A PERONAL AFFRONT

In 1950, President Harry S. Truman authorized the establishment of the United States Advisory Group, Vietnam and dispatched the Army to Vietnam, ostensibly to advise the French Foreign Legion in their campaign to restore Indochina to the French Empire.  The moral implications of this should be obvious.  Apparently unbeknownst to Washington, however, the French have never willingly accepted anyone’s advice –about anything.  So, the crafty Truman added some cash into the mix: The United States would funnel to the French some $10 million in revenues extorted from the American people, if, in return, the French would heed the advice of their American advisors.

By 1953, at a time when 99% of the American people had never heard of Vietnam, the amount of US military aid to the French had climbed to $350 million.  In 1954, thousands of North Vietnamese began streaming into what became the Republic of (South) Vietnam.  Many of these were refugees who simply did not want to live under an oppressive communist regime, but a large number were Northern agents disguised as refugees.  Their mission was to cause as much disruption in South Vietnam as possible —and this they proceeded to do.

The onslaught was so overwhelming that Ngo Dinh Diem’s Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) couldn’t keep up.  Senior ARVN officers complained that their troops couldn’t find these insurgents.  This wasn’t so much a problem with the ARVN ground troops as it was with cowardly senior officers –men who  were corrupt beyond belief.

Of course, the war never went according to the way the eggheads in Washington DC wanted it to go.  It was all a terrible misunderstanding, of course.  By 1956, the United States was firmly convinced that Ho Chi Minh wanted to seize South Vietnam, which of course he did, and that South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem wanted to defend the South, which of course he didn’t.  Ho and Ngo had the same goal of reunifying Vietnam, albeit under their own presidency.  After 1960, Diem’s true motivations were part of the US government’s greatest lies by omission to those who served in the Vietnam War after 1965.

Vietnamese officials looking for an excuse to do nothing continued to complain about northern insurgents being able to remain cleverly concealed within the lush tropical vegetation.  Stepping to the plate to solve this problem was (then) Vice Admiral Elmo Zumwalt (later to serve as Chief of Naval Operations), who served in a dual-hatted role as Commander, Naval Forces, Vietnam and Chief, Naval Advisory Group, Vietnam[1].  It was Zumwalt who ordered the use of carcinogens (Agent Orange) to defoliate Vietnam —an act that has had dire consequences to thousands of Vietnam veterans, as well as to his own family[2].

Agent Orange was a powerful mixture of toxic chemicals used by U.S. military forces during the Vietnam War to eliminate forest cover for North Vietnamese and Viet Cong insurgents, as well as crops that might be used to feed them. The U.S. program of defoliation, codenamed Operation Ranch Hand, sprayed more than 19 million gallons of herbicides over nearly five million acres of land in Vietnam from 1968 to 1972. Agent Orange, which contained the chemical dioxin, was the most commonly used of the herbicide mixtures (and the most effective).  The results of this use have been the growth of tumors, severe birth defects, rashes, psychological symptoms, and a wide variety of cancers among hapless civilian populations in Vietnam and returning American servicemen and their children.

Exposure to Agent Orange no longer receives as much press attention as it used to, but it has had profound lingering effects as a significant international health issue.  Hundreds of thousands of American servicemen have died, or are still suffering, because of Zumwalt’s chemical bomb.  More than three million Vietnamese are also affected, including more than 150,000 children who were born with serious defects.  When the Vietnamese attempted to sue the US for having used these chemicals, for having caused so much suffering among innocent people, American judges dismissed the case out of hand.

Recently, we’ve lost another fine American.  I’ll call him Jack.  He answered the call to duty and served with distinction in Vietnam during the late-1960s within the US Army’s II Corps tactical zone.  Jack passed away on 10 June 2017; he suffered the effects of Agent Orange for over six years.  He’s at peace now, and no doubt his family much relieved that his suffering has come to an end … but here is a man who literally began dying during the time he served in the deep jungles of Vietnam —and whose name will never appear on the Vietnam Wall Memorial.

If this doesn’t seem right, it’s because it isn’t.

Notes:

[1] In the former position, Zumwalt commanded all “brown water” naval forces serving in Viet Nam, and in the second position he served as the overall commander’s naval advisor.

[2] Zumwalt’s son served in Vietnam as a riverine boat commander; after much suffering, he later died from exposure to Agent Orange and his son (Zumwalt’s grandson) was born with severe physical handicaps.

Pete Ellis —Oracle

EGA BlackUntil the advent of World War II, most individuals receiving commissions in the Army or Navy came from privileged backgrounds.  Likely as not, military service was a family tradition or the result of family influence; this is how many officers, such as George Patton, George Marshall, and Mark W. Clark were able to attend military academies.  People with meager incomes did not send their children to prestigious schools.  Then as now, responsibility for the purchase of uniforms and equipment fell upon those gaining a commission, purchase their own meals, and subject themselves to a certain social protocol.  Few could meet these expenses who did not have independent means.

There were exceptions to the silver spoon, of course.  Although Dwight D. Eisenhower and Omar Bradley came from low-income families, their demonstrated brilliance during the entrance examinations to Annapolis and West Point helped to propel them forward as a commissioned officer.  Eisenhower would have accepted an appointment to Annapolis had he not been “too old” to receive a navy appointment.  He therefore accepted an appointment to the USMA[1].

In the Marine Corps, many famous officers were educated in civilian colleges and universities, and sought a commission subsequent to graduation.  Holland M. Smith, for example, was an attorney before receiving a Marine Corps commission.  Alexander Vandergrift received a commission while attending the University of Virginia.  Smedley D. Butler came from a family with significant political influence, Lewis B. Puller, Sr., attended the Virginia Military Institute.

Earl Hancock Ellis began his career as a Marine by enlisting as a private in 1900.  Within twelve months, Ellis had achieved the rank of corporal making him eligible to take an examination for a commission to Second Lieutenant.  Ellis received his commission in December 1901.

In spite of his reputation for brilliance, Ellis began to demonstrate some disappointment with life as an officer early in his career.  After receiving his initial training as a newly commissioned officer, the Marines ordered Ellis to the Philippines, where he served as the Adjutant of the First Regiment.  It was there that he wrote, “I think that this is the laziest life that a man could find —there is not a blamed thing to do except lay around, sleep, and go ‘bug house[2]’.  But all the same, I am helping to bear the white man’s burden.”

Subsequently ordered to command the Marine Detachment aboard the USS Kentucky, flagship of the Pacific Fleet, Ellis gained experience in fleet exercises, maintaining cordial relationships with foreign navies, and conducted visitations to Singapore, China, and Yokohama, Japan.  He returned to the United States in 1904 and received his promotion to first lieutenant in March of that year.  In the following years, Ellis served as a staff officer at Marine Barracks, Washington DC and as quartermaster at Mare Island, California.  During this period, he formed a warm friendship with Major George Barnett who, in a few short years, would become the 12th Commandant of the Marine Corps.

From 1906 to 1907, Ellis served as the Recruiting Officer in Oakland, California and Des Moines, Iowa.  Following another tour of duty at Mare Island, Ellis returned to the Philippines, this time serving as Adjutant of the Second Regiment, then commanded by “Hiking Hiram” Bearss.  Promoted to captain in 1908, his new commander, John A. Lejeune, commanding the Fourth Brigade, assigned Ellis as a company commander.  After Ellis attempted to liven up a boring dinner party by shooting water glasses sitting on the dinner table; Lejeune returned Ellis to administrative duties.

Ellis again reported to the Navy Yard in Washington for duty in May 1911, requesting assignment to aviation duty shortly thereafter.  Then Commandant William Biddle suggested that he attend the Naval War College instead.  After completing the year-long course, the Naval War College sought to retain Ellis on their staff of lecturers.  Ellis subsequently served as an intelligence officer at Headquarters Marine Corps, serving under then Colonel George Barnett.  He was particularly engaged in the planning of exercises involving the new Advance Base Force.  Barnett rated Ellis high in this assignment.

In February 1914, Barnett became the Commandant of the Marine Corps and soon thereafter, appointed Ellis to the joint Army-Navy Board to study the Defense of Guam.  After the outbreak of World War I, it was common to sight German and Japanese warships operating in the Marianas Islands.  This became a concern to Ellis.  In March, the Marine Corps assigned Ellis to the staff of Guam’s governor designate, Captain William J. Maxwell, USN; Ellis’ duties included that of staff secretary, intelligence officer, and chief of police.  It was at this time that Ellis began to display outward signs of acute alcoholism.

Captain Ellis returned once more to the Navy Yard Washington to assume duty as one of the Commandant’s aide-de-camps.  Colonel John Lejeune, who served as an assistant to the Commandant, had Ellis assigned to his staff.  In August 1916, the Marine Corps promoted Ellis to major —one-week before US involvement in World War I.  Barnett initially disapproved Ellis’ request for duty with combat forces, assigning him instead to help establish a new Marine Corps Base at Quantico, Virginia where he also served as an officer instructor at the school for commissioned officers.

Barnett, who had persuaded the Secretary of War to involve the Marines in World War I, dispatched the Fifth Marines to join the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF).  When the War Department additionally ordered the Sixth Marines to France, Colonel Lejeune received orders to join the AEF and he took Major Ellis with him.  Colonel Lejeune discovered the AEF somewhat of a mess.  Upon arrival, Lejeune found himself attached to the 64th Brigade, 32nd Division.  Ellis’ initial assignment was as Adjutant, Wisconsin National Guard; he was later assigned to a French division.  Lejeune was able to persuade Pershing to form a Marine Brigade around the Fifth and Sixth Regiments under his command; when approved, Ellis became the Brigade Adjutant.  When Lejeune later assumed command of the Second US Division, he assigned Ellis the additional duty of Division Inspector.  Major Ellis is credited with the planning of the St. Mihiel (Champagne) Offensive, the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, and the attack and capture of Mont Blanc.  Senior officers attributed the success of these operations to Ellis’ brilliance in planning, aggressive tactics, his personal courage, and his resourcefulness under demanding conditions.  Brigadier General Wendell Neville recommended Ellis for accelerated promotion to full colonel.  While Ellis never saw that promotion, he did receive the Navy Cross, Navy Distinguished Service Medal, Croix de Guerre, and Legion d’honneur Chevalier.

Ellis returned to the United States in November 1919.  Within a few months, however, Ellis found himself hospitalized with diagnoses of deep depression, delirium, and neurasthenia —all of which stemmed from his acute alcoholism.  In these days, the Marine Corps was much like a fraternal organization.  Most officers knew one another on a personal basis.  Additionally, military authority did not recognize alcoholism as a serious disease; it was, rather, seen as something of a character flaw.  It was a condition prompting friends and superiors alike to cover up the problem.  Foremost among these friends of Pete Ellis was John A. Lejeune, who had been covering up for Ellis since his shooting demonstration in the Philippines.

Medical authorities returned Ellis to full duty in April 1920 and within a few weeks, Ellis reported to Brigadier General Logan Feland in Santo Domingo where Ellis helped to form the Guardia Nacional.  It was a short-lived assignment, for within a few months, both Feland and Ellis received orders to report to Marine Corps headquarters.  Lejeune assigned Ellis to head the intelligence section within the Division of Operations and Training.

During this assignment, Ellis prepared an essay regarding the details of military and civil operations required while eradicating subversives and insurgents.  He titled his report “Bush Brigades,” and although later printed in the Marine Corps Gazette (March, 1921), its controversial nature caused authorities to initially pigeonhole the document.

Toward the end of 1920, General Lejeune and his senior staff began to focus on contingency war plans in the event of hostilities in the Pacific against Imperial Japan.  Revising War Plan Orange, which implemented the study of the Marine Corps’ role in amphibious operations, Major Ellis produced the prophetic document titled, Operation Plan 712: Advanced Base Operations in Micronesia.  The underlying notion here was that in the event of hostilities between the United States and Japan, Marine Corps Advanced Base Forces would support the United States Naval Fleet.

The Territory of Hawaii constituted the only support for the U. S. Navy due to a lack of adequate facilities in the Philippines and Guam.  Ellis was convinced that Hawaii would become a primary target for Japanese attack.  Moreover, Japan had already occupied the Marshall, Caroline, and Palau Islands[3], which flanked the US lines of communication in the region by more than 2,300 miles.  Ellis concluded that Japan would initiate the war, and furthermore, that Japan would remain close to their own territorial waters until encountered by the United States Fleet.  Along with these predictions, Ellis anticipated great losses to the Marine forces during an amphibious assault.  He advised war planners to avoid blue-water transfers, suggesting instead finalization of task force arrangements before leaving base ports.

Major Ellis concluded:

  • A major fleet action will decide the war in the Pacific
  • The US Fleet will be 25% superior to that of the enemy
  • The enemy will hold his main fleet within his own defensive line
  • Preliminary activities of the US fleet must be accomplished with a minimum of assets
  • Marine Corps forces must be self-sustaining
  • Long, drawn out operations must be avoided to afford the fleet its greatest protection
  • Fleet objectives must include adequate anchorage

Ellis 002In April 1921, Lieutenant Colonel Ellis submitted an official request to the Commandant of the Marine Corps to conduct a clandestine reconnaissance mission to the Central Pacific.  At the same time, he submitted his undated resignation, in order to prevent embarrassment to the United States should his operation turn out to be a less than completely clandestine affair.  Shortly afterward, Ellis was back in the hospital for additional treatment.

On 4 May 1921, Acting Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., approved Ellis’ request —but this was not a simple matter of giving Ellis a thumbs up.  By this time, Ellis was a highly rated American intelligence officer.  Ellis had to convince the entire command structure of the Marine Corps that his was a worthy plan with a high likelihood that the plan could be carried out.  Additionally, the Office of Naval Intelligence had to concur, along with the Chief of Naval Operations.

As part of his cover, Ellis became a sales representative with the Hughes Trading Company, owned by a medically retired Marine officer that Ellis had known since 1902.  Thus cleverly disguised, Ellis visited relatives in Kansas, proceeded to San Francisco, and shipped to New Zealand and Australia aboard the American President Lines in May 1921.  He arrived in the Far East in September 1921, and was again hospitalized in Manila, now adding dysfunctional kidneys to his other alcohol-related issues.

After his hospitalization in Manila, Ellis traveled to Yokohama, Japan where he arranged for authorization to travel to the mandated islands.  Unfortunately, Ellis’ drinking problem was getting worse by the day.  At one point, Ellis disclosed details of his mission to an attending physician in September 1922.  The physician immediately met with the local Naval Attaché, who, acting on the instructions given to him by the Ambassador, ordered Ellis to return to the United States on the next ship.  Ellis ignored these orders, cabled for $1,000 from his pay account, and shipped out for Saipan.

Ellis’ days were by now numbered.  Not only were agents of Naval Intelligence keeping tabs, so too were Japanese intelligence agents.  It is at this point that one should wonder, “Is there anyone in the Far East who did not know what Colonel Ellis was up to?”  From this point on, Japanese officials kept track of his every move.  They no doubt watched him as he prepared detailed maps and charts of Saipan, of the Carolines, Marshalls, Yap, and Palaus.  They followed Mr. Ellis to Kusaie, Jaluit, the Marshals, Kwajalein, Ponape, Celebes, and New Guinea.  While in Koror, Ellis met a Palauan woman whom he married, but the fact is that Ellis was getting worse by the day.

Japanese police were called to investigate a looting in the home of Mr. William Gibbons, a friend of Colonel Ellis.  As it turned out, Ellis looted the man’s home, looking for whiskey.  Later that day, sympathetic Japanese police delivered to Ellis two bottles of American whiskey, which he promptly consumed.  The Japanese knew how to deal with a drunk. The next morning, May 13, 1923, Colonel Ellis was dead and all of his maps, all of his papers were confiscated by Japanese authorities; none of those has ever been seen again.

Normally a story ends with the death of its main character, but not so with the story of Pete Ellis.  In Early July 1923, the U. S. Navy sent Chief Pharmacist Mate Lawrence Zembsch to retrieve Ellis’ body and return it for proper burial in the United States.  Chief Zembsch had previously treated Ellis, so he would be able to positively identify the body.  Chief Zembsch traveled to Palau via Japanese steamer, returning to Yokosuka on August 14, 1923 babbling incoherently.  In his possession was an urn that allegedly contained the remains of Colonel Ellis.  Chief Zembsch had been heavily drugged.  By the end of the month, Zembsch had improved to the point where he could answer questions.  On 1 September 1923, Zembsch’s wife arrived early for her daily visitation.  She intended to stay only until lunch, after which investigators would begin to question Chief Zembsch about his trip to the Palaus.

As Mrs. Zembsch prepared to leave her husband, at 11:42 AM on 1 September 1923, the Great Kanto Earthquake struck, transforming the Naval Hospital into a pile of splinters.  Chief Zembsch and his wife perished.  What did remain was a small urn in a security vault of the hospital, a small note taped to the outside reading Ashes of LtCol Earl H. Ellis, USMC, died Palau, 12 May 1923.

Ellis 003The story of Colonel Pete Ellis is interesting, but also disappointing.  In spite of his brilliance as a planner, he was not a very good spy.  The officers who sent him out to do this kind of work, including one preeminent officer who lectured all Marines about leadership, knew that Ellis was physically and mentally unsuitable for doing it —and yet, he allowed Ellis to proceed.  A Tokyo news dispatch tends to support my proposition:: published in mid-May 1923 the report stated, “Colonel Earl Ellis of the United States Marine Corps was accidently killed in a prohibited area of the Caroline Islands.”

Some believed that the whiskey provided to Ellis had been poisoned, including Brother Gregorio Oraquieta, SJ.  He stated that it was his understanding that the Japanese poisoned Ellis while residing on the Palau Islands[4].  The fact is, it probably did not matter whether the Japanese poisoned him.  Lieutenant Colonel Pete Ellis had been a dead-man-walking for a very long time.  Now we must ponder whether this fiasco made the lives of occidentals living under Japanese authority in Micronesia more difficult.

Notes:

[1] My blog-friend friend “Christian Soldier” will positively hate reading this.

[2] “Bug House” is a term used for stir crazy.  Ellis’ comment may be our earliest indication that he was prone to calm his restless spirit with intoxicating liquors.

[3] As a member of the Triple Entente, Japan began to occupy the Northern Marianas in 1914.  At the conclusion of World War I, many formerly German-held islands in the Pacific were entrusted by the League of Nations to Japanese control as the “South Pacific Mandate.”

[4] Eyewitness: The Amelia Earhart Incident, Thomas E. Devine, Richard M. Dailey, American Traveler Press, 1987

Task Force MacLean-Faith

As stated in my banner, this blog mostly contains stories about Marines … but I have also included articles involving Air Force, Army, and Navy personnel.  This article will be about a U. S. Army unit in Korea.  It should be read within this framework: elements of the 7th US Infantry Division operated in conjunction with the 1st Marine Division at a place in North Korea known as the Chosin (Changjin) Reservoir.  One of these elements was effectively destroyed in the fighting that took place there.

Background

In 1950, General Douglas MacArthur (shown at right) served as Supreme Allied Commander, United Nations Command (Far East).  He concurrently served as Commander, U. S. Army Forces (Far East).  It was MacArthur’s responsibility to establish an allied force order of battle —essentially an organizational outline reflecting a chain of command within the operating forces.

Responsibility for military operations in Korea was assigned to the Eighth US Army (VIII Army), then commanded by Lieutenant General Walton H. Walker, USA.  On paper, Walker’s Army consisted of the Army’s I Corps, IX Corps, and X Corps.  Walker’s direct superior in the chain of command was Douglas MacArthur.  Whether MacArthur lacked confidence in General Walker’s command of a field Army is far beyond my paygrade, but the fact is that General MacArthur stripped 8th Army of its X Corps making it independent of General Walker’s command, answerable directly to himself.

Matters were further compounded by MacArthur’s selection of the officer to command X Corps.  In addition to command of X Corps (a combat command) Major General Edward M. (Ned) Almond concurrently served MacArthur as Chief of Staff, U. S. Army Forces, (Far East) (a senior staff position).  Apparently, because Major General Almond reported directly to General of the Army Douglas MacArthur, he felt there was no reason to keep Walker (a mere lieutenant general) informed of X Corps operations.

In combat, as we shall see, this is a recipe for disaster.

Major General Almond previously commanded the 2nd Infantry Division (8 months) and the 92nd Infantry Division[1].  It is difficult for me to understand how any officer as inept, or as maladroit as Almond could ever have reached flag rank.  Almond eventually rose to the rank of Lieutenant General, but in my opinion, he should never have been promoted beyond major.

In 1950, the United States was unprepared for war.  In the aftermath of World War II, President Truman reduced the strength of Army, Air Force, and Navy commands such that they were no longer combat effective.  Worse, Secretary of State Dean Acheson delivered a speech on 12 January 1950 which failed to mention the Korean Peninsula as part of the United States’ post-war defense perimeter.  The inference here was that the United States government did not view South Korea as having much importance in Truman’s domino theory.  Accordingly, Joseph Stalin and Kim Il-sung believed that they had a “green light” to invade South Korea.  This level of incompetence would guarantee the loss of the lives of military personnel from the United States and United Nations member nations.

Invade South Korea is exactly what Kim Il-sung did, with the full support of the Soviet Union.  At this juncture, it would take some time to rebuild America’s Armed Forces.  The problem is, of course, there was no time for renewal, so most of the commands Truman committed to the Korean War went as they were. In this post-war environment, Army combat and combat service support units were understrength, poorly trained, and poorly led.

Standardized military organizations have existed since the days of the Roman Republic; in the United States, ground forces are organized as follows: armies have three corps and very often include other supporting units; a corps is composed of three divisions (with additional, reinforcing elements); there are three infantry regiments in a division (with additional reinforcements), three battalions in a regiment, three infantry companies and a weapons company in a battalion, three platoons and a weapons platoon in a company, and three squads in an infantry platoon.

Because American ground forces were dramatically understrength in 1950, the Department of Defense relied upon UN forces to bolster US combat forces.  In June 1950, the Army’s X Corps included  the US 7th Infantry Division (Major General David G. Barr), US 3rd Infantry Division (Major General Robert H. Soule), and the 1st Marine Division (Major General Oliver P. Smith).  All three of these divisions were initially understrength.

At the beginning of the Korean conflict in mid-July 1950, General MacArthur began pulling soldiers away from the 7th Infantry Division and sending them to fill in the ranks of the 25th Infantry Division in Korea.  Within a short time, the 7th Infantry Division only consisted of 9,000 men; its wartime strength was 25,000.  The U. S. Army Service Command (Far East) began to augment the 7th with 8,000 poorly trained Korean conscripts; to this was later added a battalion of Ethiopians.  Similarly, the 3rd Infantry Division had but two regiments; this division was augmented by Koreans, Belgians, and Greek infantry.  General Almond directed one full regiment to serve as X Corps reserve, resulting in only two-thirds of a division remaining available to the 3rd Infantry Division commander for combat operations.

President Truman wanted a quick end to the Korean War, but he didn’t want to precipitate another world war.  So Truman did what we have come to expect from politicians: he vacillated.  He wanted MacArthur to move with speed to occupy North Korea and, if possible, push the North Korean army completely off the map, but he also restricted MacArthur’s operations at or below the 38th parallel.  The JCS later rescinded this restriction, telling MacArthur to operate as he saw fit.  Accordingly, MacArthur ordered the 8th (VIII) Army and Ten (X) Corps to proceed to the Yalu River (North Korea’s border with China).  Observing MacArthur’s movements, China warned him not to approach China’s border; MacArthur wasn’t listening.

North Korean terrain ranks among the most mountainous in the world.  This is significant because mountains hinder communications and terrain dictates ground movement.  With mountain ranges running generally north to south, military units were separated from one another by high elevations.  Moreover, limited roads were vulnerable to blockage by enemy units.  There was a single main supply route (MSR) from Wonsan to the point of furthest advance, Chosin (Changjin) Reservoir.

The location of Marine and Army units in the Chosin operating area is reflected on the map (right).  This map tells us two stories: the first underscores Ned Almond’s ineptitude.  He pushed units so far forward that resupply of these units became a major undertaking.  Forward units were disbursed, exposing them to enemy attack.  Both Almond and MacArthur refused to acknowledge what everyone else knew to be a fact: the presence in North Korea of large numbers of Chinese troops.    The second story tells us what happened to Regimental Combat Team-31 (commonly referred to today as Task Force Faith) —and why.

Almond ordered Major General Barr (7th Infantry Division) to provide a regimental sized force to operate on the right flank of the 1st Marine Division.  In earlier operations, the 7th Infantry Division had become widely dispersed and isolated from one another.  The immediacy of Almond’s directive made it impossible to assemble a full-strength RCT before moving north.  Complying with X Corps orders, RCT-31[2] moved forward to cover the eastern flank of the Marine division with incomplete coordination with the Marines, who were then operating south and west of the Chosin Reservoir.

RCT-31 was initially commanded by Colonel Allan MacLean; the combat team included 3/31, 1/32, two batteries of the 57th Field Artillery Battalion, and one platoon of Battery D, 15th Anti-aircraft Battalion.  It was short one full battalion of infantry and a tank company.

MacLean moved forward on 27 November 1950 and occupied two separate positions along a ten mile stretch along the east side of the reservoir.  Not anticipating enemy activity[3], MacLean’s battalions prepared inadequate perimeter defenses (which is to say linear rather than 360 degrees of security, or “an all-around” defense).  Colonel MacLean intended to move his command forward the next morning (28 November 1950).  During the night, however, undetected Chinese forces infiltrated the area; once in place, they launched a devastating attack on elements of RCT-31 and the Marines.  MacLean asked for, and received a temporary postponement of the planned offensive.

Early the next morning, General Almond flew to RCT-31’s position and after conferring with MacLean, concluded that here was no evidence of any presence of Chinese Communist Forces (CCF). Almond demanded that MacLean continue his northern movement, but then contradicted himself by saying, “The enemy who is delaying you for the moment is nothing more than remnants of Chinese divisions fleeing north.  We’re still attacking and we’re going all the way to the Yalu.  Don’t let a bunch of Chinese laundry-men stop you.”

Convinced that RCT-31 was strong enough to begin its attack and deal with these so-called remnants of enemy troops moving north, Almond returned to his headquarters.  Meanwhile, large numbers of Chinese forces occupied the eastern hills overlooking RCT-31’s southern-most position.  MacLean continued to anticipate the arrival of his third infantry battalion and a tank company.

The reinforcements never arrived.

Unknown to Colonel MacLean, China’s reinforced 80th Infantry Division soon surrounded RCT-31.  When RCT-31’s much-awaited tank company reached Hagaru-ri, the column discovered the presence of a well-situated Chinese blocking force.  During this engagement, the tank company lost four of its tanks and withdrew to consolidate its remaining forces.  The tank company renewed its attack on the next morning, but it too failed; the remnants of the tank company withdrew to the small village of Hudong, 4 miles south of RCT-31’s position.

The Marines to the west were also under an overwhelming attack; as a result, they were unable to assist RCT-31.  MacLean’s missing battalion never materialized, but he made no effort to contact his higher headquarters to inform them of his situation.  Perhaps MacLean was intimidated by the blustering Major General Almond.

Chinese forces made another attack on the night of 28 November and succeeded in overrunning several RCT-31 positions.  Their attack against 1/32 included North Korean tanks and self-propelled artillery.  During the attack, weather conditions rapidly deteriorated; heavy snow began to accumulate and temperatures plunged to minus 30 degrees Fahrenheit.  Low visibility denied the RCT defenders any clear picture of the enemy’s movements.  That night, American troops suffered from intense cold; several soldiers froze to death in their foxholes.  Colonel MacLean decided to develop a stronger defense position.  He ordered 1/32 to pull back south into the main perimeter.

China’s 27th Corps then committed its 241st Regiment and RCT-31 was now facing two Chinese infantry divisions.  While 1/32 moved south under the protection of 40 Marine ground support aircraft, Air Force cargo planes dropped supplies into RCT-31’s southern-most position.

After consolidating his force, Colonel MacLean observed what he believed was the approach of long-awaited reinforcements.  What Maclean observed was the approach of a Chinese force.  In this encounter, MacLean was mortally wounded.  Command of RCT-31 now fell to the next senior officer, Lieutenant Colonel Don Faith, commander of 1/32.

Faith immediately consolidated his force and formed a proper perimeter.  The Chinese intensified their attack.  The severely understrength RCT fought off a massive assault by two full enemy divisions.  Marine aircraft supported the RCT throughout the day.  The battle continued for two additional days.

All attacks against the RCT’s perimeter were successfully repulsed, but Faith was running low on ammunition.  Half of his force had been killed or wounded.  Realizing that he was surrounded and outnumbered, Colonel Faith decided to break out of the defense and fight his way toward Marine lines to his west.  He intended to take as little of his equipment as possible —only enough vehicles to carry his wounded.  He destroyed excess equipment, permitting the assignment of additional soldiers to infantry roles.

Faith’s break out began on 1 December; Navy and Marine Corps aircraft strafed and bombed Chinese positions as Task Force Faith made its way down a gravel road east of Chosin.  Faith’s progress was interrupted, however, when Corsairs mistakenly dropped ordnance on Faith’s southward moving lead elements; several troops were killed; others horribly burned by napalm.  This unfortunate incident seriously demoralized soldiers already under great stress.  Then, as the forward elements continued their southern movement, heavy small arms fire caused the rear-guard echelon (operating further north along the MSR) to seek shelter in a gully below the roadway.  In doing so, they abandoned their wounded comrades.  Enemy fire killed many of the RCT’s wounded and the drivers of the trucks.  By late afternoon, Faith was able to get the column moving again but he soon ran into a reinforced Chinese roadblock.  Several companies attacked the Chinese; one of these was led by Colonel Faith, who was mortally wounded.

It was at this point that darkness closed in … and with it, the end of protective air support.  Chinese infantry assaults grew bolder, penetrating ever closer to the remnants of RCT-31.  With their commander now dead, the combat team disintegrated; most of the officers and senior NCOs were either dead or wounded.  Leaderless soldiers wandered off across the frozen reservoir seeking safety.  Army tanks and soldiers previously encamped at the small village of Hudong might have saved some of these soldiers, but they had been ordered back to Hagaru-ri the previous day.

The Chinese stepped up their assault with intense small arms fire and white phosphorus grenades, wantonly murdering the wounded and incapacitated; within some elements of RCT-31, the situation quickly degenerated into every man for himself.

Eventually, nearly 400 able-bodied survivors of Task Force Faith were formed into an Army provisional battalion that fought alongside the Marines during their withdrawal from the Chosin Reservoir.  Other Army units were brought into the Marine lines as well, including what was left of the 31st Tank Company —assigned to reinforce the 5th Marine Regiment.

Eleven hundred soldiers were too badly wounded or frostbitten to fight; they were evacuated through the heroic efforts of U. S. Air Force pilots and support personnel.  Of its original strength of 3,000 soldiers, one-third of RCT-31 were killed in action.

RCT-31 was the largest American unit ever destroyed in combat.

Commentary

There is ample room for criticism in any discussion about the Chosin Reservoir campaign.  In my view, the severest criticism is properly assigned to Harry S. Truman and his defense secretary, but with equal measure to Douglas MacArthur and Ned Almond.

Major General Barr sent a regimental combat team into hostile territory at about two-thirds of its combat strength.  Considering the weight of the Chinese forces thrown against RCT-31, we must wonder if an additional battalion would have made a difference.  Still, General Barr deserves censure for lacking the moral courage to refuse an inane order from Almond.

Colonel MacLean executed his orders, but one should imagine that a senior infantry officer would have prepared a better defense during hours of darkness.

The mistaken bombing of forward elements of RCT-31 by Marine aircraft is an unspeakable tragedy; these things do happen.  I cannot imagine how the pilot felt when he later learned what he’d done.  It is bad enough losing good men to the enemy; being killed by friendly fire is the worst of all scenarios.

The soldiers of RCT-31 were young, inexperienced, and poorly trained.  They were certainly poorly led by their field generals.  The battle-loss of senior officers and NCOs provided an opportunity for junior officers to seize the moment; they didn’t.  Who were the officers in the rear-guard?  Why did they allow their troops to sacrifice their incapacitated comrades?

I do believe that RCT-31 has been unfairly maligned in statements made by Marines at the time, and in subsequent years.  Part of this “rivalry” stems from the Battle for the Pusan Perimeter, when Marines were constantly thrown into the breech to retake real estate lost by Army units.  At Pusan, Marines were dying because Army units weren’t pulling their own load.  Whether objective, this was the genesis of “hard feelings” between Marines and soldiers.  In effect, the experience of the 1st Provisional Marine Brigade at Pusan seemed to reinforce what everyone already knew about the poor combat record of the US 27th Infantry Division at Saipan and Okinawa.

Noted military historian Eric Hammel observed, “Marines [in Korea] evidenced a growing hostility to the army men in their midst.  It was unfair of them to do so, but there was not a member of the 1st Marine Division who did not feel that his plight in some way reflected a lack of concern on the part of the Army officer who ran X Corps.”

Similarly, Colonel Edward L. Magill, USA (a veteran of the Chosin campaign) wrote a piece titled Soldiers of Changjin, saying “The condition of the units at the time of the breakout has never been properly weighed… The soldiers were suffering from hunger, dehydration, lack of sleep, long exposure to severe cold, and the physiological effects of prolonged combat.”

While I agree with Magill —it is also true that Marines experienced these same difficulties and yet did not abandon their wounded, their dead, or their equipment.  The difference, or so it would seem, was in the quality of leadership within the 1st Marine Division.

One of the individuals responsible for criticism of RCT-31 was a Marine officer who helped rescue hundreds of RCT-31 survivors: Lieutenant Colonel Olin L. Beall who, at the time, commanded the 1st Motor Transport Battalion.  In 1953, Beall wrote a scathing report against the Army in the Chosin campaign.  He was there, of course, but I think his criticism reveals a lack of insight.  Were it not for the tremendous fight RCT-31 put up against two enemy infantry divisions, the Chinese would have mauled the Marines of the 1st Marine Division.  In this sense, it should possible for us today to give due credit to the intense bravery displayed by the soldiers of RCT-31.  In the face of extreme adversity, these men put up one hell of a fight.

Notes:

[1] General George C. Marshall served as the U. S. Army Chief of Staff during World War II.  Marshall, a VMI classmate of Almond, was instrumental in Almond’s promotion to major general and his subsequent assignment to command the 92nd Infantry Division between October 1942 and August 1945.  Almond led the division in combat throughout the Italian Campaign.  Almond’s performance, however, was rated as inept.  Rather than taking responsibility for his professional shortcomings, Almond placed the blame for his incompetence on his mostly African-American troops—the source of his failure as a field general.  Almond later advised the Army against using blacks as infantry in combat.

[2] A regimental combat team is a task-organized unit consisting of infantry and supporting units.  The size of infantry and supporting organizations depends upon the assigned mission.  RCT-31 was formed from the 31st Infantry Regiment, and attached supporting units.  Total manpower complement numbered just at 3,000 troops; of these, 600 were Korean augmentees to the US Army (called KATUSA).  General Barr removed the 1st Battalion, 31st Infantry Regiment (1/31) and replaced it with the 2nd Battalion, 32nd Infantry Regiment (2/32).

[3] X Corps insisted that there was no significant Chinese presence in North Korea.  He ignored the intelligence gained from Chinese prisoners of war and information gathered by forward reconnaissance units.  Colonel MacLean erred when he believed what his seniors were telling him, rather than relying on his own judgment while operating deeply inside “Indian” territory.

Colonel Commandant John Harris

In 1798, there were only 83 U. S. Marines serving in uniform.  On 12 July of that year, President John Adams appointed William Ward Burrows to the post of Major Commandant of the United States Marine Corps.  Burrows was the second man to serve in this post, tradition giving Samuel Nicholas the title Commandant of Continental Marines (serving 1775—1783).  Burrows was the first to serve as Commandant of the United States Marine Corps, serving from 1798 to 1804; during this time, the strength of the Marine Corps increased to 389 officers and enlisted men.[1]

Both the Navy and Marine Corps were born out of necessity, for once Congress realized that the United States must emerge as a maritime power, men were needed in both services to man American ships of war.  In 1798, the threat of war came from France; a few years later, from Islamist pirates operating in the Mediterranean Sea and along the west coast of Africa.

In these early days, Marines were needed to man the Navy’s frigates; it initially fell to Burrows to supply these Marines with uniforms and equipment, whereas Marine officers serving aboard ship had responsibility for training their own men.  Initially encamped at Philadelphia, Barrows relocated his headquarters to the new city of Washington in 1800.  Its present location occupies that initial site at Eighth & I Streets, Washington DC.

Within twelve years, the United States and Great Britain once more went to war.  From the American perspective, there were several reasons for war in 1812: (a) trade restrictions imposed on the United States by England’s war with France, (b) the illegal impressment of (several thousand) American merchant seaman into the Royal Navy, (c) British instigation of violence against the American frontier by natives, (d) outrage in the United States over the Chesapeake-Leopard Affair[2] (inset drawing by Fred Cozzens, 1897), and British objections to America’s westward expansion.  Commenting on the British perspective, historian William Kingsford once observed, “The events of the war of 1812 have not been forgotten in England, for they have never been known there.”

What we know about the performance of early Marine Corps commandants comes to us in the bits and pieces from the works of several authors producing other works; some of these are first-hand accounts that are tinted by individual biases or relevant politics.  The writings of Brigadier General Henry Clay Cochrane (service from 1861 to 1903), suggest that in many instances, early commandants were somewhat orthodox in their thinking —happy to maintain the status quo because in the doing of it required little effort or political risk.  In these early times, officers harbored the view that the commandancy was an entitlement of the most senior officer.  While generally true, there were occasions when the Secretary of the Navy selected someone junior to the most senior officer.  Whenever this occurred, the more-senior officer(s) would be forced into retirement.  By forcing the most senior officers into retirement, junior officers developed the hope of future promotion —and perhaps themselves, one day, being elevated to the commandancy.

In the early days, the relationship between the navy and Marine Corps was at best strained.  In the first place, few navy officers even believed that the Marine Corps belonged to the naval establishment; others opined that if there was a legitimate role for the Marine Corps in the naval service, such service should be part of the ships company.  Marine officers, they believed, should serve the ship’s captain as heads of divisions: gunnery officers or officers in charge of munitions and ordnance.  Marines saw it differently; they were naval infantry whose task was to provide naval artillery (manning ship’s guns), maintain law and order aboard ship (prevent mutinies), and project naval power ashore as part of a landing force.  Some of the early commandants (the better ones) insisted that the navy respect these roles; others were easily swayed into the lethargy of politics: they sought to maintain the favor of senior naval officers and the Secretary of the Navy at the expense of an appropriate role and mission for his Marines.  In short, if ever there was a marriage between the navy and Marine Corps, it was one of convenience.

Prior to the commencement of the Civil War, Lieutenant Colonel John Harris was elevated to the office of Commandant.  Harris (20 May 1793—12 May 1864) served as the sixth Commandant, serving on active duty for more than fifty years.  The Harris family lived in Whiteland Township, Chester County, Pennsylvania and produced several career military officers.  John’s father William served as an officer during the Revolutionary War.  An elder brother served as a naval surgeon who ultimately led the Navy’s bureau of medicine and surgery.  A younger brother Stephen married the granddaughter of Persifor Frazer, a prominent citizen during the Revolutionary period.

John Harris received his commission as a Second Lieutenant on 23 April 1814; in two months, he had already been promoted to First Lieutenant.  Harris served with the Marine force opposing the British at the battle of Brandywine, Maryland.  It was the distinction of these Marines in combat that may have prompted the British Army to spare the Marine Barracks in the city of Washington during the War of 1812.  All other government buildings were destroyed by fire.

In 1815, Harris assumed command of the Marine Detachment aboard USS Macedonian, flagship of the squadron of Commodore Stephen Decatur.  It was this squadron that sailed from New York to punish the Barbary Pirates.  After several periods of shore duty, Harris commanded Marines aboard USS Franklin, which included a South Pacific tour from 1821—1824.  Harris was brevetted to Captain on 3 March 1825, followed by tours of duty in Boston, aboard the USS Java, USS Delaware, and USS Philadelphia.  In 1836, Harris joined the Marine Detachment at Fort Monroe, Virginia where he served with the Army during the Florida Indian Wars.  He served with distinction in the Creek campaign in Alabama, and the Seminole conflicts in Florida.  Colonel Commandant Archibald Henderson gave a good report on Captain Harris, stating, “Captain Harris while in Florida commanded mounted Marines and did good service in that capacity.”

In 1837, Harris was advanced to brevet major, “for gallantry and good conduct in the affair of Hatchee Lustee”.  He was received a regular commission to major on 6 October 1841, serving in Philadelphia, Washington, and Norfolk until the outbreak of war with Mexico.

In March 1848, Major Harris sailed with a battalion of Marines to Veracruz, Mexico but since the armistice had already been concluded, he was ordered to garrison Alvarado.  He was ordered to Marine Corps headquarters in Washington in late summer of that year, subsequently serving as the Commanding Officer of the Marine Barracks in Philadelphia and New York.  In 1855, Harris was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel and placed in command of the Marine Barracks, Brooklyn where he remained until 7 January 1859.  On that date, he assumed the office of Commandant in grade of Colonel, U. S. Marine Corps.

There is little doubt that Colonel Harris was embarrassed on the eve of the American Civil War as half of his officers resigned their commissions to serve in the armed forces of the Confederate States; he labored to reconstitute a much-weakened Marine Corps.  Added to this, Harris was tasked to send Marines to serve as United States Secret Service agents in Maryland to stem the flow of contraband: this mission depleted the ranks of the Marine Corps by a full battalion.

Following a brief illness, Colonel Harris died while serving in office at the age of 70 years.  His death left Secretary of the Navy Gideon Wells in a dilemma: there were few Marine Corps officers qualified to assume the post of Commandant.  Secretary Wells delayed selecting a replacement for a full month; his final selection forced several senior Marine Corps officers into retirement.  This delay, and the Secretary’s final choice, was probably a good thing for the Marine Corps as it was about to embark on a much-needed period of reform.  Some say that this reform movement continues in the Marine Corps today; I am one of those.  You see, in the Marines, nothing is ever good enough; I think this attitude benefits the United States of America —and her people.

Notes:

[1] Department of Defense, Selected Manpower Statistics, FY-1997, Table 2-11.

[2] HMS Leopard gave chase to the American frigate USS Chesapeake, which ended when the American captain surrendered his ship having fired only one shot.  The British tried and executed four members of the Chesapeake’s crew for desertion.  The balance of the crew was released and sent back to port in disgrace.