Tuesday, June 30, 2015

American Grand Strategy in the Mideast. Opening Up to the Kurds

Col. Max von Schoppenburg
At the end of WWI the Western Powers moved full force into the Mideast to fill the vacuum left by the mortally wounded Ottoman Empire. Through their inviolable hold over the League of Nations institution, Great Britain and France led the charge into the Levant to stake a claim on the rudderless Arab fiefdoms suddenly emancipated from the yoke of the Turkish sultans. This brazen power grab by London and Paris went largely unchallenged from a world still reeling from a decade of uninterrupted war and political enmity. It was also one of the primary reasons why the United States quickly disavowed itself from European affairs and gradually drifted away into an isolationist slumber for the next two decades. 

When both Britain and France attempted to reestablish their suzerainty over the Levant at the end of the Second World War they found their pathway blocked by the emergence of a new political power structure that had unmistakably deposed the two European giants from the top of that exalted order. For the next fifty years the politics of the Mideast would be intricately entwined in the acrimonious Cold War intrigues between Washington and Moscow; with nary a sound of religious or social dissent from the indigenous populations within. The heavy-handedness and political repression wrought by Washington and Moscow’s Middle Eastern puppets merely served to squelch the social and religious fervor that was violently building up in those societies. As a result, when the Kremlin’s political sway went into recession after the breakup of the Soviet Union, only the USA was left to take the wrath of these suddenly unleashed religious forces that inevitably came to the fore in the Islamic World. 

The one most challenging facet of American grand strategy in the Mideast since the end of the Cold War has been Washington’s determination to juggle the innate, religious sensitivities of the Islamist World, while holding precariously devoted to their obligations in safeguarding the sovereignty of the perpetually threatened state of Israel. This delicate balancing act has hamstrung every successive presidential administration in the White House since Israel gained its independence in 1948. In that duration America has alternatingly turned toward various, moderate Islamist states to facilitate Arab tolerance and to foster a reasonable state of coexistence with the state of Israel. At one time or another Washington has thrown their lot behind the Turks, Iranians, Jordanians, Egyptians and Saudis in order to amplify their standing in the Arab World and to mitigate the effects of religious intolerance directed at the Jewish state of Israel. The results of those fortuitous arrangements have all been largely disappointing.

Since the precipitous decline of the Soviet state in the early 1980’s, two significant developments have come to the fore in the Islamist World which have seriously impeded the structuring of a sound, American grand strategy in the Mideast  for the 21st Century. The first change came with the explosive rise of militant, Salafi jihadist terrorism among the more extremist elements of Sunni Islam. Once deemed a mere disruptive offshoot of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the wholesale expansion of Salafi jihadist, terrorist groups in the last twenty years now threatens to engulf the whole Middle East and beyond in a colossal conflagration of epic magnitude. But this trend toward radical Sunni Salafism portends a more immediate threat to the practitioners of Islam’s Shia faith than it does to any other institution outside the Islamic World. Thus the second development now threatening the Islamic world, or at least the Islamic states of the Arab world and central Asia, is the inter-religious clash between Sunni and Shia denominations of the Islamic faith. 

These developments might not have been so pronounced or threatening had the George W. Bush administration refrained from its ill-advised, military foray into Iraq in 2003, but what is done is done and American policy-makers must inevitably deal with the repercussions of that strategic miscalculation. It is best to do that by wholly identifying what is at stake in the war’s aftermath. First and foremost was the sudden emergence of the Islamic State militia; now the single most threatening and abhorrent Islamic terrorist organization in the world today. Had this group emerged ten years earlier than it actually did, it might have been possible to considerably degrade it, similarly in the way the intelligence community has chipped away at Al Qaeda’s infrastructure. That option however is no longer relevant to the current threat. But other than some ideological differences between the groups’ higher commands, these two jihadist terrorist groups are still one and the same and there’s a very good chance that they will reunite in the near future and become even a bigger threat than they are today.  

Consequently the threat from ISIL is now exceedingly more magnified because it has plopped itself right in the center of the Sunni-Shia feud, which threatens to envelop the whole Persian Gulf. America’s abrupt departure from the quagmire in Iraq merely accentuated the deep animosity between Sunni and Shia factions and deeply revealed the extent of Iran and Saudi Arabia’s complicity in cultivating the religious feud for their own purposes. The current government in Baghdad is completely paralyzed by this rift and its military forces have been effectively reduced to competing Sunni-Shia factions, run increasingly from Teheran and Riyadh. This in turn has left the Iraqi Army largely impotent to compete against ISIL and has allowed its iniquitous tentacles to spread far beyond its Anbar Province origins. 

In order to formulate a sound grand strategy for the region, American policy-makers must first concentrate on eliminating the most immediate and dangerous threat. Thus it is a military solution that Washington must resort to in clearing the playing field to allow for more constructive political policies to take root further on down the road. Fortunately for American policy-makers the quagmire in Iraq has furnished its strategic designers with a far more conducive and promising, third option besides the warring Sunni and Shia factions in Baghdad. The autonomous Kurdish-run region of Northern Iraq has been reliably and effectively engaged with ISIL for more than three years despite a totally inefficient collection of military hardware. The Kurds are the only combat faction in Iraq that have been able to beat ISIL on the battlefield without the military help of Iran or Saudi Arabia. 

The Kurds present a quite auspicious alternative to both military and political planners who have grown increasingly wary of Baghdad’s fluctuating tendencies since America’s military withdrawal. In the Kurdish peshmerga militia the US military has found itself a determined and reliable military force willing to take the fight to ISIL on their own incentive, if they are provided with the necessary resources needed to succeed. And in the Kurdish KRG, the political entity that runs the autonomous Kurdish government in Northern Iraq, American policy-makers could perhaps gain a potentially powerful and palpably moderate, Islamic partner to at least restore some semblance of political continuity in the region and to help fight the spread of militant Salafism in Iraq and Syria. Sadly, very little of America’s substantial military aid packages to date have found their way into Kurdish hands and the KRG has been seemingly marginalized by the current administration in the White House in deference to the corrupt regime in Baghdad. 

These two situations will have to change if America is to revise their grand strategy in the Mideast to account for the possible long-term effects of a sustained Sunni-Shia struggle for supremacy in the Persian Gulf and the Levant. America can best initiate this new strategy by openly advocating the establishment of a sovereign, Kurdish homeland in the disputed areas of Northern Iraq and Syria; in the region where the Kurds currently control and/or in the territories which Baghdad and Damascus have effectively abandoned to ISIL. Naturally such a drastic change in policy will no doubt elicit the disapproval and ire of Turkey and Iran, both of whom have sizeable Kurdish minorities in their midst, as well as the protests and hostility of Iraq and Syria, who show no desire of voluntarily surrendering their sovereign lands to non-Arab minorities, especially at the behest of America.

But regardless of Iranian and Turkish sensitivities, it is perhaps a long time in coming that American policy-makers come to the conclusion that Iraq is without a doubt, an irreversibly failed state. The only thing that ever kept it together in the first place was the long succession of oppressive and autocratic, military juntas' that have held sway in Baghdad since the fall of the Ottomans. It is today and will most likely remain, after the vicious sectarian violence of the post-Saddam era, a hopelessly divided land separated by Shia, Sunni and Kurdish tribesmen, ill at ease to let any one of them govern over their respective peoples. So far the Kurd’s political performance in their autonomous territory has far outshined the virulent partiality of the Sunni Arab and Shia factions in Baghdad. But more importantly, the Kurds have done a commendable job in overseeing and refurbishing the rich petroleum industries that provide a great deal of its economic prosperity. So while Baghdad has ultimately failed in uniting the country amicably among its most prevalent minorities and majority, the Kurdish-run government in Irbil has for the most part, provided most of its people with an inkling of peace and stability hitherto unseen in most other areas of Iraq. 

Even among their own minorities in the autonomous zone, the Kurds have shown a distinct, egalitarian pride in overseeing the health and welfare of their Christian and Yezidi communities as well as displaying a level of religious tolerance practically unheard of in Baghdad and the Shia south. Thus the Kurds have more than proven their ability to govern by themselves and to take their place peacefully and productively inside the international community of sovereign nations that make up the UN. They have earned this status by standing up resolutely to the aggressive advance of ISIL and remaining loyal and respectful of the war-weary civilian populations caught amid the fighting. And as the Iraqi and Syrian Armies shamefully abandoned their defense of the civilian populations caught in the path of the ISIL advance, the Kurdish peshmerga and other civilian militias never wavered in front of such daunting adversity.

If America truly wants to salvage a sound grand strategy in the Middle East beyond the current morass of sectarian violence in Syria and Iraq than it should look to the Kurds, not so much as a prospective ally in the fight against ISIL, but more so as an equal partner in providing the political, military and economic peace and stability that has vastly disappeared from this ancient landscape. By signing on dutifully and unequivocally to Kurdish independence, the USA can essentially divest itself from the increasingly hopeless sectarian stalemate in Baghdad and at the same time, offer plausible rewards of territory and other political enticements to the Kurds for their sacrifice in challenging ISIL. Iraq as it currently exists is a monumental impediment to the integrity of America’s long-term interests in the Middle East, yet this obstacle can in time be made into a promising outlet of political strength if the seeds of democracy are allowed to take hold and flourish in a new Kurdish homeland. 

The one overarching drawback for the USA in embracing the quest for a Kurdish homeland lies in the potential harm it will bring to Turkish-American relations. This will entail a substantial diplomatic undertaking to overcome, but it should not by any means be a pretext to forego a proper dialogue between all the relevant factions involved. The Turks were already in the process of making great strides in normalizing relations with their Kurdish minorities until ISIL broke on the scene and brought turmoil to the indigenous Kurdish borderlands between Turkey and Syria. But the Kurdish fighters in Syria, the YPG, have largely surpassed the combat expectations of the Turks and brought a new realization to the regime in Ankara that the Kurds could indeed be quite useful in providing a buffer between Turkey’s largely secular society and the extremist, Salafi jihadists of ISIL and their Al Qaeda cousins in the Al Nusra Front in Northern Syria. 

The Kurds also have a persecuted minority in Iran straddling the mountainous borderlands of Northern Iraq and northwestern Iran. The Islamic state of Iran will most likely not look too kindly toward the establishment of a prospective Kurdish homeland alongside its western border, thus they would instantly present a military threat to the Kurdish people. However this threat could be mitigated if the Kurds were allowed to strike a political deal with their Shia comrades in the Iraqi Army by pledging their unbridled neutrality in an eventual civil war between Sunni and Shia factions in Iraq. This scenario is not altogether improbable considering that the Kurds and their Shia brethren share a common enemy in ISIL. And any attempts to infringe on the autonomous territory of the Kurds in Northern Iraq will most likely come from the Sunnis, who still feel resentment for voluntarily abandoning the city of Kirkuk to the Kurds, in the face of relentless military pressure from ISIL. 

In the meantime America must revisit its pledge to provide military aid to the Iraqi Army at the expense of its more cohesive and effective Kurdish militias. America’s military establishment could begin a sustained and concerted military airlift of weapons and other war resources to the Kurdish militias’ tomorrow if it wasn’t politically constrained by the already broken and obsolete military arrangements they had procured with Baghdad before they withdrew all combat troops from Iraq in 2011. Iraq’s then-Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki had pretty much reneged on every standing political agreement he had signed with the US military, so it is highly debatable whether America could be rightfully accused of abandoning its obligations to the Baghdad government, especially when Iran swiftly moved in to become the real power broker in Iraqi politics. 

It is obvious from the past performance of the Iraqi Army that America’s most modern and lethal military aid would be much better utilized if it was channeled through Irbil exclusively for the Kurdish peshmerga, rather than Baghdad and the incompetent Iraqi Army. Not only will this help the Kurds fend off the advance of ISIL in Northern Iraq but it would constitute the best way to prevent American A1 Abrams Tanks, Stryker APC’s and armored Humvees from falling into the hands of ISIL. The Iraqi Army has already ceded more than 30% of the military equipment America has provided it to ISIL and another 20-30% has been forcibly appropriated to the various, pro-Iranian, Shia militias operating in the relatively stable and secure, southern provinces of Iraq. These resources would have been invariably utilized if they had gone to soldiers unlikely to flee at the first sign of combat resistance. Even with the substantial weapons inventory that the Iraqi Army has not already lost to ISIL, it is highly doubtful that they could ever be used effectively by the collection of cowards and other treasonous elements lingering in the Iraqi Army today.

In any event, a decision to revise American grand strategy in the Middle East will almost surely fall to the next administration in the White House since the current occupants seem so averse to undertaking military solutions. But in the unlikely event that the destructive advance of ISIL does not suddenly explode far beyond the borders of the Levant and into America’s backyard, there is still a minute chance that American air power alone will be enough to sustain the Iraqi Army in the field, as long as they can avoid the decisive battle with the enemy. Thus American interests in Iraq and Syria will continue to be entrusted to a handful of Special Operations Forces and their eager yet overlooked and undermined Kurdish students, who comfortably remain the most viable option the Western World has in defeating ISIL on the field of battle.                                                  

Friday, June 19, 2015

The US Marine Corps in WWII: Part II; Their Most Impressive Combat Leaders

The Buffalo:

It would be downright sacrilegious to honor the great high commanders of the Marine Corps in WWII without mentioning at least some of the great Marine combat leaders who made their superior’s jobs that much easier and their rewards so more fulfilling. Throughout its long and prestigious history there has never been a shortage of stalwart, soldierly elite among its mid-level officer corps, NCO’s and rank-and-file servicemen who have consistently rose to the occasion in times of war to demonstrate the outstanding combat skills that have given the Marine Corps its unique, warrior identity and martial code of conduct. In fact, one of the Corps’ greatest attributes is not necessarily the high quality of martial aptitude it has managed to instill in its career officer cadres but more so the extraordinary level of combat prowess it has consistently demanded and timelessly extracted from its mid to lower level echelons. The Marine Corps—more than any other service institution in the American military—prides itself on its ability to churn out warriors wholly prepared and adaptive to every type of military contingency expected of them and their proud history firmly substantiates this with numerous incidences where ordinary soldiers have continuously rose to the occasion in the face of extraordinary adversity and combat hardship. 

Nowhere were these poignant appraisals of the Marine Corp’s fighting prowess more aptly displayed than in the vicious, close-quarter fighting against the Japanese armed forces in WWII’s Pacific Theater. The Corps’ WWII version was involved in no less than nine major amphibious assaults and almost a dozen more ancillary operations in remote outposts scattered all across the Pacific Ocean. Its roughly 485,000 combat veterans—infantry and air corps alike—were considered the cream of the crop of America’s ground force components in the fight against Imperial Japan, which they effectively demonstrated by conquering the enemy held islands of Guadalcanal, Bougainville, Saipan, Guam, Peleliu, Iwo Jima, Okinawa and the disputed atolls of Tarawa, Eniwetok and Kwajalein. In their four-year fight in the Pacific, 83 Marine Corps soldiers earned their country’s highest decoration for battlefield valor, the Congressional Medal of Honor, 52 of whom were honored posthumously after sacrificing their lives during their heroic actions. The Marine’s air wing was also to earn itself a most esteemed combat record in this their first concerted action as an organized unit of command, of which 120 would reach the coveted status of flying ace, earning an additional eleven Medals of Honor for its flying fraternity. Here now are fifteen of the Marine Corps’ most distinguished combat leaders of the Second World War.

1.) Colonel Lewis B. “Chesty” Puller: If there is one Marine who completely embodies the combat prowess of the Marine soldier in action and the esprit de corps of the whole Marine Corps fraternity it is Chesty Puller. Puller was the most decorated serviceman in the history of the Marine Corps and though the nation’s highest military award for combat valor, the Congressional Medal of Honor, somehow escaped his compelling grasp, he was to receive the nation’s second highest honor, the Navy Cross, an unprecedented five times, along with the army’s Distinguished Service Cross. His numerous combat exploits on Guadalcanal as the leader of the 1st Battalion, 7th Marines were legendary; playing a decisive role in the defense of Henderson Field and in combat actions along the Matinikau River. Puller’s quick and resolute actions in rallying the offshore naval destroyer USS Monssen to come to the aid of his imperiled battalion along the Matinikau virtually saved three of his infantry companies from near certain annihilation. Soon after being promoted to XO of the 7th Marines, he led the whole regiment in the assault on Cape Gloucester Bay on the island of New Britain and led a decisive storming of fortified Japanese positions that swiftly overran the enemy and saved the embattled beachhead.

But it was at the head of the 1st Marine Regiment on Peleliu that Puller’s unparalleled grit and bravery as a combat commander was most decidedly illustrated and recorded in the annals of Marine Corps history. Once again Puller’s grit and determination in leading his troops in the storming of Japanese defenses on “the Point” and at “Bloody-Nose Ridge” were considered the decisive factors in quashing enemy resistance on the rest of the island. The 1st Marines would suffer nearly 70% casualties on Peleliu but their determination and unprecedented bravery under their colonel’s guidance etched in stone the combat legend of Chesty Puller for generations to come. For the remainder of the war Puller was brought back stateside to lead the Corp’s infantry training regiment at Camp Lejeune, before being called upon once again to exert those same combat skills in the Korean War that had brought him such fame and admiration in WWII and before. To this day, every Marine recruit and prospective officer is instilled with the inspirational inducements of Chesty Puller’s often legendary acts of battlefield valor, grit and resolve. Puller exemplified the consummate leadership skills of the purely combat commander, who mixed bravery and skill equally with determination and panache and an unabashed devotion to the welfare of the soldiers in his command. He has thus become the symbol of the Marine Corps’ merited claim as the world’s most effective, rapid-deployment, amphibious fighting force and an exclusive brotherhood of soldiery second to none. Puller retired from the Corps in 1953 as a major-general.

2.) BgGen. Merritt Edson: Unlike his more conventional and celebrated colleague Chesty Puller, Merritt “Red Mike” Edson was considered one of the great innovators in amphibious warfare for his in-depth contribution to the development of the Marine’s elite, special operations, raider battalions of the Second World War. Edson’s swift advancement as training officer and first combat commander of the Marine’s 1st Raider Battalion plunged him head-first into the war when his unconventional Marine operatives were selected to spearhead America’s assault on the Solomon Islands with the surprise attack on Tulagi; as a supplement to the Marine’s assault on Guadalcanal. From there his elite forces conducted diversionary raids on Savo Island to confuse the Japanese defenses in the Solomons before he was appointed commander of the 5th Marines on Guadalcanal. Red Mike’s Marine’s were tasked with covering the defenses of Lunga Ridge, south of Henderson Field; a supposedly routine assignment that was not expected to draw too much attention from the enemy. Little did anyone know at the time that Edson’s 5th Marines would soon be involved in one of the bloodiest and most pivotal battles of the whole Guadalcanal campaign; a battle forever known as the Battle of Bloody Ridge, but in Marine parlance reverently referred to as ‘Edson’s Ridge’. 

For two days and three nights in September of 42’, Red Mike traversed through relentless enemy machine-gun and artillery fire as he rallied each and every one of his combat companies to hold the line against a concerted enemy attack from more than 3,000 Japanese assault troops. For Edson’s unabashed bravery under fire and his stalwart devotion to the troops under his command he was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor; one of the first Marine officers to receive the prestigious award in all of WWII. Later in the war Edson was appointed chief of staff of the 2nd Marine Division and then its ADC, as he labored to bring the war onto the enemy’s outskirts at Tarawa, Saipan and Guam. He finished the war as Chief of Staff of the Fleet Marine Force-Pacific, a largely administrative role in control of every Marine in the Pacific Theater. Edson ended his 30-year Marine career as a major-general and one of their pioneers in the field of elite, special operations warfare. 

3.) Colonel David M. Shoup: Like many in the Marine Corps’ mid-level officer corps in the early days of WWII, then-major David Shoup traveled far and wide through a number of nondescript and otherwise placid postings in the mainland USA and beyond. He led one of the only Marine Corps outposts in the European Theater while serving on Iceland in the early months of the war. From there he was posted to several more innocuous positions stateside before finally heading out to the Pacific in August of 42’ to oversee the training of the 2nd Marine Division. Promoted to lieutenant-colonel soon thereafter, Shoup was given crash-course indoctrination in amphibious assault warfare as an observer with the 1st Marine Division at Guadalcanal and with the 43rd Infantry Division on Rendova Island. Once he became comfortable in operational planning he was sent back to the 2nd Marine Division and charged with devising the plans for the initial assault force elements in the upcoming attack on Tarawa. Due to the sudden incapacity of its long time commander, Shoup was unexpectedly cast into the primary role as leader of the 2nd Marine Regiment when they came ashore on the island of Betio, in Tarawa Atoll, November 20, 1943. From that point on the life of David Shoup but more significantly, the established assault force doctrine of the US Navy and Marine’s whole amphibious enterprise suddenly changed forever. 

Shoup never even made it to shore before the first Japanese shell knocked out the LVT he was riding in and sent him splashing to the surf, more than 200 yards outside the landing beach. LtCol Shoup was hit both by shrapnel and bullets as he navigated his way across the coral reef onto the chaotic and perilous shoreline. On the beach Marines everywhere were being cut to pieces by the unbearable enemy crossfire and violent artillery barrage. Quite unexpectedly the Japanese had revised their own island defense doctrine to begin challenging the assault force elements on the beaches rather than after they had come ashore, as they did on Guadalcanal and Empress Augusta Bay. This engendered the Marine’s first fiercely contested amphibious landing of the war and instantly created a calamity of carnage hitherto unseen in the Pacific Theater. For the first six hours of the attack on Tarawa the fate of the assault force elements rested solely on the bloodied shoulders of LtCol Shoup. Despite his numerous wounds and the blistering enemy fire on the beachhead Shoup continuously crisscrossed the line to rally and direct his forces inland and to tend to the hundreds of wounded Marines lying lethally exposed on the beach. In fact, for the operation’s first 36 hours Shoup was an invincible giant of combat tenacity and command decisiveness unparalleled in the Marine’s short but illustrious history of amphibious warfare. It was one of the greatest individual performances by a combat commander in Marine Corps history. Shoup’s gallant and dynamic performance on Tarawa would earn him the Congressional Medal of Honor and would later pave the way for his eventual appointment by President Dwight Eisenhower to serve as the 22nd Commandant of the Marine Corps.

4.) LtGen. Pedro del Valle: Seldom is a purely artillery officer given credit for deciding or even affecting the outcome of major battles although the big gun’s impact is regularly welcomed and universally appreciated by all the combat boots on the ground. As the commanding officer of the 11th Marines, the artillery regiment charged with augmenting the 1st Marine Division’s firepower on Guadalcanal, Col. Del Valle played a colossal role in extinguishing Japanese resistance throughout the months-long campaign on Guadalcanal. His timely commands, expert observations and dogged determination in dispersing Japan’s main troop concentrations on the island was one of the pivotal reasons why the enemy’s numerous banzai charges into the Marine’s lines consistently met with disaster, especially during the battles along the Tenaru River and in defense of Henderson Field. After Guadalcanal and his subsequent promotion to brigadier general, del Valle was posted to head the III Amphibious Corps’ imposing array of artillery units concentrated for the assault on Guam. Once again del Valle’s artillery performed astonishing feats of destruction in diminishing the major enemy troop concentrations on the island.

 Later in 1944 he was selected by Vandergrift to take command of the 1st Marine Division, which along with its accompanying promotion made him the highest ranking Hispanic officer in the US military. He took the 1st Marine Division onto Okinawa in April of 45’ and despite the grueling obstacles they were confronted with and the snail-like pace of the Allied advance, del Valle’s division acquitted itself superbly. It was del Valle who hatched the operational plans for the taking of the Japanese fortress of Shuri Castle; one of the main Japanese defensive bastions along their formidable Shuri Line. Once the Shuri Line had been overcome enemy defenses on the island swiftly collapsed and the island soon fell into the Allies’ hands after a grueling 82-day struggle. Pedro del Valle was one of the most decorated Marine officers in the Second World War and the first Hispanic officer ever to reach the rank of lieutenant general. 

5.) Colonel Evans Carlson: The apprenticeship of Evans Carlson into the fraternity of elite, Marine Corps special operations forces began in the prewar years when he was sent to China as an observer to communist Chinese forces fighting the brutal Japanese occupation army. Communist Chinese guerrilla tactics instantly made a deep impression on Carlson, for he was soon to adopt many of their unconventional and some would say, quite controversial military methods to his own special operations training force before they were designated as the 2nd Marine Raider Battalion. While American forces were braving through the initial buildup and operations on Guadalcanal, Carlson led two combat companies from his battalion and descended upon the Japanese outpost on Makin Atoll in the Gilbert Islands. In a largely overshadowed and ancillary operation Carlson’s Raiders would secure their place in American military history by executing the first, special operations, commando raid against an enemy entrenchment. Although the raid would turn out to be rather unnecessary and irrelevant to subsequent operations, nevertheless its near complete annihilation of the enemy outpost on Makin was to herald the Navy and Marine Corp’s pioneering efforts into the secretive world of Spec Ops warfare. Carlson would earn a Navy Cross for his Raider’s audacious assault on Makin and for the resourcefulness and resolution he showed in evacuating the force from its post-op predicament on the beaches afterward. 

Shortly after the Makin Island raid Carlson’s Raiders were brought over to Guadalcanal and participated in another, long-range, penetration raid far behind enemy lines, which brought untold misery to the Japanese forces advancing against the Marine’s Lunga perimeter. Once again Carlson would earn the Navy Cross in leading and executing the special operation with minimal losses to his own forces while claiming nearly 500 enemy kills. When the Marine Corps sanctioned the expansion of their Raider force Carlson was elevated to XO of the 1st Marine Raider Regiment and went on to serve in an active-observer role with regular Marine forces assaulting Tarawa and Saipan, in which he was seriously wounded in the latter operation. At the time Carlson’s unorthodox views and irregular tactics mostly just piqued the suspicions of the higher Marine Corps brass, nevertheless they were quick to adopt many of his more innovative concepts; such as his expansion of the original 8-man combat squad to ten and their further partition into three-man ‘fire-teams’ to increase the amount of automatic fire in the frontline units. To this day the name Evans Carlson has become synonymous with elite, special operations warfare and his truly innovative and reexamined concepts were the motivating factors behind the Marine’s Corp’s resurrection of the WWII Raider battalions in their current, modern version. 

6.) BgGen Franklin Hart: The distinguished combat exploits of Franklin Hart’s WWII chronicle began in Europe as a lieutenant colonel serving on the Allied planning staff for the famed Dieppe Raid, which presaged the later D-Day invasion of Normandy. In 1943 he was personally selected by Gen. Harry Schmidt, the commanding general of the 4th Marine Division, to lead the 24th Marine Regiment during its baptism of fire on the Marshal Islands atoll of Kwajalein. Colonel Hart’s 24th Marines was designated to be the original assault force elements to storm the beaches on the tiny islet of Namur, as part of the larger operation on Kwajalein. No sooner had Hart’s Marines come ashore on Namur when its fearless and untiring commander jumped headfirst into the war in the Pacific by immediately leading the 24th’s swift push inland and seizing all its D-Day objectives against strong enemy resistance. Hart would earn a Navy Cross for his truly fearsome combat leadership skills on Kwajalein and then bolstered that convincing performance with another impressive showing with the 24th Marines in the Marianas. His expert handling of the 24th Marines throughout the attacks on Kwajalein, Saipan and Tinian made him one of the most successful and effective combat commanders in the WWII Marine Corps, as well as one of its longest serving regimental commanders of the war.

Upon his ascension to brigadier general in August of 44’ Hart was named ADC of the 4th Marine Division and promptly prepared it for the greatest fight of its life during the run-up to Iwo Jima. During the fight for Iwo Jima Hart was the first general officer permanently posted ashore, where he proceeded to orchestrate the division’s advance from his perilously exposed CP on the shore of Beach Blue. The division had already endured its most difficult assignment in scaling the formidable cliffs of “the quarry” by the time BgGen Hart arrived but he was to play a far more decisive role in subsequent operations by tending to the Marine’s painfully methodical advance through “the meatgrinder” and in the eventual seizure of the craggy outcrop known as “turkey knob”. Hart would later go on to serve as commanding general of the 2nd Marine Division at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina and would retire as a full general, after devoting more than 37 years in service to his country. 

7.) Maj. Joe Foss: At the tender age of 26 then-captain Joe Foss was considered too old to be admitted to the Navy’s tactical fighter pilot school so he spent the early months of WWII serving as a photo-reconnaissance pilot. But through numerous requests and countless appeals Foss was finally admitted to the Marine’s fighter qualification program and promptly transferred to VMF-121 (Fighter Squadron 121) upon his graduation. As the XO of VMF-121 Foss took his squadron to Henderson Field on the island of Guadalcanal and soon entered the annals of Marine Corps aviation history by becoming its leading fighter ace throughout WWII. His storied career as the top scoring fighter ace of the vaunted Cactus Air Force catapulted the Marine Corps’ often overlooked aviation wing to the heights of aerial combat glory. In leading the widely acclaimed VMF-121, Foss swiftly shot down a Japanese ‘Zero’ on his maiden  combat mission and then went on to add 26 more confirmed kills before being sidelined with a debilitating bout of malaria.

In the three months that the Marine Corps ace applied his trade with the Cactus Air Force, Foss put together a celebrated team of fellow pilots forever known as “Foss’s Flying Circus” and proceeded to run roughshod all across the Solomon Islands; from the treacherous confines of Henderson Field to the perilously crowded skies over the adjacent waters. Foss’s Flying Circus was credited with the downing of some 72 enemy aircraft and numerous naval warships and shore installations. On May 18, 1943 Foss was personally adorned with the Congressional Medal of Honor by President Franklin D. Roosevelt for his sterling performance as the Marine Corps’ “ace of aces”. After a year-long hiatus stateside in 1943, Foss returned to action in February 44’ to lead VMF-115 from the cockpit of his F4U Corsair fighter. Although he was unable to add to his highly productive combat record in the eight months that his squadron was stationed on Emirau Island, his combat record remained unbroken and he was to remain the Corps’ most distinguished fighter ace for the duration of WWII. He retired from the Corps at the rank of major but later went on to construct from scratch, the South Dakota Air National Guard, from where he was to retire once more as a brigadier general. 

8.) LtCol Marion Eugene Carl: Before Joe Foss came around to shatter the Marine Corps’ fighter wing performance records it fell to aerial wizards like Marion Carl to prove the worth of Marine aviation to the unflattering realm of the US War Department’s highly contentious fighter procurement battles on Capitol Hill. It would not be long before those procurement battles concluded that it was not the Marine Corps pilots that were losing the battle with the enemy but rather the obsolete planes they were flying in that left them with such a grave handicap. Carl and his cohorts in VMF-221 were some of the earliest American pilots to engage in combat action during WWII and were to prove unremarkably resilient in exposing the Navy’s original and quite numerous, aircraft weaknesses during the initial months of the war. Carl’s squadron had already been signed, sealed and delivered to the carrier USS Saratoga when they were abruptly called back from intervening in the fight for Wake Island when that remote American outpost suddenly fell to the Japanese. Soon thereafter it was sent to Midway Island where it incurred the wrath of the enemy’s formidable A6M ‘Zero’ fighters and was soundly whipped in its first combat action. But Marion Carl was one of the few survivors to rejuvenate the decimated squadron when it was briskly sent onward to inaugurate America’s famed Cactus Air Force in the Solomon Islands. 

When Carl and his cohorts in VMF-221 originally touched down on Henderson Field with their F4 Wildcats and Corsairs they instantly became the first American aviators to set forth against the enemy from contested, enemy ground. For the next three months VMF-221 was to form the backbone of the vaunted Cactus Air Force and Capt. Eugene Carl stood out larger than most by becoming the Marine Corps first accredited pilot ace in WWII. His 16.5 aerial victories was a stunning achievement considering that the Cactus Air Force would never achieve complete air superiority on Guadalcanal until well after VMF-221 had been rotated out of the Solomons. But the squadron’s distinguished performance on Guadalcanal definitively extinguished for all time the daunting myth of Japan’s aerial invincibility and their dogged determination to transcend the enemy’s prodigious aerial feats served to inspire and revivify the whole Naval aviation fraternity until they had ultimately triumphed. Carl added just two more aerial victories to his already sterling, combat résumé and ended the war as the Marine Corps’ 7th leading fighter ace. Carl continued to be a giant in Marine aviation for the next two decades and finally left the Corps in 1973 at the rank of major-general, after serving his country for 34 years.

9.) LtCol. Gregory “Pappy” Boyington: No listing of the Marine Corps’ most distinguished members of its flying fraternity would be complete without mentioning the name ‘Pappy’ Boyington among its most celebrated roll call. Boyington’s daring exploits in the South Pacific were far too numerous to convey in such a limited space for reflection but it might be safe to say that Pappy Boyington and his ‘Black Sheep’ squadron in VMF-214 just might have been the most renowned and wildly popular collection of combat pilots ever to have donned the uniform of the US Armed Forces. Aside from his many inappropriate mishaps and numerous indiscretions committed outside the scope of acceptable military conduct, Boyington earned his mischievous bad-boy status not so much because of his extracurricular activities but more so because of his often intrepid affinity to challenge the bounds of conventional combat flight in order to bring the fight to the enemy and strike fear and confusion in the opponent’s ranks. He was for a brief time and to a large extent, one of the most fearless, brave and audacious combat pilots in the Pacific Theater and the telltale signs of the Black Sheep Squadron’s sudden appearance over Japanese airfields was usually enough to send the most disciplined enemy fighters’ squirming with trepidation. Certainly it was not just an odd coincidence that for six solid months in the autumn and winter of 1943 Pappy Boyington and the Black Sheep Squadron practically ruled supreme in the skies over the Russell Islands and New Britain and brought a world full of hurt to Japan’s swiftly dwindling pilot rolls.

After leaving the Corps in the prewar years to volunteer his service in Gen. Claire Chennault’s celebrated “Flying Tigers” air force detachment in China and Burma, Boyington suddenly reappeared at the offices of Marine aviation and was promptly whisked away to the South Pacific in the rank of major, where he took his place in the Corp’s flying fraternity first as XO of VMF-122 and later CO of VMF-112. In September of 43’ he finally landed at the head of VMF-214 and loudly christened the arrival of the famous ‘Black Sheep Squadron’ in the annals of Marine Corps legend. From September 1943 to the day he was shot down on January 3, 1944, Boyington and the Black Sheep Squadron proved the bane of Japanese air forces all throughout the South Pacific. Boyington himself was credited with 26 aerial victories flying in the famed Vought F4U Corsair. His fighter teams were known for flying over enemy airfields and enticing the idle aircraft to join them overhead, where they were brusquely cut to pieces by Pappy’s predatory marauders. But Boyington’s reign in the South Pacific was abruptly cut short when his squadron was set upon by a largely superior force of Japanese fighters flying over Rabaul. In the ensuing melee Boyington’s plane was hit and he was forced to bail out in the sea and later captured by a Japanese submarine. He spent the next twenty months in various Japanese POW camps in Rabaul, Truk and near Tokyo. After the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki Boyington was released from captivity and ushered off stateside so that he could partake in the glorious festivities the Corps had arranged for him in Washington DC; in receiving his Congressional Medal of Honor from the hands of President Harry S. Truman on October 4, 1945.  

10.) LtCol. Justice M. Chambers: The spectacle of LtCol Justice “Jumping Joe” Chambers waving on his men to follow him through the fire and pockmarked landscape of the enemy front was a most welcome sight to the men who fought under him with the 3rd Battalion, 25th Marines. He was that rare breed of combat officer who chose to lead directly from the front rather than the rear and his numerous scars and lifelong, debilitating injuries were testament to the fearless energy and truly inspirational leadership qualities he displayed on nearly every battlefield he ventured. Chambers began his storied WWII exposition as a staff officer with Col. Merritt Edson’s 1st Marine Raider Battalion fighting on the tiny island of Tulagi during the Guadalcanal campaign. After receiving life-threatening wounds during the enemy’s first concerted counterattack on Hill 281, Chambers was sent back to the battalion aid station yet was forced to lead in the station’s defense when Japanese forces suddenly made a banzai charge into the Marine perimeter. He was to receive a Silver Star for his heroic actions in defending the field medevac center and evacuating the wounded to safer positions. After returning to duty Chambers took command of the 3rd Battalion, 25th Marines as part of Gen. Harry Schmidt’s 4th Marine Division and honorably led it for the rest of its time in the Pacific Theater.

Chambers led the battalion through its baptism of fire at Kwajalein where it was assigned the task of securing several of the adjacent islets on the atoll to provide an artillery platform for the Marine’s primary attack on Roi-Namur. Shortly afterwards Chambers and the 3/25 joined the ferocious fight for Saipan and were tasked with storming the formidable heights of Hill 500; the lynchpin of the enemy’s defensive network around Mount Tapotchau. During his dynamic assault on the hill the battalion commander was once again seriously wounded from the concussion of an enemy land mine and evacuated off the battlefield. After a brief recovery he had to beg his superiors to return him to his battalion for the upcoming fight on Iwo Jima. Chambers and the 3/25 went ashore on Beach Blue 2, Iwo Jima on the morning of February 19 as one of the original assault force elements. He was immediately tasked with executing a difficult wheeling motion of his whole assault force from the beach to the formidable enemy positions on the heights overlooking the northern end of the beachhead. These heights constituted what in Marine parlance would be forever known as “the quarry”. Chamber’s quickly dwindling battalion suffered more than 70% casualties in scaling the imposing landmark but finally made it over the hill before sundown on the first day on Iwo Jima. Chambers was severely wounded on Day 3 of the assault as he pushed his remnant platoons forward across ‘the quarry’ and into the second tier of enemy defenses positioned along “turkey knob”. For his heroic actions on Iwo Jima Chambers was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, although his horrendous battlefield wounds would cut short his once-promising military career as one of the giants of the Corp’ combat command. 

11.) LtCol Victor “Brute” Krulak: To the individual Marine combat veteran the heights of their WWII experience are often exemplified in stunning synonymy with the glorious exploits of celebrated wartime figures such as Chesty Puller, Red Mike Edson and Franklin Hart. But when the Corps resolves to speak as a collective whole they usually turn to the curious insights of LtGen. Victor “Brute” Krulak to definitively embody the spirit and legend of the Corp’s fighting fraternity. Krulak’s award-winning, literary saga on the fighting prowess of the Marine Corps, “First to Fight: An Inside View of the US Marine Corps”, has been variably described as the Corp’s unofficial bible and the formal handbook of Marine Corps recruiters who wish to convey to their mostly teenage targets the awesome inducements of joining such a storied, elite and high-spirited institution. But Krulak wasn’t just a writer or literary visionary; he was first and foremost a highly decorated and inspirational combat commander who led the Marine’s 2nd Parachute Battalion in their first protracted fight with the Japanese on the Solomon Island of Vella Lavella. The taking of Vella Lavella provided the platform for which Major Pappy Boyington and his celebrated Black Sheep Squadron would provide fighter cover for many of the Allied forces then fighting in the South Pacific. During the Allied assault on Bougainville Krulak and his parachute battalion executed a highly effective diversionary raid on the island of Choiseul for which he was to receive the Navy Cross and a Purple Hart after being wounded by enemy shrapnel. He later took part in the Allied invasion of Okinawa with the 6th Marine Division and became a giant in the Corp’s postwar years as a combat leader in the Korean War and a highly respected inspector general of American forces in Vietnam. Krulak left the corps as a lieutenant-general in 1968 and was the father of Gen. Charles Krulak, the 31st Commandant of the Marine Corps from 1995-1999. 

12.) MjGen. Clayton “Barney” Vogel: Signals intelligence had already played a key role in the intelligence community when Japan’s scrambled diplomatic code was belatedly deciphered by US Naval intelligence shortly before the attack on Pearl Harbor. Several months later the Navy cracked Japan’s military codes and successfully preempted the invasion of Midway Island. Now the task of the military intelligence community was to devise a foolproof way to protect their own radio transmissions from the snooping ears of Japan’s signals intelligence channels. Enter the ground-breaking, communications innovations of MjGen. Barney Vogel’s counterintelligence staff with the Fleet Marine Force-Pacific. When Vogel heard the first demonstration of a scripted radio transmission between two Navajo Indian “code-talkers”, he instantly knew he had found a foolproof way to ensure the inviolability of radio communications between commanders and their troops in the field. After Vogel successfully sold his idea to Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Thomas Holcomb, he commenced a wholesale recruitment effort in the American southwest to enlist hundreds of able-bodied Navajo males into the Marine Corps and begin their training as the Corps’ furtive voice on the battlefield. Vogel’s organization soon came to be known as the Navajo code-talkers program; a system of communications that thoroughly confounded and mystified Japan’s intelligence community right till the bitter end of the war. Hundreds of Navajo recruits would play a monumental role in the Allied victory by transmitting vital information and orders back and forth from the battlefield under the assertive aura of thoroughly secure and uncompromised airwaves. Still to this day the Navajo code transmitted by US Marine forces in the Pacific is the only verbal military code never to have been successfully deciphered by an enemy combatant. 

13.) Col. Harry B. Liversedge: This distinguished former US Olympian entered the war as one of the original commanders in his protégé Merritt Edson’s elite, special operations fraternity. He served with distinction in the short and largely uneventful Russell Islands campaign as commander of the 1st Marine Raider Regiment, before he was transferred along with many of the others in the Raider fraternity over to the 5th Marine Division, as it began preparations for the Battle of Iwo Jima. Because of his select skills and advanced training experience with the Raiders, Liversedge was placed in command of the 28th Marines and soon selected to lead one of the four original assault regiments earmarked for the attack on Iwo Jima. Liversedge took his regiment ashore on Beach Green 1 on the morning of Feb. 19, 1945 and quickly surged across the narrow neck of the island in order to isolate the formidable Mt. Suribachi, on the far southern tip of Iwo. As three of the assault regiments turned to the northeast, Liversedge’s 28th Marines wheeled to the southwest and began the colossal fight for Iwo’s most familiar massif. For three full days of vicious fighting Liversedge prodded his two assault battalions along as they slowly winded their way up the towering landmark. When they had finally reached the top after slaying every last Japanese defender, Liversedge’s 2nd Battalion earned themselves the honor of unfurling the Stars and Stripes high atop the imposing monolith. Perhaps no other formation in the Marine Corps would have such a short and illustrious history as that of Liversedge’s 28th Marines. In their one and only battle of its existence the 28th Marines would stamp forever the aura of the Marine Corps glorious combat achievements on the battlefield by memorializing those feats for eternity in posing for combat photographer Joe Rosenthal’s internationally acclaimed image of Marines raising the flag on Suribachi. Liversedge would earn his second Navy Cross of the war for his tenacious leadership in securing the conquest of Mt. Suribachi.

14.) GySgt John Basilone: Perhaps no other man in the Marine Corps’ long exalted history has best exemplified the intense personal valor and selfless sacrifice of the common foot soldier more than Gunnery Sergeant John Basilone. Basilone was the only enlisted man in the WWII Marine Corps to receive both the Congressional Medal of Honor and the Navy Cross. The former he received from the Marine Corps Commandant at a widely celebrated ceremony back stateside and the latter was awarded posthumously after he was killed in action on Iwo Jima. Basilone earned the Medal of Honor while serving on Guadalcanal with Chesty Puller’s 1st Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment. In leading a combat fire-team in defense of the Lunga Perimeter around Henderson Field, Basilone’s twin heavy machine gun emplacements took the brunt of a concerted attack by a full Japanese army regiment. Basilone and his 15-man crew held at bay the enemy regiment for a full day and prevented it from overrunning the perimeter. Unfortunately no help arrived and Basilone’s machine gunners were soon dwindled down to just two Marine fighters. For the next full day Basilone endured crushing enemy fire as he gallantly rushed to and fro, retrieving ammunition canisters for his surviving crew and manning his two machine gun nests until he had exhausted all his ammo. Soon armed with just his standard issue .45 caliber handgun, Basilone continued to hold off the attacking enemy survivors until he was finally relieved by reinforcements. In the more than 48 hour battle Basilone had almost single-handedly wiped out two whole Japanese battalions.

Because he had earned the Medal of Honor Basilone was ordered stateside and compelled to join a public relations, war bond drive for his remaining tour of duty. But Basilone just couldn’t stay away from the action and after numerous appeals to rejoin his outfit overseas he was granted a second enlistment and whisked off to Iwo Jima with the 1st Battalion, 27th Marines; as part of Gen. Keller Rockey’s 5th Marine Division. Once again Basilone would showcase his combat prowess by single-handedly disabling an enemy pillbox and performing numerous other acts of bravery during the Marine’s initial assault on the beaches. But in the afternoon of the first day on Iwo Jima the legendary John Basilone finally fell on the field of battle while storming the island’s No. 1 airfield. News of his untimely death quickly filtered out to all the other units on the island and temporarily stunned the morale of the invading Marines; as they struggled to come to grips with the enormous task at hand. GySgt John Basilone was a Marine of impeccable courage and fortitude and one of the true legends of the Marine Corps’ combat chronicle of WWII. 

15.) MGySgt: Leland “Lou” Diamond: To the young Marines of the 1st Marine Division on Guadalcanal it was practically an honor to be dressed down in front of their cohorts by the scraggly, old “Master Guns” Lou Diamond. At 52 years of age Diamond was the epitome of the old-school, combat NCO who worked diligently to coach and inspire the younger Marines suddenly faced with their first combat action of the war. For many of these young Marines Master Guns Diamond was the proverbial father figure who never shrank from his exalted role as court philosopher on the ins and outs of proper combat deployment. He also just happened to be one of the most energetic and accurate mortarmen in the Corps. During the battle on Guadalcanal Diamond’s expert handling of his mortar platoon served to brusquely terminate many Japanese infantry attacks and banzai charges right as they stood on the verge of breakthrough. When a passing Japanese cruiser ventured too close to Marine positions on the coast Diamond almost single-handedly chased it off with his harassing fire from a lone M2 60 mm mortar. Indeed, Diamond’s scholarly recitals of combat protocol to the inexperienced enlisted ranks and his dedication to the institutional ideals of the Marine Corps fraternity compelled the commanding officer of the 1st Marine Division, Gen. Alexander Vandergrift to pen a letter of commendation to acknowledge Diamond’s talents and to call him out for exceptional service to the Corps and to his country. Thus it was no surprise to many when the recently disabled Diamond tried everything in his lengthy bag of tricks to return to his unit after the brass had confined him to sick-bay after the Guadalcanal campaign. But that didn’t deter the old Master Guns. Over the next three months Diamond would bum rides in available transports; hop numerous trains, planes and automobiles and eventually traveled more than 1500 miles across the Pacific, just to return to the only life he ever knew. Diamond finished the war as a drill instructor on Parris Island, South Carolina. He is affectionately known and immortalized among the Marine Corps fraternity as Mr. Leatherneck.