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Naval Infantry in US Military History

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Naval Infantry in US Military History
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Sea Soldiers: Naval Infantry in United States Military History
By Steven Christopher Ippolito

Gallant [Marine Lieutenant] Bush, who mounting the Taffle [taffrail: the stern bulwarks], sword in hand, and as he exclaimed…Shall I Board Her! Received a fatal ball on the left cheek bone which passed thro' the back of his head. Thus fell that brave and illustrious officer, who, when living, was beloved and now gone, is lamented by all.[1]

Throughout history, powers that did not have a strong navy, even though, they were impressive on land, usually failed in an all-out war…Sparta wins the Peloponnesian War only when it builds a navy…Rome wins the Punic War only when it builds a navy. Germany loses both world wars, in part, because it doesn't have a navy that can challenge the Allies. Japan is a formidable power…because of its navy. And when that is gone it fails. The Soviet Union cannot win the Cold War because it never can really challenge the United States at sea.
Victor Davis Hanson[2]


In the history of warfare, the deployment of naval infantry was a regular feature of battle at sea. For students of military history, any reference to the soldiers of the sea will likely evoke images of marine warriors. This assumption would not be incorrect, but it would be incomplete. Unlike the sailor, the marine was never a regular member of a ship's company, though he generally found his duty-station aboard the decks of ships. Close-quarter combat with small arms was a principal duty of marine warriors, though in the military histories of the United States and other nations, he might be assigned to man naval guns in combat, to protect ports and naval depots, too.

The first sea soldiers in the New World were raised in the American colonies in 1740. The 3,000 marines organized to fight against the Spaniards that year… became known as 'Gooch's Marines' after…William Gooch,[3] who led them into action when the British attacked the Spanish naval base at Cartagena in northern Colombia during April 1741…One of Gooch's Marine officers…was Lawrence Washington,[4] half-brother of George Washington, the future President of the United States.[5]

Prior to the Industrial Revolution, the marine of any nation might be ordered to repel enemy boarding parties or to function as a sharpshooter in battle. Admiral Horatio Nelson was likely killed by a French marine-sniper, on 21 October 1805, at the Battle of Trafalgar.[6] Additionally, the marine might be ordered ashore and fight in the nature of land-based infantry. On 8 March 1805, William Eaton led a small detachment of U.S. Marines on a daring march to attack the city of Derna, in Tripoli, North Africa, assisted by U.S. Marine Lt. Presley O'Bannon and an ad hoc army of Muslims and Christian mercenaries and adventurers. Eaton's march of 520 miles through the Desert of Barca culminated in a furious battle of Derna, "the first decisive American victory of the Barbary War."[7]

Congress created the U.S. Marine Corps on July 11, 1798. It was a second act for America's 'soldiers of the sea,' whose training and hierarchy mirrored the British Marines, crack shipboard and assault troops first organized in 1664. During the Revolutionary War, Continental Marines—perhaps 50 officers and 2,000 enlisted men altogether—had served on American warships through 1784, but they disbanded along with the rest of the Continental military establishment. Today, the Marine Corps observes as its birthday the date of the Continental Marine Corps' establishment: November 10 1775.[8]

Clearly, the sea soldier concept evokes images of marines. However, in the days of sail and wooden ships, and even after the Industrial Revolution, the sea soldier or naval infantryman was less often a marine and more frequently a sailor or bluejacket, drawn from the regular company of a warship. Like the marine, the sailor as naval infantryman might be called upon to defend his vessel from the boarding parties of enemy ships. Similarly, he could take up small arms, edged weapons, even blunt force instruments, in order to function as a boarding party, to attack and seize an enemy vessel. Seaborne infantry duties, therefore, could shift between sailors or marines, or both services together might see action in joint amphibious operations. For the present author, sea soldier or naval infantry can refer to sailors, marines, or both together. However, this paper will advance the idea that a naval infantry composed exclusively of sailors, far from being an anachronism of warfighting, can and does execute an effective combat role as sea soldiers within the modern battle-space. The recent developments within the United States Navy, in response to a new vision of sailors as naval infantry, bear witness to this insight. To explore the history of naval infantry in American military history, therefore, and to promote the utility of a sailor-based naval infantry, this paper will explore both past and present; it will explore such realities as the genesis of the Navy Expeditionary Combat Command in 2006, the renewed focus on the use of a brown water- riverine force in Iraq.

Additionally, this paper will advance the modern deployment of sailors trained in small arms and infantry tactics, in order to press the fight on land with a new and virulent enemy. In this new manifestation of naval infantry, the so-called sand sailors have already assumed combat duties previously conducted by U.S. Marines, attesting to the new thinking regarding the modern sea soldier by the U.S. Navy. Contemporaneous with these developments, a new vocabulary has arises to describe twenty-first century naval infantry, to wit: the IAs or individual augmentees, sailors operating ashore in conjunction with other military services. However, to understand the role of sea soldiers in modern warfighting, in any comprehensive sense, requires historical understanding and the evidence of military history. The historical evidence presented here is clear in its findings: naval personnel or sailors have functioned in an infantry-based capacity in the totality of amphibious operations and with great success. That they can continue to do so with excellent results in the post11 September world seems rather clear to the present author.

Caveat Lector! (Let the reader beware!): The essay that follows will probe the subject of naval infantry in a somewhat non-linear manner. It will move forth and back in time, space, and various conflicts, in order to demonstrate the topic conceptually rather than in any linear fashion. Past, present, and future, in that progression, therefore, is less important than the functional reality of the sea soldier, marine or sailor, as one envisions him rising out of the sea onto a beachhead with power and force in many eras, many theaters of operation.

Theoretical Conceptualizations of Sea Soldiers—Toward a Modern View

Patrick H. Roth (Captain, U.S. Navy, Ret.) writes: "The use of sailors as infantry (and as artillerymen ashore) was common during the 19th century."[9] Ron Field writes that that the deployment of "the sea soldiers, or 'marines,' is as ancient as war at sea."[10] Classical scholar, William Stearns Davis,[11] writing in 1910, describes the Greek marine or naval infantryman as a defined member of the crew of a trireme, the primary Greek warship.[12] Today, in an age when the American military is stretched thin in Iraq and Afghanistan, fighting sailors mustered for service in land-based combat can and have rendered excellent service to the overall modern American military situation. Journalist, Joanne Kimberlin, writing in the Virginian-Pilot, 18 October 2005, describes the new naval infantry as a force of unique sailor-soldiers, somewhere between Marines and the elite Navy S.E.A.L.s.

Less formidable than SEAL commandos, but more fierce than average swabbies, the hybrid sailor-soldiers would not elbow out Marines, said Adm. Michael G. Mullen…

Mullen stressed that the new force would not compete with the Marines but complement them…

[D]emands in Iraq and Afghanistan have stretched the Marines thin, even as the Navy's 'brown water' operations are expected to increase missions that call for close contact with hostile coastlines.[13]

After the attacks on the American homeland, 11 September 2001, the U.S. Navy, concerned for security for its ships in port, decided to increase the number of its Masters-at-Arms, to handle such matters. Previously, the designation, Master-at-Arms was used for a specific job category, a type of naval constable.

The modern naval MA possesses police training, anti-terrorism skills, a light infantry capability, and a background in force protection.[14] Moreover, in the wake of this new significance that became attached to the Master of Arms, the U.S. Navy sought to go further with the creation of what Admiral Michael Mullen described as the new Navy Expeditionary Combat Command. The NECC was established on 13 January 2006, and it was headquartered at Naval Amphibious Base Little Creek, Virginia.

The command will oversee units ranging from bomb disposal crews, expeditionary logistics groups, and the master-at-arms forces. The NECC will also provide the 5,000 to 7,000 sailors supporting the Army and Marine Corps in the Middle East with proper training for these non-traditional jobs

It's time to recognize the need of the young men and women at war on the dirt, said [Rear Adm Donald] Bullard.

[T]he…NECC will also form a new river combat force to assume maritime security operations in the Iraqi waterways currently done by the Marine Corps.[15]

This new unit was envisioned as a brown water force. A force of this kind is tasked with riverine patrol and combat duties, in contrast to a blue water force, which travels and fights on the oceans and seas. The brown water force created by the NECC patrols can be found in such places as the Euphrates River in Iraq, where some 79 islands afford the enemy cover for its personnel and locations to hide weapons caches. Historically, America's brown water navy was very much in use in the American Revolution, where small vessels engaged British ships on small bodies of water. The brown water sailors were in action, again, during the War of 1812, and during the War Between the States. But its most visible presence would come in the twentieth century.

Riverine warfare's most notable chapter in history was during the Vietnam War, when the Navy's River Patrol Force, and Army-Navy Mobile Riverine Force along the Mekong Delta…in South Vietnam.

The 21st century riverine force…conducts maritime security operations along rivers…to deny the use of the maritime environment as a venue for attack…[and] the illegal transportation of weapons, people or material.[16]

Official Navy announcements at the time (2005), described this force as operating as "an infantry component…[T]hese troops would be sailors, not…the Marine Corps. This new force makes it clear how much the navy and marines have grown apart."[17] Moreover, the new ECG, like the naval infantry in the days of sail and wooden ships, would provide "boarding parties for dangerous interdiction missions."[18] Specially-trained sailors and Masters-at-Arms would handle such interdiction duties. In terms of numbers, they would be organized into a force of "only a few thousand strong."[19] Combat duties in Iraq and Afghanistan have stressed the Army and Marine services in those operational theaters, and at the time it was conceived, the new naval command was geared to provide relief for the other services in theater. Additionally, the individual members within this latest incarnation of bluejacket naval infantry are known by a modern term, the IAs, or individual augmentees.

The public is…unaware of how involved the U.S. Navy is with the ground war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Currently, 1,400 sailors are serving with army units mainly in Iraq…but also in places like Guantanamo Bay. This small army of sailor augmentees are assigned to fill army support jobs overseas.

In the last seven years over 50,000 U.S. Navy sailors have served as IAs (individual augmentees) to assist the U.S. Army[.]…[M]ost of the IAs are still volunteers, [but] many are not.[20]

By November 2005, an estimated 7,000 sailors were assigned to specific theaters of operation to "guard ports and oil platforms, build roads and buildings and run customs operations, among other duties."[21] The presence of the Navy in job functions that have more recently been fulfilled by its Marine and Army brethren has raised questions, not surprisingly, amongst the other services. Some of these would seem to be typical turf and control issues, the solution of which requires considerable diplomatic finesse. Rear Admiral Donald C. Bullard, Deputy Chief of Staff for Operational Readiness and Training for Fleet Forces, in an important statement on the matter, clearly-stated: "'The Marines are the naval infantry…Still…we're inextricably linked in this battle space."[22]

Admiral Bullard also said that he expected "a force of more than 700 sailors to fill three units of river combat forces, with the first unit to become operational in 2007."[23] However, Bob Work, senior defense analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, made the point that "the new structure would not replace the Marines' traditional role."[24] Mr. Work added that the emergence of the new naval infantry represented "the sea service's willingness to adapt to changing threats."[25] Similarly, when questioned by the press about the potential for fallout between Navy and Marines on the issue of the new infantry, Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Michael G. Mullen on 26 October 2005, "sought to downplay the seeming conflict"[26] At the time, Admiral Mullen made his remarks, he was standing alongside then, Commandant of the Marine Corps, General Mike Hagee.

Our naval infantry in this country is standing to my left…When we initiated this concept in June, there was some confusion about whether the Navy was going to become some kind of offensive force[.]…That is not the intent at all…This is not naval infantry done by the Navy…This is a security force. This allows us a kind…[of] theater security engagement.[27]

In the same diplomatic vein, a Marine spokesperson, Col. Jenny M. Holbert, offered that "the Atlantic Marine Corps forces fully supported the plan and would cooperate as the new Navy command develops."[28] But in the opinions of some, the U.S. Navy "still wanted and needed land forces."[29] Undeniably, the Marine Corps had grown apart from the Navy, and, in the process, it had managed to become a de facto fourth military service. By contrast, the new naval expeditionary command would operate ashore, when needed; in combat theaters like Iraq, where it would conduct riverine operations. Naval infantry consisting of sailors also would protect the Navy's land bases in enemy territory.

[T]he admirals can no longer send in the marines whenever they want to, [and] NECC provides naval infantry, that will hop to when an admiral needs some grunts on the ground.[30]

Observers other than historians might have seen these developments as rather curious. Yet, the issue might have occasioned much less controversy, in the present author's view, if the relevant history had been openly discussed and promulgated.

Sea Soldiers in U.S. Military History: Bluejackets and Jarheads

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, it was not unusual for sailors to act as "infantry…sometimes providing land based artillery support."[31] In the nineteenth century, the utilization of boarding parties and the need to repel such parties was an integral part of naval tactical doctrine. Equally, it was not uncommon for naval forces to launch amphibious operations, for "landings and operations ashore were normal."[32] In the history of the American Navy, the numbers of such operations are impressive in their quantity, and in the length and breadth of their utilization. On sixty-six occasions, sailors as naval infantry, were utilized during the nineteenth century[.]"[33]

By 1930, naval infantry had been deployed approximately 136 times in such theaters of operation as the Caribbean, Central America, and the China Station. Moreover, it was not until, approximately, 1933 that naval infantry, consisting primarily as sailors, declined in favor of the Marine Corps, but the swabbies continued to be used in an infantry capacity as late as the 1970s.[34] The change came with the organization of the Fleet Marine Forces that took place in 1933.[35] But prior to World War I, the designation of the Marine Corps as the lead service in "amphibious assault operations,"[36] was already under way. This development was born of a crisis: naval warfare had changed, and the Marines no longer seemed to have an adequate mission statement. Despite their heroic service in years past, and their powerful connection to American warfighting since 1755, some even questioned their necessity as a distinctive military service. The turn-of-the-century Marine Corps, therefore, found itself under considerable pressure from the Navy's General Board and the Office of the Secretary of the Navy to enter a new phase of service redefinition.[37] In this atmosphere, the Corps was obliged to embrace a mission, in which its personnel would help protect "temporary advanced bases."[38]

By 1913, a "permanent temporary advanced base defense force organization[,]"[39] had come into being within the U.S. Marines Corps. As early as November 1902, the Marine Corps deployed a battalion for expeditionary duty aboard the U.S.S. Panther, in order to have naval infantry available for "expeditionary duties in the Caribbean and Central America. The landing party mission, however, continued to be in conjunction with Navy bluejackets,"[40] Roth's observation is that the advanced base defense concept would have been untenable if the Marines had been unable to seize advanced bases.

In order to insure their success in this new aspect of naval warfighting, the Marines were obligated to become "organized for field operations."[41] By way of furthering this goal, the distinguished Marine General John A. Lejeune became a strong advocate of Marine participation for operational duties ashore in conjunction with the Fleet. In the years, 1922, 1924, 1925, and 1926, major landing exercises were conducted with success. However, the circumstances of the Marine-Navy inter-relationship at this time meant that it was now the Marine Corps and not the Navy that would take the lead in future amphibious operations.

The task of securing temporary advanced bases, therefore, coupled with the need to project power from the decks of its warships, passed from one service to the other. Overnight, decades of theory and practice, relative to naval infantry, were jettisoned along with this change.[42] A document issued in 1927, Joint Action of the Army and the Navy, acknowledged that the "'initial seizure" of advanced bases, "' and for such limited land operations as are essential to the prosecution of the land campaign[,]'" were now a Marine Corps responsibility.[43] CNO Admiral William V. Pratt, in 1932, signed-off on General Lejeune's vision for the future of the Marines. Navy Department Order 241, promulgated in 1933, established the Fleet Marine Force. "By the mid-1930s…the "Marines had largely and…exclusively become the navy's infantry…The Navy assumed the role that which is recognizable today—support, transportation, naval fires, etc."[44] Through a skillful adaptation to circumstances, the Marines weathered the crisis, to become the dominant actors in the area of naval infantry. Historically, it would not be the only time the Corps would demonstrate their resilience in such crises.

Benjamin Armstrong, in his essay, "Reaching Translational Lift: the History of the Helicopter and Lessons for 21st Century Technology,"[45] has described a similar crisis that confronted the Marines, subsequent to World War II, relating to their future mission statement. Post-1945, two powerful elements dominated the new crisis: the advent of the tactical helicopter, first deployed by the Army, and the development of atomic weapons, championed by the Air Force. These powerful military advances left the Marines in something of a military dilemma, relative to amphibious operations. Lt. Armstrong (U.S. Navy) writes that the Air Force was little-interested in helicopters, preferring to focus on atomic weapons as the "great new calling."[46]

The dangers posed by atomic warfare, however, left the Marines wrestling with the question of how to adapt to the battlefield of the future. In the helicopter, the Marines saw an answer to their problems. Atomic warfare posed real problems for success in future amphibious combat. A well-placed atom bomb could obliterate an entire Marine Division as it fought its way off landing craft to establish a beachhead, a fact that was not lost on Marine Lt. General Roy Geiger as he watched the atomic bomb testing at Bikini Atoll. Subsequent to the atomic testing, Geiger immediately contacted the Commandant of the Marine Corps with his observations and his very real service concerns. General Geiger urged that amphibious operations be reviewed and studied in light of the complications posed by the new atomic weapons.[47] Marine Commandant, General Alexander Vandegrift promptly convened a board of inquiry into the matter, headed by Major General Lemuel Shepherd. The inquiry determined that "dispersion and rapid mobility would be key elements to the atomic battlefield."[48]

Shepherd's board implemented three recommendations: to test the new aircraft through the use of an experimental helicopter unit, the establishment of a program to determine the future of helicopter development, the creation of a new doctrine for attack helicopters.[49] U.S. Marine rotary wing studies began in earnest in late 1947, with the establishment of Marine Helicopter Experimental Squadron One (HMX-1). Igor Sikorsky developed the new squadron's HO3S-1 aircraft, and the Marines wasted no time in exploring the possibilities of the new aircraft.

One of the most important techniques of the new doctrine was "vertical envelopment," which emerged at the time of the Korean War. By December 1955, the Marines issued a "complete rewrite of the manual governing amphibious operations[,]" in Landing Force Bulletin 17 (LFB-17), which emphasized a radically-new idea: heliborne air assault. The advantage of focusing on the helicopter, was the freedom of action it conferred. Moreover the utilization of heliborne air assault meant that "'the beach assault can be eliminated altogether[.]'" This meant that the Marine Corps would now have to be overhauled. Instead of rising out of the sea to assault a beach, as it trained to do in the early twentieth century, the Marine naval infantry could descend from the skies—in short, the USMC had gone airmobile.

Lt. Armstrong writes that by 1960, the Marines had become so advanced in their new doctrine that they could engage in "multiple battalion-sized assaults from land or sea," in conjunction with the Navy. The deployment of this doctrine's foundational tenets was found to be valuable in such operations as the Cuban Missile Crisis, Operation Sea Gull (Dominican Republic), and in Laos in 1961, prior to the Vietnam War.[50]

The U.S. Marine Corps was now an airborne naval infantry as well. Throughout American military history, Marines have repeatedly demonstrated an extraordinary creativity in the matter of their survivability not only as naval infantry, but as a viable and independent military service. Ben Armstrong's essay demonstrates Marine naval infantry's ability to achieve a highly-satisfactory and inter-dimensional integration of tactics, technology, and doctrine.

The Marine Corps did not create a helicopter doctrine; instead they integrated the technology into the greater doctrine of amphibious assault. Vertical envelopment was a revolutionary step in the overriding vision of power projection. It was, in the end, part of LFB-17, which was an amphibious doctrine.[51] (italics mine)

Clearly, the new technology of the helicopter did not preclude the Marines from maintaining their traditional identity as sea soldiers. Whether they descended from ships to attack the beaches of the enemy, or flew in from above, their point of departure remained the amphibious operation; in short, the Marines remained what they always been: an expression of naval infantry.

American Naval Infantry (1861-1865)

During the War Between the States, naval infantry was much more likely to be associated with sailors than leathernecks, if for no reason than the Marines were a much smaller warfighting force in comparison to sailors. At the outset of hostilities, the Marine Corps suffered from an exodus of its officer corps of Southern background. Torn in their loyalties between state and nation-state, many fine officers, in all branches of service, found themselves compelled to decide between one and the other in the worst war the country has ever endured.

At the time Fort Sumter was bombarded, there were sixty-three officers in the Corps, twenty of whom either resigned their commissions, or were driven from service.[52] Unfortunately for the North, these officers were amongst the most capable in the Corps, and all but one of these served the Confederacy in its own marine force, the Confederate States' Marine Corps. The Confederate Marines were established by an act of the Confederate Congress, on 16 March 1861, at Montgomery, Alabama. Though it never reached its total complement of men, forty-six officers, and 944 enlisted men, it made its headquarters at Drewry's Bluff, in Richmond, Virginia. Its one and only Commandant was Colonel Lloyd Beall, a West Point graduate, who led the Confederate Marines from 1862 till its surrender with Army of Northern Virginia, 2 April 1865. Like their federal counterparts, the Southern marines served aboard ships and commerce raiders, functioned as sharpshooters, manned artillery when required, and led landing parties. Like the Federal Marines, they engaged with distinction in infantry engagements, as naval infantry. A detachment of marines from Company A served aboard the famous C.S.S. Virginia, in its historic engagement against the U.S.S. Monitor. [53]

One of the officers who served with distinction in the U.S. Marines, and resigned his commission to serve the South was Lt. Israel Greene (1824-1909). Born in New York, Greene was raised in Wisconsin. He later married a woman from Virginia, a situation that entered into his decision to serve the South. Lt. Greene led 86 marines in the counter-attack on the U.S. Armory, Harper's Ferry, Virginia, after it was seized by the abolitionist John Brown,[55] together with a group of insurgents. Amongst the captives of John Brown was Col. Lewis Washington, a great-grand-nephew of George Washington.

In December 1885, Greene, now a civil engineer and a surveyor in Mitchell, Dakota Territory (South Dakota), wrote an eyewitness account of the Harper's Ferry raid, "The Capture of John Brown."[55] The rescue operation was under the command of Lt. Col. Robert E. Lee, who was on leave at the time and about to depart to Texas to join the U.S. Army's 2nd Cavalry. Of interest is the fact that throughout the Harper's Ferry operation, Colonel Lee wore civilian clothes.

Lee was assisted in the mission by the redoubtable Lt. J.E.B.Stuart, U.S. Army, 1st Cavalry, whom, Greene notes, was wearing the hat and plume that he would become well-known for during the Civil War.[56] Lt. Greene's marines were fortified by two twelve pound Dahlgren guns (howitzers). Lee, however, hoped to resolve the seizure of the armory without further violence. At a conference of officers, prior to the commencement of the operation, Lt. Col. Lee decided to attempt a negotiation with John Brown as the first action. If Brown was aware of the howitzers' proximity, he was likely unaware that the weapons had already been deemed as impractical, given the proximity of hostages to the insurrectionists. In order to secure the peaceful resolution of the crisis, therefore, Lt. Stuart was directed to approach John Brown and request that his surrender and the release of the hostages. Greene would later write that if the negotiations were unsuccessful, Stuart would signal for the attack to commence by a pre-arranged signal: he would remove his hat and wave it in Lee's direction. Predictably, Brown refused; Stuart signaled Lee, and the future military leader of the Confederacy ordered Lt. Green and twenty-four Marines to assault the armory.[57] The unfolding combat scene, in all likelihood, resembled a modern police operation by S.W.A.T. officers: The front door was breached by blunt-force blows of sledge hammers that included the use of a ladder.

Immediately, the Corps paymaster, Major Russell and Lt. Greene entered the armory, where Col. Washington met Greene as he entered the Armory; the captive promptly pointed out John Brown's hiding place. The actual operational time of the raid was approximately three minutes duration. The marines killed two of the insurgents with bayonet thrusts, and one marine, Pvt. Luke Quinn, was killed, straightaway, the result of a gut shot from Brown's gang. The ensuing fire in the Armory was described in the press reports of the Richmond Daily Dispatch as "rapid and sharp."[58] In the rapidly unfolding action, John Brown, armed with a Sharps carbine, was about to shoot Greene, who immediately counter-attacked. Greene wielded his sword, administering two sword strikes to Brown: one, an overhead strike; the second, a thrust to the chest area. In the process, Greene's weapon was damaged.

As he noted in his description of the incident, the leatherneck carried his light, ceremonial sword, not his service weapon during the action, and the chest wound caused it to bend. He lost track of the weapon after the Civil War began, but in the 1880s, he reported that it had been found-- in its bent state! But he also wrote that at that point in his life, he no longer had any interest in the weapon at all. In the aftermath of the federal counter-assault at Harper's Ferry, the Richmond Daily Dispatch furnished an assessment of the sea soldiers' performance, "'the general feeling being that the marines had done their part admirably.'"[59] John Brown was subsequently tried and hanged for his violent actions at Harpers Ferry, and with the beginning of the War Between the States, Israel Greene, like Lee and Stuart, resigned his commission and served the South for the duration of the war at the headquarters of the Confederate Marines in Richmond, Virginia.

Officers like David Dixon Porter and his step-brother remained with the North, but others like Franklin Buchanan, Raphael Semmes, and Matthew Fontaine Maury resigned from the U.S. Navy, and served the Confederacy's naval service.[60]

Naval Considerations (1861-1865)

Sea war in the War Between the States did not involve "fleets of line-of-battle ships…in a Trafalgar-like contest for command of the sea."[61] There were no great fleets in either Navy, though the North was in a slightly better position, in terms of numbers of ships in 1861. In addition, America's previous involvement in the War of 1812 and the Mexican War provided some important lessons for naval warfare as the Civil War began. Kenneth J. Hagan has written that both of these earlier conflicts reinforced the lessons of blockade duty. Through such actions, "a blockading navy could mount stinging amphibious assaults on the enemy's coastal cities."[62] Nevertheless, a navy that was dominant at sea could render "coastal defense…difficult if not impossible."[63]

But what was also clear was the need for joint operations. However secure a naval force was in its dominance of the enemy's coastal waters, a land-based Army had to invade and occupy "the enemy's politico-economic heart."[64] This reality was counter-pointed by the lessons of the War of 1812, which taught that commerce raiders could play an effective role in war. By attacking the enemy's merchant marine force, the morale of a superior power could be greatly diminished.[65] Hagan has defined this approach by the French term, guerre de course. [66]

The navy in the era of the sailing frigate was designed to hit and run, to attack enemy vessels and small warships and flee if faced with a stronger naval opponent. This strategy, which the French call guerre de course, reached its apogee in the transitional years between sail and steam, when Captain Raphael Semmes set a world-class standard for commerce raiding as skipper of the famed Confederate raider Alabama. [67]

The attack on Fort Sumter, 12 April 1861, was the prelude to the Confederacy's President Jefferson Davis' decision to utilize guerre de course in his naval war with the North, and during the War, the Secretary of the Navy for the Confederate States of America, was Stephen R. Mallory, appointed to his position by President Davis on 21 February 1861.[68] Under the prodding of Davis and Mallory, the Confederate States' Congress "authorized the issuance of letters of marque and reprisal."[69] In so doing, the privateer returned to American warfighting, after a hiatus from the days of the early United States' privateer-in-chief, John Paul Jones. According to Hagan:

Privateering was an ancient and honorable way to fight at sea. Armed with letters of marque and reprisal, audacious crews set to sea in fast and lightly armed vessels with the sole intention of capturing merchant vessels. They took their captives into ports, where prize courts legitimized the seizures… [70]

Generally, privateering was regarded as little more than piracy in the Civil War, in the North, and at the Paris Declaration of 1856, most of the attendees "declared privateering illegal."[71] And Hagan observes that it was literally within hours of Davis' decision to resurrect the utilization of privateers that President Lincoln and Secretary of State, William H. Seward, "responded with the proclamation of a blockade of the Confederate coast."[72] President Lincoln also signed orders to increase the size of the Marine Corps, but recruits were hard to obtain. The Union Marine Corps maintained troop strength of about 3,000 marines, which at the war's end had swollen to about 4,167 officers and men. One of the most significant utilizations of marine sea soldiers was at the Battle of Bull Run, or as it rendered in the South, the Battle of the First Manassas.[73]

On 21 July 1861, Secretary of the Navy, Gideon Welles, authorized the use of the Marine battalion at the Washington Navy Barracks for service with the Army of General Irwin McDowell. The Marines were attached to Colonel Andrew Porter's, 1st Brigade, 2nd Division, under the command of such officers as Major John G. Reynolds and Captain Jacob Zeilin. In orders that reflect the fog of war, the Marines were directed to follow behind (on foot) an all-mounted Army unit, Captain Charles Griffin's Battery D, 5th U.S. Artillery. Improbably, and in order to keep up with the horse soldiers, the Marines had to move on the double quick for several hours! Nevertheless, the Marines demonstrated consummate professionalism as soon as the shooting started.

Porter's brigade formed part of the Federal right wing, and it was "deployed to cross Bull Run, at Sudley Springs, in order to deliver a flank attack on Confederate positions northwest of Manassas."[74] Following on foot, as noted, it was with some difficulty, but undeniable tenacity, that the Marines eventually caught up with Griffin's artillery. Presently, as the battle unfolded, and the naval infantry advanced behind the guns, they soon encountered an infantry unit in blue uniforms, an indication of friendly troops. In fact, they were a Confederate force, the 33rd Virginia Regiment, and in the resulting confusion, the Northern artillery was eventually overcome. The sea soldiers fell back in good order throughout, engaging in a rear guard action till relieved by the 71st New York State Militia. Losses, however, were significant: eight marines killed, eight wounded; and eighteen missing.[75]

In 1861, Flag Officer Samuel F. DuPont began to utilize joint operations that foreshadowed the manner of deployment for the future sea soldier. In late October, DuPont assembled an armada of 50 ships, 13,000 Army troops, and the Marine Battalion from Washington, D.C. By November, the great force had increased to seventy-seven ships, including eleven deep-draft warships, various gunboats, thirty transport vessels with 16,000 U.S. Army troops. In that same month, Admiral DuPont led his force in an attack on Port Royal Sound, located between Charleston, South Carolina and Savannah, Georgia. The transports, being anchored safely out of sight, DuPont raked two earthen forts on the Sound with cannon fire from the 46 gun frigate Wabash. Army and Marine forces landed in a joint amphibious operation with no resistance. This amphibious operation set a military precedent, it seems, for Hagan: "The operation set the pattern for Atlantic and Gulf Coast operations, and for the rest of the war, Port Royal served as a major base of operations for the blockading fleet."[76] A severe November storm derailed the further combat deployment of this impressive force, unfortunately. But this setback was greatly compounded by an unexpected Revolution in Military Affairs, to wit: the C.S.S. Virginia, an ironclad unique in naval warfare of the time, and its murderous attack upon the Union blockade vessel the U.S.S. Cumberland.

Secretary Mallory, doubtless impressed by the ingeniously-destructive power of DuPont's combined force, resolved to meet the blockade with some ingenuity of his own. His naval strategy began with the raising and refloating of a Union vessel, a 40 gun steam frigate Merrimack. The ship had been scuttled by the Union when they withdrew from the Norfolk Navy Yard. Sunk or not, Mallory saw potential in the Merrimack as a means of destroying the blockade.

The masts and superstructure of the original ship were replaced by a sloped iron casemate to protect the engines and crew…and she was rechristened the C.S.S. Virginia on 17 February 1862. The new warship carried eleven guns and an iron ram mounted on the bow below the water's surface. Mallory hoped that the Virginia would be able to destroy the Union's wooden blockaders or drive them from the mouth of Chesapeake Bay[.]" [77]

By March 1862, the Virginia was armed and ready. On 8 March, it sailed out to confront the U.S.S. Cumberland with painful results for the Union Navy and the Marine naval infantry. At the time of the Confederate vessel's attack, the Marines were standing in formation on the foredeck, and the Virginia's artillery barrage killed fourteen of Captain Charles Heywood's forty-six Marines. The Cumberland was sunk in the action, and the Virginia, now virtually-unchallenged, rampaged through the federal formation forcing three vessels aground, and even managed to capture the U.S.S. Congress.

The Confederate sea beast withdrew, at length, but it returned the next day, expecting to destroy the remaining federal blockade. However, naval military history would be made this time when the Confederate ironclad found, not ships of wood, but a strange-looking, ironclad vessel, the U.S.S. Monitor. The story of the Monitor begins with the convocation of a special Ironclad Board by Mallory's Federal counterpart, Gideon Welles. Aided by Gustavus Fox, Welles had learned of Mallory's intention to refit and redeploy the Merrimack as an ironclad warship. Alert to the destructive potential of the Confederate intentions, Welles called for designs to neutralize what appeared to him to be a new and dangerous weapon system. One of these designs was submitted by Swedish naval architect, and it was radically-different from anything in use at the time. It was to be called the Monitor. And of the three vessels proposed to Welles' Ironclad Board, only "the Monitor design…was truly revolutionary."[78]

Ericsson brought the vessel to operational readiness life during a construction period that lasted for a remarkably short period of one hundred days. Commissioned on 25 February 1862, the Monitor had a single turret which sheltered two 11-inch guns, both Dahlgren smoothbore cannon. Iron plating protected the vessel from enemy fire, and her deck, too, was armored. Sitting low in the water—Hagan observes that "she drew only 12 feet[,]" and her "extremely low silhouette" rendered her a difficult target for enemy cannon. "In her totality—steam, turret, and armor—she has been seen as 'a prototype for the future battleship navies of the world[.]'"[79] Almost thirty years later, the U.S.S. Oregon (1890) would closely resemble the Monitor in its use of turrets and a low-lying silhouette. The difference, however, was the Monitor was not designed for use on the high seas. Her rather low freeboard and shallow draft qualified her to function as "a coastal gunboat, intended to fight in the bays and river mouths of the divided Republic."[80]

Commanded by Lieutenant John L. Worden, the Monitor was towed to Hampton Roads, arriving on 8 March 1862. In Welles' haste to get the Monitor into action, there was no time for the usual sea trials, nor proper training for a crew in an ironclad vessel, or even basic gunnery practice. On the day she arrived, the Virginia had already dispatched the Cumberland. The 32 gun sloop had been attacked by the Virginia's underwater ram and ultimately destroyed. Casualties were significant amongst the marines on board as well. Next, the Virginia's captain, Franklin Buchanan, raked the 52 gun Congress with cannon fire, taking her prisoner, too. As Hagan observes: "the United States could not encircle the Confederacy with a wooden fence; the Virginia was on the verge of realizing Stephen Mallory's latest dream for her."[81]

All that changed when the Monitor arrived on the scene. On 9 March 1862, the Monitor sailed into Hampton Roads, and the battle between she and the C.S.S. Virginia began in earnest. As sea battles go, this four hour clash was inconclusive, in that, neither vessel was damaged critically. However, each vessel "partially achieved its strategic aim." The Virginia was neutralized from destroying the Union blockade; the Union Navy, on the other hand, was prevented from attacking Norfolk or maneuvering on the James River, so long as the Virginia was still active. What was also clear to all observers was the realization that an era in naval warfare was over.[82] Moreover, the experience of the C.S.S. Virginia is representative of "the Confederacy's doomed attempt to disrupt the Union blockade."[83]

During the Civil War, the Confederacy utilized a way of fighting at sea that was somewhat traditional: "coastal defense and commerce raiding."[84] A series of forts in the South that were constructed on bluffs that overhung the harbors and channels could not be completely overcome by the Union until the latter days of the War. What was not successful in the coastal defense plan was the "naval component of coastal defense[.]"[85] In the area of mines and blockade runners, the South had some success. Matthew Fontaine Maury, who headed the Confederate Submarine Battery Service, constructed enough mines to destroy thirty-one Union blockade vessels.[86] These successes, aside, by 1864, the Confederate naval threat was over.

The Civil War had witnessed an anomaly of offensive naval operations as part of a campaign of conquest. The future promised to resemble a more typical past, wherein the United States Navy deployed its active vessels on distant station and maintained a reserve fleet…should war with a European power seem imminent.[87]

Bluejacket Naval Infantry—Post-1865

Naval infantry, composed of sailors, were highly-visible in the post-war period. Infantry composed of sailors served with distinction in the Philippine Insurrection (1899-1902). The bluejacket sea soldiers were utilized in such activities as force protection, election security, and "guard duty to large-scale major combat operations against regular Army forces."[88] In the last decade of the nineteenth century, the U.S. Navy was "transformed…[by a blend of] imperialism…[and] enthusiasm for capital ships."[89] These political realities led to the use of naval infantry in various places. One such place was Hawaii, and the annexation of that land in the administration of President Benjamin Harrison.

Harrison appointed John L. Stevens, an ally of Secretary of State James G. Blaine, as U.S. Minister Plenipotentiary to Queen Liliuokalani in January 1891, a time of political and economic intrigue, and unabashed American imperialism. Minister Stevens played no small role in the overthrow of the Hawaiian government, an affair in which. American planters were complicit with Stevens (conspiracy, perhaps, is a better word), and the ambassador "honored their request for naval intervention the moment they seized power in Hawaii."[90] The U.S.S. Boston, flagship of the Pacific Squadron, arrived at Honolulu in time for the commencement of the American-led revolt, 16 January 1893. Captain Gilbert C. Wiltse landed a force of naval infantry at the request of Minister Stevens, and in his subsequent report to Secretary of the Navy Tracy, he reported:

"'At 4:30 p.m. landed force in accordance with the request of U.S. Minister Plenipotentiary. Tuesday afternoon the Provisional Government was established, the Queen dethroned, without loss of life.'"[91]

Regarding this incident, Hagan observes: "Some 164 bluejackets and marines were brandishing Gatling funs and rifles outside the royal palace, and the Secretary, subsequently, did not question Wiltse's action."[92] Two years earlier, in 1891, the Navy utilized and taught a tactical infantry doctrine that continued to be "refined and updated…until 1965."[93] Interestingly, the Navy's infantry tactics at this time were in line with the U.S. Army tactical doctrine and not the Marine Corps.

The departure from the tactics of their Marine cousins was due to the Navy's desire for "inter-service interoperability."[94] Moreover, as early as 1852, the Naval Regulations issued in that year, required commanding officers to train specific numbers of men in naval infantry-small-arms capability. This was a true naval infantry, as Roth points out, "'exclusive of marines[.]'"[95] The numbers of men slated to be trained as naval infantry depended upon the size of the ships to which they were assigned. On a ship with 44 guns, 75 sailors were assigned for naval infantry purposes. Naval regulations required ships with 36 guns to assign60 men, and so on, down to the smallest vessels which were required to assign 20 men. All the small arms of the nineteenth century utilized by the American military: handguns, carbines, swords, muskets, were utilized by naval infantry. The 1852 regulations also required that "'boat crews" had to be trained to lead attacks "'either by land or water[.]"[96] Graduates of the Naval Academy all studied infantry tactics in the Freshman and Sophmore Years. And "specialized landing party ordnance" evolved to serve as a boat gun and a land-based field piece. Commander John Dahlgren developed a twelve pound gun in 1850, which could be drawn by a field carriage.

In the American Civil War, Dahlgren, who commanded the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron, regularly ordered that "boat artillery and sailor infantry be 'landed occasionally for practice.'"[97] The end of the Civil War led to changes in the American military. In the maritime service, "a strong current of reform began to take hold in the Navy." But as Roth points out, this spirit of reform "did not neglect operation by sailors ashore as infantry, and as artillerymen."[98] In March 1874, in Key West, the North Atlantic Squadron conducted a large-scale exercise, involving 2,700 men. Five battalions (a naval brigade) of naval infantry (sailors), and one battalion of naval infantry (artillery) engaged in an amphibious landing.

In August 1884, Rear Admiral Stephen B. Luce, then, in temporary command of the North Atlantic Squadron, commenced an amphibious landing in Gardiner's Island, New York. In this exercise, a brigade of two infantry battalions, one of which was exclusively composed of sailors, artillery and supporting elements rehearsed landing operations.[99] In the years, 1888, 1894, and 1895, while Admiral Luce was now President of the Naval War College, and in command of the North Atlantic Squadron, he conducted naval infantry landings and war games at Coddington Point, in Newport, Rhode Island. These exercises utilized ten companies of sailors.

Landing exercises involving sailors as the primary source of infantry were in the latter part of the 19th century, conducted on a schedule comparable to exercises involving fleet tactics. Infantry tactics were considered very important and the consensus was that they, like fleet tactics, improved with practical exercise.[100]

In the late nineteenth century, several professional articles were written which discussed the "ongoing intellectual debate[,]" with respect to naval infantry. Lieutenant T.B.M. Mason wrote "On the Employment of Boat Guns as Light artillery for Landing Parties," in 1879. Mason's argument was that sailors should be "'efficient infantry and artillerymen.'" In 1880, Lieutenant John C. Soley wrote a paper, "The Naval Brigade," detailing the history of landing parties, and it served as a manual for landing parties, too. Lt. Soley's paper was the catalyst for a Naval Institute's prize essay contest in 1887, dealing with the same topic.

Lieutenant C.T. Hutchins was the winner of this contest. His essay, "The Naval Brigade: Its Organization, Equipment, and Tactics," was a powerful piece of naval writing, and it "foreshadowed the Navy's Landing Party Manuals of the 20th century."[101] The debate that ensued in the 1880s amongst naval theorists concerned the nature of the threats sea soldiers would have to face. The argument ranged from Ensign William Ledyard Rogers' view that naval infantry would likely face the best warfighters that an enemy could muster. Others, like Lieutenant William F. Fullam, believed that at best naval brigades and battalions would likely be involved in street battles involving mobs, gangs, or in the modern parlance, street insurgencies, which have become common in the American military consciousness, post-11 September. In effect, Fullam's argument served to "theoretically degrade the usefulness of sailors as infantry." And the question remained as to the nature of the enemies and battles a bluejacket naval infantry should be trained to encounter.[102] Simultaneously, a movement began, which was championed by Lt. Fullam, to remove "the marine ship guard from naval vessels."

An 1889 board of inquiry chaired by Commodore James Greer, at the behest of the Secretary of the Navy, concurred with this view, but the Secretary refused to implement this suggestion. Fullam, however, was not deterred, and he continued to lobby for the removal of marines from warships until 1908. In that year, President Theodore Roosevelt became involved in the issue, and he agreed with Fullam. The president issued Executive Order 969, which redefined the duties of the Marine Corps. The order removed the marines from shipboard; they could no longer guard vessels or have any on-board functions. It was a short-lived order, however, in that, the U.S. Congress overturned Roosevelt's directive.

Vera Cruz—1914---Naval Infantry Watershed

Notwithstanding the outcome of these events, Roth's assessment is central to the argument of this paper: "[I]t is quite clear that the professional Navy considered sailors to have a mission as infantrymen and that these bluejackets, with proper organization and training, [could] be as proficient as marines."[103] But, ironically, it was subsequent to one of the combined sailor and marine naval infantry's finest combat hours that the role of sailors as infantry was destined to undergo alteration. The battle occurred in Mexico, over a two day period, 21 and 22 April 1914. Fifty-six Medals of Honor were awarded to sailors and marines who fought as naval infantry in that campaign. If there was any doubt that sailors could function effectively as infantry, all that was wiped away by the almost common instances of great valor of bluejackets and marines fighting on land.[104]  A brigade of 2,500 bluejacket naval infantry landed at the city in combination of 1.300 marines.[105]

The political machinations that played out in the background of the Vera Cruz landing, derived, in part, from the pronounced bellicosity of certain high-ranking individuals in the American government and the military: the Army's General Leonard Wood, the Navy's Rear Admiral Bradley A. Fiske, and, perhaps, most significantly, Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Franklin D. Roosevelt. Roosevelt, who served under President Woodrow Wilson, "capitalized on a stint as acting secretary of the navy to stir up war sentiment."[106] He was not as successful in this as he might have been, for Wilson and Secretary of the Navy Daniels were able to restrain him. However, the Roosevelt approach had better results in 1914 when Wilson became disenchanted with conditions in Mexico, under General Victoriano Huerta. To undermine Huerta, Wilson sent shipments of arms to the rebel, Venustiano Carranza.

In addition, Wilson dispatched American warships off Vera Cruz and Tampico, two important Mexican Gulf port cities.[107] The crisis was heightened on 9 April 1914, when eight American sailors were arrested by Mexican authorities as the Americans loaded supplies on a whaleboat at Tampico. The matter was quickly resolved when the local Mexican commander apologized, but almost immediately he upset the Americans once more when he refused to salute the American flag with twenty-one guns. Rear Admiral Henry T. Mayo demanded that the salute be given, and President Wilson seconded Mayo's demand. Roosevelt was ordered to return to Washington from a tour of Pacific Coast installations, after Wilson requested Congressional authorization "to intervene in force." Roosevelt, apparently, was greatly pleased by this militant development, and he even told a reporter that the Tampico incident signaled war. War didn't come, but violence did.[108]

The escalation of the crisis occurred when a German steamer, bound for President Huerta, arrived at Vera Cruz, was packed with machine guns and ammunition for the Mexican cause. Wilson ordered the ship's cargo interdicted by seizure of the customs house, and between 21-22 April, six American battleships landed at Vera Cruz, where the combined bluejacket naval infantry and marines disembarked. The street battles that ensued were rather bloody. The city was taken, but seventeen Americans were killed, and about 126 Mexicans died in the violence.[109] The Vera Cruz operation highlights two critical problems for any deployment of naval infantry. For Roth, these problems are tactics and sustainability. Tactically, the naval infantry suffered when the Second Seaman Regiment assaulted the Mexican Navy Academy. The naval infantry assaulted the location with the "massed infantry tactics of 1891 and earlier."[110]

When these proved a little dangerous, the "bluejackets…had to adopt improvised small unit tactics to cope with the street fighting."[111] The second issue, sustainability, would prove more difficult. From the days of wood and sail, landing party sustainability was recognized to be a genuine problem. Sailors in the pre-Industrial Revolution were interchangeable, in terms of shipboard duties. But in the Age of Steam, the increasing-complexity of gun systems and mechanical systems turned many sailors into specialists. Such men could not be spared for amphibious naval infantry operations. As a consequence, it was after Vera Cruz that "very large-scale fleet bluejacket landings did not occur. Effective use of the landing party was constrained, but not eliminated."[112] Bluejacket naval infantry survived Vera Cruz, but as it had all along, when operating ashore, the naval infantry was organized according to U.S. Army principles.

The 1918 Landing Force Manual stated that "'when operating on shore…the landing force…carries out the same tactics, and in the same manner, as would a similar force from the U.S. Army under the same conditions."[113] The 1918 Manual employed the same Army designations for "units and sub-units (squad, platoon, etc.)." And in 1927, the Landing Force Manual was updated to maintain parity with the U.S. Army "regulations for infantry, machine-gun units, and combat principles."[114] The reasons for such close Navy-Army cooperation at this time may have been fueled by the "decade and a half effort to remove marines from ships. This may have been a key underlying factor."[115] Whatever the reason, it was not long afterwards, that the Marines, prompted by a military need to remain viable as a fighting force, increased in size and gradually assumed control of amphibious operations. However, as Roth points out, the bluejacket naval infantry remained in existence.

Bluejacket infantry…continued to have a role, albeit much more minor than it had been decades earlier. In China, infantry operations ashore by sailors continued as an integral part of the Asiatic fleet's operations along the Yangtze River even though the marines had taken over the bulk of activity.[116]

Naval infantry continued to be used in World War II, though their activity was limited. Admiral Halsey, commander of the Third Fleet, organized sailors "as three battalions of infantry…[at] the occupation of Yokosuka Naval Base at the end of world War II. Samuel Eliot Morison suggests that the sailor battalions were necessary because not enough marines were available to the Third Fleet."[117] Roth writes that the last known instance of a naval ship sending a landing party was within the continental United States. This was "the formation of a naval battalion from the landing parties of ships in port Long Beach, California in connection with the 1965 Watts riots."[118]

Nevertheless, as late as 1965, "each ship, division, force and fleet was required to 'maintain a permanently organized naval landing party consisting of headquarters, rifle, machine gun, and other units as prescribed by the force or fleet commander.'"[119] The matter would seem to have ended there. Sailors traditionally played infantry roles, but time and military necessity might seem to have moved on, and the age of the bluejacket disembarking from the sea and the decks of ships to fight as land warriors in land-based operations would seem to be no more. All that changed, of course, when on 11 September 2001, a new kind of enemy, Al Qaeda saw fit to invade American territory and murder American civilians and non-combatants. This signal event in American political and military history prompted circumstances in which Army and Marine units fighting on land, and taxed to the maximum, would find relief to some extent by a renaissance in naval thinking with respect to land war. Here, bluejackets would rediscover a function that in times past was as natural as unfurling a sail, or the singing of sea chanteys. Like the marine, the bluejcket naval infantryman represents a venerable, time-tested, battle-hardened warfighting function. In the view of the present author, it is a function that never should have gone too far away. And having proven its worth, then and now, it should be deployed and utilized to the full, never to go away again!


This paper has examined the utilization of Naval Infantry in American military history. It has attempted to make a case for the validity of the sea soldier, past and present. Consisting of both marines and sailors, sea soldiers date back to ancient times, and there has been little question, at any time, of their effectiveness in combat.

Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the Marines were a relatively small force, and there were greater numbers of sailors in naval infantry functions than marines. Therefore, it made sense that bluejackets would comprise most of the naval infantrymen until the Marines expanded in size in the early twentieth century.

In the Philippines, in Samoa, in Hawaii, in the Boxer Rebellions in China, and most significantly, perhaps, in Vera Cruz in 1914, bluejacket naval infantry was very much in evidence in the combat theaters of the American experience. However, it may have been perceptible to discerning observers that the coming of the Industrial Revolution might lead to changes in the universe of naval infantry. The transition to ironclad, steam powered vessels might have been the best clue that the role of the fighting sailor was about to become a bit more complex that it had been in the age of wooden ships and sail.

The new technology and weapons' systems of the new battle fleet necessitated changes that required greater specialization in the individual duties that sailors might be called upon to perform. As the nineteenth century gave way to the twentieth, the Marines were obligated to redefine their mission statement. Within the first two decades of the new century, the Marine Corps had begun to increase in size, and by focusing on the task of seizing advanced amphibious bases, the movement toward transitioning the bulk of naval infantry duties had begun to move inexorably from bluejackets to leathernecks. By the third decade of the century, the Naval Service saw an organization of the Fleet Marine Force, with official recognition by the Department of the Navy that the Marines would assume the lead role in amphibious operations.

The use of sailors in naval infantry functions was still an accepted fact of naval war, and would continue to remain so until the 1970s, but the handwriting was on the wall, as it were. The primary naval infantry, beginning in the early twentieth century, was the U.S. Marine Corps. And as the Japanese military learned first hand in World War II's Pacific Theater, the Corps exhibited devastating skill and ability in this capacity. Yet, it cannot be denied that sailors, too, had been highly-effective in centuries past, and can still play a role in modern warfighting in that capacity, a point the present author has striven to articulate. Nevertheless, the reality that the Marines were now the Naval Infantry was apparent in their successful mastery of the complexities of amphibious operations in World War II, in the Pacific Theater. No sooner had they demonstrated their extraordinary competence in this regard, however, that the rules of the game seemed to change, once again, and not in the leathernecks' favor. The change was occasioned by the development of the atom bomb. A bomb of such destructive force could easily destroy a division of naval infantry in an amphibious operation, and with some sense of alarm, the Marine chiefs sought to ameliorate the problem confronting them. The answer, of course, was the helicopter.

Benjamin Armstrong's essay has demonstrated that the Marine Corps once again mastered the helicopter in much the same way that Mongols mastered the horse and the Asian steppe. It was this service that developed the heliborne assault, which then proceeded to teach everyone else. As the Vietnam War became a historical memory, the Marines continued to dominate the naval infantry function. But a real movement towards returning some naval infantry functions to brigades and battalions of sailors was, and is, a development that follows the martial storyline of 11 September 2001.

The reason was necessity: sailors who mastered the infantry function, a traditional role for sailors, the Marine Corps, notwithstanding, were needed to provide relief to Army and Marine units that were stretched thin in multiple theaters of operation. It was this development that led to the deployment of the Navy Expeditionary Combat Command, a brown water force in 2005, and the return of the sailor as naval infantryman in the new guise of the individual augmentee, and the sand sailor. And if the past is prologue to the future, relative to the sea soldier, the present author sees no advantage in attempting to duplicate the current Marine Corps function through a parallel bluejacket naval infantry. To obtain the requisite numbers of personnel involved in such an attempt would be impractical, given the reality of our all volunteer military force.

But given the traditional role of sailors in land warfare, and the good service they rendered the nation in years past, it is both prudent and wise, in the view of the present author, to return some portion of the U.S. Navy to one of its traditional combat roles: the deployment of the bluejacket naval infantryman. Our Marine Corps, too, is an authentic naval infantry, and so it should remain. They have earned the right to this role through the circumstances of military history, though the primary combatants for warfighting of this type, traditionally, have been sailors. The twists and turns of history aside, the Marines will almost certainly continue to be the primary agent of projected naval power in amphibious land-based operations. This is as it should be, but it is hardly the end of the story. The United States' combined security forces, military, police agencies, and an engaged citizenry, continue to be engaged in one of the most complex security situations ever to challenge its existence. Given this reality, sailors as naval infantry, operating in the battlespaces of a brave new world, would seem to be a most-welcome development.

Ideally, this function would be a volunteer mission, given the need for specialization in an increasingly-complex Navy. In the bluejacket sea soldier, one encounters the return of a venerable and traditional combat actor in modern battle dress, a warfighter whose contribution to the prosecution of America's conflicts is undeniable. The present author applauds the Navy's return to the use of the sailor as sea soldier, whether he is called, sand sailor, individual augmentee, or any other such name. The labels are immaterial. Not so, the mission. What is important is that we champion the return of the sailor as sea soldier and naval infantryman within the modern battlespace.

The exigencies of modern war have focused attention on the combat roles of sailors and marines; they have also resulted in a recollection of the history of the American naval past, the sailor as sea soldier. Today's bluejacket has been allowed to reclaim certain traditional aspects of his naval mission and purpose in the riverine war of Iraq and elsewhere. The goal is one well known to our maritime services, or any military service: the defense of the homeland, and an idea called America!

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Show Footnotes and Bibliography

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© 2023 Steven Ippolito

Published online: 06/19/2008.

Written by Steven Christopher Ippolito, Ph.D. If you have questions or comments on this article, please contact Steven Ippolito at:

About the author:
Dr. Steven Christopher Ippolito, Ph.D., who spent most of his life in Manhattan and the Bronx, New York (Go Yankees!) is a retired law enforcement officer for the State of New York with nearly twenty years experience. A full-time professor of Criminal Justice and Homeland Security at Monroe College, New York City, Steve has two Masters Degrees, one from New York University; the other, from Norwich University, VT., in the very first Military History class of 2007. In August 2017, he earned his Ph.D. from Northcentral University, from the School of Business Administration and Technology, with a specialization in Homeland Security, under Committee Chair, Kimberly Anthony, Ph.D, and Committee member, Meena Clowes, Ph.D. His dissertation was based on mixed-methodological research into the phenomenon of convergence, the intersection of crime, terrorism, war, and other forms of conflict (the crime-terror nexus; crime-terror pipeline), as both a homeland security and educational problem. All his professional research is dedicated to God, Country, and Family, including the wider family of students and academic colleagues. To all of these, and to all first responders, police, fire-fighters, military personnel, emergency medical personnel, homeland security and emergency management operatives, Steve sends best wishes. May God bless America, now and forever!

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