A Most Timely Skirmish

By Lieutenant Colonel George S. Converse, U.S. Marine Corps (Retired)

The roles and missions of the armed services had been generally accepted by the government since the founding of the United States. The founding fathers provided for an army, navy, and marine corps modeled on the traditional service functions used by Britain and France to serve the nation’s needs. Over the years, political and technological changes drove the services to adapt, and in the process often blurred the boundary between traditional land and sea-control responsibilities. After World War I, for example, the control of military aviation became a principal point of contention between the services and organizational skirmishes for this control continued throughout World War II (and into the early 1950s). While the war forced them to work together in a unified effort, victory brought immediate and significant reductions in military funding and manpower. The competition for assets and prominence led to vitriolic attacks from many of the participants and their supporters, some calling for the elimination of some services, and separation of others from the two traditional War and Navy departments. Others called for the unification of the services and the creation of a single National Defense Department. 2

Many proponents of the Army Air Forces called for the separation of aviation from the Army and demanded that these capabilities—and those of the Navy and Marine Corps—be transferred to a new Department of the Air Force. Others suggested disbanding the Marine Corps. 3 Desperate measures by the service leaders highlighted the seriousness of the changes under consideration. Within the Marine Corps, in November 1945, General Alexander A. Vandegrift, commandant, created a special panel of highly competent officers to track the impending moves and prepare material for the Marine Corps’ position. 4 But on Wednesday, 1 May 1946, all of this discussion was unimportant to Bernard Paul “Bernie” Coy, inmate number 415 in San Francisco’s infamous Alcatraz Island Prison.

A Prisoner’s Plot

Bernie Coy’s attention was focused on his escape plan. Serving a 25-year sentence for bank robbery, he believed he could do what no one else had been able to do before: escape from “the Rock.” For five years, Coy had considered the problem and decided that, to succeed where the others had failed, he needed a gun—and he knew how to get one.

Within the cell blocks, no guards, especially those in contact with the prisoners, were permitted to be armed. With a gun and five accomplices, Coy believed he could seize the floor guards as hostages and force them to turn over the keys to the outside wall. Using their lives as bargaining chips, he could commandeer the prison launch and escape under the cover of darkness.

The prison was configured into two large rooms: The main hall had three blocks of triple-tiered cells, Cell Blocks A, B, and C, which contained the general prisoner population; a fourth, Cell Block D, was separated from the others by a concrete wall. Cell Block D contained the most dangerous criminals as well as those serving periods of isolation. There was a corrections officer, armed with a rifle and pistol, positioned on two gallery catwalks overlooking the cell blocks, one at each end of the main hall. The sentry on the west catwalk was also responsible for looking down on Cell Block D. To do this, he had to leave the area over the main room and pass through a small door, blocking his view of the main area. This took him about five minutes, enough time for Coy to scale the wall, separate the bars, and ambush the guard when he returned. The bars on the catwalk were not anchored at the top and could be split apart. 5 All Coy had to do now was wait for the right opportunity.

Back in Washington, General Vandegrift’s special panel did not have the luxury of waiting until the time was right. Since November 1945, the team had focused its efforts on countering the brutal initiatives of the other services to reduce the effectiveness and importance of the Marine Corps. Various proposals restructuring the military departments had circulated through the government, none of them beneficial to the Marines. The Navy, the Corps’ sister service, remained on the sidelines throughout much of this, concentrating on keeping its own aviation capabilities and structure.

In addition to the commandant, other senior general officers had addressed congressional committees, providing the Marine Corps’ viewpoint. But the battle was not going well for the Leathernecks. It appeared that the Corps was to be reduced to a few lightly armed rifle regiments, and in the process would lose Marine aviation, its armored and artillery forces, and even its principal role in amphibious operations. Merger and reorganization legislation had been prepared and was being presented to Congress to create a new public law redefining the roles and missions of the services—a new National Security Act. General Vandegrift had one last chance to sway the congressional decision makers. On 6 May he was to address the Senate Naval Affairs Committee. No less than the fate of the Marine Corps rested upon his eloquence and expression of logic. His special panel was due for a long weekend.

The Plan Goes Awry

On Alcatraz, Bernie Coy was also going to have a long weekend. On 2 May he set his plan into motion. After most of the prisoners in the three general-populace cell blocks had been moved out for their daily work assignments, the six escape plotters made their move. The plan initially went well. Following the west catwalk guard’s departure into Cell Block D, and with a distraction created by his accomplices meant to occupy the attention of the east catwalk and floor guards, Coy scaled the wall, breached the bars, and slugged the west guard unconscious as he emerged through the door on his return. Coy found the cell house key ring and dropped it, several nightsticks, some gas grenades and gas masks, and the guard’s pistol and Springfield rifle, along with ammunition for both, to his accomplices. With the weapons, they quickly overpowered the guards on the lower floor and locked them into empty cells. As planned, they also unlocked the cell doors in Cell Block D, releasing those prisoners to add to the confusion. Most of them, including the famous “Birdman of Alcatraz,” Robert Stroud, remained in their cells, not wishing to get involved. It was at this point that the plan went awry: The escapees could not find the key to the outside door.

The east catwalk guard moved to sound the alarm. To do this, he had to expose himself to the fire of the convicts on the floor of the main hall. Coy saw him and began firing, wounding the guard. Corrections-officer reinforcements soon arrived and more shots were exchanged. Again, Coy, a deadly shot, wounded several of the reinforcing guards. The rescue party withdrew to regroup, sending the wounded guards to a hospital in San Francisco. At this point, realizing the escape attempt was foiled, one of the convicts, Joseph Paul “Dutch Joe” Cretzer, serving life for bank robbery and murder, fired into the cells containing the hostage guards, wounding most of them, some critically. The rescue party, firing shotguns and Thompson submachine guns, rushed the cell blocks, and the convicts withdrew. Three of them returned to their cells, but Coy, Cretzer, and Marvin Franklin “Meek Marvin” Hubbard retreated between the cell blocks into the narrow crawl spaces holding plumbing and electrical conduits. The rescue party withdrew with the wounded hostages, initiating a standoff as night fell.

With guards being wounded, and fearing a general uprising, the warden sounded the general-alarm sirens, which could be heard all over San Francisco Bay. Following an established reaction plan, he notified the San Francisco and Oakland police departments, the Coast Guard, the Naval District, and the commander of the Army Presidio. He also notified the Bureau of Prisons and requested help from corrections personnel at the McNeil Island, Leavenworth, and Atlanta prisons. 6 Area police departments cordoned off the roads leading to the bay and stationed men at all the piers. The Coast Guard and Navy surrounded the island with armed patrol boats, and the Marine Barracks at Treasure Island deployed a detachment of combat-ready Marines to the island. Additional corrections officers arrived from nearby San Quentin Prison.

This did not go unnoticed by the people of San Francisco, and the Bay Area was soon clogged by traffic jams of people watching the battle. People on the Golden Gate Bridge could see the searchlights shining on the prison walls and hear the gunfire. Explosions and tracer fire could be seen lighting up both sides of the island. Navy ships fired parachute star shells to illuminate the area, while a Navy PBY Catalina aircraft circled the area, keeping sightseeing planes away.

The Media Takes Note

Reporters had a field day, and it was not limited to San Francisco. On 3 May, The New York Times banner headline read, “Marines Land on Alcatraz to Battle Armed Convicts in Attempted Prison Break.” 7 The news spread fast, with the Associated Press and United Press International feeding the story nationwide. Most of the reporters got the facts of the story wrong, arming the convicts with machine guns and heralding that “most of the lives of the guards were at stake.” 8 All of the convicts were described as “desperate,” and the escape attempt as a “riot.” While vastly overestimating the number of prisoners involved, it made for good copy. Prison officials did not help the situation, reporting that “Our situation is difficult and precarious.” 9 Compounding the problem, they fired a continuous barrage of gunfire and tear-gas grenades into the prison.

The Marines’ arrival increased the tempo of the battle as they added their firepower to the fight. Although little used, they carried bazookas, flamethrowers, and light machine guns, as well as automatic rifles and grenades. Covering the outside of the main cell house that enclosed Cell Block D, the Marines fired into the windows, forcing the “hardened criminals” to cower within their cells. Although the prisoners could not escape, they were not locked in their cells and posed a potential threat. The inmates who were outside the cell blocks were herded into the prison yard and kept under guard by the Marines. Very few of the prisoners challenged the armed Leathernecks. Although most of the Marines were still in their teens, they were battle-hardened, having recently returned from Pacific campaigns, and were little impressed by the reputation of the “cons.”

The story of the Battle of Alcatraz stayed on the front pages for three days, graphically recounting every aspect of the siege, especially the bravery and skill of the Marines. No one considering the fate of the Marine Corps in Washington could avoid the reporting.

War Tactics in Alcatraz

The assault fusillade from outside the wall continued through the night and into the morning of 3 May. By then, the inmates in Cell Block D had had enough and solicited Robert Stroud to negotiate a surrender. They were hungry, thirsty, cold, and wet. The water to their commodes had been turned off and the stench from the cell block was extreme. With their capitulation, only the capture of the three convicts hiding between Cell Blocks B and C remained to secure the prison. This was not to be easy, however.

The three armed inmates had a perfect defensive position as long as their ammunition held out. They had made the decision to die in the effort, as surrender meant death in San Quentin’s gas chamber. Within the crawl space, they could not be rushed and could hit anyone attempting to enter. Unfortunately for them, they did not count on Marine Warrant Officer Charles Buckner.

The warden did not want to use the heavy weapons the Marines had brought inside the prison, so Buckner devised a plan to get at the convicts from above. Buckner, a seasoned veteran, knew explosives. Climbing to the cell house roof, he drilled holes in the roof along the track of the crawl space corridor. Most of this area consisted of ventilation shafts that ran over the crawl space. Using two strings (one to pull the firing pin), he systematically lowered fragmentation and concussion grenades into the tight area. Varying the height and position of the explosions, he cleared the expanse along the cell block, blasting every portion of the enclosure. The three convicts were in untenable positions as they moved to avoid the explosions. Trying to hide behind the plumbing, they were, nonetheless, slowly riddled by shrapnel. Buckner estimated he had dropped 500 grenades, and after several hours informed the warden that he believed no one could have lived through the bombardment.

With great caution, corrections officers moved into the cell block area and inched down the corridor, well aware that they were totally silhouetted by the light of their flashlights. The place was totally destroyed. Steam, fresh water, and sewage lines were ruptured. Live electrical cables sparked along the walls, and concrete, broken pipes, and jagged structural beams partially blocked their way at every step. At the end of the tunnel, they found the three men dead from their wounds. The battle for Alcatraz was over.

Major histories of the Corps, written by its most loyal proponents, do not mention the battle. The name Alcatraz is not engraved on the Marine Corps War Memorial in Arlington, Virginia, and no battle streamer for the action is affixed to the Battle Color of the Marine Corps. Although small by any standard, the Battle of Alcatraz may have been one of the most important fights ever engaged in by Marines. It occurred at a time when the very existence of the Corps was on the line, and reports of the action appeared in papers throughout the nation. On 6 May, General Vandegrift did not need to mention the fight in his speech to Congress; everyone on the committee knew of the engagement, and it was fresh in their minds.

Although the Marine Corps was focused on maintaining its predominant responsibilities in developing the tactics, techniques, and equipment necessary for the conduct of amphibious operations, and in maintaining a force structure of combined arms and aviation elements large enough to execute these operations, the battle of Alcatraz highlighted a needed response capability that did not meet the necessity for large-scale operations. The Marine Corps had served well in earlier smaller missions: guarding the mail, stopping seal poaching in the Arctic, and protecting American legations and embassies around the world. The inclusion of an all-encompassing task for the Marines in the National Security Act of 1947, “and such other duties as the President may direct,” reflected these actions, and gave the president the flexibility to send in Marines to solve similar problems short of war, as at Alcatraz.



1. LT GEN Victor H. Krulak, USMC, First to Fight, An Inside View of the U.S. Marine Corps (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1984), 26.

2. Gordon W. Keiser, The U.S. Marine Corps and Defense Unification 1944–47: The Politics of Survival (Washington, DC: National Defense University Press, Fort Lesley J. McNair, 1982), 8.

3. COL Robert Debs Heinl Jr., USMC, Soldiers of the Sea: The United States Marine Corps, 1775–1963 (Annapolis, MD: U.S. Naval Institute, 1962), 514.

4. Keiser, The U.S. Marine Corps and Defense Unification 1944–47 , 73.

5. Don DeNevi and Philip Bergen, Alcatraz ’46: The Anatomy of a Classic Prison Tragedy (San Rafael, CA: Leswing Press, 1974), 46.

6. Ernest B. Lageson, Battle at Alcatraz (Omaha, NE: Addicus Books, 1999), 196.

7. The New York Times , 3 May 1946.

8. The Charlotte Observer , 3 May 1946.

9. Ibid.

 

 
 

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