The War Against the Corps — Part 3

(Continued from last week )

Toward the end of Part 2 of this title, we learned that in 1952, President Harry S. Truman officially acknowledged the U.S. Marine Corps as a separate service of the U.S. Armed Services, a co-equal member with the U.S. Navy within the Department of the Navy, with unique roles and missions.  Now, here it is 70 years later, and the question of the need for a U.S. Marine Corps remains under discussion.

Proceedings is a monthly magazine published by the United States Naval Institute.  Initially launched in 1874, it is one of the oldest continuously published periodicals in the United States.  The magazine covers such topics as global security and includes articles authored by military professionals and civilian experts, historians, and reader commentary.  About one-third of the articles appearing in Proceedings are written by active-duty military officers, a third-by retired military, and a third by civilians with an interest or expertise in some aspect of military or naval service.

In the December 2021 issue of Proceedings, Commander Norman R. Denny, U.S. Navy Reserve (Retired), reopened the subject of The War Against the Corps in his article titled How to Absorb the Marine Corps into the Army and Navy.  After summarizing the efforts of President Truman and U.S. Army generals George C. Marshal, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and Omar Bradley to disband America’s Marines, Commander Denny begins to offer recommendations about how it could be done.  He imagines that the process could most easily begin with U.S. Marine Corps aviation — because hardly anyone in the United States has any knowledge of Marine Air beyond watching the films Flying Leathernecks (1951) and The Great Santini (1979).

Rebutting Commander Denny’s article was U.S. Marine Corps Major Brian Kerg.  Major Kerg acknowledged Denny’s courage for tackling a topic rife with emotion and parochialism (Marines are protective of their Corps)[1] but very quickly illustrated how short Denny’s article was in offering a compelling case for disbanding the Marine Corps. 

Major Kerg opined that Denny over-estimated the Army and Navy’s capabilities to assume Marine Corps roles and missions.  To do so, both services would have to undergo massive structural changes.  But more to the point, Major Kerg demonstrated that the Marine Corps is one of the more adaptive of the six military services.[2]

As an example of Denny’s misjudgments, Major Kerg wrote, “Commander Denny claims that the Army can assume amphibious assault responsibilities because it performed this role at Normandy.  The Army did indeed conduct several impressive amphibious operations across the European Theater of Operations in World War II, Normandy being one of them.  But the Army was capable of doing this only because the units involved in those operations were manned, trained, and equipped for the task, and they worked closely with the Navy toward this aim.”[3]

Major Kerg is correct to point out that the U.S. Army today is incapable of performing these tasks.  Successful amphibious warfare operations (AWO) and capabilities require a unique organizational structure, complex support mechanisms, specialized equipment, years to develop AWO expertise, knowledge of naval gunfire support, close air support, knowing what to do — and as importantly, what not to do, and how to withdraw.  This knowledge is critical, but so too is the training queue for battalion landing teams of various configurations.  Could Army units be trained to assume Marine Corps roles and missions?  Yes, of course — but not without a significant loss to the Army’s primary mission capabilities.  Expertise in AWO is a perishable skill.

There is no service today that has been more involved in re-evaluating its roles and mission capabilities than the U. S. Marine Corps — and this has been an ongoing activity since the late 1800s.  It has not been uncommon for these evaluations and mission enhancement innovations to fall on deaf ears in the Army hierarchy.  Case in point … close air support.

Close Air Support

The first major surprise of the post-World War II years arrived in late June 1950 when the United States found itself responding to the crisis of the North Korean invasion of South Korea.  In response to urgent requests for American reinforcements from the Far East Command, and as a result of unit offerings and proposals from the United States, the 1st Provisional Marine Brigade activated on 7 July 1950.  The Brigade was an air-ground team built around the 5th Marine Regiment and Marine Aircraft Group-33.  The time and space factors in the activation of the brigade and its deployment to Korea were extraordinary.  These Marines were on their way to the Korean Peninsula within five to seven days — they were ready to fight.

In 1950, America’s young army conscript, serving occupation duty in Japan, was suddenly uprooted from his soft duty and sent to the Korean Peninsula.  It wasn’t long before NKPA forces ripped the U.S. combat battalions and regiments to shreds.  Knowledge of close air support might have saved thousands of lives, but U.S. Army ground commanders didn’t have that expertise, and the newly created U.S. Air Force didn’t have the aircraft, training, or interest to provide it.[4]

Only two services understood close air support (also, CAS): the U.S. Navy and U.S. Marine Corps.  They developed this strategy during World War II.  They attempted to share this knowledge with the U.S. Army Air Corps and the U.S. Army, but neither of these services expressed interest.  Why?  Because CAS wasn’t as glamorous as air-to-air battles.  This is an important story because it illustrates the uniqueness of the U.S. Marine Corps.  While constrained by lack of money and hindered by service opposition, the Marines became the most effective fighting organization in the post-World War II period.

During World War I, Marines used their aircraft in various ways, including a few missions of what could be termed CAS.  During the conflicts in Central America in the 1920s, Marine aviators flew reconnaissance and logistical missions to support ground forces.  But it wasn’t until a group of Nicaraguan rebels surrounded thirty-seven leathernecks in Ocotal that Marine aircraft were placed into a CAS role.  Major Russell Rowell led a flight of five De Havilland biplanes from Managua and dropped small bombs on the Nicaraguans, and inflicted enough damage to relieve the surrounded Marines below. These actions set the stage for testing CAS doctrine, which was not written into the Marine Corps Tentative Landing Operations Manual until 1935.

This early attempt to standardize the combined use of forces during amphibious assaults designated naval air priorities as (1) establishing air superiority and (2) supporting the ground forces.  At first, Marine aircraft augmented Navy air operations, but then, as airfields became available ashore, Marines would begin to operate their aircraft from land.  The use of aircraft in the air superiority role over the landing force was the priority, but the manual did not identify the means to establish command and control of aircraft by the landing force commander’s staff.  It was thus necessary to refine amphibious assault tactics and techniques.  Such training exercises, designated Fleet Landing Force Exercises, were held in Virginia, Puerto Rico, and California long before the United States’ involvement in World War II.  These exercises rectified many problems and established basic tactics for the assaulting forces but did not address the Navy and Marine doctrine shortcomings concerning CAS.

The amphibious assault on Guadalcanal on 7 August 1942 was the Marines’ first major combat action of World War II.  The 1st Marine Division (1stMarDiv), then commanded by Major General Archibald A. Vandegrift, fought savage jungle battles under extremely harsh tropical conditions to seize the Japanese airfield near the island’s north shore. The plan for air support called for Navy aircraft from the USS Saratoga, USS Enterprise, and USS Wasp to provide air cover for the landing force.  In accordance with prewar doctrines, naval aviation planners prioritized providing air defense over the fleet with no detailed provision for CAS after making the initial assault.

This method of CAS employment resulted from several flaws in existing doctrine and plans. Major General Vandegrift captured the lessons learned from the battle for Guadalcanal in his action report to the Navy Department and provided several recommendations to correct them — most of which were implemented before the Gilbert Islands operations.

During the assault landings at Tarawa in the Gilbert chain in November 1943, air liaison parties (ALPs) were attached to the ground commanders to assist in selecting and identifying targets for CAS.  Air coordinators (the precursor to modem-day Forward Air Controllers, or FACs) were employed to observe the progress of Marines on the ground and identify the target locations for the CAS pilots before their arrival.  The plan also included moving the air command and control element from ship to shore after the tactical situation on the island permitted.  All support was to come from carrier-based aircraft.  These CAS plans were put into action with improved effect.  Compared to the battle on Guadalcanal, CAS used on Tarawa was substantially more effective.

Now, when the U.S. Army invaded Luzon Island in the Philippines in January 1945, close air support for the 1st Cavalry Division was provided by Marine Air Group-24 (MAG-24).  The air group deployed ALPs and established flexible command and control procedures that allowed Army ground commanders to employ Marine aircraft as an integrated maneuver arm.  The result was an effective, responsive, and flexible air-ground team.[5]

Unfortunately, the U.S. Army retained none of these CAS lessons or methods.  By the time the Korean War broke out, both the USAF (formerly USAAC) and the USA had lost all corporate memory of this vital ground combat support element.  Is the U.S. Army capable of assuming any of the Marine Corps’ national defense capabilities?  My answer is no because the capacity of the U.S. Air Force to provide close air support to ground forces is (and has always been) inadequate.[6]

The foregoing doesn’t simply identify a regrettable attitude among supposedly “professional” career military personnel, it also underscores a major difference in service culture.  Marines are always looking for a better way to deliver top-notch defense to the American people.  The question always is, “How can we do it better at less cost to the American taxpayer?”

Future of the Corps

The Marine Corps delivers far more in defensive capabilities than is allocated to it by the Congress of the United States.  The Marine Corps’ share of the Defense Budget is roughly 4%.  The Marine Corps provides a third of the nation’s defense capabilities.

With that said, the answer to the foregoing question is never an easy one.  Much thinking goes into “better at less cost,” along with more than a few professional disagreements.  One of these “disagreements” has recently found its way to the newspapers. 

In 2019, the Commandant of the Marine Corps promulgated his planning guidance for the Fiscal Year 2032.  This document outlined his five priorities: force design, warfighting, education and training, core values, and command and leadership.  Why would he publish goals and objectives ten years hence?  General David H. Berger answers, “We must communicate with precision and consistency, based on a common focus and a unified message.  What is abundantly clear is that the future operating environment will place heavy demands on our Nation’s Naval Services.  The Marine Corps will be trained and equipped as a naval expeditionary force-in-readiness and prepared to operate inside actively contested maritime spaces to support fleet operations.


General Berger’s plan for the future includes —

• Elimination of three infantry battalions from the current 24, a 14% reduction in frontline combat strength.

• Reduction of each remaining battalion by 200 Marines, taking an additional 4,200 infantry Marines from the frontline combat capabilities.

• Elimination of two reserve-component infantry battalions of the present eight, a 25% reduction of combat strength.

• Elimination of 16 cannon artillery battalions, a 76% reduction, to be replaced by 14 rocket artillery battalions, for use in “successful naval campaigns.”

• Elimination of all the tanks in the Marine Corps, even from the reserves.

• Elimination of three of the current 17 medium tilt-rotor squadrons, three of the eight heavy-lift helicopter squadrons, and “at least” two of the seven light attack helicopter squadrons, which were termed “unsuitable for maritime challenges.”

If General Berger’s plan was primarily designed to return the Marines to their traditional naval roots after two decades of combat operations ashore, assuming the Army’s land warfare mission, then it is a discussion that has become long overdue.  The question now arises, has Berger gone too far?

Does everyone agree with Berger’s “momentous changes” to the structure of the Marine Corps?  No, not by far.  One who does not agree is former Secretary of the Navy, former U.S. Senator, and former Marine Corps infantry officer Jim Webb.  In a recent WSJ Opinion (25 March 2022), Senator Webb tells us that among Marines who know what they’re talking about, there are serious questions about the wisdom and long-term risk of dramatic reductions in the Marine Corps’ force structure, weapons systems, and manpower levels in units that, when committed to combat, would take heavy casualties.  In Webb’s opinion, this is not a time for unilateral decision-making on matters that will have such a dramatic impact on the combat readiness of the U.S. Marine Corps.

Mr. Webb reminds us, “The unique and irreplaceable mission of the Marine Corps is to provide a homogeneous, all-encompassing “force in readiness” that can go anywhere and fight anyone on any level short of nuclear war. The corps has fought many political battles to preserve that mission but never from within — until now.  More than a few retired senior Marine officers are unhappy with Berger’s plan for the future, and why such discussions are necessary on matters ten years into the future is the costs involved in putting that structure together.  That process begins now.

Senator Webb explains his angst: “After several unsuccessful attempts by retired senior officers to engage in a quiet dialogue with Gen. Berger, the gloves have now come off.  The traditional deference has been replaced by a sense of duty to the Marine Corps and its vital role in our national security.  Recently, 22 retired four-star Marine generals signed a nonpublic letter of concern to Gen. Berger, and many others have stated their support of the letter.  A working group of 17 retired generals was formed to communicate [their] concerns to national leaders. One highly respected retired three-star general estimated to me that ‘the proportion of retired general officers who are gravely concerned about the direction of the Corps in the last two and a half years would be above 90 percent.’”

In his open letter/opinion, Senator Webb emphasizes general agreement among retired senior officers that Berger is taking the Corps in the wrong direction and reminds us, “There is not much time to stop the potential damage to our national security. Questions should be raised. The law does not give the commandant of the Marine Corps carte blanche to make significant changes in force structure. Title 10 provides that the commandant perform his duties “subject to the authority, direction, and control of the Secretary of the Navy,” and that the Navy secretary “has the authority necessary to conduct all affairs of the Department of the Navy including. . . . organizing,” but “subject to the authority, direction, and control of the Secretary of Defense.”


We have in the foregoing discussion two examples of “professional discourse.”  In the first, where Commander Denny proposes doing away with the U.S. Marine Corps — for reasons that lack a satisfactory explanation — Major Brian Kerg (of the Marines) first encourages worthy dialogue among professions and then dismantles Denny’s argument because it lacks any substance.  To Kerg, I say, Well done, Major.

We also have a separate (albeit related) opinion, offered by former Navy Secretary Jim Webb, which illuminates the kind of professional dialogue that has been going on inside the Marine Corps for the past 100 years.  The American people deserve their Corps of Marines, and at this stage in our nation’s history, the Marines have well demonstrated they have earned the right to a fair and full examination of their contributions to the Nation’s defense.  What makes Webb’s discussion unusual is that it questions not only certain decisions, but the unwillingness of the decision-maker to engage in a worthwhile dialogue, as well.  Why wouldn’t the Commandant of the Marine Corps be interested in what retired senior officers have to say?[7]   

We know that the Marine Corps continues to evolve — as it should.  Marines are no longer armed with “Brown Bess” rifles, for example.  Times change and the American military must change with it.  The Navy and Marine Corps have been an evolving force for good since the end of the American Civil War — and in doing so, prove their worthiness within our national security structure.  What more could our nation want from its Marines?  I will say that given the Marine Corps’ cost-effective contribution to the security of the United States no reasonably intelligent person would want to disband the Marine Corps or place the force structure into a position where it is likely to fail.


  1. Kerg, B.  Rebuttal to How to Absorb the Marine Corps into the Army and Navy.  U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings December 2021.
  2. Denny, N. R.  How to Absorb the Marine Corps into the Army and Navy.  Military,com.,
  3. Commandant’s Planning Guidance, 38th Commandant of the Marine Corps, online resource.
  4. Webb, J.  “Momentous Changes in the U.S. Marine Corps’ Force Organization Deserve Debate,” Wall Street Journal — opinion, 25 March 2022. 
  5. Rogan, T.  “The Marines Are Reforming to Prepare for War With China,” The Wall Street Journal, 4 April 2022.


[1] Which is not something found in abundance in any of the other military services.

[2] Lieutenant Colonel Earl Hancock (Pete) Ellis (1880-1923) was one of the more innovative officers in Marine Corps history.  He was an intelligence officer, author of Operation Plan 712: Advanced Base Operations in Micronesia, and the essential elements for training Marine Corps officer candidates at Quantico, Virginia.  See also: Pete Ellis, Oracle.

[3] See also: Marines and Operation Torch.  Senior officers such as Colonel Homer L. Litzenberg USMC (of Chosen Reservoir fame) were responsible for training U.S. Army commands and troops in the art and science of amphibious operations. 

[4] See also: The Fire Brigade.

[5] But why Marines and not navy pilots?  Every Marine Corps officer is first and foremost a ground combat officer.  The Marine pilot knows what the ground troops are going through.  Navy and Air Force pilots haven’t a clue.

[6] Defense Technical Information Center, Final Report, Army Command & General Staff College. 

[7] I won’t suggest to anyone that General Berger has a personality defect, but I will say that he appears excessively focused on the possibility of a future Sino-American war.  I hope that never happens, but if it does, such an event will require far more than an amphibious force of a few battalions of U.S. Marines.  I also hope General Berger’s public obsession with China doesn’t make relations worse between the U.S. and China. 

The War Against the Corps — Part 2

(Continued from last week)

Post-War National Defense Realignment

Following World War II, President Truman (known to harbor anti-Navy and anti-Marine Corps sentiments) directed a realignment of the U.S. defense structure.  Unifying the Army and Marine Corps became a principal effort from the White House down through the Department of War.

Marine Corps Commandant General Alexander A. Vandegrift was well-aware of the behind-the-scenes finagling by Army senior officers.  The Commandant appointed Brigadier General Gerald C. Thomas as his representative in the matter of defense realignment.  According to these initial discussions, Thomas reported that the Army planned to retain their “prerogative” to decide the U.S. Marine Corps’ roles, missions, structures, programs, and budgets — without Congressional oversight.  General Thomas believed that the future of the Corps was in grave peril.

Certain Marine Corps officers almost immediately began creating a defensive strategy.  Their justification for this direct action was, essentially, that “Marine Corps relations with Congress in 1944–1947 were based on the premise that the Corps’ existence as a balanced force of arms depended upon Congress recognizing the need for diverse military forces and military innovation. Traditionally, this recognition had come from Congress.”

The Army’s unification plan also threatened the Navy.  Leaders of the newly created U.S. Air Force argued that, for economy and efficiency, land-based naval aviation should become part of the USAF.  Secretary Forrestal quickly formed a committee under the leadership of Vice Admiral Arthur W. Radford.  Admiral Radford, in turn, assigned Brigadier General Merritt A. “Red Mike” Edson (Guadalcanal legend) to serve as the Marine Corps representative to Secretary Forrestal’s committee.

Meanwhile, General Vandegrift formed a research/action committee headed by Colonel Merrill B. Twining, and which included Lieutenant Colonel Victor H. Krulak.  The committee referred to itself as the “Chowder Society.”

Once Eisenhower became Army Chief of Staff, he initiated a long series of anti-Marine Corps essays that Colonel Twining regarded as a “felonious assault” on the exceptional combat record of the Corps.  Twining noted that Eisenhower’s essays “unprofessionally” belittled and demeaned the Marine Corps — even as he knew that Marines were fighters, amphibious warfare experts, and thoroughly dedicated to completing their missions.  Eisenhower knew this because Marines supported Eisenhower in the European Theater of Operations in World War II.  Eisenhower had Marines on his staff, they trained the Army’s divisions in the art and science of amphibious warfare, and they fought behind the lines as members of the OSS.  In attacking the Marines, General Eisenhower was at least disingenuous and, at worst scurrilous.

If Eisenhower had had his way, the new defense structure would limit Marine Corps operations to small naval raids, minor landings, and navy security duties.  Eisenhower argued that Army operations in World War II demonstrated that the Army could “do amphibious operations” as well as the Marine Corps; he apparently forgot that Marines not only trained the army in amphibious operations, but they also wrote the Army’s amphibious warfare doctrine.

During testimony before the House of Representatives, General Vandegrift argued for a Fleet Marine Force — as a matter of logic.  In Twining’s view (having helped prepare Vandegrift for his testimony), the Commandant’s remarks were innocuous — yet inspired nasty articles by “Army operatives” directed at a man who only a few short years before had been awarded the Medal of Honor.

Meanwhile, because Admiral Radford wouldn’t “play ball” with those seeking to destroy the Marine Corps, Secretary Forrestal removed him as Chairman of the Navy Board and replaced him with Vice Admiral Forrest Sherman. Radford’s removal was a brutal blow for the Marines because Sherman would do anything to become Chief of Naval Operations — anything at all.

Following Admiral Radford’s removal, the Marines were on their own.  They had no allies among the post-war Navy brass.  If Sherman harbored an intense dislike for Marines, it was nothing compared to Colonel Twining’s loathing contempt for Sherman.

Despite Forrestal’s earlier laudatory comments about the Battle of Iwo Jima, Colonel Twining suspected that he’d turned his back on the Marines to become the first Secretary of Defense.  James Forrestal did become the first Secretary of Defense but committed suicide in May 1949 after suffering a mental breakdown.

Admiral Sherman did become CNO and, absent Admiral Radford, the Corps’ only chance for survival was to go directly to the Congress on the issue of whether or not the United States needed its Corps of Marines.  Americans love their Marines, but because it is not a sentiment shared by every politician, the Chowder Society turned to the press.[1]

The American press was happy to take up the Marine Corps’ cause, and their support resulted in overwhelming popular support for the Marine Corps.  Truman, who was soon beside himself with all the Corps’ public support, realized that his unification bill could not pass in Congress.  He deferred the matter of Army-Marine Corps unification until 1947.  Following Vandegrift’s testimony in Congress, President Truman summoned him to the White House and threatened him with severe repercussions if he continued to oppose the unification effort.  Disappointingly, Vandegrift subsequently became a wallflower on this issue.

The new legislative session began in January 1947.  The White House, War Department, and Navy Department were all lined up against the Marine Corps.  A senate bill supported the unification measure.  Vandegrift was walking on eggshells, so the task of attacking the bill fell upon Brigadier General Merritt Edson.  Edson appeared before the Senate Armed Services Committee wearing his Medal of Honor, two Navy Cross medals, his Silver Star, two Legions of Merit, and the U.K.’s Distinguished Service Order.

Edson, in his testimony, relied upon a speech he and Krulak had prepared for Vandegrift — and then added his own two cents along the way.  Edson tore into the bill’s proposed centralized defense structure as a worrisome measure leaning toward dictatorship, reminiscent of the discredited German General Staff.  He contrasted the long American tradition of civilian control with the concentration of military power in one individual.  He condemned the anti-Marine bias in the highly classified JCS-1478 paper, which remained classified and unavailable to the Senate.  Despite Edson’s courageous effort, he lost that battle. 

The People’s House

Pursuing a “by hook or crook” strategy, pro-Army members of Congress passed the Senate Bill to a known isolationist named Clare Hoffman.  The pro-Army cabal was betting that Hoffman had little-to-no interest in military affairs.  If that were the case, Hoffman would likely refer the Senate Bill to a subcommittee under the chairmanship of pro-Army member James Wadsworth.  Colonel Twining, who was never without an opinion, believed that Wadsworth was more than pro-Army; he was anti-Marine Corps.

However, Representative Hoffman happened to be a friend of the father of a member of the Chowder Society.  Rather than referring the bill to a subcommittee, Hoffman retained the bill and assembled a coalition of pro-Marine Corps representatives to consider it.

The committee battered witnesses called to testify with pointed questions about the concentration of power within the office of the Secretary of Defense, the danger of the JCS becoming German-style general staff, and the attendant usurpation of the authority of Congress.  The committee validated the Chowder Society’s contentions when Hoffman demanded that the Chairman JCS provide the classified 1478 document.

General Vandegrift’s eventual appearance before the committee turned out to be critical to the outcome of the hearing.  Hoffman had a hand in developing the protective amendments (drafted by the Chowder Society) that were presented earlier to the committee.  When Hoffman asked for Vandegrift’s opinion about those amendments, Vandegrift said he was in favor.  In expressing his assent, Vandegrift assumed Hoffman referred to the mild protective amendments rejected by the Senate, which he also proposed in the House.  This was an error that also escaped the attention of Vandergrift’s lawyer.  According to Lieutenant Colonel Krulak, “Whether Hoffman realized the confusion but chose to let the effect stand is unclear.  What is clear is that Knighton (Vandergrift’s attorney) later clarified, for the record, that the Commandant’s testimony concurred with the amendments.”

Another unexpected success occurred during General Eisenhower’s testimony.  After emphatically denying that the Marine Corps had reason to suspect the Army of conspiring to disband the Marine Corps, Hoffman asked him to explain his anti-Marine comments within the JCS-1478 document.  Eisenhower had nothing more to say.

The House committee was a Marine Corps success, but what was needed was a spectacular denunciation of the pending bill.  There was no one better qualified than General Edson, whose statement went far beyond his previous senate testimony.  Hammering the point that civilian control was necessary at the highest levels, he warned that “there can be a monopoly within the military field, just as there can be a monopoly within the industrial or commercial field, and with the same suppressive effects.”

After delivering his address, General Edson retired from active duty.  He was not the only casualty.  Vandegrift also reassigned Brigadier General Thomas to an overseas assignment.  Twining and Krulak believed that General Vandegrift intended to “curb the colonels” by getting rid of the one general officer who understood the seriousness of the Army’s war against the Marine Corps.  General Thomas was disgusted with Vandegrift and believed that the Commandant had lost his moral courage.

A revised bill passed the House, and Truman signed the compromise, which read in part, “The United States Marine Corps, within the Department of the Navy, shall include land combat and service forces and such aviation as may be organic therein. The primary mission of the Marine Corps shall be to provide fleet marine forces of combined arms, together with supporting air components, for service with the fleet in the seizure and defense of advanced naval bases and for the conduct of such land operations as may be essential to the prosecution of a naval campaign.”

The Fight gets Nasty

The National Security Act of 1947 did somewhat unite the armed services.  Yet, despite provisions that recognized the Marine Corps’ unique position as an amphibious force in readiness, the act did not clearly define the service’s status within the Navy Department, and the Commandant still lacked direct access to the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS).  Consequently, the Marine Corps remained vulnerable to the dictates of the other services relative to the Marine Corps’ composition, resources, and operations — and lacked the power to respond to adverse decisions taken outside the Marine Corps.

After succeeding Vandegrift as Commandant in January 1948, General Clifton B. Cates was forced to confront this difficult situation.  In March 1948, at a conference in Key West, Florida, the first Secretary of Defense, James V. Forrestal, met with the service chiefs to settle their respective roles and missions.  General Cates was not invited to the meeting.  Instead, CNO Admiral Louis E. Denfeld represented the interests of the Marine Corps as part of the Navy.  The group concluded the next “most likely war” would be against the Soviet Union in Europe and that the Army and Air Force would need substantial reinforcement to fight it. To obtain the necessary funds while controlling military costs, they sought economies elsewhere — that is, reduced funding for the Marines, whose expertise in amphibious warfare the service chiefs considered nonessential in the new world order.

The agreement that emerged from the Key West meeting included an understanding that, in the event of war, the Secretary of Defense “would only allow” four Marine infantry divisions (fewer than the six fielded during World War II and far fewer than the Corps’ mobilization capability).  Additionally, that no Marine officer would be given a tactical command above the level of an infantry corps.  Although hardly necessary given the other limitations, the agreement prohibited the Marines from creating a second land army.  Cates protested (in vain) that making such decisions without his participation as Commandant violated the 1947 National Security Act’s intent and harmed the Marine Corps’ ability to fulfill its amphibious mission.  He later told a reporter that his biggest worry was keeping the Marine Corps alive, adding, “There are lots of people here in Washington who want to prevent that, who want to reduce us to the status of Navy policemen or get rid of us entirely.”

Such was politics in the Truman administration that Truman and his acolytes determined that if he could not win the fight by hook, then he’d do it by crook: he would simply defund the Marine Corps until it had no practical purpose — but to appear as if he merely needed to re-channel appropriations to other departments, he also cut funding to the Army, Air Force, and Navy.

In March 1949, dissatisfied with the pace of defense cuts, President Truman fired Defense Secretary James Forrestal.  To replace Forrestal, Truman nominated his long-time crony, Louis A. Johnson.  Johnson was anti-military anyway, but if he couldn’t get rid of the Corps, he’d pare it down to a bare-bones operation.  As a cost-cutting measure, Johnson hoped that the Army would absorb the Marine Corps ground forces, that the Air Force would absorb Marine Corps aviation assets, and the Navy would simply “go away.”  However, Johnson’s first revelation was that all of his proposals were illegal without Congressional approval.  General Merrill B. Twining later explained, “He [Johnson] made Cliff Cates’ life miserable, treated him with contempt.  Cates hated him, and he hated Cates and the Marine Corps.”

President Truman had also learned how to reign in his service secretaries.  He obtained an amendment to the National Security Act that made the Department of Defense a single executive department, with the service secretaries subordinate to Johnson.  The National Security Act also created the position of JCS Chairman as principal military advisor to the President/Secretary of Defense.  The first officer to serve as JCS Chairman was General Omar N. Bradley, who was no friend of the U.S. Marine Corps.  Bradley made sure that the JCS remained glacially hostile to the Marine Corps.

Tensions between the armed services grew during 1949, erupting in the “Revolt of the Admirals.” To cover the considerable cost of the Air Force’s new B-36 long-range bomber program, Secretary Johnson canceled the construction of the Navy’s supercarrier, the USS United States.  Several senior admirals, as well as Navy Secretary Sullivan, resigned in protest.  President Truman replaced Sullivan with Francis Matthews, a politician without scruples or any naval background and completely unsympathetic to the Marine Corps.

By late 1949, interservice discord in the United States was palpable — at least sufficient to justify the intervention of the House Armed Services Committee.  Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) Louis E. Denfeld (and other active duty and retired admirals) testified on behalf of the Navy.  General Twining remembered, “Denfeld went over there and told them what sort of heels Matthews, Johnson, and company were.”

General Cates appeared before the committee, as well — offering support for the Navy and supporting his Marines.  He protested the lack of “adequate representation in matters of vital concern both to the Corps itself and the National defense.”  

During his testimony, General Cates noted that former Navy Secretary Sullivan had wanted the Commandant of the Marine Corps to participate in the JCS during discussions involving the Corps and then offered a biting rebuke of Secretary Johnson and the JCS, protesting that “the power of the budget, the power of coordination, and the power of strategic direction of the armed forces have been used as devices to destroy the operating forces of the Marine Corps.”

The House committee also heard from Secretary Johnson: “I cannot see need or justification for giving the Commandant of the Marine Corps a special role which is not accorded to the chiefs of various other arms and services which are considered integral parts of the Army, Navy and Air Force, respectively.”[2]  JCS Chairman Omar Bradley, genius that he was, rejected the need for amphibious operations in future wars.

Although Navy Secretary Francis P. Matthews promised that those who testified could speak freely, Truman demanded Denfeld’s resignation and demoted the other admirals.  Cates was protected by Johnson, who convinced Matthews that action against the Commandant would create a political disaster.

Truman replaced Admiral Denfeld with Admiral Forrest P. Sherman as CNO.  General Twining summed Sherman up in this way: “It wasn’t so much that Sherman was anti-Marine as he was so tremendously egotistical and pro-Sherman, and the Marine Corps simply got in his way.”

Intent on asserting his authority over the Commandant, Sherman obtained authorization from Johnson “to have a free hand in matters regarding the organization and training of the Marine divisions.” Viewing Marine Corps Headquarters as another bureau of the Navy Department, Sherman attempted to interpose himself between General Cates and Navy Secretary Matthews.

January 1950 was bleak for the Marine Corps.  After two years of forced cuts, Johnson and Matthews directed an additional one-third cut to Marine Corps manpower — fewer than 24,000 officers and men, a reduction from 11 to 6 infantry battalions (two regiments), from 23 to 12 aviation squadrons.  Additionally, Johnson cut funding for training, equipment, weapons, munitions, and supplies.  Johnson wouldn’t allow the Marines to equip or train.  Admiral Sherman assigned the bulk of the Navy’s amphibious ships to the Army for training, which limited the Marine Corps’ ability to ready its own combat forces.

As three years before, the Corps’ best hope to avoid being defunded into oblivion was its relationship with the Congress.  Convinced of the correctness of the Marine’s stated cause, Democratic Representative Carl Vinson introduced a bill to extend membership on the JCS to the Marine Commandant.  Although the measure failed, editorials in the Hearst press generated much public support for the Marines. Two unexpected events would turn that burgeoning public support into an irresistible tide.

Bullets and Indiscretion

The outbreak of the Korean War on 25 June 1950 (Korean time) disproved General Bradley’s expectation about the United States’ next war: it wasn’t with the Soviet Union.  The Truman administration was utterly unprepared for new hostilities.  None of the U.S. Armed Forces was ready for combat.  General Cates offered what ground and air forces the Marine Corps had at their disposal.  The CNO (with the President’s concurrence) authorized the Commandant to activate the Marine Corps Reserve.  Suddenly, President Truman needed Marines.

President Truman had more than a few political foes in Congress — none more so than Republican Congressman G. L. McDonough, who continually wrote letters to President Truman reminding him how the U.S. Marine Corps has repeatedly rushed to the nation’s defense.  He may have been picking at the President’s scab when he reminded the president that as Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, the president could give the Commandant of the Marine Corps a seat on the JCS.

President Truman responded, in writing: “For your information, the Marine Corps is the Navy’s police force, and as long as I am President, that is what it will remain.” McDonough had irritated Truman, particularly in light of the overwhelming public support accorded to the Marine, because the president continued, “They [the Marines] have a propaganda machine almost the equal of Stalin’s.” Then, making his attitude even clearer, Truman continued: “When the Marine Corps goes into the Army, it works with and for the Army, and that is the way it should be.  The Chief of Naval Operations is the Chief of Staff of the Navy of which the Marines are a part.”

Truman’s intemperate letter to McDonough was a gift to the Republican Party — and the Marine Corps.

McDonough didn’t send the letter to the press; he published it in the Congressional Record.  Journalists picked it up from there, and then the wire services.  Within a short time, Truman’s letter appeared in every major newspaper in the country — and the public reaction was anger. “Their” Marines were fighting in Korea, and the President had the gall to equate them with the communist, Joseph Stalin.  Republicans in Congress ripped into Truman, including Senator Joseph McCarthy.  Syndicated pundits piled on — Truman’s leadership was mediocre.

President Truman’s aides recognized a political disaster when they saw one.  They hastily prepared a letter of apology that the President personally handed to General Cates at the White House, with a copy released to the press.  The Marine Corps League was meeting in Washington at the time and had demanded an apology for the slur; it was decided that Truman would appear there beside Cates. Truman’s apology quieted matters, but he was severely chastened and forced to recognize the strength of public support for the Marines.

Victory for the Corps

In September 1950, the 1st Marine Division made a successful amphibious assault at Inchon, South Korea.  This was the strategy General Bradley had asserted would never again be used in modern warfare — and one that would not work at Inchon.  Along with their successful landing, the Marines score still another victory.  As later explained by Lieutenant General Victor H. Krulak, “We received some surprising news. President Truman, under heavy fire for the lack of preparedness of American forces . . . and tired of Louis Johnson’s squabbling . . . marched his defense secretary down the plank.  Johnson was fired, and there was genuine rejoicing.  There seemed in this some just retribution.”

But the Marines had a powerful ally in the Army, as well.  Early in the war, special Presidential Envoy Major General Frank E. Lowe visited Korea on a fact-finding tour.  His report to Truman severely criticized U.S. Army leadership, training doctrine, and combat performance un as acceptable.  In contrast, he wrote of the Marines, “The First Marine Division is the most efficient and courageous combat unit I have ever seen or heard of.” General Lowe recommended, as a matter of policy, that the mission to conduct all future amphibious operations be assigned to the U.S. Navy and U.S. Marine Corps, that the government recognize the Marine Corps as the nation’s force in readiness, and permanently structured with three divisions and three air wings.

Considering the public reaction to Truman’s letter, the Marine’s exceptional performance in Korea, and General Lowe’s enthusiastic endorsements, the Marine Corps gained the support of influential members of Congress: Senator Paul Douglas (D), Representatives Carl Vinson, and Mike Mansfield.[3]  Douglas introduced a Senate Bill calling for four permanent Marine divisions and four air wings, membership in the JCS, and the creation of an Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Marine Corps affairs.  Mike Mansfield prepared a similar bill in the House, and the 82nd Congress considered and passed a compromise measure in 1952.

Public Law 416: To fix the personnel strength of the United States Marine Corps and to establish the relationship of the Commandant of the Marine Corps to the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Be it enacted by the Senate and House Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, that the first sentence of Section 206 (c) of the National Security Act of 1947 is hereby amended to read as follows: “The United States Marine Corps, within the Department of the Navy, shall be so organized as to include not less than three combat divisions and three air wings, and such other land combat, aviation, and other services as may be organic therein, and except in time of war or national emergency hereafter declared by the Congress, the personnel strength of the Regular Marine Corps shall be maintained at not more than four hundred thousand.”

Section 2: Section 211 (a) of the National Security Act of 1947 (61 STAT 505), as amended, is hereby further amended by adding at the end thereof the following new paragraph: “The Commandant of the Marine Corps shall indicate to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff any matter scheduled for consideration by the Joint Chiefs of Staff which directly concerns the United States Marine Corps.  Unless the Secretary of Defense, upon request from the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff for a determination, determines that such matter does not concern the United States Marine Corps, the Commandant of the Marine Corps shall meet with the Joint Chiefs of Staff when such matters under consideration by them and on such occasion and with respect to such matter, the Commandant of the Marine Corps shall have co-equal status with the members of the Joint Chief of Staff.”

President Truman signed these amendments into law.  As important was recognizing that the Marine Corps was a separate armed service with specific roles and missions.  The legislation elevated the Commandant of the Marine Corps to the same level as the Chief of Naval Operations, with equal access to the Secretary of the Navy and Secretary of Defense.  The first Commandant to take a seat on the JCS was General Cates successor, General Lemuel C. Shepherd.  The CMC became a regular, full-time member of the JCS in 1978. 

Today, the U.S. Marine Corps has three infantry divisions, three air wings, and three combat logistics groups.  We still have the combat power as we did in World War I, World War II, the Korean War, and the Viet Nam War … and the same kind of courageous young men as we always have had, since 1775.  What the Marine Corps is lacking today is quality leadership at its highest echelons.  Replacing the giants of the Marine Corps’ combat history are poor managers and exceptional politicians.  See also: We’ll All Die as Marines Blog.

(Continued next week)


  1. Biles, R.  Crusading Liberal: Paul H. Douglas of Illinois.  The Standard Biography, 2002.
  2. Cook, J. F.  Carl Vinson: Patriarch of the Armed Forces.  Mercer University Press, 2004.
  3. Coram, R.  Brute: The Life of Victor Krulak, U.S. Marine Corps.  Little, Brown, 2010.
  4. Hoffman, J. T.  Once a Legend: Red Mike Edson of the Marine Raiders.  Presidio Press, 1994.
  5. Keiser, G. W.  The U.S. Marine Corps and Defense Unification, 1944-1947: The Politics of Survival.  National Defense Unification Press, 1982.
  6. Krulak, V. H.  First to Fight: An Inside View of the U.S. Marine Corps. Naval Institute Press, 1984.
  7. Millett, A. R.  In Many a Strife: General Gerald C. Thomas and the U.S. Marine Corps, 1917-1956.  Naval Institute Press, 1993.
  8. Oberdorfer, D.  Senator Mike Mansfield: The Extraordinary Life of a Great American Statesman and Diplomat.  Smithsonian Books, 2003.
  9. Rems, A.  Semper Fidelis: Defending the Marine Corps. U.S. Naval Institute, 2017.
  10. Twining, M. B.  No Bended Knee: The Memoir of General Merill B. Twining.  Presidio Press, 1996.


[1] This was at a time when the United States had a patriotic press. 

[2] According to Robert Heinl, Louis Johnson viewed the Marine Corps as no more separate from the Navy than the Veterinary Corps.

[3] Both Douglas and Mansfield served as United States Marines; Mansfield in World War I, and Douglas in World War II.

The War Against the Corps — Part 1


In 1775, the population of the British Colonies was 2.4 million people.  It sounds like a large number, but it wasn’t.  About a third were fiercely loyal to the British Crown from that seemingly large number.  Another third, at least initially, had no interest in the moaning between loyalists and patriots.  When the Continental Congress authorized George Washington to assemble an army in defense of the American colonies, there were only around 40.000 “able-bodied” men to serve as an armed force — including those associated with colonial militias.  When Congress decided to establish a naval power, Washington well-understood the necessity, but he did not understand the need to create the Continental Marine Corps.  Two battalions of men raised to serve as marines meant two fewer battalions available to General Washington’s field army.

The issue of Army vs. Marines has always been one of service rivalry.  It’s not about their respective missions; they’ve always had a different task.  But it was always about funding.  For every dollar Congress allocated to the Navy and Marines, there was one less dollar for the Continental Army.  There was not a lot of money back then.

With no interest in maintaining a standing army after the Revolutionary War, the U.S. Congress disbanded the Continental Navy and Marine Corps and all but a small army force to address hostilities with native populations.  As conflicts with Indians increased, Congress authorized the establishment of a brigade-sized unit designated the Legion of the United States.  After that, the size of the U.S. Army was dependent upon congressional funding and the demand for frontier defense.  Congress established the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps in 1798 to address the Quasi-war with France, and later, the Barbary Coast wars.

While the Army conducted land engagements during the War of 1812, Marines performed their traditional role aboard U.S. Navy ships.  Afterward, Army and Marine Corps units fought together during the Seminole and Creek Indian Wars.

The role of the Marines during the American Civil War was small, although not entirely insignificant.  Still, the fact was that Army units participated in more of the Union’s riverine operations than Marines.  It wasn’t until the Spanish-American War that the Marine Corps demonstrated its capabilities as an amphibious force in projecting Navy power ashore.

Some Background

In 1913, the United States Army consisted of around 127,000 officers and men, its size wholly inadequate to the prosecution of a land war.  The First World War began in 1914; the grueling task of building a world-class army took the United States three years and considerable sums of money.  In 1917, comparatively few Army officers or NCOs had any conventional combat experience — and those with service in hostile environments confronted unconventional battles with native Americans or Philippine insurgents.

Despite its small size, the U. S. Marine Corps was composed of officers and non-commissioned officers with combat experience.  Through the Secretary of the Navy, the Commandant of the Marine Corps offered to make these resources available to the Army for service in France.  The Army’s senior leadership had little interest in involving Marines.  Eventually, however, the Marines did become involved in World War I even though the Commanding General, American Expeditionary Force, General John J. (Black Jack) Pershing harbored misgivings about using the Marines in a combat role.

After reporting to General Pershing, the Marines of the 4th Brigade performed logistics duties and underwent combat training exercises under French tutelage until Pershing decided that they were sufficiently trained for land warfare.  Through the persistence of Brigadier General John A. Lejeune, Commanding General of the 4th Brigade, Pershing finally assigned the Marines to the U.S. 2nd Infantry Division.  Lejeune eventually assumed command of the Army division — the first Marine Corps officer to command an Army combat command.

If General Pershing had anything in common with his counterparts of the Imperial German Army, it was that neither believed that the American Marines would pose much of a threat to the battle-hardened German Army.

The Marines’ second engagement of World War I took place in the wheat fields and forests of a vast hunting preserve named Belleau Wood.  This battle became the hallmark of the Marine Corps’ battle reputation as expert marksmen and their tenacity in combat.  In this one battle, the Fourth Brigade of United States Marines demonstrated that the Americans were not only in France to fight — they were in France to win. 

On 6 June 1918, the 4th Marine Brigade (comprising the 5th and 6th Marine Regiments and the 6th Machine Gun Battalion) attacked the German 237th Infantry Division, which held a line through the heavily wooded Belleau Wood.  In preparing for this assault, the French commander of XXI Corps significantly underestimated the enemy’s strength.  The 237th was a combat-hardened organization.  No one on Pershing’s staff expected the Marines to succeed, but then again, sending them against a numerically superior force would at least provide them with land warfare experience and may even solve Pershing’s problem of dealing with Marines.

Conventional tactical wisdom suggested that for the Marines to prevail in land warfare, they would need a 3-to-1 numerical advantage over the German defenders.  The Marines did not have that advantage.  They also did not have any artillery support.  The Germans should have annihilated the American Marines by every measure, but that’s not what happened.  Overcoming tremendous odds, the Marines persevered and defeated the enemy in their sector. Along with co-located army units, they helped push the Germans back ten miles from their former front-line position.  This massive “upset” convinced the German high command that their strategic clock was running out.

After the Battle of Belleau Wood, American journalists showered the Marines with glowing press reports.  For the first time, the American people learned that there were United States Marines, and they were effective at kicking the hell out of Imperial Germany’s battle-toughened army.

Senior Army officers deeply resented all the press attention paid to the Marines.  It was as if the Army wasn’t even present.  After all, Army officers complained, the Marines were part of the U.S. 2nd Infantry Division — not the other way around.  Of course, the Marines didn’t have anything to do with this “good press,” but that didn’t seem to matter.  One of these complaining officers was a captain of artillery by the name of Harry S. Truman.

Interwar Years

For almost 150 years, the Army and Navy conducted their operations cooperatively, when required.  Cooperation meant that Army and Navy commanders would agree whenever they could in matters of coordinated efforts.  This arrangement was workable because the Army was off fighting in the Indians for most of this period, and the Navy was showing the American flag overseas.  In any case, “cooperation” was always personality-dependent.  If the Secretary of War and Secretary of the Navy could cooperate, they did when it suited them, and if not, they did not.  In one communication between Secretary of War Lindley Garrison and Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels (Wilson Administration), Garrison wrote:

“Joe, I don’t give a damn about the Navy, and you don’t care a damn about the Army.  You can run your machine, and I will run mine.  I am glad if anyone can convince me I am wrong, but I am damn sure nobody lives who can do it.  I am an individualist and not cut out for cooperative effort.  I will let you go your way, and I will go mine.”

The drive for the unification of the services first took shape following World War I.  The Institute for Government Research (later, Brookings Institute) began a series of studies for the reform of the executive branch, which prompted the involvement of Congress and a proposal that the executive departments follow the “single purpose” principle.  President Harding’s representative, Walter Brown, suggested the consolidation of the Secretaries of War and Navy under a single defense secretary.   Brown further suggested assigning all functions not related to national defense elsewhere.  Ultimately, the effort failed in Congress.

If the U.S. Army wasn’t happy with the Marine Corps in 1918, they were livid with Brigadier General Billy Mitchell in 1925.  Mitchell’s 1925 recommendation for an autonomous air force and his public statements accusing the Army and Navy of intransigence in matters of aviation safety resulted in Mitchell’s court-martial.  General Mitchell resigned from the Army shortly after, but this bruhaha did result in considering the merits of a separate air force.  The so-called Morrow Board wasn’t keen on an independent air force, but it did see the wisdom in creating a somewhat separate Army Air Corps (1926).

Another attempt for unification occurred in 1932, but this was dismissed because Army Chief of Staff Douglas MacArthur vigorously opposed it and because the Depression demanded everyone’s full attention.

The topic of unification didn’t come up again until 1943 when Army Chief of Staff George C. Marshall addressed the Joint Chiefs of Staff with a proposal for a post-war unification effort.  Marshall expressed concern for the need for “unity of command” and “economy.”  He proposed a single department under a civilian cabinet secretary.

World War II

The Army’s deep-seated resentment toward the Marine Corps from the First World War reared its head again at the beginning of World War II.  There were the same budgetary arguments, of course, and the Army continued to insist that land warfare was their mission — and the Marines should confine themselves to small naval raids.  Since President Roosevelt’s son was a serving major in the U.S. Marine Corps, the Army’s whinging fell on deaf ears.

President Roosevelt ordered the Army to assume responsibility for land engagements in North Africa, Sicily, Italy, and Western Europe at the beginning of World War II.  Roosevelt appointed Douglas MacArthur to command U.S. and Allied forces in the Southwest Pacific.[1]

FDR assigned the Central and Northern Pacific area to Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, who served as Commander-in-Chief, U.S. Pacific Command.  While the Central Pacific Island campaigns were principally Navy-Marine Corps operations (augmented by Army air and ground units when required), Marines also augmented MacArthur’s campaign in the Southwest Pacific.  Marines so impressed MacArthur that he would turn to them again — in another war.

The Boiling Point

Many Army officers continued to harbor deep resentment toward the Marines for receiving what they believed was a disproportionate share of the credit during the Battle of Belleau Wood.  Between 1920-1939, the War Department argued for the disbandment of the Marine Corps but working against such arguments was the evolution of a circle of Marine Corps intellectuals — warriors/scholars — who paved the way for a United States victory in the Pacific War beginning in the 1920s.  These officers not only accurately predicted what would happen, but they also pinpointed the enemy and, with that expectation, developed amphibious warfare doctrine, the process for loading/unloading amphibious ships, established the advance base force and associated operations, defense battalions, landing craft, and close air support of ground troops.

In 1943, while serving at Noumea, New Caledonia, Lieutenant Colonel Merrill B. Twining listened to two senior U.S. Army officers expressing their opinion about the recently concluded Guadalcanal campaign and the future organization of the armed forces.  They condemned the Marines for intruding into the Army’s customary land warfare sphere.  One of those officers, Major General J. Lawton Collins, hinted that the days of the U.S. Marine Corps were numbered.

General Collins parroted Army Chief of Staff General George C. Marshall, who believed that if the Marine Corps was needed, it should be a very small organization.  Marshall vowed to “see that the Marines never won another war.”

Having learned of these moaning sessions, Marine Corps veteran officers distrusted and disrespected these Army officers.  Amid World War II, as Japanese Imperial forces were killing Marines, the Marines had discovered a new enemy: the U.S. Army.

A boiling point erupted during the Battle of Saipan when Marine Lieutenant General Holland M. Smith, Commanding General, V Amphibious Corps, fired Army Major General Ralph C. Smith, a subordinate commander, who at the time of his relief, commanded the U.S. 27th Infantry Division.

The senior commander of the Saipan operation was Admiral Raymond A. Spruance.  Below Spruance was Vice Admiral Richmond K. Turner, Commander, Northern Attack Force, and LtGen Smith.  Smith exercised command authority over the 2nd Marine Division (2ndMarDiv), 4thMarDiv, and the U.S. 27th.

LtGen Smith’s three-division attack plan assigned responsibility to the 2ndMarDiv for the left flank of the assault.  On the right flank, 4thMarDiv.  In the center, the U.S. 27th.  Both flanking divisions moved steadily forward in the attack, but tenacious Japanese defenders held up MajGen Smith’s advance for two days.  The delay produced a critical situation on two accounts: first, because the longer it takes to defeat the enemy, the more costly the battle becomes.  LtGen Smith was well aware of Admiral Spruance’s expectations about the length of this battle.  Second, MajGen Smith’s delay in the advance placed both the 2ndMarDiv and 4thMarDiv in jeopardy of Japanese assaults on their right and left flanks, respectively.

Despite LtGen Smith’s urgings, MajGen Smith could not seem to move his two assault regiments forward.  Consequently, LtGen Smith, after conferring with Admiral Spruance, relieved MajGen Smith from command and replaced him with Army MajGen Sanderford Jarman.  Everyone in the Navy chain of command viewed MajGen Smith’s relief from duty as a wartime shuffling of ground commanders.  Three other army commanders had been similarly relieved of their duties (two by senior Navy commanders), and there were no interservice repercussions.  However, Smith’s relief created a firestorm that lasted well into the mid-1950s.

Holland M. Smith obtained his Marine Corps commission in 1904.  He was a trained lawyer and a former member of the Alabama National Guard.  Smith was known for his short temper, which was the genesis of his nickname, “Howling Mad.”  He was a professional but abrupt officer who preferred field service to staff assignments.  He was not prone to compromise, particularly in matters relating to his Marines.  Smith’s contemporaries viewed his behavior as unnecessarily combative, often misguided, and almost always counterproductive.  Despite these personality “flaws,” HQMC nominated Smith to attend the Army Staff College and Navy War College.  Before Saipan, Smith commanded the Amphibious Force, Atlantic Fleet, and later, the Amphibious Force, Pacific Fleet.  Under Smith’s firm guidance, the Marine Corps developed its pre-war amphibious assault doctrine.  Before 1941, Smith supervised the amphibious training of the 1stMarDiv, 2ndMarDiv, 3rdMarDiv, and the 1st, 7th, 9th, 77th, 81st, and 96th Army divisions.  General Smith knew how to do his job.

MajGen Ralph C. Smith was undeniably a good and decent man.  He was quiet, calm, and his response always measured.  He was also a highly decorated combat officer and an Army aviator.  He was fluent in French and a graduate of the Army War College and École de Guerre.  Despite his qualifications, Smith was unpopular among his subordinate officers.  They resented “an outsider” taking command of the U.S. 27th (a national guard division) (their division).  Rather than confronting these subordinates, or better yet, leading them by example, he ignored their undisciplined behavior.  The effect of this was that the U.S. 27th Infantry Division performed as “sad sacks” in combat.  There is no environment more critical than combat.  And, on Saipan, Smith’s failures as a leader harmed his troops and those men of the 2ndMarDiv and 4thMarDiv.  Since MajGen Smith wouldn’t do anything about it, LtGen Smith would — and did.

There is little question that LtGen Smith and MajGen Smith had incompatible personalities, but more importantly, there is a substantial cultural difference in the way the Army and Marine Corps view combat operations.  The Army moves much slower in prosecuting land warfare, preferring to use supporting arms rather than infantry assaults.  The core strategy of amphibious operations is the lightning-fast frontal assault (particularly in island operations).  Marines see no value in prolonging an armed confrontation.[2]

At the Battle of Iwo Jima, Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal noted, “The raising of that flag on Suribachi means a Marine Corps for the next 500 years.”  But even as Forrestal made this statement, the future of the Marine Corps was already in jeopardy.  In Washington, certain Army officials and members of congress conspired to disband the Marine Corps.  The leaders of this conspiracy were President Harry S. Truman and U.S. Army Chiefs of Staff, General George C. Marshal, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, General J. Lawton Collins, and General Omar Bradley.  These men focused their post-World War II energies on disbanding the Marine Corps as part of the defense reorganization effort.

(Continued Next Week)


  1. Biles, R.  Crusading Liberal: Paul H. Douglas of Illinois.  The Standard Biography, 2002.
  2. Cook, J. F.  Carl Vinson: Patriarch of the Armed Forces.  Mercer University Press, 2004.
  3. Coram, R.  Brute: The Life of Victor Krulak, U.S. Marine Corps.  Little, Brown, 2010.
  4. Hoffman, J. T.  Once a Legend: Red Mike Edson of the Marine Raiders.  Presidio Press, 1994.
  5. Keiser, G. W.  The U.S. Marine Corps and Defense Unification, 1944-1947: The Politics of Survival.  National Defense Unification Press, 1982.
  6. Krulak, V. H.  First to Fight: An Inside View of the U.S. Marine Corps. Naval Institute Press, 1984.
  7. Millett, A. R.  In Many a Strife: General Gerald C. Thomas and the U.S. Marine Corps, 1917-1956.  Naval Institute Press, 1993.
  8. Oberdorfer, D.  Senator Mike Mansfield: The Extraordinary Life of a Great American Statesman and Diplomat.  Smithsonian Books, 2003.
  9. Rems, A.  Semper Fidelis: Defending the Marine Corps.  U.S. Naval Institute, 2017.
  10. Twining, M. B.  No Bended Knee: The Memoir of General Merill B. Twining.  Presidio Press, 1996.


[1] Douglas MacArthur served in the U.S. Army from 1903 until his retirement as Army Chief of Staff in 1935.  He was thereafter appointed Field Marshal of the Philippine Army, where he served until FDR recalled him to active duty service with the Army in 1941. 

[2] See also: The Road to Marineistan and Marineistan.

No Excuses — Fight or Die


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

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

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

Ancient Rome

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

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

Artist’s rendition of a Roman Galley

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

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

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

Naval Forces in the Middle Ages

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

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

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

The Royal Navy’s Articles of War

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

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

Article XII, Articles of War, 1749: 

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

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

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

Nothing was more motivational, however than case law.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The American Navy

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

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

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

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

About navy fighting formations

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

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

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

Boarding Operations

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Final Note

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[10] Position of advantage in sea battles.

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

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

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

The Law of War

Some Background


“2.  Purposes of the Law of War   

The conduct of armed hostilities on land is regulated by the law of land warfare which is both written and unwritten.  It is inspired by the desire to diminish the evils of war by:

  • Protecting both combatants and noncombatants from unnecessary suffering
  • Safeguarding certain fundamental human rights of persons who fall into the hands of the enemy, particularly prisoners of war, the wounded and sick, and civilians; and
  • Facilitating the restoration of peace.

—U. S. Army Field Manual 27-10: The Law of Land Warfare

While I agree that there must be a standard — a bridge across which no combatant should cross, such as the murder of a POW, rape, and perfidy — I also think it is essential for the American people to realize, as they send their children off to join the US military, that their government offers advantages to the enemy that it denies to their own troops.  The government calls this their “rules of engagement.”

Partial Rules of Engagement Extract

A. Rules of Engagement (ROE) are the commanders’ tools for regulating the use of force, making them a cornerstone of the Operational Law discipline.  The legal sources that provide the foundation for ROE are complex and include customary and treaty law principles from the laws of war.  As a result, Judge Advocates (JA) [military lawyers] participate significantly in the preparation, dissemination, and training of ROE; however, international law is not the sole basis for ROE.  Political objectives and military mission limitations are necessary to the construction and application of ROE.  Therefore, despite the important role of the JA, commanders bear ultimate responsibility for the ROE 

B. To ensure that ROE are versatile, understandable, easily executable, and legally and tactically sound, JAs and operators [combatants] alike must understand the full breadth of policy, legal, and mission concerns that shape the ROE and collaborate closely in their development, implementation, and training.  JAs must become familiar with mission and operational concepts, force and weapons systems capabilities and constraints, War-fighting Functions (WF), and the Military Decision Making Process (MDMP), and Joint Operations Planning and Execution System (JOPES).  Operators must familiarize themselves with the international and domestic legal limitations on the use of force and the laws of armed conflict. Above all, JAs and operators must talk the same language to provide effective ROE to the fighting forces. 

C. This chapter provides an overview of basic ROE concepts. In addition, it surveys Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Instruction (CJCSI) 3121.01B, Standing Rules of Engagement/Standing Rules for the Use of Force for U.S. Forces, and reviews the JA’s role in the ROE process.  Finally, this chapter provides unclassified extracts from both the Standing Rules of Engagement (SROE) and other operations in order to highlight critical issues and demonstrate effective implementation of ROE. 

NOTE: This chapter is NOT a substitute for the SROE. The SROE are classified SECRET, and as such, important concepts within it may not be reproduced in this handbook.  Operational law attorneys must ensure they have ready access to the complete SROE and study it thoroughly to understand the key concepts and provisions.  JAs play an important role in the ROE process because of our expertise in the laws of war, but one cannot gain ROE knowledge without a solid understanding of the actual SROE.

Our Discussion

To place these rules of engagement into their proper perspective, I’ll turn to National Review writer David French, who in December 2015 told us the following story:

“The car was moving at high speed. It had just broken a blockade of American and Iraqi forces and was trying to escape into the gathering dusk. American soldiers, driving larger and slower armored vehicles, mostly the large and unwieldy MRAPs (mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles), gave chase.

“They were intensely interested in the target. Acting on intelligence that high-value al-Qaeda leaders might be present, a cavalry troop — working with Iraqi allies — surrounded an isolated village near the Iranian border. The mission was simple: to search the village and kill or capture identified members of al-Qaeda. It was the kind of mission that the troopers had executed countless times before.

“It wasn’t uncommon to encounter “squirters” — small groups of insurgents who try to sneak or race through American lines and disappear into the desert. Sometimes they were on motorcycles, sometimes on foot, but often they were in cars, armed to the teeth and ready to fight to the death. On occasion, the squirters weren’t insurgents at all — just harmless, terrified civilians trying to escape a deadly war.

“This evening, however, our troopers believed that the car ahead wasn’t full of civilians. The driver was too skilled, his tactics too knowing for a carload of shepherds. As the car disappeared into the night, the senior officer on the scene radioed for permission to fire.

“His request went to the TOC, the tactical operations center, which is the beating heart of command and control in the battlefield environment. There the “battle captain,” or the senior officer in the chain of command, would decide — shoot or don’t shoot.

“If soldiers opened fire after a lawyer had deemed the attack outside the rules, they would risk discipline — even [war crimes] prosecution.

“But first, there was a call for the battle captain to make, all the way to brigade headquarters, where a JAG officer — an Army lawyer — was on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week. His job was to analyze the request, apply the governing rules of engagement, and make a recommendation to the chain of command. While the commander made the ultimate decision, he rarely contradicted JAG recommendations. After all, if soldiers opened fire after a lawyer had deemed the attack outside the rules, they would risk discipline — even prosecution — if the engagement went awry.

“Acting on the best available information — including a description of the suspect vehicle, a description of its tactics, analysis of relevant intelligence, and any available video feeds — the JAG officer had to determine whether there was sufficient evidence of “hostile intent” to authorize the use of deadly force. He had to make a life-or-death decision in mere minutes.

“In this case, the lawyer said no — insufficient evidence.  No deadly force.  Move to detain rather than shoot to kill.  The commander deferred.  No shot.  Move to detain.

“So, the chase continued, across roads and open desert. The suspect vehicle did its best to shake free, but at last, it was cornered by converging American forces. There was no escape. Four men emerged from the car. American soldiers dismounted from their MRAPs, and with one man in the lead, weapons raised, they ordered the Iraqis to surrender.

“Those who were in the TOC that night initially thought someone had stepped on a land mine. Watching on video feed, they saw the screen go white, then black. For several agonizing minutes, no one knew what had happened.

“Then the call came.  Suicide bomber.  One of the suspects had self-detonated, and Americans were hurt.  One badly — very badly.  Despite desperate efforts to save his life, he died just before he arrived at a functioning aid station.  Another casualty of the rules of engagement.”

It is certainly true that a suicide bomber killed one of our young men, but it is also true that young man might still be alive were it not for the fact that the United States Army aided and abetted the enemy in his horrendous murder of one of their own.  On what rational basis does US military command authority place a lawyer (of all people) in a position to approve or deny a combat soldier from taking appropriate action to save his own life and the lives of the men and women serving under him?

The foregoing development was not only senseless and stupid, but it is also malfeasant.  The President of the United States forced these rules on the Armed Forces of the United States; civilian secretaries ordered such policies implemented, and flag rank naval and military officers executed them.  These are the men who have blood on their hands — American blood and they act as if such circumstances were the unavoidable consequences of war.  No.  Too many Americans have died because of these foolish policies.

The American people deserve to know that these unacceptable conditions await their children once they join the U. S. Armed Forces.  They need to understand that the US government places a higher value on the enemy than they do on their own troops — which should lead us to ask, why should any American join the All-Volunteer Force?  Loyalty, after all, is a two-way street.

To compound the matter further, the US government has aggressively charged American service members with war crimes — that weren’t — and convicted them and handed down prison sentences for doing no more than what the U. S. military trained them to do: locate, close with, and destroy the enemy by fire and maneuver.  And it was that very same government who sent them into battles, to fight in wars, that the government never intended to win.

It Gets Worse

Moreover, the United States government has become complicit in perpetuating “crimes against humanity,” if that is a case we wish to pursue.  There are several angles to this argument, at the top of which is that, diplomatically, the US government has been (a) inept in its formulation and implementation of foreign policy, (b) dishonest in announcing its national interests to justify hostilities, (c) too eager to deploy armed forces to foreign countries, and (d) too accomplished in laying the blame for violations of land warfare conventions on US servicemen, whom the US government recruited, trained, armed, and deployed to carry out its flawed foreign policies.

Numerous violations of human rights, if they in fact exist, are directly related to the behavior of nations and their allies in developing erratic and nonsensical policies that are, themselves, predicated on lies, half-truth, and “spin.”  Who are these nations?  Who must we hold accountable for human suffering in the worst places on the planet?  The list of responsible nations is too long, by far.

As one example, invading Iraq may have made some people feel good about ridding the world of Saddam Hussein, but the consequences of that adventure propelled Iran into its current leading role in the Middle East.  No one can argue while keeping a straight face that sending Hussein to hell substantially improved conditions in the Middle East.

We must also understand that Afghanistan between 1980-2001 was entirely the creation of the United States Congress, the American Central Intelligence Agency, Saudi Arabia, and its puppet, Pakistan.

In its historical context, this situation presents us with a nonsensical juxtaposition to US national interests that defies rational explanation.  Saudi Arabia is also behind the “civil wars” in Syria and Yemen, both of which are sectarian kerfuffle’s within the Islamist world that makes no sense to anyone who doesn’t own camels or goats, and yet, the US has become a full partner with the Saudis inflicting pain and suffering on people.  Most of them are the unfortunate sods caught between surrogates of both the Saudis and Iranians.

According to Andrea Prasow, a writer for Human Rights Watch, the United States is now under international scrutiny for its long-standing involvement in Yemen.  Notably, under a long list of incompetent secretaries, the State Department has facilitated the provision of arms and munitions without regard to the application of these weapons against civilian populations.  Prasow argues that the State Department may have violated US laws by providing weapons to Saudi Arabia to offer them to Saudi surrogates, which makes the US government “a global arms dealer.”  Of course, no American administration cares about international scrutiny because there are no substantial consequences that the international community could impose.

Similarly, Peter Beaumont of The Guardian (4 Oct 2021) reports that according to sources within the United Nations, war crimes and crimes against humanity are omnipresent throughout the Middle East, Africa, and some in Eastern Europe.  In the present, human rights experts claim reasonable grounds for believing a Russian private military company (The Wagner Group) has committed murders not directly involved in Libya’s internal hostilities.  UN experts also cite reports indicating that the Libyan coast guard, trained and equipped by the European Union, has regularly mistreated migrants and handed them over to torture centers where sexual violence is prevalent.

T. G. Carpenter, writing for Responsible Statecraft, asserted on 12 October 2021 that there are numerous instances where humanitarian intervention has led directly to crimes against humanity.  He cites as examples President Obama’s 2011 air war to overthrow Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi.  Obama publicly asserted his high expectations for a brighter future for the Libyan people.  Since then, feuding factions of cutthroats have created large numbers of refugees crossing the Mediterranean to find sanctuary while Egypt, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Russia have become parties to the conflict, each backing their favored to win, and each making substantial contributions to the bloodshed and chaos.

According to the UN report, “Our investigations have established that all parties to the conflicts, including third states, foreign fighters, and mercenaries, have violated international humanitarian law, in particular the principles of proportionality and distinction, and some have also committed war crimes.”  The violence, which includes attacks on hospitals and schools, has dramatically affected the Libyan people’s economic, social, and cultural traditions.  The report also documented the recruitment and participation of children in hostilities and the disappearance and extrajudicial killing of prominent women.

All of the preceding offers a stark contrast to Obama’s rosy pronouncement that “Tripoli is slipping from the grasp of a tyrant. The people of Libya are showing that the universal pursuit of dignity and freedom is far stronger than the iron fist of a dictator.”  Joining Obama, Senator John McCain and Senator Lindsey Graham jointly stated, “The end of the Qaddafi regime is a victory for the Libyan people and the broader cause of freedom in the Middle East and throughout the world.”  A short time later, McCain and Graham sponsored bills that provided combat weapons to Libya’s “freedom fighters.”  Astoundingly, these freedom fighters used these weapons to create the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) founded by America’s long-term nemesis, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Iraq’s face of Al-Qaeda.  For a short time, Al-Baghdadi was on the target list for US and Coalition forces in Iraq until senior commanders were ordered to “back off.”

On 6 January 2017, UPI writer Struan Stevenson observed that when Obama left the White House, he left behind a legacy of death and destruction in the Middle East.  His primary foreign policy opened Pandora’s Box of conflict and sectarian strife across the entire region.  It wasn’t until it was too late that Obama realized that his “nuclear deal” with Iran and his foolish concessions not only threatened the security of the Middle East but seriously undermined the interests of the United States.  Obama, it appears, the so-called well-spoken and clean-looking Negro, wasn’t the intellectual he thought he was.

As Ted Carpenter wisely observed, “Creating a chaotic environment in which war crimes and massive human rights abuses could flourish did a monumental disservice to the Libyan people, and Washington bears most of the responsibility for that tragedy.  Moreover, it matters little if US intentions were good; the road to hell is paved with good intentions.  [All] policies must be judged by their consequences, not their motives or goals.”

How it plays out

During the first battle of Fallujah in April 2004, the Associated Press reported that US Marines bombed a mosque, killing forty (40) innocent “civilians” gathered for prayer.  From the AP’s initial report, the story took off like gang-busters.  False reporting was so intense that it caused senior military commanders to order the Marines out of Fallujah.  See also: The War Crimes that Weren’t.

Throughout the war in Iraq, western news sources routinely employed Iraqis to cover firefights, battles, and clearing operations. In most cases, however, media focused almost exclusively on events occurring around the capital city of Baghdad and only occasionally in outlying regions such as Ramadi and Fallujah. As in the case cited above, these Iraqi journalists were not disinterested parties to the conflict, and their reporting was not simply flawed; they were, more often than not, outright lies.

But the principal challenges in Iraq, and the greatest American/Coalition victories, were those that the American people know least about — because news media always handpicks the things they want the folks back home to know.


The region was known as the Haditha Triad region in Al Anbar Province.  The triad region consists of the city of Haditha and outlying towns of Haqlaniyah, Barwana, and Albu Hyatt, all of which follow the Euphrates River corridor.

The enemy was Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI).  Because US and Coalition leaders failed to establish an early presence in Haditha, AQI felt comfortable putting down roots there.  It was a place where new fighters could enter Iraq from Syria, along with weapons, money, and supplies.  Haditha was where these men and materials could proceed unmolested into the Iraqi interior, to other strongholds.

Haditha was also the place where defeated AQI soldiers withdrew following such battles as Fallujah and Ramadi.  Defeated or not, they became battle-hardened veterans whose embellished tales of glory in the service of Allah inspired newly arrived AQI recruits.[1]

The US/Coalition made its first attempt to establish order in the Haditha Triad in 2005.  AQI responded by decapitating several high-ranking Iraqi police officials and murdering members of their families.  To mark their territory, AQI placed the decapitated heads atop stakes at major intersections leading into Haditha.  It was a clear warning to Iraqis and Coalition forces: stay out!  AQI was so successful in their campaign of intimidation that they even established a shadow government in the region and routinely sent out terrorist patrols to keep the locals “in line.”  2005 was also when the 3rd Battalion, 25th Marines (3/25) arrived in Haditha as a coalition show of force.  The battalion lost 49 men during its deployment in what became the deadliest deployment for a Marine battalion since the Beirut bombing in 1983.

At 0715 on 19 November, in this environment of decapitated heads sitting atop signposts, and in an area where 85% of the Iraqi residents oppose coalition forces, where citizens actively aid and abet AQI forces, a Marine security patrol from Kilo Company, 3rd Battalion, 1st Marines (Kilo 3/1) escorted a resupply convoy along the main supply route (MSR) when an improvised explosive device (IED) composed of 155mm artillery shells within a container filled with a propane igniter erupted, instantly killing Lance Corporal Miguel Terrazas.  At the instant of the explosion, Lance Corporal James Crossan was thrown out of the Humvee and was trapped under the vehicle’s rear tire.  Private First Class Salvador Guzman was riding in the back of the vehicle.  He was thrown from the vehicle, as well.  Crossan and Guzman were taken to a landing zone for emergency medical evacuation.

Subsequently, First Lieutenant William T. Kallop arrived on the scene.  His arrival coincided with the commencement of enemy fire coming from a nearby cluster of three houses.  Kallop instructed the Marines to “take the house.”  In clearing these houses, Marines employed standard clearing operations, which included the use of hand grenades and small arms fire.  During this action, Marines killed 15 Iraqis.  Lieutenant Kallop stated, “The Marines cleared [the houses] the way they had been trained to clear it, which is frags [grenades] first.  It was clear just by the looks of the room that frags went in, and then the house was prepped and sprayed with a machine gun, and then they went in.  And by the looks of it, they just … they went in, cleared the rooms, everybody was down.”

Significantly, evidence later used during an investigation of the incident included a video captured at the time of the incident by a Hammurabi Human Rights Organization co-founder, which instigated a Time Magazine Reporter’s “armchair” investigative report four months later, on 19 March 2006.  This video shot at the time of the incident strongly suggests a “set up” by AQI affiliates, a common tactic employed by terrorist factions in Iraq.  It was part of an effort by AQI to initiate an incident and use the consequences of that incident to discredit coalition forces. 

Apparently, it worked because military authorities charged eight Kilo Company Marines with violations of the law of war — four enlisted Marines with unpremeditated murder and four officers with dereliction of duty, including the battalion commander, Lieutenant Colonel Jeffrey Chessani.  In the military’s rush to judgment, the lives of all these Marines (and their loved ones) were negatively affected for years into the future.

Of the eight Marines charged, a military court convicted only one individual for violating the Uniform Code of Military Justice NOT connected to the Haditha incident.  He pled “guilty” for making a false statement that might have been no more than a lapse in memory.

In 2009, Colonel Chessani’s legal counsel, Richard Thompson (Thomas More Law Center), stated, “The government’s persecution of this loyal Marine officer continues because he refused to throw his men under the bus to appease some anti-war politicians and press, and the Iraqi government. Any punishment of LtCol Chessani handed down by a Board of Inquiry would be a miscarriage of justice because he did nothing wrong, and our lawyers will mount the same vigorous defense in this administrative proceeding as they did in the criminal.”

A military court eventually dismissed the charges as spurious or found them “not guilty” because the accusations — preferred against them by incompetent senior officers in their rush to judgment, who either unwittingly or intentionally conspired with Iraqi enemies of the United States, and with their enabler, Times Magazine journalist Tim McGirk — were unfounded.  The question of why military officials charged these Marines at all, particularly in light of the fact that they complied with the rules of engagement, remains unanswered — except that attorney Richard Thompson was prescient: “ … to appease some anti-war politicians and press, and the Iraqi government.”  Or could it be part of the US government’s intention to destroy the effectiveness of its own Armed Forces or convince young Americans not to join the All-Volunteer Force?


David French’s article (above) offered some food for thought: “Imagine if the United States had fought World War II with a mandate to avoid any attack when civilians were likely to be present.  Imagine Patton’s charge through Western Europe constrained by granting the SS safe haven whenever it sheltered among civilians.  If you can imagine this reality, then you can also imagine a world without a D-Day, a world where America’s greatest generals are war criminals, and where the mighty machinery of Hitler’s industrial base produces planes, tanks, and guns unmolested.  In other words, you can imagine a world where our Army is a glorified police force, and our commanders face prosecution for fighting a real war.  That describes our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

US military policy in the Middle East has been inept and criminally negligent.  There is no rational basis for spending billions of dollars in maintaining a powerful armed force, for spending billions more sending those troops into combat, and then, through inane “rules of engagement,” restricting their ability to defeat the enemy and then prosecuting them for doing what the US military trained them to do.  Such policies present a clear and present danger to the morale and effectiveness of our combat forces and, by extension, demoralize the nation as well.

United States foreign policy is corrupt because the men and women who devise and implement those policies are immoral and inept.  United States domestic policy, particularly as it relates to the laws and regulations governing the nation’s prosecution of war, is equally flawed.  These unacceptable conditions result in unimaginable pain and suffering among those who live in the Middle East.  They cause immeasurable anguish among the loved ones whose husbands, sons, and daughters have died or seriously and permanently injured in a war the US government never intended to win.  These Inane policies have caused death and injury for nothing.  The United States has not “won” a war since the Second World War.  The reason for this is simple: The United States has not had a moral imperative for conflict since the Second World War.  I do not understand why the American people put up with such a government.


[1] Haditha was rife with AQI fighters and, according to one Time Magazine poll conducted in 2007, 85% of resident Sunnis opposed the presence of Coalition forces.

Conspicuously Gallant


One of the things the American armed forces do for our society, a seldom advertised benefit to military service, is that young people with nowhere else to turn may find themselves, that they may find themselves a home, a family, kindred spirits who together, look after one another.  The military offers a place where one is fed and clothed, where they receive quality medical care, where they find a place to lay their head at night — and a lot more.  Education and skill training is part of the package.  Learning teamwork, self-discipline, and esprit de corps.  Marvelous transformations take place inside the military.  People change from being nobody’s to somebody’s — and, for most military veterans, it is a transformation that lasts them the rest of their lives.  Not everyone, of course, but most.  To most such young Americans, the military becomes a doorway, a step up, a directional device to the rest of their lives.

Stepping Up

Joseph Vittori

Joseph Vittori was one such individual.  Born in 1929 in Beverly, Massachusetts (a suburb of Boston), Joe’s father was a small farmer.  Farming is hard work, necessary of course, but quite often thankless work — and we know nothing of Joe’s father.  Not even his name.  We don’t know if he was a good father or abusive, pleasant, angry, sober, or sotted.  We only know that Joe graduated from high school in 1946 and soon after joined the U.S. Marine Corps on a 3-year enlistment.

Joe Vittori attended recruit training at Parris Island, South Carolina, graduating in December 1946.  This was a time when the government proceeded to demobilize the armed forces.  Marine infantry divisions were being placed into cadre status and the Marines reverted to their security duties at naval posts and stations and aboard ship’s detachments.  Joe’s assignments involved that very thing: Joe served security duty at the Norfolk Naval Shipyard, the Brooklyn Navy Yard, the Marine Detachment, U.S.S. Portsmouth, and the Philadelphia Navy Yard.  He joined the 2nd Marine Division at Camp Lejeune in January 1949 serving there until his discharge in October.

A Crisis Develops

Life was tough in 1949, owing to a significant economic recession in 1948.  In this period, unemployment approached 8%, the U.S. GDP fell nearly 2%, the cost of living index fell five points, and department store sales fell 22%.  Nevertheless, Joe Vittori took his discharge and returned to Beverly, working as a plasterer and bricklayer.  The work put money in his pocket, but it wasn’t the same as serving as a U.S. Marine.

On 25 June 1950, North Korean armed forces invaded South Korea, touching off the Korean War.  The incident prompted many young men, in circumstances similar to those of Joe Vittori, to reenlist in the Armed Forces.  Joe rejoined the Marine Corps Reserve in September 1950.  At this time, the Marine Corps was struggling to rebuild a combat-effective infantry division.  The Marines immediately ordered Joe to active duty and sent him to Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, for pre-deployment combat training.  Within a few months, Joe Vittori joined the 1st Marine Regiment in Korea, assigned to Fox Company, 2nd Battalion.

On 9 June 1951, while fighting with his company near Yang-Gu, Vittori received wounds from enemy fire (earning his first Purple Heart Medal).  Treated at the battalion aid station, Vittori was assigned to police duties while recovering from his wounds.  Within a few weeks, along with promoting Joe Vittori to Corporal, his battalion commander approved the young man’s request to return to his line company.

Battles of the Punchbowl

Battles of the Punchbowl

While battles raged across the entire Korean Peninsula, United Nations (UN) and North Korean (NK) officials attempted to negotiate an equitable settlement to the conflict.  When these efforts fell apart in August 1951, the UN Command decided to launch a limited offensive to restructure defensive lines opposing Chinese Communist (CHICOM) forces.  The effort, designed to deny the enemy key vantage points from which they could easily target key U.N. positions, resulted in the Battle of Bloody Ridge (August-September 1951) (west of the Punchbowl) and the Battle of Heartbreak Ridge (September-October 1951) (northwest of the Punchbowl).  See above map.

In late August, the 8th U.S. Army Commander, General James Van Fleet, ordered the 1st Marine Division to maneuver its three regiments around Inje-Gun to support the United Nations offensive by distracting CHICOM and North Korean People’s Army (NKPA) forces from the Battle of Bloody Ridge.  The Marines’ orders were to attack Yoke Ridge and advance to a new defensive line (called the Hays Line) marked by the southern edge of the Soyang River to the north of the Punchbowl.

Phase I

At 0600 on 31 August, the 7th Marines, consisting of its three organic battalions and reinforced by an additional two battalions of the 1st Regiment of Republic of Korea Marines (ROK Marines) launched an assault from Hill 793 up the eastern edge of the Punchbowl toward Yoke Ridge (west) and Tonpyong (east).  Despite poor weather, marked by torrential rains, the Marines resolutely reached their initial objectives and assaulted NKPA positions.

On 1 September the ROK Marines moved along Yoke Ridge, while the 7th Marines moved north, both assault groups clearing out NKPA bunkers with grenades and flamethrowers. The NKPA launched several small-scale counterattacks against the advancing Marines, but these were broken up by the combined arms of US and ROK ground forces. 

On the night of 1-2 September, the NKPA launched a night attack against the ROK Marines on Hill 924, driving them out of their positions, causing the loss of 21 ROK Marines killed and 84 wounded, but the NKPA had given up 291 KIA and 231 wounded.  After sunrise on 2 September, ROK Marines employed heavy artillery in recapturing Hill 924, consolidated their position, and then began moving against their next objective, Hill 1026.  After defeating several NKPA assaults, 3/7 advanced toward Hill 602, seizing that objective by 2:30 p.m. (1430).  The NKPA launched several company-size counterattacks on Hill 602, all defeated — but not without heavy losses on both sides: USMC losses were 75 killed, 349 wounded; communists gave up 450 KIA, 609 wounded, and 15 captured.

At 4 a.m. on 3 September, ROK Marines renewed their attack on Hill 1026, while 2/7 Marines assumed the defense of Hill 924.  As ROK Marines advanced, they encountered a large NKPA force advancing towards Hill 924, attacked them, and by midday, seized Hill 1026.  A short time later, the Korean Marines began their advance toward  Hills 1055 and 930.  When that mission was accomplished, UN forces had secured Yoke Ridge.  Meanwhile, to the west of the Punchbowl, the ROK 35th Infantry advanced unopposed to Hill 450, about 1.5 miles southwest of Hill 1026.

Phase II

Between 4–10 September, the 1st Marine Division and 1st ROK Marines consolidated their positions on Yoke Ridge, established the UN’s Hays Line, and built up ammunition and supplies for the second phase of the attack on Kan mu-bong Ridge.  The ridge was essential to defend the Hays Line and allow the U.S. X Corps to assault the NKPA’s main line of resistance (MLR).  A lull in fighting permitted the NKPA to reinforce their positions on Hill 673, opposite Hill 602.  Both sides engaged in active patrolling, and casualties on both sides were substantial.

The 7th Marines received orders to launch an attack no later than 3 a.m., on 11 September from the Hays Line through a narrow valley, across a tributary of the Soyang River, and then uphill towards Hills 680 and 673 with Hill 749 as a tertiary objective.  The 1st Tank Battalion provided direct fire support to the advancing Marines, while the 11th Marines provided indirect artillery support.  3/7 had the task of capturing Hill 680.  Despite extensive artillery and tank support, the NKPA put up stiff resistance to the Marines, preventing them from reaching the top of the hill before nightfall.  1/7, tasked with capturing Hill 673, also encountered strong opposition, stopping them short of their objective.

Over the night of 11-12 September, Marines from 2/7 moved to the rear of Hill 673, effectively cutting off any chance of escape by NKPA forces on the hill.  By 2 p.m., 1/7 had taken Hill 673, suffering 16 KIA and 35 WIA, killing 33 North Korean communists.[1]  During the night of 12 September, the elements of the 1st Marine Regiment relieved 1/7 and 3/7 on Hill 673.  2/1 relieved 2/7 on Hill 749 on the following day.

On 13 September, 2/1 Marines moved against Hill 749 to relieve 2/7.[2]  Hill 749 proved to be a heavily defended fortress of bunkers, covered trenches, tunnels, and part of the NKPA’s MLR.  2/1 Marines seized the summit just after noon but were soon driven back — finally gaining control of the summit by 3 p.m., but it would be nearly 9 p.m. before they could relieve 2/7 on the reverse slope. 

An abundance of enemy mines and a lack of supporting artillery delayed the 3rd Battalion’s advance toward Hill 751.  Sunset forced the Marines to dig in on the slopes of Hill 751.  In these fixed positions, the Marines endured enemy mortar fire and ten NKPA probing attacks during the night.

On 14 September, the two Marine battalions continued their assaults from the previous day.  2/1 cleared NKPA bunkers in a wooded area to the north of Hill 749 before advancing along the ridgeline towards Hill 812.  By 3:30 p.m., the attack had bogged down in the face of enemy frontal and flanking fire.  During this assault, Private First Class Edward Gomez smothered an NKPA grenade with his body, saving the lives of the rest of his machine gun team.[3]

3/1, supported by accurate airstrikes, seized most of Hill 751 by dusk and had dug in when the NKPA counterattacked at around 10:50 p.m.  Marine losses for the day included 39 killed in action and 463 wounded.  Communist losses were 460 KIA and 405 WIA.

In the early morning of 15 September 3/1, fought off a 100–150 man NKPA counterattack, killing 18 enemies and wounding 50 more.  Marines defeated another communist counterattack at around 3:00 p.m., with tanks subsequently destroying ten bunkers in front of Hill 751.  The Marines of 3/1 were held in place while the Marines of 2/1 were ordered to clear Hill 749.  A bloody slugfest evolved due to delayed artillery, limited air support, and a tenacious NKPA defensive network.  2/1 Marines, held in place by a stout communist defense, withdrew to their previous positions at nightfall.  The battalion gave up 70 wounded Marines.

On 16 September, Fox Company continued its assault on Hill 749.  A vicious enemy counterattack drove back the forward-most platoon, inflicting heavy casualties and causing the Marines to withdraw.  Corporal  Vittori organized an impromptu counterattack with two other Marines.  These three Marines, led by Corporal Vittori, immediately attacked the enemy in hand-to-hand combat to give the withdrawing Marines time to consolidate their new defensive positions.  When the enemy onslaught jeopardized a Marine machine gun position, Vittori rushed forward 100 yards fighting single-handedly to prevent the enemy from seizing the machine gun.  Leaping from one side of the position to another, Corporal Vittori maintained withering automatic rifle fire, expending over 1,000 rounds in the space of 3 hours.  He made numerous resupply runs through enemy fire to replenish ammunition.  When a machine gunner fell, Vittori rushed to take over his gun and kept the enemy from breaching the company’s lines.  Corporal Vittori kept up his stout defense until killed by enemy rifle fire.  On the following morning, Fox Company Marines discovered more than two hundred enemies lying dead in front of Joe Vitorri’s position.

Medal of Honor Citation

Medal of Honor

The President of the United States, in the name of The Congress, takes pride in presenting the MEDAL OF HONOR posthumously to:


for service as set forth in the following CITATION:

For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty while serving as an Automatic Rifleman in Company F, Second Battalion, First Marines, First Marine Division (Reinforced) in actions against enemy aggressor forces in Korea on 15 and 16 September 1951. With a forward platoon suffering heavy casualties and forced to withdraw under a vicious enemy counterattack as his company assaulted strong hostile forces entrenched on Hill 749, Corporal Vittori boldly rushed through the withdrawing troops with two other volunteers from his reserve platoon and plunged directly into the midst of the enemy.  Overwhelming them in a fierce hand-to-hand struggle, he enabled his company to consolidate its positions to meet further imminent onslaughts.  Quick to respond to an urgent call for a rifleman to defend a heavy machine gun positioned on the extreme point of the northern flank and virtually isolated from the remainder of the unit when the enemy again struck in force during the night, he assumed the position under the devastating barrage and, fighting a singlehanded battle, leaped from one flank to the other, covering each foxhole in turn as casualties continued to mount, manning a machine gun when the gunner was struck down and making repeated trips through the heaviest shellfire to replenish ammunition. With the situation becoming extremely critical, reinforcing units to the rear pinned down under the blistering attack and foxholes left practically void by dead and wounded for a distance of 100 yards, Corporal Vittori continued his valiant stand, refusing to give ground as the enemy penetrated to within feet of his position, simulating strength in the line and denying the foe physical occupation of the ground. Mortally wounded by enemy machine-gun and rifle bullets while persisting in his magnificent defense of the sector where approximately 200 enemy dead were found the following morning, Corporal Vittori, by his fortitude, stouthearted courage, and great personal valor, had kept the point position intact despite the tremendous odds and undoubtedly prevented the entire battalion position from collapsing.  His extraordinary heroism throughout the furious night-long battle reflects the highest credit upon himself and the United States Naval Service.  He gallantly gave his life for his country.

Corporal Vittori’s remains were laid to rest at St. Mary’s Cemetery, Beverly, Massachusetts.  Upon his death, Corporal Vittori was 22-years old.

Semper Fidelis


[1] From this engagement, Sergeant Frederick Mausert was awarded the Medal of Honor.

[2] 13 September saw the first operational use of Marine helicopters in combat near Cheondo-Ri, conducting 28 resupply and aeromedical evacuation flights near Hill 793.

[3] Gomez was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for this act of selflessness.

At Rest on Iwo Jima

Colorized version of the Rosenthal Photograph

The battle began on 19 February 1945; it wasn’t over until the end of March.  Some say that this battle has never ended because we continue to remember what happened there.  What happened was that more than 100,000 Americans landed on a volcanic island to take it away from its Japanese defenders so that the U.S. forces could have an emergency landing site for the bomber pilots and crews of the U.S. Army Air Corps.  U.S. forces killed around 19,000 Japanese — and we’re told that 3,000 more were sealed up inside a vast network of caves to suffocate.  Of so many Japanese, the Americans took only 216 as prisoners.  Of the Americans, Japanese defenders killed 6,102 Marines, 719 sailors, 41 soldiers, and wounded 19,709.  One of those killed, whose body the Americans never recovered, was Staff Sergeant Bill Genaust, USMC.

We believe William H. Genaust was born in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, on 12 October 1906, the son of Herman and Jessie Fay Genaust, and raised in Minneapolis, Minnesota.  Like many Americans, he enlisted to serve his country during World War II.  For whatever reason, the Marines sent him for training as a photographer — and that’s what he did during the war: combat photography.

Some folks think that combat photography means taking pictures of an ongoing battle — and, of course, that’s entirely true.  But it also means participating in the struggle, particularly when your life is on the line or when your fellow soldiers/Marines are counting on you.  In 1944, Genaust fought alongside his fellow Marines at Saipan and displayed heroic actions during the battle while engaged with determined Japanese enemies and was wounded in action.  Genaust’s superiors nominated him for the award of the Navy Cross for these actions, but the Marine Corps downgraded the award to a Bronze Star medal.  Genaust was a cameraman, you see … not a rifleman.  Sadly, he never lived to receive his Bronze Star medal or his Purple Heart Medal.  Those items would arrive in the mail after he was long dead; the Marine Corps presented them to his next of kin, his wife Adelaide, instead.

Staff Sergeant Genaust could have gone home after receiving severe wounds to his legs on Saipan, but he opted to remain in theater.  After Saipan, after his recovery period, the Marines made Genaust an instructor to teach younger Marines how to take moving action films inside a combat zone.  The Marines were gearing up to participate in another major landing.  Three infantry divisions were placed under an amphibious corps.  Among the 70,000 Marines in readiness for another fight were sixty cameramen.  One of their supervisors was Bill Genaust.

When Staff Sergeant Genaust came ashore on 19 February 1945, he was with the 4th Marine Division. But a few days later, on 22 February, Genaust served with the 28th Marines, 5th Marine Division, near the base of a mountain named Suribachi.  His orders were to film the action taking place at the base of the mountain and he was assisted in this mission by Marine Private First Class (PFC) Bob Campbell.

On the morning of 23 February, while serving as the Executive Officer (XO) of Easy Company, 2nd Battalion, 28th Marines, First Lieutenant Harold Schrier volunteered to lead a combat patrol to the top of Mount Suribachi, capture it, and signal his success by raising a flag from the pinnacle of the mountain.  Combat cameraman Staff Sergeant Lou Lowrey accompanied Schrier’s patrol.  At around 10:30 a.m., Lieutenant Schrier and two of his NCOs attached their small flag to a waterpipe that the Japanese had discarded and raised the flag atop Mount Suribachi.  This was the first flag raising, filmed by Staff Sergeant Lowrey. It was seen by almost no one.

SSgt Bill Genaust c.1944-45

At around noon, Genaust and Campbell were told to “join up” with Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal and accompany him to the top of Suribachi.  Rosenthal had also arrived on-island on 19 February but routinely returned to his ship each night — which is how Rosenthal had missed the first flag raising at mid-morning on 23 February.

The problem was that Schrier’s flag was too small to be seen with any clarity from the base of the mountain, so the 28th Marines’ commander produced a much larger flag.  Genaust, Campbell, and Rosenthal were told to accompany four Marines to the top of Suribachi, raise the larger flag, and record it on film.  On the way up, Rosenthal, Genaust, and Campbell met Lowrey, who was on the way back down and told them about the first flag raising.

Once on top, Genaust and Campbell located a second water pipe, attached the larger U.S. flag, and selected a place to anchor it — where it could be seen from any point on the island.  Lieutenant Schrier ordered the first flag lowered as the larger flag went up.  Staff Sergeant Genaust stood off to the left of Joe Rosenthal and filmed the action with his Bell & Howell Auto Master 16mm Motion Picture Camera.  Rosenthal became famous for capturing the flag-raising on black and white still film photography — a picture that appeared in U.S. newspapers on Sunday, 25 February 1945.  Genaust’s film captures other Marines on the summit as they gaze up at the American flag; men who do not appear on Rosenthal’s snap.[1]  Note also, there was an Army and Coast Guard photographer on Suribachi on 23 February 1945.

Within a few days, on 3 March 1945, Genaust’s supervisor reported him “missing in action” during combat operations at the entrance to a large cave near Hill 352-A (on the northern part of the island).  By the end of the next day, he was ruled “killed in action.”  Lieutenant Colonel Donald L. Dickson, who may have served in overall command of Marine combat correspondents and photographers at Iwo Jima, provided a two and a half-page letter to Bill Genaust’s wife, Adelaide.  Dickson’s account began with Sergeant Genaust’s service on Saipan but ended as follows:

As I understand it, a group of Marines were clearing caves of die-hard Japs.  Grenades were thrown in one cave, and it was believed all the enemy were killed.  The Marines wanted to double check and asked Bill if they could borrow his flashlight. Bill said he would go in with them.  They crawled in, and Bill flashed his light around.  There were many Japs still alive, and they immediately opened fire.  Bill dropped without a sound.  As the bearer of the light, he had been the first target for a number of bullets.  I feel sure he never knew what happened to him.

“The Marines forced the Japs deeper into the cave but could not get them out.  More men would have been killed in carrying out of the narrow cave Bill’s lifeless body.

“TNT charges were quickly placed at the cave mouth and exploded. The whole cave mouth was blocked with earth from the explosion, and Bill’s body was completely buried by it.[2]

According to the testimony of Marines present at the scene of Genaust’s death, he was hit multiple times by a Japanese machine gun.  U.S. officials have never recovered Sergeant Genaust’s body; the last attempt made occurred in 2007. 

Sergeant Genaust is one of around 250 Americans still missing from the Battle of Iwo Jima.  A memorial plaque with Genaust’s name inscribed can be found atop the summit of Mount Suribachi.  Moreover, an award in Genaust’s name is presented each year by the Marine Corps Historical Foundation, recognizing the work of military personnel and civilians toward preserving Marine Corps history.


[1] Bill Genaust’s motion picture footage was used extensively by the National Archives (as reported by Criss Kovac) to identify Marines who participated in the flag-raising event but were earlier misidentified.  See also: USA Today.

[2] U.S. Marine Corps Archive Files, Quantico, Virginia: LtCol Dickson to Adelaide Genaust (3 pages) (undated letter).

Secret Agent 711

Some Background

In August 1775, following hostilities between the colonists and British troops in Massachusetts, King George III declared the American colonies in rebellion.  The declaration prompted Congress to assemble a Continental Army under General George Washington.  Ten months later, in June 1776, Richard Henry Lee proposed a Congressional resolution calling for independence from Great Britain.

As the independence movement gained momentum, Congress convened a five-member committee to write a formal public statement to justify its declaration of independence.  Committee members included John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Robert Livingston, Roger Sherman, and Thomas Jefferson.  Jefferson authored the first draft, and after making a few suggested changes, a second draft was submitted to Congress on 28 June 1776.[1]  Congress debated the proposed resolution on 1 July.  Two states opposed the resolution, two more signaled indecision, and New York abstained.  Delaware broke the tie vote the next day, and the two states that opposed the resolution shifted to favor it.  The final vote on 2 July was 12 to 0 in favor.

After the vote, a few members of Congress wanted yet another look at the resolution, which resulted in further modifications.  Congress approved the final draft on 4 July 1776.  The Declaration by the Representatives of the United States of America went to press on 5 July.  Congress ordered 200 copies.  On 8 July, the declaration was read aloud in front of the statehouse in Philadelphia.  New York agreed to support the statement on 9 July.  The official “original” was signed on 19 July, except that some members were absent, so the signing continued as the remaining members became available until 2 August.

No one in Congress celebrated the Declaration of Independence.  The mood was subdued; everyone understood that they had performed an act of high treason, and everyone realized the punishment for high treason was death.  Benjamin Rush later recalled that as congressional representatives signed the document, everyone believed they were signing their own death warrant. 

We celebrate our Independence Day on 4 July.  One day prior, British General Sir William Howe led the British Army ashore on Staten Island, New York; the hostilities that had begun in Massachusetts continued as part of the New York and New Jersey Campaign (July 1776-March 1777).  Howe drove Washington’s Continentals out of New York but erred by over-extending his reach into New Jersey.  General Howe could not exert complete control over both.  The best he could do and did do was maintain control of New York harbor.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

General Washington

General Washington was unable to hold New York, but neither was he finished with Howe.  Throughout his failed campaign, Washington received unsolicited intelligence reports from individual patriots.  After evacuating the Continental Army from Brooklyn Heights, General Washington asked William Heath and George Clinton to set up “a channel of information” on Long Island. 

Heath and Clinton began looking for volunteers for clandestine operations.  One of these volunteers was Captain Nathan Hale.[2]  Soon after signing on for secret service, the somewhat full of himself Hale traveled to New York City under an assumed name.  Unfortunately, not everyone is well-suited for espionage; Nathan Hale was one of these.  The British quickly unmasked Hale and almost as speedily executed him for high treason.

General Washington learned a valuable lesson from Hale’s execution, not the least of which was that for a secret mission to succeed — well, it must remain secret.  He also learned that volunteer spies simply wouldn’t do.  What he needed was a well-organized, discreet, professionally managed “secret service.”

After Hale’s execution, which historians claim deeply affected Washington, he decided that civilian spies would be less likely to attract attention than military officers.  Washington turned to William Duer to recommend someone to lead this effort in New York City.  Duer recommended Nathaniel Sackett.  However, Sackett was hesitant to take risks, and his intelligence (though worthy in some instances) took too long to produce.  Washington soon replaced Sackett with Captain Benjamin Tallmadge, Hale’s classmate at Yale.

In early 1777, Colonel Elias Dayton of the New Jersey Militia established a spy network on Staten Island.[3]  Colonel Dayton’s system eventually tied in with another, known as the Mersereau Ring.[4]

Following their victory at the Battle of Brandywine on 11 September 1777, the British occupied the city of Philadelphia on 26th September.  General Washington thereafter focused much of his espionage efforts within the city of Philadelphia.  Washington recruited Major John Clark, a wounded/recovering veteran of the Battle of Brandywine, to accomplish this.

In August 1778, Lieutenant Caleb Brewster of Norwalk, Connecticut, volunteered to provide General Washington with intelligence.  Washington found Brewster’s initial report quite helpful, so to expand Brewster’s usefulness, Washington appointed General Charles Scott as Brewster’s handler and tasked him to find additional spies, if possible.  Captain Tallmadge became General Scott’s principal assistant.  As it happened, both Tallmadge and Brewster were acquainted with Abraham Woodhull of Setauket (Long Island); Tallmadge suggested that Brewster recruit Woodhull to help channel information through the network.

Abe Woodhull was probably an ideal spy because he was a convicted smuggler.  Tallmadge may have reasoned that if the British suspected Woodhull of smuggling, it was unlikely that they would also suspect him of espionage.  Woodhull was in prison when Tallmadge made him the offer: his freedom in exchange for working for Tallmadge.  Once Woodhull agreed to the arrangement, Washington arranged his release from prison with Governor Jonathan Trumbull.  To protect Woodhull’s identity, Tallmadge gave him an alias: Samuel Culper, Sr.

Tallmadge and Scott had differing views about the best way to run an espionage ring.  Scott preferred single-mission agents — men he could send out on a mission, afterward returning to Scott with a full report, and whom he could then assign to subsequent missions.  Captain Tallmadge had a different idea: he wanted stabilized agents to collect information and pass it along (via courier) to Scott’s headquarters.  Both methods were effective, and both ways were hazardous.

After Scott lost sixty percent of his “single mission” agents, whom the British captured and executed, General Washington reasoned that since Tallmadge had not lost a single agent, his method of collecting and transmitting secret information was “best.”  When General Scott resigned his post, Washington replaced him with Tallmadge.

Woodhull/Culper proved his ability in October 1778 by providing Washington with valuable information about British activities in Philadelphia.  To assist him, Woodhull recruited his brother-in-law, Amos Underhill.  Underhill and his wife Mary (Woodhull’s sister) ran a boarding house and pub catering to British soldiers.  British soldiers do two things very well: they drink a lot, and they talk a lot.  Underhill’s initial problem was that Washington thought his initial reports were too vague.  It wasn’t enough to listen to what the British soldiers had to say; Washington expected Underhill to validate what they said, as well.

The process of conveying information to Brewster was dangerous, complex, and time-consuming.  When Brewster had information for Tallmadge, it was hand-carried from Staten Island to Setauket and then from Setauket to Tallmadge’s headquarters at Fairfield, Connecticut — a distance of 188 miles, 30 of it across Long Island Sound.  To accomplish this feat, Woodhull recruited two couriers: Jonas Hawkins and Austin Roe.  Their task was to carry messages between Woodhull and Brewster.  It was up to Brewster to deliver messages to Tallmadge.  Crossing the Long Island Sound in a small boat was no easy task.  Brewster had six “drop” sites.

Mary Underhill (who some claim was actually Anna Strong) assisted her husband by posting pre-arranged signals to indicate which spies had information to submit.  For example, if Mary hung a black petticoat on her wash line, Brewster had arrived in town.  If she hung up some quantity of handkerchiefs on her clothesline, it told the courier which of Brewster’s six drops the information was to go.  Is this true?  We aren’t sure, but it does indicate how intricate the spy network was (and had to be).

The British were many things, but stupid wasn’t one of them.  The British knew about Washington’s spying campaign.  They suspected Abraham Woodhull, Amos, and Mary Underhill, and they were keen to capture General Scott.  The British knew; the Americans knew that the British knew, and this made American spycraft all the more difficult because the British didn’t need indisputable proof of high treason.  Reasonable suspicion would be enough to send a spy to the gallows.

Everyone in Setauket with a role in Washington’s spy network became nervous when the British arrested John Wolsey, a known smuggler, and a master of self-preservation.  Sure enough, John Wolsey made a deal with the British.  In exchange for his liberty, he agreed to tell what he knew about Abraham Woodhull.  As it turned out, however, all Wolsey knew about Woodhull was something he’d overheard a lobsterback say … which was that Woodhull was suspected of being involved in a spying ring.

John Graves Simcoe

Wisely, Abe Woodhull was a cautious man who realized that he was operating on borrowed time.  With men like Wolsey running his gob, Woodhull was prudent to worry about his safety.  British Colonel John Graves Simcoe led his Queen’s Rangers to Setauket to look for Woodhull, who at the time was in New York.[5]  In the process of looking for Woodhull, Simcoe arrested his father, Judge Richard Woodhull, and had him tortured, inflicting him with grievous injuries to obtain information about his son.  A loyalist militia officer, Benjamin Floyd, who was married to a member of the Woodhull family, vouched for Abraham, which gave Simcoe pause in his investigation.  Subsequently, Woodhull conveyed to Tallmadge that he was not able to continue operating as a Continental spy.

In a letter to Tallmadge in late June, General Washington suggested considering Mr. George Higday as a possible replacement for Woodhull.  Unhappily for Higday, the British intercepted Washington’s letter, which prompted Colonel Banastre Tarleton’s raid into Tallmadge’s camp.[6]  Tarleton captured several documents, all confirming what the British already knew: Washington had spies.   Mr. Higday’s espionage career was over before it began.

Tarleton’s raid also convinced Abraham Woodhull that his early decision to retire was a wise and prudent course of action.  However, before his retirement, Woodhull did manage to recruit a new spy, a man named Robert Townsend.  Mr. Townsend’s alias was Samuel Culper, Jr.

Robert Townsend had several reasons for joining Washington’s spy network.  He was first of all motivated by Thomas Paine’s pamphlet Common Sense.[7]  He was also put off by British harassment of his family (because of their religious affiliation) — and because Abraham Woodhull was an excellent salesman.  As a devoted Quaker, Townsend could not participate as a soldier. Ordinarily, this belief system might have also prevented him from joining the spy network. Still, a schism between religious and political Quakers (aided by Paine) pushed Townsend into the “political camp.”[8]  There was one more provocation: Colonel Simcoe of the Queen’s Rangers seized the Townsend home and converted it into his headquarters.

Mr. Townsend was a businessman.  He owned a trade goods store and a coffee shop in partnership with Mr. James Rivington.  Mr. Rivington was the publisher of a loyalist newspaper, and Mr. Townsend was one of his regular journalists.  As a merchant, coffee shop owner, and reporter, Townsend had access to numerous British officers and NCOs and their places of patronage.  As a contributor to a loyalist newspaper, Townsend had credibility within loyalist society — such that British loyalists were happy to talk to him.  Both Townsend and Rivington formed the core elements of the Culper Ring in New York City.

Despite the stress of espionage, which produced strained relations within the Culper Ring, the effort produced more information than any other American or British intelligence network during the war.  American espionage focused on British troop movements, fortifications, and operational plans.  For example, the Culper Ring foiled British plans to ambush the French in Rhode Island.  Arguably, this information saved the Franco-American alliance.  Culper also uncovered the correspondence between Benedict Arnold and British Major John Andre, General Clinton’s chief intelligence officer.

To clarify what General Washington wanted from the Culper Ring, he provided them with specific instructions (see a special note below).

Townsend wasted little time energizing his spy activity.  Nine days after accepting Woodhull’s “offer of employment,” Townsend reported that two divisions of British infantry were preparing for an expedition to Connecticut.  In 1780, Townsend discovered a plot by British officials to ruin the American economy by circulating counterfeit currency.  He reported that the British hierarchy was optimistic about an imminent end to the war.  Townsend’s timely reporting permitted Congress to recall all of its money then in circulation.

Throughout his employment, Townsend remained suspicious of everyone and every circumstance.  To safeguard the identity of his spies, Tallmadge utilized several protective measures.  In addition to pseudonyms, Tallmadge also developed a system consisting of seven-hundred sixty-three numbers.  The number 745 represented England; 727 for New York; Robert Townsend was 723, and so forth.

Robert Townsend’s conduct of spycraft was both astute and sensible.  How sensible?  How good was Townsend at keeping secrets?  Townsend died on 7 March 1838.  He was 84 years old.  When he died, he took everything he knew about the Culper Ring with him.  What we know of Robert Townsend was only revealed in 1930 by American historian Morton Pennypacker.  Not even General Washington knew the identities of his spies.

And none of his spies knew that General Washington was Agent 711.


  1. Rose, A.  Washington’s Spies: The Story of America’s First Spy Ring.  Penguin Books/Random House, 2014.

Special Note:

General Washington’s Instructions:

  1. Culper Junior, to remain in the City, to collect all the useful information he can — to do this, he should mix as much as possible among the officers and refugees, visit the coffee houses, and all public places. He is to pay particular attention to the movements by land and water in and about the city especially.  How their transports are secured against an attempt to destroy them — whether by armed vessels upon the flanks, or by chains, booms, or any contrivances to keep off fire rafts.
  2. The number of men destined for the defense of the City and environs, endeavoring to designate the particular corps, and where each is posted.
  3. To be particular in describing the place where the works cross the island in the rear of the City-and how many redoubts are upon the line from the river to river, how many Cannon in each, and of what weight and whether the redoubts are closed or open next the city.
  4. Whether there are any works upon the Island of New York between those near the City and the works at Fort Knyphausen or Washington, and if any, whereabouts and of what kind.
  5. To be very particular to find out whether any works are thrown up on Harlem River, near Harlem Town, and whether Horn’s Hook is fortified. If so, how many men are kept at each place, and what number and what sized cannon are in those works.
  6. To enquire whether they have dug pits within and in front of the lines and works in general, three or four feet deep, in which sharp pointed stakes are pointed. These are intended to receive and wound men who attempt a surprise at night.
  7. The state of the provisions, forage and fuel to be attended to, as also the health and spirits of the Army, Navy and City.
  8. These are the principal matters to be observed within the Island and about the City of New York. Many more may occur to a person of C. Junr’s penetration which he will note and communicate.
  9. Culper Senior’s station to be upon Long Island to receive and transmit the intelligence of Culper Junior …
  10. There can be scarcely any need of recommending the greatest caution and secrecy in a business so critical and dangerous. The following seem to be the best general rules: To entrust none but the persons fixed upon to transmit the business. To deliver the dispatches to none upon our side but those who shall be pitched upon for the purpose of receiving them and to transmit them and any intelligence that may be obtained to no one but the Commander-in-Chief.


[1] The declaration took the form of a grand jury indictment — allegations not proven, and many that history proves were not even true.  In modern times, one popular axiom is that it’s possible to indict a ham sandwich and such was the case of America’s “indictment” of King George II.  The colonist’s real problem, aside from King George insisting on his prerogatives as Great Britain’s king, was the British Parliament, but since a government legislative body cannot be indicted, Jefferson and other members of Congress decided to make their point by indicting the King.

[2] Hale came from a prominent Connecticut family.  He began his education at Yale at the age of 14, attended classes with Benjamin Tallmadge, and figured rather prominently in the college’s debating society.  He graduated with honors in 1773 at the age of 18 years.  When the British executed Hale, he was 21 years old.

[3] Later, Revolutionary War brigadier general, mayor of Elizabethtown, and member of the New Jersey General Assembly.  He was the father of Jonathan, a signer of the U.S. Constitution.

[4] Started in December 1776, this operation focused on intelligence gathering in New Brunswick and New York.  John Mersereau was the primary supervisor of this effort.

[5] Simcoe, from Cornwall, was the only child in his family to survive into adulthood.  He entered British military service in 1770, participating in the Siege of Boston, New York, New Jersey, and Philadelphia campaigns.  Tradition holds that Simcoe, in ordering his men not to fire on three withdrawing Continental officers, saved George Washington’s life.  He later served as Upper Canada’s first lieutenant governor and was responsible for founding Toronto and for establishing Canada’s judicial system (1791-96).

[6] Contrary to how Mel Gibson portrayed him in the fictional film The Patriot, Tarleton was not so much of a scoundrel as he was a fighter.  He never burned down a South Carolina church filled with parishioners, but he did threaten to torch the home of General Charles Lee of New Jersey unless he surrendered to Tarleton’s authority.  At the Battle of Waxhaw, the 22-year-old captain, commanding provincial cavalry, assaulted a superior force of Continentals under Colonel Abraham Buford.  Buford refused to surrender despite the fact that Tarleton gave him that opportunity on two occasions.  With Buford’s refusal, Tarleton’s force of 149 troops attacked Buford incessantly, killing 113 Americans, wounding 203, and taking prisoners of those left alive when Buford finally agreed to surrender.  The Americans called it a massacre; it was no such thing.  It was war.  Tarleton was not the butcher revisionists have claimed.

[7] Paine argued that any Quaker who believed in pacifism at any price was not a true Quaker.

[8] Religious Quakers were among the strongest supporters of the British during the revolutionary war period. 

That Splendid Little War

The seeds of the Spanish-American War

Background to the Modern Navy

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

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

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

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

Background to Cuba and the Spanish Empire

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

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

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

The Plot to Aid Cubans

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Executions

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

The Executions

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

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

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

The United States’ Response

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

War with Spain (1898)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, America went to war.


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


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

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

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

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

Edward Marcus Despard

Colonel, British Army, Executed

Edward Despard (1751-1803) was an Anglo-Irish British officer — the brother of General John Despard.  He was an “acquired” gentleman and soldier through his service as a squire in the household of Lord Hertford.  Edward entered the British Army as an Ensign with subsequent service with the 50th Regiment of Foot in Jamaica.  He initially served as an engineer; his construction duties required that he supervise the so-called motley crews, including free blacks and mixed-race “Miskitos.”  He employed these people and worked them hard, but he also sympathized with them.

Colonel Despard

Despard served with distinction in operations against Spanish Guatemala during the American Revolution.  He fought under Admiral Horatio Nelson during the San Juan expedition (1780), and in 1782, while serving as a captain, Despard commanded the British force at the Battle of Black River.  In recognition of Despard’s courage in the heat of battle, the Army promoted him to Colonel. He continued to lead reconnaissance missions, relying on people of color to help him defeat his Spanish foe; it was through this experience that he developed an affinity for those whom, he felt, lived together in “perfect equality.”

After the Treaty of Paris in 1783, Colonel Despard supervised the British logwood concession in the Bay of Honduras, then known as British Honduras (now as Belize).  Working under the British Foreign Ministry, Colonel Despard sought to accommodate displaced British subjects along the Miskito Coast. Despard’s problem was that in attempting to distribute land equally without regard for color, he ran afoul of British slave traders and landowners. His lottery system afforded people of color equal opportunity for land acquisition, which placed them in competition with white landowners seeking to make their fortune in the harvesting of mahogany timber.

Unfortunately, the British Home Secretary found agreement with white landowners that it was impolitic to afford people of color an equal footing with wealthy businessmen, who also happened to be white. Colonel Despard replied to Lord Sydney[1] that the laws of England made no such distinction.  In 1790, Lord Grenville,[2] who replaced Thomas Townshend, recalled Despard to London to answer questions relative to certain “irregularities” in his governorship.

When Colonel Despard arrived in London, he traveled with his wife Catherine and son James.  Catherine, a black woman, was the daughter of a protestant minister.  Since mixed marriages were almost unheard of in England, the union created a stir, but mainstream society never challenged it.

After Colonel Despard’s arrest, Catherine worked to bring attention to the unfair (malicious) manner of the government’s accusations of alleged irregularities.  Seeking to discredit her, the British government referred to her efforts as the “fair sex” intercession, with no mention of her race.  In the minds of Despard’s enemies, it was enough to suggest that this weak-minded woman was being used to further the goals of political subversives.  As it happened, Despard’s descendants later repudiated Edward and Catherine’s marriage by referring to Catherine as Edward’s black housekeeper and “the poor woman who called herself his wife.”  Despard’s son James was described as the offspring of a previous lover, and both Catherine and James were quietly removed from the family tree.

While the government investigated Colonel Despard’s irregularities, he was confined in debtor’s prison for two years on trumped-up charges.  While confined to his dank cell, Despard read Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man.  Paine’s argument vindicated Despard’s view of universal equality, which is how he conducted himself as governor of British Honduras.  At the time the British released Despard from prison in 1794, Thomas Paine was living in France and Paine’s writings were popular among people who shared Despard’s view, particularly the Irish.

Between 1792 and 1797, the United Kingdom was a member of a loosely constructed European coalition against the French First Republic — known as the Wars of the First Coalition.  In 1791, European monarchies viewed developments in the French Revolution with considerable concern for the welfare of Louis XVI and his family and other matters.  Although the coalition was uncoordinated, the first act of violence occurred when France declared war on Austria in April 1792, Prussia declared war on France in June 1792, and both Austria and Prussia invaded France in September 1792.  It did not help matters when the French executed Louis XVI on 21 January 1793.  The British kept their distance from the mainland battles but did manage to irritate the French by supporting French loyalists against the Republic.

At the time of its war with France, high-ranking members of Parliament made a connection between Thomas Paine, Edward Despard, other Irish malcontents, and certain seditious efforts to undermine the authority of King George III.  Indeed, some among these men were voicing suggestions of armed rebellion.  Unrelated to this movement, one fellow attempted to assassinate King George.  He was acquitted based on insanity but institutionalized, nevertheless.  Earlier, in 1793, authorities arrested three prominent citizens, members of “corresponding” societies, charged them with sedition and sentenced them to fourteen years of penal transportation.[3]

In the summer of 1795, crowds shouting “No War, No Pitt, Cheap Bread” attacked the residence of British Prime Minister William Pitt (The Younger)[4] and consequently surrounded King George III in procession to Parliament.  There was also a riot at Charing Cross, at which location authorities detained Edward Despard and questioned him about his involvement in those riots if any.  A magistrate later suggested to Despard that he may have brought the matter upon himself by his flippant answers to initial questions.  In October 1795, Parliament passed the Seditious Meetings Act, which made it a crime to attend meetings that were even remotely suggestive of treasonous activity.

Notwithstanding the Gag Act, Colonel Despard joined the London Corresponding Society and was quickly elevated to its central committee.  When the Irish movement turned toward the prospect of a French-assisted insurrection, Despard took the “United Irish” pledge to obtain complete and adequate representation for all the people of Ireland.  In the summer of 1797, a Catholic priest named James Coigly traveled to Manchester where he demanded Englishmen to join Ireland in removing the king, to “…exalt him that is low and abuse him that is high.”  In furtherance of this goal, Coigly met in London with groups calling themselves United Bretons, and with Irish leaders of the London Corresponding Society, which in addition to Alexander Galloway, included Despard, and Benjamin and John Binns, members who “committed themselves” to overthrowing the present government and joining the French as soon as they made a landing in Ireland.  Only poor weather prevented a French landing from taking place.

Historians believe Despard held a liaison position between British republicans and the French Republic at this junction.  In June 1797, a government informer reported that a United Irish delegation intending to travel to France via London applied to the British government for their departure clearance.  In March 1798, while attempting to cross the English Channel to France, British agents arrested Coigly and Arthur O’Connor.  O’Connor, highly placed and vouched for, was acquitted of the charge of sedition.  Coigly, on the other hand, with French documents in his possession, was charged and convicted of treason and then hanged.  There may not have been a mass movement to overthrow King George III, but there was undoubtedly an attempt to invite and encourage a French invasion of Ireland.

Soon after, British authorities arrested Despard and thirty others and confined them to the Clerkenwell prison.  Despard was retained for three years while British agents infiltrated committees of correspondence and began a system of suppression of those and workman’s unions, which the government outlawed.

Although retained for three years behind bars, government prosecutors never charged Despard with an offense.  Despard was set free in 1802, and he returned to Ireland, where he rejoined the anti-British movement in his home county.  Whether Despard realized it or not, British informers riddled the county.  Meanwhile, in England, a large influx of unhappy Irish refugees restarted a republican movement.

Despard c. 1803

On 16 November 1802, British agents arrested Colonel Despard for attending and meeting with forty or so workers.  The next day, the Privy Council officially charged him with High Treason.[5]  Admiral Lord Nelson appeared as a defense witness, but the fact that Nelson had not seen Despard for twenty years diminished his glowing report.  In the end, Despard was found guilty of only one overt act — his oath to Ireland republicanism.  Nevertheless, Colonel Despard, Private John Wood, Private John Francis, carpenter Thomas Boughton, shoemaker James Wratten, slater Arthur Graham, and laborer John McNamara were all sentenced to hang and be drawn and quartered.

British executioners carried out Colonel Despard’s sentence on 21 February 1803.  It is entirely possible that Colonel Despard, having great sympathy for the Miskito people and the common man, may have become a useful idiot to Irish and British republicans.  Nevertheless, 20,000 British citizens attended his final farewell, the largest ever gathering in London until the death of Lord Nelson.

Catherine and James Despard vanished into history.  Three months later, the United Kingdom went to war with France, remembered in history as the Napoleonic Wars (1803 – 1815).


  1. Carroll, D.  The Usual Suspects: Twelve Radical Clergy.  Columbia Press, 1998.
  2. Conner, Clifford D.  Colonel Despard: The Life and Times of an Anglo-Irish Rebel.  Combined Publishing, 2000.
  3. Madden, R. R.  The United Irishmen: Their lives and times.  Madden & Company Press, 1846.


[1] Thomas Townshend, 1st Viscount Sydney served in British politics from 1754-1783 and as Home Secretary from 1783-1789.  He was a cousin of Charles Townshend, the man responsible for the Townshend Acts, which were one cause of the American War of Independence.

[2] William Grenville later served as British Prime Minister (1806-1807).

[3] The forced relocation of persons convicted of crimes, or judged undesirable, to distant places (penal colonies).  Most of such persons did not have the money to return to their homes once released from confinement.

[4] Pitt The Younger was the son of William Pitt, 1st Earl Chatham, who also served as Prime Minister (1766-1768).  Fort Pitt was named in honor of William the Elder, present-day Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

[5] In the United Kingdom, high treason equates to disloyalty to the Crown, which includes plotting the murder of the sovereign, or sexual dalliances with members of the royal family, levying war against the sovereign, consorting with the sovereign’s enemies, giving aid and comfort to the enemy, and attempting to undermine lawful authority.