Fighting Far from Home

By Colonel Jon T. Hoffman, U.S. Marine Corps Reserve (Retired)

The First Expeditions

Just four short months after the Continental Marines were ordered into existence, they participated in their first expedition. A fleet sailed to New Providence Island in the Bahamas with the goal of capturing much-needed gunpowder. The ships deposited Captain Samuel Nicholas, his 234 Marines, and 50 sailors on shore on 3 March 1776. Equipped with nothing more than small arms and carrying no provisions, they occupied two undefended forts over the course of two days. But the force ashore had not moved fast enough to seize the gunpowder that was the primary mission; it had been spirited away the first night as they rested at the first fort. More aggressive leadership, better-conditioned troops, and coordinated operations with the ships and boats would have made use of the initial surprise achieved to gain all the objectives the first day.

In July 1779, three companies of Continental Marines would spearhead another seaborne expedition dispatched to destroy a naval base being built by the British in Penobscot Bay, Maine. The initial landing went well, but overly cautious leadership resulted in a stalemate ashore and at sea and this time led to disaster. When a more powerful British fleet arrived, the Americans attempted a hasty withdrawal, only to see all their vessels captured or destroyed, with surviving sailors, militiamen, and Marines attempting to escape overland.

The next expedition of consequence would ultimately be enshrined in the opening line of the “Marines’ Hymn.” In November 1804, Lieutenant Presley N. O’Bannon, seven enlisted Marines, and diplomat William Eaton went ashore in Alexandria, Egypt. Their audacious goal was to overthrow the pasha of Tripoli. After gathering several hundred Greek and Arab mercenaries, they trekked 600 miles across the desert, forestalling several mutinies along the way. On 24 April 1805, the Marines led an assault, supported by the guns of a U.S. naval squadron, that seized the fortress of Derna. Two weeks later, they helped repel an attack by 1,200 Tripolitan soldiers. Aggressive leadership, determination, discipline, and coordination between ships and shore had outweighed numerous challenges and achieved tactical success. The Derna campaign also highlighted an aspect that frequently plays a significant role in expeditionary operations—creative initiative that leverages available combat power to make it more effective.

Whereas New Providence and Penobscot Bay were planned landings launched from fleets assembled for the purpose, the presence of Marine detachments on Navy warships patrolling around the world would result in their repeated use for a wide variety of pop-up missions, making them an expeditionary force in readiness simply because they were in position to respond to unexpected crises as they occurred. From 1816 through 1835, Marines landed in Florida, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Greece, the Falklands, Sumatra, and Peru to protect American interests.

Wars against Seminole and Creek Indians brought a new wrinkle to the Marine expeditionary repertoire. It began typically enough with the Marine detachments of two ships landing in Florida on 22 January 1836 to reinforce an Army fort anticipating an attack. But then President Andrew Jackson accepted Commandant Colonel Archibald Henderson’s 21 May offer of a regiment to assist in the widening conflict. Although no such Marine unit existed, by 1 July Henderson had assembled troops from Navy-yard guard detachments (another ongoing Marine mission) and put them in the field in Georgia. The ability to bring together widely dispersed manpower and rapidly form it into an effective fighting force would become another hallmark of Marine expeditionary warfare.

The war with Mexico beginning in 1846 demonstrated the power of seagoing Marines and sailors formed as naval infantry to dominate a wide area with their inherent mobility. In a classic campaign that prefigured the late-20th-century concept of operational maneuver from the sea, they secured the vast reaches of coastal California in the opening months of the conflict. Shipboard Marines and sailors also would conduct raids or seize ports along both coasts of Mexico proper. And Henderson put together a battalion to fight alongside the Army in its campaign to seize Mexico City. In the process the unit added the “Halls of Montezuma” to the opening of the “Marines’ Hymn.”

The Corps played only a minimal role in the Civil War, fought at home, but in the years immediately before and after Marines handled an increasing number of brush-fire contingencies of greater scale and complexity than those preceding the Mexican War. Although the Corps still lacked many attributes of professionalism—such as written doctrine, advanced military education, and formal training programs—it benefited in another respect from the size of ships’ detachments, which emphasized small-unit leadership among junior officers and NCOs to a degree uncommon in most military organizations.

A Landing-Force Doctrine

In the final two decades of the 19th century the Navy underwent a revolution as it began to acquire steel ships (1883), established the Naval War College (1884), and bought into Alfred Thayer Mahan’s new doctrine of control of the sea—based on his earlier lectures as well as his 1890 book. The combination of steam and steel technology, as well as national interest in global power, further increased the importance of naval operations ashore. Steam propulsion required bases to support the coaling of ships. While that could be accomplished in any port in peacetime, in the event of war the United States would have to seize bases or harbors suitable for the purpose. An expeditionary Navy thus demanded a readily available expeditionary landing force. The increasing interest in preparation for operations ashore by naval forces was apparent by 1884, when the North Atlantic Squadron conducted a three-day exercise with a naval brigade of 660 officers and men (one-sixth of them Marines). The official report of the event noted: “Landing forces are among the most important subjects to which they [naval officers] may give their attention.” 4

The transition to greater professionalism brought the first written landing-force doctrine. The Navy had published Exercises in Small-Arms and Field Artillery in 1852, but it was a compilation of Army drill regulations that explained how to move troops in standard formations. It did not cover tactics—when to use various formations or how to accomplish any task not involving drill movements. In 1886 the Navy printed The Naval Brigade and Operations Ashore by Marine Lieutenant Howard K. Gilman, a true compilation of tactical doctrine from various sources. The author noted in his preface: “While fully realizing that there are many officers in the service of greater experience, and far more competent to prepare a work of this kind than myself, yet, as no such work has hitherto been prepared, I trust that this one may meet with the approval of, and be of practical benefit to, the service at large.” 5

That emphasis by the Navy and the Marine Corps proved farsighted, as the scale of operations ashore and the level of Marine participation therein continued growing. The importance of the Isthmus of Panama to U.S. trade, coupled with Panamanian unrest under Colombian control, resulted in repeated Marine deployments to that area. In March 1885 ships’ detachments landed at both ends of the Panama rail line. Within a space of two weeks the Corps assembled two battalions in New York City and got them to the isthmus. Interventions in Panama, Nicaragua, and other Central American and Caribbean countries would become routine in the years to follow.

The Spanish-American War brought the new requirement for coaling stations and landing forces to the fore. On 7 June 1898, 80 Marines from ships’ detachments conducted an amphibious reconnaissance of Guantanamo Bay, Cuba—a possible coaling site for the U.S. fleet blockading the Spanish squadron in Santiago. Three days later, a Marine battalion (formed, as usual, from Navy-yard garrisons) landed to seize the bay. The rapid deployment of the Marine unit and its equally rapid victory stood in contrast to the Army, which had marshaled a much larger invasion force with great difficulty, suffered more than 2,600 deaths due to disease before even departing the States, and conducted a chaotic landing in Cuba against no immediate opposition. 6 Although the Army ultimately was successful in its operations ashore, the Marine Corps earned lasting and well-deserved plaudits from the American public and national leaders. Meanwhile, ships’ detachments were active against the Spanish in other theaters, landing in the Philippines, Guam, and Puerto Rico, as well as handling unrelated brush-fire emergencies in China, Samoa, and Nicaragua.

A Growing Force for Growing Demand

In no time at all the Marine Corps had found itself nearly overwhelmed by expeditionary service, and it doubled in size to 6,000 men to meet the need. The burgeoning Filipino rebellion necessitated the deployment of small Marine battalions to the Philippines in 1899—one in May, a second in September, and a third in December—all soon organized into the 1st Regiment. In May 1900, two ships’ detachments went ashore in China and moved overland to Peking to guard the U.S. Legation from the antiforeign Boxer movement. Most of the 1st Regiment shifted from the Philippines to China to participate in the international relief force for the Legation Quarter during August. In October the 1st Regiment returned to the Philippines and joined the new 2d Regiment in continuing operations against the rebellion.

In late 1903 and early 1904, four Marine battalions deployed to Panama to protect that new nation after its break with Colombia. In mid-September 1906, a ships’ detachment and then a Marine battalion landed in Cuba to deal with a rebellion there. By 10 October, when the first U.S. Army units arrived on the island, nearly 3,000 Marines organized into six battalions were already there. By 1912, when the Marine Corps deployed two regiments to a new crisis in Cuba and another regiment to Nicaragua, it had expanded to nearly 10,000 men. It also had created the Advance Base School to train personnel for seizing and (primarily) defending the expeditionary bases required by a Navy that was now truly global in its size and scope of duties. In late 1913 the Corps established the Advance Base Force, its first permanent organization dedicated to an expeditionary mission.

While Europe became embroiled in World War I in 1914, the Marine Corps became even more enmeshed in the Caribbean and Central America. In April three Marine regiments and reinforcing sailors captured the port of Veracruz in Mexico to forestall the delivery of weapons to rebels. They held the city until Army troops began arriving at the end of the month. The Corps sent a brigade to Haiti in July and August 1915 to put down a revolution there. A U.S.-Haitian treaty signed the next month tasked the Corps with creating a constabulary force to maintain order. It would continue that mission for almost two decades and participate in numerous small-unit skirmishes with rebels for the next several years. The following year Marine units occupied Santo Domingo after significant fighting to establish a stable government and constabulary there.

The use of Marine-led local forces to fight a counterinsurgency campaign ensured that the operations in Haiti and Santo Domingo remained primarily expeditionary in character even though the deployments stretched over many years (until 1934 and 1924 respectively). Most elements operated on a shoestring, out in the countryside far from any support. When rebellions flared beyond the ability of those forces to handle them, regular Marine units deployed from Navy ships or the United States to reinforce them.

In April 1917 the United States entered World War I. The Marine Corps, already fully engaged around the world, put together a regiment from Navy-yard garrisons and quieter Caribbean deployments. It sailed for France in June (on the same day that the first Army combat units departed the States). Another regiment joined it in October, and they formed into the 4th Brigade, which ultimately numbered more than 9,000 men. The outfit did not see any action until the following spring and fought its first major battle (Belleau Wood) almost a year after the first elements deployed. By that point the operation had lost much of its expeditionary character, so the main impact of World War I was to further burnish the fighting reputation of the Corps, provide impetus to the expansion of its aviation component, and increase its overall size to an unprecedented 75,000 men (and, for the first time, a handful of women).

Formalizing Forces and Their Roles

Demobilization after that conflict dramatically reduced the Marine Corps in size, but it maintained a floor around 20,000 men. The Advance Base Force located in Quantico, Virginia, which had remained in existence throughout World War I and even deployed for a time to the Caribbean, became the East Coast Expeditionary Force in 1919. A counterpart, designated the West Coast Expeditionary Force, stood up at San Diego the same year. Both were designed as brigades with artillery and aviation elements.

With the new titles, the Corps not only embraced the expeditionary function, but indicated that the commands would perform a wide array of functions beyond seizing and defending advance bases. They might fight alongside the Army in a major land campaign, battle insurgents in third-world countries, or conduct amphibious assaults (a mission drawing increasing focus in the Navy and the Marine Corps as those services contemplated a potential Pacific war with Japan). Beginning in 1924, the expeditionary forces routinely embarked with the Fleet to participate in annual exercises. The Corps also acquired equipment and weapons—such as pack howitzers (designed by the Army to be broken into parts and carried on mules)—that were best suited to easy movement ashore in landings.

The establishment of the Marine Corps Schools in Quantico beginning in 1920 provided the first professional higher-level education for Marine officers beyond occasional attendance at Army or Navy programs. While the Quantico institutions (a Field Officers Course primarily for majors, and a Company Officers Course for senior lieutenants and captains) initially were a warmed-over version of Army courses, the concentration of instructors and students naturally facilitated discussion of uniquely Marine approaches to tactics.

The strategic focus of the two services also further diverged and emphasized the need for Marine-specific doctrine. The Army, already nearly two decades removed from its counterinsurgency experience in the Philippines, focused increasingly on fighting another continental war and garrisoning overseas possessions such as the Philippines and the Panama Canal Zone. The Corps, meanwhile, faced ongoing guerrilla campaigns in the Caribbean and the need to seize bases for the Navy. Both became primary topics in the Marine Corps Gazette, the nascent professional journal for Marines.

Expeditionary operations began spiking again in 1926 as several ships’ detachments landed in Nicaragua and another went ashore in China to deal with civil wars in both countries. Early 1927 brought the deployment of a Marine regiment to Shanghai (where it would remain through 1941), as well as a brigade to Tientsin and a brigade to Nicaragua. A peace treaty between factions in the latter nation again assigned the Corps the mission of establishing a constabulary force. One rebel leader, Augusto Sandino, refused to lay down his arms and would lead a rebellion lasting through the end of the Marine intervention in 1932.

Captain Merritt Edson personified the impact of these counterinsurgency campaigns on the Corps. He landed on Nicaragua’s sparsely inhabited east coast with his 56-man ships’ detachment in March 1928. Realizing that the Coco River was the only trafficable route into the forbidding interior where Sandino holed up, Edson ended up leading three operations up the wild waterway. The first was a six-man reconnaissance patrol that lasted 18 days and penetrated 260 miles. The second was a two-month combat patrol that made no contact and served only to demonstrate the difficulty of operating far from sources of supply and support. Near the end of July Edson launched another effort, this time at the head of nearly 100 men, all embarked in native dugout canoes and occasionally resupplied by Marine aviation. His relentless pursuit resulted in several skirmishes with Sandino and the establishment of a patrol base in August in the heart of the enemy lair, where he would keep the rebels off balance and on the run for seven months. His creative solutions to tactical and logistical challenges made him a leading thinker on counterinsurgency operations. 7

From Small Wars To Amphibious Assault

In the early 1930s the Marine Corps Schools began the task of compiling formal doctrine for both counterinsurgency and amphibious assault missions. Edson influenced the first via discussions with his former commander in Nicaragua, Major Harold Utley, who published a treatise on “Small Wars” in the Gazette . That subsequently served as the basis for the Marine Corps Schools’ 1935 manual, Small Wars Operations . 8 In 1940 Edson would almost single-handedly rewrite a new version, modeled on his Nicaraguan experience, dubbed the Small Wars Manual .

With the end of interventions in the Caribbean and Central America, however, counterinsurgency took a decided back seat. The schools devoted a considerably larger and broader effort to devising a Tentative Manual for Landing Operations , published in 1934. Coupled with the formal re-designation of the Expeditionary Forces as the Fleet Marine Forces at the end of 1933, the Corps began focusing much more heavily on the amphibious-assault mission and direct support to naval campaigns. But with both publications in hand, the head of the schools proclaimed: “For the first time since the founding of the Marine Corps Schools the entire course of instruction is based on our missions and our jobs.” 9

The onset of World War II in 1939 set the Marine Corps on a course for unprecedented expansion. It reached a strength of 65,000 before the United States officially entered the war in December 1941 and peaked at nearly 500,000 by the end in 1945. The conflict was almost entirely one expeditionary operation after another for the Corps, beginning with the deployment of a brigade to Iceland in June 1941 through the landing of occupation elements in Japan on 30 August 1945. The premier Marine expeditionary operation was likely the six-month campaign on Guadalcanal. Launched on a shoestring with inadequate supporting forces and hanging in the balance at several points, the Marines turned the tide on the ground against the Japanese, puncturing their vaunted aura of invincibility.

The Army necessarily engaged just as actively in expeditionary operations around the globe during the war, but afterward became enmeshed in occupation duty in Japan and Germany. The Marine Corps reinvigorated its expeditionary roots in January 1948 when it deployed its first battalion on board transports to serve as the landing force of the 6th Fleet in the Mediterranean. This instituted a practice of continuously maintaining combat ready units afloat around the globe in order to respond to any crisis that might arise.

When the Korean War broke out on 25 June 1950, the deployment-centric Corps proved more ready than the Army for the sudden conflict. In time-honored fashion, the Marine Corps cobbled together forces from units afloat and ashore and manpower squeezed from Navy yards and other garrison functions. The effectiveness of the 1st Marine Brigade and then the 1st Marine Division during the opening months of the war ensured that the Corps would survive as a major institution in the U.S. military.

In the late 1950s the Marine Corps formally resumed use of the term “expeditionary” in labeling its commands and developed the equipment and doctrine to create expeditionary airfields in a matter of hours where there was no existing runway. That emphasis contributed to Marines landing first in Lebanon during a crisis in 1958, providing the first ground-combat troops in Vietnam in March 1965, and arriving first in the Dominican Republic in response to a coup in April 1965. Marine forces afloat also would execute the final withdrawal of American personnel from Cambodia and Vietnam in April 1975.

Keeping an Expeditionary State of Mind

One consequence of the Vietnam War was replacement of the term expeditionary with amphibious in command titles (due to the alleged sensitivities of the Vietnamese), but Marines never altered their focus. As the importance and vulnerability of Middle Eastern oil supplies came to the fore in the 1970s, the Corps created the Maritime Prepositioning Force (MPF). The three squadrons of cargo ships stationed near potential crisis areas, each holding all the equipment and supplies needed to outfit a brigade for 30 days of combat, was an alternative to the Army’s reliance on airlift and commercial shipping to move its heavy forces to the sound of the guns.

When Iraq conquered Kuwait in early August 1990, the MPF operated as envisioned. A brigade of the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division was the first ground force to arrive in Saudi Arabia to initiate Operation Desert Shield, but the arrival of two MPF squadrons in succeeding days brought battalions of M60 tanks and 155-mm howitzers, as well as sufficient supplies and ammunition for an extended battle. The two Marine brigades constituted the heaviest ground forces in theater until the Army’s first mechanized division arrived from the United States in September.

The history of Marine expeditionary operations reveals that organization can play a role, though it is not so much how a command is structured as the fact that it is dedicated to the mission and actively preparing for immediate deployment on short notice. Equipment also can be a significant factor, whether it be specialized amphibious weapons and craft, maritime prepositioning squadrons, or gear to support short takeoffs and landings on improvised runways. Appropriate doctrine is useful, but the Corps operated for much of its existence with manuals borrowed from the Army and eventually developed doctrine solely for the amphibious and counterinsurgency subsets of the overarching expeditionary requirement.

But even more than any of those concrete elements, expeditionary warfare is at its most basic level a state of mind. It requires innovative thinking, a willingness to find a way to make do with less, and an aggressive style recognizing that hesitation generally will permit a foe surprised by your rapid appearance in his backyard to recover and make use of his home-field advantage. The Corps repeatedly demonstrated these attributes almost from its beginning and so has remained the premier exemplar of an expeditionary force.

1. Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms , Joint Publication 1-02, 8 November 2010 (As Amended Through 15 August 2012),

2. .

3. “Origins of Joint Overseas Expeditions: Synopsis of Lecture,” 14 March 1934, Historical Amphibious File, Gray Research Center, Marine Corps Base Quantico, VA.

4. Jack Shulimson, The Marine Corps’ Search for a Mission: 1880­–1898 (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1993), 57.

5. 1LT H. K. Gillam, The Naval Brigade and Operations Ashore: A Handbook for Field Service (Washington, DC: Navy Department, 1886).

6. COL Raymond K. Bluhm Jr., U.S. Army: A Complete History (Westport, CT: Hugh Lauter Levins Associates, 2004), 498.

7. MAJ Jon T. Hoffman, “Edson’s ‘First Raiders,’” Naval History (Fall 1991), 20–25. See also Jon T. Hoffman, Once a Legend: “Red Mike” Edson of the Marine Raiders (Novato, CA: Presidio Press, 1994).

8. For a useful but sometimes inaccurate look at this process, see Keith B. Bickel, Mars Learning: The Marine Corps’ Development of Small Wars Doctrine, 1915–1940 (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2001).

9. COL Jon T. Hoffman, USMC: A Complete History (Westport, CT: Hugh Lauter Levins Associates, 2002), 238.



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