For many Americans, the concept of amphibious warfare derives from the World War II model where landing forces assaulted foreign shores against determined resistance. These actions resulted in very high casualties, yet proved uniformly successful in achieving American military objectives. They involved isolating and preparing the amphibious objective area with naval and air power, then aggressively introducing landing forces to assault defended positions.
Naval task forces not only inserted amphibious troops, but also sustained them with naval gunfire, tactical aircraft, and logistical support once ashore. The circumstance of geography coupled with the weapons and equipment available at that time dictated this type of warfare. To ensure incremental progress in the war effort, military and naval forces of the United States needed to attack Pacific islands held by Japanese forces and conduct forced entry on the European continent against beaches defended by the German army. Weapons such as attack aircraft and precision naval gunfire coupled with newly designed amphibious ships, landing craft, and tracked vehicles made these attacks possible.
During the 18th and 19th centuries, no such equipment or weapons existed for assaulting defended beaches. Commanders attempted to land their forces in areas where resistance would be light or nonexistent. Even the two most sophisticated landings of the 19th century – the assault on Veracruz during the Mexican-American War and the attack at Fort Fisher, N.C., during the Civil War – did not require assault forces to fight their way ashore.
The advantage of the initiative coupled with the inherent mobility of sea forces usually permitted the naval echelon to deliver forces at the point of attack faster than land-based defenders could react. On occasions where landing forces experienced opposition on the beach, it usually consisted of light resistance used only to delay and harass.
During the second half of the 20th century, amphibious thinking from World War II began to change. Although retaining the ability to conduct forced entry against defended beaches, American commanders no longer expected to conduct such operations. With the advent of larger and more agile amphibious ships, advanced assault landing craft, and innovative helicopter technology, options for amphibious attack developed well beyond the frontal assault mode. Harkening back to amphibious warfare of earlier America, new doctrine called for unopposed insertions at landing sites where enemy forces could not concentrate. In a manner of speaking, modern technology and innovation permitted amphibious warfare to progress forward into the past.
Whereas the amphibious navy of the 21st century has modernized its weapons, equipment, and doctrine, its fundamental role in landing operations has not changed appreciably from the days of early America. It still must deliver ground forces ashore, provide supporting fires, sustain the operation, and withdraw for future actions. In accomplishing this mission, the benchmark for success has been the strength and quality of the relationship between naval and landing force commanders. In the modern era, this equates to Navy and Marine Corps leaders because that unique team has become America’s preeminent amphibious and expeditionary force.
The sui generis relationship between the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps began during the Revolutionary War, when Congress established the Continental Navy on Oct. 13, 1775, and the Continental Marine Corps on Nov. 10, 1775. The following year, as America’s commander in chief, Gen. George Washington, remained preoccupied with British strategy and operations in the American Northeast, the new Navy and Marine Corps team – under Commodore Esek Hopkins and Marine Capt. Samuel Nicholas – conducted a successful amphibious raid on the Bahamian island of New Providence. The amphibious force captured two forts and the town of Nassau, and carried off large quantities of ordnance and military stores – all vital to the American war effort.
The New Providence operation constituted the most successful American amphibious action of the Revolution and one of its most important naval victories. In addition to the stores of ordnance, Hopkins brought back three captured ships, along with Gov. Montford Browne and two other British officials as prisoners of war. This later proved helpful to Washington, who exchanged Browne for generals John Sullivan and William Alexander (Lord Stirling), captured during the battle for New York.
Not all Navy and Marine Corps operations of the Revolution proved so successful, nor were all landings limited to the sea services. Many large-scale attacks involved Army forces with Marines participating only as their shipboard duties allowed. But the logic of using Marines in landing operations proved irresistible, and the professional relationship forged by Hopkins and Nicholas initiated a tradition that grew – through a process of both cooperation and conflict – into an important American institution.
At the end of the American Revolution, the United States found itself in a state of near exhaustion. Needing to economize on expenses and having a weak central government under the Articles of Confederation, American leaders effectively disbanded the active services, auctioning off the last vessel of the Continental Navy in August 1785. Although the new republic possessed no naval service between 1785 and 1794, pressure mounted throughout that period to create a credible capability. The capture of American seamen by Algerian and Moroccan pirates as early as 1784 drove pro-defense advocates to demand creation of a maritime service able to protect the American merchant fleet.
During March 1794, Congress passed an act that authorized President Washington to either buy or construct six frigates and provide for their crews. Ostensibly intended to protect American commerce from state-sponsored piracy along the North African coast, the Navy Act of 1794 marked the first important step toward creating a professional navy. Subsequent treaties with Algiers and Tripoli stemmed the immediate crisis, but advocates of naval power proved strong enough to retain at least some semblance of a navy thereafter.