Thanks in no small part to the catchy Marines’ Hymn, which proclaims the Corps’ exploits around the globe, most people likely remember it is the USMC that fights on the beaches after hitching a ride from the United States Navy. However, what is largely forgotten is that from the founding of the United States Navy on Oct. 13, 1775, until as late as the 1970s, competency as naval infantry – where sailors performed the role of landing party infantry and also provided land-based artillery support – was an integral part of U.S. Naval operations and missions.
“This function of naval landing parties and soldiers operating as infantry goes back to the founding of the United States Navy in the 18th century,” said Christopher Havern, a historian with Naval History and Heritage Command. “It goes back to the American Revolution with the raids at Whitehaven in England that were led by John Paul Jones.”
Those surprise attacks, which occurred on April 23, 1778, could arguably be considered the first overseas combat missions conducted by the United States military. They would certainly not be the last, and throughout the 19th and into the 20th century, it was often the United States Navy and its landing parties that did the fighting.
Throughout the 19th century it was often the sailors, fighting as infantry, that led the way – and there were at least 66 landings and operations where naval landing parties were engaged. One of the most significant was at the Battle of New Orleans in January 1815. Ironically history remembers the exploits of the pirate Jean Lafitte, but often overlooks the role of Commodore Daniel Patterson, who held the flank for General Andrew Jackson across the river.
Sailors were used as infantry during the subsequent Seminole Wars and in the Mexican War as well – notably as the Seminole had no navy, and the Mexican navy was essentially non-existent. As a result in both conflicts almost all operations involved Sailors acting in the role of infantry. In the latter conflict Sailors played a crucial role in the capture of California and Mexican coastal cities, while at Vera Cruz Sailors landed Home Squadron heavy guns and acted in the role of artillery!
Even when the United States Marines were present, they fought alongside the naval infantry. This was especially true during the American Civil War.
“Such forays often included a ship’s Marines, but not as a rule,” explained Chuck Veit, president of the Navy & Marine Living History Association. “Many of the warships on the inland rivers were too small to warrant much of a Marine presence, so limiting shore raids to the USMC would have been impossible. Instead, Sailors and Marines were trained to land and travel as much as twenty miles inland from rivers or coasts, often hauling one or more small howitzers.”
Throughout the latter half of the 19th century naval personnel were provided with light artillery and machine guns to support landing operations by naval services. Regulations from the period called for set numbers of Sailors to be exercised and trained to fight as infantry – exclusive of Marines – and U.S. Navy Ordnance Instructions even mandated that the whole crew was to be exercised in the use of musket, carbine, pistol and sword. With the founding of the Naval Academy in 1845 cadets were taught infantry tactics as an integral part of the curriculum in both first and second class years.
Even as technological advances saw wooden sailing ships transform to fully steel vessels, the role of the Sailor as infantry continued. In fact, in the first three decades of the 20th century the Sailor’s role in land-based combat increased. There were some 136 instances in the Caribbean and in Central America where Sailors were used as infantry, while landing parties were the most valuable contribution by the United States Navy during the Philippine Insurrection.
In 1889 discussions even began about whether Marines even needed to serve on ship guard and other on-board duties. This debate continued until 1908, when President Theodore Roosevelt issued Executive Order 969 that redefined Marine Corps duties to exclude those duties. While Congress actually reversed the decision, it was really the first salvo in the battle over what roles Sailors and Marines would play. Over the next three decades the United States Navy continued to train personnel in infantry tactics, conduct of fire and defense of field fortifications.
The largest operation in the early years of the 20th century by landing parties was the occupation of Vera Cruz in 1914, where some 2,500 “bluejackets” conducted a landing and infantry assault alongside 1,300 Marines. This engagement highlighted shortcomings, notably that the massed infantry tactics of 1891 and earlier were not effective in street fighting, and while the Second Seaman Regiment was able to adapt the problems only became greater.
The advances in technology were beginning to become apparent.
“One factor was that in the age of the steel navy there was an increasing complexity in the systems,” said Havern. “Sailors were beginning to get specialized training, and that lessened the role they could play as infantry.”
The other part of the equation was that the USMC continued to develop a particular capability. Under the leadership of USMC Commandant General John A. Lejeune the Marine Corps was organized for field operations, with amphibious infantry assault and infantry operations ashore acknowledged as its primary mission.
Despite this shift Sailors still took on an infantry role, including operations along the Yangtze River in China in the 1930s, during World War II where Sailors helped defend Bataan in early 1942, and during the Operation Torch landings in Morocco later that same year.
“The Sailor continued to play a role in supporting the Marines as well as the United States Army,” added Havern. “The U.S. Navy was part of operations in the Pacific and in Europe, and this included beach masters and that sort of landing support. This isn’t always known as the Navy hasn’t emphasized its infantry role. In our modern day the land belongs to the Army, the air belongs to the Air Force and the sea is the domain of the Navy. But in the age of sail, the Sailor had another role to play.”
Read more at Naval History and Heritage Command.
See also: The armed ship’s landing party on Wikipedia.
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