From King to Joker

How administration policies moved America from greatness to mediocrity

The Kiss VJ DayThe United States was a very troubled land following World War II … only most people didn’t realize it.   The American people had grown tired of the tragedies of war and all of its inconveniences on the home front.  Over a million Americans became casualties during the war: 292,000 killed in action, 113,842 non-combat related deaths, 670,846 wounded in action, and 30,314 missing in action.  Folks back home wanted their survivors back, their husbands, sons, daughters, and sweethearts, so that they could return to a normal life.  What they did not know, and could not know, was that there would never again be “a normal life” following World War II.

Part of this, of course, was the war itself.  People who come through war —any war— are never quite the same as before they experienced it.  Part of it, too, was that American society was moving away from a few of its traditional defects; change is never easy.  There were civil rights issues, voting rights issues, human dignity issues … problems that were created and nurtured by the Democratic Party over the previous 80 years.  Americans did address these issues, fought back against the innate racism of the Democratic Party and in time, for the most part, many of these problems were solved —to a point.

With the war drawing to a close in May 1945, Democrat President Harry S. Truman ordered a general demobilization of the armed forces after the defeat of Nazi Germany, even while the war continued in the Pacific.  In May, before Japan’s surrender, the United States had more than twelve million men and women serving in uniform; nearly eight million of these were serving outside the United States.  Truman’s plan for general demobilization was code-named Operation Magic Carpet, supervised by the War Shipping Administration.  It was a massive undertaking that demanded hundreds of liberty ships, victory ships, and nearly 400 ships of the US Navy to bring the troops back home.

Post-war demobilization of the armed forces was always anticipated, of course.  But, as we shall see, the Truman administration took the concept of a peace-time America a few extraordinary steps beyond demobilization and why this is important is because none of Truman’s decisions were beneficial to the long-term interests of the United States, or its long-suffering population.  In fact, the incompetence of the Truman administration was so pervasive that it is nearly impossible to believe it.  Make no mistake, however, Truman and his associates guaranteed to the American people great suffering and angst.

At the conclusion of World War II, after the unconditional surrender of the Empire of Japan, occupation forces were needed throughout Asia to disarm and help repatriate remnants of the Japanese military.  The steps that would be necessary for the immediate post-war period were negotiated and agreed to by the aligned nations long before the end of the war.  Each allied nation accepted responsibility for disarmament and political stabilization in Europe and on the Asian mainland.  Korea, however, presented a unique set of problems —and unknown to most Americans at the time, it was a harbinger of the Cold War.

Before World War II, Korea was a unified nation, albeit one controlled by the Empire of Japan.  In negotiating the fate of post-war Korea, the allied powers (principally the United States and the Soviet Union) failed to consult anyone of Korean descent.  The Soviet Union did not want the United States in control of an area abutting its Pacific border and the United States was not inclined to relinquish the Korean Peninsula to the Soviet Union.

Korea Map 001While the Soviet Union (then one of the allied powers) (an ally of the United States in name only) agreed to liberate the northern area of the Korean Peninsula and accept the surrender of Japanese forces there, the United States assumed responsibility for the southern region.  Korea was thus divided into two separate occupation zones at the 38th parallel.  Ostensibly, the ultimate objective was for the Soviet Union and the United States to help stabilize the Korean Peninsula, and then let the Korean people sort their politics out for themselves.  The problem was that every effort to create a middle ground whereby unification might occur peacefully was thwarted by both the US and USSR.

Thus, two new sovereign states were created out of post-war geopolitical tensions.  In the north, the Soviet Union created a communist state under the leadership of Kim-Il-sung and in the south, the United States created a capitalist state eventually led by Syngman Rhee).  Both Kim-Il-sung and Syngman Rhee claimed political legitimacy over the entire peninsula, neither man ever accepted the 38th parallel as a permanent border, and neither of these men (or their sponsors) would yield to the other.

In South Korea, Truman directed the establishment of the United States Army Military Government in Korea (acronym: USAMGIK), the official ruling body of South Korea from 8 September 1945 until 15 August 1948.  At the head of USAMGIK was Lieutenant General John R. Hodge[1], U. S. Army, while concurrently commanding the United States’ XXIV Corps.  As an organization, USAMGIK was completely out of its depth in addressing the challenges of administering South Korea.  The problems were several and serious:

  • USAMGIK had no one on staff who could speak the Korean language, no one with an understanding of, or appreciation for Korean culture, its history, or its politics. Consequently, many of the policies it enacted had a destabilizing effect throughout South Korea.  To make things worse, waves of refugees from North Korea swamped USAMGIK and caused turmoil throughout Korean society.
  • The consequences of Japanese occupation remained throughout the occupation zone; popular discontent stemmed from the military government’s support of continued Japanese colonial government. Once the colonial apparatus was dismantled, the military government continued to retain Japanese officials as their advisors.
  • On the advice of these Japanese advisors, the military government ignored, censored, or forcibly disbanded the functional (and popular) People’s Republic of Korea. This action discharged the popular leader, Yeo Un-hyeong, who subsequently established the Working People’s Party, and it further complicated matters by refusing to recognize the Provisional Government of the Republic of Korea (in exile), led by Kim Ku, who was insulted when he was required to re-enter his own country as a private citizen.

In the beginning, the USAMGIK was tolerant of leftist politics, including the Korean Communist Party —apparently attempting to seek a balance between hard-left and hard-right political groups.  Such liberality created an adverse relationship with the powerful South Korean leader Syngman Rhee.  In any case, the effort to reconcile political differences in South Korea didn’t last and the ban on popular political expressions sent dissenting groups underground.  Following South Korea’s constitutional assembly and presidential elections in May and July 1948, the Republic of South Korea was officially announced on 15 August 1948.  US military occupation forces were withdrawn in 1949.

In 1948, a large-scale North Korean-backed insurgency erupted in South Korea[2].  The unrecognized border between the two countries was part of the problem, but Kim-Il-sung was an experienced guerilla fighter; one who helped lead Korea’s resistance to Japanese colonialism.  Kim Il-sung, more than most, knew how to agitate the masses.  The communist insurgency resulted in thousands of deaths on both sides.  Post-1945, the armed forces of the Republic of Korea (ROK) were almost exclusively armed and trained to address the Communist insurgency.  They were not trained or equipped to deal with conventional war.  Advising the ROK military was a force of about 100 US Army advisors.

Acheson 001
Dean Acheson

The communist insurgency did have the attention of senior military leaders in the United States, but they were preoccupied with the Truman administration’s gutting of the US Armed Forces.  In January 1949, recently elected President Truman appointed Dean Acheson as the 51st Secretary of State.  Acheson had been ensconced at the State Department since 1941 as an under-Secretary.  In 1947, Truman awarded Acheson the Medal of Merit for his work in implementing the Marshal Plan, which was part of Truman’s overall Communist containment policy.  In the summer of 1949, after Mao Zedong’s victory against the Chinese Nationalists (and before the presidential elections), the American people (mostly Republican politicians) demanded to know how it was possible, after spending billions of dollars in aid to the Nationalist Chinese, that the United States lost China to the Communist dictator, Mao-Zedong.

To answer this question, Secretary Acheson directed area experts to produce a study of recent Sino-American relations.  Known conventionally as the China White Paper, Acheson used it to dismiss claims that Truman’s incompetence provided aid and comfort to the Maoists during the Chinese Civil War.  The paper argued that any attempt by the United States to interfere in the civil war would have been doomed to failure.  This, of course, was probably true[3].  It did not, however, serve American interests for the Truman administration to bury its collective head in the sand and pretend that all was well in the world.  It was not.

On 12 January 1950, Acheson addressed the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. During his discussions about the all-important US Defense Perimeter, Acheson failed to include the Korean Peninsula or Formosa within the United States’ protective umbrella.  Soviet leader Joseph Stalin and North Korean leader Kim-Il-Sung interpreted what Acheson had not said as a green light for military aggression on the Korean Peninsula.

Johnson 001
Louis A. Johnson

In March 1949, President Truman nominated Louis A. Johnson to serve as the second Secretary of Defense.  Johnson shared Truman’s commitment to drastically reduce US expenditures on national defense in favor of socialist programs.  Truman viewed defense spending as an interference with his domestic agenda and without regard to the nation’s ability to respond to foreign emergencies.  Truman made the erroneous assumption that America’s monopoly on nuclear weapons would be a sufficient deterrence against Communist aggression.  Secretary Johnson’s unwillingness to budget for conventional forces-in-readiness caused considerable dissension among the nation’s military leaders.

To ensure congressional approval of Johnson’s proposed DoD budget request, both President Truman and Johnson demanded public acceptance, if not outright support, from the Joint Chiefs of Staff and other leaders of military departments when making public statements or testifying before Congress.  The intimidation worked, apparently, because General Omar Bradley changed his tune once he was nominated to become Chairman of the JCS.  In 1948 he moaned, “The Army of 1948 could not fight its way out of a paper bag.”  In the next year, both he and General Collins testified before Congress that Truman cuts made the services more effective.

In a meeting with the Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Richard L. Conolly, Johnson said, “Admiral, the Navy is on its way out.  There is no reason for having a Navy and Marine Corps.  General Bradley tells me amphibious operations are a thing of the past.  We’ll never have any more amphibious operations.  That does away with the Marine Corps.  And the Air Force can do anything the Navy can do, so that does away with the Navy.”

Truman had no love for the US Marine Corps; he did not think the nation needed a Corps of Marines when it had an army capable of doing the same things.  He never accepted the fact that the Marine Corps, as a combat force, provided unique strategic and tactical strengths to the Naval establishment and he, in fact, undertook efforts to disband the Marine Corps prior to the National Security Act of 1947, which protected the Marine Corps from disbandment.  What the law did not allow Truman to do, he attempted to accomplish through insufficient funding —but this was something the Marine Corps shared with all other services.  As a result of Truman’s Department of Defense (DoD) budget cuts, the United States had no combat-effective units in 1950.

On 31 December 1945, the Eighth US Army assumed occupation duties in Japan, replacing the Sixth US Army.  Between then and June 1950, the Eighth Army was reduced in both manpower and material.  Most of the enlisted men were basically trained soldiers with no combat experience.  Among the enlisted men, life in Japan was good.  Owing to the fact that there was no money for adequate resupply, training ammunition, fuel, or replacement parts for vehicles, radios, or aircraft, there was plenty of time for imbibing, chasing kimonos, gambling, and black marketeering.  Equally inexperienced junior officers, mostly from wealthy families padding their resumes for post-military service, stayed out of the way and allowed the senior NCOs to run the show.  Mid-grade officers were experienced enough to know that the senior officers didn’t want to hear about problems involving troop efficiency, unit morale, or disciplinary problems.  The more astute majors and colonels learned how to lose games of golf to their seniors, and the generals enchanted their wives by throwing wonderfully attended soirees for visiting dignitaries.

In the early morning of 25 June 1950, the North Korean People’s Army invaded the Republic of South Korea.  It was a lightning strike.  The only US military presence in the ROK was the US Military Advisory Group (KMAG) under Brigadier General William L. Roberts, U. S. Army, commanding 100 military advisors.  Wisely, officers not killed or taken as prisoners of war made a rapid withdrawal southward toward Pusan.

Acting on Dean Acheson’s advice, President Truman ordered General Douglas MacArthur, Supreme Allied Commander for the Allied Powers (SCAP) to reinforce the South Korean military, transfer materiel to the South Korean military, and provide air cover for the evacuation of US nationals.  Truman also ordered the 7th US Fleet to protect the Republic of China (ROC) (Taiwan).

On 3 July, Lieutenant General Lemuel C. Shepherd, Jr., Commanding General, Fleet Marine Force, Pacific, conferred with General Douglas MacArthur in Tokyo, Japan.  At the end of this meeting, MacArthur dispatched this message to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff: “Request immediate assignment marine regimental combat team and supporting air group for duty this command.  Macarthur.”

Before the JCS made their decision on General MacArthur’s request, MacArthur had to send five additional dispatches.  The Korean War was a week old and still, the Marine Corps awaited orders.  But while waiting for Truman to decide whether or not there was a role for the Marine Corps, the Marines had begun the process of creating a regimental combat team.  On 3 July 1950, however, the 1st Marine Division, closest to the action on the Korean Peninsula, was a paper division.  There was only one infantry regiment (as opposed to three): the 5th Marines.  Commanding the regiment was Lieutenant Colonel Raymond L. Murry (Colonel Select).  Rather than three infantry battalions, Murry had only two.  Each battalion had two rifle companies (rather than three).  Each company had two rifle platoons, instead of three.  Given the status of Murry’s regiment, it would require a herculean task to put together a regimental combat team.

Smith C B 001
Charles B. Smith

In Korea, the Battle of Osan was the first significant engagement of US forces in the Korean War.  Tasked to reinforce the South Korean Army, Major General William F. Dean, commanding the 24th US Infantry Division in Japan, assigned the 21st Infantry Regiment as his lead element.  Its first battalion (1/21) was the regiment’s only “combat-ready” battalion, commanded by the experienced Lieutenant Colonel Charles B. Smith, who had earlier participated in the Battle of Guadalcanal.  Designated Task Force Smith, 1/21 moved quickly to block advancing NKPA forces.  Smith’s orders were to hold off the NKPA until the rest of the division could be moved to Korea by sea —Major General Dean thought it would take three days.

Smith had a little over 500 men under his command, barely 3 rifle companies and a battery of field artillery.  Most of these men were teenagers with no combat experience and only eight weeks of basic training.  Each of Smith’s rifleman was limited to 120 rounds of ammunition and two days of field rations.  Task Force Smith arrived in Korea on 1 July 1950.  The unit moved by rail and truck northward toward Suwon, about 25 miles south of Seoul.

At the Battle of Osan on 5 July 1950, Task Force Smith was only able to delay the advancing KPA for seven hours.  American casualties were 60 killed, 21 wounded, 82 captured, and six artillery pieces destroyed.  Smith did the best he could with what he had at his disposal —which was little more than young boys carrying rifles.  His soldiers ran out of ammunition.  None of his field radios were in working order.  The size of his task force was insufficient for the mission assigned to him.  When faced with retreat or capture, Smith ordered the withdrawal of his companies in leap-frog fashion.  The men of the 2nd platoon, Company B never received Smith’s order to withdraw.  When the platoon commander finally discovered that he was completely alone, it was already too late to withdraw his men in an orderly manner.  The wounded were left behind[4], along with much of the platoon’s equipment (including automatic weapons).  According to the later testimony of a North Korean army officer, the Americans were too frightened to fight.

Smith’s withdrawal soon devolved into confused flight.  In total, Task Force Smith imposed around 20 enemies KIA with 130 wounded.  Task Force Smith revealed the effects of Truman’s national defense policies.  The troops were completely unprepared for combat and their inoperable or barely functioning equipment was insufficient to their mission.  Following the defeat of Task Force Smith, the 24th Infantry Division’s 34th regiment was likewise defeated at Pyontaek.  Over the subsequent 30 days, the NKPA pushed the Eighth Army all the way south to Pusan and the United States Army gave up its most precious resource —the American rifleman— to enemy fires … all because President Truman thought that socialist programs were more important than the combat readiness of its military services.

Equally disastrous for the United States was the long-term implications of the Truman administration’s thinking.  There is no such thing as “limited war,” at least, not among those who must confront a determined enemy.  Police action is something that civilian police agencies do … winning wars is what the US military establishment is supposed to do … but when national policy dictates “holding actions,” or the acceptance of stalemate, then America’s excellent military can do no more than win battles, give up casualties, and accept the stench of strategic losses created by Washington politicians.

But there is an even worse outcome, which is where I think we are today.  It is that in serving under self-absorbed, morally bankrupt, and thoroughly corrupt politicians, career military officers relinquish their warrior ethos.  They learn how to accept casualties as simply being the cost of their career advancement, they learn how to lose graciously, and they learn that by getting along with Washington and corporate insiders, lucrative positions await them after military retirement.

The stench of this is enough to make a good American retch.

These lessons began in Korea.  The mindset took hold during the Vietnam War.  Their effects are easily observed in the more recent efforts of Generals Petraeus and McCrystal, who focused on counterinsurgency strategies (winning hearts and minds) rather than locating a ruthless enemy and destroying him.  Recent history demonstrates that there is little that counterinsurgency did to benefit the long-term interests of the United States in the Middle East.

Our current policy objectives accomplish only this: making America the laughingstock of a dangerous and determined enemy.  Neither have the efforts of American diplomats benefited our national interests, but then, this has been true for well over 150 years.

The American people are not consulted about the direction of their country but they must live with the results of inept government policy.  The American people have but one responsibility, and that is to vote intelligently and responsibly according to their conscience.  Nor is the imposition of this responsibility overpowering.  We only vote once every two years in general elections.

Yet, how the people vote does matter.  Ilhan Omar, Hank Johnson, Erick Swalwell, Ted Lieu all matter.  Who the people choose as their President matters: Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Jimmy Carter, George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama.  Presidents matter because they appoint cabinet officials (Dean Acheson, Robert McNamara Cyrus Vance, Edmund Muskie, Warren Christopher, Madeline Albright, Hillary Clinton, John Kerry), federal judges (John Roberts, Ruth Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan), and other bureaucrats whose primary allegiance is to themselves rather than to the poor dumb suckers across America who pay their salaries.

Truman laid the foundation for our national malaise, and most presidents between then and now have contributed to our present-day quagmire.  America is in trouble and has been for far too long.  It occurs to me that if the American people are tired of burying their loved ones at Arlington National Cemetery, then they need to do a better job choosing their national leaders.

The United States was once, not long ago, a king on the world’s stage; today, America is a joker —a useful idiot to people who share the world stage but whose diplomats and policy makers are much smarter than anyone on our side of the ocean.

Success has many fathers—Failure is an orphan.

Sources:

  1. Cumings, B. The Origins of the Korean War, Liberation and the Emergence of Separate Regimes.  Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981.
  2. Eckert, C.J. and Ki-Baik Lee (et.al.) Korea: Old and New, a History.  The Korea Institute, Harvard University Press, 1990.
  3. Karnow, S. Vietnam: A History.  Viking Press, 1983
  4. Millett, A. R. The War for Korea, 1945-1950: A House Burning.  Topeka: University of Kansas Press, 2005
  5. Robinson, M. Korea’s Twentieth-Century Odyssey: A short history.  Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2007

Endnotes:

[1] John Reed Hodge (1823-1963) attended Southern Illinois Teachers College and the University of Illinois and received his appointment in the U. S. Army through the ROTC program.  He served in World War I and World War II, retiring as a lieutenant general following his assignment as Chief of Army Field Services in 1953.

[2] The exact-same strategies used by Ho Chi Minh in 1946.  The similarities are no coincidence since the USSR backed Ho Chi Minh at the same time they backed Kim Il-sung.  Part of this strategy was to overwhelm South Korea and South Vietnam by streaming thousands of “refugees” into the struggling countries and embedding within these populations hundreds of Communist troublemakers.  The amazing part of this is that no one in the Truman administration was able (or could be bothered) to put any of the pieces together.  In both events (Korea/Vietnam), Americans lost their lives in a losing proposition.  The architect (through malfeasance) of both disasters was the Truman administration.

[3] The United States’ long-time ally in China was Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-Shek, one of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s useful idiots and a beneficiary of Roosevelt’s lend-lease arrangement.  Roosevelt also provided Mao Zedong with arms and munitions so that he too could confront Japanese Imperial forces in China.  Chiang was only marginally successful in waging war against invading Japanese, Mao didn’t even try.  He kept Roosevelt’s gifts for use later on against Chiang.  In any case, with American made arms and munitions, Chiang repressed the Chinese people, driving many of them squarely into the Communist camp. The first question to ask might have been whether or not Chiang or Mao deserved any support from the United States, and the second might have addressed the kind of ally Chiang would have made had he won the civil war.  In any case, no one in America was smart enough to deal effectively with unfolding events in Asia.

[4] These wounded soldiers were later found shot to death in their litters.

Dewey Canyon

Semper Fi 001Raymond G. Davis —was a son of Georgia and a graduate of the Georgia Institute of Technology.  During college, Davis was a member of the Army ROTC program, so after graduating with a degree in chemical engineering in 1938, Davis also received a commission in the US Army as a second lieutenant.  He soon after resigned his army commission to accept an appointment to second lieutenant in the U. S. Marine Corps.  During World War II and Korea, Ray Davis distinguished himself as a combat commander.  In recognition of his courage under fire, Davis was a recipient of the Medal of Honor, Navy Cross, Silver Star (2), Legion of Merit (2), Bronze Star, and Purple Heart.

In May 1968, Major General Ray Davis assumed command of the Third Marine Division (3rdMarDiv) in Vietnam[1].  Davis knew immediately that his assignment would be difficult because all the division’s maneuver units (regiments/battalions) were occupying fixed positions in four areas centered along the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ)[2].   Charged with defending the Republic of Vietnam along the southern edge of the DMZ, the 3rdMarDiv zone of action extended from Gio Linh and Con Thien (both within 3 miles of the DMZ) to Dong Ha and Cam Lo (altogether forming what was known as Leatherneck Square: Camp Carroll, the Rockpile, and Ca Lu along Route 9).

In particular, the division’s units were assigned as follows:

The 3rd Marine Regiment was headquartered at Camp Kistler (near Cua Viet) and exercised operational control over the 1st Battalion, 3rd Marines (1/3), 1st Battalion, 9th Marines (1/9), 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marines (3/3), and the 1st Amphibian Tractor Battalion.

The 9th Marine Regiment was assigned responsibility for the area northwest of Cua Viet with operational authority over the 2nd Battalion, 26th Marines (2/26) at Con Thien, as well as responsibility for the security of Gio Linh, Cam Lo, Route 1, Route 9, and Route 561[3].

The 4th Marine Regiment occupied Camp Carroll with its 1st Battalion (1/4) and 2nd Battalion (2/4).  When these two battalions were designated as battalion landing teams[4] and assigned to the Special Landing Force (SLF), 2/9 was assigned responsibility for the security of Camp Carroll, Them Son Lam, and Ca Lu—all of which were centered on Route 9.  2/9 also exercised operational control over 3/1, which had been designated as a BLT in reserve.

The largest of the 3rdMarDiv’s operational areas (the region of Operation Scotland II) encompassed the western one-third of the Quang Tri Province in the I Corps Tactical Zone (also, I CTZ).  Responsibility for operations in this area was assigned to Task Force Hotel, a multi-battalion task organization commanded by the Assistant Division Commander, who at the time was Brigadier General Carl W. Hoffman.  Task Force Hotel included 1st Battalion, 1st Marines (1/1), 2nd Battalion, 1st Marines (2/1), and 2nd Battalion, 3rd Marines (2/3), units that would be responsible for defending the Khe Sanh combat base and outposts located on Hill 881, Hill 861, and Hill 950.

General Davis’ dilemma was that the division’s tactical effectiveness was limited by assigning maneuver units to fixed positions, particularly in such a large area where there were huge numbers of enemy troops operating with impunity.  Moreover, fixed defensive positions required a heavier troop footprint.  With troops strung out over a wide area, they were susceptible to being surrounded and overrun.  The fact was that large areas of Quang Tri Province remained in enemy hands, even though the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) had been soundly defeated at Khe Sanh and Dong Ha.  The problem was that the 3rdMarDiv had made no attempts to penetrate the enemy’s base areas and had made no effort to disrupt his supply and infiltration routes.  General Davis was determined to change this “unsatisfactory” situation.

The 3rdMarDiv was buttressed by two US Army infantry divisions in the I CTZ; General Davis intended to rely on these assets to take the war to the enemy.  After reducing the number of static positions in I CTZ, Davis placed his division into a mobile posture, not unlike the Army’s air cavalry, which Davis admired.  He believed that the way to get things done was to “go mobile,” find the enemy and destroy him on Davis’ own terms.  Airmobile assault forces, combined with the Marine Corps’ amphibious capability, would give the 3rdMarDiv the upper hand in dealing with NVA forces.

Additional helicopter support came to the 3rdMarDiv with the arrival of new CH-46 aircraft, the creation of Provisional Marine Aircraft Group 39[5], and Davis’ good relations with Army aviation commanders in the I CTZ.  Airpower, as it turned out, would become critical to USMC operations in I CTZ.  General Davis began moving his regiments out of static positions and reconstituting unit integrity[6].  Infantry battalions were organized to allow for internal administration/logistics and regimental commanders assumed tactical authority over their organic battalions.  The result of General Davis’ realignments was greater unit cohesion, esprit de corps, willing cooperation, and greater tactical awareness among regimental and battalion commanders and their respective staffs.

Corps Zones RVNMeanwhile, at that time, there were 36 enemy infantry battalions and six combat support battalions operating within the I CTZ —somewhere around 23,000 NVA troops.  Their numbers were large, but they remained unusually quiet, which suggested to General Davis that something was afoot.  This was true because, in the western region, two NVA regiments were massing to assault allied installations and refugee settlement centers, and seizure of Route 9.  In the central region of I CTZ, the NVA 812th Regiment, 808th, and 818th separate battalions were poised to attack Quang Tri City and surrounding allied bases.  Within a short time, the NVA 304th Division was joined by the 88th and 102nd regiments of the 308th Division, sent to I CTZ from Hanoi.  The NVA’s intent was to renew attacks against Khe Sanh, Route 9, and all locations from Ca Lu to the Laotian border.

General Davis assigned primary responsibility for offensive operations to Brigadier General Hoffman’s task force.  Hoffman prepared operational plans for a series of heliborne assaults to the south and west of Route 9.  To ensure that his Marines remained within the umbrella of supporting artillery, Hoffman’s plans included moving artillery batteries with infantry battalions.  For this, he would need helicopters to insert combat engineers and artillery to prepare temporary advanced firebases.  Helicopters would also be needed to maneuver ground forces, resupply them, and if necessary, extract them.  By mid-June 1968, Hoffman’s scheme resulted in 650 enemies KIA and four of the six battalions allocated to the NVA 308th Division seriously mauled.  Enemy units that survived the Marine onslaught did so by withdrawing into Laos, where the Americans could not pursue them.

General Davis’ strategy stymied the communists because they were being outmaneuvered by air assault units.  The NVA resolved to avoid 3rdMarDiv units, but Marines and US infantry from the 8th and 9th Cavalry regiments weren’t having any of that.  Daily sweeps and ambushes denied the enemy use of their well-worn networks of river crossings, trail ways, and village complexes known to harbor communist sympathizers.  As a result of increased allied activities, the NVA began to rely more on its artillery, and less on its infantry.  Davis effectively signaled to the NVA that there was a new sheriff in town.

In January 1969, Colonel Robert H. Barrow[7] commanded the 9th Marine Regiment —the regiment most easily deployed to meet any contingency.  Intelligence reports indicated a large NVA buildup in the A Shau and Da Krong Valleys.  The A Shau Valley was six miles east of the Laotian border; it extended some 22 miles north to south.  The Da Krong Valley was several miles further east, separated by two mountain ranges.

The 3rdMarDiv authored Operation Dawson River South to be executed in three phases.  First, the southern movement of the 9th Marines into, and the creation of mutually supporting firebases near the objective area.  Second, a period of intensive patrolling in areas surrounding the firebases.  Third, an assault into areas of NVA support bases.  The 9th Marines would work alongside elements of the US 101st Airborne Division and the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) 2nd Infantry Regiment, 2nd ARVN Division.  The objective, according to General Davis, was to disrupt NVA logistics along the Laotian border.

3/9 was airlifted from Vandergrift Combat Base to Firebase Henderson on 18 January 1969.  Two days later, Lima Company 3/9 occupied Firebase Tun Tavern.  Alpha Company 1/9 occupied Firebase Shiloh on 21 January.  2/9 established two new firebases, designated Dallas and Razor, on 22 January.  Colonel Barrow’s headquarters was located at Razor.  3/9 established Firebase Cunningham 3 miles southeast of Razor.  Supporting the 9th Marines were five artillery batteries of the 12th Marines.

Dewey Canyon Tiger Mountain3rdMarDiv changed the operation designation from Dawson River South to Dewey Canyon on 24 January.  Rifle companies from 2/9 and 3/9 began aggressive patrolling almost immediately.  Marines soon discovered the NVA 88th Field Hospital, which the communists had wisely abandoned the previous day.  On 31 January, after an arduous climb to around 4,000 feet, Golf Company 2/9 secured Hill 1175 (also known as the Co Ka Leuye Ridge), as Fox Company established a new firebase, designated Erskine.  Similarly, Kilo Company 3/9 established a new firebase named Lightening.  In doing so, the Marines pushed elements of the 1st and 2nd battalions of the 2nd NVA regiment from the mountain.

At the end of January, fortunes changed for the Marines of the 9th regiment.  Monsoon weather fronts settled over the I CTZ —a serious situation for combat operations.  Low cloud ceilings produced zero visibility on the ground and in the air.  These were limiting factors that caused Colonel Barrow to withdraw his battalions back to where they could be supported by artillery and air cover.

On 2 February, five Marines were killed when NVA artillery slammed into Firebase Cunningham.  On 5 February, Captain Daniel A. Hitzelberger, commanding Golf Company, began to withdraw his Marines from Hill 1175.   As the Marines were making their way down the mountain, the second and third platoons were ambushed by an undetermined size NVA unit, pinning the Marines down with intense automatic weapons fire and rocket-propelled grenades.  Hitzelberger deployed his first platoon against the NVA in a flanking maneuver that eventually freed up the third platoon and forced the enemy to withdraw.  The company lost five Marines killed in action, with 18 more wounded.  During this engagement, Lance Corporal Thomas Noonan, Jr., risked his own life to drag a wounded Marine to safety.  Noonan’s actions inspired his fellow Marines to charge enemy positions and reach three additional wounded men who had been cut off by the heavy volume of fire.  Noonan, killed in action, was later awarded the Medal of Honor.

GRP1968010W00018-26Golf Company’s withdrawal from Hill 1175 was more difficult than their ascension a few days earlier.  Marines carrying the wounded on stretchers were required to negotiate steep and slippery slopes.  Their efforts often required up to six to ten men to carry a stretcher.  At some locations, it took the Marines nearly 30 minutes to negotiate a rocky outcrop.  Once Golf Company reached the bottom of the rocky cliff, they were met by a relief platoon from Echo Company, which brought them additional medical supplies and food rations.  It took Golf Company a day and a half to reach an area from which the dead and wounded could be airlifted to Firebase Vandegrift.  It took the company another two days to reach Landing Zone Dallas, west of Firebase Cunningham.

Poor weather sidetracked 9th Marines operations for ten days, which delayed the arrival of 1/9 and gave enemy forces additional time to prepare or strengthen their positions around NVA Base Area 611.  Finally, on 10 February, elements of 1/9 began moving forward from Vandegrift and Shiloh to Firebase Erskine.  Fox Battery, 12th Marines was airlifted from Razor to Erskine.  Also, on 10 February, while making a routine security sweep, Hotel Company 2/9 stumbled on a large cache of enemy munitions five clicks northwest of Firebase Cunningham.

On the morning of 11 February, 3/9 forded the Da Krong River with 1/9 and 2/9 crossing the next day.  Each battalion was assigned an operating sector of about three miles wide by five miles long.  In the eastern sector, on the edge of the A Shau Valley, 3/9 was ordered to pursue a track along two ridgelines 2,000 meters apart.  One company would seize Tiger Mountain (Hill 1228); two companies would seize the town of Tam Boi.

A Shau Valley 001In the center section, 1/9 and 2/9 were ordered to advance toward the Laotian border: 1/9 between two parallel ridgelines, and 2/9 along a similar track further west.  Weather conditions produced a foggy, cold, and wet operational environment; thick vegetation further limited visibility.  To maintain increased security, Colonel Barrow directed his battalion commanders to proceed with two companies in the vanguard and two companies in trace.

It wasn’t long after crossing the river that the Marines encountered stiff enemy resistance.  On the eastern flank, Mike Company (M 3/9) endured an NVA mortar barrage and the assault of a platoon.  Two Marines were killed in the attack, but the Marines killed 18 of the enemy.  Similarly, companies of 1/9 encountered a large enemy force preparing to attack Firebase Erskine.  Supported by artillery, the battalion forced an NVA withdrawal, killing 37 enemies.  Charlie 1/9 engaged a reinforced NVA platoon, killing 24 enemies losing two of their own.

On 16 February, Kilo Company 3/9 engaged the NVA and killed 17 with the loss of 5 Marines.  Then, early on the morning of 17 February, NVA sappers attacked Firebase Cunningham killing four Marines but lost 37 dead in the process.  On 18 February, a combat patrol from Alpha Company 1/9 discovered and assaulted an NVA bunker system, killing 30 communists.  On the same day, Lima Company 3/9 discovered an NVA cemetery containing 185 enemy graves which intelligence officers concluded were the remains of enemy killed in June 1968.

Firebase Cunningham
Firebase Cunningham

The next day, Charlie Company continued its advance, killing an additional 30 NVA.  One Marine was killed in action during these two engagements.  On 20 February, Charlie 1/9 discovered and attacked another NVA bunker.  In this engagement, Marines killed 71 communists and captured two 122-mm field guns.  Alpha Company continued the attack and killed an additional 17 enemy.  Total Marine losses for the day were six killed in action.

As the 9th Marines approached the Laotian border, and in responding to an earlier artillery attack on Firebase Cunningham, General Davis requested permission to send his Marines across the border into Laos.  The MACV Special Operations Group (MACSOG) was ordered to conduct a reconnaissance near NVA Base Area 611 inside Laos.  On 20 February, Lieutenant General Richard G. Stilwell, U. S. Army, serving as Deputy Commanding General of the III Marine Amphibious Force, forwarded Davis’ request for a limited raid to the MACV commander, General Creighton W. Abrams, U. S. Army, for approval.  Company E and Company H 2/9 were both poised on the Laotian border for an assault on Base Area 611.  From their positions, these Marines could observe enemy convoys traveling along Route 922.  The Marines were eager to “get some,” but with the Paris Peace Talks underway, no one was willing to bet that Abrams would give the green light.

MAP A Shau Valley 001On 21 February, Colonel Barrow ordered Company H to set up an ambush along Route 922.  The company commander, Captain David F. Winecoff directed his first and second platoon commanders to coordinate and implement the trap.  After their briefing, the Marines moved under cover of darkness some 900 meters toward Route 922, reaching their objective at around 0130 and began setting up their ambush site.  Within minutes, the Marines heard a vehicle approaching along Route 922 and all hands went to stealth mode.  It was a solitary vehicle, prompting Captain Winecoff to wait for a more lucrative target.  At around 0230, the lights of eight trucks appeared on Route 922.  As these vehicles entered the kill zone, they unexpectedly halted in the column.  Winecoff ordered his Marines to set off the claymore mines installed along the highway, his signal for the Marines to open fire.  As the Marines cut loose with small arms fire, the forward observer called for artillery support and the convoy was destroyed.  After daylight, Winecoff employed a patrol to ascertain the damage to NVA trucks and, satisfied that the destruction was complete, the Marines withdrew to their rally point 600 meters away.  Once his Marines had been resupplied and rested, Winecoff led them further along toward the border of South Vietnam[8].

On the same day, Company M 3/9 located an NVA maintenance facility that included a bulldozer.  The Marines also seized two 122-mm field guns and a large tunnel complex inside Hill 1228 which was also known as Tiger Mountain[9].

On 22 February, Company A 1/9 overran an NVA position four miles southeast of Firebase Erskine.  Seven NVA were killed with the loss of one Marine.  As the company continued its operation, the Marines encountered and overran an entrenched NVA company-size unit of the 3rd Battalion, 9th NVA Regiment.  The Company A commander was First Lieutenant Wesley L. Fox[10]  Just as Fox’s Marines were preparing their assault of the NVA force, the enemy launched an attack against the Marines.  Fox and several members of his command group were immediately wounded. Ignoring his wounds, Fox continued to direct the actions of his platoons in repelling the NVA.  Then, advancing through withering enemy fire, Fox personally neutralized one enemy position and, with a calm demeanor, directed his company into an assault of the enemy’s positions.  Continuing to ignore his wound and intense enemy fire, Fox called for close air support while directing the movements of his rifle platoons.  Within these few minutes, the company executive officer (second in command) was killed.  Having assaulted through the enemy positions, Lieutenant Fox quickly reorganized his company for another assault, which he personally led, eventually forcing the NVA to retreat.  Wounded again during this final assault, Fox refused medical attention while he established a hasty defense for his company, supervised treatment for the wounded, and called for aeromedical evacuation.

On 24 February, Hotel 2/9 was ordered to lead the battalion’s movement into Laos along Route 922; they would be followed in trace by Echo and Fox companies, pushing eastward along the highway.  The plan intended to force an NVA withdrawal into positions held by 1/9 and 3/9.  After six hours of night advance, Marines from Company H set up a hasty ambush site.  At 2300, six NVA walked into the kill zone, of which four were killed.  The next morning, Hotel Company continued its advance, again engaging NVA forces, capturing a 122-mm field gun, and two 40-mm antiaircraft guns.  NVA KIA was seven; Marine casualties were two dead and seven wounded.

Later that day, an advance element of Company H walked into an NVA ambush.  The patrol, quickly reinforced, fought through the ambuscade and captured another 122-mm gun and killing two additional enemies.  By this time, however, Marine casualties were mounting.  Three additional Marines lost their lives, five more seriously wounded.  One of the Marines killed was Corporal William D. Morgan, who lost his life while making a daring attempt to draw enemy fire away from wounded Privates Robinson Santiago and Robert Ballou.  Santiago later died from his wounds; Morgan was later awarded the Medal of Honor for sacrificing his life for those of his two men.  2/9 continued its drive eastward with Company E, F, and H (more or less) online.  Owing to the battalion commander’s insistence on a rapid rate of march, the companies had limited time for thorough searches.

On 26 February, Fox Company discovered a large cache of ammunition approximately five miles south of Firebase Erskine.  The find included 198 rounds of 122-mm ammunition and 1,500 rounds of 12.7-mm anti-aircraft munitions.  Two days later, one of Golf Company’s patrols came under heavy enemy fire from about 25 NVA troops.  The company commander rushed reinforcements forward, but locating the patrol was difficult because the patrol leader had wandered off the patrol route and, having lost his map, could not provide his exact location.  In time, the Gulf Company Marines located and recovered their lost patrol.  Eventually, an artillery mission silenced the enemy.  In this unfortunate incident, Golf Company lost three Marines KIA with an additional 12 Marines wounded.

On 27 February, Delta Company 1/9 uncovered a large cache of enemy munitions near Hill 1044, including 629 rifles and more than 100 crew-serve weapons.

On 1 March, while 2nd Battalion 9th Marines was operating within 1,000 meters of the South Vietnamese/Laotian border, Colonel Barrow advised the battalion commander that Operation Dewey Canyon was terminated.  Awaiting helicopter lift, which was delayed by poor weather, a patrol from Company E discovered five tons of enemy food stores, which they promptly destroyed.  Eventually, the battalion was airlifted to Firebase Vandergrift, which effectively ended its participation in Dewey Canyon.  In total, the battalion suffered 8 KIA, 33 WIA.  For political reasons, Quang Tri Province was listed as the place of death for Marines killed in action during Dewey Canyon.  No official record of 9th Marines operations in Laos was available for many years.

Colonel Barrow, having achieved his operational objectives, ordered his battalions back to their respective firebase locations.  NVA forces ambushed 3/9 during its withdrawal to Firebase Cunningham.  In this engagement, Private First Class Alfred M. Wilson (Abilene, Texas) gave up his life to save his fellow Marines by throwing himself on an enemy grenade.  He was later awarded the Medal of Honor for this selfless sacrifice.

The 9th Marines also extracted soldiers of the Special Operations Group from Laos and despite official closure of Dewey Canyon, combat operations continued through March 18th when 3/9 relinquished its control of Tam Boi.

A Shau On Patrol 001In the long history of the Viet Nam War, Dewey Canyon stands out as one of the more successful operations, but its cost was high.  During Operation Dewey Canyon, the 9th Marines suffered 130 KIA and 932 WIA.  The operation resulted in 1,617 enemies KIA, the discovery and destruction of 500 tons of arms and ammunition, including 16 artillery pieces, 73 anti-aircraft guns, and denial of the A Shau Valley as an NVA staging area, although the disruption to the enemy’s use of Base Area 611 was only temporary.  Units of the 101st Airborne Division and ARVN units from the 1st Infantry Division would conduct another assault on Base Area 611 within a few months (Operation Apache Snow), and Operation Dewey Canyon II/Lam Son 719 was carried out by ARVN forces (supported by the United States) between 8 February—25 March 1971.

Praise for the combat performance of the 9th Marine Regiment was quick in coming. General Stilwell declared: “Dewey Canyon deserves some space in American military history by sole reason of audacity, guts, and magnificent inter-service team play.  A Marine regiment of extraordinary cohesion, skill in mountain warfare, and plain heart made Dewey Canyon a resounding success. As an independent regimental operation, projected 50 kilometers airline from the nearest base and sustained in combat for seven weeks, it may be unparalleled.  Without question, the 9th Marines’ performance represents the very essence of professionalism.”  In recognition of its accomplishments during Operation Dewey Canyon, the 9th Marine Regiment was awarded the Army Presidential Unit Citation.

Several years later, while serving as Commanding General, Marine Corps Recruit Depot, Parris Island, South Carolina, Robert H. Barrow hosted a Dewey Canyon reunion.  He recalled to his Marines that weather influenced the operation from its very start and continued throughout the seven-week period.  It was a team effort and the support the 9th Marines received from air and artillery units was “magnificent.”  He also said, “It appears that the enemy had deceived himself into believing that U.S. forces would not be so bold as to enter that remote area of Dewey Canyon.  We didn’t deceive him, he deceived himself, as his actions revealed … what we did was a complete surprise to the enemy, a fact borne out by the enormous quantities of ammunition, weapons, and supplies captured or destroyed.”

When the US news media began picking Operation Dewey Canyon apart, then-Secretary of Defense Melvin R. Laird said, “I would not confirm that they were there now but I would certainly say that there have been operations in which it has been necessary in order to protect American fighting forces that —that border being a very indefinite border— it may have been transgressed by American forces in carrying out this responsibility.” Subsequently, US Ambassador to Laos William H. Sullivan offered an apology to the Laotian prime minister for the 9th Marines invasion of this supposedly neutral country.  Responding to questions during congressional hearings in 1973, JCS Chairman Admiral Thomas H. Moorer said, “This was the first and only time where the United States ground combat forces went into Laos.”

Sources:

  1. Smith, C. S. Marines in Vietnam: High Mobility and Standdown.  History and Museums Division, Headquarters, U. S. Marine Corps, Government Printing Office, 1988.
  2. Lipsman, S. and Edward Doyle. Fighting for Time: The Vietnam Experience.  Boston Publishing, 1984
  3. Hastings, M. Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy, 1945-75.  Collins Publishing, 2019.
  4. Karnow, S. Vietnam: A History.  Penguin Books, 1983.
  5. FitzGerald, F. Fire in the Lake: The Vietnamese and the Americans.  Back Bay Books, 1972.
  6. Fall, B. B. Street Without Joy: The French Debacle in Indochina.  Stackpole Books, 1994.
  7. Nolan, K. W. Into Laos: The Story of Dewey Canyon II and Lam Son 719.  Presidio Press, 1986.

Endnotes:

[1] General Davis was sent to Vietnam as a replacement for Major General Bruno Hochmuth, after Hochmuth was killed in a helicopter accident on 14 November 1967.  Brigadier General Louis Metzger, the Assistant Division Commander, assumed temporary command of the 3rdMarDiv until Davis arrived in-country to assume command.  This was not General Davis’ first Vietnam tour, however.  Following the Gulf of Tonkin Incident in August 1964, the Commander-in-Chief, U. S. Pacific Fleet (CINCPACFLT) activated the 9th Marine Amphibious Brigade (9thMAB).  The 3rdMarDiv Assistant Division Commander at the time was (then) Brigadier General Ray Davis, who was appointed to command 9thMAB.  The brigade was formed around the 9th Marine Regiment and three BLTs.  One of these BLTs was stationed on Okinawa, another placed in the Philippines, and a third assigned to serve as the Special Landing Force of the US Seventh Fleet.

[2] The DMZ was an area that separated north and south Viet Nam that ran east to west near the center of present-day Vietnam (spanning more than 60 miles) and around 3 miles in distance north to south.

[3] The 26th Marine Regiment with its 1st and 3rd battalions had been detached from the 3rdMarDiv and temporarily assigned to the 1stMarDiv at Da Nang to participate in Operation Mameluke Thrust.

[4] A battalion landing team (BLT) is a Marine infantry battalion reinforced by combat support (tanks, aviation) and combat service support (logistics) units necessary to sustain the landing team after an amphibious assault.  A BLT would normally be assigned to a Navy Amphibious Ready Group for the purpose of conducting amphibious landings in support of the Amphibious Assault Group’s mission.

[5] Brigadier General Homer S. Hill, the Assistant Wing Commander of the First Marine Aircraft Wing (1stMAW) was temporarily assigned to the 3rdMarDiv to help coordinate increased airlift capability.

[6] Before General Davis, battalions rotated among the division’s regiments.  In early June 1968, the 4th Marines controlled one battalion of the 1st Marines, two battalions of the 9th Marines, and only one of its own organic battalions.  Under such circumstances, there was no unit integrity, no pride in the regiment, and a condition where every battalion commander was a stranger to the regimental commander.

[7] Later served as the 27th Commandant of the U. S. Marine Corps (1979-1983).  General Barrow passed away in 2008, aged 86 years, at St. Francisville, Louisiana.

[8] Hotel Company’s ambush didn’t result in massive damage to the enemy, but it opened the door for Colonel Barrow to request continued operations inside Laos.  Politics aside, it made perfect sense for the Marine commander to pursue the enemy in Laos.  In doing so, Barrow reduced the threat of enemy assault against his Marines.  General Abrams approved further raids but restricted all communications about operations inside Laos.

[9] See also: A Clash of Prey.

[10] As a result of this action, Wesley Fox (now deceased) was awarded the Medal of Honor in recognition of his courage, inspirational leadership, and unwavering support of his Marines in the face of grave personal danger.  Fox retired as a colonel with 43 years of active service in 1993.  Throughout his service, in addition to the Medal of Honor, he was awarded the Legion of Merit (2), Bronze Star with combat V, four Purple Heart medals, Meritorious Service Medal, Joint Service Commendation Medal, Navy Commendation Medal (2) with combat V, and five combat action ribbons.

Operation Detachment – The Battle for Iwo Jima

Note: So much has been written about the Battle of Iwo Jima, by individuals far more qualified than myself, some of whom participated in it, all of whom conducted extensive research on this iconic battle, that I have avoided the effort for years.  But the Battle of Iwo Jima has called out to me to write something in tribute to the men who served there.  What follows is my unworthy summary an event that traumatized its survivors for the balance of their lives.    

Iwo Jima 001American successes in the Pacific campaign forced the Japanese war machine to reevaluate their situation.  By the end of the Marshal Islands campaign, senior Japanese naval and army officers realized the truth of what Admiral Yamamoto had predicted three years earlier.  Japan had awoken a sleeping giant.

It was always Japan’s intention to create an inner perimeter defense of its home islands.  It was a defensive position that extended northward from the Carolines to the Marianas and the Palau Islands and led to the Philippines.  In March 1944, General Hideyoshi Obata, commanding the 31st Japanese Army (21,000 infantry supported by field and naval artillery, anti-aircraft batteries, and 23 tanks) [1], was ordered to garrison the inner defensive area.

The commander of the garrison on Chichi Jima [2] was placed in overall command of Army and Navy units in the Volcano Islands [3].  Once US and allied aircraft began regularly attacking the Japanese home islands, Iwo Jima became an early warning station that radioed reports of incoming bombers, allowing the Japanese to anticipate the attack and organize an anti-aircraft defense.

Defending the Volcano Islands in 1944 was problematic.  The Japanese Navy had already been neutered by American and allied naval forces and was in no position to challenge an assault on the islands.  Additionally, Japanese aircraft losses by 1944 had been so significant that Japanese industries could not replace them.  Third, Japanese aircraft based on the home islands did not have the range needed to help defend the Volcano Islands, and last, there was a substantial shortage of properly trained or experienced pilots (and other aircrew) to fly what war planes the Japanese did have remaining in their arsenal.  Accordingly, the only purpose of Japan’s defense of Iwo Jima was to delay the Americans for a sufficient time to bolster its ground-defense of the home islands.

Allied commanders determined that Iwo Jima was strategically important.  With three existing landing strips, Iwo Jima would provide an alternate landing site for crippled allied bombers returning from missions over the Japanese home islands.  Typically, American intelligence sources were certain that Iwo Jima would fall to allied forces within a week of an amphibious assault.  Military planners began preparations for the assault, assigning it the code name OPERATION DETACHMENT.  At the beginning of operational planning, given what the allied forces had learned from earlier Pacific battles, particularly at Saipan, it is likely that allied planners expected a Japanese defense in depth [4] —but it is unlikely that they anticipated how exhaustively extensive the Japanese defenses would be.

In June 1944, Lieutenant General Tadamichi Kuribayashi [5] assumed command of the defenses at Iwo Jima.  He knew from the beginning that his force could not withstand a full allied assault, so he dedicated his command to inflicting as many casualties on the landing force as possible, hoping that massive casualties would convince US, Australian, and British forces to reconsider any thought of invading the Japanese home islands.

Kuribayashi designed a defensive plan that employed static and heavy weapons within mutually supporting defensive positions.  With insufficient time to link tunnels from Mount Suribachi to the main force position, he created a semi-independent defense force at Suribachi, but retained his primary defense zone in the northern area of the island.  His system of tunnels allowed him to rapidly reinforce or replace neutralized defensive positions.  His network of bunkers and pillboxes was extensive and so thoroughly supplied with food and water that the Japanese could hold out for three months.  Ammunition stores, however, were inadequate; Kuribayashi’s troops only had 60% of the ammo they would need to confront one combat division.  The tunnel network extended to around eleven miles, interspersed with command bunkers extending 75 feet underground.  There were hundreds of hidden artillery and mortar positions; land mines were laid through likely avenues of approach, and these were interspersed with sniper and concealed machine gun positions.

Based on allied intelligence estimates, Major General Harry Schmidt, USMC, commanding the Fifth Amphibious Corps, who served as commander of the Marine landing forces, requested a ten day heavy bombardment of Iwo Jima.  The commander, Amphibious Assault Group (Task Force 52), Rear Admiral William Blandy, USN, did not believe that such a bombardment would allow him sufficient time to replenish task force ammunition stores before the landing [6].  On this basis, he denied Schmidt’s request.  General Schmidt then requested nine days of pre-landing bombardment.  Blandy refused this request, as well.  It is difficult today to find fault with Blandy’s decision; he was the officer responsible for the safety and viability of his amphibious ready group —but at the time, senior Marine officers were not pleased with the navy’s decision [7].

Each of Blandy’s assault ships were assigned a sector of supporting fire.  Each warship fired for approximately six hours before shutting down the guns for cooling [8].  Poor weather conditions, which began three days before the scheduled landing, led to “uncertain results” of daily bombardments, but on the second day the USS Pensacola was hit six times and the USS Leutze was hit by Japanese shore battery fire [9]; these two incidents revealed that allied bombardments were ineffective.  On D-day minus one, weather conditions again hampered allied bombardment, limiting the navy to 13 hours of pre-assault gun fire.  Overall, navy’s pre-landing bombardment did not accomplish its mission.

The landing force consisted of the Fifth Amphibious Corps, which included 5th Marine Division (5thMarDiv) regiments (13th  (artillery) 26th, 27th, 28th Marines), 4th Marine Division (4thMarDiv) regiments (14th (artillery), 23rd, 24th, 25th Marines), the US 147th Infantry Regiment, and serving in reserve, the 3rd Marine Division (3rdMardDiv) regiments (12th (artillery), 3rd, 9th, 21st Marines).

D-day was 19 February 1945.  The dawn was bright and clear.  The first wave of the landing force went ashore at 08:59.  They found nothing even remotely similar to the intelligence estimates provided by the allied war planners.  The beaches weren’t “excellent.”  There would be no “easy push” inland.  The Marines faced a 15-foot high slope of soft black volcanic ash.  There was no “sure footing,” and the Marines were unable to construct fighting (fox) holes.  The Japanese waited in silence as Marines swarmed ashore.  Senior navy officers observed the absence of enemy activity as a sure sign that the island was lightly defended.  By their shear numbers, Marines began moving toward Iwo Jima beach and inched their way inland.  The Japanese waited patiently until the Marines were bunched up on the beach, until their unloaded heavy equipment clogged up the small landing zones.  Finally, at 10:00 hours, Kuribayashi unleashed his artillery, mortars, machine guns.  The beach soon became mired in blood.  Robert Sherrod, a war correspondent with Time Magazine, described it as “a nightmare in hell.”

Marine amphibious landing vehicles attempted to clear the black ash, but managed only to churn up the fine powdery material and made no progress.  As the Marines struggled, Navy Seabees braved enemy fire to bulldoze roadways off the beach.  In time, the Marines began a forward push, but as one observer noted, there was at least one dead Marine for every shell hole along the landing beach.

At 11:30 hours, a Marine platoon reached the southern tip of Airfield One.  This was one of the original objectives for the first day, but the expectation was nothing if not unrealistic.  The Marine platoon soon encountered a fanatical Japanese charge of around 100 men.  The Marines held their position, but it was at best tenuous.  Colonel Liversedge led his 28th Marines across the island at it narrowest width.  Liversedge didn’t know it at the time, but the movement of his regiment isolated the Japanese who were dug in on Mount Suribachi.

Japanese heavy artillery positioned on Mount Suribachi opened up heavily reinforced steel doors to unleash fire, and then closed them again to defeat allied counter-battery fire.  Marines attacked Japanese positions and neutralized them, but many of these positions were quickly re-manned by Japanese troops being shifted through unseen tunnels.  The Marines soon learned that they could not ignore “cleared” enemy positions.  As a response to heavy enemy resistance on the beach, the US 147th Infantry Regiment was ordered to scale a ridge about three-quarters of a mile from the foot of Mount Suribachi and fire on Japanese positions so that the Marines could advance inland.  The regiment soon found itself inside a hornet’s nest; they would remain engaged there for another 31 days.

The far right side of the landing zone was dominated by Japanese positions at “the Quarry.”  Colonel John Lanigan led his 25th Marines in a two-pronged attack into the Quarry to silence Japanese guns.  At the beginning of the push, the third battalion (3/25) had 900 men.  By the end of the day, the battalion was down to 150 effective Marines.  Second Lieutenant Ben Roselle was serving as a naval gunfire liaison officer, whose mission it was to direct naval artillery.  He was brutally wounded four times within mere minutes, losing his left foot at the ankle, receiving severe wounds in his right leg, a wound to his left shoulder, additional wounds to his thighs, and a shrapnel wound to his left forearm.  Miraculously, the lieutenant survived.

By sunset of the first day, 30,000 Marines had gone ashore.  The Japanese would not make it easy for these Marines—an additional 40,000 Marines would be required to win this fight.  Based on their previous experiences in the island campaigns, the Marines expected banzai attacks during the night, but historians tell us that only one of those occurred on Iwo Jima.  Initially, General Kuribayashi forbade such attacks because he felt they were a waste of effort and human life.  This is not to suggest there were no night-time Japanese counter-attacks.  Fighting on the beach was fiercely unrelenting; the Japanese opposed every Marine thrust into their defensive areas.  Many Marine units were ambushed by Japanese who suddenly appeared from “no where,” from spider holes that were connected to the extensive tunnel network, and counter-attacks after dark occurred against the various Marine perimeters.  English-speaking Japanese were used to harass or deceive Marines.  Voices would come out of the darkness, calling for a corpsman, pretending to be a wounded Marine as a means of luring Marines into Japanese kill zones.

Rifle fire proved ineffective against the Japanese positions, which forced the Marines into using flame weapons and grenades to flush the Japanese out of their fighting positions.  Flame tanks were routinely used by the Marines against the Japanese.  At night, the battlefield was illuminated by naval gunfire star clusters and locally employed mortar illumination rounds.  The number of night attacks increased over time, which the Marines repelled with crew-served weapons and on-call artillery.  Hand to hand fighting was a frequent occurrence at night, bloody melees that denied rest to the weary Marines.  Hundreds of Japanese soldiers were slaughtered, but not without taking American Marines with them.   

With the passage of time, of course, Japanese defensive positions weakened.  Kuribayashi realized early on that he would be defeated and most Japanese troops, experiencing shortages of food, water, and ammunition, realized this as well —but there would be no surrender.

First Iwo Jima FlagOn 23 February, four days after the Marine’s initial assault, 40 men from Company E, 2nd Battalion, 28th Marines conducted a combat patrol to the summit of Mount Suribachi.  Their mission was to destroy enemy opposition and secure the summit.  To signal their mission’s success, First Lieutenant Harold G. Schrier [10], the patrol leader, was instructed to raise an American flag from atop Mount Suribachi.  The men who participated in this “first” raising of the American flag over Mount Suribachi were Lieutenant Schrier, Sergeant Henry Hansen, Platoon Sergeant Ernest Thomas, Corporal Charles Lindberg, PFC Raymond Jacobs (radioman), PFC Jim Michels, PFC Harold Schultz, Private Phil Ward, and US Navy Corpsman, Pharmacist Mate Second class John H. Bradley.  The flag raising was captured on film by Staff Sergeant Louis R. Lowery [11].  Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal had just come ashore when this first flag was raised and he said he wanted the flag as a souvenir.  The 2/28 commander, Lieutenant Colonel Chandler Johnson, however, flatly refused, stating that the flag belonged to his battalion (which the Marines had stolen from the USS Missoula (APA-211)).

Admittedly, the flag was hard to see from the beach, so Colonel Johnson dispatched a second patrol to the top of Mount Suribachi with a larger flag donated by the Commanding Officer of USS Duval County, (LST 758).  The second group of Marines, who were also assigned the mission of laying communications wire to connect the observation posts, were Sergeant Michael Strank, Corporal Harlon Block, PFC Franklin R. Sousley, PFC Harold Schultz, PFC Ira Hayes, and PFC Rene Gagnon [12].  When the Strank patrol reached the top, Lieutenant Schrier supervised the second raising, which was photographed by Joe Rosenthal and Sergeant Bill Genaust —the only photograph to win a Pulitzer Prize for photography in the same year it was published.  The Iwo Jima flag raising is one of the most recognizable images of World War II.  Rosenthal’s photograph was later used by Felix de Weldon in the sculpting of the Marine Corps War Memorial located adjacent to the Arlington National Cemetery.

While the 28th Marines remained engaged with Japanese forces on the slopes of Mount Suribachi, battalions from the 23rd, 24th, and 25th Marines of the 4thMarDiv, and the 26th and 27th Marines from the 5thMarDiv maneuvered toward the seizure of Airfield One.  The 5thMarDiv made spectacular gains of up to a thousand yards during this push, but the 23rd Marines, posted to the left of the 4thMarDiv, was unable to keep pace.  Stiff enemy resistance came from Japanese defenses along the East coast, all of whom were well-situated within impassable terrain.  The 23rd regiment’s deepest gain into this heavily contested zone was only around 200 yards.

To help overcome stiff enemy resistance, the 3rdMarDiv was ordered to send its 21st Marine Regiment ashore to reinforce the 4thMarDiv on 21 February.  The hope of replacing the beleaguered 23rd Marines with the 21st Marines was dashed because the terrain was so thick and impassable that the Marine advance was reduced to mere inches, rather than yards.  The 21st Marines was ordered to move forward after the hours of darkness —a difficult maneuver under any circumstances.  The two front-line regiments of each division were relieved on the morning of 22 February.  Heavy rain, enemy fire, and difficult terrain hampered relief operations.  General Rocky, commanding the 5thMarDiv, ordered the 26th Marines to relive the 27th.  All the while, the Japanese were paying close attention to the activities of the American Marines.  Hostile fire and ill-defined regimental boundaries made the move difficult but it was ultimately successful.  Replacing the 23rd Marines with the 21st Marines was equally difficult.  Six hours after the commencement of relief operations, the 23rd Marines were still engaged in heavy combat.

From 23 February, Mount Suribachi was effectively cut off (above ground) from the rest of the island.  By this time, the Marines realized that the Japanese defenders were operating from an extensive subterranean network.  Despite its isolation above ground, Suribachi was still connected to the main defense on the northern end of the island.  The terrain in the northern sector was rocky and favored a strong defense.  Kuribayashi’s defensive positions were difficult to hit with naval artillery.  In the northern area, Kuribayashi commanded the equivalent of eight infantry battalions, a tank regiment, two artillery battalions, and three heavy mortar battalions.  Japanese infantry was augmented by an additional 5,000 naval infantry and gunners.

On the morning of 24 February, the Navy delivered a 76-minute bombardment, joined by Marine artillery and carrier air strikes.  At 0915, 5thMarDiv tanks crossed into the enemy’s forward defenses along the western portion of the airfield.  Simultaneously, 4thMarDiv tanks pushed forward to the eastern edge of the field.  Mines and fire from Japanese antiaircraft guns halted the 4thMarDiv advance.  5thMarDiv units reached the airfield and began blasting entrenched Japanese in the hills to the North.  It was a bitter fight, but at the end of the day, 5thMarDiv units had advanced 500 yards. 

Iwo Jima Meat GrinderFor one full week, the 4thMarDiv was ground to a bloody pulp in what became known to the Marines as the “meat grinder” —a system of fortified ridges including Hill 382 and Hill 362A.  The meat grinder was a defensive system lying roughly halfway up the island, east of Airfield Two.  Here, the Marines were literally torn apart by Japanese positions on Hill 382, the highest ground, a bald hill known as the Turkey Knob, and a rocky bowl the Marines dubbed “the amphitheater.”  Situated within this complex was the main Japanese communications system that included a vast network of caves and tunnels.  It was from this point on the island that the Japanese had kept the Marines under close observation since D-day.

The approach to the meat grinder provided no cover or concealment.  Whatever vegetation had existed was stripped away by naval gunfire and laid bare a maze of rocks and brush and crossing defiles that led to the sea.  All approaches were covered by buried enemy tanks that exposed no more than their turrets and gun barrels.  Behind the tanks were systems of interlocking machine guns and light artillery.  Japanese anti-aircraft guns were depressed to fire point blank into the advancing Marines.  These three high points were mutually supporting; they could defend themselves, or one another.  It was not possible to seize the meat grinder one objective at a time —only by attacking all three points simultaneously.

General Erskine’s 3rdMarDiv (less the 3rd Marines) entered the fight on 25 February.  By this time, of course, the 21st Marines were already committed.  Erskine was ordered to advance along the relatively flat (although pockmarked sandstone) portion of the northern plateau.  Once these Marines had gained control of the tableland, they were in a position to attack down the many ridge lines leading to the sea.  The 9th Marines passed through the 21st Marines on 25 February.  The 3rdMarDiv attack began at 0930.  Its gains were slight, losses heavy.  The 9th Marines had come up against Kuribayashi’s main defense line.  General Schmidt gave the 3rdMarDiv fifty-percent of the corps’ artillery.  Flame tanks were moved up to incinerate the entrenched enemy.  After three days of horrific combat, the Japanese line finally cracked.  By the evening of 27 February, the 9th Marines controlled the twin hills north of Airfield Two.

During the afternoon of 28 February, the 21st Marines overran the ruins of Motoyama Village and seized the hills that dominated Airfield Three.  The 4thMarDiv was still struggling to seize Hill 382.  To the left, the 5thMarDiv was making every effort to seize Hill 362A.  The terrain features were the strongest links in the chain of Kuribayashi’s defenses.  Responsibility for seizing Hill 362A fell to the 28th Marines.  Several platoons from the 27th Marines had managed to reach the crest of the heavily fortified hill, but had to pull back in order to maintain contact with the rest of the regiment.  Augmented and reinforced by 3/26, the 28th Marines planned on renewing their assault on the morning of 1 March.

Deadly artillery and mortar fire greeted the Marines as they moved forward, but before the sun set, the crest of 362A was in American hands.  It was a costly advance: 224 Marines had been killed or wounded.  The next day, the entire hill was overrun and the neighboring Nishi Ridge was also captured.

By this time, Marines had been slogging it out in the meat grinder for four excruciating days.  On 3 March, the main effort was directed at Hill 382, but even with naval artillery and air strikes, progress was slow.  The Japanese had to be burned, or blasted out of their well concealed positions by rocket launchers, grenades, or flame throwers.  The Marine’s attempt to encircle the Turkey Knob was thwarted and it was only with the assistance of artillery and smoke screens that the Marines were able to disengage before darkness.  The Marine attack was renewed on the following day with 2/24 gaining control of Hill 382, but it was not until 10 March that the Japanese defending the Turkey Knob and the Amphitheater were eliminated.

While Marines reduced Japanese resistance in the meat grinder, the rest of the V Corps moved against the complex within Hill 362.  In the 5thMarDiv zone, Hill 362B was assigned to the 26th Marines.  The complex was declared secure on 3 March.  On 7 March, the 3rdMarDiv was poised to assault Hill 362C.  No matter how well dug in the Japanese were, the Marines found ways to prevail over them.  As but one example, the Japanese had learned that the Americans always attacked following an artillery barrage.  During these artillery assaults, the Japanese would take their guns inside and their troops would disappear inside their tunnel complex.  At the end of the barrage, the Japanese would reappear and maul the Marines with artillery and rifle/machine gun fire.  General Graves B. Erskine, commanding the 3rdMarDiv, ordered Colonel Kenyon’s 9th Marines to attack under the cover of darkness with no pre-assault fires.  Movement across Iwo Jima’s terrain at night was slow and tiring, but the enemy was caught by surprise and the attack was successful; the 9th Marines killed many Japanese while they were asleep, a key moment in the seizure of Hill 362 complex.

The following night, the Japanese organized a counter-attack led by Captain Samaji Inouye and a thousand troops.  Ninety Marines were killed, 257 more were wounded, but the next morning, the Marines discovered 784 dead Japanese.

Undeterred by the loss of Hill 362C, the Japanese continued to resist, but there was a change in Japanese behavior: their efforts were no longer coordinated, which means that their interlocking defenses had broken down.  Combat patrols from the 3rdMarDiv reached the seacoast on 9 March.  By the evening of 10 March, only one organized pocket of resistance remained active within the division sector.  Independent resistance continued, however.  Japanese diehards refused to surrender.

Meanwhile, the Japanese defending against the 4thMarDiv had grown desperate.  Communications had failed and unable to coordinate with supporting units caused some panic among the fanatical defenders.  Rather than depending on their defensive networks, the Japanese began a series of fanatical counter-attacks.  Enemy mortar and artillery fire increased during the evening of 8 March, and then, hugging the scorched earth, the Japanese attempted to worm their way through the lines of the 23rd and 24th Marines.  It was a failed attempt and by noon the following day, more than 650 Japanese had been killed by Marine defensive fires.  The failure of the Japanese to counter-attack Marine positions led to the dissolution of the enemy’s overall defense.  By 10 March, the 4thMarDiv had destroyed the Turkey Knob and Amphitheater salient and pushed combat patrols all the way to the seacoast.

We cannot say that organized resistance ceased, but henceforth, Japanese defenses took the form of independent pockets of resistance.  The 3rdMarDiv was forced to reduce a heavily fortified enemy pockets near Hill 362C, and the 4thMarDiv opposed a stubborn enemy halfway between the East Boat Basin and the Tachiiwa Point, and the 5thMarDiv would aggress Japanese troops around Kitano Point.

On 10-11 March, the 3rdMarDiv conducted a sweep of its sector along the coastline.  Most of the division concentrated on overwhelming enemy resistance southwest of Hill 362C.  The use of flame weapons and 75 mm howitzers was required to destroy these defenses.  The last vestige of Japanese resistance was crushed on 16 March.

The 5thMarDiv faced Kuribayashi’s stronghold, a gorge extending seven-hundred yards in length from the northwestern end of the island.  Marines destroyed the Japanese command post on 21 March and within a few days, managed to seal off (through the use of explosives) remaining caves and tunnels on the northern tip of the island.   On 25 March, a 300-man Japanese company attacked allied positions in the vicinity of Airfield Two.  US Army pilots, Seabees, and Marines battled the attackers for well over 90 minutes.  The American casualties included 53 killed, 120 wounded [13].

Iwo Jima was declared “secured” on two occasions, each one of these a bit premature: at 18:00 hours on 16 March, and at 09:00 hours on 26 March.  But after the main battle, the US 147th Infantry Regiment continued to battle thousands of Japanese holdouts who had resorted to guerrilla tactics.  Using well-stocked tunnels and caves, Japanese defenders continued to resist American advances for over three months.  During this time, the 147th slogged back and forth across the island using flame weapons, grenades, and satchel charges to dig out or seal up the enemy.  In the aftermath of the battle, an additional 1,602 Japanese were killed in small unit actions.  The last Japanese holdouts were Yamakage Kufuku and Matsudo Linsoki, who finally surrendered on 6 January 1949 [14].

During the Battle of Iwo Jima, US forces suffered 26,000 casualties.  Of these, 6,800 were killed in action.  Nearly 20,000 Japanese defenders gave up their lives on Iwo Jima; only 216 Japanese were taken as prisoners of war.  The Battle of Iwo Jima remained contentious for a number of years.  In the first place, senior Marine Corps officers were not consulted in the planning for this operation.  Secondly, the justification for Iwo Jima’s strategic importance as a landing and refueling site for long-range fighter escorts of B-29 bombers was both impractical and unnecessary.  Only ten such missions were ever flown from Iwo Jima.  Last, in the view of retired Chief of Naval Operations Admiral William V. Pratt, the “expenditure of manpower to acquire a small, god-forsaken island, useless to the Army as a staging base, and useless to the Navy as a fleet base … one wonders if the same sort of airbase could not have been reached by acquiring other strategic localities at a lower cost.”

There were important lessons learned from Iwo Jima, not the least of which was that the US Navy needed to increase pre-landing bombardments —a lesson that was incorporated into the Battle for Okinawa in April 1945.  Military planners also realized that a subsequent invasion of the Japanese home islands would be extraordinarily costly to allied forces.  This realization may have provided the justification for the United States’ use of atomic weapons at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  Captain Robert Burrell, an instructor at the United States Naval Academy observed, “This justification [for the Battle of Iwo Jima] became prominent only after the Marines seized the island and incurred high casualties. The tragic cost of Operation Detachment pressured veterans, journalists, and commanders to fixate on the most visible rationalization for the battle. The sight of the enormous, costly, and technologically sophisticated B-29 landing on the island’s small airfield most clearly linked Iwo Jima to the strategic bombing campaign.  As the myths about the flag raising on Mount Suribachi reached legendary proportions, so did the emergency landing theory in order to justify the need to raise that flag.”

Crossed Flags EGATwenty-seven medals of honor were awarded to Marine and Navy participants of the Battle of Iwo Jima —14 of those were posthumous awards.  The number of medals of honor awarded to Marines in this one battle constituted 28% of the total of such awards to Marines during World War II.  Chief Warrant Officer-4 Hershel W. Williams is the last living recipient of the Medal of Honor from the Battle of Iwo Jima.  As of this writing, he is 96 years old and  living in Fairmont, West Virginia.

The Battle of Iwo Jima formed the basis for a national reverence United States Marines that not only embodies the American spirit, but in the opinion of then Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal, will guarantee the existence of the Marine Corps for another five-hundred years.  We shall see if the American people have a memory that will last that long.

Semper Fidelis …

Sources:

  1. Bradley, J.  Flyboys: A True Story of Courage.  Little, Brown, Publishers, 2003
  2. Bradley, J. With Ron Powers.  Flags of Our Fathers.  New York: Bantam Publishing, 2001
  3. Buell, H.  Uncommon Valor, Common Virtue: Iwo Jima and the Photograph that Captured America.  New York: Penguin, 2006
  4. Hammel, E.  Iwo Jima: Portrait of a Battle: United States Marines at War in the Pacific.  St. Paul: Zenith Press, 2006.
  5. Leckie, R.  The Battle for Iwo Jima.  New York: iBooks, 2006/1967.
  6. Wells, J. K.  Give me Fifty Marines Not Afraid to Die: Iwo Jima.  Abilene: Quality Publications, 1995.

Endnotes:

  1. A Japanese army was approximately equal in size and equipment to an American corps.
  2. “Father Island,” also known as Peel Island, is the largest island in the Ogasawara archipelago, laying 150 miles north of Iwo Jima.  A small Japanese naval base was established on Chichi Jima in 1914.  It was the primary site of long-range Japanese radio stations and a central supply depot.  From around December 1941, approximately 4,000 Japanese troops and 1,200 naval forces garrisoned the island.  Chichi Jima was a frequent target of allied air attacks.  Lieutenant George H. W. Bush, USN was shot down during one of these air attacks.  It was from Chichi Jima that the Japanese began to reinforce the volcano island of Iwo Jima.
  3. A group of three volcanic islands south of the Ogasawara archipelago, which the Japanese named Kita Iwo Jima, Iwo Jima, and Minami Iwo Jima.  A Japanese self-defense force base exists today on Iwo Jima consisting of about 380 troops.  It is the only human settlement remaining in the Volcano Islands.
  4. After the battle, Americans discovered that hundreds of tons of allied bombs and thousands of rounds of heavy naval artillery had almost no effect on the Japanese defenders on Iwo Jima.  The battle would last from 17 February until 26 March 1945.
  5. Kuribayashi was a Japanese intellectual who was trained as a cavalry officer.  In 1928, he served for two years as a military attache in Washington D.C., which enabled him to travel extensively in the United States and conducting research on American military and industrial capabilities.  For a short time, he studied at Harvard University.  A pragmatist, Kuribayashi often reminded his family that the United States was the last country Japan should ever fight.  Nevertheless, he had a job to do —and he did it.  American casualties on Iwo Jima were massive.
  6. Admiral Blandy was concerned that he would run out of ammunition, thereby reducing his ability to provide naval gunfire support to the Marines after the amphibious assault.  It was a legitimate concern
  7. After the battle, Lieutenant General Holland M. (“Howling Mad”) Smith, Commander, Expeditionary Force (Task Force 56) criticized Blandy for his lack of preparatory naval gunfire, charging him with costing the lives of Marines during the battle.  Given what we know today about Kuribayashi’s defenses, Smith’s claim was spurious.
  8. Gun barrels have a shelf life.  There is a limit to the number of rounds that can be fired before having to change these rifled barrels and it is a major undertaking.  If the barrels are not changed according to “service life” guidelines, bad things begin to happen, such as a reduction in accuracy and distance.  The more these barrels wear, the quicker the rate of wear, and the more erratic the ballistics.  Ideally, each ship capable of naval artillery had an adequate store of replacement barrels, but the extent of the availability of these replacement parts to Blandy’s force is unknown to me.
  9. Seventeen US sailors of the Pensacola were killed; seven more lost their lives on the Leutze.
  10. Harold G. Schrier (1916-1971) enlisted in the Marines in 1936.  He served with the China Marines in Beijing, Tientsin, and Shanghai before serving as a Marine Corps drill instructor at the MCRD San Diego, California.  In 1942, Schrier served with the Second Raider Battalion as a Platoon Sergeant, serving at Midway Island and on Guadalcanal.  He was field commissioned to Second Lieutenant in 1943 and served on Vangunu Island and Bougainville.  He was assigned as the Executive Officer of E/2/28 during the Battle of Iwo Jima and later assigned to command Delta Company 2/28.  During the Korean War, Schrier served with the 1st Provisional Marine Brigade at the Pusan Perimeter where he was wounded while commanding Company I, 3/5.  During Schrier’s combat service, he was awarded the Navy Cross, Silver Star, Legion of Merit (with valor device), Bronze Star (with valor device), and Purple Heart.  He retired as a lieutenant colonel in 1957.  He passed away at the age of 54 in Bradenton, Florida.
  11. This photograph was not released to the press until 1947.
  12. Hansen, Strank, Block, and Sousley were killed in action a few days later.
  13. Some have speculated that, owing to the nature of the Japanese assault, Kuribayashi himself may have led this assault, but there is no evidence of this and General Kuribayashi’s body was never recovered.
  14. Pacific Stars and Stripes, page 5, reported on 10 January 1949.

 

Before He Was a General …

Julius Caesar was a Marine.

SPQR 001Before the Empire, Rome was not a sea-faring nation and the early Republic did not have an effective navy.  This changed with the First Punic War (264-241 BC) against the maritime city of Carthage.  Rome was nothing if not serious about its military and naval prowess.  By 256 BC, Rome had a navy of 330 ships, the most popular of which included the two-deck quadrireme (with two banks of oars) and the quinquereme, which were galleys with five decks and three rows of oars.  These were not “row boats” as a modern person might imagine them.  The quinquereme required 300 men (mostly slaves) to propel it through the water.p

After the end of the Second Punic War (202 BC), Rome discarded its standing navy in favor of relying on ships provided under contract and treaty with noted maritime cities.  In time, Roman coastal settlements and their overall economy suffered as a result of pirates operating with impunity in the Mediterranean Sea (Mare Nostrum) and this provided an impetus for Rome to reestablishment its naval legion [1].

Julius Caesar was born into a minor aristocratic family that claimed descent from the mythological son of Aeneas, supposedly the son of Venus. According to Pliny the Elder [2] the cognomen Caesar originated with an ancestor who was born by caesarean section, but there are three additional explanations for the origin of this name: (1) An ancestor was known for having a thick head of hair; (2) he had bright gray eyes; and/or, (3) he killed an elephant in battle.  Julius Caesar issued coins featuring images of elephants, which suggests that he favored the third possible origin of his name.  In any case, the Caesar family were not particularly influential.  Julius Caesar’s father was Gaius Julius Caesar, a man who reached the level of praetor, the second highest of the Roman Republic’s elected magistrates.  He governed the province of Asia through the influence of his prominent brother-in-law, Gaius Marius.  Caesar’s mother was Aurelia Cotta, a very influential family that produced several consuls.

Julius was educated by Marcus Antonius Gnipho, a noted orator and grammarian from Gaul, and although not much is known about Julius’ youth, it has been said that he was educated in the art of war by a former primus pilus, or the senior centurion of the first cohort in a Roman legion.  His military tutor would have instilled in him the expectations of a Roman military or naval officer.  What we do know is that Caesar’s formative years were turbulent.  Between 91-88 BC, Rome experienced the so-called Social War, which had to do with the policy governing Roman citizenship and social status.  At the same time, Mithridates of Pontus [3] threatened Rome’s eastern provinces.  Domestic confrontations existed between the optimates (upper class) and populares (advocating reforms in the interest of the masses).  Rather than representing political parties, these two groups were loose confederations of like-minded individuals.  Caesar’s uncle, Gaius Marius, was a popularis, while Marius’ protégé Lucius Cornelius Sulla, was an optimas.  Rivalry between these two groups led to civil war.

Both Marius and Sulla distinguished themselves during the Social War and they competed for overall command of the war against Mithridates. Initially, command was given to Sulla, but it was later passed to Marius.  Upset, Sulla led his army to Rome (the first time a Roman general ever threatened Rome with his army), reclaimed his entitlement of command, and forced Marius into exile.  Once Sulla departed Rome to campaign, Marius returned at the head of a makeshift army.  He and his ally Lucius Cornelius Cinna seized the city, declared Sulla an enemy of Rome, and through his army took revenge on Sulla’s supporters.  Marius died in 86 BC, but his supporters remained in power.

In the next year, Julius Caesar’s father died suddenly, so at the age of sixteen years, Julius became head of the family.  In 84 BC, Julius was nominated as Flamen Dialis, high priest of Jupiter.  The position not only required a patrician [4], it also required that the position holder marry a patrician.  To satisfy this requirement, Julius broke off his engagement to Cossutia, a wealthy equestrian [5] plebeian, and married Cinna’s daughter, Cornelia.

Once Sulla defeated Mithridates, he returned to Rome to finish his civil war with Marius’ followers.  He re-took Rome in 82 BC and had himself appointed as dictator [6].  Sulla wasted no time destroying statues and other symbols of Marius.  He also ordered his body exhumed and thrown into the Tiber River.  By this time, Cinna was already dead, killed by his own men during a mutiny.  The proscriptions of Sulla, issued daily, ordered hundreds of his political enemies killed or exiled.  Thugs were hired to track down these enemies and kill them.  Sulla then targeted Julius Caesar, a nephew of Marius (and son-in-law of Cinna).  By Sulla’s decree, Caesar was stripped of his inheritance, Cornelia’s dowry, and his priesthood [7].  Caesar, however, a young man with integrity, refused to divorce Cornelia.

Roman Gally 001Instead, Caesar went into hiding —which he accomplished by presenting himself to a tribune for enlistment into the naval legion, formed when Sulla decided to rid Mare Nostrum of pirates.  Caesar had traveled at great danger to himself to the port city of Ostia Antica.  Questioned carefully, as all candidates for legion service were, Julius admitted that he was a wanted man by order of the dictator, Sulla.  After presenting his papers to the tribune, an endorsement under the seal of Marius, he was quietly accepted for service aboard a galley.  Because of his relationship to Marius, it is likely that young Caesar was appointed to serve as hastatus posterior, the lowest centurion rank, which would have placed him in command of eight to ten marines (also, milites) [8].

After four months of serving aboard ship as a tesserarius (watch commander) on coastal patrol, Julius Caesar was anxious for combat.  What young officer doesn’t want to test his courage —prove his own worth?  He would get his wish at the pirate fortification at Methymna on the island of Lesbos.  Julius felt he was ready; he felt that his men were ready.  It has been said that young Caesar inquired of his centurion the number of enemy inside the fort and he was told that the number of enemy didn’t matter; whether there were five men, or five hundred men, these Roman Marines were going to take that fort with the number of men at their disposal —about one-hundred in total.  The conversation, if it occurred, provides an interesting insight into the mindset of the Roman legionnaire.  Winning a battle was important, of course, but it was secondary to honorable service as Roman soldiers.

Caesar, who wisely remained wary of Sulla, stayed in Asia with the legions for several years.  After serving aboard the Roman galley, he fought under Marcus Minucius Thermus [9] in Asia, and Publius Servilius Vatia Isauricus [10] in Cilicia [11].  By every account, young Julius Caesar was an exceptional officer whose self-confidence and arrogance knew no limitation.  As stated earlier, Caesar’s military career began during Sulla’s anti-pirate campaigns and he served with distinction during the siege of Mytilene, for which he was presented with the civic crown.

Young Julius CaesarIn 79 BC, Sulla resigned the dictatorship, re-established consular government, and retired to private life.  He died in the next year, aged 60 [12].  Learning of Sulla’s death, Caesar felt safe enough to return to Rome —but he was a citizen without means, having forfeited his inheritance and his wife’s wealth.  For a time, Caesar turned to the law and served as a legal advocate.  In this profession, he was quite efficient and well known for his oratory, passionate advocacy, and ruthless prosecution of corrupt officials.  Striving for perfection, Julius traveled to Rhodes to study rhetoric under Apollonius Molon, who had been Cicero’s teacher.  En route to Rhodes, however, Caesar was kidnapped by Cilician pirates and held prisoner for ransom in Pharmacusa.

Held as a captive for 48 days, Julius Caesar maintained an air of superiority over his captives.  He participated in their games, exercised with them, and when he was tired of listening to their babble, he would command them to silence.  He also recited poetry to his captives and ridiculed them and mocked them for their lack of understanding.  For their part, the pirates found young Caesar entertaining.  When they demanded twenty talents of gold [13] for his release, Julius demanded that they require fifty.

Once the ransom was paid and Caesar was released, he returned to Rome, raised a fleet of ships, and pursued his captors with utter determination.  He had them imprisoned in Pergamon and demanded their execution.  The governor of Asia refused, however, preferring instead to sell them as slaves.  Julius Caesar would have none of this —so he returned to the seacoast and had them crucified, as he had promised he would do while he was still in captivity.  The pirates apparently thought he was joking with them; he wasn’t.  Although, as a demonstration of mercy, Julius Caesar had their throats cut before crucifixion.  He left their bodies to rot.

There are many lessons to be learned from history.  This one may offer modern leaders a worthwhile perspective in how to deal with brigands, pirates, and terrorists.

Sources:

  1. Froude, J. A. Life of Caesar.  Gutenberg e-Text, 1879.
  2. Goldsworthy, A. Caesar: Life of a Colossus.  Yale University Press, 2006.
  3. Thorne, J.  Julius Caesar: Conqueror and Dictator.  Rosen Publishing, 2003

Endnotes:

[1] Pirates, as with brigands, took advantage of weak military control wherever they could, thriving on the fringes of warfare along neglected coastlines.  Rome initiated several campaigns against Mediterranean pirates over its long history, the first of which likely occurred between 80-67 BC.  Beyond booty, pirates also kidnapped citizens and held them for ransom.  If the ransom was not paid, then the pirates would sell their captives into slavery.  In 67 BC, for example, the Legate and former consul Pompey was charged by the senate with ending piracy.  By commandeering Greek-made galleys and organizing them into thirteen fleets, Pompey managed to scatter (not eradicate) the pirates in less than two months.  In his war against pirates, Pompey took 20,000 prisoners, impressed 90 ships, and recovered enormous treasures.

[2] Gaius Plinius Secundas (23-79 AD) was a Roman author, naturalist, and philosopher; he was a naval and army commander of the early Roman Empire, and a friend of Emperor Vespasian.  Pliny the Elder died while attempting to rescue a friend and his family by ship during the eruption of Mount Vesuvius.

[3] Also known as Mithridates the Great (reign from 120-63 BC), he was of Persian origin and king of Hellenistic-era Pontus, a large area surrounding the Black Sea.

[4] Originally, the word patrician suggested the ruling class of families in ancient Rome.  It was a significant distinction in the Roman kingdom and early Republic, but less so by the time of the late Republic and early Empire.

[5] The Roman equestrian order ranked second to the senatorial class.  In modern parlance, a male equestrian would be a knight.

[6] A dictator of Rome was a magistrate entrusted with the full authority of the state to deal with a military emergency or to undertake a specific duty.  Generally, dictators were appointed to no more than six months in office.  Sulla’s appointment included no such restriction.

[7] Eventually, Sulla lifted his retribution against Julius Caesar, mostly through the intervention of Caesar’s mother’s family, which included allies of Sulla.  Even afterward, however, Sulla remained wary of Julius Caesar.  He could see “many Marius’” in him.

[8] Roman military ranks only generally equate to modern military structures.  Formalized rank came as a result of reforms instituted by Marius, but the term “commander” was generally applied only to consuls (politicians of high standing), dictators, and occasionally to praetors.  Beneath the commander was the legatus(legate), a general rank officer appointed for three-year terms.  This distinction is important because the legions were always subordinate to the proconsul (or governor) of the province to which they were assigned.  Legates were generally drawn from the Roman Senate.  Below the commander and legate were tribuni militum (military tribunes) organized in six ranks.  The senior of these (tribunus laticlavius) (also, second-in-command) would in time become a senator, the others served as equestrians (knights) and were generally equivalent to modern-day majors, lieutenant colonels, and colonels.  The third highest officer in the legion was the praefectus castorum, also equivalent to modern-day colonel, but more on the order of a senior chief warrant officer elevated from the enlisted ranks (centuri).  Each legion was divided into ten cohorts (each cohort roughly equivalent to a battalion).  The senior-most cohort centurion was also called Primus Pilus (first centurion or also, tip of the spear).  Each cohort consisted of three manipula; each of these had two centuries, each ranging from 60-160 men.  Each century was commanded by a centurion (roughly, captain) and assisted by junior officers called Optio (roughly, lieutenant).  Within cohorts, centurions were ranked as follows, from senior-most following primus pilus: Primus prior, pilus posterior, princeps prior, princeps posterior, hastatus prior, and hastatus posterior.

[9] Soldier and statesman, Thermus directed efforts against Mytilene on the Island of Lesbos, suspected of harboring pirates.

[10] A staunch supporter of Sulla, Isauricus was appointed proconsul governor of Cilicia with the responsibility of clearing out pirates within his province.  His command lasted from 78-74 BC, which included the naval and land forces.

[11] The south coast region of Asia Minor (modern Turkey).

[12] Sulla’s dictatorship is generally believed to have destabilized the Roman Republic to such an extent that it eventually caused the collapse of the republic.

[13] A talent is a weight of measure of roughly 67 pounds.  Twenty talents would equate to 1,340 pounds; 50 talents would roughly equal 3,350 pounds of gold.

The Admiral Who Knew …

USN 001Military and naval officers serve at the pleasure of the President of the United States.  The President nominates officers for advancement (confirmation is required by the United States Senate), and depending on their seniority, it is the President who approves their assignments [1].  Whenever an officer cannot, in good faith, serve the President, two things must occur: an officer with integrity must either resign his or her commission, or the President must relieve them from their duty assignment and send them away (either into retirement or reassign them to another duty). Generally, there are two reasons for presidential dismissal: insubordination, or professional disgrace (such as suffering considerable losses in war) [2].

James O. Richardson was born in Paris, Texas.  He entered the United States Naval Academy in 1898 and graduated fifth in his class in 1902.  His first assignment placed him in the Asiatic Squadron where he participated in the Philippine Campaign with later assignment to the Atlantic Squadron. Between 1907-09, while serving as a lieutenant, he was assigned command of the torpedo boats Tingey and Stockton, and later commanded the Third Division of the Atlantic Torpedo flotilla.  Between 1909-11, he attended the Navy’s post-graduate Engineer School, then served as an engineer on the battleship USS Delaware.  He was promoted to lieutenant commander and received an assignment to the Navy Department where he was charged with supervising the Navy’s store of fuel.

Richardson 001Promoted to commander, Richardson served as a navigator and executive officer of the battleship USS Nevada between 1917-19. Between 1919-22, Richardson was assigned to the Naval Academy as an instructor.  In 1922, the Navy assigned Richardson command of the gunboat USS Asheville.  Under his leadership, Asheville was dispatched to Asiatic waters where he also commanded a division of ships assigned to the South China Patrol.  After his promotion to Captain, Richardson was reassigned to Washington from 1924-27, where he served as Assistant Chief, Bureau of Ordnance —afterward commanding a destroyer division of the Atlantic Squadron and then returning to Washington for service with the Bureau of Navigation.

In 1931, Captain Richardson took charge of the new heavy cruiser USS Augusta and commander her for two years.  After attending the Naval War College (1933-34), he was promoted to Rear Admiral (Lower Half) and rejoined the Navy Department as its budget officer.  His first command as a flag officer was the scouting force, cruiser division, Atlantic Squadron.  He then served as an aide and chief of staff to Admiral J. M. Reeves, Commander-in-Chief, United States Fleet, and afterward as Commander, Destroyer Scouting Force.  In 1937, he became Assistant Chief of Naval Operations under Admiral William D. Leahy.  In this position, he coordinated the search for Amelia Earhart and dealt with the Japanese attack on the USS Panay.  In 1938, Richardson assumed the duties as Chief, Bureau of Navigation and aided in the development of Plan Orange [3].  In June 1939, Admiral Richardson took command of the Battle Force, US Fleet, with temporary promotion to the rank of admiral.

In January 1940, Richardson was assigned as Commander-in-Chief, United States Fleet [4].  According to journalist John Flynn [5], Admiral Richardson was one of the Navy’s foremost flag officers —a man who had made the study of Japanese warfare his life’s work and an outstanding authority on naval warfare in the Pacific and Japanese naval strategy.

One will note that in the 1930s, the European powers were moving rapidly toward another world war and Japan was rapidly increasing its power and prestige in Asia.  The Sino-Japanese conflict in Asia continued unabated.  In the United States, resulting from a lack of attention and funding, the army and navy were in a shamble.  For the navy specifically, new ships, while ordered, were still under construction.  In 1937-38, the United States was not ready for either of the world’s emerging conflicts; should something happen before new ships came online, the USN would have limited effectiveness in a two-ocean war.  The organization of the United States fleet in 1939 reflects the Navy’s overall unreadiness for war.  To correct this deficiency, the Navy began to re-commission ships from the mothball fleet, some of which were turned over to the British as part of the Lend-Lease Program.

In this environment, President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered the Commander-in-Chief, U. S. Fleet to move the Pacific Fleet from San Diego, California to Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.  His purpose in making this decision was to “restrain” Japanese naval activities in the Pacific Ocean Area.  Roosevelt made this decision without asking Admiral Richardson (who not only had responsibility for the US Fleet, but also a broad base of knowledge about Japanese naval warfare) for his opinion.  Admiral Richardson was not a happy sailor.

Admiral Richardson protested Roosevelt’s decision.  He not only took his concern directly to the president; he went to other power brokers in Washington, as well.  Richardson did believe that advance bases in Guam and Hawaii were necessary, but inadequate congressional funding over many years made these advance bases insufficient to a war time mission.  Richardson firmly believed that future naval conflicts would involve enemy aircraft carriers; to detect these threats, the US Navy would require an expanded surface and aviation scouting force.

Richardson 002Admiral Richardson was worried because he realized how vulnerable the US Fleet would be in such an exposed, vulnerable, and exposed location as Pearl Harbor.  Moreover, he knew that logistical support of the Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor would be a nightmare, made worse by slim resources and an inadequate logistical organizational structure.  Admiral Richardson believed that Roosevelt’s decision was impractical and strategically inept —that Roosevelt had no business offering US naval support to Great Britain when in fact the US Navy was barely able to stand on its own two feet.  It was also true that the Navy had little in the way of adequate housing, materials, or defensive systems at Pearl Harbor.  What Admiral Richardson wanted was to prepare the fleet for war at San Diego.  Then, once it was ready for war, the Navy could return to Pearl Harbor.

Most of the Navy’s admirals agreed with Richardson —the Pacific Fleet should never berth inside Pearl Harbor where it would become a sitting duck for enemy (Japanese) attack.  Admiral Richardson believed that Pearl harbor was the logical first choice of the Japanese high command for an attack on the United States because Pearl Harbor was America’s nearest “advanced base.”  Since the 1930s, the US Navy had conducted several training exercises against the Army’s defenses at Pearl Harbor; in each episode, the Navy proved that Pearl Harbor did not lend itself to an adequate defense.  Richardson communicated this information to President Roosevelt.

He also informed the President that, in his studied opinion, the United States Navy was not ready for war with Japan.  When Richardson’s views were leaked to the Washington press, President Roosevelt fired him.  On 1 February 1941, Admiral Husband E. Kimmel replaced Richardson as Commander, US Pacific Fleet, and Admiral Ernest J. King replaced Richardson as Commander of the US Atlantic Fleet.  Fired by the President of the United States, Richardson reverted to Rear Admiral and served as a member of the Navy General Board until his retirement in October 1942.

Admiral Richardson predicted war with Japan and where the Japanese would strike.  What the admiral knew ended up getting him fired from high command.  It is my opinion that Admiral Richardson’s story tells us much about Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Sources:

  1. Richardson, J. O. On the Treadmill to Pearl Harbor: The Memoirs of Admiral J. O. Richardson, as told to Admiral George C. Dyer, Vice Admiral, USN (Retired).  Naval History Division, Department of the Navy, Washington, DC, 1973
  2. Steely, S.  Pearl Harbor Countdown: The Biography of Admiral James O. Richardson.  Gretna: Pelican Press, 2008

Endnotes:

[1] Permanent flag rank ends at major general/rear admiral (upper half).  Advancements beyond major general/rear admiral (paygrade 08) are temporary assignments (lieutenant general/general, vice admiral/admiral).  A major general who assigned as a corps commander will be temporarily advanced to lieutenant general for as long as he or she serves in that billet.  Should this officer retire from active service after three years, he or she will revert to permanent grade of major general (although he or she may be entitled to a higher rate of pay on the retired list under the “high 36” pay scale for flag rank officers).

[2] The first officer charged with treason was Brigadier General Benedict Arnold of the Continental Army.  During the War of 1812, Brigadier General William Hull, US Army, was court-martialed for cowardice in the face of the enemy.  Hull was sentenced to death, but President Madison remitted the sentence owing to his former “good” service.  President Lincoln fired several generals for their failure to win battles, Franklin Roosevelt fired several, Harry Truman famously fired Douglas MacArthur, Jimmy Carter fired Major General John K. Singlaub, George Bush fired three generals, and Barack Obama fired several.

[3] Plan Orange was a series of contingency operational plans involving joint Army-Navy operations against the Empire of Japan.  Plan Orange failed to foresee the significance of technological changes to naval warfare, including submarine, the importance of air support, and the importance of the employment of aircraft carriers.  Part of the navy’s plan was an island-hopping campaign, which was actually used during World War II.  Note: the Japanese, who were obsessed with the “decisive battle,” ignored the need for a defense against submarines.

[4] The organization of the U. S. Navy has changed considerably since the 1900s.  In 1923, the North Atlantic Squadron was reorganized into the US Scouting Forces, which (along with the US Pacific Fleet) was organized under the United States Fleet.  In January 1939, the Atlantic Squadron, US Fleet was formed.  On 1 November 1940, the Atlantic Squadron was renamed Patrol Force, which was organized into “type” commands: battleships, cruisers, destroyers, and training/logistical commands.  Then, early in 1941, Patrol Force was renamed US Atlantic Fleet.  The Commander-in-Chief, U. S. Fleet exercised command authority over both the Atlantic and Pacific Fleets.  At that time, the Chief of Naval Operations was responsible for navy organization, personnel, and support of the fleet—and administrative rather than having any operational responsibility.

[5] The Final Secret of Pearl Harbor, 1945.

Operation Collar

British CommandoAfter the British Expeditionary Force had been evacuated from Dunkirk in 1940 [1], then Prime Minister Winston Churchill ordered the creation of a force capable of carrying out raids against German occupied Europe.  Churchill envisioned a “ … specially trained troops of the hunter class, who can develop a reign of terror down these coasts, first of all on the ‘butcher and bolt’ policy (hit and run).”  What transpired from Churchill’s order was the formation of the British Commando, an idea inspired by Lieutenant Colonel Dudley Clarke, whose suggestion was forwarded to General Sir John Dill, then serving as the Chief of the Imperial General Staff.  General Dill, who was aware of Churchill’s directive, approved Clarke’s proposal.

The Commandos were assigned to the operational control of the Combined Operations Headquarters with overall command assigned to Admiral Sir Roger Keyes, who was a veteran of the Gallipoli Campaign and the Zeebrugge Raid of World War I.  Accordingly, a call went out for volunteers from among serving British Army regulars within formations still in Britain and the men of the disbanded divisional independent companies [2] originally raised from the Territorial Army units who had seen service in the Norwegian Campaign [3].  By autumn of 1940, more than 2,000 men had volunteered for commando training.

Under pressure from Churchill, the Combined Operation Headquarters developed a plan dubbed OPERATION COLLAR.  Its objective was a reconnaissance of the French coast and the capture of German prisoners.  The operation was planned to commence just three weeks after the completion of Operation Dynamo [4].  This early in the war, the British Commando was inadequately trained to conduct amphibious raids, and most units were significantly understrength.  One of the Independent Companies, Number Eleven, was selected for the mission.  Its commander was Major Ronnie Tod from the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders.  The company was formed by soliciting volunteers from among the men already serving in Independent Company One through Ten.  The strength of Number Eleven was 25 officers and 350 enlisted men.

Major Tod removed his company from Scotland to the south coast city/seaport of Southampton.  Not long after arrival, Number Eleven began a series of exercises against local infantry battalions on the River Hamble.  Tod soon realized that the boats he had been provided were inadequate for transporting his men across the English Channel.  There being no other resources available for this purpose, Major Tod approached the Royal Air Force for the use of their air rescue craft that were based at Dover, Ramsgate, and Newhaven.  Lacking navigational equipment and reliable compasses, none of the boats were equipped for this type of operation—but they would have to do.

The final raiding plan would be carried out by 115 officers and men, who were divided into four groups targeting the beaches at Neufchâtel-Hardelot, Stella Plage, Berck, and Le Touquet.  During the crossing of the English Channel, the RAF pilots, who were unaware of the operation, flew close overhead of the boats to investigate, which endangered the men to the notice of German military and naval units.  Fortunately, the men proceeded without notice of the Germans and arrived at their designated targets at around 0200 on 24 June.

At Le Touquet, the raiders were assigned the Merlinmont Plage Hotel as an objective.  British Intelligence had suggested that the Germans may have been using the hotel as a barracks.  The raiders met this objective but discovered that it was empty and all doors and windows had been boarded up.  Unable to discover another target, the group returned to the beach only to find that their boat had withdrawn back to sea.  While waiting for the boat to return, two German sentries stumbled on the raiders and were quickly killed by bayonet.  Another German patrol happened by and discovered the raiders.  Unable to engage the Germans by fire, to protect the security of the three other units, the raiders of the Le Touquet operation abandoned their weapons and swam out to their boat.

The raiders at Hardelot penetrated several hundred yards inland, but encountering no Germans, they returned to their boat.  At Berck, the raiders discovered a heavily defended seaplane anchorage.  The mission being one of reconnaissance and capture, these raiders decided against attacking the anchorage.  At Stella Plage, Major Tod engaged a German patrol in a short-lived fire fight, which resulted in an observer, Lieutenant Colonel Clarke, receiving a slight wound.

Overall, the mission was one of mixed success.  The commandos learned something about the equipment they would need for future operations, they killed two enemy and stirred up other German units, and they caused Adolf Hitler to proclaim them as “terror and sabotage troops,” who, because their mission was “the murder of innocent civilians,” were acting contrary to the Geneva Convention.

Once the commandos had returned safely to England, the British Ministry of Information announced, “Naval and military raiders, in cooperation with the RAF, carried out successful reconnaissance of the enemy coastline.  Landings were effected at a number of points and contact was made with German troops.  Casualties were inflicted upon the enemy, but no British casualties occurred and much useful information was obtained.”  It wasn’t a precisely accurate announcement, but it did have a positive effect on the British people.  

The British Commando was an all-volunteer force organized for special services.  While they originally came from the British Army, the force would eventually consist of all branches of the British military along with certain foreign volunteers from countries occupied by Nazi Germany.  In time, the Commandos formed more than 40 separate units and four assault brigades.

Throughout World War II, commando service took place in all the theaters of war, from the Arctic Circle to Europe, the Middle East, and in the Pacific campaigns.  Operations ranged from small groups of men landing from the sea, or by parachute, to brigade-sized assaults that spearheaded the Allied invasion of Europe and Asia.

Following World War II, most commandos were disbanded, leaving only the Royal Marine 3 Commando Brigade, the Parachute Regiment, Special Air Service, and the Special Boat Service —all of which can trace their origins to the British Commandos.  Today, British Royal Marines and the Parachute Regiment share this tradition with the Dutch Corps Commandotroepen, and the Belgian Paracommando Brigade.

Sources:

  1. Chappell, M.  Army Commandos, 1940-45.  Osprey Publishing, 1996.
  2. Dunning, J.  The Fighting Fourth: No. 4 Commando at War, 1940-45.  Sutton Publishing, 2003
  3. Joslen, H. F.  Orders of Battle, Second World War, 1939-1945.  Naval & Military Press, 1990.

Endnotes:

  1. My father-in-law (now deceased) was one of the more than 400,000 British, Belgian, and French forces evacuated from Dunkirk between 26 May and 4 June 1940.  Operation Dynamo became necessary when British and allied forces were surrounded and cut-off by three corps (nine divisions) of German troops and Panzer tanks during the six-week long Battle of France.  In total, the evacuation included the British Expeditionary Force (BEF), three French field armies, and what remained of Belgian forces.  During the Battle of France, the BEF lost 68,000 men (dead, wounded, missing, or captured) along with 2,472 artillery pieces, 20,000 motorcycles, and nearly 65,000 other vehicles.  Also given up were 416,000 short tons of stores, 75,000 short tons of ammunition, and 162,000 short tons of fuel.  All 445 British tanks were abandoned at Dunkirk.
  2. Independent companies were originally raised by the English Army and later the British Army during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries for garrison duty in the homeland and at overseas colonies.  Independent companies were not part of larger military units (battalions/regiments), although they may have been detached from larger units.  In the 20th Century, the term applied to units organized to support temporary expeditionary missions.  During World War II, Independent Companies were raised from volunteers from Territorial Army divisions.  The Territorial Army formations were reserve units placed throughout the British Isles.
  3. The Norwegian Campaign was an attempt by Allied forces to liberate Norway from invading Nazi forces between 9 April – 10 June 1940.  The unsuccessful campaign prompted King Haakon VII and his family to flee to Great Britain.
  4. France’s Vichy government signed a peace accord with Nazi Germany on 22 June 1940, hence the term “Occupied France.”

Chinese Gordon – Part II

(Continued from last week)

In March 1880, a worn out and frustrated Colonel Gordon realized that his efforts had come to naught.  He resigned his position and returned to England.  He returned home a broken man and if not suffering from a nervous breakdown, he was close to it.  During his return trip to England, one fellow traveler remarked of Gordon, “The man is off his head.”

In May 1880, Sir Robert Hart, Inspector-General of Customs in China invited Gordon to return to China, as his services were urgently needed.  China and Russia were on the verge of open warfare and someone was needed who could help sort this problem out.  The British War Office learned that Gordon was contemplating a return to China and ordered him, instead, to return to England immediately.  Gordon ignored the War Office and sailed on the first ship to China.  The Duke of Cambridge was not at all pleased, but the fact of Gordon’s insubordination increased his prestige in China.

By this time, it was clear to his inner circle that Chinese Gordon had become a bit unhinged.  Sir Robert Hart noted that at best, Gordon was “very eccentric,” and wrote, “ … as much as I like and respect him, I must say that he is ‘not all there’.  Whether it is religion or vanity, or the softening of the brain—I don’t know, but he seems to be alternatively arrogant and slavish, vain and humble, in his senses, and out of them.  It is a great pity.”

The British Foreign Office soon ordered Gordon to return home.  London was not comfortable with a serving officer leading a Chinese Army against Russia (noting that the Czar of Russia and Queen Victoria were blood relatives).  In any case, the United Kingdom did not want an Anglo-Russian War.  In October 1880, Gordon returned to London and spent the winter of 1880-81 socializing with his family and close friends.

In April 1881, Brigadier Gordon assumed command of the Royal Engineers in Mauritius, remaining there until March 1882.  Gordon was bored and irritated with British policy he regarded as idiotic.  In his view, building forts to protect Mauritius from a Russian naval attack was pointless.  He was also opposed to the over-reliance on the Suez Canal.  The Russians, he argued, need only sink one ship in the canal to make it irrelevant.  Instead, he proposed that the British government devise a series of coaling stations in Africa and the Indian Ocean, which would improve the Cape route to India.

Gordon was promoted to Major General on 23 March 1882 and dispatched to resolve the Civil War in Basutoland, in South Africa.  The issues were satisfactorily resolved (in the long-term interests of the people —allowing them to avoid apartheid in the twentieth century), Gordon returned to England and was once more unemployed.  From 1882-83, General Gordon traveled to Palestine.  The deeply religious Gordon wrote a book titled Reflections in Palestine.  In it, he proposed that the site of Golgotha (the site of Christ’s crucifixion) was incorrect.  Today this area is known as the Garden Tomb and alternatively, Gordon’s Garden.

In Egypt, popular dissatisfaction with Ismai’il Pasha and Europe’s intrusion into Egyptian affairs led to the rise of a nationalist movement in 1879, with Ahmad Urabi a prominent figure [Note 1].  In 1882, Urabi became the leader of a nationalist-dominated ministry committed to democratic reforms, including parliamentary control of the budget.  With concerns about their loss of control over the affairs of Egypt, the United Kingdom and France intervened, bombarding Alexandria, and crushing the Egyptian Army at the Battle of Tel el-Kebir.  The British and French re-installed Ismai’il’s son Twefik as a figurehead of a de facto British protectorate, which lasted until 1953.

In late 1883, Gordon was contemplating the acceptance of an administrative post in the Congo Free State, working for King Leopold II of Belgium.  Aware of Leopold’s offer, the British War Office requested that Gordon accept a commission to Egypt instead; they needed him to resolve a rebellion in Sudan.

The revolt was led by a self-proclaimed Mahdi, Mohammed Ahmed.  According to Islamic tradition, the Mahdi is a messianic figure who appears at the dawn of every new (Islamic) century to strike down the enemies of Islam.  1881 was Islamic year 1298, and Ahmed announced that he was the Mahdi and promptly proclaimed jihad against the Egyptian State.  Ismai’il’s long exploitation of the Sudanese people led many to rally to the Mahdi’s black banner.  Ahmed promised to expel the Egyptians, whom he proclaimed apostate, and establish a fundamentalist Islamic State as practiced in the days of the Prophet Mohammed [Note 2].  

William Hicks PashaIn September 1883, an Egyptian army force under Colonel William Hicks [Note 3] set out to destroy the Mahdi.  Hicks’ command was mostly composed of conscripts who had no interest in serving as soldiers much less in the Sudanese desert.  Morale was poor, training was nil, and the only way that Hicks could keep these men from deserting was to chain them together.  Hicks was well aware that his force was inadequate to its stated purpose, and made that argument to his superiors.  However, the Egyptian ministry did not believe that the Mahdi was a force strong enough to defeat Hicks and sent him on his way on 9 September.  Hicks commanded 7,000 infantry, 1,000 cavalry, and 2,000 camp followers—including 13 European mercenaries.  On 5 November, the ragtag army, thirsting to death in the oppressive desert, was ambushed by forces loyal to the Mahdi.  All but 300 of the expedition were killed, including Hicks.  According to Hicks’ cook, who was spared, Colonel Hicks went down fighting with a pistol in one hand, and a sword in the other.  Hicks was decapitated and his head taken to the Mahdi.

In the United Kingdom, particularly in London, there were three political forces: the liberal party, the conservative party (imperialists), and public opinion.  Liberals had won the general election on a platform of imperial retrenchment, or withdrawal from overseas locations.  Prime Minister William Gladstone withdrew the British Army from the Transvaal and Afghanistan in 1881.  But the British War Office contained a few “ultra-imperialists” who continually argued against withdrawing from long-held British territories.  One of these was Field Marshal Garnet J. Wolseley, 1st Viscount Wolseley, who was a close friend and ally of Major General Gordon.

Initially following the massacre of the Hicks expedition, Gladstone opined that the Sudan was not worth the trouble of retaining it under Egyptian (British) control and he made the decision to abandon Sudan.  This decision was promptly communicated to Egypt, but the order failed to take into account that thousands of soldiers, civilians, and families would have to be evacuated.

At the beginning of 1884, General Gordon had no interest in the Sudan.  While staying with his sister in Southampton, Gordon received William Stead, the editor of Pall Mall Gazette, with whom Gordon reluctantly agreed to do an interview.  Gordon wanted to talk about the Congo, but Stead pressed him to discuss the situation in the Sudan.  Gordon finally unleashed his opinions, which attacked Gladstone’s policies, and instead advocated a military response designed to crush the Mahdi.  The prescient Gordon also cautioned that in allowing this Mahdi to succeed in rebellion, Gladstone would open the entire British Empire to religious or nationalist rebellion.  Stead published his interview with the heading CHINESE GORDON FOR THE SUDAN.  The interview caused a media sensation and led to popular demands that Gladstone send Gordon to crush the Mahdi. 

Garnet Wolseley
Lord Wolseley

The man behind the curtain was Lord Wolseley, whom history remembers as a skilled media manipulator.  In the face of public demands, Gladstone relented and ordered Gordon to the Sudan —albeit with a limited mandate.  He was to observe and report on the situation, and provide advice on the best means of evacuating military and civilian personnel.  Gladstone, who at the time was ill, retired to his estate for recuperation, leaving the matter of Gordon’s instructions the cabinet.  Gladstone believed that his plan was clever: public opinion would be satisfied by sending Gordon to the Sudan, and Gordon’s limited (hand-typing) mandate would allow Gladstone to achieve British withdrawal from Khartoum.  Britain’s foreign secretary, Lord Grenville, disagreed.  He believed that Gladstone had just opened the door to a folly of far-reaching consequences.

With Lieutenant Colonel J. D. H. Steward as his aide, Gordon started for Cairo in January 1884.  Upon Gordon’s arrival, he received additional instructions from Sir Evelyn Baring, which essentially reinforced the mandate issued to him in London —but he also received the Viceroy’s appointment as Governor-General (with executive powers), and an official edict ordering him to establish a provincial government in the Sudan.  The appointment as Governor-General caused Gordon to disregard everything Gladstone and Baring had told him [Note 4].

Although a very religious man, General Gordon was an intellectual.  Still, as a man, he was not immune to errors in judgment.  One of these was in revealing his secret instructions to tribal leaders.  He told them that his mission was to arrange for the withdrawal of British/Egyptian military and civilian administrators from Khartoum.  The effect of this revelation, realizing that the British/Egyptians intended to wash their hands of Khartoum, was that nearly every Arab tribe of Northern Sudan abandoned Egypt and declared their loyalty to the Mahdi.  Whether intentional or a mistake, Gordon had thus sealed his own fate.

The siege of Khartoum began on 18 March 1884.  The British had made up their mind to abandon the Sudan, but Gordon had other plans [Note 5].  Back home in England, the British public demanded that Gladstone send an expedition to rescue Gordon.  Gladstone resisted.

For his part, Gordon could have safely withdrawn at any time between March and May 1884 —had he the inclination.  Some writers of the day, the armchair psychologists, suggested that Gordon wanted martyrdom more than life.  In any case, on 24 July, the British cabinet, over the objections of Gladstone, voted to send a relief expedition to Khartoum.  The House of Commons approved the force on 5 August.  The relief force commander was Field Marshal Wolseley, but the expedition would not be formed until November.  By this time, the garrison and population of Khartoum were starving to death; there were no horses, mules, donkeys, cats, or dogs inside the city —the people had eaten them all.  Gordon himself was in a state of mental exhaustion and incoherence.

Wolseley’s reconnaissance units arrived at Khartoum on 28 January 1885.  They found the city had been captured two days earlier and Gordon killed and decapitated.  With him, 10,000 civilians and members of the garrison had also been killed.  In London, William Gladstone was politically destroyed; Queen Victoria sent him a personal rebuke via telegram, the contents of which found its way into the press.  Gladstone’s liberal government was voted out of office in the elections of 1885.  Despite popular calls to avenge Gordon, no such undertaking was even considered by the new conservative government. 

Post Script

  1. Muhammad AhmadMuhammed Ahmad bin Abd Allah (1844-1885) was a Nubian religious leader of the Samaniyya order who combined orthodox Islam with mysticism.  His popularity came as the result of dissatisfaction with the policies of the Turco-Egyptian rulers.  While the “Mahdi” succeeded in capturing Khartoum and killing Gordon, he himself died within six months from typhus, a bacteriological disease caused by body lice, chiggers, and fleas.  Today, 40% of individuals contracting typhus will die from it.
  2. Despite the relatively recent pronouncements of American and British governments, there is no American or British “national interest” in the Middle East (or Africa) that in any way justifies squandering national resources (money, men, material) trying to sort out Islamic nations or societies.  We only need to look to history to see that western involvement in Islamic affairs has always been a lost cause, save one: defense.  If Islamic leaders understand that there will be horrific consequences to attacking or destroying Anglo-American personnel or property, and if these two nations will act on this principle, there will be no more assaults on Western civilizations from the Middle East.  The latest invasion of European countries by Islamic “refugees” and issues with homegrown extremists are a completely different issue.  

Sources:

  1. Cleveland, W. And Martin Bunton.  A History of the Middle East.  Boulder: Westview Press, 2009
  2. Karsh, E.  Empires of the Sand: The Struggle for Mastery in the Middle East, 1789-1923.  Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999.
  3. Marlowe, J.  Mission to Khartoum: Apotheosis of General Gordon.  Littlehampton Press, 1968

Endnotes:

  1. Brigadier General Stone (1824-1887) was a career army officer, engineer, and a surveyor.  He fought with distinction in the Mexican-American War.  After the war, he resigned and surveyed for the Mexican government, but returned to the US Army to fight in the Civil War.  At the conclusion of the Battle of Ball’s Bluff, a Union defeat, Stone was placed under arrest and imprisoned for six months.  He never received a trial, which causes one to conclude that his arrest was for political reasons.  After the war, Stone served as a general officer in the Egyptian army.  He is also noted for his role in constructing the foundation upon which the Statue of Liberty now stands.
  2. Reinforcing the fact that proponents of Islam are stuck on stupid.
  3. Hicks (1830-1883) was an experienced British officer with years of experience in India, retiring in 1880 as a Colonel.  In 1880, Hicks accepted the position of Pasha (generally equivalent to general) within the Egyptian Army.  In 1883, Hicks served in Khartoum as chief of staff of the army there, serving Suliman Niazi Pasha.  Hicks duty was to recruit an army from the disbanded troops of Arabi, who were sent to him in chains.  After a month of training, Hicks led 5,000 of these men against an equal force of Dervishes, whom he defeated, and then undertook to clear the country of rebels.  Aware that Suliman Niazi Pasha was intriguing against him, Hick resigned in July 1883.  Alarmed, Twefik fired Suliman and appointed Hicks as commander-in-chief of an expeditionary force with orders to crush the Mahdi.
  4. In Baring’s report to London, he emphasized that it was a mistake sending Gordon to the Sudan: “A man who habitually consults with the Prophet Isaiah when he is in difficulty is not apt to obey the orders of anyone.”  Gordon confirmed Baring’s fears when he almost immediately began issuing press statements attacking the rebels, referring to them as “stinking Dervishes,” and demanding that he be allowed to “smash the Mahdi.”
  5. By his obstinance, Charles Gordon consigned to death ten-thousand men, women, and children who did not share his vision of the afterlife.