Saturday, November 04, 2006

Corps Novembers

November is an important month for Marines, and is particularly a month tied to memories for this Marine. The obvious reason for its importance to Marines is that we celebrate the establishment of our Corps on 10 November. On that date in 1775, nearly 9 months BEFORE the signing of the Declaration of Independence, a rebellious outlaw group of landed gentry, obstensibly acting in representation of the will of the people of the 13 British colonies in North America, and calling themselves the Continental Congress, resolved that two battalions of Marines be raised for service with an all but non-existent rebel fleet (a resolution for establishing a navy had only been passed less than 4 weeks previous). We Marines attach great celebratory import to the date 10 November, but few realize that the two battalions initially authorized by Congress were actually never raised.

You see, Congress had this great idea. They wanted to invade Canada. Mind you, we had just initiated open conflict with the greatest nation on the planet by skirmishing with its small occupation/constabulary force in America, and needed to be thinking about protecting the territorial integrity of the 13 Colonies against the sure to come full-scale British military operation to quell the rebellion. But, Congress wasn't thinking about border security (sound familiar?) and fancied themselves strategists of the first order. Part of their great invasion plan was an attack on the British naval base at Halifax, Nova Scotia. The two battalions of Marines the Continental Congress resolved to raise were to be the assault force of that naval raid. George Washington, in command of the Continental Army, objected to the diversion of resources, and the plan (along with the two battalions of Marines) never got past the drawing board.

But, an American navy of sorts was growing (converted merchant ships mostly) and the British naval model called for Marines on board to act as the captain's security force (18th Century sailors were an undisciplined lot), as sharpshooters during engagements at sea, and as a landing force for small-scale expeditions ashore. The American colonists were British after all, and they copied the Royal Navy right down to the printed regulations. There was an abundance of out-of-work able seamen in colonial seaports, and some of the more trustworthy were enlisted to serve as Marines. A tavern-keeper with scant martial or maritime experience was the first Marine officer commissioned by the Continental Congress. Samuel Nicholas was evidently prized for his recruiting skills and for the fact that he owned Tun Tavern in Philadelphia--a local watering hole frequented by the afore-mentioned idle able seamen. To this day, we Marines celebrate our birthday with a toast of rum-punch, supposedly the drink supplied by Nicholas to seal the deal on each enlistment. One has to wonder how many toasts were drunk BEFORE the afore-mentioned idle able seamen scrawled their X on the enlistment contract.

November is an important month for Marines for other reasons as well. On 10 November 1918, one hundred and forty-three years to the day after the Continental Congress had resolved to raise two battalions of Marines, two brigades (or the remnants thereof) of Marines prepared for the final assault of the First World War (that operation--the crossing of the Meuse River--occurred the night before the war ended with an armistice on 11 November 1918). That a United States Marine Corps even existed at that point is an amazing and twisted story of near-extinction, evolution of missions, and fighting spirit of Marine leaders who tenaciously fought to save their jobs. But, a Corps of Marines did exist when the US entered the War in France in 1917, and Marines quickly established a name for themselves (thanks in great part to Army censorship of their own exploits) at the bitter battles of Belleau Wood, Soisson, Chateau Thiery, and Mont Blanc. Not much of the two Marine brigades survived the war. What did survive was a reputation for battlefield ferocity, and perhaps more importantly, experience by senior Marine leaders in large scale military operations and staff planning.

The month of November has another Marine Corps red-letter date--20 November 1943. On that date at conclusion of the first year of our war with Japan, the Second Marine Division conducted the first full-scale test of amphibious assault doctrine developed by Marines during the interwar years. While amphibious landing operations had been conducted earlier in the war, most notably at Guadalcanal, the 20 November D-Day on Betio in the Southwest Pacific Tarawa Atoll, was the Corps' first truly opposed amphibious assault. It was a near disaster, plagued by poor intelligence regarding the tides and reefs surrounding the island, poor application of naval gunfire support, and horrible ship-to-shore communications. The Japanese commander of the island had boasted that his defenses were so formidable that it would take "a million men, a thousand years" to overcome. Five thousand Marines of the Second Marine Division took Tarawa in less than 4 days. The cost was horrific--1085 Americans gave their lives for that speck of coral--but the payoff was a treasure trove of lessons-learned that helped to perfect the conduct of amphibious operations and made possible successful Allied amphibious assault landings around the globe--across the Pacific to bring Japan to its knees and across the English Channel to force Hitler into his death bunker in Berlin.

From a force of 6 Divisions and a like number of Air Wings, the Marine Corps, following cessation of hostilities in 1945, dropped to less than a third of that size and was scattered in reserve when Kim Il Sung (the current North Korean Commie's daddy) sent his forces into South Korea in June of 1950. Scraped together quickly from mostly WWII veteran reservists, the understrength First Marine Division spearheaded MacArthur's bold 15 September 1950 Inchon landing that turned the flank of communist forces pinning the remnants of US and South Korean defenders holding the Pusan Perimeter at the southern tip of the peninsula. Two and a half months later, the First Marine Division had retaken Seoul, re-embarked on amphibious shipping and sailed around the peninsula to Wonson, and advanced to the North Korean border with China. In the bitter cold of one of the worst winters in a region known for bad winters (history is replete with battles fought in record-breaking winters, as if God is trying to cool off warring mankind's ardor), the First Marine Division was attacked, on 27 November 1950, by the ten divisions of the Chinese Peoples Liberation Army Ninth Army Group. Battling sub-zero cold and 100,000 Chinese, the Marines conducted a fighting withdrawal back to the coast and survived, barely, as a fighting force. But, leave it to Marines to celebrate even a terrible defeat such as this (forever immortalized as the Battle of the Chosin Reservoir) as one of the crowning achievements of our Corps.

November is a red-letter month for me as well. The first of November 2003 marked the official end of nearly three decades of uniformed service.
Post a Comment