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.
Within the next 25 years, the United States found itself involved in no fewer than four wars. These included the Quasi War with France, fought mostly at sea in the West Indies between 1798 and 1801; the Barbary War against Tripoli in the Mediterranean during 1801-1805; the War of 1812 (often called the second war for independence) conducted from 1812 to 1815; and a brief naval conflict with Algiers in 1815. All except the War of 1812 were primarily naval conflicts, and that war contained essential naval and amphibious elements.
The most interesting amphibious incident of the Quasi War occurred in May 1800 at the Spanish port of Puerto Plata, Santo Domingo, where French authorities held a captured British ship named Sandwich. Capt. Silas Talbot of the frigate USS Constitution learned of its presence in the Spanish port and sought an opportunity to capture the prize. Talbot placed about 90 Marines and sailors under command of Navy Lt. Isaac Hull and Marine Capt. David Carmick into an innocuous looking sloop named Sally. Once alongside Sandwich, the sailors quickly captured the vessel while Marines assaulted the protective forts and spiked their guns. The amphibious raid on Puerto Plata proved a model of cooperation, speed, efficiency, and effectiveness – even though of dubious legality.
A second amphibious raid of the Quasi War occurred in September 1800 on the Dutch island of Curaçao. When local authorities refused to assist the French frigate Vengeance – severely damaged in battle with the American frigate USS Constellation – they evoked the ire of French officials who invaded the island, driving its inhabitants into a single fort and intimating hostile intentions toward expatriate Americans. The United States Navy responded by sending the sloops of war USS Merrimack and USS Patapsco into the area and landing a force of Marines led by Lt. James Middleton. The American naval and amphibious action forced the French to withdraw, leaving the island in allied hands. These amphibious actions, like the naval service in general, proved an effective (if limited) tool of U.S. policy during the Quasi War.
The Barbary War of 1801-1805 began primarily because the Bashaw of Tripoli, Yusuf Karamanli, resented the larger American tribute paid to Algiers, Tunis, and Morocco for safe passage within the Mediterranean Sea. Despite treaties negotiated during the 1790s, unstable relations between the United States and Barbary rulers remained the norm. During the initial phases of the war with Tripoli, American leaders attempted to bring Yusuf to heel through a naval blockade and offshore bombardment. When this approach proved ineffective, the idea of regime change gained credibility among American leaders. This concept sprang from an ongoing effort by Hamet Karamanli – Yusuf’s older brother, who believed himself the rightful ruler – to regain control of Tripoli. Hoping to exploit the conflict between America and Tripoli, Hamet guaranteed lasting peace if the United States helped restore him to power. Commodore Edward Preble, the American commander in the Mediterranean, believed supporting Hamet offered a prospect for success and that restoring him to power would bring substantial benefits to the United States throughout the Barbary Coast.
Commodore Samuel Barron arrived in the Mediterranean during September 1804, commanding the largest naval force the United States had ever assembled up to that time. In addition to a powerful naval squadron, Barron carried instructions from the president of the United States directing, in the strongest terms yet, aggressive and determined action against Tripoli and other Barbary powers if necessary. In addition, he brought William Eaton, who held a commission from the Secretary of the Navy as the U.S. naval agent to the Barbary Regencies, subject only to the orders of Barron. Eaton was determined to install Hamet as Bashaw of Tripoli, and believed the first step involved capturing the city of Derna in the eastern part of the principality. Attacking Derna would open a second military front, thereby increasing political, economic, and diplomatic pressure on the Bashaw in the view of American commanders on the scene. To undertake the Derna operation, Eaton first needed to find Hamet, last known to be in Alexandria, Egypt.
Barron assigned Master Commandant Isaac Hull – who had previously worked with Marines in the capture of Sandwich at Puerto Plata – and the brig Argus (later Hull added Hornet and Nautilus), to support Eaton’s effort to locate Hamet and conduct operations against Derna. Marine Lt. Presley O’Bannon became the third key officer of this dynamic team that exemplified, in every way, the concepts of cooperation and mutual support. Arriving in Alexandria in November 1804, Eaton located Hamet – who had allied himself with a Mameluke faction – and made final plans for joint and combined action with Hull, O’Bannon, and Hamet’s supporters. The American commanders envisaged an attack on Derna from both land and sea, and then driving westward along the coastline to capture Benghazi and the capital city of Tripoli. The expedition’s strength would reach about 500 to 600 men, including O’Bannon’s detachment of seven U.S. Marines.
While Hull prepared his ships for the assault, Eaton and O’Bannon undertook one of the most heroic and arduous marches in military history across a hostile desert with limited provisions and mutinous comrades. After arriving outside Derna, Hull began a powerful bombardment of the city and its forts, destroying several batteries and eventually driving some of the Tripolitans from their guns and defenses. The Marines then attacked along the beach at water’s edge with Hull’s naval guns clearing the way.
Concurrently, Hamet and his mounted Arabs circled south and west of the city, attacking from the opposite direction. Eaton and O’Bannon led a direct assault that carried the hostile ramparts and part of the city. O’Bannon then turned the defender’s guns on the fleeing enemy just as Hamet’s Arabs attacked from landside, resulting in complete victory and possession of both fort and city. Just before turning the fort’s guns on the fleeing enemy, O’Bannon had removed the enemy standard from its staff and planted the American flag for the first time on a hostile foreign shore. The United States Marines had gone “to the shores of Tripoli.”
The loss of Derna, coupled with the bombardment and blockade of Tripoli, caused the Bashaw to seek peace through the offices of the Spanish consul in Tripoli. Tobias Lear – the U.S. consul general to Algiers – negotiated a favorable treaty in 1805, which did not include the traditional tribute or customary presents to the Bashaw. American success in the Tripolitan War had many components, of which the capture of Derna was only one. Yet that action constituted the key ingredient, and succeeded despite its complexity and many potential failure points. In the final analysis, Derna was captured because of the active, assertive, and cooperative leadership of the three principal commanders: Eaton, Hull, and O’Bannon.
Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, there followed numerous expeditionary operations in the Caribbean, Central America, and the Pacific Basin. The subjugation of California during the 1846-1847 Mexican-American War resulted primarily from a series of amphibious landings along the Pacific coastline spearheaded by the Navy and Marine Corps team, often in conjunction with Army units ashore or afloat. Of course, the landing at Veracruz during 1847 ultimately resulted in the capture of Mexico City and the subsequent treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. The Veracruz operation primarily involved Army and Navy elements with Marines serving in a more subsidiary role, though many served all the way to the Halls of Montezuma. The cooperation between Commodore David Conner and Gen. Winfield Scott in capturing the key costal city of Veracruz proved exemplary and provided an excellent future model for the Navy and Marine Corps team.
Over time, the role of the Marine Corps evolved from a small ancillary organization into the major military force that exists today. An important reason for that expansion involved the leadership of key officers in the 1920s and 1930s. During that era, senior military officers throughout the world believed amphibious warfare had no place in serious military planning, due to the disastrous 1915 Gallipoli campaign of World War I. But a small group of Marine and Navy officers thought otherwise, and worked to develop the theory, concepts, doctrine, and equipment that proved so critical to the amphibious successes of World War II. This intellectual undertaking, coupled with operational achievement in actual warfighting, established the Marine Corps as the lead service for amphibious warfare within the American military establishment, and created the basis for its elevation among the military services.
Although disagreement and discord often exists between Navy and Marine Corps leaders on important issues, including equipment design, tactical and operational employment of forces, and command relationships, it is typically the productive type that results in better policy, doctrine, plans, and operations through the interchange and vetting of ideas and concepts. Ultimately, this process contributes to improved war preparation and success in combat.
The most notable example of this at work is the World War II relationship between two giants of that era, Richmond Kelly Turner and Holland M. Smith. As a rear admiral during the Central Pacific Campaign of 1943-1945, Turner commanded the navy’s amphibious force while Smith, holding the rank of major general and later lieutenant general, commanded the Marines. Both men were highly intelligent, strong willed, and totally dedicated to the honor and success of their service. They often clashed and some of their confrontations became legendary throughout the Pacific. Yet both valued the role of the other’s branch and their disagreements always focused on how to best accomplish the mission. They often compromised, but only after all possible options received due consideration under the strongest possible sponsorship. As Smith characterized their relationship after the war, “Kelly Turner and I were to be teammates in all my operations. He commanded Fifth Amphibious Force while I commanded the expeditionary troops that went along with the Navy and our partnership, though stormy, spelled hell in big red letters to the Japanese.”
Technically, the Navy and Marine Corps team constitutes a joint force, and its expeditionary incursions qualify as joint operations. Yet in reality, the Navy and Marine Corps team constitutes something much better than a joint organization. The two services have roots in a close and integrated tradition built over two centuries of operating together, making them two integral elements of a single naval force. This goes far beyond simply working together in planning and operations. It includes such key elements as combined staffs, common doctrine, frequent exercises and operations, and a sense of shared experiences, all of which contribute to a common institutional culture in the field of amphibious and expeditionary warfare. The fact that both services reside within the Department of the Navy is also important, but does not adequately explain the symbiotic nature of their relationship. That is more correctly found in the history and traditions of the two branches.
During the 1990s, as America’s sea services sought new roles and missions for the post-Cold War era, they issued a series of strategic and operational concept papers most typified by the document entitled “…From the Sea.” This missive attempted to redirect the Navy away from the blue water strategy of the 1980s toward a more littoral approach focused on peace operations, humanitarian actions, and power projection in support of U.S. overseas objectives. The concepts embodied in “…From the Sea” emphasize the importance of unobtrusive forward presence and the flexibility of sea-based expeditionary forces. It brought the Navy closer to the Marine Corps in terms of roles and missions and seemed to offer a new and different approach in the use of naval forces within the “New World Order.” The resulting expeditionary mindset created an environment exemplified by high operational tempos for America’s Amphibious Ready Groups.
Although raised to a new level of prominence in “…From the Sea,” Amphibious Ready Groups have been around for a very long time and are the true inheritor of traditions crafted at New Providence in 1776, Derna, Tripoli, in 1805, the Central Pacific in the 1940s, and numerous climes and places in the over 200 years of American history. As Lt. Cmdr. Terry O’Brien stated in his 1993 Marine Corps Command and Staff College thesis paper, “‘…From the Sea’ has not discovered a new form of warfare – it has rediscovered the capabilities of the Navy/Marine Corps team.” In an era heavily influenced by the “jointness” mentality spawned by the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Act, it would be hard to find a better model than the Navy and Marine Corps amphibious team.
This article was first online on September 13, 2021. It first appeared in First Responder: USS New York.