Established in 1986, the U.S. Special Operations Command was set up to bring the special operational disciplines of all branches of the military under a single, unified command to act on missions involving unconventional warfare, special reconnaissance, foreign internal defense, and direct action... The Marine Special Operations Command ("MARSOC") is the newest component of the military's shift toward a fully integrated Special Operations Command structure. At first, the Marines were strongly against any Marines serving under anyone other than another Marine. Then 9/11 happened. In the years following, Marine forces found themselves growing more agreeable to inter-branch operational command, finally forming the Marine Special Operations Command in 2006.
Always Faithful, Always Forward follows the journey of a class of Marine candidates from their recruitment, through assessment and selection, to their qualification as Marines Special Operators. Retired Navy Captain Dick Couch has been given unprecedented access to this new command and to the individual Marines of this exceptional special-operations unit, allowing him to chronicle the history and development of the Marine Special Operations Command and how they find, recruit, and train their special operators.
“An excellent...resource for those looking for insight into modern special operations warfare and training.”— Publishers Weekly
“A gripping insider’s account of Marine Special Operations Command.”—Nathaniel Fick, author of One Bullet Away
“I can’t imagine anyone doing a better job of telling the Marine Special Operations story.”—Larry Bond, author of Exit Plan
“By the end of the book, you’ll be grateful that these proud fighting Marines are on our side—and you’ll be thankful to Dick Couch, who takes you inside their world.”—Eric Greitens, Navy SEAL, New York Times bestselling author of The Heart and the Fist
A 1967 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, Dick Couch served with the Navy Underwater Demolition and SEAL Teams. He led one of the only successful POW rescue operations of the Vietnam War while a platoon leader with SEAL Team One in 1970. On release from active duty in 1972, he joined the Central Intelligence Agency, where he served as a Maritime Operations Officer. He is the New York Times bestselling author of numerous books and articles on military special operations, including Sua Sponte: The Forging of a Modern American Ranger. He also serves as a consultant and keynote speaker on issues of tactical ethics, moral battlefield conduct, and the future employment of American Special Operations Forces. Dick and his wife, Julia, live in Idaho.
Let me say at the outset of this work that I consider myself among the most fortunate of authors. Not only am I fortunate, but I am doubly blessed. As a young man from a small town in southern Indiana, I was afforded the opportunity to attend the United States Naval Academy. That was in the summer of 1963. As my parents drove me to the city and put me on the train that would take me from Indianapolis to Annapolis, I was filled with dreams of travel, ships, service, and adventure. My time aboard a Navy destroyer following my graduation from Annapolis and my subsequent service in Navy Underwater Demolition and SEAL teamsfollowing my time at sea made those dreams a reality and then some. Following my active service, I joined the Central Intelligence Agency, and it was just as exciting and rewarding. Collectively, those experiences were my first blessing. However, special operations and field intelligence work are the province of young men. Along about my mid-forties, when I knew my operational glass was well past half-empty, I began my career as a writer.
I began by writing novels. The first was SEAL Team One, where the reader and I followed a young man through Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL training and into combat in Vietnam. It very much paralleled the journey I had made some twenty years earlier, only this young fictional warrior was smarter, faster, and more daring. Yet he had the same anxieties, doubts, and fears as I did; he felt the same crushing responsibility that comes from leading men in combat. He also felt the same rush that comes with surviving mortal combat. I wrote SEAL Team One back when there was only one Navy SEAL writing books—me.
SEAL Team One did well, and is still in print through the Naval Institute Press. I followed this book with Pressure Point, Silent Descent,and Rising Wind—all novels about SEALs and terrorists in more contemporary settings. Each day I arose early, got myself a cup of coffee, and went to my word processor. Each morning I was able to hang out with my imaginary friends for a few hours and do some dashing and daring things. I created bad guys with evil in their hearts who plotted against our nation. To defeat these enemies, I developed SEALs and other special operators who stepped into the breach to counter those threats. Then the folks at Random House came to me and asked if I could write a book on Navy SEAL training—real SEALs and real training. Candidly, it’s not easy for a novelist to step back into the real world and write about real people.
Thomas Ricks of Fiasco and The Generals fame had just written a very successful book on Marine Corps basic training called Making the Corps. Random House wanted to know if I could do the same for SEAL training. So I went to the SEAL training compound in Coronado, California, and began my second journey through Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL training—this time with SEAL Class 228. It was a wonderful experience. Not only was I allowed to revisit an important and formative period in my own journey as a warrior, but I was privileged to meet and share that journey with the next generation of SEALs. Yet a nonfiction work is very different from the make-believe world of writing novels and developing imaginary characters. Following the very real young men through the difficult and demanding ordeal that is modern Navy SEAL training was hard work. A nonfiction book is a 110,000-word term paper. Yet the result, The Warrior Elite: The Forging of SEAL Class 228, was satisfying and rewarding beyond my wildest expectations. I’ll always be in the debt of Thomas Ricks for helping me to make the transition from novels to nonfiction.
The Warrior Elite, which has recently been updated and rereleased in a special edition, was followed by The Finishing School: Earning the Navy SEAL Trident and Downrange: Navy SEALs in the War on Terrorism. Then it was back to basic special operations training withChosen Soldier: The Making of a Special Forces Warrior—Army Green Beret training. Following that came Sua Sponte: The Forging of a Modern American Ranger, which followed the training of young warriors for duty in the 75th Ranger Regiment. For each of these works, I was allowed to follow some of the finest young men in America as they prepared for war and went into battle in the defense of our nation. I had the high honor to share a part of their journey and to tell their story. This was my second blessing. Perhaps now you can see why I consider myself so fortunate. My time as a special operations warrior is long since over, but I’m now permitted to accompany those preparing for the current fight.
This brings us to Always Faithful, Always Forward, the Marine Special Operations Command, and my final work on the training and qualification of American special operations ground-combat warriors. The Marines only recently joined the Special Operations family with the commissioning of the U.S. Marine Corps Forces, Special Operations Command, or MARSOC, in early 2006. In joining this brotherhood at this late date, they were able to learn a great deal from their SEAL, Special Forces, and Ranger brothers. They also had the challenge of standing up their force and immediately deploying that force during time of war. The first MARSOC deployment was a combat deployment. How they did this so quickly and entered the current fight with such professionalism is the story of Always Faithful, Always Forward. Once more I am honored to be able to tell the story of the newest of these superb young special warriors.
The business of special operations is different and distinct from that of conventional or general purpose military forces. It differs both in the specific mission sets and the scale of military operations. With respect to ground combat, there is some overlap on the periphery of what special operations forces (SOF) and general purpose forces are asked to do, most notably in the increasingly important areas of counterterrorism and counterinsurgency, and the disciplines that relate to these activities. That said, the job of our conventional land army is to defeat enemy armies—to defeat them and to take and hold ground. When general purpose forces try to assume the mission of SOF on their own, they are usually ineffective. When special operations units try to do the conventional, they are almost always overmatched. Yet special operations teams can often be very effective working in concert with general purpose forces—in what we call the “seams of the battlespace.” With some notable exceptions, special operations forces are often highly dependent on conventional units for security and support. With this in mind, let’s take a look at the special operations mission set and the special operations units tasked with those missions. Briefly and broadly, those missions are unconventional warfare, special reconnaissance, direct action, and foreign internal defense. Each of our SOF ground-combat components has priorities within these special tasks, to include variations and expansions on this basic mission set. The Marine Special Operations Command has certainly done this within their tasking and training, but these are the basics.
Unconventional warfare, or UW, is a somewhat ambiguous term for wresting control of a village, a province, or a nation from an unfriendly government—or an unfriendly nongovernment actor—currently in power. This can be done conventionally with armor and infantry or unconventionally by organizing and encouraging popular opposition to the established order. When we do this “by, with, and through” the efforts of a local, internal opposition, these indigenous forces are often called freedom fighters. Regime change in this fashion is a great deal cheaper than the process of invasion and quite often seen as more legitimate.
Immediately following the attacks of 9/11, it was quickly determined that Osama bin-Laden and his al-Qaeda organization were responsible. It was soon learned that bin Laden and al-Qaeda were being sheltered by the Taliban in Afghanistan—a nation characterized by its mosaic of tribal entities and its historic resistance to outside intervention. Those same tribes had fought the invading Russian army for more than ten years and, with our covert help, defeated them. Now it was our turn to be the invaders. As America debated just how to respond to the attacks of al-Qaeda, there was a great awareness of the difficulties of sending a conventional army into Afghanistan—difficulties we may not have fully appreciated later in our Afghan venture. Memories of the tenacious Afghan mountain fighters and Russian casualties were still fresh in 2001. So we sent no large conventional army; we took an unconventional, irregular approach.
Army Special Forces, the Green Berets, along with CIA paramilitary specialists and a generous dose of American airpower, mobilized an alliance of northern tribes and swept the Taliban from power, although without completely vanquishing them from the nation. This instance of enlisting, arming, and leading local tribes to bring about the expulsion of the Taliban proved to be a classic unconventional warfare operation. This UW effort accomplished in just a few months what the Russian army could not do in a decade, and at a fraction of the cost in both lives and treasury. My vision of that campaign will always be of an Army Special Forces sergeant standing on a hilltop with a Northern Alliance tribal leader at his side, looking down onto a valley held by the Taliban. The sergeant and his tribal counterpart look a great deal alike—both have full beards and both wear native pakol hats and are wrapped in keffiyeh scarves. Both are filthy from weeks in the mountains. The Green Beret sergeant is on his radio, directing American fighter-bombers as they deliver precision air strikes onto the Taliban positions below. The tribal leader seems always to be at the sergeant’s elbow. After a thorough pounding of the Taliban lines, the Northern Alliance tribal fighters move down to mop up the battered and demoralized enemy fighters.
Special reconnaissance, or SR, is the mission to put “eyes on” an enemy position for a future special-operations or conventional targeting. Sometimes an SR mission is a clandestine operation prior to the commitment of a larger force. Navy SEALs conducted a multiday special reconnaissance prior to the Marine occupation of the forward operating base known as Camp Rhino in Afghanistan, a base near Kandahar that preceded the conventional-force occupation of that nation and the capture of Kabul. Sometimes, a special reconnaissance mission is launched for reasons of discrimination. American precision airpower has the ability to isolate, target, and completely destroy almost any given structure on the ground. In both Iraq and Afghanistan, SR teams have been used to observe a target building to ensure that target individuals are inside at the time of the attack and that noncombatants are not. I’ve spoken with special operators who have spent days in hide sites, under harsh, cold, and miserable conditions, watching remote buildings to confirm that the target individual was there and/or to ensure that women and children were not. With what we’ve now come to call the Global War on Terror often becoming an insurgent/counterinsurgent conflict, issues of proportionality, restraint, and discrimination are becoming increasingly important. Special reconnaissance may also extend to casual observation in an urban area to assess matters that relate to cultural or political intelligence in an area of interest.
While special reconnaissance is still a core SOF mission, its methodology has changed with recent advances in manned and unmanned airborne ISR (intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance) platforms and enhanced satellite imagery. Yet ISR platforms have their limitations, especially in politically sensitive environments. Then only the careful observations of someone on the ground can obtain the needed information. In addition, the role of special reconnaissance is changing to more fully address the increasingly important interface between intelligence collection, targeting, and direct-action operations. In its current application, special reconnaissance has as much to do with intelligence collection as with reconnaissance.
Direct action is what most Americans think of in relation to a special operations mission—daring squads of heavily armed men parachuting at night into a remote area to attack an enemy compound, or silent warriors moving room to room with night-vision goggles as they clear a building in order to capture or kill an enemy commander. It’s certainly the stuff favored by the media in their coverage of war. If the Army Special Forces mission to mobilize the northern Afghan tribes that swept the Taliban from power embodies the UW mission, then the Navy SEAL raid into Abbottabad, Pakistan, that resulted in the death of Osama bin Laden is the prototype of a direct action, or DA, mission. All of our special operations ground-combat components have the capability to conduct DA missions. It’s a SOF mission staple and an extension of basic infantry tactics. The bin Laden raid was one of eleven DA missions carried out that night. At the height of the Iraqi and Afghan campaigns, our SOF units carried out between three and four thousand of those missions each year, with the majority of the raids being conducted by our SOF light-infantry component, the 75th Ranger Regiment. Direct-action missions are certainly the most dramatic and media-genic of the SOF operational taskings and, candidly, a favorite of our SOF ground combatants. It’s certainly on the minds of our insurgent enemies. Anytime, anywhere, they may be visited by a lethal contingent of American special operators.
Yet in my opinion, the most difficult, nuanced, and important of the special-operations mission set is foreign internal defense, or FID. Unlike direct action, FID emphasizes the indirect. As it was in Iraq and Afghanistan, the final assessment of whether we ultimately win or lose in these irregular-warfare, often insurgent-contested conflicts lies with our success in the conduct of foreign internal defense.
Foreign internal defense, often called stability operations or village stability programs, frequently seems to pass under the media radar and is overlooked in a conflict. Yet it has been the primary focus of the majority of our deployed SOF personnel over the last two decades. Why is FID so important? Quite simply, it’s our ticket out of a conflict. If we can successfully groom and train local, host-nation forces to achieve security and stability, then our forces can come home. These efforts in FID helped to bring some measure of stability to Iraq, where at least some of our national objectives were met. Our efforts in Afghanistan and the relentless pressure of the Taliban in their “UW campaign” may have been too little and too late.
When our SOF teams are deployed in a FID role with support of an elected government, as they have been in Colombia, the southern Philippines, and southern Thailand, they can be very effective. They can help local military forces and militias contain an insurgent movement before it reaches a national-level threat. In areas like Africa, where a national government may be weak and resource-challenged, a FID campaign can help even meager local forces to resist insurgent and criminal organizations who oppose a legitimate government and, perhaps, blunt an insurgent movement before it can gain a foothold in that nation. Quite often an effective FID campaign must be waged quietly and for an extended period of time. Following the successful unconventional warfare effort in Afghanistan in 2002, what if we had immediately, properly resourced and prosecuted a FID effort there? Might we have avoided the costs in terms of blood and treasury that ultimately led to the buildup a decade later?
In writing Chosen Soldier, I stated that the Special Forces soldier was the most important soldier on the current battlefield. My brother SEALs didn’t care for that characterization, but I meant it then and I stand by it today. As we will later discuss, just one of the Core Activities of the Marine Special Operations Command is foreign internal defense. Recognizing its importance, the Command has made this core SOF skill an integral part of the training of a Marine special operator. The importance of FID and how MARSOC addresses this SOF skill will be addressed later in this work. As a key component of our nation’s irregular warfare capability—one that includes counterinsurgency and counterterrorism—FID will, in my opinion, continue to dominate our special operations posture around the world. That the Marine Special Operations Command has undertaken in their training a robust approach to foreign internal defense is both responsible and advisable.
As our special operations forces regroup and recalibrate from the extended operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, we are going to hear a great deal about the shifting from the direct (DA) to the indirect (FID). As SOF is called upon to work with fledgling democracies and emerging nations to counter undermining threats of al-Qaeda, criminal elements, and drug-related activity, we are going to hear much about efforts to work with host-nation forces and build partnership capacity. This all has to do with foreign internal defense—less about going out and killing bad guys, which we are very good at, and more about empowering local forces to attend to their own security.
With this brief overview of the SOF mission set, let’s take a quick inventory of the warriors of the U.S. Special Operations Command and their specific mission tasks. With due respect to the many other combat and combat support components of the Command, there are four major SOCOM ground combat components that I’ll briefly address here: the Navy SEAL teams, the Army Special Forces groups, the Army 75th Ranger Regiment, and the Marine Special Operations Regiment. There are in fact other Army and Navy ground combatant units at SOCOM that are often referred to as “special mission units.” They are special in that they have very narrow, direct-action mission responsibilities, and to be sure, they are highly proficient in that area. These units, their composition, and their specific mission sets are classified and beyond the scope of this work. With that understanding, let’s first look at our Navy SEALs.
The Navy SEAL (sea-air-land) teams are the direct descendants of the Navy frogmen of Word War II. At the direction of President John F. Kennedy that all services develop an unconventional warfare capability, SEAL Teams One and Two were commissioned in January of 1962. Currently there are nine active SEAL teams and one SEAL delivery team, with some 2,400 active Navy SEALs, in the SOF force mix. They are well supported by the Navy special boat teams and a professional cadre of special warfare combatant craft crewmen—all special operators. By comparison, there are just over twice as many active-duty Navy SEALs as there are Marine special operators in uniform.
As a maritime proponent of SOCOM, the SEALs train for a host of maritime and littoral missions. Because of their focus in, under, and across the water, the SEALs have the most diverse mission set as it relates to maritime special operations. They are considered generalists across the entire SOF spectrum—direct action, special reconnaissance, unconventional warfare, and foreign internal defense. They have to do it all, and because of their maritime/diving requirements, the SEAL training pipeline is one of the longest of the special operations ground combatants’. Depending on medical and language training, it can take two and a half to three years to a make a deployable, combat-ready U.S. Navy SEAL out of a U.S. Navy sailor. Currently, just getting into SEAL training is a highly competitive business, and the attrition rate is close to 80 percent—only one in five who begin this lengthy training will deploy in harm’s way with a Navy SEAL platoon. And while a great deal of media coverage has focused on direct-action missions, much of SEAL work overseas is in foreign internal defense.
The Army Special Forces, or Green Berets, are organized into five active and two reserve Special Forces groups. Each group consists of four operational battalions and a support battalion. Each SF group has an area or regional specialization, with culture and language training tailored to that area. Special Forces routinely deploy in fourteen-man Operational Detachment-Alpha or A-teams. They too are capable of all SOF disciplines and missions, but they are first and foremost teachers of military skills. A-teams currently deploy worldwide in support of the Global War on Terror. Army Special Forces are the SOF specialists when it comes to foreign internal defense and unconventional warfare. With few exceptions, they continue to be deployed to train military, paramilitary, and police units in nations threatened by insurgents; they are specialists in the indirect. Given the critical nature of these FID-related programs in recent conflicts, the Special Forces make extensive use of their two reserve groups. There are some 6,500 active Special Forces soldiers in uniform. It takes from eighteen months to two years to make a Special Forces soldier, and a great deal of that training involves cross-cultural disciplines. I was privileged to spend a year with these fine soldiers, during their training at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, and was with them on operational deployment in Iraq. Our chances for a favorable outcome in insurgent environments depends on the work of these soldiers. They currently field the largest FID-capable SOF ground-combat component. Operationally, they are close to six times the size of the Marine Special Operations Regiment. In further comparison, the Marine Special Operations Regiment is roughly the size of one Army Special Forces group.
The 75th Ranger Regiment and their four battalions of Rangers provide the Special Operations Command and our nation with a unique capability—a superb airborne light infantry. These Rangers do not routinely engage in unconventional warfare, special reconnaissance, or foreign internal defense. They are pure raiders and virtually all their operational taskings since 9/11 have been direct-action missions in Iraq and Afghanistan. There are 75th Regimental Rangers returning to the fight on their fifteenth consecutive combat deployment. While their work in the current conflicts has been primarily small-unit, intelligence-driven DA missions, the 75th is the only SOF component that can conduct company, battalion, and regimental-sized operations. Should our nation need to mount an airborne assault to seize an airfield in Africa or a nuclear weapons facility in Iran, we’ll send our Ranger Regiment. Unlike the SEALs’, Special Forces’, and Marine special operators’, the basic Ranger training regime for the 75th is very short—only eight weeks. While the training period is short and the mission set comparatively simple, their attention to detail and dedication to their Ranger standard make them a highly disciplined direct-action strike force. My year with the 75th Ranger Regiment taught me a great deal about performing to standard and the warrior ethic of this fine regiment.
This brings us to the Marine Corps Forces, Special Operations Command (MARSOC) and the Marine Special Operations Regiment, which, while still the smallest of our SOF ground combat components, is comparable in size with the 75th Ranger Regiment. It takes between ten months and a year to make a Marine special operator out of a U.S. Marine—longer with language training. This brings us to the tip of this SOF spear and this book. Just who are these Marine special operators? What do they do? What is their SOF mission set and how did they derive that mission set? And why did it take so long for them to join the SOF family? In very short order, they have become a value-added force in the U.S. Special Operations Command force mix. How were they able to accomplish this so quickly? Always Faithful, Always Forward is the story of this very special and talented Marine SOF component—MARSOC. As will be repeated throughout this text, they are indeed special or, if you will, specialists, within a larger organization that itself is unique and quite special.
The term “special” has been a source of some debate and controversy within our military, as with other militaries around the world. For every unit that is special, or considers itself so, there is a parent command or brother unit that, by comparison or implication, is not so special. These special units have, by tradition, composition, and mission, been smaller, better trained, better equipped, and more selective in their recruiting than their larger parent-force counterparts. Until recently, they had been used in a supporting or diversionary role—assisting, complementing, or augmenting main-force activities, but never in themselves being a deciding factor. And quite often, these special units found themselves used poorly or underemployed by senior commanders. Senior conventional field commanders deal in regiments and brigades, and they are charged with winning battles, campaigns, and wars. The special units almost always came to the battlespace in company- and platoon-sized increments—seldom reaching the size of a battalion. These specialists might punch well above their weight, but in battle they were unlikely to change the course of the outcome. This was largely true until 9/11.
After 9/11, with the exception of the marginally organized resistance of the Taliban in 2002 and the porous defense offered by Saddam’s army in 2003, the enemy had no regiments, brigades, or even battalions. Even when our al-Qaeda, Taliban, or Islamist enemies fielded company-sized opposition, they fared poorly against United States or coalition conventional forces. So our enemies, by necessity, developed robust insurgent capabilities and now use terror, intimidation, and religious fanaticism to oppose our interests. In essence, they are indirect-warfare specialists. They have become adept at controlling local populations—masters of the ancient art of guerilla warfare. In the post-9/11 world, winning the people, by whatever means, is more important than winning battles in the field. Vietnam should have taught us that, but our main-force efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan have reminded us of it again.
I recall the old story of the North Vietnamese Army colonel and the American Army colonel who found themselves in a discussion during the Paris peace talks that brought closure to that conflict.
“You know, don’t you,” the American colonel is to have said, “that not once did you ever beat us in the field.”
The Vietnamese colonel, after a moment’s reflection, replied. “That is quite true, we never did. But that was also unimportant in the outcome of this war.”
Indirect and insurgent warfare, and the ruthless use of terror to control local populations, are and will be the rule, not the exception, in this century’s conflicts. How we respond to these tactics will determine our success or failure on this irregular battlefield. The operational arm of MARSOC, the Marine Special Operations Regiment, is a versatile force, capable of the full range of military special operations. Their training and capabilities include the difficult and demanding discipline we now refer to as indirect warfare, which includes unconventional warfare and foreign internal defense—and, by extension, counterinsurgency operations and counterterrorism. How these Marine special operators train for this and how they bring the expeditionary heritage of their Corps to the business of special operations is the stuff of Always Faithful, Always Forward. Before we get to the formative days of the Marine Special Operations Command and the Marines they recruit for their regiment, let’s take a brief look at the history of the Marine Corps, and the Marine Special Operations history specifically.
Come on, you sons of bitches, do you want to live forever?
GUNNERY SERGEANT DAN DALY THE BATTLE OF BELLEAU WOOD, 1918
A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE CORPS
On February 24, 2006, the U.S. Marine Corps Forces, Marine Special Operations Command, was formally activated at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. Prior to this official status, the new special operations component began modestly with a small staff that had been known as the Marine Special Operations Advisory Group. Since its inception, MARSOC, as it is now commonly known, has grown into its present configuration as a three-battalion-plus, regimental-sized force capable of a broad range of expeditionary military special operations. In order to better understand the nature of this newest member of the special-operations force mix, let’s take a look at the forces that shaped MARSOC. To do this, we need to look at the history of the Marine Corps, the history of Marine special operations, and the history of the U.S. Special Operations Command.
There have been numerous histories written about the United States Marine Corps well worth the time of any serious military reader. If I had to choose just one, it would be The United States Marines: A History, by Brigadier General Edwin Howard Simmons, Ret., Fourth Edition. However, for the purposes of this book, and as a background for our study of MARSOC, I’m going to sprint through the history of the Corps. As you will later see, the history of formal Marine special operations dates only back to the Second World War. Yet the history of the Marine Corps itself goes back to colonial times. And since Marine special operators are first Marines, or Marines first, it’s their history as well. The Marine special operators may have been operationally taken out of the Corps, but you cannot take the Corps out of the Marine special operators. They are simply Marines tasked with a special-operations mission.
Our early American military services patterned themselves after European models, and the Marine Corps was no different in this regard. During the latter half of the 1600s, European navies began to train seamen as infantrymen, albeit for naval infantry duty. But it was the British who first saw the need for a professional, onboard, at-sea fighting force. In 1664, the British Navy formed the Duke of York and Albany’s Maritime Regiment of Foot. These first marines were recruited from the British Army and trained for shipboard duty. Companies of these naval infantrymen were stationed aboard warships and engaged in ship-to-ship encounters, expeditionary actions, security details, and discipline. Over the course of the next hundred years, regiments of these naval infantry were formed when a crisis arose and disbanded during times of peace. During the Napoleonic period, there were as many as ten regiments serving in units of the fleet. It was the beginning of what was to become the Royal Marines.
The first American Marines served in the British Navy. In 1739 a single, small regiment of Americans were recruited to serve as colonial marines under the command of Admiral Edward Vernon. These colonials served in Vernon’s squadron during operations against the Spanish in the Caribbean and Central America and were severely decimated by bad weather, disease, and amphibious actions against the Spanish. They were disbanded three years later, and only about one in ten survived and returned to the colonies. One of those was a Captain Lawrence Washington, a younger half brother of George Washington. Both Washington brothers held Admiral Vernon in high esteem, with the senior Washington naming his home, Mount Vernon, after the British general.
The British continued to employ contingents of marines aboard their warships, and some five thousand were in uniform at the beginning of the American Revolution. By then their role as naval infantry had become more defined. In addition to raids ashore, they served as sharpshooters during ship-to-ship actions where they focused on the enemy officers. Marines led boarding parties, repelled boarders with bayonets, augmented gun crews, and enforced shipboard discipline. As these duties became more specific, the marines aboard men-of-war became more segregated from the sailors.
With the engagements at Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775, the American Revolution became an open conflict. The colonies had no navy to speak of and relied on the few ships of the colonial navies and privateers to oppose the overwhelming superiority of the British Navy. As the conflict grew, contingents of the new Continental Army were sometimes pressed into service for shipboard duty. A single maritime regiment from the Massachusetts militia, the 14th Continental Regiment, composed mostly of men with maritime experience, became America’s first naval infantry. During that first chaotic summer and into the early fall of 1775, George Washington, the newly appointed commander of the Continental Army, made do with a small fleet of colonial ships and the men of the 14th from Massachusetts. It was not until October of 1775 that the Continental Navy was formed and then in name only.
On November 10, 1775, the Second Continental Congress authorized, and funded, the formation of a national corps of marines and laid the framework for what was to become the modern Marine Corps. These American Marines were organized much like their British forebears and were assigned like duties. The new Corps was to be a two-battalion unit and under the command of Captain Samuel Nicholas—regarded by many as the first commandant of the Marine Corps. The Nicholas family were tavern keepers, and Marine lore has it that the first Marine recruiting station was just outside Tun Tavern in Philadelphia. Officers were small businessmen and merchants, selected for their ties to the local community, and enlistees were drawn from tradesmen and unskilled workers. Again, the legend maintains that the new Corps drew its first Marines from the taverns in and around Philadelphia.
In 1776, elements of the new Continental Marines began serving aboard ships of the Continental Navy. In March of that year, they conducted their first amphibious operation during the Battle of Nassau, seizing large stocks of cannon, powder, and shot. A great deal of what Washington wanted from his nascent Navy and Marine Corps was captured provisions for his under-equipped army. Expeditions into Canada and the Caribbean were largely designed to capture stores and draw units of the British fleet away from their blockade of the colonial coastline. Of historical note, the first Continental Marine killed in action was Lieutenant John Fitzpatrick. He died during an at-sea engagement following the action in Nassau. Also of historical significance, in April of 1776, John Martin enlisted in Philadelphia to become the first African-American Marine.
Following the signing of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, now Major Samuel Nicholas worked diligently to recruit and train a company of Marines for each of the new Continental Navy frigates that were becoming the backbone of the new Continental Navy and the only open-water challenge to the British fleet. It was not until September of 1776 that the Continental Marines adopted a standard uniform. The color was green, said to be the color of riflemen or, in this case, men with muskets, and their blouses featured a leather collar to protect the wearer from enemy cutlass slashes—thus the nickname “leathernecks.” In October of that year, Sergeants William Hamilton and Alexander Neilson were promoted to lieutenant to become the first Marine “mustangs,” men advanced from the enlisted ranks to become officers.
Throughout the War of Independence, the Continental Marines continued to serve aboard ships of the Continental Navy, fighting in ship-to-ship engagements and shore raids. They were often pressed into service to fight alongside units of the Continental Army. At the end of the revolution, in 1783, there were some 130 Marine officers and 2,000 enlisted Marines. Both the Continental Navy and the Continental Marines were then disbanded.
Marines have always cited November 10, 1775, as their official and spiritual date of birth. They ignore the gap between the disbanding of the Continental Marines and the establishment of the U.S. Marine Corps in July of 1898. The Navy had also long vacillated on an origin date between October 19, 1775, and the formation of the Department of the Navy on April 30, 1798. In 1972, Admiral Elmo Zumwalt settled the issue by authorizing the October 19 date as the official birthday of the United States Navy. So as a matter of modern historical precedence, the Continental Navy was established almost a month earlier than the Continental Marines.
The early American Marines, the Marines of the War of Independence, inherited a great deal more from their British counterparts than a legacy of difficult duty and a maritime infantryman’s job description. All militaries and military service components are cultures, and no American military service is more culturally distinct or tradition bound than the United States Marine Corps. This began during their formative years, when they represented a minority contingent of a ship’s company or were fighting ashore alongside larger units of the Continental Army. This naturally bred a degree of separation and the perception of an elite status, both in how these early Marines saw themselves and how other services viewed them. In a word, these first American Marines were “special,” and from those early days when the colonial recruiters made their way from tavern to tavern in search of a few good men, the Marines have felt they were just that—special. Their long history of gallant and loyal service to our nation has done nothing to tarnish this perception. Yet in modern times, terms like “special” and “elite” have become contentious within the Marine Corps when used in making a distinction between one Marine and another.
On July 11, 1789, President John Adams signed into law an act that provided for the establishment and organization of the Marine Corps. It allowed for a battalion-sized corps, primarily as shipboard infantry for service aboard American naval frigates. Lieutenant Colonel William Ward Burrows was made commandant of the new Corps and is by some measures regarded as the first commandant of the United States Marine Corps. It is said that Colonel Burrows rode about Washington with President Thomas Jefferson, and together they selected the “Eighth and I” site for the new Marine barracks and commandant’s residence. Eighth and I is still the site of the Washington Marine barracks and the home of the President’s Own U.S. Marine Band and Honor Guard. Burrows inherited a store of blue uniforms with red piping, which he put into use and which reflected the color of current Marine uniforms. The new Corps’s first action was the 1801–1804 war against the Barbary Pirates that featured the (unsuccessful) attack on Tripoli. Yet these Marines made an impression as they stormed ashore on “the shores of Tripoli.” The Ottoman viceroy Prince Hamet Karamanli was so taken with these U.S. Marines that he presented a Mameluke sword to Marine First Lieutenant Presley O’Bannon, the sword worn today by Marine Corps officers.
The first extended conflict for the new Marine Corps was the War of 1812. They participated in actions from the Great Lakes to the Battle of New Orleans, where they held the center of the line for General Andrew Jackson. They conducted amphibious operations under Colonel Winfield Scott at Toronto and participated in the famous frigate duels, the only and much-needed American victories at the beginning of the war.
Following the War of 1812, the Marines occupied themselves with pirates operating in and around the waters off Florida and in the Caribbean until Spain ceded Florida to the United States in 1821. In 1820, the incoming fifth commandant of the Marine Corps took the form of a most influential Marine, both in terms of his transitional influence and his longevity. In addition to serving as acting commandant for six months in 1818–1819, Archibald Henderson served as commandant from October 8, 1820, to January 6, 1859. He’s known as “the grand old man of the Marine Corps.” During his tenure, Henderson pushed for the Corps to become a more agile force, one that lent itself to rapid deployment and was more suited to expeditionary warfare. His Marines were engaged in the Seminole Wars (1835–1842) and the Mexican-American War (1846–1848). In this latter conflict, the Marines distinguished themselves in several engagements in California and Mexico—most notably, the storming of Chapultepec Castle that protected Mexico City. This difficult and costly assault was made through “the halls of Montezuma.” The red or “blood stripe” on today’s Marine dress uniform commemorates the heavy losses experienced by Marine officers and noncommissioned officers during the battle for the Chapultepec precipice.
Due to the non-expeditionary nature of the conflict, Marines in the Civil War, on both sides of the conflict, played a very minor role. When war broke out, there were just under two thousand officers and men in the Corps. As with those serving in the Army and Navy, the Civil War forced serving Marines to choose—North or South. Then, as now, those Americans with Southern, rural, and agricultural roots seemed to be proportionally more strongly attracted to military service than those from the urban and manufacturing parts of the nation. Records are vague, but it seemed that about two-thirds of those serving Marines sided with the South and the balance with the North. As with those in the Army who elected to side with the Confederacy, there also seemed to be among the Marines an imbalance in the partitioning of proven ability and leadership that favored the South. Congress modestly increased the size of the Union Marines to meet the needs of shipboard duty for the expanding Federal Navy. The Confederate Marines also saw a slight increase in their numbers, but they saw only limited action in defensive roles. Priority on both sides was given to fielding large land armies.
The balance of the nineteenth century was an ambiguous time for the Marine Corps. While it was not disbanded, the Corps pressed on with what had been a cadre of Union Marines. As steam gradually took the place of sail, and canonry became more accurate and deadly, there was little need for a shipboard contingent of boarders or a requirement to repel boarders. With the advent of armor plating and the absence of masts and rigging, there was no longer the necessity or a place for sharpshooters. Work for the shipboard Marines became limited to security and the occasional landing-party duty associated with projecting power ashore. The Marines did participate in several dozen uprisings and the quelling of uprisings, including actions that led to the toppling of the monarchy in Hawaii.
Culturally, the Marines continued to add to the lore of their Corps. In 1868, the Marines adopted the famous globe and anchor as their emblem. In that same year, the halls of Montezuma and the shores of Tripoli were incorporated into the Marine Corps Hymn. In 1883 they took up Semper Fidelis, or Semper Fi, as their motto—“Always Faithful.” Doctrinally, the Marines adopted manuals and codified procedures from amphibious warfare to handling ordnance aboard ship and ashore. In 1880, a young John Philip Sousa became the leader of the Marine Corps Band, and his contingent of musical Marines became nationally popular. It was not until the outbreak of hostilities with Spain that the Marines returned to the serious business of war.
The Spanish-American War (1898) was a short conflict with an overmatched adversary that did much to heal the nation from the divisiveness that still smoldered from the Civil War. Within the Army and the Navy, senior officers and NCOs from both the North and the South fought together. Among the rank and file, there may have been few Civil War veterans. Nonetheless, this short conflict saw soldiers, sailors, and Marines from both the South and the North united under the same flag. The Marines fought in the Philippine Islands, Guam, Puerto Rico, and Cuba to include the capture of Guantánamo Bay. The Treaty of Paris that concluded the hostilities left the United States in possession of these former Spanish colonies. These new territories created new duties and obligations for the Navy and the Marine Corps.
Leading up to the First World War, the elements of the Marine Corps were dispatched to protect legations and foreign settlements in China and conduct a string of engagements in Central and South America, collectively known as the Banana Wars. The United States embarked on a policy of intervention, primarily in Central America and the Caribbean, to include lengthy occupations of Haiti and the Dominican Republic. The big stick of this regional interventionist policy fell increasingly to the Marines. These incursions, while they did little to endear the Norteamericanos to the rest of the hemisphere, did much to hone the battle skills of the Marines for the Great War that was to come. The Corps was much smaller than the U.S. Army, yet the majority of American combat experience rested in the Marine Corps. The incursions of the Banana Wars gave the Corps experience in guerilla and counterinsurgency operations that was later codified in the historic Marine Corps Small Wars Manual (1935) and was a precursor to the mission of MARSOC in the Global War on Terror.
There are two things that stand out in my mind regarding the Marines on the eve of the World War I—both characteristics that have marked the Corps in their modern history. The first is the emergence of an experienced and professional cadre of noncommissioned officers. At that time, the officer corps of the world’s standing military armies and navies was based on family status and position. But in the American military and especially in the Marine Corps, leadership was merit-based. Additionally, being a relatively small, active, and expeditionary force, the Marines did not experience the great expansions and contractions of the Army. This allowed for the development of this talented corps of NCOs. The superb combat leaders that emerged from the ranks proved to be good role models for the younger Marines, and a steady and professional influence on junior Marine officers. The second characteristic is the emergence of the Marine rifleman. With their emphasis on marksmanship and the highly accurate Springfield M1903 rifle, the Marines who entered World War One were simply the best rank-and-file shooters in the world, as the German infantry along the Western Front would discover.
As the nation’s most seasoned force, the Marines spearheaded the American Expeditionary Force that entered our First World War on the side of the Allies. They participated in several battles, but it was during the Battle of Belleau Wood that the U.S. Marine Corps established itself on the world stage as a brave and tenacious fighting force. During the three-week battle in June of 1918, a brigade-sized force from the 5th and 6th Marine Regiments were committed to the fight. On June 6, during a single day’s combat, the Marines sustained nearly eleven hundred casualties—more dead and wounded than in their entire history to date. Fighting alongside two Army divisions, and elements of British and French forces, they managed to push five German divisions from the area in a decisive Allied victory.
Belleau Wood holds a distinguished place in Marine Corps lore. Again, it served notice to the nation and the world that the Marines were more than a small expeditionary force; they could hold their own and then some in a line-infantry role. At Belleau Wood they displayed a range of fighting skills that ranged from precision shooting to hand-to-hand fighting—from defensive stands against onrushing German infantry to gallant offensive bayonet charges over open ground in the face of murderous machine-gun fire. Following the battle, General Jack Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Force, said, “The deadliest weapon in the world is a Marine and his rifle.” It was at Belleau Wood that the Marines acquired the name “Devil Dogs.” It’s unclear whether this moniker came from the Germans, who came to recognize and admire the ferocity of the Marines, or the American press. It was also at Belleau Wood, during the heat of the battle, that then Gunnery Sergeant Dan Daly (as quoted under this chapter heading) was said to have shouted to his Marines, “Come on, you sons of bitches, do you want to live forever?” Following the war, Sergeant Major Daly, twice a recipient of the Medal of Honor, claimed to have said, “For Christ’s sake men—come on! Do you want to live forever?” With due respect to this fine sergeant major, I like the popular version.
The Marine Corps on the eve of World War I stood at close to ten thousand officers and men. It was primarily an expeditionary, light-infantry force with a fledgling aviation arm. At the time of demobilization from the “war to end all wars,” the Corps stood at just under fifty thousand.
America is, or was, a nation that relied on the citizen soldier in times of war. This called for a near universal conscription during times of conflict, and a dramatic drawdown in the ensuing peace. Because of their peacetime fleet/shore installation security duties and modest expeditionary/intervention requirements, the drawdown affected the Marine Corps far less than the Army or even the Navy. Nonetheless, with the prospect of global war in the wind in 1939–40, there were just over twenty thousand Marines in uniform at the time of Pearl Harbor. This included thirteen squadrons of Marine aircraft.
In the two decades between the world wars, the Marine Corps had five commandants, and perhaps none was more important than Major General John Lejeune, who served a nine-year tenure and for whom Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, is named. Lejeune and other senior officers in the Corps set about developing the amphibious doctrine that was to be key to the War in the Pacific. In 1933 the Marine Corps instituted the concept of the Fleet Marine Force, to better integrate Navy–Marine Corps cooperation in amphibious operations, and pushed for amphibious fleet exercises to develop this capability. More specifically, it helped to focus at least some of the Navy’s attention to projecting power ashore rather than preparing only for fleet-to-fleet engagements. In addition to refinements in amphibious doctrine, the Marines developed a significant aviation capability, the only Marine component that was to see significant growth during this between-wars period.
Had there been no Pearl Harbor and had we engaged in another strictly European war, the Marine Corps might have been only another light-infantry unit in the mix. But Pearl Harbor changed all that. With the prospect of a naval war and its attendant amphibious requirements, one that would range across half the globe, the Marine Corps set about an ambitious expansion that would increase the size of the Corps twenty-fold. The Marines saw only isolated duty in Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East; theirs was to be a Pacific war. They were to see action in every significant battle in that theater. The island-hopping campaign across the Pacific is a matter of history, and a gallant one at that—Guadalcanal, Tarawa, Saipan, Peleliu, Iwo Jima, Guam, Okinawa, and a dozen other islands and atolls on the way to Japan. Each of these battles is worthy of a book, and indeed, there have been many on each of them. All were bloody, all were contentious, and all were marked by collective and individual acts of valor. Yet, of all these legendary Marine engagements, Guadalcanal stands out. In most of these island battles, the Americans enjoyed superior air and naval support and an overwhelming logistical advantage. All were difficult and bloody, but the outcome was seldom in doubt. At Guadalcanal, the Marines had none of the advantages of subsequent island campaigns. At Guadalcanal—undersupplied, short on ammunition, and with limited supporting arms—it was Marine courage and stubbornness that won the day. Seven thousand Marines and thirty-one thousand Japanese soldiers died during the six-month campaign. Guadalcanal forced the Imperial Japanese Army to shift from an offensive war to a defensive war, and set the stage for the drive across the Pacific to the Japanese mainland. Perhaps just as important, after Guadalcanal both the Marines and the Japanese knew the vaunted Japanese jungle fighter could be beat.
This drive across the Pacific and the need for Marines caused the Corps to swell to the largest size in its history. By the end of the war there were 485,000 Marines, a number that included an aviation contingent that included 145 squadrons. Just under 20,000 Marines were killed in action in World War II—about the size of the entire Corps at the beginning of the conflict. Some 68,000 were wounded. Eighty-two Marines were awarded the Medal of Honor.
It might be noted here that President Franklin Roosevelt had a special affinity for the Marine Corps. Roosevelt had served as assistant secretary of the Navy from 1913 to 1920. As president, he often referred to “we” when talking about the Marine Corps. At the time of our entry into the war, Roosevelt had been in the White House for almost a decade. He was a consummate politician, and while he listened to his service chiefs, he often took a hand in what might be called their internal military matters. This applied to the Marine Corps, and as we will see, he was instrumental in the formation of what would become popularly known as the first of the Marine special operators.
World War II was a true global conflict that resulted in, by some accounts, close to 100 million military and civilian deaths. The specter of the atomic bomb and the primacy of airpower in warfare led many strategists to think that future wars would be fought only from the air. Many argued that these developments made the Navy, the Marine Corps, and amphibious warfare obsolete. The political winds had also changed. While Roosevelt favored his Navy and Marine Corps, President Truman, an artilleryman in the Great War, did not. In the demobilization that followed, all the service components experienced downsizing, with the Marine Corps dropping to close to seventy-five thousand. In 1950, on the eve of the Korean War, the Corps, including their aviation arm, stood at eighty-five thousand.
The brief between-wars period saw the Marines involved in the occupation of Japan and in small, guard-force actions from Southeast Asia to Jerusalem. With the prospect of nuclear warfare obsoleting amphibious warfare, the Marines began to develop a ship-to-shore capability using helicopters.
The Marines were quickly called into action in Korea to help the United Nations forces defend the shrinking Pusan perimeter. When the United Nations forces finally went on the offensive, General Douglas MacArthur, a veteran amphibious campaigner, quickly made use of his Marines in the conflict-changing landings at Inchon. American and U.N. forces were deep into North Korea when the full weight of the Chinese Army attacked them. The American Eighth Army retreated in disarray, but the Marines of the 1st Marine Division fought an orderly retreat that came to be known as the Battle of Chosin Reservoir. Chosin quickly became a symbol of Marine tenacity and resolve when facing numerically superior opposition. Their courage and discipline in that frozen hell is a proud chapter in the battle history of the Corps.
The Korean War did much to quell the notion that the Navy and Marine Corps were obsolete, even with the prospect of a nuclear-weapons buildup among the two superpowers and their allies. The Corps emerged from combat in Korea with a force of just over a quarter of a million Marines, but there was a price for this robust, post-conflict force. More than four thousand Marines lost their lives and some twenty-four thousand were wounded. Forty-two Marines received the Medal of Honor in Korea.