Historian Fletcher Pratt wrote that General A. A. Vandegrift, in his role as commanding general of the First Marine Division and senior officer on Guadalcanal, “invented a new system of war—the system of seizing a beachhead on which an airfield could be constructed, setting up a cordon defense around it, and then proceeding to the next step. The process was repeated in endless variations throughout the Southwest Pacific—at Bougainville, Cape Gloucester, Hollandia, Aitape, Geelvink Bay, Mindoro.”1 This campaign moved the force forward 3,000 miles in a little more than a year. Today’s Marine Corps and Navy should recognize the magnitude of the transformation Vandegrift created to apply it as they modernize and integrate their forces.
A History of Refinement
In 1939, when the Marine Corps’ end strength was only 30,000, Brigadier General–select Vandegrift was assistant to the Commandant, Major General Thomas Holcomb, and participated in the major changes that were underway in amphibious operations and aviation. For the Marine Corps to be most useful to the fleet with limited personnel, they proposed forming seven defense battalions (which they called “unsinkable aircraft carriers”) to protect naval air stations in the Pacific. In 1940, Vandegrift accepted the Navy’s offer of air-defense radars—the beginning of modern air control.
Vandegrift was thus a central figure in creating the forces, equipment, and changes in operating procedures that would be severely tested in the Solomon Islands. The combination of his work in developing the Marine Corps and then employing it against a tenacious adversary facilitated transformation. Starting from the existing thought and habits of the time and testing them in experiments with new technology and methods, the transformation resulted in novel combinations of more powerful ways of thinking and acting.
When the United States entered World War II, three writers dominated its military thought—Carl von Clausewitz (land), Alfred Thayer Mahan (sea), and Giulio Douhet (air)—and their works continue to have influence. On-scene commanders well versed in these writers nevertheless had to adapt their thinking to emerging events. In the Guadalcanal campaign, Vandegrift, Vice Admiral “Bull” Halsey, and others devised new ways to make war, combined them with old ways that still worked, and used them to solve the many problems they confronted along the path to victory. Working closely with Halsey, Vandegrift created what can be called a “doctrine of timely cooperation,” which brought together all forces available (air, land, sea, and undersea) to achieve the mission and ensure mutual survival.
In the months following the 7 August 1942 landing on Guadalcanal, the Japanese made three attempts to seize Henderson Field by land; of these, two penetrated to within sight of the runway. Imperial Japanese Navy gun and air bombardment repeatedly damaged the runway, facilities, and aircraft on the ground. During numerous engagements at sea, the aircraft carriers USS Wasp (CV-7) and Hornet (CV-8) were sunk, and the Saratoga (CV-3) and Enterprise (CV-6) sustained serious damage. By mid-November, only the Enterprise was available.
The climax of the Guadalcanal campaign occurred between 12 and 15 November 1942. During this period, a series of intense surface and air engagements occurred between U.S. forces and two Japanese task forces (a bombardment task force and a reinforcement transport task force). In the battle, all but ten of the Enterprise’s aircraft joined 50 aircraft from Henderson Field to go after the Japanese ships with a vengeance.
After attacking the Japanese, the Navy aircraft from the Enterprise recovered on Henderson Field to rearm, refuel, and return to the fight. They could do this because the Navy and Marine pilots flew the same aircraft, which used the same fuel, ordnance, spare parts, and maintenance procedures. Just as important, they used the same radars and air-control protocols. The mechanics of both services were qualified on each other’s aircraft; whoever was not busy took the next task.2 Available pilots flew the next ready aircraft, whatever its service, and mixed formations of Navy and Marine Corps aircraft were common—all these were important parts of the transformation.
Henderson Field was truly an unsinkable aircraft carrier. It extended the Enterprise’s range, and the combined might of air power launched from it provided a tenacious defensive shield not only for the field, but also for the Enterprise task force. Halsey and Vandegrift had created “a fleet with a fighting foot ashore.”3
After Guadalcanal, the boundary between theaters was shifted, and Halsey came under the command of General Douglas MacArthur in the Southwest Pacific. In 1943, Vandegrift was promoted to lieutenant general and was the senior Marine on Halsey’s staff, helping plan the Bougainville operation when it was decided not to land near the established airfields, but instead to seize a lightly defended section in the middle of the island and build an airfield from scratch. Rear Admiral Theodore Wilkinson, the generally accepted father of the “hit ’em where they ain’t” tactic, was the amphibious task force commander, and Vandegrift was the landing force commander.
The pattern of operations that developed was this: Establish air and sea dominance; land where the enemy is weak; build the expeditionary port, airfield, and maintenance facility; move the fighters forward as soon as possible so they can protect the bombers; move the bombers forward when facilities are ready; repeat. It resulted in the creation of the naval expeditionary force construct, an organization designed to put a fighting foot ashore. Halsey used the pattern again at Green Island to attack Kavieng. MacArthur used this pattern and organization repeatedly across the entire theater and in the conquest of the Philippines with two armies, an air force, and an engineer brigade centered around Seventh Fleet and Seventh Amphibious Force.
While Vandegrift and Halsey did not use these words to describe it, they sought to fight asymmetrically across multiple warfighting domains to present dilemmas to the enemy. They continually refined their approach to use these asymmetries to create multidomain shields that allowed other elements of the naval expeditionary force to operate ferociously in the offense.4
In the Korean War, now–General of the Army MacArthur used the doctrine of timely cooperation and the naval expeditionary force construct to carry out the bold amphibious landing at Incheon in 1950. Achieving surprise, the landing was just another in the sequence of more than 60 MacArthur eventually commanded, starting in the Southwest Pacific theater. The success of the Incheon-Seoul campaign is well known; not so well known are the uses of the expeditionary organization and tactics in the landings at Wonsan and Hungnam or in the retrograde of Tenth Corps by Seventh Fleet in October, November, and December 1950.
During the crucial period from 28 November to 12 December 1950, the First Marine Division and parts of the Army’s Seventh Infantry Division were surrounded by Chinese troops. The First Marine Aircraft Wing and Navy carrier Task Force (TF) 77 made a maximum effort to put as many planes as possible over the embattled Marines. About half the sorties—as many as 200 per day—were from the carriers.5
Yesterday’s Transformation and Today’s Changes
Whereas Vandegrift and the Marine Corps helped Halsey and the Navy create a fleet with a fighting foot ashore, Vice Admiral Arthur Struble (Seventh Fleet), Rear Admiral Edward Ewen (TF 77), and Rear Admiral James Doyle (TF 90) worked with Major General Oliver Smith (First Marine Division) and Major General Field Harris (First Marine Aircraft Wing) to create a force with a fighting foot at sea in northeast Korea. Vandegrift’s doctrine of timely cooperation and the naval expeditionary force were critical factors in the survival of the Marine Corps and Army units surrounded by the Chinese.
The Vandegrift-Halsey transformation combined the teachings of Clausewitz, Mahan, and Douhet in new ways of thinking and acting. The result was inherently maritime in character, and it demonstrated its utility through World War II and the Korean War. This cooperation from both sides of the littorals set the stage for the transformation taking place in the Marine Corps and Navy today.
The Marine Corps’ current force design effort began in response to known and anticipated changes in the operating environment. This modern transformation demonstrates interesting parallels to the response of General Vandegrift and his contemporaries to the changes in the environment they faced.
Stand-in forces, too, are inherently maritime in character, and the operating methods outlined in A Concept for Stand-in Forces echo Vandegrift. The concept writers recognize the historical foundation his experiences in the Solomon Islands provided when they note: “To be most effective, expeditionary forces operating in the littorals must integrate operations with other fleet forces.”6 The stand-in forces concept creates a new fleet with a fighting foot ashore, updated with modern capabilities. The lessons of history, especially those from the Guadalcanal campaign, directly influenced the drafting of the concept.
Vandegrift and Halsey’s doctrine of timely cooperation should sound familiar to today’s Marines in two ways. First, its spirit animates the foundational Marine Corps Doctrinal Publication 1: Warfighting, which states, “Combined arms is the full integration of arms in such a way that to counteract one, the enemy must become more vulnerable to another. We pose the enemy not just with a problem, but with a dilemma—a no-win situation.” The Marine Corps employs combined arms to maximize combat power through the use of all available resources to best advantage, just as Vandegrift did with the doctrine of timely cooperation.
However, in today’s environment, the understanding of combined arms has expanded beyond the physical spaces of land, sea, air, and undersea to include space, cyberspace, the electromagnetic spectrum, and the information environment. With so many new digital and electromagnetic technologies available, a widening array of combined arms effects and dilemmas can now be employed against adversaries. Today’s contested maritime spaces require a new level of integration and timing, as well as the convergence of multiple effects across multiple domains for combined-arms operations to create advantages and impose costs on opponents below or above the threshold of armed conflict.
If, in the 20th century, the doctrine of timely cooperation involved combining the fighting foot ashore with the fighting fleet at sea, then, in the 21st century, the doctrine must involve naval forces with a fighting foot in all warfighting domains. There are many fighting-foot and domain combinations to be considered in contested maritime spaces. To enhance the capability, lethality, and survivability of Marines and sailors working and fighting together requires learning from history and developing bold new ways to think, compete, and make war; combining them with old ways that still work; and using them to achieve the nation’s goals.
A second way the doctrine of timely cooperation resonates is in the fight for information. Winning this fight will give the fleet and Fleet Marine Forces lethal advantages in the next battle and the next war because information and combat power are inextricably linked. Whether it is to ensure trust in the target solution for the next fire mission, achieve decision advantage through all-domain reconnaissance and counterreconnaissance, or gain access to key maritime terrain through partners, the fight for information is real, consequential, and never-ending.
On Guadalcanal and in the Solomon Islands, fighting for information was an essential component of the transformation. The ability to scout successfully from the unsinkable aircraft carrier at Henderson Field played a critical part in mid-November 1942. Vandegrift and Halsey won the reconnaissance battle by combining this aerial scouting with means such as signals intelligence and coast watchers positioned throughout the Solomons. They were able to fuse the all-domain picture of their time; combining that thinking with today’s technology will ensure victory in tomorrow’s reconnaissance and counterreconnaissance contest—in all domains.
The fight for information is central to the role of stand-in forces as well as other forms of naval warfare, including amphibious operations. As former Commandant General H. David Berger wrote, amphibious operations increase the options available to the naval and joint force in competition and conflict, which is why he directed development of a concept for 21st-century amphibious operations.7 General Vandegrift and his Navy counterparts recognized the utility of amphibious operations and exploited them in the pursuit of the overall naval campaigns.
Littoral Warfare at Its Most Intense
Renowned naval scholar and retired Navy Captain Wayne Hughes wrote in 1997:
The Solomons campaign of 1942–43 exhibits the crucible of littoral warfare at its most intense. . . . Understanding the teamwork of land, sea, and air forces and the central role of scouting (“information acquisition”) in the Solomons helps one anticipate the even greater interaction that will confront naval forces conducting operations on both sides of a coastline in the missile warfare of the twenty-first century.8
His words are prescient as we look to the challenges the Marine Corps will face in the future.
Today’s transformation includes combining old ideas, such as sea denial, with new technologies and domains to produce new ways of thinking and acting. The stand-in force will help the joint force win the reconnaissance/counterreconnaissance battle, which correlates with the doctrine of timely cooperation. Winning this battle and contributing to sea denial in and across every domain echoes the idea of a fleet—and today, the joint force—with a fighting foot ashore.
The importance of General Vandegrift’s role in the transformation of his day is hard to overstate. He was instrumental before the war in breathing life into the capabilities he would require to master the challenges he faced on Guadalcanal. He convinced Halsey to move forward from strict interpretation of Mahan and use all the force available (air, land, sea, and undersea) to win. Of even greater importance, he took the components he was given and assembled them into symmetric and asymmetric competitive advantages against a tenacious enemy. It was his ability to put together the old and new techniques into a new way of thinking and acting that made the difference.9 Looking to the future, the Navy and Marine Corps will experience a similar trajectory. Commanders of naval expeditionary forces will mix traditional Navy and Marine Corps strengths—indeed, joint and combined strengths—with the emerging capabilities of force design to produce an unbeatable advantage.
The authors wish to recognize the outstanding contributions of Eric Schaner and Colonel William Vivian, U.S. Marine Corps (Retired), to this article.