At Penobscot

The first colonial resolution for creating a naval force came from Rhode Island on 12 June 1775.  One old saying is that “necessity is the mother of invention.”  Not that a navy was a new idea, but rather the realization that if the colonies intended to make good on their declaration of independence, they would need freedom of navigation and stout defense of the colony’s long coastline to do it.  Rhode Island took this initiative because the Royal Navy’s harassment costs to that colony’s shipping were high.  Two months later, Rhode Island proposed a single Continental Fleet (funded by all thirteen colonies, of course).

In October 1775, Congress passed a resolution creating the Continental Navy.  It would take something more than a piece of paper to build an adequate navy, of course, and the fact is that the Continental Navy had a somewhat rough beginning.  But by the early part of 1779, America’s naval effort against British shipping had a favorable impact.  Privateers, particularly those working the Atlantic between New York and Nova Scotia, had become exceptionally proficient in intercepting and assaulting British cargo vessels — so well, in fact, that by the spring, the Royal Navy began escorting convoys of cargo ships to North America.

The downside of the British convoy system was that it siphoned off Royal Navy ships from other tasks.  Moreover, the activities of American privateers forced the British to develop the strategy of taking shelter in protected anchorages near active sea lanes — places from which they could dispatch patrols against American raiders.  The coast of Maine was especially useful in this regard because of its many estuaries, because the region contained a large number of British loyalists, and because the forested areas in Maine were a primary source of timber for American shipbuilding.[1]

General Sir Henry Clinton, Commander-in-Chief of British forces in the colonies, instructed the commander of British forces in Nova Scotia, Brigadier General Francis McLean, to establish a fortification on the Penobscot River — one capable of housing 400-500 men, with a magazine.  Beyond the construction of a fortification, Clinton also instructed McLean to offer land grants to local inhabitants in exchange for their oath of loyalty to the British Crown.  McLean’s regiment would consist of 400 men from the 74th Regiment of Foot (Argyle Highlanders) and another 100 men from the King’s Orange Rangers (a loyalist regiment in New Jersey).[2]

In May 1779, General McLean decided to enlarge his force to 640 men.  Four-hundred forty of these would come from the 74th Regiment under the command of Lieutenant Colonel John Campbell, and, since the King’s Orange Rangers could not provide an additional 100 men, McLean decided to excuse the rangers from service and replace them with 200 men from his own regiment, the 82nd.

General McLean’s convoy departed Halifax on 30 May escorted by HMS Blonde, HMS North, HMS Nautilus, HMS Albany, and HMS Hope.  Pathfinders reconnoitered the banks of the Penobscot River in mid-June to find a suitable site for the fort.  McLean decided on a peninsula that extends into the bay from the eastern shore known as Bagaduce.  At the time of McLean’s arrival at Bagaduce, the land was covered by an evergreen forest of fir and pine.  A protected bay opened to the South.  For his building site, the General chose an elevated plateau near the middle of the peninsula.  From that position, McLean’s cannon could command access to the bay.  A thick forest obscured the river (western side) of the arm.

Once General McLean’s force and supplies had been off-loaded, he anticipated that Captain Andrew Barkley, commanding the flotilla, would leave several ships at anchor in the bay.  Barkley, however, intended to withdraw all his ships except HMS Albany (under Captain Henry Mowat).  An argument ensued between Barkley and McLean, which was only resolved when Barkley became aware that several American frigates operated off the coast of Halifax.  Without Barkley’s flotilla, Halifax was virtually at the mercy of the American navy.  Eventually, Captain Barkley permitted HMS Albany, HMS North, and HMS Nautilus to remain behind at Bagaduce along with McLean’s transport ships.

American rebels quickly learned of McLean’s landing.  One rumor warned that General McLean commanded 1,500 men.  Brigadier General Charles Cushing of the Massachusetts militia suggested that several county militias might be required to disengage McLean.  Rebel spies kept the Council of Massachusetts regularly informed of McLean’s activities.[3]  With so much reliance upon the sea for its economic welfare, it would only be a matter of time before the Americans challenged the British in Nova Scotia.

The alarmed Council of Massachusetts wasted no time in making an appeal to the Congressional Navy Board for their assistance in removing the British threat.  The Navy Board advised its Marine Committee of these circumstances and tendered its recommendation that Congress order its ships to address this new British threat.

Money was tight in 1779.  Even before the Marine Committee could formulate its reply, the Navy Board sent a letter back to the Massachusetts Council informing them that the Navy Board concurred with any “proper measures” Massachusetts may undertake to dislodge the enemy from Penobscot.  Apparently, without saying as much, the Continental Congress thought it would be great if Massachusetts paid for the operation.  Congress did offer them the services of Captain Dudley Saltonstall and four Continental Navy ships to achieve the ouster of the British garrison at Penobscot, however.

As a senior Continental Navy officer, Saltonstall would serve as commodore of Continental and Massachusetts ships.[4]   Preparation for the sea began aboard the sloops Warren, Providence, and Brige.  Taking a ship to sea in 1779 was difficult because recruiting experienced crews was nearly impossible.  Experienced sailors preferred to serve aboard privateers where the pay was better and sea passages much safer.

On 29 June 1779, the Council of Massachusetts formed a small committee whose task was to direct the province of New Hampshire to raise a militia.  The Council of New Hampshire agreed to send a 20-gun privateer, the HampdenHampden was armed with six and 9-pound cannon and carried a complement of 130 men.  In addition to Hampden and the four Continental ships, the American flotilla would include three vessels of the Massachusetts Navy, twelve privateers paid for by Massachusetts, and several merchant ships hired to carry supplies from Boston and militia from York Lincoln, and Cumberland counties.

In addition to Continental Marines serving aboard Captain Saltonstall’s ships, the plan for the Penobscot Expedition included 1,500 militia recruited from Maine’s three southern-most counties.  Unfortunately, it was no easier to recruit soldiers than it was sailors and Maine recruiters fell short of their quota by around six hundred men.

The solution to Maine’s shortage of volunteers was conscription, which netted mostly young boys, invalids, and elderly men.  Without waiting for a second draft effort, Maine’s Adjutant General marched his 433 men to a rendezvous at Townsend (present-day Boothbay Harbor).  The number of men drafted from York and Lincoln was also disappointing.  At Townsend, militia Brigadier General Solomon Lovell, the designated commander of land forces, could only muster 873 men.

There was no time to train these men.  The Council of Massachusetts wanted to assault Bagaduce before the British could complete the construction of their fort.  General Lovell opted to take his small force ahead to Bagaduce while a call for more men went out to adjacent colonies.  If mustered, these additional men would proceed to Bagaduce as soon as possible; if not, then Lovell would have to make do with what he had.

Small groups of transport ships and privateers rendezvoused in Nantasket Roads during mid-July.  Given the primitive communications of the day, one wonders how long a ship’s captain would wait around for something to happen before losing interest. Still, by 23 July, all naval units were anchored off Townsend, and militia began boarding their transports.

Captain Saltonstall’s flotilla set sail on 24 July.  He had earlier sent Tyrannicide and Hazard ahead to scout for British ships.  A short distance into the Bay, Captain Williams of the Hazard dispatched Marine Second Lieutenant William Cunningham ashore to find local inhabitants who might provide valuable intelligence about enemy activities.  We do not know the details of Cunningham’s scouting party; we only know that he returned with three men.

After Saltonstall arrived in Penobscot Bay on 25 July, Captain Williams dispatched Cunningham and his men to the flagship Warren to brief Commodore Saltonstall on what they’d learned.  Meanwhile, through other sources, Saltonstall learned of the presence in nearby Camden of Mr. James Mills Mitchell, a man reputedly familiar with the area where the British fort was under construction.  We know Saltonstall conferred with Mitchell; we simply do not know what they discussed.

After that, Captain Saltonstall ordered Lieutenant Brown, commanding Diligent, to reconnoiter the riverbank near Bagaduce.  While performing this mission, Brown observed three men waving from shore to gain his attention.  One of the three men reported that he had observed British activities and estimated the number of soldiers between 450-500.  He said that the fort was not quite half-completed.  Brown sent these men along to Warren, where they made their report to Captain Saltonstall.  Lieutenant Brown had no personal knowledge of McLean’s dispositions or activities, but that didn’t prevent him from advising Saltonstall to prepare for an immediate attack.  In Brown’s opinion, the fort could be “easily taken.”

Commodore Saltonstall was not easily persuaded.  He remarked to Brown, “Only a madman would go in before they had reconnoitered, and it would be the height of madness even to attempt it.”  Saltonstall was wisely prudent because nothing of what had been reported to him had any basis in fact.  Saltonstall, for example, was told that the fort’s walls were barely three feet high when the fortification was much further along.

General McLean had either co-opted local inhabitants or pressed them into labor parties to strengthen the fort. He had mounted his cannon to support his infantry, the defensive lines had been closed, and his construction included chevaux-de-frise defensive works.[5]  His shore battery firing positions had been raised to allow for firing in barbette. McLean had also stripped the cannon from the starboard side of British vessels (they were arranged in line with the port side outward), placing these cannons at various sites ashore.

In preparation for the American assault, General Lovell directed Marines and militia to probe the British line. Undercover of naval artillery from Hazard, Tyrannicide, and Sally, Lovell ordered the landing force ashore on Sunday, 25 July (the first day of hostilities).  Seven American boats were able to approach the shore, but strong winds produced a severe chop in bay waters, preventing most boats from reaching shore.  Seven boats did approach the beach, but intense British fire turned them back. Irregular cannonades were exchanged with minor damage to either side. Lovell canceled the attack.

The sporadic naval fire was again exchanged throughout the day on 26 July, with minor damage to either side. Still, the action did cause the British to re-position their ships further up into the harbor to tighten their defensive line.

At 18:00 on Monday, Captain Saltonstall dispatched Marine Captain John Walsh to Banks Island, where the British had established several cannon positions.  Walsh secured his objective, but with no further orders, he set up defensive positions on the island and ordered his Marines to begin constructing field cannon positions from which the Americans might fire on British ships and land positions.  Walsh’s landing forced the British ships to once again re-position themselves.

While Walsh led his Marines to Banks Island, Major Daniel Littlefield, commanding militia, led an assault force to seize a British position near the entrance to the Bagaduce River.  While approaching the shore, a shot from British cannon landed in Littlefield’s boat, killing him and three others.  General Lovell detailed a third force of men to go ashore and begin constructing a siege position.  The Americans were under constant British fire throughout their effort to develop a foothold.

On Tuesday evening, a substantial disagreement developed between General Lovell, his deputy, Brigadier General Peleg Wadsworth,[6] Captain Saltonstall, and a few more senior naval commanders.  Militia officers favored a vigorous naval assault against the British vessels in the harbor.  If these ships could be destroyed, they argued, the land campaign would be more easily started and more likely of success on the harbor side of the peninsula.  Navy officers, including Saltonstall, argued that the army and Marines should first land and overrun the fort; this would allow the American fleet to “safely destroy the British vessels.”  Overrunning the fort would be easier said than done given the precipitous cliffs fronting the fort.  Further complicating the discord between the naval and land commanders, several privateer captains grew impatient and circulated a petition urging Saltonstall to proceed with this operation without further delay.[7]

At this council of war, which was held aboard Warren, the Americans decided to proceed with their assault on Bagaduce.  The landing force consisted of around 850 militia and 227 Marines.  Eighty cannoneers served under Lieutenant Colonel Paul Revere.

Saltonstall directed that preparations for the assault begin at midnight, which achieved little more than deprive the men of sleep.  His plan divided the landing force into three sections.  As the senior Marine officer, Captain John Walsh would lead his men ashore on the American right.  Colonel McCobb’s Lincoln County militia and LtCol Revere’s artillerists would serve in reserve.  Colonel Jonathon Mitchell’s Cumberland County militia would go ashore on the American left.  Once ashore, Brigadier General Wadsworth would exercise overall command of the land forces.

Loading flat bottomed boats with so many armed men was a time-consuming effort, and the men were left standing in the boats for most of the night.  American naval fire began at 03:00.  At first light, the landing boats began their movement to shore under the cover of a dense fog, which made the movement to shore dangerously confusing.  Marines and militia began their landing at around 05:00; they were met by heavy British musket fire.  Moving in small groups, the men started their climb up the precipice essentially one-handed while holding their weapons on their non-dominant hand.

Mitchell’s force encountered McLean’s 82nd Regiment.  For the most part, the 82nd was composed of inexperienced soldiers, which allowed the militia to overrun them without much difficulty.  On the right, Walsh confronted McLean’s more experienced men, then serving under Lieutenant John Moore.[8]  While the Marines advanced with deadly resolve, Lieutenant Moore, with only twenty soldiers remaining alive, was equally tenacious in holding the line.  Captain Walsh was killed, his second in command, First Lieutenant William Hamilton was severely wounded, yet the Marines continued their assault.  Moore, in danger of being encircled, finally withdrew to the fort.

As the Marines regrouped, they counted their losses of 34 men, including Welsh and Hamilton.  Marine First Lieutenant William Downe assumed command on the right and continued his assault.  According to Downe, it looked as if General McLean was ready to concede the fort — and might have done so were it not for the fact that the Marines did not receive the naval artillery support they expected from Saltonstall.  Saltonstall’s failure to support the Marines and murderous fire from the British forced Downe to assume defensive positions.

By the end of the day, the Americans had established a 180° defense and proceeded to move their artillery ashore.  McLean, however, was firmly in control of Fort George.  Concentrated artillery fire forced the Americans to entrench.  Sleep-deprived, the militia were becoming unruly and not simply a little displeased with the navy’s lack of artillery support.

Sometime during the morning of 29 July, Commodore Saltonstall decided that it might be a good idea to construct a fortification facing the British.  Captain Salter of Hampden and Captain Thomas of Vengeance would supervise the work of sixteen engineers to build the American fort.  Now, if Saltonstall believed the militiamen were rowdy on 29th July, the attitude of the troops on 5 August was positively murderous.  They were tired of “dicking around.”

General Lovell, commanding ground forces, sent a note to Saltonstall asking whether his ships would enter the harbor to support the land force.  Everyone ashore wanted to know the answer, but Saltonstall felt it necessary to convene another series of war councils before answering.  Saltonstall decided, finally, that Lovell would receive no naval support until after he had taken Fort George.  At a subsequent meeting of militia officers, it was unanimously decided that if those were Saltonstall’s terms, he could bloody well take the fort himself.

For his part, General Lovell was steadfast in keeping the Massachusetts Council apprised of the progress of the Penobscot Expedition; the Council had heard nothing at all from Saltonstall.  When the Council finally understood how dire the situation was at Penobscot, they requested immediate reinforcements from General Horatio Gates, who was then at Providence.  Gates had no opportunity to respond to this emergency — it would have taken him far too long to recruit adequate reinforcements.  In any case, by that time, the Penobscot Expedition had already fallen apart.

By 13 August, General McLean had nearly completed his fort and a British fleet, having heard of the assault on 28 July, was en route to Penobscot under the command of Admiral Sir George Collier.  Lovell and his officers, no longer participating in expedition planning with the naval force, developed their own plan for assaulting the British fort.  Before the operation could be implemented, however, a heavy fog set in.  When it lifted, Collier’s flotilla was observed entering the lower bay with ten warships.  Although fewer in number than the Americans, the British fleet was experienced, proven in warfare, and more heavily armed.  Saltonstall was lucky that a rain squall appeared, followed by more fog and then darkness — but the American’s luck didn’t hold.

At first light, the British began their approach.  The American ships broke and ran from the fight and headed upstream, hoping to find small inlets where they could hide.  By nightfall, most American ships, including transports, had either been captured by the British or destroyed by their own crews.  Most of the landing force fled through the Maine wilderness, leaving behind them on the shores of the Penobscot River the smoldering remains of the American fleet.  The expedition’s survivors began filtering into Boston during the first week in September.

News of the Penobscot disaster shocked and demoralized the colony of Massachusetts.   Except for the three Continental ships and one ship from New Hampshire, the Massachusetts colony agreed to indemnify the owners of its ships for any damages or losses.  Including the cost of the expedition, Massachusetts added more than £4-million to its debt.  Worse, Massachusetts had lost its entire navy.  Someone would have to account.

Courts-martial exonerated Generals Lovell and Wadsworth of ineptitude.  Commodore Saltonstall, on the other hand, was tried and found guilty of gross incompetence.  A navy board determined that Saltonstall was wholly unfit to command a navy ship and stripped him of his commission.

As for the Continental Marines, their numbers being relatively small, they were never able to influence the events of the Penobscot River Expedition.  They performed admirably when called upon, as evidenced by the seizure of Banks Island, and seizing the heights at Bagaduce. Still, this valor was insufficient to compensate for the navy’s failed leadership.

There are as many lessons in failure as there are from success.  Despite achieving a near-victory, the Americans guaranteed their own defeat — first by failing to maintain unity of command, second by failing to develop a communications plan, third by poor operational planning, the employment of an untrained militia, and worst of all, timid senior commanders.

The cost of Penobscot was high.  From a strength of around 700 soldiers and ten warships, McLean held off an American force of 3,000 (navy and militia), 19 warships, and 25 support vessels.  McLean lost 86 men, killed, wounded, captured, or missing.  The Americans gave up 474 killed, wounded, captured, or missing, 19 warships destroyed, and 25 support ships sunk, destroyed, or captured.  General McLean retained his small settlement in Maine until the British force was withdrawn of their own accord.[9]  General McLean passed away from an illness in 1781. 

The United States did not seriously consider another large-scale amphibious operation until the Mexican-American War (1846-48).

Sources:

  1. Bicheno, H.  Redcoats, and Rebels: The American Revolutionary War.  London: Harper Collins, 2003.
  2. Buker, G. E.  The Penobscot Expedition: Commodore Saltonstall and the Massachusetts Conspiracy of 1779.  Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2002.
  3. Smith, C. R.  Marines in the Revolution: A History of the Continental Marines in the American Revolution, 1775-1783.  Washington: Headquarters, U. S. Marine Corps, 1975.

Endnotes:

[1] Maine was then known as the Eastern Provinces of Massachusetts Bay.  Some historians believe that Maine might have been looked upon as a location for a new British colony — one set aside for British loyalists in American.  It would be called New Ireland, and it would be located between the Penobscot and St. Croix rivers.

[2] Roughly one-third of the residents of New Jersey remained loyal to the British crown.

[3] Boston had become a center for privateering activities; McLean’s presence in Maine threatened the privateers, who were heavily invested in ships and crews. 

[4] Saltonstall (1738-1796) was a descendant of Sir Richard Saltonstall and John Winthrop, who governed the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the 17th Century.  Politically well-connected in the colonies, Dudley received his commission in the Continental Navy upon the recommendations of his brother-in-law, Silas Deane, who served  on Connecticut’s Naval Committee.  He first commanded the flag ship of Commodore Esek Hopkins, Alfred and was responsible for hiring John Paul Jones as First Lieutenant.  In 1779, Saltonstall was the senior Continental Navy officer based in Boston.

[5] The chevaux-de-frise was an anti-cavalry defense work consisting of a portable frame covered with several to many long-iron projections, spikes, or spears.

[6] Brigadier General Peleg Wadsworth (1748-1829) served as a general officer in the Massachusetts militia, district of Maine, as Adjutant General of Massachusetts, and as second in command to Brigadier Solomon Lovell during the Penobscot Expedition.  He later served as a congressman from Massachusetts.  He was the grandfather of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

[7] Thirty-two naval officers from 11 ships signed the petition.

[8] Later, Lieutenant-General Sir John Moore (1761-1809), also known as Moore of Corunna, was known for his tenacity in combat.  During the Peninsular War, Moore repulsed the army of Marshal Soult at Corunna, giving up his life in a valiant contest of martial will.

[9] A fictionalized account of the Penobscot Expedition was the subject of Bernard Cornwall’s book entitled The Fort (published 2010).


The War Crimes that Weren’t

We’ve been looking for the enemy for several days now, and we’ve finally found them.  We’re surrounded.  That simplifies our problem of getting to these people and killing them.”  —Colonel Lewis B. Puller, Commanding Officer, 1st Marine Regiment, November 1950.

Colonel Puller’s comment was motivational to the Marines of the 1st Marine Division in the Korean War, suggesting to the American press of his day that when the going gets tough, the tough get going.  Now, however, seventy years later, the American people no longer know who the enemy is — and this is probably because there are too many candidates to choose from.

The oath of office and enlistment reads:

  • For officers

“I, _________ do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter.  So help me God.”

  • For enlistees

“I, __________ do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice.  So help me God.”

One will note that these obligations specifically stipulate “all enemies, foreign and domestic.”

Who are the enemies of the United States?  Is it, for example —

  • The politician who is so invested, financially and professionally, in the war industries that s/he has never seen a war that they didn’t absolutely love?
  • The politician that sends young Americans to war, and then ties their hands so that they cannot fight it, cannot win it, or cannot survive it?
  • The politician that sends young Americans into a combat zone, and later labels them as war criminals — and through such labeling, utterly destroy them as American servicemen.
  • Fearful and incompetent senior officers who will not make a momentous combat decision without first consulting with a lawyer?
  • The journalist or media manager who collaborates with the enemy?

An aside: is there any substantial difference between the politician who sends young Americans to war, and the Islamic goombah who wraps teenagers in bomb vests and sends them out to do the most harm?  The difference between the two, or so it seems to me, is that the Islamacist proudly admits to his behavior, while the self-perpetuating American politician wraps his baloney in the American flag and national interests.

We frequently hear presidents and members of congress lecturing to us about our national interests, but they never seem to get around to explain, in detail, what those national interests are.  What, for example, were the United States’ interests in invading Afghanistan or Iraq — and why is our military still in Afghanistan twenty years after the attacks on 9/11?  One further question: if sending our young men and women to the Middle East to engage in lethal combat was or continues to be in our national interests, then why does our government prosecute our combat troops for doing what they are trained to do?

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.

A few questions:

  1. If the battle for Fallujah was a critical objective to begin with, then why would “bad press” force senior military officials to back out?
  2. Note that the formal definition of “civilian” is someone who is not a member of the armed forces or a law enforcement organization.  By what justification, then, do we regard any Moslem a civilian who picks up an AK-47 or RPG with lethal intent?  Two principles of warfare come into play.  First, humanitarian law governing the use of force in an armed conflict requires belligerents to distinguish between combatants and civilians.  Since Moslems with AK-47s are combatants, they cannot also be civilians.  Another important principle of warfare is proportionality.  In the legal use of force, belligerents must minimize the harm caused to civilians and civilian property consistent with the advantages of military objectives.  Non-uniformed combatants who use civilian property as firing points or defensive structures become legitimate military targets.

The fight unfolded on video taken by an unmanned aerial vehicle.  The UAV followed a Marine infantry company as it engaged armed enemy (civilians) in the city streets.  The Marines were in a tough spot because the “civilian” insurgents were laying down accurate fire from the minaret of the Abdul-Aziz al-Samarai mosque.  During the fight, “civilian” insurgents moved in and out of the mosque, either to bolster their defenses or resupply the insurgents with ammunition.  What made this a critical situation was that the stymied Marines could not keep pace with other advancing elements of the assault force, and this in turn exposed the flanks of the advancing elements to enemy fire.

The battle raged for two hours (all recorded on video).  Meanwhile, five Marines were wounded and evacuated.  Rules of engagement precluded the use of heavy machine guns but small arms fire wasn’t getting the job done.  The company commander radioed back to his higher headquarters asking for assistance.  The battalion commander couldn’t decide about “next steps” until first consulting with a team of lawyers.  While the legal meeting was going on, the enemy continued to inflict casualties on the Marines.  Eventually, higher authority authorized the use of a hellfire missile to take out the minaret.  The aircraft launched missile missed the target and slammed into the ground with no effect on the enemy.  The company commander then requested an airstrike.  Another meeting took place.  Two 500-pound bombs opened a wall in the mosque and the Marines were able to advance and secure the mosque.

The UAV camera captured the explosion.  While opening one wall, the building remained intact.  There were no bodies … live or otherwise … near the point of detonation.  There were no casualties inside or around the mosque.  In fact, when the Marines entered the mosque, all they found was spent casings from rounds fired.

But that didn’t stop the news assault on the Marines.  Associated Press reporter Abdul-Qader Saadi, provided an “eyewitness account” of the incident.  He reported, “A U.S. helicopter fired three missiles at a mosque compound in the city of Fallujah on Wednesday, killing about 40 people as American forces batted Sunni insurgents, witnesses said.  Cars ferried bodies from the scene, although there was no immediate confirmation of casualties.  The strike came as worshippers gathered for afternoon prayers, witnesses said.”

Saadi’s story was entirely fictitious.  Nothing even remotely similar to this story happened, but that didn’t stop the press from repeating it across multiple outlets, including BBC, and Agence France-Presse.  Then AP modified their story to include a statement by an unnamed Marine official who “confirmed” the alleged 40 dead worshippers.  This too was a lie.  No Marine officer confirmed anything of the sort.

What did happen was captured on video.  The video, however, having been taken as part of a classified system, could not be released to the press — but a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, Tony Perry, witnessed the event as an “embed.”  Reporter Gwen Ifill interviewed Perry and the conversation follows:

            Ifill: We did hear today about an attack on a mosque that killed anywhere from 40 to 60 people.  Were you with that unit and can you describe what happened?

            Perry:  Yeah, I’m with that unit right now.  The first reports are a little misleading.  What happened here … there are several mosques that have been used by the insurgents as places to either gather or strategize or even fire at Marines.  One particular mosque had about 30 to 40 insurgents in it.  They had snipers.  They wounded five Marines.  There were ambulances that drove up and the Marines let them come in to take the insurgent wounded away.  But instead, people with RPGs jumped out of the ambulances and started fighting with the Marines.  Ultimately, what the Marines did is call in airpower.  A helicopter dropped a Hellfire missile and then an F-16 dropped a laser-guided bomb on the outside of the mosque, put a huge crater outside the mosque.  There’s sort of a plaza outside the mosque.  And suddenly, the firing inside stopped.  But when the Marines examined the mosque and went in and went door to door in the mosque and floor to floor, they found no bodies, nor did they find the kind of blood and guts one would presume if people had died.  Now one or two things must have happened: either the people died inside and were carried off somehow — and there is a tradition of the insurgents carting off their dead very quickly; or, two, frankly, they escaped before the bomb was dropped.  We cannot confirm that anybody actually died in that mosque.  The Marines were quite willing to kill everybody in the mosque because they were insurgents.  They had been firing at people, at Marines.  And as the lieutenant colonel who ordered the strikes said, this was no longer a house of worship; this was a military target.”

There appears no major difference in the way the western press handled this fictional story from the way Al Jazeera handled in a few days later, adding to the story, of course: “The bomb hit the minaret of the mosque and ploughed a hole through the building shattering windows and leaving the mosque badly damaged.”

What appears missing here, as the battalion commander observed, is common sense.  If Moslem insurgents intend to use mosques as defensive positions to fire at Marines, a reasonable person should expect to have the entire building blown to hell and everyone inside the building killed.  That’s the way wars are fought.

Going back in time a few generations, collaborating with the enemy was (and should remain) a capital offense.  So too was providing aid and comfort to the enemy.  If the media decides to hire an enemy non-combatant (Saadi) to do their reporting, then media managers and editors should anticipate biased reporting.  The issue then becomes an exercise in logic.  If the effect of reporting fabricated stories provides aid or comfort to the enemy, if false reporting benefits the enemy, then the media is an enemy collaborator.

The net effect of this fraudulent reporting, given its impact on lily-livered commanding generals is that it caused the flag rank officers to abandon the operation — and this in turn produced a win for the enemy.  In the long term, a second battle would become necessary, and even more people would die or suffer life-changing disabilities.  Where was the honor in that?

The Battle of Fallujah was not the first or last instance when the press manufactured stories about American and Coalition forces.  The entire spectacle of the Haditha Affair, which morphed into the most expensive court-martial in American history, produced no convictions for murder, mayhem, illegal assault, or war crimes — and yet, because of this fraudulent reporting, the lives of several good and decent men were outrageously and unforgivably changed.  No one associated with the media was ever held to account for their scandalous behavior, which in my view, classifies these people as “enemies foreign and domestic.”

Sources:

  1. Connable, A. B.  Ideas as Weapons: Influence and Perception in Modern Warfare.  Washington: Headquarters Marine Corps, (2009)
  2. Department of Defense Law of War Manual, 2016. (A 1,236 page document).
  3. Witt, J. F. Lincoln’s Code: The Laws of War in American History. Free Press (2012)

Union II

There was a time when American liberalism was identified with anti-Communism.  That time ended with the Vietnam War, because in starting that war, the Democratic Party delivered American liberalism into the arms of global communism.

—Observation

Introduction

During the Vietnam War, the III Marine Amphibious Force[1] had overall tactical responsibility for the I Corps Tactical Zone (also, I Corps and I CTZ).  I Corps was one of four separate military operating zones and the northern-most in the region of the former Republic of Vietnam (also, South Vietnam and RVN).

In land area, the size of I Corps involved around 1,800 square miles.  Its vast size is further complicated by terrain dominated by hills and the Annamite Mountains, steep slopes, sharp crests, deep narrow valleys, and dense broadleaf forests.  Most o the peaks range from 4,000 to 8,000 feet high.  The narrow coastal plain is compartmented by rocky headlands and belts of large sand dunes.  Prior to 1975, I Corps was the official border with North Vietnam—the two warring nations separated by the so-called Demilitarized Zone (DMZ).

The I CTZ encompassed five political regions or provinces: Quang Tri, Thira Thien-Hue, Quang Nam, Quang Tin, and Quang Ngai.  Major cities or population centers included Khe Sanh, Dong Ha, Quang Tri City, Da Nang, How An, Tam Ky, Chu Lai, and Quang Ngai City.

Tactical units subordinate to III MEF included the 1st Marine Division, 3rd Marine Division, the US Americal Division, 1st Marine Aircraft Wing, US 35th Tactical Wing, and the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) 1st Division, 2nd Division, and 51st (Independent) Regiment.

Operation Union II was a search and destroy mission within the Que Son Valley between 26 May — 5 June 1967.  The operational commander for Union II was Colonel Kenneth J. Houghton[2].  Que Son was in the southern part of South Vietnam’s I Corps.  Populous and “rice rich,” the valley was one of the keys to controlling South Vietnam’s five northern provinces.  The densely vegetated area was occupied by two regiments of the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) 2nd Division.  Que Son was also strategically important to the theater commander, (then) General Westmoreland, Commander U. S. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (also, COMUSMACV).

During Operation Union (21 April—16 May 1967) 3rd Battalion, 1st Marines (3/1) engaged the 21st NVA Regiment near the Marine outpost on Loc Son Mountain.  Operation Union II focused on the destruction of the 21st Regiment.  Colonel Houghton’s 5th Marines coordinated offensive operations with the ARVN 6th Regiment and 1st Ranger Group.

Operation Union II called for two rifle companies (A & D) of 1/5 and Company F 2/5 under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Hilgartner, to establish a blocking position in the western portion of the valley.  Lieutenant Colonel Esslinger’s 3/5 would make a helicopter (vertical) assault into the southern portion of the valley and sweep northeast.  2/5 would serve as Houghton’s reserve.  Meanwhile, three ARVN battalions would attack southwest from Thang Bing, and two additional ARVN battalions would attack northwest from Tam Ky.

Union II kicked off as planned on 26 May.  1/5 took up its position and 3/5 (three rifle companies, a weapons company, and the battalion headquarters element) flew in to Landing Zone (LZ) Eagle, 3 miles east of Loc Son.  The first two waves of helicopters received light enemy small arms fire.  By the time the rest of 3/5 arrived, however, the battalion was under heavy weapons and mortar fire.  Lima and Mike companies launched an attack to relieve the pressure on the LZ and discovered a well-entrenched NVA force, which turned out to be elements of the 3rd NVA Regiment.  India Company, supported by Marine artillery, enveloped the enemy’s flank.  The assault was expensive for both sides, with 118 NVA dead and 38 Marine KIA/82 WIA.  Marine and ARVN forces swept the area for the next three days, but the NVA force had withdrawn.  ARVN commanders withdrew having concluded that their enemy had been routed.

Colonel Houghton, on the other hand, was not convinced that the NVA had been routed.  Relying on numerous intelligence reports, Houghton directed the regiment continue with the plan for Union II (less ARVN forces).  On the morning of 2 June, 3/5 swept toward the village of Vinh Huy.  Operating adjacent to 3/5, the 3rd Battalion, 1st Marines (3/1)  encountered an estimated 200 NVA troops about one mile east of the engagement site on 26 May.  3/1 engaged and overran the defending NVA.  Meanwhile, while pushing forward to relieve the pressure on 3/5,  1/5[3] ran into a NVA ambush while crossing a 3,000 yard-wide rice paddy.  On battalion point, the well-concealed NVA caught Fox Company in a murderous crossfire with mounting casualties due to enemy mortar fires.  1/5 established a hasty defense posture.

Captain James A. Graham, commanding Fox Company, immediately set about consolidating his Marines, and calling for artillery and air support.  Hardest hit in the enemy assault was 2nd Platoon, which was pinned down by two enemy machine gun positions.  Forming his headquarters unit into an assault force, Captain Graham boldly led an attack against NVA positions.  The effect of Graham’s attack was that it diverted the enemy’s attention away from 2nd Platoon.

While Graham attacked the NVA, platoon NCOs began evacuating wounded Marines back toward positions of relative safety.  Determined to silence the NVA’s second machine gun, Graham’s small assault force withstood concentrated enemy fire and accounted for fifteen enemy dead, but Captain Graham suffered two bullet wounds and the assault force was inadequate to dislodging the enemy.

Running low on ammunition, and with one man critically wounded, Captain Graham ordered his men to withdraw back to the company perimeter.  Realizing that he could not survive in the forward position, Graham nevertheless elected to remain in place with his one critically wounded Marine, who could not be moved.  Shortly after his men withdrew, an NVA force of twenty-five men attacked Graham who resisted for as long as he had ammunition and gave up his life for the wounded Marine, whom he would not abandon.  In recognition of his exceptional courage while under fire, his indomitable fighting spirit, and his intrepidity while relieving his second platoon from danger, Captain Graham received a posthumous award of the nation’s highest recognition for gallantry in combat, the Medal of Honor.

At around 14:00, Colonel Houghton called for reinforcement from the Division’s rapid-reaction force[4].  Jackson’s force arrived by helicopter at 19:00 in total darkness.  Delta and Echo Companies (1/7) were inserted northeast of the fortified enemy position and quickly moved south to engage the NVA’s left flank.  Both companies encountered stiff enemy resistance; Delta Company suffered many casualties.  Owing to the darkness, Division operations denied Delta Company’s request for Medevac helicopters.  At that moment, a Marine CH-53 helicopter that had just inserted Echo 2/5 heard the call for assistance and  responded to the call for help[5].

With the arrival of E 2/5, NVA forces began to disengage and withdraw southwest; it was a costly decision because they ran right into elements of 3/5 and Marine artillery.  Despite being wounded himself, Houghton remained in the field to supervise re-consolidation of his regiment.  The next morning, Houghton directed another sweep of the area, during which the Marines uncovered the remains of 701 dead NVA soldiers and 23 injured NVA who were medically treated and taken as prisoners of war.  Operation Union II Marine casualties included 71 killed in action with 139 wounded.  This action rendered the 2nd NVA Division combat-ineffective for several months.

Operation Union II was significant for another, albeit unrelated reason.  It was during this operation that Marines began communicating with their parents and  loved-ones back home that their M-16 rifles were malfunctioning with such regularity that Marines were being killed because of jammed weapons at critical moments during battle.  In a random inspection of rifles by the III MAF staff, weapons experts and armors reported that a large number of rifles had pitted and eroded chambers.  Marine headquarters then suspended issuance of the M-16s in December 1967 because of the 9,844 rifles inspected, experts found 67% of the rifles required immediate replacement.

Sources:

  1.  Telfer, G. L. And Lane Rogers (et.al.).  U. S. Marines in Vietnam: Fighting the North Vietnamese.  Washington: Headquarters U. S. Marine Corps, 1984.
  2. Carland, J. M.  Combat Operations: Stemming the Tide, May 1965-Oct 1966.  Washington: Center of Military History, 2000.

Endnotes:

[1] The Marine Corps has since renamed its largest task force organizations “Expeditionary Forces.”  Today, III MAF is known as III Marine Expeditionary Force (III MEF).

[2] Colonel (later, Major General) Houghton (1920-2006) was commissioned in September 1942 and  served during World War II and participated in the Battles of Tarawa and Saipan.  During the Korean War, he participated with the 1st Marine Provisional Brigade at Pusan and the 1st Marine Division at the landing at Inchon.  He served in I Corps RVN during the Vietnam War commanding the 5th Marine Regiment.  He was awarded the Navy Cross, two Silver Stars, three Legion of Merits, two Bronze Star medals, and three Purple Heart medals.

[3] Fox Company 2/5 reinforced the 1st Battalion, 5th Marines.

[4] Known as the Bald Eagle Reaction Force, a battalion-sized reserve then composed of Echo Company, 2/5, Delta Company, 1/7, and Echo Company, 2/7 (under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Mallett C. Jackson, Jr., whose primary assignment was Commanding Officer, 2/5).

[5] When the CH-53 returned to Da Nang, it had received 57 hits from small arms fire and mortar fragments.


Union I

Background

During the Second Indochina War (known to the west as the Vietnam War), the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam) consisted of four tactical zones.  The northern-most of these was the First Corps Tactical Zone (I CTZ), which included South Vietnam’s five northern provinces: from north to south, Quảng Trị, Thừa Thiên, Quảng Nam, Quảng Tín, and Quảng Ngãi.  The responsibility for combat operations within these provinces was assigned to the Third Marine Amphibious Force (III MAF)[1], involving about 14,000 square miles.  The Commanding General, III MAF, answered to the Commander, U. S. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (COMUSMACV).

Efforts to create a stabilizing security force in South Vietnam had begun in the mid-1950s.  The only way to describe these efforts — and their effects — is that they were an unmitigated disaster.  The most significant security force in 1955 was the Civil Guard, a paramilitary organization administered by South Vietnam’s interior ministry but controlled by the country’s 38 province chiefs.  The civil guard was a 55,000 man force serving in static defense positions.  Lacking mobility and modern communications, the civil guard’s small company and platoon sized units had no way to respond to Viet Cong attacks.  But even if they were capable of challenging the VC, most provincial chiefs had no interest in doing so.

In 1960, the South Vietnamese military force was no more capable of performing combat operations than it was in 1955. Built mainly on the remnants of French-trained colonial forces, the South Vietnamese army, navy, and air force numbered 150,000; the army (known as ARVN) numbered 138,000.  On paper, the Republic of Vietnam Armed Forces (RVNAF) looked formidable.  It wasn’t.  The military chain of command was convoluted. The quality of its officer corps ranged from excellent to horrible.  The efficiency and loyalty of ARVN units was dependent on the personality of its senior-most commander.  Few ARVN units were interested in sharing information with other units.  Vietnamese commanders were inflexible, prideful, and arrogant; they would spare no effort making themselves look good at someone else’s expense.

The Vietnamese high command treated the ARVN much in the same way as the civil guard — relegating them to static positions where the enemy always knew where they were.  This worked out well enough for senior commanders since few of them were willing to put their necks on the line confronting Viet Cong or North Vietnamese Army units.

Despite significant funding from the United States for military training in1963, most combat training in Vietnam was a paper chase.  Vietnamese troops themselves were poorly paid, poorly educated, unmotivated, and inexperienced.  Some were capable of extraordinary acts of courage, but not many.  In the Battle of Ap Bac in 1963, which took place over several days, 300 Viet Cong irregulars fought 1,200 South Vietnamese Army troops to a standstill.  Once the VC had had their way with the ARVN, they melted away into the dense jungle.

Nui Loc Son

Que Son Valley

In mid-1966, American intelligence learned that the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) 2nd Infantry Division had begun infiltrating the Que Son Valley.  The densely populated valley was a central agricultural area that sat astride the boundaries of Quảng Nam and Quảng Tin provinces in the I CTZ.  Both US and NVA military commanders recognized that available food sources and the rugged terrain made the Que Son Basin a crucial military objective.  To control the valley was to dominate the entire I CTZ.

In January 1967, the 3rd and 21st NVA Regiments began operations within the Que Son Valley.  Joining them a short time later was the 3rd VC regiment from Quảng Ngãi Province.  The NVA intended to seize Que Son, which meant destroying isolated ARVN units, who at the time were occupying static defensive positions.  COMUSMACV directed the CG III MAF to replace all ARVN units with American forces.  III MAF’s challenge in carrying out his directive was the constant demand for combat troops elsewhere in I CTZ.  The Marines could simply not afford to send battalions or regiments into the Que Son region.  Yet, it was at the same time evident that ARVN units lacked the strength or effectiveness to carry out their defensive burden alone.  To bolster Marine forces, USMACV assigned US Army units to the southern I CTZ, which released the 1st Marine Division (1stMarDiv) for operations within the Que Son Valley area.

Operation Union I

Operation Union I was the initiating campaign for what evolved into a bitter contest for control of the Que Son Basin.  In mid-January 1967, Fox Company 2/1 relieved the ARVN unit at Nui Loc Son and began operations under its parent command’s operational authority, the 1st Marine Regiment, commanded by Colonel Emil J. Radic.  By placing a Marine company on this small hill mass, III MAF hoped to achieve three goals: (1) deny VC/NVA access to this rice-producing area, (2) initiate a much-needed civic action effort, and (3) force the NVA into open battle.  The Marines of Fox 2/1 were the bait.

Under the command of Captain Gene A. Deegan, Fox Company was reinforced by an 81mm Mortar section, a 106mm Recoilless Rifle section, and a 4.2-inch Mortar Battery from the 1st Battalion, 11th Marines (artillery) (1/11).  Deegan soon began engaging small enemy units attempting to cross the valley floor.  Fox Company also undertook limited civic action projects, which generated a mutually beneficial relationship with local citizens and aided in collecting critical intelligence concerning VC/NVA operations.

The NVA found Fox Company’s aggressive behavior irksome.  Previously, NVA and VC units operated in the Que Son Basin with impunity but irritating the communists was why Marine HQ sent Fox Company to Nui Loc Son to begin with.  The 2nd NVA Division took the bait.

By mid-April, Captain Deegan informed his battalion commander that he believed enemy forces operating near Nui Loc Son involved two regiments in strength.  Colonel Radic decided to initiate a vertical assault against the enemy. Radic’s plan called for Fox Company to initiate contact from its observation post while elements of the 1st and 3rd Battalions, 1st Marines (1/1) (3/1) would make a heliborne assault into the operational area; another battalion would serve in reserve.  Additionally, elements of the 1st Battalion, 11th Marines would move by helicopter to Que Son village to provide artillery support to the operation.  Colonel Radic would control the operation from Nui Loc Son.  The CG 1stMarDiv approved Radic’s plan but delayed its execution until another operation had reached its final objective.

At 0700 on 21 April, Captain Deegan led his company out of Nui Loc Son.  The company experienced several minor encounters with small groups of enemy soldiers en route to the village of Binh Son, three miles to the northeast.  At 0930, Fox Company encountered heavy enemy small arms fire, pulled back into a tree line, and set up a  hasty defense.  From that location, Deegan called for artillery fire and airstrikes on the enemy’s positions.  At 1100, Deegan moved his 2nd and 3rd platoons against the village while the 1st platoon provided covering fire.  Initially, Deegan’s assault elements encountered little resistance, but as they approached the village, the intensity of enemy fire increased to such a degree that Deegan could no longer maneuver the assault platoons.  The 1st platoon, having attempted a flanking maneuver, was also halted.

Lieutenant Colonel Hillmer F. DeAtley, commanding 3/1, led his command group and India and Mike companies into the fight some 1,500 meters from Fox Company’s position.  Eventually, 3/1 fought its way to Deegan’s location.  Despite his several wounds, Captain Deegan continued to direct his company’s action until Colonel DeAtley relieved him of his command and ordered his evacuation.

Lieutenant Colonel Dean E. Esslinger, commanding 3/5, arrived from Chu Lai at around 1600 and linked up with DeAtley’s flank.  Lieutenant Colonel Van D. Bell’s 1/1 arrived from Da Nang after dark.  After reforming his Battalion adjacent to Colonel Radic’s command post, Bell led his Marines into the battle, which was already shaping up into a hell of a fight.  At the conclusion of the first day, Fox 2/1 and India & Mike 3/1 had borne the brunt of the fighting.  At dawn on the morning of the second day, 1/1, 3/1, and 2/5 had joined the battle.

Punishing Marine fire and aggressive maneuvering finally began to dislodge the enemy from their positions, forcing them northward into a blocking force of three ARVN ranger battalions.  In its withdrawal, the NVA suffered significant casualties from artillery fire and airstrikes. Bell and Esslinger continued their attack, pursuing the enemy east and north of Nui Loc Son, but there were only intermittent contacts with the retreating enemy.

On 25 April, Colonel Kenneth J. Houghton’s 5th Marines (-) arrived from Chu Lai and moved into the Que Son Valley.  Responsibility for Union I passed to Colonel Houghton, and by the end of next day, all of Colonel Radic’s 1st Marines had returned to Da Nang — leaving Fox Company under a new commander to man the outpost at Nui Loc Son.

3/5 began a thorough search of the mountains south and west of the basin; enemy contact was generally light until the evening of the 27th when a Marine triggered an anti-personnel mine that set off several explosions.  One Marine died; 43 received wounds, and of those, 35 required medical evacuation.  On the 28th, Esslinger’s 3/5 was joined by Lieutenant Colonel Peter A. Wickwire’s 1/3, which was part of the Amphibious Ready Group/Special Landing Force Alpha[2].  Both battalions began a sweep within their respective tactical zones.  Despite intelligence reports indicating a significant enemy presence, contact with enemy forces was sporadic and light.

Kenneth J. Houghton

Colonel Houghton was an experienced combat commander.  On 1 May, he directed 1/5, under Lieutenant Colonel Peter L. Hilgartner, into the mountains eight miles east of Hiep Duc. 1/5’s sweep initially encountered light resistance, but as the Battalion moved westward, the frequency and intensity of enemy engagements increased.  On 5 May, Delta Company 1/5 stumbled upon an enemy storage site containing weapons, ammunition, military uniforms, surgical kits, and other military gear.  Both 1/5 and 3/5 continued sweeping north; 1/3 began sweeping northwest of the Que Son village.  All three battalions were experiencing only sporadic enemy contacts — the enemy withdrew away from the Marines.

On 10 May, the Marines ran into a more significant enemy force.  Charlie 1/5 was moving up the slope of Hill 110 some 4,000 meters north of Que Son when the company came under heavy fire from a battalion-sized unit entrenched along the edge of Nui Nong Ham.  The Marines took Hill 110, but when they set into a hasty defense on the hill’s summit, they began taking heavy fire from a cane field below and inside caves along Nui Nong Ham’s lower slopes.  Captain Russell J. Caswell, commanding Charlie Company, called for assistance.

The nearest units were Bravo and Charlie companies 1/3.  They responded to relieve Caswell, but heavy NVA resistance stopped their advance.  Operational control of Bravo & Charlie shifted to Hilgartner’s 1/5.  Calls for artillery fire were ineffective because the Marines and the NVA forces were too close.  Bravo & Charlie companies soon called for reinforcements.  One platoon from Alpha Company 1/3 arrived by air to support them, but enemy fires were so intense that Hilgartner’s air officer waived off subsequent landings.

Alpha Company 1/5, commanded by Captain Gerald L. McKay, situated 2,000 meters to the east, moved to support Wickwire’s companies and came under heavy enemy fire.  Captain McKay was determined to push through.  Just as he positioned his company for an assault, an air support controller mistakenly marked the company’s position for an airstrike.  Marine F-4’s strafed the company — killing five Marines and wounded 24.  The combination of the enemy and friendly fire halted McKay’s advance.

By 15:00, Colonel Hilgartner’s command group (with Delta Company 1/5), was positioned on the slope of Nui Nong Ham from which they could lend fire support to Delta 1/3. Hilgartner’s Marines began lobbing mortars into the enemy’s positions.  Soon after, helicopters landed Esslinger’s Mike Company 3/5 at Hilgartner’s position and joined Captain Caswell’s Charlie Company.  The two companies quickly consolidated their position and began delivering fire into NVA positions.  With this support, Bravo & Charlie Company 1/3 aggressed the NVA positions in the cane field and on Nui Nong Ham’s northern slope.  By nightfall, the Marines had driven off the NVA force, leaving behind 116 dead communists; the cost to the Marines was 33 killed and 135 wounded (including those killed and injured from friendly fire).

On 12 May, Colonel Wickwire’s 1/3 was withdrawn and replaced by Colonel Bell’s 1/1.  On the 12th and 13th, 1/1, 1/5, and 3/5 remained in perpetual contact with enemy forces.  Esslinger assaulted an enemy battalion 3 miles east of Que Son in the evening of 13 May.  After making maximum use of artillery and airstrikes, Esslinger’s Marines ruthlessly attacked the NVA; artillery and aircraft support then shifted to block an NVA withdrawal.  On the other end of the Marine assault, 122 dead communists littered the battle site.

On 13-14 May, the Marines continually employed artillery and air power to strike enemy positions.  In the late afternoon of 14 May, Delta Company 1/1 discovered 68 enemy dead — all killed by either fragmentation or concussion.

The last battle of Union I took place on 15 May when Alpha 1/5 and Mike 3/5 discovered another bunker complex.  After preparatory fires and a coordinated assault, the Marines found 22 dead enemies within the bunker complex.  Operation Union I ended the next day.  Within these 27 days, the Marines had killed 865 enemy troops, of which 465 were NVA regulars of the 2nd NVA Division.  The number of communists killed was impressive, but Colonel Houghton believed that the most significant damage inflicted on the enemy was the psychological impact on the Que Son Valley population.  Houghton thought that the VC’s hold over local villages and hamlets was broken.

If Colonel Houghton was right about that — the enemy didn’t seem to realize it. The story of the fight for the Que Son Valley continues next week.

Sources:

  1. Steward, R. W.  Deepening Involvement: 1945-1965. Washington: Center for Military History, 2012.
  2. Telfer, G. L. et al. U. S. Marines in Vietnam: Fighting the North Vietnamese.  Washington: Headquarters, U. S. Marine Corps, 1974.

Endnotes:

[1] The official name of this Marine Corps organization is III Marine Expeditionary Force.  It was temporarily changed to III Marine Amphibious Force in 1965 because the South Vietnamese government expressed a psychological objection to use of the word “expeditionary.” 

[2] The SLF(A) code name for this operation was Beaver Cage.


The American Diplomat Responsible for the Pacific War

Introduction

Walk softly but carry a big stick is a South African axiom most often attributed to former President Theodore Roosevelt.  I find no fault in this adage because I believe that a quiet voice is more respected than a loud bully tone, and when reinforced by a no-nonsense foreign policy, the world becomes much safer for everyone.  The saying, along with President Washington’s sage advice —beware of foreign entanglements — should be the foundation of American foreign policy, but that has not been our diplomatic history.  We are forever involving the American people in foreign affairs that are really none of our business.

Over many years, I have developed a low opinion of diplomats, generally, because their fatuousness has cost the American people dearly in material wealth and the loss of loved-ones.  And, or so it seems, US diplomats never seems to learn any worthwhile lessons from the past.  Worse, diplomats never answer for their ghastly mistakes.  If it is true that military intervention is the product of failed diplomacy, then all one has to do to reach my conclusions (about American diplomacy) is count the number of our country’s wars.

There is no reason to maintain a strong, technologically superior force structure if we never intend to use it.  The decision to employ our military is, of course, a political question.  Once the question has been answered, the military’s civilian masters should step back, out of the way, and allow the military to achieve our national objectives — which hopefully have something to do with national defense.  If the American people must give up a single soldier or sailor to military action, then the United States should walk away from the conflict with something to show for having made that sacrifice.  This has not been case in every conflict.

Background

On 3 July 1853, US warships under the command of Commodore Matthew C. Perry sailed into Tokyo Harbor; their arrival threw the Empire of Japan into turmoil.  The purpose of Perry’s visit was to end Japan’s long practiced isolationist policies.  The Tokugawa Shogunate (government) initially had no interest in meeting with Commodore Perry, but a modest demonstration of the U. S. Navy’s firepower convinced the Japanese that it could be in their national interests to at least hear what the Americans had to say.  Negotiations were proceeding well enough, after a rough beginning, but before they could be concluded, the Shogun (generalissimo), Tokugawa Ieyoshi, died of a stroke.  Whether Commodore Perry’s unexpected visit contributed to Ieyoshi’s death is unknown, but he was soon replaced by his physically weak son Iesada[1].

Soon after Perry’s agreement with the Shogunate to open its ports to American ships for purposes of reprovisioning ships and trade, Great Britain, Russia, and other European powers imposed their own treaties upon the Japanese.  Since Iesada was physically unable to participate in negotiations with foreigners, the task was assigned to the rōjū (elder[2]) Abe Masahiro.  Rather than participate in this national embarrassment, Masahiro also resigned, replaced by Hotta Masayoshi.  Masayoshi was responsible for the treaties negotiated with the United States, United Kingdom, and Russia — collectively known as the “unequal treaties.”

These treaties were regarded as unequal because they stipulated that Japan must allow foreign citizens to visit and reside in Japan, because they prohibited the Japanese from imposing tariffs on imported goods, and because the treaties exempted foreigners from the jurisdiction of Japanese justice courts. When senior samurai became aware of these unequal treaties, radically nationalist/anti-foreign disturbances erupted throughout Japan.  In a short time, the entire nation was wracked with unrest.

If this mischief wasn’t enough, between 4-7 November 1854, the Nankaido earthquakes and tsunamis killed 80,000 Japanese.  This horrific incident was followed by the Tokai earthquake on 23 December with destruction from Edo (Tokyo) to Tokai — a distance of 210 miles, killing an additional 10,000 people.  These were natural occurrences, of course, but superstitious samurai leaders viewed them as a demonstration of the gods’ displeasure with the Shogunate.  Meanwhile, on 14 August 1858, Iesada died from Cholera.  His replacement was Tokugawa Iemochi — who at the time was twelve years old.  Meanwhile, rōjū Masayoshi continued to run the show.

Iemochi died in 1866; he was 22 years old.  His son, 3-year-old Tokugawa Iesato was next in line to become Shogun.  The nation was in crisis and needed adult leadership.  For this reason, the rōjū bypassed Iesato and chose Tokugawa Yoshinobu to serve as Shogun.  Yoshinobu was the fifteenth and last Tokugawa shogun (and the only Tokugawa that never entered Edo Castle).  With civil unrest unraveling the country, Yoshinobu too resigned his office and retired to the countryside.  At that point, the Japanese had emptied out their closet of potential leaders.  In that year, 1868, radical samurai convinced the 15-year old Emperor Meiji to end the Tokugawa shogunate and assume power in his own right.  It is referred to in history as the Meiji Restoration.

The royal family moved from the traditional home of the Emperor in Kyoto (Western Gate) to Edo and changed its name to Tokyo (Eastern Gate).  While the Emperor was restored to political power and assumed nominal power, the most powerful men in Japan were the Meiji oligarchs, senior samurai from Chōshū and Satsuma provinces.

The Meiji Oligarchs wanted Japan to become a modern nation-state — one technologically equal to the western nations that had caused so much civil unrest in Japan.  The oligarchs included such men as Okubo Toshimichi and Saigo Takamori (of the Satsuma Clan) and Kido Takayoshi, Ito Hirobumi, and Yamagata Aritomo from Chōshū.  Among the emperor’s first edicts was the abolishment of the old Edo class structure.  The great lords of Japan and all of their feudal domains became provinces with governors who answered to the emperor.  After this, the Japanese government began the process of modernization.  In less than ten years, the Meiji government confronted another internal upheaval, known as the Satsuma Rebellion, a revolt of disaffected samurai against the modernization efforts of the Emperor Meiji.  Change is never easy.

Chinese Diplomacy

On 12 March 1867, the American merchant ship Rover, while en route from Swatow, China to Newchwang, struck a submerged reef off the coast of Formosa, (also, Taiwan) near the modern-day city of Hengchun.  The ship’s captain, Joseph Hunt, his wife Mercy, and twelve surviving crewman made it to shore only to be massacred by Paiwan natives, the aboriginal people of Formosa.  The Paiwan were fiercely protective of their land and this violent behavior was a revenge killing for earlier depredations by foreign sailors.

When the United States Minister to China, Anson Burlingame, learned of the incident, he ordered his subordinate serving closest to Formosa to investigate.  Burlingame’s subordinate was Charles Guillaum Joseph Émile LeGendre (1830-1899), who served as Consul General in Fujian Province of the Qing Empire.  As Consul General, Legendre was responsible for matters involving United States interests in and around five treaty ports facilitating US trade with China.  LeGendre took an interest in and helped to suppress the illegal trade in coolies (peasant workers) and indentured laborers working on American-flagged ships.  LeGendre was known as a compassionate man.

LeGendre, who was born and raised in France, had the good fortune to marry a woman whose father was an influential New York lawyer.  Through this marriage, LeGendre migrated to the United States and took up residence in the City of New York.

Charles LeGendre 1864

At the outbreak of the American Civil War, 31-year old LeGendre helped recruit young men for service with the 51st New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment.  His recruiting success earned him a commission as a major in the US volunteers.  During the war, LeGendre fought with distinction in several campaigns, was twice wounded, and eventually retired from military service.  In recognition of his courage under fire, the US volunteer army discharged him as a brevet brigadier general.  LeGendre, despite his physical wounds, was an ambitious man.  In 1866, President Andrew Johnson appointed LeGendre to serve as Consul General in China.

In compliance with his instructions to investigate the Rover Incident, LeGendre traveled to Fukien and Chekiang for the purpose of petitioning the Chinese governors-general for their assistance in obtaining guarantees for the safety of American sailors shipwrecked off the coast of China.  The governor-general of Fujian had a better idea — rather than taking direct action himself, he granted LeGendre permission to travel to Formosa and plead his case directly to the island’s governor-general[3].  Action passed (to others) is action complete — Time Management 101.

LeGendre soon learned that the Paiwan natives were barbaric and hostile to all foreigners.  During his investigation, he also learned about the Chinese shuffle, which was how Chinese officials avoided responsibility for unseemly events transpiring within their areas of authority.  The Chinese governor of Formosa actually did not control much of the island — only the small western plain; the Paiwan natives controlled the entire southern region.

When LeGendre’s efforts on Formosa failed[4] the United States government decided to mount a military punitive expedition against the Paiwan natives.  Responsibility for conducting this expedition fell to Rear Admiral Henry Bell, US Navy.  A force of sailors and Marines were organized under Commander George E. Belknap, USN with Lieutenant Commander Alexander S.  MacKenzie serving as executive officer.  Captain James Forney, USMC commanded 31 Marines from USS Hartford, and 12 Marines from USS Wyoming.

Several problems hindered the Belknap Expedition from its beginning.  First, the force was too small for operations in such a large area.  Next, the men were not accustomed to the high humidity of Taiwan and heat exhaustion overwhelmed them as they hacked their way into the dense jungle.  Because the thick foliage easily concealed the island’s hostile defenders, Belknap’s men became sitting ducks for vicious attacks.  When the Paiwan natives opened fire for the first time, LCdr MacKenzie was one of several Americans instantly killed.  Commander Belknap ordered his force to withdraw, and the so-called punitive expedition ended.  Captain Forney’s journal eventually found its way back to HQ Marine Corps where it was later incorporated into what eventually became the Marine Corps Small Wars Manual[5].  This may have been the expedition’s only positive note.

Upon LeGendre’s return to South China, he persuaded the governor of Foochow to send a large military expedition to Formosa.  LeGendre recommended a force of 400-500 men, but the governor reasoned that he could achieve his goals with fewer men.  The Chinese expedition departed for Formosa in July 1867.  Admiral Bell denied LeGendre’s request for a gunboat to assist in the Chinese expedition, so LeGendre chartered SS Volunteer and made his way to Formosa, informing Burlingame that he intended to observe the action.  Upon arrival, however, LeGendre assumed command of the Chinese force.  How he accomplished this is unknown.  What made the Chinese expedition difficult was that the Chinese had to first construct a road into the interior.  Ultimately, LeGendre turned to British diplomat William A. Pickering[6] to help broker a treaty with the Paiwan natives for the protection of American and European shipwrecked sailors.

In early September 1871, a merchant ship from the Ryukyu Islands[7] (present-day Okinawa) was wrecked off the coast of Formosa.  Paiwan natives, as they had with the Rover, massacred the ship’s surviving 54 crewmen.  The treaty brokered by LeGendre and Pickering only applied to shipwrecked Americans and Europeans, not to other Asians.  In February 1872, LeGendre (believing that the Ryukyu Islands belonged to Japan — see note 7) returned to Formosa and attempted to have the earlier treaty extended to include shipwrecked Japanese sailors.  LeGendre’s mission failed once more when the Paiwan natives refused to extend the treaty.  LeGendre’s meddling upset the Chinese government, and this placed LeGendre at odds with his superior.  Minister Burlingame ordered LeGendre to return to the United States.  In December 1872, while en route to the United States, LeGendre stopped off at Yokohama, Japan (a treaty port in Tokyo Bay, south of Tokyo).

Toward Japanese Imperialism

While in Yokohama, LeGendre met with Charles DeLong, the United States Minister to Japan.  It may be remembered, by some, that DeLong was the diplomat who first announced to the Japanese government that the United States was pleased to recognize Japanese sovereignty over the Ryukyu Islands (Okinawa) – an interesting revelation for two reasons: first, because insofar as the Chinese were concerned, the Ryukyu Islands was a sovereign territory of China; second, because it provides some clarity about the ineptness of the US Diplomatic Corps — which unhappily continues to plague the US State Department.

Minister DeLong introduced Charles LeGendre to Japan’s foreign minister, Soejima Taneomi[8]There could not have been a more portentous meeting in the early days of the Meiji Era because it was this former Army brigadier turned diplomat who, having been hired by the Meiji government as an advisor to the foreign ministry, first gave the Japanese government the idea that it had a moral responsibility to expand its empire through colonization.  Japanese expansionism ultimately led to war with China (1894, 1931, 1937), with Russia (1904), Korea (1910), and with the United Kingdom and United States (1941).

LeGendre’s involvement in the Rover Affair and the issue of the shipwrecked Ryukyu ship interested Soejima.  As Soejima’s hired advisor, LeGendre provided a wealth of information about Formosa’s Paiwan natives, the geography of the island, the difficulty of two military expeditions, and likely, LeGendre’s own view about how Chinese officials reacted to both incidents.  Minister Soejima subsequently organized a diplomatic mission to China, which included LeGendre, which took place in 1873.  Soejima’s first achievement was that he was able to meet personally with the Qing Emperor, Emperor Tongzhi.  As it turned out, meeting with China’s Emperor was Soejima’s only success.

The Qing Emperor emphasized to Soejima that the 1871 incident was an internal matter, emphasizing that it was of no concern to the Japanese because Formosa was part of China’s Fujian Province.  Moreover, insofar as the Ryukyu sailors were concerned, the Ryukyu Kingdom was a vassal state of China.  Wisely ignoring China’s assertion that Formosa and the Ryukyu Island were Chinese territories, Minister Soejima argued that several of  the crewmen were Japanese from Okayama Province.  He suggested that it would be proper for China to pay a just compensation for the death of the Japanese sailors.  When the meeting ended, Tongzhi rejected Soejima’s request for compensation because, he said, the Paiwan natives were beyond the control of Chinese officials.

Tongzhi had said too much.  His claim that China exercised no control of the Paiwan natives opened the door for the Meiji government to take other actions.  Both LeGendre and a French legal advisor Gustave Émile Boissonade de Fontarabie[9] urged Japan to initiate a military response.  Once again, LeGendre proved useful to Soejima in formulating plans for a Japanese military punitive operation.  The Japanese hired two additional Americans as advisors to the Japanese foreign ministry: James Wasson[10] and Douglas Cassel[11].  US Minister John Bingham, who had replaced DeLong, objected to both Wasson and Cassel because he felt that their involvement with the Japanese government would violate American neutrality and place the United States in a difficult position with other Asian nations.

Between 1866-73, Japan was faced with several natural disasters and civil upheavals.  Emperor Meiji was hesitant to authorize a military expedition to Formosa.  Meiji also discarded Soejima’s suggestion for a Japanese invasion of Korea.  Soejima promptly resigned his office.

Owing to Japan’s internal difficulties, Meiji delayed the Formosa expedition until 1874.  Japan’s prime minister assigned the expedition to Saigō Tsugumichi.  His publicly announced mission was three-fold: (1) ascertain the facts surrounding the violence committed against Japan’s countrymen; (2) punish the wrong-doers, and (3) ensure that such violence would not reoccur.

The Prime Minister’s private instructions to Saigō were more specific.  After discovering the facts of the matter, Saigō must first consider employing peaceful means to lead “the natives toward civilization.”  He must try “to establish a profitable enterprise.”  If these measures fail, only then was Saigō authorized to use punishing force against them.  Note: it is one thing to translate the Japanese language into English, but quite another to establish clever nuance from those words.  Historians specializing in such matters suggest that Saigō’s instructions were very likely influenced by Charles LeGendre.

Within the historic context of the Taiwan affair, we discover (not for the first time) Japan’s interest in broader objectives: imperial expansionism and establishing a regional influence in East Asia.  The Meiji government’s expedition to Taiwan was a “re-start” of Japanese expansionism[12] — this time, however, adapted to America’s quest for manifest destiny (which the Japanese later called their Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere (1931)).  Historians again claim that LeGendre’s fingerprints are all over Japan’s expansionistic long-term modernization plan.  The expedition proceeded despite objections by UK and US ministers.

The invasion began on 6 May, led by Douglas Cassel to select a beachhead. Four days later, Japanese troops went ashore.  On 15 May, Cassel petitioned the head of the Island’s sixteen southern tribes to hear Saigō’s proposals.  The Paiwan chieftain, named Issa, identified the Island’s Botan tribe as the trouble-makers and, since the Botan people were out of his control, granted his permission for the Japanese to punish them.

Whether Issa was playing fast and loose with the Japanese is unknown.  What is known is that a series of confrontations evolved with casualties on both sides — and so it went until July when an outbreak of malaria wrecked the Japanese expeditionary force.  Ultimately, the Japanese agreed to withdraw from Taiwan after the Chinese government agreed to pay Japan an indemnity amounting to around 18.7 tonnes of  silver.  In total, the Japanese lost 12 men killed in action, 30 men wounded, and 560 dead due to disease.  Both Wasson and Cassel came down with malaria, as well.  Cassel was returned to his home in Ohio where he died from the disease nine months later.

Some historians claim that Japan’s invasion was a failure; other say that given China’s indemnity, it was an unparalleled success.  The latter claim appears valid for several reasons.  First, when China attempted to subdue the Paiwan natives in 1875, the natives defeated the Chinese, and this sent a signal to the Japanese that China was unable to exert its control over areas claimed as part of their empire.  Second, Japan supplanted Chinese influence in the Ryukyu Islands.  Third, China acknowledged Japan’s claim of seeking only to “civilize” barbarian societies — for the greater good of all mankind, and the Japanese were emboldened to exert their influence throughout the Far East region.   

The Meiji government demonstrated its focused interest in learning about western thought, not only by hiring foreign advisors to guide government functionaries, but also by the fact that at one time, nearly every Meiji cabinet official went abroad to study the Americans, English, Dutch, and Germans.  Within two decades, one will discover that the Imperial Japanese Navy was modeled almost exclusively on the British Royal Navy, and the Imperial Japanese Army modeled on Imperial Germany.

From the time when Soejima hired LeGendre in 1872, the Japanese wasted no time employing westerners to help modernize Japan and expand its influence throughout the Far East.  Japanese officials exchanged volumes of correspondence relating to “western thought” and sharing their analyses of information collected by Japanese spies dispatched throughout the United States and Europe.  At no time did the Japanese take their eye off the prize: implementing their own form of manifest destiny.  Charles LeGendre was part of this correspondence group — and we know this because his letters remain available to researchers through primary and secondary sources.

LeGendre’s papers offer several insights into the long-term objectives of Meiji Japan.  The Japanese challenged China’s claim of sovereignty over Taiwan and Okinawa — which they did most effectively, particularly with China’s help.  China’s claims and diplomatic arguments were at best ambiguous and at all times beyond their ability to reinforce with military power.  Secondly, the Japanese sought to impress the western powers and establish their diplomatic bona fides among them, which they accomplished by hiring western advisors, paying them a fortune for their services, and flattering them with prestigious awards.  Japan had begun to negotiate treaties and relationships based on western logic — which the western power fully understood.

The issue of sovereignty over Taiwan and Okinawa demonstrate the differences in how China and Japan addressed the challenges of western imperialism.  The Japanese gave the impression of fully incorporating western influence but limited foreign presence in Japan; the Chinese persistently resisted the foreign devils who took what they wanted anyway.  Japan became an ally; China was always the antagonist — even though both countries relied to some extent on foreign employees/advisors to modernize their military forces.

The foreign advisors in both countries belonged to a small club; they all knew each other, shared information about their clients without qualm, and nearly all of them were in some way associated with treaty ports in both China and Japan.

We must therefore recognize the efforts of Charles LeGendre — at least to some degree — for Japan’s developing interests in Taiwan and Okinawa and the beginning of an ever-widening interest by the Japanese in all of East Asia[13].  Accordingly, or at least I so believe, the American brigadier-turned-diplomat Charles LeGendre was at least indirectly responsible for Japan’s aggressive behavior over the following fifty years.  He preached colonialism to the Japanese, and they accepted it and adapted it to their own purposes.  “Leading the natives to civilization” thereafter became a Japanese codeword for Imperial domination and it could not have been tendered at a better time in Japan’s long history.

Subsequently, the United States lost its corporate memory of Charles LeGendre — but what he accomplished while in the employ of the Japanese government had a lasting impact on US-Japanese relations through 1945.  By extension, we might also note that LeGendre was indirectly responsible for 8.4 million deaths in the Pacific Theater of Operations during World War II.

Conclusion

Charles Guillaum Joseph Émile LeGendre may have been a compassionate man.  His motivation to involve himself as an advisor to the Japanese Imperial government may have been well-intentioned.  The result, however, was disastrous for well-over 8 million people.  Compassion, without a healthy dose of reality, more often than not leads to great sorrow.  America’s diplomatic corps has never learned this worthwhile lesson.

Sources:

  1. Bender, A., and others.  Taiwan.  Lonely Planet Publishers, 2004.
  2. Fix, D. L. and John Shufelt.  Charles W. LeGendre: Notes of Travel in Formosa.  London: Cambridge Press, 2013.
  3. Tartling, N.  A Sudden Rampage: The Japanese Occupation of Southeast Asia, 1941-1945.  Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2001.

Endnotes:

[1] Historians think he may have suffered from cerebral palsy.

[2] The elder of the shogunate was ranked just below the Shogun in power and prestige.

[3] Chinese officials were not known for have a great deal of patience with foreign envoys.  In granting LeGendre permission to proceed to Formosa, it might have been that the governor-general of Fujian hoped the American would receive a similar fate.  In those days, the Formosans were as easy to get along with as Texas Comanches.

[4] As the governor-general of Fujian likely suspected it would.

[5] The Small Wars Manual provided information and guidance on tactics and strategies for engaging certain types of military operations.

[6] Pickering had served for ten years in Hong Kong as Chinese Maritime Customs Supervisor.  He spoke many Chinese dialects and was very useful in dealing with obstinate Chinese officials.

[7] The Ryukyu Kingdom was a tributary state of China.  The location of the islands made the kingdom an important location for maritime trade between East Asia and Southeast Asia.  What made the Ryukyu Island kingdom unusual was that both China and Japan considered the Ryukyu king a vassal to their empires.

[8] Soejima was a student of the English language and a scholar who focused on the United States Constitution and the New Testament.  During the Boshin War, he was a military leader who was committed to the overthrow of the Tokugawa Shogunate and restoration of Imperial rule in Japan.  Soejima was the lead negotiator in the mission to Beijing to protest the murder of 54 crewmen of a Ryukyuan merchant ship by Paiwan (Formosan) aborigines. 

[9] Fontarabie was responsible for drafting most of Japan’s legal codes during the Meiji Era.

[10] James Wasson was a Civil War veteran who later obtained an appointment to the USMA.  Graduating in 1871, and having established a close friendship with Frederick Grant, the President’s son, Wasson was appointed to serve as a secretary to the American Diplomatic Legation in Japan, 1871-72.  After serving in this capacity, he returned to the United States to resign his commission and then accepted the employment in Japan as a surveyor.  In 1874, Japan commissioned Wasson a colonel of engineers and in this capacity, he participated in Japan’s invasion of Taiwan.

[11] Douglas Cassel was a veteran naval officer who, while serving on active duty with the Asiatic Squadron, was granted a  leave of absence to serve as a  naval advisor to the Meiji government.  Cassel, as it turned out, was an abrasive man who found much fault with the Japanese and did not hesitate to express his misgivings over the Japanese inability to relinquish their samurai ways and adopted a more modern approach to naval warfare.

[12] In 1592, the Japanese samurai and daimyo Toyotomi Hideyoshi — regarded as the second great unifier of Japan, led an expedition to the Korean Peninsula with the intent of conquering the Korean people.  This expedition involved two separate wars.  The first begun in 1592 (the Imjin Disturbance), a truce in 1596, and in 1597 (the Chongyu War).  The contest ended in a stalemate and the Japanese forces were withdrawn in 1598.

[13] In his lengthy negotiations with Chinese authorities over the Rover Incident LeGendre urged the Chinese to assume responsibility for civilizing the Paiwan natives.  LeGendre believed that China’s failure to assume the undertaking would lay the groundwork for any other civilized country to civilize these barbarians.  I cannot say whether LeGendre was a cynic or simply idealistic, but it would appear that he believed that the Paiwan natives deserved someone to bring them into the light — and if the Chinese wouldn’t do it, then perhaps the Japanese should.


At the Heart of the Corps

On Land and Sea

An Overview

Before the American Revolution, the thirteen British Colonies experienced few difficulties in matters of commercial navigation because all commercial shipping was protected by the Royal Navy, at the time the strongest navy in the world.  This invaluable protection came to an end when the colonies rebelled.  After the Revolution, the United States (having achieved its independence), would have to fend for itself.  That, of course, was easier said than done.  It would take the newly created country several decades to sort it all out.

The revolution threw the United States deeply into debt.  Complicating those matters was the fact that the United States was operating under the Articles of Confederation.[1]  In 1783, the cash-strapped congress disbanded the Continental Army, Navy, and Marine Corps.

Three hundred years before the United States won its independence, the Barbary Coast states (Tripoli, Algiers, Morocco, and Tunis) began preying upon European ships.  The method used by the Mohammedan pirates was simple enough.  Cruising the Mediterranean in small but fast ships, pirates overtook merchant ships, boarded them, overpowered the crew, captured crew and passengers, and held them as prisoners until either their home country paid a ransom demand, or until the captives were sold into slavery.  To avoid these difficulties, most European states reasoned that in the long-term, it would be cheaper to pay the Barbary states an annual tribute, guaranteeing free passage through the Mediterranean Sea.

Barbary pirates seized their first American-flagged ship, the merchantman Betsey, in 1785.  The crew of that ship languished in irons for eight years.  The Maria, home ported in Boston, was taken a few months later.  Dauphin, from Philadelphia was next.  Ship owners complained, of course, but there being no money for a naval force, there was nothing congress or the states could do about the Barbary Pirates.  Between 1785 and 1793, 13 American ships were lost to the Mediterranean pirates.  In 1793 alone, the Mohammedans seized eleven ships.  To America’s shame, Congress agreed to pay the pirates tribute, and, at that point, the camel’s nose was under the tent.  The amount of tribute increased with each passing year.  In 1792, the United States paid ransoms totaling $40,000.00, and paid a tribute of $25,000.

Historians estimate that between the early-to-mid 1500s through 1800, Moslem pirates captured over one million white Christians from France, Italy, Spain, Holland, Great Britain, Iceland, and the Americas.  Released crew and passengers recounted horrifying tales of their inhumane treatment, but even if some of these stories were exaggerated, they weren’t very far off the mark.  The Berbers made no distinction between passengers or crew, or whether they were male or female.  All captives were stripped of their clothing, robbed of all their possessions, and imprisoned awaiting ransom or enslavement.  Women were repeatedly raped — which under Islamic law, was permitted and encouraged.  Most captives languished in prison filth for years; many died in captivity.  The only possible respite available to those luckless captives was to convert to Islam.  Many of the converted sailors joined the corsairs as raiders.

In modern parlance, Barbary pirates carried out state-sponsored terrorism.  It was an extortion racket, pure and simple, and every North African state was complicit.  How the extortionists made their living was not entirely unusual and European heads of state well-understood the game.  British, French, and Spanish privateers pursued a similar (albeit, more civilized) course of action.  Insofar as the Europeans were concerned, paying tribute was merely the cost of doing business in the Mediterranean.  Tribute costs increased as a matter of course whenever a new ruler assumed power.  What made this a complication is that the voyage from Philadelphia to Tripoli took around six weeks.  An increase in tribute between the time a ship left the United States and its arrival in North Africa would involve an additional twelve (or more) weeks sailing time.

Global Conflict and American Diplomacy

Barbary Pirates were not the United States’ only concern.  The outbreak of war between France and Great Britain (and other countries) in 1793 ended the ten years of peace that enabled the United States to develop a system of national finance and trade.  Ship building and commercial shipping were America’s largest industries in 1793.

From the British perspective, improved relations with the United States was most desirable, particularly in terms of the UK’s attempt to deny France access to American goods.  From the American point of view, it would be most beneficial to normalize relations with the British because in doing so, the US would be in a better position to resolve unsettled issues from the 1783 Treaty of Paris.  This is not how things worked out, however.

President Washington

In mid-1793, Britain announced its intention to seize any ships trading with the French, including those flying the American flag.  In protest, widespread civil disorder erupted in several American cities and by the end of the following year, tensions with Britain were so high that President Washington ordered the suspension of trade to European ports.  But, at the same time, Washington sent an envoy to England in an attempt to reconcile differences with the United Kingdom.  Britain’s behavior, meanwhile, particularly given its earlier preference for good relations with the United States, was perplexing.  The British began the construction of a fortress in Ohio, sold guns and ammunition to the Indians, and urged them to attack American western settlements.

President Washington’s strongest inclination, as a response to British provocations, was to seek a diplomatic solution.  Unhappily, Washington’s envoy to England, John Jay, negotiated a weak treaty that undermined America’s preference for free trade on the high seas and, moreover, the treaty failed to compensate American shippers for loss of cargo seized by the Royal Navy during the revolution.  Worse than that, however, the Jay Treaty did not address the British practice of impressment.  Given the fact that there were several favorable aspects to the Jay Treaty, the US Senate approved it with one caveat: trade barriers imposed by the UK must be rescinded.

Mr. Washington, while dissatisfied with the Jay Treaty, nevertheless signed it.  Doing so brought the President his first public criticism and helped set into motion political partisanship within the Congress, toward the administration, and popularly directed at both.[2]  It was also in 1794 that the President and Congress had finally reached the limits of their patience with the Islamic barbarians.

President Washington asked Congress to reestablish a naval force and for authorization to construct six new warships.  Clearly, there was no reason to build six warships if the United States didn’t intend to use them.  Mr. Washington’s message to Congress was unambiguous: “If we desire to avoid insult, we must be able to repel it.  If we desire to secure peace, it must be known that we are at all times ready for war.”

The Naval Act of 1794 authorized the construction of six warships at a total cost of just under $700,000.  It was not a unanimous decision; some members of Congress believed that the money could be better spent elsewhere — such as in westward expansion.  The navy hawks won that argument.  Along with six new ships, the navy began to appoint offers to command those ships and recruit the men who would crew them.  And one more thing — the Navy would require United States Marines as well.

It took time to build the ships, reform the naval service, and hire the right men as captains.  Meanwhile, in 1796, the United States concluded a peace treaty with Algiers.  The United States paid $642,500 cash, up front, and agreed to a healthy annual tribute and assorted naval stores.  The total cost to the United States for this one treaty was $992,463.  In modern value, this would amount of well over $14-million.  By way of comparison, the entire federal budget for 1796 was $5.7 million.

The Jay Treaty was not well received in France because in 1778, the United States signed an agreement with King Louis XVI of France — termed the Franco-American treaty of Alliance — where, in exchange for French support for the American Revolution, the United States agreed to protect French colonial interests in the Caribbean.  The Alliance had no expiry date.

The French Revolution began in 1789.  By 1791, the crowned heads of Europe watched developments in France with deep concerns.  Several crowned heads proposed military intervention as a means of putting an end to the chaos and the terror.  The War of the First Coalition (1792-1797) involved several European powers against the Constitutional Kingdom of France (later the French Republic) — a loose coalition, to be sure, and a conflict fought without much coordination or agreement.  The one commonality in the coalition was that everyone had an eye on a different part of France should they eventually divide the country among them.

France looked upon the United States as its ally, pursuant to the Alliance of 1778, but there were several contentious issues:

  • First, the Americans strenuously objected to the execution of King Louis XVI in 1793.
  • Second, the Senate ratified the Jay Treaty (Treaty of Amity, Commerce, and Navigation).
  • Third, the United States passed the Neutrality Act of 1794.  The Act forbid any American to engage in war with any nation at peace with the United States.  Hence, no American could side with France against the British.
  • Fourth, the Neutrality Act cancelled the United States’ war debt to France.  Members of Congress reasoned that since America’s debt agreement existed between the United States and the King of France, the king’s execution cancelled America’s debt  Adding insult to injury, the Act also ended the Alliance of 1778.
  • Fifth, in retribution for reneging on the Alliance of 1778, the French Navy began seizing American ships engaged in trade with the UK — both as part of its war with the First Coalition, and as a means of collecting America’s revolutionary war debt.
  • Sixth, there was the so-called XYZ affair.[3]  With Diplomatic relations already at an all-time low between these two countries and owing to the fact that the United States had no naval defense, the French expanded their aggressive policy of attacking US commercial ships in American waters.

Re-birth of the United States Navy and Marine Corps

Without an American Navy, there could be no American response to French or Barbary depredations on the high seas.  Driven by Thomas Jefferson’s objections to federal institutions, Congress sold the last Continental warship in 1785.  All the United States had remaining afloat was a small flotilla belonging to the US Revenue Cutter Service; its only coastal defense was a few small and much neglected forts.  As a result, French privateers roamed American coastal waters virtually unchecked.  Between 1796-97, French privateers captured 316 American ships — roughly 6% of the entire US merchant fleet.  The cost to the United States was between $12-15 million.

USS Constitution

What the French accomplished through their program of retribution was to convince Federalists that the United States needed a Navy.  In total, Congress authorized the construction of eight ships, including USS United States, USS Constellation, USS Constitution, USS Congress, USS Chesapeake, USS President, USS General Greene, and USS Adams.  Congress additionally authorized “subscription ships.”  These were ships supported (paid for) by American cities.  The ships included five frigates[4] and four sloops[5], which were converted from commercial ships. Two noteworthy of these was USS Philadelphia and USS Boston.

In finally realizing that national honor demanded action, Congress re-established the U. S. Navy and along with it, the United States Marine Corps — as before, during the Revolutionary War, providing seagoing detachments became the Corps’ primary mission.  Serving aboard ship as naval infantry is the Marine Corps’ oldest duty.[6]  Americans didn’t invent this duty; it’s been around for about 2,500 years — all the way back to when the Greeks placed archers aboard ship to raise hell with the crews of enemy ships. 

The Marines had several missions while at sea.  During the 18th and 19th centuries, ship’s crews were often surly and undisciplined, and mutiny was always a possibility.  With armed Marines aboard, the chance of mutiny dropped to near zero.  Marines not only enforced navy regulations and the captain’s orders, but they also meted out punishments awarded to the crew when required.  In those days, there were no close-knit feelings between sailors and Marines — which has become an abiding naval tradition.

Marines led naval boarding parties … a tactic employed to invade and overrun enemy officers and crews in order to capture, sabotage, or destroy the enemy ship.  They were also used to perform cutting out operations, which involved boarding anchored enemy ships from small boats, often executed as ship-to-ship boarding operations after nightfall.  Marine detachments provided expert riflemen to serve aloft in their ship’s rigging, their duty was targeting enemy officers, helms men, and gunners.  When the ship’s captain ordered landing operations or raiding parties, Marines were always “first to fight.”  Marines also served as gunners aboard ship.  Naval artillery was always a Marine Corps skill set, one that later transitioned to field artillery operations — as noted during the Battle of Bladensburg, Maryland.

The Quasi-War with France

Ships of the Royal Navy blockaded most of France’s capital ships in their home ports.  The U. S. Navy’s mission was twofold: first, to locate and seize or destroy smaller French ships operating along the US seacoast and in the Caribbean, and to protect convoys of cargo ships across the Atlantic.  There was no formal agreement between the US and UK — it simply worked out as an informal cooperative arrangements between British and American sea captains.

The largest threat to American shipping came from small, but well-armed French privateers.  These ships were constructed with shallow drafts, which enabled them to operate close to shore and within shallow estuaries.  French privateers used French and Spanish ports to launch surprise attacks on passing ships before running back to port.  To counter this tactic, the US Navy employed similarly sized vessels from the Revenue Cutter Service.

The first US victory over the French was capture of La Croyable, a privateer, by USS DelawareLa Croyable was captured after a lengthy pursuit along the southern New Jersey coast.  After the ship’s capture, she was renamed USS Retribution.  There were several other sea battles, but it may be sufficient to say that the U. S. Navy shined in its confrontation with a major European naval power.

U. S. Navy Captain Silas Talbot previously served during the Revolutionary War as an officer in the Continental Army.  On 28th June 1777, Talbot received a commission to serve as a captain of the 2nd Rhode Island Regiment.  After the siege of Boston, Talbot marched with his regiment to New York.  En route, the regiment rested at New London, Connecticut where he learned of Navy Captain Esek Hopkins’ request for 200 volunteers to assist in operations in the Bahamas.  Silas Talbot was one of Hopkins’ volunteers, but he retained his status as an officer of the Continental Army.

After having been recognized for his exceptional performance of duty and promotion to lieutenant colonel in the Continental Army (while serving at sea), the Congress commissioned Silas Talbot to captain, U. S. Navy, and gave him command of the American privateer General Washington on 17th September 1779.  In his final Revolutionary War engagement, the feisty Talbot tangled with the British fleet off the coast of New York.  He attempted to withdraw but was forced to strike his colors to HMS Culloden.  Talbot remained a prisoner of war until December 1781.

Following the Revolutionary War, Talbot served in the New York state assembly and as a member of the U. S. House of Representatives.  In early June 1794, President Washington selected Talbot to become the third of six newly commissioned captains of the United States Navy.  His first assignment was supervision of the USS President then under construction in New York.  On 20th April 1796, Congress suspended work on President  and Talbot was discharged.  Two years later, with the outbreak of the Quasi War, Talbot was recommissioned and assigned command of USS Constitution.

Captain Talbot’s mission was to protect American commercial ships, and to seek out and capture or destroy French Privateers.  In addition to commanding Constitution, Talbot was assigned overall command of the Santo Domingo Station.  In early May 1800, Constitution noted the presence of an armed French vessel anchored in Puerto Plata.  Talbot planned a “cutting out” expedition to either capture this vessel or fire it.  The ship’s identification was Sandwich, formerly a Royal Navy ship that had been captured by the French and operated as a privateer.

Sandwich, in addition to being well-armed, was anchored under the protection of heavy guns of Fortaleza San Felipe.  Talbot’s problem was that Constitution was too large to enter the harbor at Puerto Plata.  On 9th May, Talbot detained a small American sloop christened Sally, a 58-ton ship based out of Providence, Rhode Island, under the command of Thomas Sanford.  Since Sally frequented the waters off Puerto Plata, her presence was not likely to raise the alarm of French and Spanish forces protecting Sandwich.

Commodore Talbot’s plan called for the detachment of one-hundred sailors and Marines from Constitution to serve under the command of Lieutenant Isaac Hull, USN with Marines under the command of Captain Daniel Carmick, USMC.[7]  The American sailors and Marines would hide inside Sally as the ship sailed into the harbor and then execute the capture of Sandwich.  Overall command of the cutting out operation would fall to Captain Carmick.  According to Carmick’s journal, “By this means it was easy to take the vessel by surprise [sic]; it put me in mind of the wooden horse at Troy.”

As Sally made her way into port, she was fired on by a British frigate and subsequently boarded.  The British officer commanding found not a small vessel engaged in trade, but one filled below decks with US sailors and Marines.  Lieutenant Hull provided the British officer with an overview of the intended operation.  As it happened, the British were also watching Sandwich with interest.  After some discussion, the Americans were allowed to continue their mission with the Royal Navy’s best wishes for success.

On 11th May, with Sally maintaining her cover, the ship sailed into Puerto Plata.  Hull ordered the sailors and Marines to remain below decks until his order to board Sandwich.  Sally laid alongside the French privateer and, when Hull ordered it, Carmick led his Marines over the side of Sandwich in “handsome style, carrying all before them and taking possession” of the enemy ship without any loss to themselves.  Following Captain Talbot’s plan, Captain Carmick and First Lieutenant Amory led their Marines toward the fort.  Their assault was stealthy and quick.  Before the Spanish Army commander had time to react, the Marines were already in control of the fort, had spiked its guns, and withdrew to board Sandwich, which they promptly attempted to sail out of the harbor.  Unfavorable winds delayed their departure until the middle of the night.

The action at Puerto Plata was significant because it marked the first time United States Marines conducted combat operations on foreign soil.  The operation was boldly executed and lauded by Commodore Talbot.  He wrote, “Perhaps no enterprize [sic] of the same moment has ever better executed and I feel myself under great obligation to Lieutenant Hull, Captain Carmick, and Lieutenant Armory, for their avidity in taking the scheme that I had planned, and for the handsome manner and great address with which they performed this dashing adventure.”

Commodore Talbot was criticized, however, because it was the decision of the admiralty court that seizure of Sandwich whilst anchored in a neutral port, was an illegal act.[8]  Not only was Sandwich returned to France, the officers and crew forfeited their bounty.  Not even the official history of the Marine Corps remembers this FIRST action on foreign shore.  Rather, the official history of the Corps skips over the Quasi-War and addresses the Barbary Wars as if the former never happened.[9]

The United States Navy and Royal Navy reduced the activities of French privateers and capital warships.  The Convention of 1800, signed on 30 September 1800, which ended the Quasi-War, affirmed the rights of Americans as neutrals upon the sea and reiterated the abrogation of the Alliance of 1778.  It did not compensate the United States for its claims against France.

Addressing the Barbary Menace to Navigation

Lt. Presley O’Bannon USMC

For a summary account of how the United States responded to the Barbary pirates, see At Tripoli (Part I) and At Tripoli (Part II ).

The courage and intrepidity of the naval force at Tripoli was without peer in the age of sail, heralded at the time by British Admiral Horatio Nelson as “The most-bold and daring act of the age.”  Pope Pius VII added, “The United States, though in their infancy, have done more to humble the anti-Christian barbarians on the African coast than all the European states have done.”  But politically, all we can say is that the United States government is consistent in its perfidy.

While Thomas Jefferson proclaimed victory, his ambassadors were working behind the scenes cutting deals with barbarian pirates.  Consul-General Tobias Lear negotiated a less-than-honorable peace treaty with Tripoli.  Jefferson agreed to pay $60,000 for all American prisoners, agreed to withdraw all naval forces, granted a secret stipulation allowing the Pasha to retain Ahmad’s family as hostages, and without a single blink, betrayed Ahmad Qaramanli.  The Senate ratified this treaty in 1806 over the objection of Federalists and it did not seem to matter, to either Jefferson or James Madison, that they lost the respect of the American people.  Of course, Madison added to this in 1812 by starting a war with the United Kingdom that ultimately ended up with the destruction of the nation’s capital — except for the US Marine Barracks and Eighth and I Streets.

Nor did the Barbary pirates end their misdeeds; the United States simply decided to ignore them (even at the expense to American-flagged merchant ships).  After the end of the War of 1812, it was again necessary to address Mohammedan piracy.  On 2nd March 1815, Madison asked Congress for a declaration of war against the pirates.  Madison dispatched two naval squadrons to deal with the miscreant Moslems.  Commodore William Bainbridge commanded one of these, Commodore Stephen Decatur commanded the other.

Decatur reached the Barbary Coast first, quickly defeated the blighters, and forced a new arrangement favorable to the United States.  Decatur would not negotiate, but he didn’t mind dictating terms and in doing so, marked the first time in over 300 years that any nation had successfully stood up to the barbarian horde.  Commodore Decatur’s success ignited the imaginations of the European powers to — finally — stand up for themselves.  In late August 1816, a combined British and Dutch fleet under Lord Exmouth visited hell upon Algiers, which ended piracy against almost everyone except France.  Mohammedan depredations against France continued until 1830 when France invaded the city of Algiers — remaining there until 1962.

Sources:

  1. Abbot, W. J.  The Naval History of the United States.  Collier Press, 1896.
  2. Bradford, J. C.  Quarterdeck and Bridge: Two centuries of American Naval Leaders.  Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1955.
  3. McKee, C.  A Gentlemanly and Honorable Profession: The Creation of the U. S. Naval Officer Corps, 1794-1815.  Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1991
  4. Rak, M. J., Captain, USN.  The Quasi-War and the Origins of the Modern Navy and Marine Corps.  Newport: US Naval War College, 2020

Endnotes:

[1] The Articles served as a letter of instruction to the central government, giving it only those powers which the former colonies recognized as those belonging to king and parliament.  Although referred to as the Congress of the Confederation, the organization of Congress remained unchanged from that of the Continental Congress.  Congress looked to the Articles for guidance in directing all business … including the war effort, statesmanship, territorial issues, and relations with native Indians.  Since each state retained its independence and sovereignty, all congressional decisions required state approval.  Congress lacked enforcement power, the power to raise revenues, or the power to regulate trade.  Under the Confederation, government had no chief executive beyond “president of the congress assembled,” nor were there any federal courts.

[2] There was a single casualty from all this.  Washington’s advisers presented him with evidence that Edmund Randolph, Jefferson’s successor as secretary of state, had allegedly solicited a bribe from a French envoy to oppose the treaty with England.  Although Randolph denied the charges, an angry Washington forced his old friend to resign.  With this action, another important precedent was set.  The Constitution empowers the President to nominate his principal officers with the advice and consent of the Senate; it says nothing, however, about the chief executive’s authority to dismiss appointees.  With Washington’s dismissal of Randolph, the administrative system of the federal government was firmly tied to the President.  In total, Washington dismissed three foreign ministers, two consuls, eight collectors, and four surveyors of internal revenue — all without seeking the advice or approval of Congress.

[3] An American diplomatic mission was sent to France in July 1797 to negotiate a solution to problems that were threatening to escalate into war.  American diplomats included Charles Pinckney, John Marshall, and Elbridge Gerry.  These diplomats were approached through informal channels by agents of French foreign minister Charles Talleyrand, who demanded bribes and a loan before formal negotiations could begin.  Talleyrand had made similar demands of other nation’s diplomats and collected from them.  The Americans, however, were offended by these demands and returned to the US without engaging in any diplomatic resolution to the problems.

[4] A frigate was any warship built for speed and maneuverability.  They could be warships carrying their principal batteries of carriage-mounted guns on a single deck (with smaller carriage-mounted guns on the fo’c’sle and quarterdeck.  Frigates were too small to stand in the line of battle, but they were full rigged vessels (square rigged on all three masts).

[5] A sloop of war had a single gun deck that carried up to 18 guns, an un-rated ship, a sloop could be a gun brig or a cutter, a bomb vessel or a fireship.

[6] See also: Marine Detachments

[7] In 1800 (as today) a navy lieutenant was equivalent in rank to Marine Corps captain.  In the navy, however, there were but three ranks: lieutenant, master commandant, and captain.  In the Marine Corps, there were five ranks: lieutenant colonel commandant, major, captain, first lieutenant, and second lieutenant.  Navy command has always taken precedence for seaborne operations, including of the landing force until the Marines first set foot ashore.  At that time, if a Marine officer is present, he would assume command of land operations.  Daniel Carmick also served with distinction in the Mediterranean and commanded US Marines in the Battle of New Orleans during the War of 1812 (See also: At Chalmette, 1815).  He passed away in 1816 from wounds sustained in December 1814.

[8] Captain Silas Talbot resigned from the Navy following the Quasi War.  He passed away at the age of 67-years in New York on 30th June 1813.  In two wars, Captain Talbot was wounded in action thirteen times.  He carried with him to the grave the fragments of five bullets. 

[9] Captain H. A. Ellsworth published this history in 1934 (reprints in 1964, 1974) in a work titled One Hundred Eighty Landings of United States Marines, 1800-1934.  Captain Ellsworth stated, “Every United States Marine should have indelibly impressed upon his mind a picture of the island which now contains the Dominican Republic, because the city of Puerta Plata (Port Au Platte), in this republic is the birthplace of the history of the landings, other than in time of war, of his Corps.”


The Harsh Life

At Sea in the 19th Century

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

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

Generally …

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

The Word

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

Manning the ships with officers

Navy officer uniforms 1803

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

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

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

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

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

Manning the ships with enlisted men

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

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

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

Health and Hygiene

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

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

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

Navy enlisted uniforms, 1888

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

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

The Slops and other Uniforms

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

Quarters — or not

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

Religious Instruction

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

Recreation

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

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

Paying the Piper

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


Endnote:

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

Lieutenant Colonel C. Jack Lewis, USMCR

When he was just a little guy, Jack Lewis became separated from his mother in a large department store.  Anyone who’s been lost in a department store at the age of five or six knows that it’s a terrifying experience.  But then, two young men came to his rescue.  They were Marine Corps recruiters, wearing the dress blue uniform that makes Marines stand out among all other servicemen.  They returned him to his mom.  Jack Lewis never forgot those Marines.

So, in 1942, when it came time for Americans to stand up against fascism, C. Jack Lewis made his way to the local recruiting office and joined the Marines.  Now, for the uninitiated, there are only two kinds of Marines: live Marines and dead Marines.  You see, becoming a United States Marine is a lifetime endeavor.  My good friend Colonel Jim Bathurst titled his autobiography on this very concept: as long as Marines keep faith with one another, and with the code of honor to which we all subscribe, then, We’ll All Die As Marines.

I met Lieutenant Colonel Jack Lewis while assigned as the Adjutant, Marine Aircraft Group 46 in 1979-81.  Lewis was a reserve officer, then serving as the Reserve Liaison Officer for Southern California.  I suspect that there was no better-qualified individual to serve in that capacity than Colonel Lewis.  He served in World War II, the Korean War, and in Vietnam.  In each instance, after serving a tour of combat duty, Jack left the active-duty force and went back into the Marine reserve.  He did this, he told me because there was too much “chicken shit” in the active force … and if there was one thing Lewis could not abide, it was “oppressive regulations, careerist officers, and people who called themselves Marines but wouldn’t have made a pimple of a dead Marine’s ass.”

Like many young men of his day, the teenaged Jack Lewis became what he described as an “amateur juvenile delinquent.”  He was always in trouble.  The problem wasn’t so much Jack’s behavior as it was that he wanted more out of life than his circumstances would allow.  By the late 1930s, Jack was looking for something special in his life.  Something that would offer him a challenge, hold him accountable, and something that he could love with unbridled passion.  In this regard, the Second World War probably came along at the right time for Jack Lewis.  Jack Lewis joined the Marines out of a sense of patriotism, but in doing so, he found that “special something” he was looking for.  The Marines squared his ass away, gave him a reason to get up in the morning, inculcated him with the values so dear to anyone who has ever (honorably) worn the uniform of a United States Marine.  The U. S. Marine Corps became the organization that set him on the pathway of success for the balance of his life.

Jack was born in Iowa on 19 November 1924 but at the age of two, his family moved to Florida.  As a lad, he was a voracious reader and a writer and at age 14, he sold his first novel … The Cherokee Kid’s Last Stand.  The novel earned him five dollars.  Now, while five dollars doesn’t sound like a lot of money, one must recall that in those days a field hand earned a dollar a day for backbreaking work.  No, it wasn’t much, but he was fourteen years of age, and it was a start in a writing career that lasted the balance of his 84-years.

Following World War II, Lewis returned to Iowa, where in 1949 he graduated from the state university with a degree in journalism.  He was subsequently commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Marine Corps Reserve.  A short time later he was assigned to help produce a Marine Corps training film, and then owing to his service in World War II, he became a technical advisor to the John Wayne film, Sands of Iwo Jima.  Of this later effort, Lewis said that he basically advised members of the cast on how to lace up their leggings.  He no doubt contributed far more than that.

When the Korean War erupted in June 1950, Lewis returned to active duty for six years.  He served as a combat correspondent and photographer.  Now this may not seem like much in terms of what Hollywood tells us about combat (which is mostly wrong), but every Marine — no matter what his occupational specialty, no matter what his rank — is first and foremost a rifleman.  Initially, Jack Lewis carried an M-1 carbine as his T/O weapon.  It was the first time he’d carried that particular firearm, considerably smaller than the M-1 Garand.  In one fire fight, Jack shot a communist Chinese soldier eight times, hitting him six times, without doing any noticeable damage to this enemy.  Another Marine standing nearby, who was armed with a Thompson submarine gun, stepped up and blew the communist into the afterlife.  Allowing that no matter where you hit a man with a .45 caliber weapon he’s going down, Lewis thereafter armed himself with a Thompson and would not part with it.  During a second combat tour of duty in Korea, Lewis earned a Bronze Star for his work filming Marine Corps aircraft engaging the enemy from an exposed position.

During the Korean War, Jack Lewis submitted over two dozen magazine articles to Marine Corps headquarters for publication in the Leatherneck Magazine.  HQMC returned the articles telling Lewis that they all sounded too much like Marine Corps propaganda.  Miffed, Lewis then sent the articles to his civilian literary agent who had them published, earning Lewis $200.00 each.  Lewis sent copies of the published articles to the individual at HQMC who had rejected them.  Knowing Jack, I can easily imagine that he sent these copies with a caustic note, but I don’t know that for a fact.

Following the Korean War, Jack commanded a rifle company in the 4th Marines at Camp Pendleton, California.  He was subsequently transferred to the Naval Air Station, Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii where he served as a public information officer.  During this tour of duty, Lewis was assigned as a technical advisor on John Ford’s film titled Mister Roberts.  When no one could locate a stunt performer to drive a motorcycle off a pier, Lewis did the job himself.  Lewis later appeared in a minor role in Admiral Ford’s film, Sergeant Rutledge.

Marines, by their nature, are exceptional.  Jack’s stellar performance prompted his commanding officer to encourage Jack to apply for a regular (as opposed to reserve) commission.  Jack would have none of this, however.  He wanted to pursue a writing career and upon expiration of his active duty obligation, Jack Lewis returned to inactive service in the reserves.

In addition to writing screenplays for films, Lewis found work as a magazine editor in 1956; after three years of learning how magazines are done, he teamed up with Dean Grennell[1] to publish Gun World magazine in 1959.  He continued to author the monthly knife column until his death in 2009.  Lewis was highly critical of the capabilities of various weapons marketed to military and law enforcement agencies.  In fact, he was so critical that the firearms manufacturing companies refused to advertise in his magazine.  Lewis once told the Commandant of the Marine Corps that the M16’s only consistent effect was that it changed the world’s perception of the American rifleman.  Americans, he said, used to be sharpshooters, but after the M16, they were little more than “sprayers.”

Jack Lewis developed a story that he originally titled Year of the Tiger.  When Marshall Thompson[2] selected Lewis’ work for a 1963 film, he hired Lewis to write the screenplay and the title was changed to A Yank in Viet-Nam, which was filmed on location in South Vietnam in 1963, often in the midst of, or within range, of actual fire fights.

In 1966, Lewis published a novel titled Tell it to the Marines.  It is the story of a Marine officer who, during the Korean War, is placed in command of a band of misfits in a motion picture unit.  In the preface of this book, Jack penned, “Any similarity to persons, places, or incidents is highly plausible; only the names have been changed to avoid court-martial.”  The humor in this book may be lost among those who never earned the Marine Corps emblem, and among those born in the 21st Century, life in the Marine Corps during the Korean war may not resonate.  I have a copy of this book on my shelf.

He was also the author of White Horse, Black Hat: A Quarter Century on Hollywood’s Poverty Row; Renegade Canyon; Mohave; Massacre Mountain; and The Coffin Racers.

In 1969, Lewis returned to active duty to serve a full-length tour in Vietnam with the III Marine Amphibious Corps.  During this tour, Lewis earned his second and third air medal, signifying 50 air missions exposed to enemy fire.  Lewis retired from the Marine Corps in 1984, one day prior to his 60th birthday.

Colonel Jack Lewis was a man of many talents and many careers.  He did not suffer fools gladly; he was a maverick, not at all concerned about becoming someone else’s vision of a Marine —but his own vision was good enough for him and almost everyone who knew him.  He may have been a bit rough around the edges, and blunt, but he was a decent man whose professionalism was well-balanced with his friendliness.  He loved his Corps, and he loved Marines until his last breath.  In the company he managed for 37 years, he preferred hiring retired and former Marines. When Jack Lewis retired, he moved to Hilo, Hawaii, where he continued to write.  Colonel C. Jack Lewis, United States Marine Corps Reserve, passed away at his home on 24 May 2009.

Endnotes:

[1] Dean Grennell (1923-2004) served as a firearms instructor in the Army Air Corps during World War II and is remembered as an American firearms expert, writer, editor, managing editor of Gun World magazine, and the editor of the science fiction “fanzine” Grue. 

[2] Marshall Thompson (1925-1992) (a classmate of Norma Jean Baker) was an actor, director, and producer of films beginning in the 1940s of science fiction genre.  One film titled The Terror from Beyond Space in 1958 became the inspiration for Ridley Scott’s Alien films.  A second Viet Nam era film was titled To the Shores of Hell (1965).


McNamara’s Folly

Throughout America’s history, no citizen with common sense ever wanted to go to war.  “We the people” do not start wars — our elected officials and bureaucrats do that.  At no time in my memory has the US government offered a compelling argument or justification for involving our nation in a foreign war.  When they try to provide a convincing reason for war, they always wrap it in a lie.  For example, the government told Americans that the United States sent combat troops to Vietnam to defend the South Vietnamese people from their authoritarian cousins in the north.  In fact, both North Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh and South Vietnam’s Ngo Dinh Diem had the same aspirations: unification under their leadership.  Neither man ever gave a damn about the poor South Vietnamese peasant.  War is bad enough, but when politicians and unelected bureaucrats contrive to make things worse for the combat soldier — which is the topic of this essay, the American voter should put his or her foot down and loudly and angrily proclaim, “enough is enough!”

Some Background

Combat units of the 3rd Marine Division (3rdMarDiv) began offering important lessons to the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) in 1965.  One of these lessons was that they should refrain from firing their weapons at U. S. Marines — because being shot at makes American Marines very cranky.

At the beginning of 1966, the 3rdMarDiv employed its 24,000 men against several communist thrusts into Quang Tri Province, also known as the I Corps Tactical Zone (I CTZ).  The five provinces of the I CTZ were the northernmost area of the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam).  General William C. Westmoreland, U. S. Army, Commander, U. S. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (COMUSMACV), ordered the 3rdMarDiv to defend this northern tier.  In 1966, the 3rdMarDiv was the Marine Corps’ largest (ever) combat division.  There were five infantry regiments, one artillery regiment, all of the usual supporting units, Army artillery units, Navy logistical units (including Seabees), and two Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) infantry regiments.  The division was huge — but then, so too was their area of defense.[1]

The 3rdMarDiv’s tactical area of responsibility (TAOR) encompassed 1,800 square miles of Indian country.  The terrain was all rugged, elevated, menacing, and over-populated with things that hurt, such as an abundant enemy — and predatory cats.  At the far northern tip of South Vietnam, along its border with North Vietnam, was the demilitarized zone (DMZ).  Defending the DMZ was one of the division’s primary missions, but not the only one.[2]

To achieve this defensive objective, two unusual behaviors were necessary.  First, the United States had to adopt the strategy of the North Vietnamese, which was to prosecute a war of attrition.  Simply stated, the US and North Vietnamese agreed to see which of them could afford to give up the most human lives to further their political goals.[3]  Think about that for a moment.[4]  Second, for the Marines to defend the northern provinces, they had to establish a wide arc of defensive bases (euphemistically called combat bases) that would permit the 3rdMarDiv to respond to the enemy within an area of 1,800 square miles.

The main north-south highway within I CTZ was Route 1.  It connected Marine combat bases at Dong Ha and Quang Tri City in the North to Phu Bai and Da Nang in the South.  Any obstruction along this highway would disrupt vital logistical support of the division’s forward-most units; the enemy knew this exceptionally well.  So, the primary logistical highway became the Cua Viet River, which extended from its mouth on the coast to Dong Ha.

At Dong Ha, the river was about as wide as a mountain footpath.  Additionally, Route 9 linked Dong Ha with Khe Sanh.  East of Khe Sanh, the 3rdMarDiv created a series of outposts that offered some protection for Route 9 and the Cam Lo River Valley (which extended from Dong Ha to the coastal plain).  Of these outposts, the more critical were located at Ca Lu (ten miles east of Khe Sanh), the “Rockpile” (a sheer outcrop eight miles north), Camp Carroll (10 miles eastward), and “Leatherneck Square,” which was a quadrilateral region outlined by Cam Lo, Con Thien, Gio Linh, and Dong Ha.

As previously mentioned, the 3rdMarDiv’s TAOR was massive.  The division’s defense plan further divided the TAOR among its regiments and separate battalions.  Each of these had a code name, such as Napoleon, Kentucky, Lancaster, and Scotland.

The Third Marine Division defeated the NVA and Viet Cong (VC) in every engagement — but in confronting and defeating this enemy, the Marines encountered a high casualty rate.  By the end of 1967, Marine commanders were frustrated; the division lost good men and had nothing to show for it.  Between 1966-67, the division had lost 5,000 killed and wounded Marines.  It was an unacceptable casualty rate … and a direct result of the imbecilic static war concept.

In 1965, Washington bureaucrats began experimenting with various schemes for achieving their political goals through static defensive measures.  This may be all fine and good when looking at the larger picture, but on closer examination, the cost of “experimentation” was an excessively high US casualty rate.  Most of these “good ideas” had been rejected by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff because, to implement them, the US would have to increase (at least initially) its troop strength in South Vietnam.  Moreover, implementing these ideas would force the North Vietnamese to change its strategy — specifically, a full-scale invasion of Laos by the NVA, which the Joint Chiefs of Staff wanted to avoid.

Whiz Boy

Robert S. McNamara

Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara was known as one of Ford Motor Company’s “whiz kids.”[5]  He was one of those “good idea” people who thought he knew everything he needed to know about fighting a war.  In reality, McNamara was a bean counter who knew nothing about warfare.

One of McNamara’s schemes was constructing a defensive line along the northern border of South Vietnam and its border with Southeast Laos.  McNamara met with former national security advisor Carl Kaysen.[6]  Kaysen convinced McNamara that the key to success in static defensive strategies was establishing an electronic barrier.  Kaysen argued (successfully) that an electronic barrier would limit NVA infiltration into South Vietnam.  An electronic wall made great sense to McNamara, so he convened a feasibility group consisting of several science technologists.  They submitted their proposals in March 1966 — which McNamara dutifully passed along to the JCS for their comments.

At best, the JCS was lukewarm to the idea of an electric barrier, particularly since the barrier wouldn’t prevent infiltration and because creating the barrier would still require additional forces in Vietnam.  Moreover, it would require a significant construction effort, would involve a massive logistical effort, exponentially increasing the costs of the war.  McNamara didn’t like being told “no.” It might have been better for everyone if McNamara had any knowledge of history — specifically, of Hadrian’s Wall.

Somewhat rebuffed, McNamara then turned to the JASON Group.[7]  The JASON group had impressed McNamara by proclaiming that Lyndon Johnson’s bombing campaign over North Vietnam was an utter failure.  Junior Airman Smith of the Strategic Air Command could have told McNamara that for a lot less money.

JASON recommended a two-tier defensive barrier system.  The first tier involved conventional detection/response capability inland from the coast along the southern portion of the DMZ and another system along the remote western section abutting Laos that would trigger electronic detection, air interdiction, and remotely triggered minefields.  JASON thought that such a system could be in place within a year.  At this point, McNamara had tiny electric tingles running up and down his leg.

Mr. McNamara sent the JASON proposal to the JCS for review.  Every service chief rejected it, save one.  JCS Chairman General Earle G. Wheeler, U. S. Army, was positively enthralled with the idea.[8]  Despite the overwhelming JCS rejection of the JASON plan, Wheeler sent the report to the Commander-in-Chief, U. S. Pacific Command, Admiral Ulysses S. G. Sharp, for his review.[9]  Admiral Sharp rejected the plan as impractical; General Westmoreland agreed.

With the backing of only one uniformed flag rank officer, McNamara took the plan to President Johnson, who knew no more about fighting a war than Junior Airman Smith of the Strategic Air Command. McNamara’s cost estimate — in dollars — was $1.5 billion.  Well, another $750-million (annually) for operating costs.  President Johnson, who never saw a spending package he didn’t like, approved it.[10]  In terms of combat casualties, the project would far exceed the material costs of McNamara’s Wall.

Louis Metzger

Marine Corps combat engineers began preparing the ground for the construction of Project Dye Marker along a strip of land 500 meters wide from Gio Linh westward to Con Thien in early 1967.  The Marines assigned to this project (infantry, artillery, and combat engineers) were utterly exhausted, a fact first expressed by (then) Brigadier General Louis Metzger, who served as Assistant Division Commander, 3rdMarDiv/CG 9th Marine Amphibious Brigade — because in addition to providing security for construction of McNamara’s Wall, they also constantly responded to the enemy’s initiatives in Northwest South Vietnam.  For the Marines, the project involved sustained periods of heavy combat.  Major General Raymond L. Murray, Deputy Commander, III MAF, echoed Metzger’s sentiments. “The division commander’s primary mission was the tactical handling of his troops … rather than build the damn line that nobody believed in, in the first place.” In December 1967, Murray angrily remarked, “How in the hell were you going to build this thing when you had to fight people off while you were building it?”

The actual cost of McNamara’s Wall was dear.  Not including the lives lost and the men wounded in trying to construct Dye Marker, the Marines spent close to a million man-hours and 114,000 equipment hours on the project; they had also lost more than $1.6 million in combat equipment to the enemy’s ground and artillery assaults.  Everything associated with Dye Marker became an enemy target, from convoys moving equipment forward to killing combat engineers while seated atop their bulldozers.

In 1967, the Commanding General, Fleet Marine Force, Pacific, Lieutenant General Victor H. Krulak, warned senior commanders in Vietnam that for the Marines to succeed, they must be allowed to wage war on their terms — not as part of a static defensive strategy subject to the prerogatives of the enemy — but as a lethal force that set its terms of engagement.[11]  By this time, the NVA had already demonstrated its willingness to lose large numbers of men in exchange for a fewer number of Americans, but over a sustained period.

Krulak identified three options along the DMZ: (1) Withdraw the Marines further south of the DMZ, out of range of NVA artillery (which, while tactically sound, offered a propaganda victory to the NVA exceeding Ted Kennedy and Jane Fonda’s visit to North Vietnam); (2) Invade North Vietnam (tactically and logistically difficult, not to mention politically impossible); or (3) Reinforce the 3rdMarDiv and intensify US air and artillery assaults on North Vietnam.  The ball was thus placed in Westmoreland’s court.  He needed to either crap or got off the pot.  Westmoreland elected to get off the pot.

At the beginning of 1968, the NVA used the western end of the barrier, from Khe Sanh, through the Special Forces camp at Lang Vei, to attack American forces in that region.  Lang Vei was overrun with 309 killed, 64 wounded, and 122 captured by the NVA, and Khe Sanh was placed under a siege that lasted for 77 days.  After the blockade, Westmoreland’s replacement, General Creighton W. Abrams, ordered Khe Sanh abandoned.  Abrams also ordered the destruction of all infrastructure along Route 9 toward Laos, including all roadways and bridges.  In October 1968, all work relating to Dye Marker ceased.

In March 1968, Major General Raymond G. Davis, USMC, served As Deputy Commander, Provisional Corps.[12]  In May, he was assigned as Commanding General, 3rdMarDiv, through April 1969.  During his tenure in this position, Davis refused to leave his men in static positions where they could be targeted and slaughtered by the NVA.  Soon after taking command, he ordered his subordinate commanders to move out of their static combat bases and execute their traditional mission: locate, close with, and destroy the enemy by fire and maneuver and close combat.  Operation Dewey Canyon was how he took the war to the enemy.  With a stream of officers who agreed with this philosophy following him as the division commander, the Marines of I CTZ inflicted a terrible price upon the enemy.  At the end of 1972, the NVA began conscripting young teenagers.  The war might have turned out much differently were it not for Washington politicians (of both parties) who shocked NVA General in Chief Vo Nguyen Giap by ordering the withdrawal of US Forces.

Conclusion

I have long given up my hope that the American people will begin to exercise their sovereignty over the federal government.  They seem not to mind burying their children in massive national cemeteries — and they apparently have never learned that elections have costly consequences.  John Kennedy’s election to the presidency was one of our nation’s more corrupt campaigns. Kennedy’s running mate was one of the most corrupt politicians in the history of the U. S. Congress.  Kennedy selected McNamara to serve as SecDef; Johnson kept him on the payroll.  Who, then, is to blame for getting the American people engaged in a land war that politicians had no intention of winning?  The blame rests with the American voter.  Democrats lied — to both the American people and our South Vietnamese allies — and tens of thousands of Americans died.

President Richard Nixon was roundly criticized by the vocal American communist/anti-war/progressive movement for expanding the war into Cambodia and Laos — but this was precisely what Nixon needed to do to defeat the NVA, who were already operating in Cambodia and Laos — but progressive Democrats/neo-communists gave Kennedy/Johnson a pass for having committed troops to Vietnam in the first place.

Sources:

  1.  Brush, P.  The Story Behind the McNamara Line. Vietnam Magazine, 1996.
  2. Cash, J. A.  The Other Side of the Hill.  Army Center of Military History, 2014.
  3. Philips, W. R.  Night of the Silver Stars: The Battle of Lang Vei.  Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1997.
  4. Prados, J.  The Blood Road: The Ho Chi Minh Trail
  5. Shulimson, J. And Blasiol, L. A. And others.  U. S. Marines in Vietnam: The Defining Year, 1968.  Washington: Headquarters, U. S. Marine Corps, 1997.

Endnotes:

[1] Marines defend the United States of America.  They do that through aggressive, overpowering combat.  There are defensive tactics in the Marine Corps, but they are designed as a temporary respite while transitioning from one attack to another.  A bended knee is not a Marine Corps tradition, and neither is establishing defensive positions while waiting for the enemy to make his next move.  US Policy in Vietnam tied the hands of the Marines (indeed, all air, ground, and naval forces), by restricting offensive operations and imposing our combat forces criminally malfeasant rules of engagement.

[2] A DMZ is an area of land in which treaties or agreements forbid the establishment of any military activity (installations, activities, or personnel).  It is a buffer zone between two warring factions.  In the case of Vietnam, it was the official border area between the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam) and the Republic of South Vietnam.  The NVA frequently violated this agreement, in much the same way they violated the neutrality of neighboring Laos.

[3] Never before in US history had the government of the United States adopted an enemy’s game plan.  Whether this was Westmoreland’s idea, or one imposed upon him from Washington, the result was the devastating loss of 58,000 American lives in a conflict that they could not win. 

[4] The aggressive nature of USMC combat operations has always been to save lives, not waste them.  If the United States must fight a war, then the sooner the enemy is defeated, the better.  Washington/Westmoreland denied this proven strategy to the Marines during the Vietnam War.

[5] McNamara served in the Army Air Corps in World War II, gaining a commission as a captain, and achieving the rank of lieutenant colonel before the end of the war.  During the war, he served in the Office of Statistical Control where he analyzed the effectiveness of bomber efficiency.  In 1946, McNamara and ten others of the OSC joined Ford Motor Company.  Collectively, they became known as the Whiz Kids because they helped reform a money-losing FMC.  McNamara became the first president of Ford Motor Company outside the Ford family.  Kennedy appointed him as SecDef at the beginning of his administration.

[6] Kaysen (1920-2010) was an academic advisor in the Kennedy administration, a “specialist” in international security at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).  His field of expertise was nuclear warfare, foreign trade, international economic policy, and international security policy.  Presumably, Kaysen was an architect of the “Mutual Atomic Destruction,” which essentially changed forever the psychological characteristics of American society.

[7] The JASON Group was established in 1960.  It is affiliated with the MITRE Corporation, which operates seven Federally funded research and development centers at the expense of the American taxpayer.  Consisting of between thirty and sixty scientific technologists, JASON focuses on the development of military technology, with additional interests in global warming and renewable energy.  The term JASON came from “July-August-September-October-November,” the months in which the group typically met.  They are also skeptically known as “Junior Achiever Somewhat Older Now.”  Most developmental ideas originating from JASON were costly failures, shepherded through Washington bureaucrats by theoretical physicists, biologists, chemists, oceanographers, mathematicians, and computer geeks.  They no doubt had a hand in the creation of unmanned naval ships that currently sail the nation’s oceans.

[8] “Bus” Wheeler was a career staff officer and school instructor with active service between 1924-1970.  The Vietnam War may be a direct result of appointing a non-combat officer to head the JCS, particularly one who simply could not kiss enough political ass inside the Washington beltway.

[9] Admiral Sharp served as Commander, U. S. Pacific Fleet from 1963-64, and as Commander, U. S. Pacific Command from 1964-68.  Sharp was Westmoreland’s boss.

[10] Johnson’s only military experience occurred during World War II when he served as a Congressman/Navy Lieutenant Commander in the Public Affairs Section in Washington, D. C.  The 1965 epic war film In Harm’s Way based the character of LCdr Neal Owynn, a sycophant congressman, on Lyndon Baines Johnson.  When the project’s classified code name was leaked to the American press, Operation Practice Nine became Operation Illinois City and then later Project Dye Marker.

[11] Fleet Marine Force, Pacific (FMFPac) (1941-Present} is the largest maritime landing force in the world.  The general officer commanding reports directly to the Commander, U. S. Pacific Command, and exercises command authority over all subordinate commands of the Navy/Marine Corps expeditionary units operating in the Pacific, from California to the Far East.  During the Vietnam War, the CG FMFPac did not exercise operational control of Marines in Vietnam, but he nevertheless had something to say about how the Marines were employed within USMACV.

[12] Raymond G. Davis (1915-2003) served as a U. S. Marine from 1938-1972.  He participated in the Guadalcanal/Tulagi landings-campaigns, Cape Gloucester campaign, and the invasion of Peleliu.  He was awarded the Navy Cross and Purple Heart while commanding 1st Battalion, 1st Marines.  During the Korean War, Davis commanded 1st Battalion, 7th Marines, during which time he was awarded the Medal of Honor during the Battle of Chosin Reservoir.  He was also awarded the two Silver Stars, Bronze Star, and two Legions of Merit.