Putting the “Marine” in Marine Corps
It’s taken me months–I keep getting distracted by other books–but I’m finally almost done with Derek Leebaert’s deeply academic book To Dare and To Conquer, a book of ruminations on the influence of special operations in history’s wars. It’s a compelling book, if quite dense, and part of why it’s taken me so long to read it is that I keep stopping to look things up. I guess that’s the best kind of book, right?
I’ve gotten finally to World War II, and read this:
In their 140 years before World War I, the marines had never fought in such size, nor, as in that war, had their brigades been a segment of a large US Army division. Success jeopardized existence; what was their distinct purpose if they were performing US Army functions? Yet if there was now to be a war for the Pacific, if the navy had to break down modern hardened ground defenses, the corps had to be more than just the navy’s landing force, Caribbean policeman, or adjunct to the Army. Even the visionaries of that generation such as HG Wells, the patron-prophet of tankers, never got around to rethinking the role of marines. Had not Nelson said “never fight a fort” after he had lost his arm at Tenerife in 1797, when his landing force was smashed on the beach by the Spanish? Had not the bloody sinkhole of Gallipoli seemed to show that defending soldiers, given the backup of fortifications, could contain and wear away the highest-quality troops throw against them even when supported by a powerful fleet? But with the United States and Japan glarin at each other across the Pacific, and with China’s future apparently at stake, something had to be done.
Soon after the Armistice, while America was still embroiled in Siberia, a brilliant Lieutenant Colonel of Marines, Earl “Pete” Ellis, wrote an astonishing paper for his commandant, Major General John Lejeune, outlining most every move the United States would gear up to make in countering Japan twenty years later. It explained how heavily fortified islands might be stormed by landing craft and envisioned the likely new roles of aircraft carriers, submarines, and torpedo planes. All had to be preceded by trained demolition specialists using wirecutters and explosives to break up obsctacles on the beac–the most advanced of units, said he, which included “skilled water men and skilled jungle men.”
…With Lejeune’s backing, the forty-one-year-old Ellis booked out in May 1921 on an intelligence mission to discover the extent to which the Japanese were fortifying their Pacific Islands…In May 1923, Japanese representatives let it be known to Washington that, to their deepest sorrow, an American who was apparently a US Marine officer had–it could not be imagined how–been found dead a Palau in the forbidden Carolines…Among Marines, Ellis came to be regarded as a human sacrifice, a name and a face on the forty building up against Japan in the long, teeth-clenching years before December 1941.
Wow. Talk about prescience. I don’t know how well it works as an argument for retaining full-scale amphibious warfare capabilities, but it certainly speaks to the benefit of keeping the Marines their own, crazy service branch.