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What Are the Limitations of Sailors As Infantry?
While naval reformers argued the question of what kind of fighting to train for, there was general agreement that naval infantry sustainability was normally limited to 2-3 days and operations were limited geographically.
Who Does Naval Landings? Should Marines Be Embarked On Ships?
In 1889 the Secretary of the Navy appointed a board, headed by Commodore James Greer, to examine shipboard organization and landing party practices. The Greer Board took the position that ships crews should handle all evolutions. It recommended removal of the marine ship guard from naval vessels. The Secretary of the Navy did not accept this recommendation, but Board member Lieutenant Fullam began to lead a campaign over the next decade and a half to remove marines from ships.26 Most of the uniformed US Navy leadership supported Fullam.27 The campaign dragged on until 1908, when President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 969 redefining the Marine Corps duties to exclude ship guard and other on-board duties.28 Congress quickly reversed this decision.
Regardless of the outcome of the debate over embarked marines, it is quite clear that the professional Navy considered sailors to have a mission as infantrymen and that these bluejackets, with proper organization and training, to be as proficient as marines.
Tactical Doctrine Is Promulgated
Debate over organization and training spurred issuance of the Navy’s first formal publication outlining in detail training and organizational requirements for landing parties and their operation ashore. In 1891, the Bureau of Ordnance issued “Instructions for Infantry and Artillery, United States Navy.” Prior to this, aside from general requirements, some embodied in Navy Regulations, individual ship commanding officers and Commodore/Flag Officers were largely on their own. They adopted tactics from recognized sources such as Upton’s Tactics.29 “Instructions for Infantry and Artillery, United States Navy” provided a Navy standard—a point that the Reformers had argued for.
Besides providing instructions for drill and tactics for infantry and artillery, “Instructions” general regulations directed that:
In 1905 “Instructions for Infantry and Artillery, United States Navy” was superceded by “The Landing-Force and Small Arms Instructions.” This manual went through various editions before the US entered World War I.31 All editions required maintenance of permanent organized landing forces. By 1907, tactics to cope with street fighting and riots were included as a part of the instruction/manual alongside conventional operations.32 In1918 the Landing-Force Manual, United States Navy was promulgated. The 1918 edition was a major revision with much more information on tactics, conduct of fire, and field fortifications. This document, went through various editions until 1950 when it as superceded by the “Landing Party Manual”33
An Era of Sailors Performing As Infantry
Although ships’ landing parties were permanently organized, the Spanish-American War provided little opportunity for their employment. Subsequently the Philippine Insurrection (1899-1903) involved numerous instances of the use of bluejacket landing parties ashore. Historian Vernon Williams claims “the most important role played [by the Navy during the Philippines Insurrection] was that of conducting land operations.”34
The Caribbean, Mexico, and Central America provided the backdrop for extensive use of bluejackets ashore in almost every conceivable type of infantry activity. In this region, there were at least 136 instances of individual groups of bluejackets operating ashore as infantry (from squad to brigade level) between 1901 and May 1929.35 Operations ranged from election security, pacification, peacekeeping, land convoy escort, protection of roads and railroads, occupation, and guard duty to large-scale major combat operations against regular Army forces. Ships landing parties or multiple landing parties organized into battalions, regiments, or brigades conducted almost all of this activity. Some of it—notably the “Bluejacket Expeditionary Battalion” sent to Nicaragua in 1928—was, however, conducted by units organized in the U.S. and then sent overseas.36
The largest operation during the early years of the 20th century involved the occupation of Vera Cruz Mexico in 1914. A seaman brigade of some 2,500 bluejackets conducted the landing and infantry assault alongside a 1,300 man marine brigade.37 Vera Cruz highlighted two problems associated with naval infantry: tactics and sustainability. The Mexicans, using machine guns, repulsed the assault by the Second Seaman Regiment on the Mexican Navy Academy when the regiment, used the massed infantry tactics of 1891 and earlier. The bluejackets quickly had to adopt improvised small unit tactics to cope with the street fighting.
Tactics could be changed. The second problem—sustainability—would be more difficult. Even during the age of sail, there was recognition that landing party sustainability was limited. At Vera Cruz, the sustainability problem was finessed when US Army formations quickly relieved the sailor brigade. Introduction of steam and complex gun systems also made the problem more difficult. Sailors were really required aboard ship in order to work and maintain it. In the sail navy, sailors were largely interchangeable and there were few specialists. The new steel, steam, navy was a different organization. Sailors were specialists and ships operation was more complex. Some specialists were just too valuable to send ashore—gun pointer and turret captains could not be included in landing forces. Sufficient men, with the right skills, were necessary to remain on board in order to maintain and fight the ship.38 After Vera Cruz very large-scale fleet bluejacket landings did not occur. Effectively use of the landing party was constrained, but not eliminated.
Ship Organization and Tasking for Operations Ashore
Ships continued to be required to organize and train landing parties and the Fleet planned, and did, use them. Two examples illustrate ship organization for operations ashore during much of the rest of the century:
U.S. Asiatic Fleet Regulations 1931 is typical of Fleet tasking.41
Tactical Doctrine Parallels Army Doctrine
The Navy took care to be compatible with Army operations ashore. An Army officer helped author the 1891 “Instructions for Infantry and Artillery, United States Navy.”42 The 1905 and subsequent editions of “The Landing-Force and Small-Arm Instructions” drew heavily on US Army Infantry drill-regulations. In an effort at standardization, Navy documentation adopted Army nomenclature for units and sub-units (squad, platoon, etc.). The 1918 Landing Force Manual stated this explicitly: “when operating on shore, whether alone of in conjunction with vessels of the fleet, the landing force, it well trained and efficiently handled, carries out the same tactics, and in the same manner, as would a similar force from the US Army under the same conditions.”43 The 1927 edition was specifically updated to be in agreement with US Army Training regulations for infantry, machine-gun units, and combat principles.”44
The reasons for alignment of Navy infantry tactics with the Army appear to be several. There was a great deal of interest in cooperation with the Army during this period. The Naval War College and the General Service School at Fort Leavenworth were cooperating on combined operations studies. At the strategic level, the Navy Officer professional organization, the Naval Institute, was promoting interest in joint Army and Navy Operations is a long series of articles during the years 1924-25.45 The Joint Army-Navy Board was also effective in stimulating cooperation. More practically, adoption of Army infantry tactics might have been stimulated by the decade and a half effort to remove marines from ships. This may have been a key underlying factor. In any event, The Navy perceived a need to align itself with Army tactics, and acted upon it.
The Marines Take the Lead: 1930s and World War II
The Marines eventually took the lead in amphibious assault operations, making the role of bluejackets largely unnecessary. This was a slow process. Initially, during the years before World War I, the Corps, under pressure from the Navy’s General Board and the Secretary of the Navy, took up a mission of defending temporary advanced bases.46 The process began very early in the 20th century, but a permanent marine advanced base defense force organization was not formed until 1913. Meanwhile there was a need to have greater numbers of marines available for expeditionary duties. Facilitating this expeditionary mission, in November 1902, a battalion embarked on USS Panther beginning a practice of having an embarked battalion available for expeditionary duties in the Caribbean and Central America. The landing party mission, however, continued to be in conjunction with Navy bluejackets.47
Implicit in the advanced base defense concept was that marines might have to seize advanced bases and to do this the Marine Corps had to be organized for field operations. Following World War I, the Corps under the leadership of Commandant General John A. Lejeune, concluded “to accompany the Fleet for operations ashore in conjunction with the Fleet” was “the real justification for the continued existence of the Marine Corps”.48 The Marines put action behind statement and major landing exercises were held in 1922, 1924, 1925, and 1926. Amphibious infantry assault and infantry operations ashore—from the sea—were by then the acknowledged major mission of the Marine Corps.
By 1927 the final version of Joint Action of the Army and the Navy recognized that the marines had “assumed responsibility for land support of the fleet for initial seizure and defense of advanced bases and for such limited land operations as are essential to the prosecution of the land campaign.”49 In 1932, SECNAV, on recommendation of CNO Admiral William V. Pratt, formally approved Lejune’s vision. A year later Navy Department Order 241, with the support of Admiral Pratt, established the Fleet Marine Force. By the mid to late 1930s, the Marines had largely and near exclusively become the navy’s infantry. They exercised this capability in a series of Fleet Landing Exercises.50 The Navy assumed the role that which is recognizable today—support, transportation, naval fires, etc.
USS Houston (CA-30), ship's landing force reembarks from a motor launch, after exercises ashore at Dumanquilas Bay, Mindanao, circa 1931-33; note whale boat alongside. Collection of Lt. Oscar W. Levy, USN (SC), RET, Naval Historical Center, Photographic Branch #NH 94182.
This did not mean that the Navy ships landing force went away. Guidance on amphibious landings continued to be included in Navy Landing Force Manuals until 1938. By then amphibious landing tactical doctrine had been subsumed by publication of the Marine Corps developed “Tentative Landing Operations Manual” of 1935, which was adopted by the Navy in 1938 as “Fleet Publication 167.” Landing party organization continued to be required and infantry drill and tactics continued to be part of the Landing Force Manuals. Bluejacket infantry continue to have a role, albeit much more minor than it had been decades earlier. In China, infantry operations ashore by sailors continued as an integral part of the Asiatic Fleet’s operations along the Yangtze River even though the marines had taken over the bulk of activity.
During World War II there were few examples of the use of sailors as infantry. Most famously, a Naval Battalion, formed from the remnants of the shore establishment of the 16th Naval District in the Philippines, performed bravely and effectively on Bataan in late 1941 and early 1942. The USS Philadelphia landed a landing party to assist the 47th Infantry in capturing airport at Loa Senia, Morocco, during Operation Torch. Admiral Halsey’s Third Fleet sailors, organized as three battalions of infantry, assisted marines and a British Landing party with the occupation of Yokosuka Naval Base at the end of World War II. Samuel Eliot Morison suggests that the sailor battalions were necessary because not enough marines were available to Third Fleet.