History Rhymes in the Pacific

History does not repeat itself, but it often rhymes, a proverb attributed to Samuel Clemens. This marvelous maxim is having its moment in the strategic posturing on the Pacific Ocean.

One of the best, but least appreciated histories of the Pacific Theater in the Second World War is Volume IV of the Marine Corps Historical Division’s series Western Pacific Operations (1971). This classic was written long enough after the war to have a good historical perspective while still recent enough to be richly based on primary source research among living veterans that were still young enough to remember operational details, but the best this book has to offer is the historical context for the development of amphibious doctrine that preceded the war.

Before Pearl Harbor, the Marine Corps wasn’t thought of as an amphibious force for large-scale invasions. Landings on shore had always been a role the U.S. Navy’s corps of infantry could perform on a small scale, but landing multiple divisions on a fortified shore like the Battle of Iwo Jima was outside the scope of military doctrine. Even the Germans, who had spent the interwar years planning a rematch with France, were completely baffled as to how they might fight the United Kingdom on the ground of the British isles upon the quick surrender of their franco foe. The best Germany could do was an ill-advised air campaign that went nowhere.

Avoiding an assault on a contested beach was the perceived wisdom following the First World War. The 1915 British campaign against the Ottoman Empire on the Gallipoli Peninsula in the Dardenelles was considered a lesson in what not to do. Between the two wars, the general conclusion at the time was that large-scale amphibious operations against a defended shore were comparable to a “Charge of the Light Brigade.”

As I’ve already written, the United States was not known much for military innovation during the first three decades of the 20th Century either, but planning for a war with the Empire of Japan was an exception. The Spanish American War kindled an interest in the U.S. Navy to develop a greater expeditionary capability among the marines who were mostly used to guard warships and naval installations. In 1901, a four-company battalion was formed at Annapolis, Maryland and Newport, Rhode Island by then Commandant of the Marine Corps Major General Charles Heywood for the expeditionary seizure of land for advanced bases during a conflict. That’s how the United States took Cuba from Spain a few years before at great cost, confusion, and chaos. Heywood had been pressured by both the General Board of the Navy and Secretary John Davis Long to create a new ground force that was to be quickly placed on naval transport, light infantry that was well-drilled and capable of deploying at short notice to anywhere a United States Ship could sail. The idea was to create an experimental battalion that would be more nimble than the slower and more demanding process of deploying the U.S. Army. Victory in the Spanish American War gave the United States former Spanish territory from the Philippines to Puerto Rico. The Navy’s war planning after 1900 realized that sudden maritime attacks on American interests were now possible in both the Pacific and the Caribbean. Given the thousands of miles the fleet would have to steam to provide security to a constellation of outermost bases, the Navy was convinced this new strategic vulnerability would require hastily seized advanced bases to provide a flexible defense, and the Navy didn’t think it could depend on the then small and overextended U.S. Army to do this on short order.

In 1913, the visionary Commandant of the Marine Corps, Major General William P. Biddle, developed this unit into The Advanced Base Force, the forefather of today’s Fleet Marine Force, which was then designated the 1st Advanced Base Brigade. These new units came in two varieties: the Fixed Defense Regiment which was mostly artillery and engineering companies that were uniquely well-trained in infantry tactics and the Mobile Defense Regiment which was light infantry. Few people were thinking about the Empire of Japan in 1913, but these units were designed to fight Japan in the Pacific. Biddle had served in China and the Philipines in the previous decade and knew the growing strategic threat first-hand. This new force structure was directly in support of War Plan Orange, the contingency planning that began in 1911 for a war in the Pacific with Japan, which coined the term “island hop.”

With two decades of work on expeditionary doctrine, the Marine Corps looked more optimistically at the utility of amphibious warfare in the 1920s. In his 1921 Annual Report, the 13th Commandant of the Marine Corps, Major General John A Lejeune took a contrarian view on the amphibious assault compared to most senior military leaders of his time, even his peer senior Marine Corps brass. Lejeune advocated for amphibious capability playing a central war in American war planning. In that same year, a student at the Naval War College named Major Holland M. Smith researched and theorized on amphibious doctrine. Smith would go on to lead the V Amphibious Corps at the Battle of Tarawa as a Lieutenant General. Both Lejeune and Smith were influenced by Major Earl Hancock Ellis, an intelligence officer, that wrote of the strategic implications of how the Treaty of Versailles gave so much former German territory in the Pacific to Japan, that the United States could find itself fighting on those beaches. The most influential book for marines in the 1920s was Ellis’s Advanced Base Operations in Micronesia, which became a partial blueprint for the island-hopping campaign that would come two decades later.

Just as the U.S. Army had an institutional conflict between horses and tanks, the Marine Corps struggled internally over funding both security forces and the new advanced base operators. The difference is that the Marine Corps resolved this issue well before the next war with the December 7, 1933 creation of the Fleet Marine Force. Originally headquartered in Quantico, Virginia, in 1935 the HQ FMF was moved to San Diego, California. The Pacific was where the action was. The FMF then began developing the best equipment and tactics for moving troops from a transport ship to shore under fire. The Corps developed the LVT (landing vehicle tracked) in 1937 and the Higgens boat in 1938. Thus the basic tools of assaulting a beach were already developed before they were needed, a rare procurement coup for the interwar U.S. military.

In 1942, theory became practice in the Solomon Islands when the Navy/Marine Corps team launched a counteroffensive that seemed unthinkable when Australia found itself surrounded by an archipelago of fortified islands with landing strips for Japanese bombers. At Lunga Point on the island of Guadalcanal, the First Marine Division showed how quickly and tenaciously a light infantry division could maneuver into the heart of such a hornet’s nest.

Do you hear a rhyme ringing from 8th and I Street today? That’s Headquarters Marine Corps for those that don’t recognize the address in Washington D.C.

I do. China has made a security pact with the Solomon Islands, to operate within striking distance of Australia.

Recognizing the strategic challenge that China may pose is, of course, not unique to today’s Marine Corps, but thinking carefully about how to fight a 21st century Pacific war has been, and as I’ve written before, has required controversial changes to force structure and prioritization of procurement, not unlike the choices that had to be made a century ago to put the Marine Corps and its limited peacetime budget in a position to defeat a would-be Pacific empire, when called upon to do so.

But that war will likely be a bout of precision-guided ballistic missiles on Chinese territory vs. distributed, highly mobile small units that can pack their own precision-guided missile strike at a close distance. Large carriers and amphibious assault ships, the innovative tools that defeated the Empire of Japan, will be sitting ducks in the next Pacific campaign.

If war were to break out between the United States and China, suddenly the Corps would find itself flush with funds for the fight. What’s truly decisive, however, is how the more limited funds are being spent now, before that day might come.

Eric Shierman lives in Salem and is the author of We were winning when I was there