Nawzad —2008

Some Background

Men have used spears in warfare for well over 3,000 years —and they continued using them even after the invention of firearms.  The use of spears began as implements for hunting in pre-history.  They were fashioned by burning one end of a straight stick until it had become pointed, its makers scraping the wood further to make the pointed end even sharper, which increased its lethality.

The hunting spear may have been one of mankind’s earliest technological advances, inspired by early man’s demand for food.  Scientists in Germany discovered this kind of weapon embedded into the skeletal remains of an elephant.  No one is quite sure when humans turned these hunting weapons upon one another; we only know that it was a long time ago.  What we do know is that spears were far more efficient than clubs, and likely preferable because of their versatility.  A spearman could thrust his weapon into an enemy or throw it from a distance.

Over time, hunters-gatherers became agriculturalists.  With farming came the domestication of animals and less demand for hunters.  One demand remained, however: the defense of small villages to protect loved ones and food stores.  When men learned that more spearmen were far more efficient in self-defense than one or two uncoordinated defenders, they began to develop offensive and defensive tactics.  At first, it is likely that the employment of these maneuvers more closely resembled a Chinese fire drill than a military formation, but in time someone came up with the idea that a well-drilled formation fared better in warfare than a mish-mash of stick-wielding yahoos.

The earliest formation was the phalanx, a closely packed block of spearmen.  The phalanx made the spear far more deadly in close combat; even back then there was no ribbon for coming in second.  The phalanx formation made ancient Greece into a military power with subsequent armies adopting similar formations over the next 2,000 years.

Gladius Hispaniensis

The Roman armies did such a good job of emulating Greek strategies that they eventually took over the known world.  The Roman started with the basics of Greek tactics and improved on them.  While retaining the spear (pilus) the Romans also used swords (Gladius).  Initially, Roman swords were much like those used by the Greeks, but from around the third century BC, Rome adopted the Celtiberian[1] sword; they called it Gladius Hispaniensis.  This sword was shorter in length, better made, and far more manageable for close-in fighting.  The Roman spear was especially adapted to Roman tactics, used as a kind of close-combat artillery, but constructed more on the order of a javelin.  After throwing their pilum in a single volley, Roman legions then charged into their enemy in close formation with shield (scutum) and gladius.

Rome’s demise[2], after 1,100 years of military domination, produced several hundred years of political and social instability.  The next innovation of the spear came in the form of the lance, a weapon used from horseback by mounted knights.  Knights led infantry (foot) formations (that retained the spear as its primary weapon), but it was the mounted warrior that led to most military innovation in subsequent years—such as saddles, stirrups, a longer “cavalry” sword.  Cavalry (or its earliest form) became the Middle Ages’ most important combat component.  Eventually, polearms replaced spears as infantry weapons.

The polearm provided a defense against mounted assaults —an innovation that enabled the Swiss to become the most feared military force in Europe during the Middle Ages.  The most widely recognized polearm of that period was called a halberd, a cross between a spear and an ax with a hook.  The halberd was useful in stabbing, slashing, and pulling riders from their horses.

The pike was an exceptionally long spear fielded by large blocks of men (similar in many ways to the Greek phalanx, but without shields).  Pikes enabled infantry to hold off charging cavalry.  By this time, military formations had begun to field fire arms so the pike blocks also protected musketeers while they reloaded their weapons.  When muskets and rifles became the primary weapon of field armies, bayonets became the primary means used by riflemen to defend themselves in close combat.  When attached to the musket or rifle, the two weapons served the same purpose as the ancient spear.

U.S. Marine Corps bayonet

Bayonets continue to function as a close-in weapon in modern military arsenals.  They are primarily used while searching for the enemy in confined spaces, or whenever a field commander anticipates close combat.  There are many examples of the use of the bayonet in World War II and the Korean War.  The command, “Fix Bayonets” is chilling because at that point, everyone knows that a knife fight is about to take place.

In Afghanistan

When First Lieutenant Arthur E. Karell ordered “Fix Bayonets,” the hunkered down Marines of Fox Company’s 3rd Platoon began to perspire.  The sound of Marines withdrawing their bayonets from scabbards and affixing them to the ends of their rifles was distinctive.  Click, click, click.  Lieutenant Karell’s order was precautionary because he didn’t know what to expect in the quiet darkness.  All he knew was that his orders placed he and his men at that specific spot, and that Helmand Province (later known as Marineistan[3]) is where someone high up in his chain of command had decided that U.S. Marines could do the most good.  Karell was part of the vanguard of Marines who would become predators —their prey was the Taliban.

Nawzad, Afghanistan was a ghost town.  The 2nd Battalion, 7th Marines (2/7) assumed responsibility for pacifying this enemy-occupied but once-populated town in a remote and god-forsaken area of southeast Afghanistan.  The people who used to live in Nawzad (some 10,000 in number (estimated)) abandoned their mud-brick homes and melted away into the dusty area surrounding it.  With the departure of these simple people, the Taliban moved in and made themselves at home.  Karell’s battalion commander, Lieutenant Colonel Richard D. Hall, had sent Fox Company to issue eviction notices.

The fact was that Colonel Hall didn’t know much more about Nawzad than Karell; Hall had no “intel” of the enemy situation because Helmand Province wasn’t a priority for the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), NATO’s coalition headquarters in Kabul.  Up until 2/7’s arrival in Helmand Province, the ISAF had ignored Nawzad.

The quiet darkness of early morning was periodically interrupted by the sounds of distant  jackals, which was enough to straighten the Marine’s neck hair.  Karell’s Marines didn’t know what awaited them, but whatever it was, it was about to get its ass kicked.  The Taliban were dangerous, of course, but they weren’t U.S. Marines.  They may have intimidated poor farmers and the U.S. Army led ISAF in Kabul, but they weren’t going to cower Fox 2/7.  Still, neither Lieutenant Karell nor his company commander had a firm picture of the enemy situation.

The 2nd Battalion, 7th Marines was initially activated on 1 January 1941 at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.  Its world war service included Guadalcanal, Cape Gloucester, Peleliu, and Okinawa.  During the Korean War, 2/7 participated in the landing at Inchon, the Battle of Seoul, the landing at Wonsan, and the Battle of the Chosin Reservoir.  Captain William Barber received the Medal of Honor for his extraordinary courage while commanding Fox Company.  The battalion deployed to Vietnam from July 1965 until October 1970.  While based at Twenty-nine Palms, California, the battalion was deployed for Operation Desert Shield and Desert Storm in 1990-91 with additional service in Iraq in 2004, 2005, 2006.  The battalion deployed to Afghanistan in 2008, and again from 2012-2013.

2/7 spearheaded the return of Marines to Afghanistan in April 2008, engaging in combat almost from the very first day.  It was the hardest hit battalion in the Marine Corps in 2008.  During its eight month deployment, the battalion lost 20 Marines killed in action; 160 wounded in action, and of these, thirty amputees.

It was 15th June 2008 and Karell was seconds away from launching his first combat assault.  Most of his noncommissioned officers were combat veterans, but their previous experience had been in Iraq.  Afghanistan was a horse of a different color.  From their position in a dried-up irrigation ditch, in the pitch-black early morning, the only thing the Marines could see was the vague outline of a thick mud wall that stood higher than most Marines were tall.  The wall separated the town from a small, scraggly forest.  Up until then, it was “Indian country,” and no one from Fox Company had seen what lay on the other side.  They only knew that whenever a patrol came near the wall, someone from the other side started shooting at them.  Not knowing the enemy situation beyond the wall prompted Karell to issue his order, “Fix Bayonets.”

Karell began the platoon’s advance, stealthily creeping along in the dark with he and his platoon sergeant, Staff Sergeant (SSgt) Gabriel G. Guest, leading the way.  This is how Marines do combat: leaders at the tip of the spear.  Despite a long list of unknowns, the Marines of the 3rd Platoon had confidence in their lieutenant.  Karell possessed all the positive attributes of an outstanding combat leader.  He was calm in stressful situations.  He moved with purpose and self-confidence.  He was open with and respectful of his men.  He was willing to admit when he’d messed up.  He learned from his mistakes.  In the eyes of his superiors, Karell had additional traits: knowledgeable, thoughtful, aggressive, good at planning and even better in execution.  In short, Karell was a hunter-warrior —a dangerous predator.

As Karell’s Marines moved forward, they could hear the growling engines of support vehicles coming up behind them.  Suddenly, from behind the wall, a rocket-propelled grenade shattered the silence of the night —the explosive swooshing above the heads of the leathernecks toward the approaching support vehicles.  Marine machine guns opened up; enemy machine guns answered.  Muzzle flashes from the base of the wall revealed the enemy’s positions.

The instant before the shooting started, Karell’s Marines were nervous; an instant after, Marine Corps training took over.  The Marine’s first emotion was that they were pissed off that someone was shooting at them.  After coordinating by radio with Fox Actual, once the Marine’s machine guns shifted their fires, Karell launched his assault toward the enemy.  2nd Squad laid down a base of fire as Karell and the 1st Squad rushed forward.  Then 1st Squad took up suppressing fires as 2nd Squad advanced.  The Marines of 3rd Platoon ignored the enemy’s fire as deadly rounds snapped past them, but they were expending a lot of ammunition.  SSgt Guest began relaying ammo resupply forward. The enemy machine gun went silent and the enemy began running in the opposite direction.

Lieutenant Karell brought combat engineers forward.  After firing mine clearing devices into the area in front of the wall, they blew a gaping hole through the adobe barrier.  Karell’s platoon poured through the wall and took up a hasty defense position until the platoon was ready to pursue the enemy.  What they found inside the compound stood in stark contrast to the desolate moonscape on the outside.  It was a garden setting, complete with flowing water and a forest of fruit trees.

Karell and his Marines had no time to enjoy it; the lieutenant organized his Marines to begin destroying enemy bunkers.  Their progress took them into the light forest.  Standing before them was a white mound that rose above the trees.  Karell estimated that the damn thing was forty-feet above ground.  The skipper[4] supposed it could be a command bunker.

From where the 3rd Platoon was standing the mound looked like a stone fortress.  It was “no big deal.”  The Marines started climbing weighted down by the intense morning heat, their weapons, ammunition, and body armor.  They were looking for caves —but found none.  They expected enemy resistance —but there was none.  When he reached the top, Lieutenant Karell did a quick search of the area.  All he found were scars from artillery of some earlier battle.  Karell laughed —his 3rd Platoon had captured a huge rock.

2/7 was sent to Nawzad to train Afghan police.  The ISAF reasoned that if the Marines could train local police, the police would then be able to protect their own community.  The fly in that ointment was that there were no police in Nawzad.  Absent the police training mission, Colonel Hall queried higher headquarters about his new mission.  He was told to make it possible for the Afghan people to return to their long-deserted town.  There was no mention of how he was to accomplish this task, of course, only that the Marines needed to “get it done.”  So, Hall executed the Marine Corps plan: find the Taliban and convince him that he’s in the wrong business.

Helmand Province in Afghanistan

While it was true that the battalion’s mission had changed, little else had.  Since ISAF controlled all in-theater air assets, 2/7 would not have dedicated air support.  Marine grunts love their aviators, and this has been true all the way back to the early days of Marine aviation —when Marines began to explore the utility of aircraft for ground support missions.  For two decades, the Marines perfected air-ground operations during the so-called Banana Wars.  During World War II, Navy and Marine Corps aviation perfected the art and science of close air support.  They employed these skills in the Korean War.  In fact, it was during the Korean War that the Marines taught the Army a thing or two about on-call close air support.  In Afghanistan, however, the Marines would have to REQUEST air support through the ISAF.  Maybe they would get it, maybe they wouldn’t.  There was no guarantee that 2/7 Marines would have their USMC Cobra pilots (their combat angels) overhead.

By the time 2/7 arrived in Nawzad, the once-thriving city was already long-abandoned.  It was likely that Taliban or drug trafficking warlords had driven them away.  But Colonel Hall was resourceful and smart.  Before the scheduled deployment of his Battalion, Hall went to Helmand Province and talked to people on the ground.  He came away with the understanding that, despite his (then) stated mission to train a police force, his Marines would do more fighting than training.

A week after Lieutenant Karell’s rock climb, Captain Russ Schellhaas, the Fox Company commander, assigned Karell’s 3rd Platoon to support of his 1st Platoon during an operation that unfortunately found 1st Platoon in the middle of a minefield.  It was a horrible day for twenty-six seriously wounded Marines.  A few days after that, Staff Sergeant Chris Strickland, an explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) technician was killed while attempting to disarm an improvised explosive device (IED).

The mission of the Marine combat engineer is to enhance the mobility and survivability of ground combat forces.  Among its several specific tasks are expedient demolition, route/area minesweeping operations, and a range of other force protection measures.  Thirty days later, it was Lance Corporal John Shrey’s duty to conduct minesweeping operations while leading Lieutenant Karell and his platoon’s 3rd Squad through a potential IED minefield.  Karell and his Marines followed him as if they were baby ducks.

Once the Marines had made it through the minefield, they concealed themselves in a grove of scrubby underbrush within sight of their point of interest —a supposedly abandoned compound with a single adobe shack.  Intel claimed that insurgents were using the compound as a rallying point, a place where they stored their gear before laying in more IEDs.  North of the rally point was a band of trees, within which was another series of compounds —in distance, about a half-mile in length.  Heavily armed Taliban occupied these compounds and used them as IED factories and safe havens.  According to the 2/7 operations officer, the Taliban were Pakistanis who had come to fight through what the Marines were calling “Pakistan Alley.”  And the Marines knew that it was only a matter of time before they would have to clear it out.  For now, though, the Karell concentrated on the immediate threat: the rally point.

At daybreak, the 3rd Squad could hear the Moslem call to prayer echoing through the northern forest.  Lieutenant Karell also detected the sound of armored vehicles bringing up the rest of his platoon.  Shouts erupted from insurgents just inside the tree line; two Pakis ran from the wood carrying RPGs.  They were unaware of Karell’s presence in the grove.

Enemy machine-gun fire opened-up against a Marine bulldozer as it barreled its way through a minefield, clearing a lane to the rally point.  An RPG was fired at the MRAP carrying Karell’s second squad.  The leader of the 2nd Squad was a young corporal by the name of Aaron Tombleson.  At 23-years of age, Tombleson was responsible for the lives and welfare of twelve Marines.  His point man was Private First Class Ivan Wilson, whom everyone called “Willie.”

Explosions began erupting near the MRAP.  Lieutenant Karell heard a loud detonation and this was followed by the giant tire of an MRAP flying toward 3rd Squad.  With none of his men injured in the blast, Corporal Tombleson quickly transferred his squad to a second vehicle.  It was already a jumbled day and it was still early in the morning.

Marines of Fox Company 2/7 in 2008          Photo credit to Sgt F. G. Cantu, USMC

The bulldozer went on to punch a hole through the wall of the compound but had gotten stuck in the rubble and tight surroundings.  A fire team from 2nd Squad dismounted to provide security for the engineers while they attempted to straighten out the bulldozer.  Willie led the fireteam alongside the MRAP toward the rear of the dozer, but incoming small arms fire began pinging the side of the MRAP.  The fire team took cover and began returning fire.  PFC Wilson on point ran to the edge of the compound and took a kneeling position to return fire.  In that instant, an IED exploded under him.  Lieutenant Karell heard the explosion, followed seconds later by a radio report that the 2nd Squad had four or five casualties with one KIA.

3rd Squad’s Navy Corpsman was HM3 Tony Ameen.  He requested Karell’s permission to move up to help attend to the wounded.  Assuming 2nd Squad’s corpsman was overwhelmed in treating the injured, Karell told Ameen he could go —but only with an engineer to sweep for mines.

With Lance Corporal Shrey leading the way, Ameen and another Corpsman, HM Jack Driscoll, and a few additional Marines to provide security, moved up.  The going was slow.  As the medical team inched forward behind Shrey, another explosion erupted, and a plume of smoke appeared behind the tree line.

“Doc” Ameen, impatient with the rate of march, bolted out of line and rushed forward.  This is what Navy Corpsmen are trained to do.  They run to their wounded Marines —and this explains why 2,012 Navy Corpsmen have been killed in combat since the Navy Medical Corps was founded in 1871.  Forty-two corpsmen lost their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan.  There are 21 U.S. Navy ships named after Navy Corpsmen; they have received over six-hundred medals for valor —including 23 Medals of Honor and 179 Navy Cross medals.

A few steps past Shrey, Ameen stepped on another IED.  Ameen went flying head over heel.  He lost one foot and half of his left hand.  Shrey, knocked to the ground by the concussion and bleeding from both ears, got groggily to his feet.  Despite his injury, Shrey maintained his presence of mind and shouted to Doc Driscoll to halt in place.  LCpl Shrey did not want another casualty among the corpsmen.

Meanwhile, Corporal Tumbleson and seven of his Marines —all that was left of his squad— carried Willie to the MRAP; as the Marines struggled to place him inside the vehicle, Wilson attempted to help them.  It was then that he and realized that his arm was missing.  Willie slipped into unconsciousness.  Nearby, a contingent of ISAF Estonian soldiers rushed forward to help get Willie to the Medevac Landing Zone.

Lieutenant Karell called for an airstrike, which after a few minutes destroyed the compound.  Afterward, Karell moved his platoon forward and occupied the compound.  That afternoon, during retrograde back to Nawzad, another MRAP set off an IED, but there were no more human casualties; the truck was damaged beyond repair.  When the Marines arrived back at the company command post (CP), Karell learned that Willie had died on the medical evacuation helicopter.

Even though 3rd Platoon Marines were shaken and exhausted from the day’s events, Karell assembled them to break the news about PFC Wilson.  Afterward, the Marines never spoke about the battle of the compound —they only talked about the day Willie died.  That night, Karell led an eight-man patrol from 1st Squad back to the enemy rally point.  The Marines had learned that the Taliban often returned to a battle site to assess the damage and lay in more IEDs.  No sooner had Karell and his men reached the area just outside the compound, they heard movement ahead of them.  Apparently, the enemy also heard the Marines approaching and withdrew.  Karell wasn’t looking for another fight —he wanted to get his Marines back in the saddle after losing Wilson.

Conditions in Nawzad were what one might expect in Afghanistan.  2/7 Marines were fighting in temperatures that hovered around 120-degrees Fahrenheit.  The chow sucked —but then, all MREs[5] do.  Critical resupply was continually interrupted by enemy activity along the main supply route (MSR).  There was no running water.  The constant swirling of powdery Afghan dust clogged the Marine’s throats —they were continually rinsing their mouths with water, gargling, and spitting it out.  Lack of contact with the outside world challenged unit morale, but worse than that, the Marines believed that their sacrifices were serving no worthwhile purpose.  They were sent there to train police, but instead, the Marines became the police.  And the fact was that a single battalion of Marines was an insufficient force to deal with the overwhelming number of Taliban/Pakistani insurgents over so large an area.  As a result, the Marines were spread too thin —a direct consequence of President Obama’s decision to withdraw the military from Afghanistan.  There were no replacements for evacuated casualties; the Marines would have to fight with what they had.  Corporal Tombleson’s squad, for example, started off with twelve Marines, casualties reducing it to eight —a 33% reduction in combat efficiency.

The attitudes of Marines of Fox Company mirrored those of the other line companies.  Everyone believed that when 2/7 was pulled out, as one day it must, there would be no one to replace them —and they wondered, if this was true, then why were they in Afghanistan at all?  Staff Sergeant Kevin Buegel, who replaced the wounded and evacuated Staff Sergeant Guest as platoon sergeant, was pissed off.  The very idea of losing Marines for no good purpose was a constant source of irritation.  Eventually, word came down that Obama had reversed his earlier decision to withdraw all US forces.  2/7 would be replaced by another battalion landing team after all.

In late October 3rd Platoon assumed the company vanguard (the point) position when Fox Company plunged into Paki Alley to root out and destroy Taliban forces.  Hall’s 2/7 had already cleared Nawzad but clearing the Taliban from the alley would be a tough fight, as urban-type warfare always is.

Lieutenant Karell’s platoon was engaged in clearing operations; each of his rifle squads moving deliberately through their assigned sectors.  At one location, the 1st Squad encountered a Taliban shooter in the structure’s basement.  Marines called out to him in Pashtu to surrender, but he kept shooting at them with an AK-47.  Corporal Joe Culliver was an intelligence analyst temporarily attached to Fox company.  He wanted the shooter taken alive, if possible; one of the Karell’s Marines told him, “Don’t count on it.”  Nothing the Marines did convinced this shooter that it would be to his advantage to surrender.

1st Squad’s delay of advance was becoming a critical issue because the three squads moving forward provided mutual security during the platoon’s operation.  Lieutenant Karell decided that they’d wasted enough time on this one holdout.  Marines tossed hand grenades into the basement; the insurgent answered with more rifle fire.  Staff Sergeant Buegel was pissed off; he always was about something.  He rigged a C-4 explosive and tossed it into the basement.  Whatever impact the explosion had appeared negligible because the shooter continued to unleash measured fire.  Karell knew that the shooter was wounded, knew that he wasn’t going to surrender, and he knew that he was not going to leave him alive in the rear of his Marines.

Elsewhere in the Alley, the Taliban was putting up one hell of a fight.  The enemy employed mortars, machine guns, and hand grenades against the 3rd Platoon.  Karell needed to close the door on this shooter.  Marines inched down the stairwell and poured hot lead around the adobe corer into the open basement.  The shooter finally went silent.  Karell, with his pistol at the ready, entered the basement with Corporal Culliver right behind him.  The Taliban was laying on the floor along the wall on the far side of the room.  He was badly wounded.  Spread out across the floor in front of him were dozens of needles and empty ampules of morphine.  The shooter was higher than a kite, and this explained his apparent lack of pain.  As Karell approached the shooter, he suddenly heaved, reaching for his AK-47.  One of the Marines behind Karell fired twice, killing the Taliban.

Folks back home believe (because this is what the U.S. media tells them) that the Taliban are deeply religious people, dedicated to their belief system, that they are willing to sacrifice themselves in the name of their god.  This could be true among those who run dozens to hundreds of madrassas, and it may even apply to Afghanistan’s dozens of warlords.  Taliban fighters, on the other hand, are seriously malnourished men radicalized by drug addiction.  Culturally and historically, the average Afghan is opposed to any form of government and there is nothing any western coalition can do to change that.  It is a situation that has existed since the days of Alexander the Great.  The only options available to western forces is that of (a) relieving them of their misery and sending them into whatever awaits them in the afterlife (although, with a population exceeding 36 million people, this is highly unlikely), or (b) leaving them alone.

3rd Platoon fought on.  Now, finally, with the backing of newly assigned cobra gunships, pilots[6] could see Karell’s three squads dangerously separated in the urban setting.  3rd Platoon’s fight lasted well over seven hours.  Karell believed his Marines were making progress, but that’s not what the cobra pilots were seeing.  From their vantage point, dozens of insurgents were swarming eastward toward the Karell’s Platoon.  It was only the gunship’s well-aimed rockets that drove them back toward Pakistan.

After seven hours, Lieutenant Karell was running out of daylight —and everything else— and his platoon was only half-way through the series of walled compounds.  Marine engineers destroyed several IED factories and knew more of them lay ahead.  The problem was that the 3rd Platoon was an insufficiently sized force to seize and hold the compounds.  Worse, the combat engineers were out of explosives —so that even if the 3rd Platoon did capture additional IED factories, there was no way to destroy them.  Captain Schellhaas knew that when he ordered the withdrawal of his platoons, it would be only a matter of time before the insurgents filtered back in.

Caught in the middle of all this was the Afghan farmer who only wanted to raise his poppies in peace[7].  The day following 3rd Platoon’s assault on Paki Alley, Karell led a motorized patrol to a small hamlet known as Khwaja Jamal.  In the spring, someone from this village was always taking pot-shots at patrolling Marines; since then, the insurgents there had either withdrawn or gone underground.  More recently, 2/7 Marines had established a dialogue with village elders.  Everyone in Khwaja Jamal was curious about these American interlopers.  It worked to the Marine’s advantage that their living conditions were equal to those of the poor farmers, but while the Marines —the product of 21st Century American society— enjoyed their creature comforts, Afghanis steadfastly rejected modernization in every form.

Were these villagers’ friend or foe?  A third of them were intent on selling Marines their ample supply of illicit drugs; another third wanted to know about American farming and irrigation techniques —and then there was a group of younger men who demanded to know why the Marines were in Afghanistan at all, how many soldiers they had, and how far could their guns shoot.

In December, when 2/7 was withdrawn, Nawzad was still empty of civilians.  By then, a third of Karell’s platoon had been killed or wounded.  Platoon sergeant Buegel was himself wounded by an IED, but he was one of the lucky ones.  Maybe the good Lord likes cranky people.  Relieved by Battalion Landing Team (BLT) 3/8, BLT 2/7 Marines returned to California to resume their lives.  Some of these men left the Corps at the end of their enlistments, some remained on active duty.  The majority of those who remained on active duty were transferred to other posts or stations.  As new men reported for duty with 2/7, replacing those ordered out, the battalion began its workup for a subsequent tour in Afghanistan.

Lieutenant Karell, who was at the end of his obligated service, decided to remain on active duty.

Sources:

  1. Brady, J. The Scariest Place in the World: A Marine Returns to North Korea.  New York: Dunne Books, 2005
  2. Drury, B., and Tom Clavin. The Last Stand of Fox Company.  New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2009
  3. Henderson, K. A Change in Mission.  Washington: Washington Post Company, 2009
  4. Kummer, D. W. S. Marines in the Global War on Terrorism.  Quantico: History Division, USMC.  2014
  5. Martin, R. Breakout—The Chosin Reservoir Campaign, Korea 1950.  Penguin Books, 1999.

Endnotes:

[1] Celtiberians were Celticized people inhabiting the central-eastern Iberian Peninsula during the final centuries BC.

[2] There are dozens of explanations for the collapse of Rome, among them corruption, social malaise, and the fact that Rome attempted to incorporate barbarians into the Republic/Empire —people who were culturally non-Roman, and who therefore lacked the uniqueness of Roman esprit-de-corps.

[3] At the end of 2007, the most optimistic description possible for Helmand Province was that it was a gaggle turned stalemate.  When the Marines were sent to Helmand Province, Marine commanders decided they had had enough of fighting battles the Army way; they intended to fight the Taliban on their own terms.  It wasn’t long before the U.S. Army hierarchy in Kabul complained to Washington that the leathernecks had gone rogue; the Marines refused to do anything their Army superiors wanted them to do.  But the Marines know how to win battles.  They win battles through aggressiveness, thinking outside the box, and terrifying the hell out of the enemy.  This mindset is a significant contrast to Army careerism.  The Army began referring to Helmand Province as Marineistan.

[4] Skipper is an informal naval term denoting the Commanding Officer of a Marine company, the Commanding Officer of a Navy ship, or a Navy/Marine Corps aircraft squadron.

[5] Meals, Ready to Eat.  Also, Meals Rejected by Ethiopians.

[6] Every Marine officer is trained as an infantry officer.  A combat pilot knows exactly what his ground counterpart is facing and strives to support the grunts in every way possible.

[7] Fifty-two percent of Afghanistan’s gross domestic product (GDP) is generated by their illicit drug trade.  Given that the majority of its 36 million people are happy to remain in the stone age, one wonders how “saving” Afghanistan is in the United States’ national interests.

Marine Raiders

American Marines have long resisted referring to themselves, or any unit in the Marine Corps, as “commandos.”  By definition, a commando is a military unit or individual specifically trained and organized to conduct raids into enemy territory.  The Marine Corps is an elite combat force with specific expertise in amphibious operations, including over-the-horizon vertical assault.  Raiding coastlines is what we do for a living.  Our purpose is to project naval power ashore, so senior Marine Corps officials did not see an advantage of re-designating some Marine Corps units as “commando” units.

When this subject first came up at the beginning of World War II, creating a specialized elite force within an elite force seemed to many senior Marine officers as counter-intuitive —yet, that is exactly what transpired.

Holcomb 001President Franklin D. Roosevelt (whose son James [1] was a Marine Corps officer) expressed interest in creating an American counterpart to the British Commandos [2].  In the president’s mind, the U. S. Marine Corps was the natural place for a commando organization.  Where the president got this idea was from proposals co-authored by then-Major Evans Carlson, USMC and Colonel William J. Donovan [3].  Then-Commandant of the Marine Corps Major General Thomas Holcomb (pictured right) disagreed with the Carlson-Donovan proposal.  He didn’t think that an elite combat force like the Marine Corps needed a specialized subset organization.

Nevertheless, the debate over the creation of these elite units came to a climax when the newly-appointed commander of the Pacific Fleet requested “commando units” for raids against lightly defended Japanese-held islands [4].

Overruled by President Roosevelt, Holcomb maintained his resistance to calling these organizations “commandos.”  In his view, “Marine” was sufficient to signify a well-trained soldier of the sea who ready for duty at sea and in the field at any time and at any place.

Holcomb re-designated the 1st Battalion, 5th Marines (then commanded by LtCol Merritt A. Edson) as the 1st Separate Battalion.  Roosevelt wanted two battalions, however.  General Holcomb then created a 2nd Separate Battalion, which at the president’s direction, would be commanded by Evans Carlson [5].  In one amazing turn of events, Major James Roosevelt USMCR was appointed as Carlson’s executive officer.

General Holcomb finally agreed to call these two organizations “Raider” battalions.  LtCol Edson retained command of the 1stRaider Battalion, and LtCol Carlson assumed command of the 2nd Raider Battalion.

Marine raider battalions were provided with the best available equipment in 1942.  The Marines selected to serve in these battalions were hand-picked from among solicited volunteers.  However, organizationally, the two formed battalions were as dissimilar as night and day. Carlson organized his battalion around the Chinese communist model of egalitarianism.  He treated his officers and enlisted men with minimal regard for their rank as leaders and fighters.  He also employed ethical indoctrination sessions, describing to each man what he was fighting for, and why.  He incorporated the Chinese phrase “Gung Ho” [6] as a motivational slogan.  Rather than organizing his battalion according to approved Marine Corps table of organization, he formed six rifle companies of two platoons each, and each of these with three-man fireteams.

Edson 001Both raider battalions went into action at about the same time.  In early August 1942, Colonel Edson’s battalion (assigned to the 1stMarine Division) landed on Tulagi in the British Solomon’s; it was the opening phase of the campaign for Guadalcanal.  After the capture of Tulagi, 1stRaiders were moved to Guadalcanal to defend Henderson Field and, in fact, one of their most notable engagements occurred during the Battle of Edson’s Ridge [7].  Here, 1stRaider Battalion, attached elements of the 1stParachute Battalion, and 2ndBattalion, 5thMarines soundly defeated Imperial Japanese forces on the night of 13-14 September.  (Pictured right, Col. Edson)

Carlson 001In mid-August 1942, 2nd Raider Battalion embarked aboard two submarines (Nautilus and Argonaut) and conducted a raid on Makin Island [8].  During this raid, eighteen Marines and one Navy corpsman were killed in action (see notation, below[9]).  The night raid was disorganized and chaotic.  Marine dead were left behind on the island as the raiders withdrew back into the sea.  A Butaritari man managed to hide the bodies of these dead servicemen from the Japanese; he carefully buried them on this island.  The US Armed Forces did not recover their bodies until December 1999. See also: video posted earlier.  Carlson (Pictured right) also unintentionally left nine men alive on the island, all of whom were captured and beheaded by the Japanese.

Following the Battle of Savo Island in the Solomon’s, 1,400 Marines in various support units of the 2nd Marine Regiment —yet to land on Tulagi— were returned to Espiritu Santo on transport ships withdrawn from Guadalcanal by Admiral Richmond K. Turner.  Believing that regimental and larger sized Marine Corps units were not suitable for amphibious operations, Turner decided to form these Marines into a 2ndProvisional Raider Battalion —but did so without consulting with the Commandant of the Marine Corps, who as might be expected, was not a happy man.  Vice Admiral Robert L. Ghormley, Commander, Naval Forces South Pacific, rescinded Turner’s order.  Turner’s desire that all Marine battalions be re-formed as raider battalions caused Marine Corps headquarters to take a dim view of the entire raider concept.

Marine Raider 001Nevertheless, two additional raider battalions were created.  3rd Raider Battalion in Samoa, commanded by LtCol Harry B. Liversedge, and 4thRaider Battalion, commanded by the newly promoted LtCol James Roosevelt.  Both of these battalions distinguished themselves in heavy combat in the 1943 campaigns.  In March 1943, the four raider battalions were organized into the 1st Marine Raider Regiment; Colonel Liversedge was named Commanding Officer with Evans Carlson serving as his executive officer.  LtCol Alan Shapley [10] was appointed to command the 2nd Raider Battalion a week later and he promptly re-organized the unit into a standard (American Marine) battalion configuration.

Under Colonel Liversedge, the Raider Regiment enforced a common table of organization among the four battalions.  Each battalion consisted of four rifle companies of three rifle platoons each, and a weapons platoon, and each battalion had a weapons company to provide general support to the battalion.  These changes reflected both Edson’s and Carlson’s ideas about organizing fireteams and platoons and were later adopted by the Marine Corps: highly trained, lightly equipped, conventional forces.

During the New Georgia campaign, the 1st Marine Raider Regiment was task-organized for a new mission with the 1st and 4th Raiders, and two battalions of the US 37th Infantry Division, commanded by Liversedge.

At the same time, the 2nd and 3rd Raider Battalions were temporarily attached to the 2nd Provisional Raider Regiment under Colonel Shapley for the invasion of Bougainville.  This would be the final combat assignment of the Marine Raiders before their disbandment.

In December 1943 command of the 1st Raider Regiment passed to Lieutenant Colonel Samuel D. Puller.  The regiment left New Caledonia on 21 January and landed at Guadalcanal three days later.  It was here that the 2nd Provisional Raider Regiment was disbanded and folded into the 1st Raider Regiment; Colonel Shapley was assigned as Commanding Officer with Puller serving as the executive officer.

Early in 1944, the Marine Corps fielded four combat divisions with two more in the process of formation.  Even with a half-million young Americans serving as Marines, there was insufficient manpower to operate  two new infantry divisions.  Large numbers of Marines were serving in defense battalions, parachute battalions, raider battalions, and amphibian tractor battalions.  With no further expansion of the Marine Corps being anticipated, the only way the Marine Corps could man these new divisions was to reorganize existing units.  The need for additional commando type organizations had not, by this time, materialized.  Technological development of amphibious tractors and improved fire support methods ended the need for specialized light assault units.

In effect, Marine Raiders performed the same missions as regular infantry battalions; the juxtaposition being that either the Raiders were wasting much needed infantry assault assets, or that, in lacking firepower, senior leadership were exposing the Marine Raiders to the possibility of unacceptably high casualties.

Also, at this time, there was considerable opposition to maintaining a commando force within the Marine Corps.  Simply stated, the Raiders weren’t cost effective.  The newly appointed Commandant of the Marine Corps, General Alexander Vandegrift (having commanded the 1stMarine Division on Guadalcanal) and General Gerald C. Thomas, the newly appointed Director of Plans and Policies at Headquarters Marine Corps, decided to disband the Marine Raiders.  This decision was supported by Admiral Ernest J. King, Chief of Naval Operations.  The Raider battalions were ordered deactivated on 8 January 1944 with their manpower being re-directed to the forming new divisions.

On 1 February 1944, the 1stRaider Regiment was redesignated as 4thMarine Regiment and folded into the 6thMarine Division.  The 1st, 4th, and 3rd Raider Battalions were re-designated as the first, second, and third battalions of the 4th Marines.  The 2nd Raider Battalion was re-designated as Weapons company, 4th Marines.  Nevertheless, Marines who had previously served as raiders served with distinction in later engagements; Sergeant Michael Strank, for example, formerly a raider, was one of the six Marines that participated in the flag raising at Iwo Jima.

During World War II, more than 8,000 men served with Marine Raider battalions.  Of these, seven raiders were awarded medals of honor [11], and 136 were awarded the Navy Cross.

The United States military has fielded special forces organizations since colonial times.  After the onset of World War II, these units supported combat operations within a specified theater of operations and were organic to and in general support of the major commands they served.  Examples include, Marine raiders, the First Special Service Force (Devil’s Brigade), Colonel Wendall Fertig’s Philippine Scouts, US Army Rangers, US Navy Underwater Demolition Teams (now called Navy SEALS), US Army Airborne and Special Forces regiments.

At no time prior to the 1975 Mayaguez Incident, however, did US Armed Services cross-train for the conduct joint special forces operations.  Following the 1980 disaster of Operation Eagle Claw, the failed attempt to rescue American diplomats during the Iran Hostage Crisis, the US Department of Defense began to re-evaluate its joint services special operations capabilities. In 1984, the Department of Defense established the Joint Special Operations Agency, but the agency exercised neither operational or command authority over any US special operations forces.  Readiness, capability, or joint-service policy and procedure remained insufficient to real-world contingency planning.

Creation of the United States Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) was not an easy undertaking, or rapid.  Nevertheless, the Defense Appropriations Bill of 1987 was signed into law in October 1986.  It was the intent of Congress to force the executive administration (and its DoD) to face up to the realities of past failures and emerging threats.  Moreover, the law required inter-service cooperation and established a single commander of all special operations forces with control over its own resources.

In 2005, the United States Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command (MARSOC) was established at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina as a component command of the US Special Operations Command.  It is the Marine Corps’ contribution to the Special Operations mission of the Department of Defense.  MARSOC capability includes direct action, special reconnaissance, foreign internal defense missions, and counter-terrorism operations.  Initially, subordinate organizations were designated the 1st and 2nd Marine Special Operations Battalions, with personnel drawn from the Marine Corps’ Force Reconnaissance community.

 Marine Raider 002In August 2014, the Commandant of the Marine Corps announced that all Marine Corps units within MARSOC would henceforth be known as Marine Raiders.  Today, the Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command consists of the Marine Raider Regiment.  Organic to the regiment is a headquarters company and three (3) Marine Raider Battalions (based at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina and Camp Pendleton, California), the Marine Raider Support Group (at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina) with a headquarters element and three Raider Support Battalions, and the Marine Special Operations School, (located at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina).  The base unit of MARSOC is a fourteen-man Marine Corps Special Operations Team (MSOT).  These teams are commanded by a captain, who is assisted by a Team Chief in the rank of master sergeant.  Each team consists of two identical squads (referred to as tactical elements), each of which is led by a gunnery sergeant as Element Leader.

I suppose that it is at this point that Marine Raiders might parrot Arnold Schwarzenegger in his role as the Terminator by saying, “We’re Back!”

Notes:

[1] Soon after FDR’s reelection in 1936, James Roosevelt was given a direct commission as a lieutenant colonel in the U. S. Marine Corps.  This caused public controversy for its obvious political implications.  In October 1939, after World War II broke out in Europe, James resigned his lieutenant colonel’s commission and was instead offered a commission to captain in the Marine Corps Reserve.  He went on active duty in November 1940 and was transferred to the Marine Raiders in January 1942.

[2] In 1940, Winston Churchill called for a force that could carry out raids against German-occupied Europe.  Commandos were initially formed within the British Army from individual volunteers for the Special Service Brigade (SSB). Eventually, British Commandos would include members of all branches of the British armed forces.  During World War II, the SSB reached a wartime strength of 30 units in four assault brigades.  After World War II, most commando units were disbanded, leaving only 3 Commando Brigade, Royal Marines with a commando role.

[3] Donovan became the director of the Office of Strategic Services (fore-runner of the Central Intelligence Agency) during World War II.

[4] It is interesting to me that Admiral Nimitz’ request for “commando units” came after the Carlson-Donovan proposal was submitted to President Roosevelt.

[5] Evans Carlson had nothing if not a colorful military career, which began prior to World War I.  He saw service in both the U. S. Army and the Marine Corps.  Having achieved the rank of captain in the Army field artillery, he resigned in 1921 and enlisted as a private in the Marine Corps in 1922. Eleven years later, Captain Carlson served as executive officer of the Marine Detachment at President Roosevelt’s vacation retreat at Warm Springs, Georgia where he became closely associated with the president and his son James.  Over time, Carlson developed far-left political views —which made him a lover of everything Chinese.  Carlson in fact organized and modeled his 2ndRaider Battalion on that of communist Chinese armies he had observed while stationed in China.  A famed Marine officer by the name of David M. Shoup once said of Carlson, “He may be a red, but he isn’t yellow.”

[6] Meaning teamwork

[7] Two medals of honor were awarded from this battle; one to Colonel Edson and the other to Major Kenneth D. Baily, commanding Company C, 1stRaider Battalion.

[8] Now known as Butaritari Island

[9] Captain Gerald P. Holtom, USMC; Sergeant Clyde Thomason, USMC (Posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor); Field Medic First Class Vernon L. Castle, USN; Corporal I. B. Earles, USMC; Corporal Daniel A. Gaston, USMC; Corporal Harris J. Johnson, USMC; Corporal Kenneth K. Kunkle, USMC; Corporal Edward Maciejewski, USMC; Corporal Robert B. Pearson, USMC; Corporal Mason O. Yarbrough, USMC; PFC William A. Gallagher, USMC; PFC Ashley W. Hicks, USMC; PFC Kenneth M. Montgomery, USMC; PFC Norman W. Mortensen, USMC; PFC Charles A. Selby, USMC; Private Carlyle O. Larson, USMC; Private Robert B. Maulding, USMC; Private Franklin M. Nodland, USMC; Private John E. Vandenberg, USMC

[10] Lieutenant General Alan Shapley (February 9, 1903 – May 13, 1973) survived the sinking of USS Arizona during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. He served with distinction in the Pacific theater and in the Korean War.  He was awarded the Silver Star Medal for gallantry on 7 December 1941, the Navy Cross for extraordinary heroism in the Battle of Guam, and ended his career as Commanding General, Fleet Marine Force, Pacific.

[11] Major Kenneth D. Baily, USMC; Corporal Richard E. Bush, USMC; Lieutenant Colonel Justice M. Chambers, USMC; Colonel Merritt A. Edson, USMC; Private First Class Henry Gurke, USMC; Sergeant Clyde A. Thomson, USMC; Gunnery Sergeant William G. Walsh, USMC; First Lieutenant Jack Lummus, USMC