The Honor of Our Corps

by Robert A. Hall

Marine Corps Seal

When the beer, it flows like water,

And the talk, it turns to war,

Then we speak of absent comrades

And the Honor of our Corps.

Of the fights in distant places
,

And the friends who are no more,

Dying faithful to the nation
,

And the Honor of our Corps.

Though our bones are growing brittle,

And our eyes are growing poor,

Still our hearts are young and valiant
,

For the Honor of our Corps.

Should the Eagle, Globe and Anchor
,

Call us to the field once more,

We would muster at the summons
,

For the Honor of our Corps.

When the years have told our story,

And we close the final door,

We will pass to you for keeping

Bright the Honor of our Corps.

Will you take the awesome burden?

Will you face the fire of war?

Will you proudly bear the title

For the Honor of our Corps?

Marines in Nicaragua, Part X

Terror of the Bandits, Tiger of the Mountain

At the end of 1930, the Sandinistas were fighting smarter, and harder.  They were better armed.  On 31 December, a patrol of ten Marines were detailed to check the telegraph lines north of Ocotal when they walked into an ambush of an estimated 100 rebels.  After an hour of fighting, the Sandinistas withdrew leaving eight dead Marines along the trail; the remaining two were seriously wounded.  On the next day, a Central Area patrol struck a large rebel force behind a stone wall and were unable to dislodge them until reinforcements arrived.  That night, rebels employed machine guns to fire on Ocotal from long-range.

1931 was shaping up to be a bad year for the Guardia Nacional, which was still trying to establish itself as a national force.  At the end of 1930, from a total strength of 2,200 men, the Guardia lost 12 men killed in action; 200 more were sent to prison for various crimes, and 323 deserted.  Colonel Julian Smith, a proponent of four-man patrols, was stymied about what to do.  The small sized patrols were completely ineffective against large bandit groups.  He requested additional men, more automatic weapons, arguing that the Guardia in its present configuration could not sustain a war of attrition against significantly larger forces.

Lieutenant Puller briefly rejoined Company M in January and immediately took to the field.  Being almost constantly on patrol through mid-month, his roving patrols made intensive efforts to establish contact with rebel forces.  He made not a single contact during this period.  Part of the reason for this was that the Sandinistas had shifted their activities to the northern area.  There were 13 separate engagements in the northern area, only five in the Central region.  Through February and March, the Central Area established enemy contact on but two occasions; in the same period, the northern region experienced seventeen firefights.

Puller was pulled from the field in February; he had incurred severe skin ulcers on both legs.  He was on light duty for over a month while undergoing medical treatment.  In spite of this debilitation, which Gunnery Sergeant Lee described as “bad,” Puller continued to work as a staff officer and supernumerary.  He supervised escort missions to the aviation field outside of Jinotega, or led half-way patrols to nearby outposts to transfer personnel or deliver supplies.

On 31 March, Managua experienced a significant earthquake.  Within two minutes, the entire city was devastated.  In the aftermath, fires broke out and raged through the rubble for several days.  The Marine Brigade joined the Guardia in a massive rescue effort: fighting fires, providing medical treatment to the injured, digging out trapped Nicaraguans, and feeding the homeless.  Of the city’s 35,000 inhabitants, ten percent were injured, another five percent were killed outright or later died of injuries.

Puller was detached from the Central Area on 2 April to help convey relief supplies into the capital city from Jinotega; he remained in the city until 20 April leading the graves registration effort.  Two weeks later, Puller was back in Jinotega.  He was assigned one last patrol toward Poteca, formerly the stronghold of Captain Merritt Edson and his Coco River Patrol.  The withdrawal of Marines without Guardia replacements had left this area unprotected and available intelligence suggested that Sandino might be located in this region.  Puller discovered that it had been so long since patrols operated in this area that the trails were once more overgrown with vegetation.

Puller’s patrol reached the Rio Cua on 9 May and then proceeded southeast along its banks.  At mid-morning, four bandits appeared in canoes near a bend in the river.  The opposing efforts spotted each other at about the same time, but quick reaction among the Guardia resulted in two rebel deaths.  The remaining two escaped. Having captured the canoes and two weapons, Puller noted the absence of food and surmised that a bandit camp must be nearby.  Puller continued his march up the river to the mouth of the Rio Kilande, where his point man discovered a large abandoned bandit camp.  Company M torched nine buildings and a large quantity of supplies and equipment, including several pole-climbing kits, which Puller guessed had been taken from the Marine patrol the previous December.

Puller then ordered his patrol to backtrack to the Rio Cua, where he joined up with another patrol along the river.  The next morning, the combined force moved north along the Rio Coco, but high water forced the Guardia to cut a new path through thick vegetation on higher ground.  Puller returned to Jinotega on13 May having averaged 16 miles each day.

Puller’s 30-month tour of duty was drawing to a close.  With orders to attend professional schooling at the US Army’s Infantry School, Puller departed Nicaragua on 12 June.  His last official act was to recommend Gunnery Sergeant Lee for an appointment as a Marine Gunner (Warrant Officer).  Subsequently, Puller was awarded the Nicaragua’s highest military decoration (Presidential Medal of Merit).  Lieutenant Colonel McDougal rated Puller as, “… the most active patrol leader in the Guardia.”  Colonel Smith observed, “[Puller] is an excellent officer in every respect.  Possesses highest moral and physical courage, persistence, patience, loyalty, endurance, and sound common sense.  He is one of the best officers I have ever known.”

The citizens of Jinotega were not happy to see Lieutenant Puller transferred —they petitioned the Marines to allow him to stay in Nicaragua.  They referred to Puller as the Terror of the Banditos and Tiger of the Mountains.  El Tigre had earned more than a nickname in Nicaragua … he became one of the Marine Corps’ best junior combat leaders.

But Puller wasn’t done in Nicaragua … he would be back for another tour.

(To be continued)

 

Marines in Nicaragua, Part IX

El Tigre is out of his cage

The rebel camp was located in an excellent position along a ridge bisecting the trail.   Deciding on a double envelopment maneuver, Puller ordered two-thirds of the company into a frontal assault, while he and a dozen guardias executed a flanking movement.  The bandits thwarted the attack by fleeing on their horses after firing a few rounds. Lieutenant Puller pursued the band, eventually forcing the bandits to abandon their mounts in order to make better time over difficult terrain.  Puller called off the chase at nightfall. A large quantity of equipment was found in the area of the rebel camp, including fifty-two animals, two rifles, and food rations.  Puller burned anything that could not be carried back to his base, returning there on 21 August.  For their gallantry under fire, Colonel McDougal recommended Puller and Lee for the Navy Cross.

Puller and Lee continued offensive operations into September.  A three-day patrol departed Jinotega on 28 August, and within nine-hours of their return, set out again for a nine-hour sortie.  Puller and Lee both led small patrols two nights later, which were likely security ambushes just outside the town.

On 5th September, Puller and Lee departed Jinotega with thirty-five men, and joined up with another twenty-three guardias from Corinto Finca.  Their initial destination was in the region of Mt. Guapinol.  In the absence of any sign of bandits, Puller ordered Lee and part of his men back to base.  Puller continued on with 35 guardias heading southeast toward Río Gusanero.

Puller and his men discovered a well-used path on 10 September and followed it.  The next morning, Puller sighted a rebel camp.  Since the terrain prohibited any off-track movement, Puller ordered an immediate assault.  Surprised rebels scattered, of course, but not before guardias mortally wounded three.  One rebel survived long enough to inform Puller that Sandino had been there a week before.  Puller’s patrol took possession of the normal assortment of weapons; documents confirmed the earlier presence of Sandino.  Due to shortage of rations, Puller decided to return to Jinotega.  Once resupplied, Puller and his company returned to the field for another 30 days.

A new central area commander arrived in mid-October; a seasoned veteran by the name of Julian C. Smith[1].  Smith had a few “new” ideas about the Nicaraguan campaign.  He instructed his subordinates, “Action promptly initiated and rapidly carried through will invariably produce better results under present conditions than plans requiring elaborate preparations and considerable time.”  Smith placed less emphasis on combat patrols, and greater importance on frequent police patrols of fewer men.  He wanted these patrols to safeguard the fincas and rural population.  By protecting the people from rebel depredations, he felt he could win the hearts and minds of the civilian population.  Under these circumstances, there was nowhere the rebels could hide.  Smith reduced Company M from 35 men to 25 and armed them with two BARs, three Thompsons, and six grenade launchers mounted on Springfield Rifles.  The standard rifle continued to be the Krag.

On 6 November, a force of 150 rebels attacked the ten-man garrison at Matiguás.  Held off throughout the night, the rebels abandoned their attack at next light when they ran out of ammunition.  Lieutenant Puller and Lee mustered twenty-one men to search for the rebels, but had no luck in discovering where they had gone.  They did find the trail of about 30 or so rebels who had been terrorizing the people of San Isabel, closing with them on 19 November.  A running gunfight ensued in which several of the rebels were wounded, but made good their escape[2].

On 20 November, Puller and his men reported in to Corinto Finca where they were resupplied with fresh pack animals and supplies.  They left on the same day with orders to check out the report of rebel concentrations commanded by El Patron near Mount Guapinol.  Heavy rain and muddy trails slowed Puller’s progress, but did not deter him.  On 25 November, Puller’s patrol encountered a bandit trail and decided to follow it.  The Guardia eventually sighted about ten rebels resting among some fallen trees.  The moment Puller’s men opened fire, the rebels took off running.  About 1,000 yards further on, Puller discovered a rebel camp consisting of four buildings with well-constructed log barriers in the front, and a hundred-foot cliff in the rear.  The forty or so rebels fought briefly before throwing their belongings (and their wounded) into the ravine, and then climbed down into it themselves using robes and ladders.  These were pulled down after them, preventing Puller and his men from following.  Eventually, one of the Guardia found another way into the gully, which the patrol immediately advanced.  At the bottom of the draw, Puller found two dead bandits and some supplies.  Captured documents also revealed that Puller’s patrol had killed a minor chief during an earlier engagement.  Puller returned to his base on 27 November.

In December, Colonel Smith congratulated Puller and his company for having displayed the qualities of courage, persistence, physical endurance, and patience.  At this small ceremony, Lewis B. Puller received his first Navy Cross medal and was granted a few weeks of R&R.

With Puller on leave, command of the company fell to Guardia Second Lieutenant (Gunnery Sergeant) Lee, who initiated aggressive patrolling on the 12th, 15th, and 19th of December.  Lee’s patrol resulted in four bandits KIA, but Company M had lost its first battle casualty: a private was killed at the engagement at Vencedora —the most severe fight Company M had experienced up to that time.

At Vencedora, Lee and his patrol aggressively attacked a bandit group numbering around two-hundred.  Lee expected the rebels to scatter, as they had always done before, but this time they decided to dance.  The rebel force was buoyed by two Lewis guns and four Thompsons, from which the fire was so intense that it forced Lee to break off their assault and take cover.  The fight lasted for thirty minutes, during which the rebels attempted to employ an envelopment of the Guardia Patrol.  After attacking Lee’s patrol, the rebels quickly retired.  After their second withdrawal, Lee began receiving fire from his flank.  Lee began to consider withdrawal himself in order to avoid being overwhelmed by this superior force.  In desperation, Lee rallied his men and led a new assault on the enemy’s forward position, which caused the rebels to flee the battle site.

At the end of 1930, the war in Nicaragua was beginning to take on a new and deadlier character.

(To be Continued)

Notes

[1] Smith served in the Marines from 1909 to 1946, retiring as a lieutenant general.  Serving for more than 37 years, Smith participated in the battles of Veracruz, occupation of Nicaragua, and in World War II commanded the Marines at Tarawa and Peleliu.

[2] In his book Chesty, Colonel Jon Hoffman explained the difficulty of operating in the jungles of Nicaragua.  At one point, Puller’s company was well-concealed at an ambush site along the trail.  Suddenly, the manager of a local finca walked up to where Puller was concealed and began to engage him in conversation about where Puller might find the rebels.  The man knew exactly where to find Puller, which educated Puller to the fact that the enemy was always well-informed about Guardia Nacional operations.  Captured letters from Sandino warned the elements of his army of pending Guardia operations, telling them when the operations would commence and what areas the rebel forces should avoid.  Apparently, local telegraph operators were one source of Sandino’s expanded intelligence network.

 

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.