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They Were Expendable

by Ron Shirtz

My father served in the 1st Marine division in WWII and Korea. He experienced combat at Peleliu, Okinawa, and the Chosin Reservoir. He never said much about his wartime experiences, except mention how terrible the heat was at Peleliu. The coral sand acted like a reflector oven. He remembered Marines requesting water to quench their thirst as they hugged the sand to dodge enemy fire. The nature of the coral sand made it impossible to dig a deep enough foxhole. His smoking habit, which took his life years later with emphysema, began at Peleliu. He said he started smoking cigarettes to dull his sense of smell, so as not to endure the stench of dead bodies rotting in the tropical heat. Ironic that he should survive the hazards of WWII and the Korea war, only to die from a habit that helped him cope with the everyday carnage of war.

I am proud of my father’s service, but angry that two of the three major campaigns he participated in, Peleliu and the Chosin Reservoir, were unnecessary battles planned by shortsighted and vain superior officers. Soldiers are the currency generals spend to advance their personal military careers and egos. They are the "lions led by donkeys" – a phrased coined by WWI German General Max Hoffman on the idiotic strategy of British generals sending troops with fixed bayonets on senseless frontal attacks against machine guns and artillery.

Marshal Pierre Bosquet, upon witnessing the heroic but futile charge of the British Light Brigade at Balaclava, remarked: "C'est magnifique, mais ce n'est pas la guerre, c'est de la folie" – "It is magnificent, but it is not war, it is madness." The following are a few (sadly, there are more, too many more) examples of military madness orchestrated by the shortsighted generals, paid by the common soldier, marine, sailor, and airman.

1875. Battle of Little Big Horn. Following the US reneging the treaty that promised the Black Hills to the Sioux and Cheyenne tribes, General George Armstrong Custer Seventh Calvary, is sent to pacify the Indians. He disregards reports from his experienced scouts on the strength of the Indian forces. Furthermore, Custer disobeys orders and outruns his supporting army units. In a final act of arrogance, he divides his command piecemeal. He leads 200 of his troops to attack the main Indian camp, only to be massacred by superior forces. Ironically, Custer would be hailed as a hero for many years for his valiant "last stand."

The sinking of the USS Reuben James. Even though the US was a neutral country, in March of 1941 this obsolete four-stack destroyer was ordered to escort ships bearing war material to the Britain as part of FDR’s "Neutrality Patrol." It was hit by a torpedo from a U-boat, which broke her in two at the bow. In five minutes, 115 of her crew died. It is alleged that FDR was disappointed that the sinking of the Reuben James did not bring the US into war on Germany on behalf of Britain.

US Marines abandoned on Wake Island: Cut off after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the US Navy sends Task Force 11 Under Admiral Fletcher to relieve the Marine garrison on Wake Island. Fletcher wastes valuable time by the unnecessary frequent refueling of his destroyers. This results in his fleet arriving one day after Japanese forces invade Wake. Though his naval forces were equal to the reported Japanese ships, his superior, Vice Admiral William Pyle, gets cold feet and orders the relief force to withdraw. After a heroic 15-day battle against superior forces, the Wake garrison surrenders. During the battle of Midway in June, The same Admiral Pyle ordered battleships to patrol the US coast instead of participating in the epic battle. Afterward he was relieved of combat duty, and would never command a fleet in battle again. This would be little comfort to the 400 Marines and 100 civilians who become POWs. Several years later, 98 of the civilians imprisoned on the island would be machined-gunned to death by the occupying Japanese.

US Marines abandoned on Guadalcanal: Within 48 hours after 1st Marines Division landed on Guadalcanal on August 7, Admiral Fletcher (From Wake Island Task Force 11 infamy) withdrew his carriers from the area following several Japanese air attacks. He did this without conferring with any of the other commanders, including his naval superior, Vice Admiral Robert L. Ghormley. The transport ships, without air cover, were forced to leave before unloading the majority of the 11,000 Marines equipment and supplies. The Marines were essentially abandoned on Guadalcanal. It would not be until August 20th that 12 Marine SBD dive-bombers and 19 F4F Wildcats landed on Henderson’s airfield to provide air cover and ground support for the beleaguered Marines. Fortunately, the heroic efforts of the Marines, Army, and Navy eventually prevailed by February of 1943 to secure the island.

The Battle of Kasserine Pass, or Dude, where is My General? The US Army’s initial baptism of fire against veteran German troops proved to be a humbling experience. Rommel’s Afrika Corps soundly routed the green US troops in their first major engagement in 1943 at Kasserine Pass in Tunisia. The US suffered the loss of over 2,500 men and almost 300 tanks and vehicles. The US troops quickly learned from their mistakes, and in time earned the respect by of their adversary Rommel. But the real mystery was, where was their commanding officer, Major General Lloyd Fredendall, during the battle? He was to be found 70 miles behind the front lines, secure in an elaborately built underground bunker located in a ravine. Omar Bradley would call it "an embarrassment to every American soldier" Eisenhower would later write: "It was the only time during the war that I ever saw a divisional or higher headquarters so concerned over its own safety that it dug itself underground shelters." Fredendall seldom visited the frontlines, or conferred with his frontline commanders. He divided his units piecemeal, scattering them so far apart that they could not mutually support one another. He was notorious for using his own personal slang instead of using accepted military parlance in communicating orders. This lead to misunderstandings and loss of valuable time as his subordinates tried to figure out what he wanted. During the height of the battle of Kasserine, Fredendall fled from his custom-made bunker and for a time became unavailable for contact by his frontline officers. After the battle, Fredendall was relieved of his command, and replaced by General George Patton. He was sent back to the states, to finish out the war in training assignments.

Coral Hell. The Battle of Peleliu: By mid-1944, two paths were debated for carrying the war to the Japan home islands. General Douglas MacArthur wanted to recapture the Philippines. Admiral Nimitz sought to bypass the Philippines and follow a direct island hopping campaign to Okinawa. Both demanded the occupation of Peleliu to provide an airfield to cover their respective advances. FDR choose MacArthur’ plan over Nimitz. On September 15th, following a heavy naval bombardment, which included the firepower of five US battleships, units of the US 1st Marines division proceeded to land on the coral island. The pre-invasion shelling failed to have any significant effect on the dug-in defenders. The Japanese defenses hammered the incoming Marines, causing them 1,100 casualties on the first day. When the island was finally secured a month later, the 1st Marines suffered over 6500 casualties. The 81st Army infantry (not airborne) division lost 3,000. So heavy were the 1st Marines losses that the division would not participate in another battle until the following year at Okinawa. In the end, the sacrifice by the Marines and Army troops proved to be a tragic waste. The US Navy’s overwhelming successes in the battle of the Philippine Sea and Leyte Gulf so severely crippled the Japanese fleet as to insure complete air and naval superiority for the invasion of the Philippines. This rendered the Peleliu airfield superfluous. Admiral Halsey, to his credit, did attempt to have the invasion cancelled prior to the invasion, but was overruled by Nimitz.

A Bridge Too Far. The Bridge at Arnhem. In the late summer of 1944, British General Bernard Montgomery proposed an end run via the Netherlands to capture Germany’s Ruhr valley, home of the Germans’ military-industrial base. His strategy: British and US airborne units would seize and hold seven bridges over a 60-mile road, all the way to Arnhem. They would be relieved in three days by the advancing British XXX Corps – whose front would be restricted to one tank at the head of the column due to the width of the road. The last bridge at Arnhem was the key. Capturing that bridge would permit the allies make a "back door’ approach into Germany, bringing a quick end to the war by Christmas. It was titled Operation Market Garden. Supreme commander Eisenhower enthusiastically approved the operation. What is puzzling is Eisenhower’s earlier rejection of an earlier plan by Montgomery for a major drive to Berlin. He objected to the Berlin offensive because it would require extra divisions to protect Montgomery’s flanks, the securing a bridge over the Rhine, and the entire offensive supply lines become dependent on a single bridge. Why Eisenhower didn’t have the same reservations of Market Garden’s plan for an entire corps traveling on a single lane road, with seven bridges to cross, and with no protection on either of XXX corps flanks? Operation Market Garden would become one of the most poorly planned, costly military disasters by the Allies. Murphy’s law ran riot throughout the entire battle. The British radios were the wrong kind; hence, they could not call in for air support or correct airdrops. The British airborne troops, who mission was to capture the key objective, the Arnhem bridge, were dropped seven miles from the objective. Only Colonel Frost’s battalion of 600 men made it past the German perimeter to seize the bridge. Worse, upon his arrival, instead of finding second-rate German troops that British intelligence reported, he found two veteran SS Panzer divisions. Meanwhile, ever-increasing German resistance delayed the advancing XXX Corps, whose vehicles were silhouetted on the elevated road like targets in a shooting gallery. Then, before US airborne unit could seize the Son bridge, the Germans succeeded in blowing it up, causing another 24-hour delay before a temporary bridge could be built. Back at Arnhem, Frosts’ Battalion, which was supposed to only hold out for three days, managed by super-heroic efforts to last seven. Enduring constant artillery barrages, lack of sleep, and mounting casualties, they finally succumbed to superior German forces, which included heavy panzer tanks. Afterward, General Montgomery tried to put a positive spin on this poorly planned military disaster by claiming Market Garden as "90% successful." Never mind that six of the seven bridges held no strategic value if the last bridge at Arnhem was not captured. The Dutch Prince Bernhard, grieving at the terrible cost to his people’s lives and property by the high-risk gamble, thought otherwise: "My country can never again afford the luxury of another Montgomery success."

Patton’s Personal War, The Hammelburg Raid: In March 1945, General George Patton organized a small raiding unit, Task Force Baum, to go 60 miles behind German lines. Its mission? To rescue his son-in-law, Lt. Col. John Knight Waters from a POW camp. Baum’s Task force succeeded in reaching the camp, but Waters is seriously wounded during a battle. On the return trip, superior German forces wipe out the task force. The majority of the 300-man task force are either killed or captured. Baum with two others managed to escape back to US lines. A week later, advancing US forces liberated the POW camp. Both Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower and Gen. Omar N. Bradley reprimanded Patton for the unauthorized raid that resulted in the loss of the task force. Patton claimed at the time that he did not know his son-in-law was at the camp, but a letter written to his wife belied his protested ignorance.

These Deadly Woods. The Hürtgen Forest: A foretaste of what Vietnam would be like 30 years later. The Hürtgen forest had no military or strategic value – the battle took on a life of it’s own, and the Allied commanders continued to feed US troops into a meat-grinder. The battle would become the longest engaged battle in the history of the US Army, lasting from September 19, 1944 to February 10, 1945. In a wooded area of just 50 square miles, the US army committed over 120,000 troops to fight in a densely wooded forest that negated their superior numbers, airpower and artillery. The wooded terrain favored the defender, allowing the numerically smaller German units to inflict over 33,000 US casualties. The Germans never did understand why the US put so much effort into the Hürtgen forest, but they were pleased for the opportunity to economically tie up so many US troops at a relatively small cost to themselves. US veterans of the Hürtgen Forest said the battle was bloodier than their combat experience at Omaha beach.

Chosin Reservoir, Korea: On October 7th, despite strong evidence of large numbers of Chinese troops present in North Korea, General MacArthur orders the US Eight army to cross the 38th parallel and advance to the Yalu river. General Almond X Corps, which includes the First Marine Division and the 7th Army Infantry division, is sent northeast to the Chosin Reservoir. These units advanced in the teeth of terrible winter conditions of minus 30-degree temperatures that froze the actions on firearms, deaden vehicle batteries, and inflict thousands of frostbite casualties. Since Douglas MacArthur never spent a single night in Korea, he had little appreciation of the inclement weather conditions and terrain his troops would face. On November 26, 1950, an estimated 300,000 Red Chinese troops counterattacked. MacArthur forces suffer heavy casualties and hastily withdraw en masse under circumstances reminiscent of Napoleons’ infamous retreat from Moscow. Since the US forces were mechanized, they were dependent on traveling on the roads. The Red Chinese troops took advantage of the surrounding heights, and pour machine gun and small arms fire on the hapless retreating soldiers. The 1st Marines, surrounded by no less than five Chinese armies, retreated – Oops, I mean fought in another direction, from the Chosin Reservoir in good order. My dad, who was there, recalled how the issued rubber boots caused the Marines feet to sweat, enabling frostbite. The 7th Army Infantry division fared worse, suffering the loss of one third of its troops.

MacArthur’s ill-timed winter offensive towards the China border turned a four-month conflict into a three-year meat-grinder. In his hubris he discounted the Chinese willingness and ability to fight. The Korea war would continue to seesaw back and forth, recalling the stalemate and horrors of trench warfare of WWI. Later, public comments made by MacArthur to carry the war to China, and suggesting using nuclear weapons, lead to his dismissal by President Truman in the following year. While history would applaud Truman’s courage to sack the popular MacArthur, little mention is made that Truman involved the US into Korea war without congressional constitutional approval. The Korea conflict has never ended – an uneasy cease-fire exists today, with a semi-hot DMZ separating the two Koreas.

"Good enough to toss; food for powder, food for powder; they’ll fill a pit as well as better [men]..." remarked Shakespeare’s Falstaff on the value of the troops under his command. Or, as the soldiers in the Third Army were wont to say of their glory seeking commander, "Blood & Guts" Patton; "His guts, our blood." One gets a memorial built to honor his death, the other a promotion to enjoy his life.

August 5, 2008

Ron Shirtz [send him mail] is a transplanted Californian teaching Graphic Communications in Northern (Not "Upstate") New York. His hobbies include arranging deck chairs on sinking ships, tilting at windmills, and being fashionably late.

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