Amphibious Warfare: First World War

1914 - U.S. landing at Vera Cruz

In 1914, a group led by General Victoriano Huerta had seized power by murdering Mexico's first revolutionary president, Francisco Madero. Enraged by Huerta's bloody coup, the general's removal became a central tenet of U.S. president Woodrow Wilson's hemispheric policy. Wilson refused to recognize the new Mexican government and removed a previously imposed arms embargo on the Mexican combatants, which allowed weapons to flow to Huerta's constitutionalist foes. He also waited for a pretext for U.S. intervention.

That came in early April 1914, when Mexican soldiers temporarily detained a small group of U.S. sailors in the eastern oil port of Tampico, where U.S. and European warships had gathered to guard their nation's interests and citizens in the city. Mexican officials ordered the sailors released and offered their apologies to the U.S. government and Rear Admiral Henry Mayo, commander of the U.S. Navy forces in the area. Wilson and Mayo would have none of it, however, and demanded that the city's garrison hoist the U.S. flag and fire a 21-gun salute to atone for the "insult" to U.S. honor. Huerta, seeing such a move as political suicide, refused.

This gave Wilson the opening to intervene for which he had been waiting. In the following days and weeks, widely scattered American naval forces converged on both coasts of Mexico, with an emphasis on the Gulf ports of Tampico and Vera Cruz. This deployment included the largest concentration of Marine Corps units to date - approximately half of the service's active strength of 10,000 men would ultimately take part.

Marine involvement predated the Tampico incident. As early as January 1914, a battalion under Major Smedley Butler had been ordered to move from Panama, where they had been deployed, to support Navy forces maintaining an American presence off the coast Mexico. In March, the fixed-defense battalion from the Marine Corp's Advanced Base Force (ABF) - which had remained on the U.S. Gulf Coast after exercises on Culebra island earlier in the year - reformed as four rifle companies and also sailed for Vera Cruz. Arriving on 9 March on the transport Prairie, Lieutenant Colonel Wendell Neville's unit came under the control of the naval commander off Vera Cruz, Rear Admiral Frank F. Fletcher.

The deployment process quickened after Wilson's cabinet met on 14 April to discuss the continuing Mexican "crisis." Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels ordered the commander of the U.S. Atlantic Fleet, Rear Admiral Charles Badger, to proceed to Mexican waters with all of his available battleships. In the ensuing three days, seven of these warships sortied from east coast ports and the Caribbean. On board were approximately 1,000 Marines serving in shipboard detachments. They were formed into a landing force under Badger's fleet Marine officer, Major Albertus Catlin. Meanwhile, the commander of the Advanced Base Force brigade, Colonel John Lejeune, was ordered to embark on board the transport Hancock with his staff and the remainder of his force and sail from New Orleans to Tampico.

Photo of Marines of Vera Cruz

Marines of Vera Cruz. Left to right: Captain F.H. Delano, Sergeant-Major John H. Quick, Lieutenant W.C. Neville, Colonel J.A. Lejeune, and Major S.D. Butler.
U.S. Marine Corps, Marine Corps University Archives.

Wilson and his advisors originally planned to launch the U.S. intervention in Tampico. However, naval officers and Secretary Daniels pointed out that while hydrographic conditions around that city would hinder the fleet's ability to support a landing, there was no such problem at Vera Cruz. Moreover, U.S. intelligence indicated that a German steamer loaded with weapons and ammunition for General Huerta's forces was on its way to the latter port. For this reason, Badger's task force and the Marine units at or enroute to Tampico were ordered to Vera Cruz.
Secretary Daniels's intervention order reached Rear Admiral Fletcher early on the morning of 21 April. Acting quickly, Fletcher had a landing party of sailors and Marines assembled for an assault before noon. The latter included Lieutenant Colonel Neville's battalion, buttressed by Marines from the battleships Florida and Utah. The landing force, which was commanded by Florida's commanding officer, Captain William Rush, went ashore in ships' boats.

For their part, the Marines' objectives were to secure the port facilities and customs house. Neither they nor Fletcher expected much effective opposition to the operation, but local Mexican commanders did move small groups of federal soldiers, local militia, and even criminal released from jail to the waterfront area. These polyglot forces did not oppose the initial landing, but opened fire as the Marines and sailors moved off of the wharves.
Occupying rooftops and moving building to building, the Marines cleared their area of scattered snipers and irregular fighters with relative ease. By the evening of the 21st, they had seized their objectives and moved to the edge of the city. However, they were forced to pull back upon learning that Mexican defenders had stalled the bluejackets in their sector.

The fighting in and around the port continued into the next day. Casualties among the Navy landing force climbed when sailors stumbled into an ambush. Naval gunfire was called into play to deal with some particularly stubborn Mexican positions. U.S. reinforcements continued to go ashore, until the size of the landing force grew to more than 6,000 men.

Photo of Landing Party from Battleship Michigan.

A landing party from the battleship Michigan (BB 27) in Vera Cruz, 1914.
Naval Historical Center.

The rapid-fire arrival of Marine reinforcements were particularly important in buttressing the landing force during the early days of the expedition. The earliest arrivals included Butler's battalion, which deployed on the night of the 21st from the cruiser Chester. Once ashore, it was absorbed into Neville's command, in time to engage in sporadic night-time street fighting. Catlin's battalion, which arrived at dawn on the 22nd on Admiral Badger's battleships, also fell under Neville's command after landing. The transport Hancock discharged the Advanced Base Force leadership and the ABF's mobile-defense battalion later that morning, at which point all the Marine Corps units in Vera Cruz were consolidated into a provisional brigade under Colonel Lejeune.

Back in the United States, the Marines also formed another battalion using troops drawn from ten different barracks at east coast naval bases. These Marines and their gear began loading on the chartered steamship Morro Castle on the 21st, and sailed from Philadelphia Naval Base on 23 April. Six days later, they too joined Lejeune's command, although by that time serious Mexican resistance was over.

The Navy also added to the overwhelming strength of its supporting forces off Vera Cruz. Eight additional battleships joined Badger's original force, along with several key auxiliary ships, including a hospital ship. The Navy also conducted a show of force off Mexico's west coast. Eight cruisers, later joined by two battleships, operated off the ports of Acapulco, Mazatlan, and Guymas. Marines were also part of this naval effort - Colonel Joseph Pendleton had formed a Marine battalion from west coast barracks that deployed on the battleships and a collier.

The possibility existed that the Vera Cruz foray would turn into a larger-scale, longer-term campaign. Consequently, the Army also prepared a brigade of its troops for deployment from Galveston, Texas on board three of the service's own transports. However, the cabinet did not give the Army permission to deploy until after Rear Admiral Badger requested more troops. Moreover, much to his chagrin, the Army commander, Brigadier General Frederic Funston, found that he could not move all his equipment on the three ships, and thus had to charter two additional steamers. Consequently, his troops did not disembark at Vera Cruz until 29 April.

Once there, however, Brigadier General Funston became the senior U.S. officer ashore. He requested that a unified Army-Marine Corps command be formed under his command, which caused consternation in both the Marine and Navy ranks. The Navy, which also had forces on the ground, argued that its commanders should retain control of the Marines. Eventually, Funston, Lejeune, and the Navy reached agreement - seconded by the White House - that the sailors and Marines attached to ships' companies would return to the warships, and the remaining Marines - who on 4 May would come under the command of yet another officer, Colonel L.W.T. Waller - would operate under Army control.

This arrangement would stand for the next eight months as the Wilson administration continued to pressure the Mexican government. The president did achieve one of his key goals when General Huerta resigned office and fled in July 1914. Once Huerta was gone, Wilson's interest in continuing the expedition gradually waned.
Overall, the Vera Cruz landing had gone relatively smoothly for the Navy and Marine Corps. Nevertheless, it had exposed several shortcomings. For example, the operation had highlighted a lack of sophisticated combat skills among the Navy landing parties. The sailors had been particularly unprepared for urban combat - a fact that led to a gradual reduction in the use of large naval landing parties.

Photo of Naval Landing Party from USS Utah

A naval landing party from USS Utah (BB 31) returns to their ship at Vera Cruz.
Naval Historical Center.

For their part, the Marines found that their success at Vera Cruz had occurred despite some well-known, continuing problems. For one thing, their lift - both strategic and tactical - was still heavily constrained. Beyond Prairie and Hancock, which left much to be desired as transports, the Marines had no dedicated sealift. Unable to move units as a coherent whole, Marine commanders instead were forced to create provisional units "on the fly" from detachments on Navy warships who had not trained, planned, or even come ashore together. Once on the ground in Mexico, the Marines also found themselves with little tactical mobility, which would have been a serious impediment had the campaign progressed inland. In preparing for a possible move out of Vera Cruz, Lejeune had been forced to order his quartermasters to requisition animals and carts from the civilian population in city.

Even with these problems, the Vera Cruz operation showcased the ability of integrated naval forces to rapidly concentrate combat power, on short notice, from dispersed locations. As a small intervention against minor opposition, however, it did not lead to any major improvements in amphibious warfare techniques. It would take World War I, which began four months after the landing, to demonstrate the real challenges facing amphibious practitioners in the Industrial Age.

Sources:

Colonel James H. Alexander, USMC, "Roots of Deployment - Vera Cruz, 1914," in Lieutenant Colonel Merrill L. Bartlett, USMC (ret.), ed., Assault from the Sea (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1983).

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

Jack Sweetman, The Landing at Vera Cruz, 1914 (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1968).

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