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 1920s 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 Elliss 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 1920s. 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 1920s
and 1930s 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 Armys muscle and
the Marines 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 1920s,
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 1930s. 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, Americas 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.
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
3. Eisenhower, Dwight D. "Harmony in the Armed Services;
an Interview," U.S. News and World Report (3 February
4. Estes, Kenneth. The Marine Officers Guide.
Maryland: United States Naval Institute, 1996.
5. Grinalds, John. Structuring the Marine Corps for
the 1980s and 1990s. 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,