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Major General J. F. C. Fuller, a distinguished historian of World War II, was of the opinion that “in all probability amphibious operations were the most far-reaching tactical innovation of the War." They were more than far reaching. They were decisive. Most certainly they were not “innovations.” The Siege of Troy, the first battle of any sort in recorded history (1194–1184 b.c.), was a majestic example of the amphibious assault involving 1,000 ships and ten years of bitter warfare on the mainland of Asia Minor. Thereafter the Persians made frequent use of amphibious operations during their centuries of unrelenting effort to destroy the civilization of the Greeks.
In 55 b.c. Julius Caesar displayed a surprising grasp of the art of amphibious warfare in his conquest of Britain. He sent an advance man to examine beaches secretly along the British coast to determine their suitability for landing. During the landing itself Caesar used his warships to provide a rudimentary form of naval gunfire support, protecting the unarmed transports with great flights of arrows and projectiles, the latter hurled ashore by catapults mounted on the warships’ decks. However, he or his advance man made a mistake destined to be repeated by army generals worldwide over the ensuing centuries—he chose a gently shelving beach instead of one steep-to beach. As all Marines and sailors would have known, this caused his transports to ground at a considerable distance
From the beach itself, requiring the troops to struggle ashore, almost helpless under constant attack by Britons driving their chariots through the surf. Nevertheless, the valor of the 10th Legion eventually prevailed, the landing succeeded, and Britain became Roman.
An embarked landing force possesses unlimited mobility, dependable logistics, and, above all, the ability to achieve surprise in overwhelming strength. No one as yet has found a sure way to oppose this form of attack. In 490 b.c. Miltiades allowed the Persians to land unopposed on the beaches at Marathon before he destroyed them. A century later SunTzu wrote in his The Art of War, “When an advancing enemy crosses water do not meet him at the water’s edge. It is advantageous to allow half his force to cross and then strike.”
The argument has continued over the intervening centuries. In World War II the Japanese employed a water’s-edge defense at Tarawa but allowed our forces to land unopposed on Okinawa. The Japanese lost both these islands, although Tarawa was a close call. The Marines were employing the water’s-edge defense effectively at both Wake Island and Corregidor before they unwillingly surrendered by the express direction of higher authority.
At the instigation of Marine Corps Commandant John A. Lejeune during the period between the world wars, the Marine Corps made a major effort to develop the doctrine, techniques, and equipment required for the successful conduct of amphibious warfare and to design a method of defense against it. The reasons were twofold. First and foremost was the realization that the British reverse at Gallipoli, with its attendant heavy losses, was largely due to a series of avoidable mistakes arising from a total lack of expertise and doctrine covering the planning and execution of this most difficult of all military operations. Second was the realization that the Orange Plan against Japan would in all probability require the successive seizure of a series of islands extending across the Pacific from Hawaii to Japan, including Guam and the Philippines.
(For ease of conversational reference and informal communications, families of plans were designated by a color. Plans against Japan were named “orange.” However, each war plan developed over the years was assigned a separate number for use in formal communications. For example, the ALNAV [All Navy] message mentioned elsewhere in this book mandated execution of one of the series of orange plans in effect on 7 December 1941.)
The requirements of the Orange Plan were clearly envisioned in Marine Corps Operations Plan 712, Advanced Base Operations in Micronesia, of 1921. This remarkable document was the work of Lt. Col. Earl H. “Pete” Ellis, USMC, a skilled and experienced war planner. In it he predicted, with uncanny accuracy, the objectives we would need for a successful return to the Western Pacific and, in some cases, precisely the size of the force that would be required. He also forecast the overall nature of future oceanic combat, including the use of carrier aviation as a major weapon. Unfortunately, Ellis did not live to see the enactment of his plan. He died in 1923 under mysterious circumstances while on an intelligence mission in the Japanese-mandated Palau Islands. In a very real sense he was the first casualty of World War II.
The development of an amphibious doctrine was assigned to the Marifle Corps schools at Quantico, Virginia, where two small committees of experienced officers were established, one for landing operations and the other for advanced base defense. Their tentative doctrines were tested in fleet maneuvers in the Caribbean from 1922 to 1941 by the East Coast Expeditionary Force, except for those years when this force was engaged in Nicaragua and China.
I participated in several of these operations. In 1924 as a newly commissioned second lieutenant I commanded a rifle platoon assigned to the defense of Firewood Bay on Culebra Island and received my first letter of commendation for repulsing a landing by the 18th Company, 2d Battalion, 5th Marines. This experience roused my intense interest in defensive tactics, which continued throughout my thirty-six years’ service in the Corps. In 1937 I commanded a machine gun company in fleet maneuvers at Vieques, Puerto Rico, and the following year during the Puerto Rican maneuvers I served as brigade intelligence officer (B-2). Our maneuver “enemy” was the U.S. Army garrison of Puerto Rico, commanded by Gen. Walter C. Short, who was destined to command the U.S. Army Forces in Hawaii at the time of Pearl Harbor. We surprised him in Puerto Rico by landing at night and moving by covered approaches to seize our objective overlooking the city of Ponce.
Strangely enough, the development of amphibious operations never received the full backing and approval of all senior officers of the Corps. Its successful accomplishment was the work of a minority element directed by Maj. Gen. John H. Russell, sixteenth commandant of the Corps. A strong leader, he faced down opposition that in some cases bordered on outright insubordination. This professional schism remained a factor until after Pearl Harbor.
During these years I served as a Fleet Marine Force officer and also as an instructor in the Marine Corps schools. Forward-looking seniors such as Maj. Gen. Holland M. Smith and Col. Graves B. Erskine encouraged us to broaden our efforts and reach out for new solutions. I served as a member of the Landing Craft Continuation Board, composed of navy and Marine officers, which developed the Higgins boat, the first successful landing craft. Among other things, we conducted experiments using Polaroid-lensed cameras for aerial photography and stereocomparagraphic analysis to determine surf height and underwater contouring of landing beaches. If nothing else, these duties gave me the basics for appreciating the characteristics of beaches and their suitability for landing. I was to find this useful on more than one occasion.
By 1937 the Marine Corps had completed a formal manual for the conduct of landing operations. It was approved by the navy and issued as Fleet Training Publication 167, but its circulation was severely limited due to the lack of funds for publication.
Our greatest shortcoming was integrated training in connection with logistics. We lacked training because we had no logistics. Logistics cost money, and we had none. No one had ever seen twenty-five units of fire (ammunition) or sixty days’ rations or any other of the weighty allowances needed for combat—bulldozers, cargo trucks, tractors, and construction equipment. The lift capacity (transports and cargo ships) for peacetime maneuvers was less than 1,000 tons overall. (In 1935 the landing force was limited to 258 tons.)2 Realizing all this in 1941, Maj. Gen. Holland M. “Howling Mad” Smith required us to make up dummy cargo by filling empty ammunition cases with rocks and to bind log segments in bundles of three to simulate 75mm artillery ammunition “clover leaves.” But the lift capacity of available amphibious ships imposed a definite ceiling even for these expedients. No one had ever even seen a completely combat-loaded division until we landed in the Solomons on 7 August 1942.
In one category of amphibious warfare development the U.S. Navy had far outstripped the Marine Corps. The U.S. Navy Medical Corps, which also serves the Marine Corps, was responsible for the development of techniques and the procurement of medical equipment meeting the special requirements of a force engaged in landing operations on hostile shores.
Capt. Warwick T. Brown, Medical Corps, U.S. Navy, was for years the senior naval officer serving with the Fleet Marine Force. He heeded this aspect of his duties very seriously, taking sufficient time to think the problems through and then vigorous steps to solve them.
Brown began this activity as early as 1937, when he joined the 1st Marine Brigade of the Fleet Marine Force at Quantico. He stayed on the job with us for eight years. When we entered the war, the medical requirements of amphibious warfare stood close to fulfillment and from the outset met the needs of actual combat in a highly satisfactory manner. This was largely due to the foresight and energy of one man, Captain Brown.
2. Lt. Gen. H. M. Smith, The Development of Amphibious Tactics in the U.S. Navy (Washington, DC: History and Museums Division Headquarters, U.S. Marine Corps, 1992), p. 250.
The Marine Corps persevered in this development activity for over two decades. It received some support from the navy, but there was little or no interest on the part of the army. By the midthirties, the Corps, working substantially alone, had produced a remarkable body of doctrine and tactics for the successful conduct of amphibious warfare and had begun the active development of the necessary equipment, such as landing craft, tank lighters, and amphibious vehicles. With the fall of France in June 1940, it became obvious to all that amphibious warfare had suddenly become the key to victory in the war in the Atlantic as well as in the rapidly deteriorating situation in the Pacific. Even the British expressed a reawakened interest in what for years they had dismissed as “the wet stuff.”
Our own navy became very active, converting merchant vessels to attack transports and building landing craft in great numbers and in a wide variety of useful types. They also expanded and updated FTP 167, distributing it extensively throughout the fleet. I was engaged in this latter effort under the direction of Col. Arch Howard at Marine Corps schools. It was interesting and useful work that gave me a picture of the entire field. My major contribution was a slender chapter covering onshore patrols, based on my experience during recent ventures in this entirely new field while I was with the Fleet Marine Force. After the war and for the rest of my service I headed the Marine Corps panel, which, with the navy, twice rewrote the entire amphibious doctrine: the first time to incorporate wartime lessons and the second to encompass the employment of new weapons, particularly helicopters, to lessen the atomic threat.
The employment of high-speed helicopters as a replacement for the slow moving landing craft of World War II permitted deployment of the ships carrying the landing force over a large area, the dimensions of which were undreamed of in World War II. In 1944 at Iwo Jima a single Hiroshima-size bomb, well placed, would have destroyed both the ships of the attack force and the troops ashore. Today such a force, taking advantage of the helicopter’s speed, is able to disperse over an area so large as to render atomic attack indecisive. In addition, there is no congestion of troops and supplies at the beach line because troop units accompanied by their supplies are landed at dispersed locations well inland from the shoreline and in tactical formations rather than as a highly vulnerable mass at the landing beach.
The ability to originate and develop is not a normal attribute of a rigidly disciplined service like the Marine Corps, with its high regard for tradition and precedent, but we were guided and inspired during those formative years by the example and leadership of a remarkable group of men, among them Maj. Gen. Holland M. Smith, Brig. Gen. Charles D. Barrett, and Col. Graves B. Erskine. These men had one trait in common: the ability to elicit willing and enthusiastic participation so that ideas moved in both directions—up as well as down the chain of command.
This startling, almost revolutionary idea had originated in the very sensible mind of Gen. Ulysses S. Grant during the series of bloody struggles following the Battle of the Wilderness. His generals began complaining that the men were using their canteen cups to scrape out shallow depressions in the ground to shelter themselves from the murderous rifle fire of the entrenched Confederates. The generals were discussing ways and means of halting this obnoxious practice when Grant broke in, saying, in effect, “This army has fought and fought well for over three years. If the soldiers now find it necessary to do what you complain of, they must have a reason. We will incorporate what they are doing into our method of attack.”
Shovels were issued, and the foxhole—which has saved more lives than armor—was born.
This mind-set in our handful of leaders speeded development of what was needed in every category of the amphibious art. My old friend Sgt. William “Stinky” Davis, who could build anything, had an obsession for bridges, which he built in one form or another from Shanghai to Guantanamo Bay. Davis persuaded General Smith to let him build a self-propelled amphibian bridge using two LVTs (amphibian tractors). He constructed a supporting framework on each, loaded the hulls with the necessary additional parts—prefabricated for speedy installation—and we had the world’s first seagoing bridge. The LVTs swam ashore, crossed the beach, and moved inland to the desired point of erection. The LVTs were anchored in place and served as pontoons to support the floating bridge. All this was developed in an incredibly short time.
Other contraptions, less spectacular but equally useful, competed for attention. The amphibian tractor itself was, in a way, the product of the same outpouring of initiative. For years we had sought a way to land on beaches protected by continuous offshore coral reefs that would not permit passage of landing craft, a hydrographic condition chronic to most Central and South Pacific beaches. One annual school problem, the recapture of Guam, was a case in point. There were no coral-free landing beaches on Guam except a tiny cul-de-sac at a remote spot known as Talafofo Bay. The students howled in disgust. Something had to be done.
Donald Roebling of the famous engineering family had built a swamp buggy for rescue work in the Everglades. This became the amphibian tractor, or LVT, of World War II after an intensive period of development. It was reasonably seaworthy and relied for propulsion on its two tanklike treads rather than a propeller. The same traction system gave it good mobility on land and also afforded a considerable obstacle-crossing capability, including the all-important ability to cross coral reefs.
The appearance of this vehicle in the Pacific completely upset the Japanese calculations of the forces required for island defense. The coral no longer protected them, and they felt it necessary to increase greatly the forces assigned to carry out the task. This was a mistake, of course, because he who attempts to be strong everywhere will find himself weak everywhere. This expansion of Japanese forces imposed a terrific additional requirement for shipping, which in turn provided a multitude of highly vulnerable targets for our submarines. Just as the secret masses of German artillery in 1914 were heralded as the major strategic surprise of World War I, the LVT may have been the strategic surprise of the Oceanic War.
I served long enough to see the modern navy/Marine Corps doctrine employed by common consent, if not officially, by all the NATO countries and have lived long enough to see amphibious operations grow from the status of a neglected orphan to a naval capability of premier importance.
We Americans are a warlike people, but we are not militarists. Consequently, we have shown little peacetime interest in the art of war and have made few peacetime contributions thereto. The successful and continuing development of the amphibious art by Marines may well rank as the greatest exception to the rule. There is every indication that the form of operation in which we pioneered and excelled will remain one of our nation’s principal capabilities in preserving the peace and order of an uncertain world.