Amphibious Warfare: First World War

1901 - Naval War College studies the seizure and defense of advanced bases

The Spanish-American War was a turning point in Marine Corps history, and in the relationship between the Navy and the Marines. Prior to the war, Marines were primarily used as a shipboard security force, as a source of gunners in secondary batteries aboard warships, and as light infantry in landing parties. However, the landing at Guantanamo Bay by Lieutenant Colonel Robert W. Huntington's battalion during the Spanish-American War pointed to a potential new role for the Marine Corps.

At war's end, the United States assumed major new defense commitments in the Caribbean and Pacific. On its southern approaches, the U.S. looked to defend Cuba, Puerto Rico, and a potential new canal across the isthmus of Panama from attack by the battle fleets of European powers, particularly that of Germany. In the Pacific, U.S. officers evaluated the requirements of a potential conflict with Germany or Japan and the requirements of protecting the newly annexed Philippines, Guam in the Mariana island chain, and Hawaii.

It fell to the General Board to determine the best employment of the Navy in the defense of America and its far-flung possessions. The General Board was an advisory panel of nine officers formed in 1900 to advise the Secretary of the Navy "on questions relating to the efficient preparation of the fleet in case of war and for the naval defense of the coast." It was chaired by Admiral George Dewey of Spanish-American War fame, and its other members included the Chief of the Bureau of Navigation, the Chief of Naval Intelligence, the Adjutant and Inspector of the Marine Corps, and the President of the Naval War College. The staff of the Naval War College, in turn, provided crucial research and war-gaming support to the General Board. For example, in 1901 the board tasked the War College to examine the naval implications of a U.S.-German conflict in the Caribbean.

Overall, the General Board concluded that the protection of U.S. interests would require a larger fleet and a system of fixed forward naval bases for coaling and resupplying its warships. The administration of President Theodore Roosevelt was able to persuade Congress to increase the number of battleships and armored cruisers in the U.S. fleet, but legislators - supported by the State Department - were hesitant to authorize the establishment of permanent new bases in foreign nations, other than a training base a Guantanamo. Making matters more complicated, the Navy could not get congressional approval to build the build the large numbers of fleet auxiliaries - colliers, store ships, and transports - that it would need to deploy its battle fleet forward in the absence of these fixed bases.

One way to get around this conundrum was to seize territory in the fleet's forward operating areas and establish temporary advanced bases, much as Huntington's force had done at Guantanamo during the war with Spain. Moreover, once occupied, these bases would have to be defended. The Naval War College had conducted studies that examined the issue of temporary bases, and concluded that they could be defended against attack by enemy cruisers and landing forces.

However, the Navy's leadership did not want to rely upon the Army, a service that it viewed as being ill-equipped and disinclined to assist with naval campaigns. Thus, in 1900, the General Board gave authority for the defense and development of advanced naval bases to the Marine Corps. Additionally, the board members requested that the Secretary of the Navy, John D. Long, order the Marine Corps Commandant, Brigadier General Charles Heywood, to organize four companies of 104 men each to act as an advanced base defense force. In addition, the board also requested that Philadelphia be the storage point for "a complete equipment for expeditionary field service" for the new Marine Corps force.

Photo of Brigadier General Charles Heywood

Brigadier General Charles Heywood, Commandant of the Marine Corps, 1891-1903.
U.S. Marine Corps photo.

Commandant Heywood complied with the subsequent order, collecting Marines from scattered barracks along the east coast and consolidating them into units based at Newport, Rhode Island and Annapolis, Maryland. As per the board's request, these men underwent education in the transportation of field artillery by ship and its movement ashore, the construction of fortifications and gun emplacements, the operation of surveillance and communication equipment, and the defensive employment of sea mines.

This basic instruction continued until September 1902, when the battalion mustered as a whole in Norfolk, Virginia and sailed for Culebra, a small island 16 miles from Puerto Rico. This was the first a series of exercises in the Caribbean and the Philippine Islands designed to develop the Marines' ability to fortify and defend advanced bases. For the moment, the expeditionary base defense mission - a key element in the Navy's war-fighting plans - had become the primary reason for the existence of the Marine Corps.

Sources:

Lieutenant Colonel Kenneth J. Clifford, Progress and Purpose: A Developmental History of the United States Marine Corps, 1900-1970 (Washington, DC: History and Museums Division, Headquarters, U.S. Marine Corps, 1973).

Graham A. Cosmas and Jack Shulimson, "The Culebra Maneuver and the Formation of the U.S. Marine Corps's Advanced Base Force," in Lieutenant Colonel Merrill L. Bartlett, USMC (ret.), ed., Assault from the Sea (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1983).

Edward Stanley Miller, War Plan Orange (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1991).

Allan R. Millett, Semper Fidelis: A History of the United States Marine Corps (New York: The Free Press, 1991).

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