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MARINE CORPS AMPHIBIOUS DOCTRINE HISTORY

 

 
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If you were asked most service people what the United States Marine Corps is bst at, you would get one of two answers. From a person somewhat familiar with what the Marine Corps has traditionally been known for, you would hear "Performing amphibious operations." From a person who truly understands the value of the Marine Corps, the answer would be not in what the Marine Corps does best, but rather what they are tasked with at the time. In other words, the Marine attitude, independent of its stage of evolution , is what has carried the Marine Corps so far over the last 221 years and it is this spirit that will guarantee its future existence. A study of amphibious doctrine from World War I through the Gulf War shows why Marines are not only amphibians but also chameleons.

The Marine Corps’ reputation as an amphibious force is understandable due to the history of amphibious doctrine. Two events occurred in the early 1920’s that pushed the Marine Corps to the forefront of amphibious research. In 1920, the Marine Corps school s opened in Quantico, Virginia with the foresight that a war with Japan would entail the amphibious seizure of a series of islands across the Pacific (Estes 104). A year later, Lieutenant Colonel Earl "Pete" Ellis published his 30,000 word war portfolio entitled Advanced Base Operations in Micronesia. This document by one of the Corps’ most famous, if not infamous, characters detailed exactly what America had to do to meet the Japanese threat in the Pacific. He predicted and outlined every move the United States would eventually follow in World War II. Among his suggestions, he warned the Corps that they would eventually have to face heavily fortified Japanese islands and capture advance bases needed to project power across the Pacific (Moskin 221). Additionally , he described the capabilities and roles of new weapons such as the carrier, submarine, torpedo plane, and long-range bomber (Heinl 1310). World War II would eventually prove him correct.

LtCol Ellis’s story is a prime example of how the Marine Corps has molded herself to the needs of the time. During World War I, the Marines were mainly used as Army replacements which would later put them in danger of post-war dismantling. Furthermore, the dismal failure of amphibious operations at Gallipoli convinced military thinkers that amphibious operations could not succeed against strong opposition. But one man had the foresight to plan and develop an entire new realm of responsibility that ensured survival. These amphibious plans were honed and studied by the Marines in the Quantico schools over the decade of the 1920’s. One man with one plan had changed the course of Marine Corps history and provided America with a powerful force for the upcoming wars.

True to its nature, the Marine Corps refused to be content and mark time. In 1927, the Marine Corps was officially given the amphibious mission of the seizure of advanced bases for the Navy and also approved the concept of the Fleet Marine Force (FMF). The FMF was an amphibious force-in-being which would be under operational control of the Fleet Commander while embarked or engaged in exercises (Rider 15). In 1934, the Marine Corps school published its most celebrated culmination of amphibious research in the Tentative Landings Operations Manual. Known as the "bible" of amphibious doctrine, this manual was adopted by both the Navy and the Army, down to the diagrams, but each time was renamed by the adoptive service. The revolutionary manual dealt with all aspects of amphibious operations. Subjects discussed included the nature of the landing forces, the allocation of command responsibilities, ship-to-shore movements, survival on the beachhead, fitting naval gunfire support to the need of the landing force, the coordination of close air support, logistics, and the use of landing craft (Moskin 222). Once again, Marines had taken the initiative to establish themselves as experts in amphibious doctrine.

The expertise that the Marine Corps developed in the 1920’s and 1930’s culminated in the actions of World War II. Ironically, the Marine Corps was still fighting for its own existence by filling ever-changing roles. The need for a Marine Corps was being g questioned even after the successful conclusion of World War II and the Marines’ contribution was often underestimated. Even General Eisenhower overlooked the difficulty of the Marine Corps’ specialized work by saying in 1950, "An amphibious landing is not a particularly difficult thing.... You put your men in boats and as long as you get well-trained crews to take the boats in, it is the simplest deployment in the world -- the men can go nowhere else except the beach." How the General could overlook the intense logistical and coordination requirements is hard to understand. But when it was time to take credit for successful amphibious endeavors, the Army was quick to step forward. In Where Does the Marine Corps Go from Here?, Martin Binkin states, "... they (Marines) did not, conversely, participate in any of the great amphibious assaults in the European theater: the seaborne invasions of North Africa, Sicily, Salerno, Anzio, and Normandy were undertaken by Army units specially trained for such attacks" (Binkin 6). But the author left out two important facts. First, it was the Marines who "specially trained" these Army units and second, the doctrine they used to train came straight out of the Tentative Landings Operations Manual developed by the Marine Corps schools. The resulting combination, using the Army’s muscle and the Marine’s mind, is an example of a successful yet seemingly unnatural situation. Marines prefer to provide both aspects as they did in the Pacific while the Army was carrying out Marine Corps.

The true fruits of work from LtCol Ellis and the schools at Quantico came in the form of the island-hopping campaigns in the Pacific. Like a steam roller, the Marines assaulted island after island against deadly odds. As they moved closer to the Japanese mainland, their tactics improved with experience. In 1942, Guadalcanal, the first major offensive of World War II, proved that America needed the FMF. Despite pessimism by high officials and requests from the Army to wait one year until they were ready, the Marine Corps put her doctrine to work. Following the successful campaigns in the south Pacific, the Marines displayed their amphibious assault virtuosity in the central Pacific campaigns. In the battles for Tarawa, the Marshalls, Saipan, Guam, Tinian, Peleliu, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa, the Marine Corps' amphibious doctrine came of age. All of these battles were frontal assaults against heavily fortified Japanese positions (Estes 108-109). Regardless, but at great cost, the Marines got the job done.

After World War II, the Marines once again proved themselves as amphibious experts when they conducted successful assaults at Inchon, Korea despite critics’ predictions that amphibious warfare was outdated. Since then, there have been successful amphibious operations at Lebanon in 1958, Cuba in 1962, the Dominican Republic in 1965, and Vietnam from 1965-1974 (Rider 17). Even as recent as the Gulf war, the mere presence of a full-functional amphibious attack force off the coast of Iraq was enough to draw large numbers of enemy troops away from the flanking attack to the west.

The Marine Corps’ true value can be seen in the pattern she has painted on history. The similarities between her history and her tactics are striking. Ever since the 1920’s, Marines have treated their existence like a battle. They identify a problem, attack it viciously until victory, regroup, and start again. After World War I, they carved out a niche as an amphibious force ready to make sweeping attacks on enemy beaches rather than acting as replacements for Army units. After honing their skills and teaching aching them to the other services, they regrouped and improved on the tactics in the 1930’s. As World War II swept across the globe, the Marines concentrated on the Pacific island-hopping campaign with the understanding that war with Japan was imminent. Following the successful attacks in the Pacific and then hard won battles during the Korean war, the Marines once again adapted.

In response to changing times and changing technologies, the Marines once again identified a better way to do business. Now, instead of the sweeping assault forces necessary for World war II, the Marines provide a smaller, stronger, lightning force analogous to the end of a whip. With the new Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) concept, a self-contained force of highly trained Marines can attack an advanced base at short notice and then be retracted to threaten additional beachheads. Together with improved amphibious doctrine and technological advances, the latest phase of Marine Corps evolution maintains the reputation started with LtCol Ellis. Doctrines come and go and missions become outdated. But what does not change, what must never change, is Marine Corps adaptability. Future missions, as well as future existence, depends on this one factor. Eventually, America’s need for the current Marine Corps capabilities will cease to exist just as the need for pre-World War II doctrine no longer suffices. But by then, America will be rewarded with the fruit of visionaries who foresaw the needs of 21st century warfare. At that time, there will be new missions and the old Marine Corps will once again metamorphosize into the force of choice.


Bibliography

1. Bartlett, Merrill L. Assault From The Sea. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1983.

2. Binkin, Martin, and Record, Jeffery. Where Does the Marine Corps Go From Here? Washington D.C.: The Brookings Institution, 1976.

3. Eisenhower, Dwight D. "Harmony in the Armed Services; an Interview," U.S. News and World Report (3 February 1950).

4. Estes, Kenneth. The Marine Officer’s Guide. Maryland: United States Naval Institute, 1996.

5. Grinalds, John. Structuring the Marine Corps for the 1980’s and 1990’s. Washington D.C.: National Defense University, 1978.

6. Heinl, Robert, Jr. "The U.S. Marine Corps: Author of Modern Amphibious Warfare." Proceedings, 73 (November 1977), pp. 1310-23.

7. Krulak, Victor H. First to Fight. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1984.

8. Moskin, Robert. The U.S. Marine Corps Story. New York: McGraw Hill Book Company, 1992.

9. Rider, Jon. An Alternative Marine Corps. Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, US Army Command and General Staff College, 1978.


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