three Marines were reported Killed in Action, bodies not recovered.

Except — they weren’t.

In 1999, the Khmer Rouge commander at Koh Tang Island approached the Joint Task Force for Full Accounting, who advertised that they were looking for additional information about Koh Tang’s event.  The man’s name was Em Son.  According to his memory, on the morning of 16 May, he ordered his men to search the West Beach for any remaining Americans.  Around a hundred meters into the search, one of the Khmer defenders was hit by M-16 fire.  The Cambodians fired mortars into the area and captured a wounded Marine.  Em Son’s description of the man matched that of Joseph Hargrove.  The Cambodians continued their search and located an abandoned M60 machine gun and other various equipment.  A few minutes later, the Khmer discovered the body of a black Marine, believed to be LCpl Loney.  They buried Loney and took their wounded prisoner to Em Son.  When the wounded Khmer soldier died, Em Son ordered Hargrove executed.

Em Son also testified that about a week later, he and his men noticed that their food stores were being disturbed.  On searching, they discovered boot prints in the soil.  They set up a night ambush and, on the third night of their vigil, they captured two Americans.  Em Son’s descriptions matched those of Gary Hall and Danny Marshall.  On instructions from Kampong Som, the two Americans were taken to the mainland and transferred to the Ti Near Pagoda, where they were stripped to their underwear and shackled.  A week later, on orders from Phnom Penh, each prisoner was beaten to death with, he said, a B-40 rocket launcher. Hall’s body was buried in a shallow grave near the beach; Marshall’s body was dumped into a nearby cove.

The next of kin of all three of these abandoned Marines received the Purple Heart Medal.  They weren’t the only casualties.  In total, forty-one Americans were killed in the rescue of Mayaguez — one more American serviceman killed than the whole crew saved in the operation.  These casualty numbers reflect the 23 SPS and aircrewmen who died in the helicopter crash, the 18 killed assaulting Koh Tang Island (which includes Hargrove, Hall, and Marshall), and eighty personnel wounded or injured during the operation. 

Sources:

  1.  Caro, R. A.  The Years of Lyndon Johnson: Means of Ascent. New York: Random House, 1991.
  2. Lamb, C. J.  The Mayaguez Crisis, Mission Command, and Civil-Military Relations.  Joint History Office, Office of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Washington, 2018.
  3. Rumsfeld, D.  When the Center Held: Gerald Ford and the Rescue of the American Presidency. New York: Free Press, 2018.
  4. Shafer, J. “The Honest Graft of Lady Bird Johnson: How she and Lyndon came by their millions.” Slate Magazine, 16 July 2007.

Endnotes:


[1] I have no evidence suggesting that this claim had any merit.  I will only observe that if it was true, it was very poor headwork inside the CIA and shipping company boardrooms if they agreed to conduct it.

[2] Cambodia had long claimed a twelve-mile territorial limit of adjacent seas.  Its national policy toward seizing, detaining, questioning maritime crews had been in effect since 1969.  Most countries since 1982 claim a twelve-mile territorial limit.  But in 1975, the United States (and many other countries) only recognized a three-mile territorial limit.

[3] A major shareholder in Land-Sea/Maersk was none other than the wife of President Lyndon B. Johnson, Lady Bird Johnson.  According to Robert A. Caro, the Pulitzer Prize winning biographer of President Johnson (The Years of Lyndon Johnson: Means of Ascent), Johnson used his political power and influence to build her fortune beginning in 1943.  “Johnson had worked at politics for years to achieve power; now he was working at politics to make money.”  According to award winning journalist Jack Shafer, “Under Texas law, Lyndon Johnson owned half of her profits.”  The truth of Johnson’s Indochina War may thus be revealed to us; he, as a sitting president, profited from the war through his wife ownership of stock in a company that became the primary shipper logistics and war materials to the Republic of Vietnam.

[4] America’s reputation was already a shamble since Harry S. Truman’s gross incompetence involved us in the easily avoided Korean War (which, as of this date, technically still continues) and laid the foundation for similar events in Indochina eleven years later.

[5] USS Pueblo (AGER-2), initially constructed for the US Army as a freight and supply ship during World War II, was transferred to the US Navy in April 1966 as a light cargo ship.  Her subsequent designation as an environmental research vessel was a cover for her real purpose, signals intelligence (known informally as a “Spy Ship”).  In early 1968, USS Pueblo engaged in surveilling Soviet naval activity off the Japanese coast and gathered electronic intelligence from North Korea.  Claiming that Pueblo was illegally operating in North Korean waters (North Korea at the time claimed 50 nautical miles of sovereign territory), North Korean gunboats fired upon Pueblo (killing one crewman), seized the ship, interned the crew as prisoners of war, mistreated the crew, tortured the ship’s commander, and demanded a written apology by the US government as a condition of releasing the crew.  The United States signed the admission, and the North Koreans released the crew in late 1968 but retained possession of the ship and all of its highly classified material (hardware and software).