American Spartans: The U. S. Marines: A Combat History from Iwo Jima to Iraq

Overview

From the islands of the Pacific to Korea to the Middle East, James A. Warren's riveting and authoritative battle history of the Marines reveals how "the few and the proud" have drawn on their timeless precepts across six decades while reinventing themselves in the face of political change to forever remain America's finest warriors.

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Overview

From the islands of the Pacific to Korea to the Middle East, James A. Warren's riveting and authoritative battle history of the Marines reveals how "the few and the proud" have drawn on their timeless precepts across six decades while reinventing themselves in the face of political change to forever remain America's finest warriors.

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Editorial Reviews

Nathaniel Fick
American Spartans is a welcome, readable and concise history of the Corps' past 60 years. Warren may miss some of the details, but he nails the Marine ethos, and that should be the real measure of his book.
— The Washington Post
Kirkus Reviews
A laudatory history of the Leathernecks, whose fortunes have taken them to every corner of the world. Marines, as military historian Warren (Cold War, 1996, etc.) shows, don't mind being known as men (and now women) who roam the planet breaking things and ending lives; it is dogma that there is "no better friend, no worse enemy" than a Marine. Or, as one of Warren's interviewees remarks in a fine definition of esprit de corps, "If you kill Marines, one thing is for sure: there will be other Marines coming along soon, and they will keep coming until they find you." After touring the ego-destroying machine that is basic training, Warren turns to the bloodiest moment in Corps history, the invasion of Iwo Jima, in which 25,000 were killed or wounded; it was this terrible fight, Warren suggests, that lent the Corps some of its self-image and certainly much of the public estimation that it has enjoyed since. The Korean War provided more opportunities to be bloodied and to bloody the enemy, a theme that would provide something of an official mantra in Vietnam the following decade; Warren quotes one Marine commander as saying, "We'll just go on bleeding them until Hanoi wakes up to the fact that they have bled their country to the point of national disaster for generations." It didn't quite work out that way, as it may not be working out that way in Iraq, where Warren's account ends. Along the way, from battle to battle, Warren considers changes in Corps doctrine and the evolution of strategy and tactics, all intended to reinforce Marine supremacy as a fighting force and its relative rarity as a service branch that has mastered the skills of every other branch to fight in just about any theateron the globe-and in no time flat. Good reading for the Semper Fi crowd, though civilians will likely prefer Rinker Buck's Shane Comes Home.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781416532972
  • Publisher: Pocket Books
  • Publication date: 10/30/2007
  • Format: Mass Market Paperback
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 496
  • Product dimensions: 6.78 (w) x 10.88 (h) x 1.06 (d)

Meet the Author

James Warren is a freelance writer specializing in modern American military history. He has written books on the Vietnam War and the cold war, and contributed the chapter on the Vietnam War to The Atlas of American Military History (1993). His reviews and articles have ap-peared in MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History, as well as in Society and The Providence (RI) Journal. He lives in New York City.

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Read an Excerpt

Introduction

Go tell the Spartans, thou that passest by,

That here, obedient to their laws, we lie.

Translation from the Greek of a tablet marking the grave of Spartan warriors in fifth-century BCE Greece

0640, February 19, 1945

The Bonin Islands, 660 miles south of Japan

The tranquil silence of a Pacific Ocean dawn is shattered by the percussion of the big guns of a huge American naval armada — battleships, cruisers, destroyers — joined by a host of landing craft that have been converted to rocket- and mortar-firing gunboats. Not long after the first shells punish the barren landscape of Iwo Jima, a Japanese island fortress of a mere eight square miles in the middle of the western Pacific Ocean, several squadrons of Marine and navy fighter-bombers join in the fray, dropping their high-explosive payloads on preidentified Japanese strongpoints.

At 0905, the first troop-bearing amphibious tractors — called amtracs by the U.S. Marines — make the pivotal transition from sea to shore along a three-hundred-yard front to the northeast of the island's most ominous terrain feature, 556-foot Mount Suribachi. The sun is bright, the sky an all but cloudless azure blue. The sea is calm.

The first waves of seventy thousand American assault troops debouch from the amtracs and secure a tenuous foothold along the shore. Lieutenant General Tadamichi Kuribayashi's well-disciplined Japanese garrison, a mixture of army and navy units, hold their fire according to plan, waiting patiently until the first waves of Marines are closely packed together on the shoreline — as many as two men per yard of beach, mostlying prostrate in the fine, black volcanic sand.

Kuribayashi later remarked to Imperial General Headquarters that "the violence of the enemy's bombardments is far beyond description." Initial Japanese resistance was very light. Only desultory fire greeted the invaders. The terrain gave the Americans more problems than the enemy that first hour, as men and tracked vehicles struggled to mount the three terraces above the beach. Feet sank in the soft volcanic ash up to calf level, but at least the infantry could move up and off the beach. Tracked vehicles of all sorts had grave difficulties moving at all in the soft ashen sand.

By 0930 hours six thousand troops were ashore. A brilliantly executed rolling barrage from naval guns hit Japanese positions about four hundred yards to the front of the rushing assault troops. Colonel Harry Liversedge's 28th Regiment landed at the southern end of the line on Green Beach, and pushed inland across the neck of the island with a view to severing its head, Mount Suribachi, from its body. The 27th Marines, under Colonel Thomas A. Wornham, were sorting themselves out on the beach, preparing to jump off for the south end of the airstrip. American senior officers were particularly nervous about the fate of the 25th Regiment, which faced the cliffs of the rock quarry: any number of Japanese weapons were housed there and could fire into the Marines from their right flank.

Just before 1000, as one American infantryman would later put it, came "curtain time in hell." The vast array of Japanese guns, placed on Suribachi and across the broken terrain of ridges, plateaus, and ravines to the front and north of the invasion beaches, opened fire: coastal guns, field artillery, mortars, machine guns, the odd sniper and rifleman. A wall of deadly steel fell upon the exposed American troops. Scores of American infantrymen died in the first minutes. As sergeants and officers urged their men forward off the beach toward the steep terraces ahead, the fury of the Japanese fire intensified, targeting both the men and their transports and supply ships.

Soon the shoreline was awash in wrecked and twisted steel, severed limbs, and shredded bodies. The surf was red with blood of the wounded and the dead.

The next hour was one of the most harrowing of the Pacific war — a conflict with a great many harrowing hours. Incoming fire was escalating fast. Reports from the regimental commanders ashore to Generals Holland M. Smith and Harry Schmidt aboard the flagship USS Eldorado were terse: "Catching all hell from the quarry. Heavy mortar and machine-gun fire. Troops inland two hundred yards but pinned down." From the center of the landing beaches came another: "Taking heavy casualties and can't move....Mortars killing us."

The thirty thousand Americans who stormed from the sea onto the volcanic ash of Iwo Jima's beaches that sunny morning of February 19, 1945, to do battle against twenty-one thousand highly trained, resolute Japanese soldiers were members of an extraordinary military fraternity of amphibious soldiers. These Marines, most of them not yet twenty-one years of age, were enduring the first hours of a struggle that would conclude, for the lucky ones — you had to be lucky to survive Iwo — thirty-six days later. Each hour would seem to last a day; each day, a week. For each of the men who survived, the battle would prove to be a searing, life-defining experience.

Memories of combat would remain with them until death: the perpetual crack of small arms, the whine of Japanese rifle rounds zipping to their right, their left, and overhead. The thump of the mortars, the spray of ash and debris when a satchel charge was tossed into a pillbox, and the thunderous, percussive blasts of artillery and naval gunfire. The tedium and drudgery, punctuated by moments of sheer terror, that attended the routine of taking out one enemy bunker, one tunnel, one enemy platoon after another. The lack of sleep. The emotional and physical burden of simply getting through another day amid the ever-increasing numbers of eviscerated, stinking corpses, both American and Japanese.

There were moments of horror and moments of inspiration — inexplicable acts of suffering, selflessness, stupidity, waste, and courage. And those who survived the horrors of Iwo would remember and mourn the men they had known as friends and brother Marines. A total of 6,318 Marines and sailors died to wrest the island, and the three airfields that were its only military asset, from the Japanese.

To have fought at Iwo Jima is to have taken part in the battle that cost more Marine lives than any other. Iwo figures in the American popular imagination as the defining battle of the Marine Corps, for it showcased in dramatic fashion all the qualities we think of when we utter the words "United States Marine." More than any of the Corps' many bloody engagements over two centuries of combat, it is Iwo that has cemented the bonds of affection and respect that Americans feel for the Marine Corps. The photo of five Marines and one navy corpsman raising the flag on Mount Suribachi — an image we have all seen hundreds of times — still moves us. It symbolizes not only the Marine Corps' values and resolve, but also Americans' collective strength, both moral and physical, and our willingness to sacrifice for noble causes.

Legend has it that America's Marines, modeled on a unit of British soldiers who kept order aboard ships of the Royal Navy, were first recruited at Tun Tavern in Philadelphia, on November 10, 1775, and fought in the Revolution. Officially, the organization did not come into continuous operation until July 11, 1798, when the U.S. Congress established a Corps of Marines, to be manned by some 350 officers and men, headed by a commandant, and meant to serve aboard the vessels of the newly formed U.S. Navy. Nonetheless, November 10 remains the birthday of the culture of the Corps.

The Marine Corps is a unique military organization. It has the distinction of being the only military service in the world designed to operate across the entire spectrum of military activity — from conventional, set-piece battles to guerrilla war to humanitarian relief missions to evacuation of civilians from war-torn foreign shores to peacekeeping. It undertakes these missions with tightly knit teams of varied strength and size on land, on sea, and in the air.

Since 1952, the Marine Corps has been charged by the U.S. Congress with the solemn responsibility of maintaining this country's "force in readiness," meaning, as Marines themselves often say, that the Corps is America's crisis response, our "911" military force. The deployed, operational forces of the Marines all over the world, known collectively as the Fleet Marine Force (FMF), must be ready to plan and execute its missions within as few as six hours. The scope of the Corps' operations is daunting: doctrine has it that the Marines must be prepared to deploy up to two hundred miles inland from the coast. Yet in Iraq and Afghanistan, they have successfully operated well over four hundred miles from the sea.

Most of the Corps' "first strike" missions are carried out by one of seven Marine expeditionary units (MEUs). With about twenty-two hundred Marines, it's the smallest of the Corps' independent air-ground task forces. At any given moment there are a minimum of two of these units afloat and on call, sailing aboard groups of ships (from three to seven vessels) especially designed and equipped to bring combat power to bear from sea to shore.

Because of their renowned performance in storming beaches during World War II on islands such as Guadalcanal, Tarawa, Okinawa, and, above all, Iwo Jima, the Marines are known as shock troops — meaning they are highly spirited and aggressive soldiers trained to storm enemy defenses along a stretch of shoreline, secure a beachhead, and clear the way for heavier, conventional forces to follow. Yet they are a great deal more than that, too. The Marines are highly flexible and adaptable soldiers — among the world's most versatile and spirited.

Not even the Corps critics, and there have been more than a few, quarrel with the notion that Marines tend to attract men (and increasingly, today, women) with a penchant for adventure and adversity, for testing their physical and moral courage. Marines pride themselves on adhering to a traditional code of values centered around duty, honor, and commitment to their fellow Marines.

Young Americans today join the Marine Corps for much the same reason they did sixty years ago. "If you want to fight," a classic Marine Corps recruiting poster has it, "join the Marines." Another poster of 1950s vintage describes with terse precision what the Corps offers that so many young American males find alluring. A painting of a stern Leatherneck sergeant in dress blues stares out at the viewer with martial bearing and abundant self-confidence. The tagline above his head: THE UNITED STATES MARINES. The tagline below: WE BUILD MEN. The Marines offer people a chance to test their mettle and become part of something larger than themselves, about which they can be proud.

In the course of researching this book, I spent a number of weeks in the field and in the classroom with Marines of all ranks, and interviewed more than 150 active-duty and former Leathernecks, both professional officers and those men, officer and enlisted alike, who served one or two hitches and then went back to civilian life. The Marines fit no stereotype. They are a varied lot. Yet Marine history and culture bind them together like a close family. And the history of the Corps from World War II to the present is inextricably bound up with the story of the U.S. exercise of power to shape world politics and events.

American Spartans is an interpretive history of the Marine Corps from the Corps' bloodiest battle, Iwo Jima, up through the fall of Baghdad in April 2003. The narrative begins with Iwo Jima for a number of reasons. Iwo was the supreme test of the mission that created the Marine Corps we know today — a force of 175,000 men and women who serve as America's crisis response team. The amphibious assault mission had its origins in the Spanish-American War at the turn of the twentieth century. With scant resources and no doctrine to speak of, a handful of Marines set out to master a kind of fighting most military strategists had consigned to the scrap pile. Fortune, in this case, favored the Marines, for it was the amphibious assault techniques and tactics they developed and taught that won World War II in Europe in the West, and in the Pacific war as a whole, in 1945. The Marines were the masters of amphibious conflict. They began work in earnest on amphibious warfare in classes at the Naval War College in Newport in 1901, and continued to perfect doctrine, tactics, and equipment through the battles of World War II, in Quantico, Virginia, and at other installations on the East Coast.

Leaving aside the battle as an event in military history, Iwo looms large in America's understanding of the identity of the Marine and his Corps. Indeed, Iwo lies at the center of how Marines define themselves. Attacking from the sea is what Marines do. And they do it to win. Marines never quit. Iwo Jima proved that. Individual units remained effective combat organizations despite taking more than 50 percent casualties in the field.

The rigorous demands on body and soul required by the amphibious assault in the age of the airplane and the machine gun were perhaps the driving force in creating the highly spirited, adaptable soldier required by a military organization whose main mission from 1945 until today has been that of armed intervention on foreign shores. Building on its experiences in World War II and its deployments as colonial infantry in the so-called banana wars, the Marines transformed themselves from an obscure navy police unit of fewer than 10,000 men into an independent military service of more than 170,000 people with its own air force.

Thus reinvented, the Marine Corps played an extraordinarily active role in American foreign policy, particularly in those places where anarchy, violence, and a great many guns were involved. By the close of the twentieth century, the Marine Corps had established itself as the most formidable and experienced expeditionary force in modern history.

The Marine Corps prides itself quite correctly on its worldliness and its adaptability. It has earned the right to be proud on both counts. An admiring public understands as a matter of course that Marines are tough fighters with a superb track record in battle. Less well appreciated is the Corps' capacity to anticipate changes in warfare and to innovate. The Marine Corps is an exceptionally imaginative institution. Its list of major military innovations includes close air support of infantry, the amphibious assault, and, of course, the helicopter assault, which debuted in the Korean War in the fall of 1951.

In addition to describing major Marine operations, changes in doctrine, and missions, this book will assess the Corps' contributions to the wars it has been called on to fight, the myriad operations — peacekeeping, humanitarian relief, evacuation of Americans and foreign nationals from a host of imploding nation-states — in which it has been involved, and its contributions to military art and science.

The narrative focuses on ground combat, and I've tried to give the reader a sense of what the ordinary infantry Marine endured in the field in each of the five wars discussed in the book.

American Spartans begins with an exploration of what makes the Corps tick — its unique and fascinating culture. The remainder of the chapters cover Marine participation either in individual wars or over discrete periods of history.

It should be said at the outset that I see the Marines' experience of the last sixty years largely as a success story, but a stormy and at times controversial one. This success rests on a number of pillars, including the Corps' remarkable facility to transmit its values and habits of mind effectively to more than thirty thousand new recruits a year. On the individual level, the transformation that recruits undergo at the recruit depots in Parris Island, South Carolina, and San Diego, and in the officer candidate schools in Quantico, Virginia, is both profound and, in the vast majority of cases, permanent. Few indeed are the former Marines who do not retain a strong emotional connection to the institution. Fewer still are those former Marines who do not value what they learned at the hands of their drill instructors and fellow Marines.

Marine culture is paradoxically deeply committed to both tradition and change. It demands adherence to a code, to a way of comporting oneself, and it places immense value, or so it seems to me, on the power of belief to effect results in the real world. Commitment to. a force or entity larger than themselves — for example, discipline, sacrifice, and individual courage, or the Marine Corps itself — is absolutely essential to the Marine way. The Corps teaches that focus on one's selfish needs and wants at the expense of those of the unit, or the Corps as a whole, will lead only to woe.

Marines also believe ardently in the power of history — that one's present must be guided by the past, and, indeed, that Marines must learn and revere the history of the Corps if the organization is to remain strong and vital. Remembering, commemorating, are highly developed arts in the Marine world.

Both of these notions — believing in something transcendent and believing in the value of history — are deeply imbedded in that mystical quality that Marines think of as what sets them apart: Marine esprit de corps. Just what is esprit? Few veteran Marines would quarrel with the definition put forward by Major General Fred Haynes, a veteran of Iwo Jima, where he helped plan the assault on Mount Suribachi, who went on to fight in the Korean and Vietnam wars. Haynes is a lanky eighty-four-year-old who grew up in Plano, Texas, and joined the Marines in 1941 after reading a classic book about World War I Marines in combat called Fix Bayonets! by John Thomason. He retired from the Marines in 1977, having the unusual distinction of commanding two divisions — the 2nd at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, and the 3rd on Okinawa. "Esprit," Haynes said,

it's a lot like love. It's impalpable. You cannot touch it. You cannot exactly get your mind around it, but you certainly know it when it's there. Marines trust one another. You have this animating spirit, this belief in the guy on your right and the guy on your left. They've all been through a similar kind of training, and it's tough training done by people who have been in some pretty tight spots. You understand that these guys [Marines in general] know their job, and they will cover you and you them. It's a belief, too, that you can't beat us because we're in it until the end, and we're in it together as Marines. You may knock a few of us off, but, if you do, watch out. If you kill Marines, one thing is for sure, there will be other Marines coming along soon, and they will keep coming until they find you.

Almost sixty years after Fred Haynes fought on Iwo Jima, another Marine major general named James Mattis sent a message to the entire 1st Division, a unit he commanded on the eve of its attack on Saddam Hussein's Iraq in March 2003. It expressed the same essential ideas. As it happens, General Haynes is a close friend of General Mattis. They are part of the same family — the Marine Corps family:

You are part of the world's most feared and trusted force. Engage your brain before you engage your weapon. Share your courage with each other as we enter the uncertain terrain north of the Line of Departure. Keep faith in your comrades on your left and right and Marine Air overhead. Fight with a happy heart and a strong spirit.

For the mission's sake, our country's sake, and the sake of the men who carried the Division's colors in past battles — who fought for life and never lost their nerve — carry out your mission and keep your honor clear. Demonstrate to the world there is "No Better Friend, No Worse Enemy" than a U.S. Marine.

This book, in the end, tells the story of a small group of men and women who have maintained this spirit from the time of Fred Haynes to that of James Mattis: the U.S. Marines.

Copyright © 2005 by James Warren

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Table of Contents

1 "The indefinable inner strength" : elements of Marine Corps culture 11
2 The supreme test : the battle of Iwo Jima 35
3 The final struggle : Okinawa and the legacies of the Pacific War 71
4 Transition and challenge, 1945 to 1950 97
5 The Korean War : from Pusan through the capture of Seoul 119
6 The Korean War : from the Chosin Reservoir to the Armistice, July 1953 147
7 Between two wars, 1953 to 1965 183
8 Tragedy in the making : the Marines in Vietnam, 1965 to 1967 207
9 From Tet to the fall of Saigon, 1968 to 1975 241
10 From abyss to resurrection, 1975 to 1991 277
11 The Gulf War to Somalia 299
12 Two wars in a new century : Afghanistan and the war in Iraq through the seizure of Baghdad 325
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