Marines' Birthday

The Marines have taken on mythic dimensions, not just in America, but all over the world. Mao instructed his generals to allocate more than four divisions to defeat 2 Marine battalions, which pretty much sums up the awe…


Today is the Marines’ birthday. 232 years ago the Marine Corps was created in a bar, and we who celebrate them are called upon to drink (at least) a bottle of beer.

Here’s a fine essay about the “expeditionary” Marine tradition, written by a reader of this blog, David Barrow, and published in the Marine Gazette (which requires a paid subscription; Mr. Barrow was kind enough to send me a Word file). I hope you enjoy it.

I think it well captures what Thomas Smith calls “the magic of the marines,” something which the terrorists of al Qaeda and Hezbollah understand very well. “Perhaps impossible to define,” Smith wrote a year ago, “this magic may be expressed in the words of a frantic terrorist whose radio transmission was intercepted by U.S. forces during the assault on Fallujah in 2004: ‘We are fighting, but the Marines keep coming. We are shooting, but the Marines won’t stop’.”

All of which sometimes reminds me of Patton’s great line, in the opening speech of his movie, when he says “I really feel sorry for those poor Hun bastards.” From time to time, I feel the same way about our enemies in this war.

June 17, 2000


The trucks pulled into the perimeter of Hagaru-ri with shot-out windshields and windows, many with more bullet holes than Bonnie & Clyde’s car, hauling ALL of the wounded and most of the dead. The survivors of the rifle companies of the 5th and 7th Marines “fit for duty” (a very elastic term in Nov.-Dec. 1950, Korea) were more than occupied clearing and protecting the high ground around the only main supply route leading to safety. But the Chinese were good at slipping raiding parties down to the road, so the trucks and their precious cargo had to be protected by the walking and not-so-able-
to-walk wounded. The trucks were only for serious gut wounds and likely amputees. The rest of the wounded were told to fix bayonets, lock and load, and “stand by to repel boarders.” If they couldn’t walk, they “rode shotgun” on the fenders; steadying the wounded strapped across the engines with one hand while they fired carbines with the other.
All Marines are riflemen. The cooks, artillerymen, headquarters staff and rear echelon types were filling in the thinning ranks clearing the enemy from the hills, in cold dropping to twenty degrees below zero. The First Marine Division had been atritted to half-strength, as much by frostbite as from enemy fire. B Company, 1st Battalion, 7th Marines, for example, would end this campaign with 27 men out of 300. Yet the guardian angels of the trucks entered Hagaru-ri IN CADENCE, arms right-shouldered, grimy faces held high. In “attacking in another direction” the withdrawal from the Chosin Reservoir destroyed six Chinese Communist divisions, and the “Chosin Few” would live to see their actions listed with likes of Belleau Wood, Guadalcanal and Iwo Jima.
Though perhaps the most dramatic, the Chosin was only one of several Korean War actions, from the Pusan perimeter, through the Inchon landing and the Punchbowl to the cease fire line, that put on display the finest traditions of the United States Marine Corps.
On June 29, 1950 Commandant Clifton B. Cates volunteered a regiment for immediate deployment to Korea, before President Truman had even decided to commit ground troops there. A “heads up” was given the First Division at Camp Pendleton, the day before MacArthur requested the regiment from the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The First Marine Brigade set sail for Korea less than a week after it was formed. Its arrival was critical in stopping the North Korean advance outside Pusan. Joining the rest of the division it went ashore at Inchon on September 15, smashing its way through to liberate Seoul by the 29th. Despite the actions of the post World War II political economizers, the Marine Corps proved, as it would time and time again, that it was truly a force in readiness; able to rapidly respond to America’s defense needs in an increasingly complex and fluid world.
Marine units were unique in both appearance and structure. Camouflage covers on the helmets, dungaree shirts with the stenciled “USMC” on the pocket, and the distinctive leggings set the Marine apart from other infantry. Koreans on both sides soon learned a special respect for the elite “yellow legs.” The Marines operated under the simple principle that in the fog of war it is extremely difficult to directly command more than three men. The platoon leader commanded three squad leaders. Each squad leader commanded three fire team leaders, who in turn commanded three men. Army platoons were not broken down into fire teams. Another difference was firepower. Army platoons carried three Browning Automatic Rifles (BARs); one per squad. Since each Marine fire team was built around a BAR, each platoon had nine of them. This weapon could fire bursts of a devastating ball cartridge to a range of over two miles. The strength of the Chinese armies they opposed obviously lay in overwhelming manpower. Running into the range of several well-placed chattering BARs could quickly even the odds during a firefight. Each Marine had more live-fire time and training with his weapons than the average Army infantryman. And, of course, there was the ever present Marine tradition of exquisite marksmanship.
The Marine adopts fast to changing circumstances, and the extreme cold of the Korean winter taught harsh lessons. Air-tight footpacks collected sweat, which then froze, causing a nasty case of frostbite. “Wiggle toes” was an order heard more often than “tenshun!” Like Jesus at the Last Supper, caring platoon commanders paid close attention to their men’s bare feet, inspecting them each day for signs that could cost a toe or even a foot if left unattended.
The Chinese and the North Koreans often preferred the night assault; when the temperature was the lowest. Marines learned that hair tonic poured on gun bolts made good antifreeze. If the cold still jammed a machine gun, a Marine would slam it with his rifle butt. If that didn’t work, he urinated on it. The Navy Corpsman learned to put the vials of morphine in his mouth to keep them from freezing, and to thaw his hands in blood and intestines for a moment to keep his fingers working.
Some of the officers and NCO’s adjusted the firing mechanisms on their carbines to fire full auto, until M2 carbines were issued with this option built in. Many taped two magazines together; one up, one down, for rapid reloading. If he could swipe two banana magazines from some “dogface” (as usual for some unfathomable reason the Army got these first)he would have a quick sixty rounds at the ready.
Close coordination of various arms is another hallmark of Marine doctrine developed and exhibited in Korea. Corsair pilots were regularly rotated into ground units to serve as air strike coordinators, thus gaining a thorough understanding of the challenges faced by front line Marines, and the most effective methods of assisting them with close-in air support. Marine tanks, artillery and mortars were not kept in large massed batteries, and often were dispersed at company and battalion level. In one instance, as the Marines drove towards the Chosin, a Soviet made T34 tank occupied by North Koreans dug in to block the advance up the narrow road. Big mistake. Although it startled the point men, after a few moments (and some radio communication) the tank was almost simultaneously hit by a 75 mil. recoilless rifle, a 3-5 tube, and a rocket from a corsair. Responsibility for the smoldering, shattered hulk had to be shared.
The comparison between the 1st Marine Division’s advance up to and along the west side of the Chosin and the 8th Army’s advance up the east side highlights the advantages of the Marine concept of a relatively independent command. The army units were under constant pressure from MacArthur’s headquarters in Tokyo to pick up the pace in the race to the Yalu River. Maj. Gen. Oliver P. Smith, commanding the Marines, ignored such pressure. He took time to secure defensive positions along the high ground, establish supply caches, and even built a small airfield to bring in supplies and take out the wounded, if necessary. Marine commanders are not generally known for such an abundance of caution, simply because the delays required to procure them can often cost more than they are worth. In this case, however, Gen. Smith correctly surmised from the tactics of the enemy that he was deliberately being drawn in, to be followed by an attempted cut off. He was offered only token resistance and delaying actions, despite intelligence reports indicating the enemy’s capacity for strong defense and massive counterattack. The Chinese, whom MacArthur and his staff refused to believe even existed, were obviously biding their time. Smith couldn’t disobey orders, but he could damn well make sure to bring out as many Marines as he possibly could, while knowing full well what was coming. Army officers were not allowed the luxury of interpreting their orders in light of what they knew to be the case in the field. As a result, when the all-out Chinese assault came, the advance elements of the 8th Army were cut to pieces; their unit cohesion destroyed. The survivors that escaped across the frozen reservoir or who otherwise broke through to the south were “turned into Marines” and fed into the lines as replacements. Exhaustion and fever overtook Gen. Smith himself, until he was revived by the sounds he received five-by-five coming from the frozen Marines in the warming tent next to his: “From the Halls of Montezuma…”
In a larger historical perspective, there was much about the development of Marie doctrine in Korea that seems borrowed from Napoleon. Korea provided extremes of tropical heat and arctic cold; amphibious assault and mountain warfare. Flexibility and adaptability were crucial elements of Marine success. Napoleon was fond of saying “Je n’ai jamais eu un plan d’operations.” (I never had a plan of operations.) He also once said “I see only one thing, namely the enemy’s main body. I try to crush it, confident that secondary matters will then settle themselves.” Strong concurrence with this philosophy was behind much of the frustration Marines felt when Korea degenerated into static World War I type action in its latter stages. Unlike his contemporaries, Napoleon fused the maneuver, the march, the battle and the pursuit into one continuous process, and his most useful tool was the corps d’armee system. This small but self contained independent unit had its own infantry, cavalry, artillery and support, and could hold off a much larger force until other nearby corps could arrive. An enemy attacking one of these deceptively small units would, in a few hours, feel as though they had poked a hornet’s nest. The Chinese and the North Koreans learned the hard way that Marine units could suddenly appear in support of their brothers, often hitting the enemy’s flank or rear.
If the central Pacific offensive of World War II perfected Marine amphibious doctrine, then Korea secured the Corp’s political foundations. As a direct result of its shining performance, both in terms of response speed and combat effectiveness, on June 28, 1952 the Douglas-Mansfield Act was signed by President Truman into law. The Marine Corps was granted a standing strength of three divisions and three airwings, with a peacetime ceiling of 400,000. This size allowed the Corps to meet modern world contingencies, yet was still small enough to preserve its elite character. Furthermore, the Commandant would henceforth sit permanently on the Joint Chiefs of Staff, be allowed to vote on all matters concerning the Corps, and would enjoy co-equal status with the Chief of Naval Operations.
When the flag went up on Mt. Suribachi, Iwo Jima, in 1945 then Secretary of the Navy, James V. Forrestal had promised “..a Marine Corps for the next 500 years.” Korea not only preserved this legacy but enhanced it. The Korean War put the world on notice: The fences of freedom are guarded by junkyard devildogs, wearing tags that read “USMC”.



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