One thing that the Marine Corps did not lack was a doctrinal basis for its wartime mission. Fortunately for the United States, a group of Marine officers started working on the basics of amphibious doctrine many years before the initial Japanese attacks on the US in 1941. Many of these men were brilliant in their foresight, and they all carried out critical roles in defining the role of the Marine Corps, and subsequently in executing the doctrine in the relentless environment of war. Among this cadre of gifted Marines was Holland M. Smith (left), a man who came to define the hard-driving ethos of the Marine Corps in World War II.
General Smith served in a touchstone role in the developmental years of the Fleet Marine Force in the 1930s. He was both an architect of the Marine Corps' way of war, and the engineer who saw the project through to completion. With a firm grasp of tactics, administration and operational planning, Smith was open to new technologies that could help the Corps accomplish its' missions. Fiercely proud of his Marines, and ever aware of slights both large and small leveled at the Corps from other services, Smith was also a lightning rod for inter-service conflict during the Pacific War.
There is no disputing the key role that Smith played in 1940-41 as the commander of the 1st Marine Brigade, and subsequently the First Marine Division. In this role, he was involved in the endless task of turning a doctrine with only limited real-world experience into a practical set of tactics, techniques, and operational procedures that could be repeated over and over again by the Marine Corps and Army. Time Magazine noted Smith's role in mid-1941:
This article marked perhaps the first time that General Smith came to the attention of the American public, and it was not the last. While he was not so well known as generals like Douglas MacArthur and George Patton; Holland M. Smith and his Marines would not be denied their place in America's consciousness. The article mentions General Smith's nickname, "Howlin' Mad," a moniker that he looked upon with amusement. Without a doubt, he was opinionated, passionate about what he believed in, and quick to take offense when he felt that his Marines were being short-changed. Smith expected a high level of performance from officers on his staff, and he did not take kindly to unprepared or lazy officers, regardless of service branch.
Much of General Smith's reputation for anger and bluster developed from his bluntness when he believed that other high-ranking officers were throwing away the lives of his Marines. He often felt that Naval officers did not understand the intricacies of ground combat any more than Marine commanders knew how to fight fleet actions. Especially involved with details of naval gunfire support, Smith argued vehemently that tonnage in pre-landing bombardments saved Marine lives. Conversely, he believed that shortchanging the amount of naval gunfire guaranteed that Marines would die needlessly. Absolutely adamant that admirals should not interfere with the tactical conduct of ground operations, General Smith fervently believed that from the moment ground troops put their feet on solid ground, the battle should be left for ground officers to lead.
General Smith once said, "A fighting general is recognized by the battles he wins. A public relations general is recognized by the propaganda he spreads." (2) Outwardly looking more like a college professor than a combat leader - having earned his law degree before joining the Corps - he was no poster book example of what a Marine looked like. But Smith knew how to win, and he understood the intricate balance of judgment, positive motivation, and ass-kicking that was needed to lead his Marines and beat the Japanese, who were an implacable and completely dedicated enemy. War correspondent Robert Sherrod accompanied Marines in some of their toughest battles, and had this to say about Smith and his relation with Naval officers:
In contrast to his stormy reputation, General Smith maintained cordial and even friendly relations with officers on his staff, and many considered him almost like a second father. At his advanced age (in military terms) Smith was old enough to be the father for many of those that served under him. Regardless of which branch they served in, Smith's officers, so long as they did their jobs to standard, had nothing to fear from him.
Again and again, General Smith (and by extension, every military commander) had to make decisions that sent his men to their deaths. He deeply felt the loss in lives cut short by war's pitiless horrors. While it would be a stretch to say that Smith was like a father to every one of his Marines, he did have children, (one of whom was a serving Naval officer) and understood on a deeply human level the impact of some much death and suffering among his troops, and he was incredibly proud of them:
But General Smith was a realist who understood that war meant killing and death. He possessed what seemed to many observers an innate ability to focus and function calmly in the face of bad news, lack of information as to ongoing battles and heavy casualty reports. Perhaps because of his age, he possessed maturity and wisdom that stood him in good stead. In the pre-assault planning for Operation Galvanic, Smith had gone toe-to-toe with his chief of staff, BrigGen Graves B. Erskine, regarding the timing of artillery landing on Tarawa in support of the Second Marine Division.
Erskine wanted to land artillery on an adjoining island prior to the main assault on Betio, the primary objective. He and Divisional commander were convinced that this move would lessen Marine casualties once the battle was joined. But General Smith overruled him and sided with the Naval commanders fearful of exposing the vulnerable fleet to Japanese counter-moves for one moment longer than needed. As a side note, USS Liscome Bay (CVE-56) was sunk by a Japanese submarine with heavy loss of life to the crew during Galvanic, underscoring the dangers inherent to the US fleet in contested waters.
Among the most controversial aspects Holland M. Smith's legend was his relationship with US Army units during the war. In his autobiography, Coral and Brass, Smith made what many readers believed were belittling references regarding the Army, its commanders, and in some cases, to the soldiers that served in the Pacific. But to be completely objective, in his book, Smith also cites examples of soldiers in positive terms, especially Army officers serving on his staff.
One particular Army unit, the 27th Infantry Division, served under his command during Operations Galvanic and Forager. Smith observed units of the 27th first-hand on Makin Atoll when he went ashore during the division's operations. He felt strongly that the Army troops took too long to secure the island against weak resistance while the Second Marine Division was literally bleeding to death against heavy Japanese resistance on Tarawa. He later wrote:
The 27th Infantry Division remained under General Smith's command during Forager, the conquest of the Mariana Islands. In the assault on Saipan, the 27th ID was one of three divisions in the V Amphibious Corps. In what was a very tough campaign against bitter Japanese resistance, Smith, under his authority as corps commander, on 24 June 1944 relieved the commander of the 27th ID, MajGen Ralph Smith, USA. A full and objective analysis is beyond the scope of this piece. Suffice it to say that the incident exposed deep fissures in relations between the Marine Corps and the Army, some of which have not healed into the modern era. The indefatigable Robert Sherrod accompanied US forces on Saipan:
Although it was not unheard of in World War II for a corps commander to relieve one of his divisional commanders, this was the only instance of a Marine corps commander relieving one of his subordinate US Army divisional commanders. The ensuing controversy spilled out into the stateside press, stoked and tended by political interests that cared little about either of the Smiths involved. Sadly, although many well-qualified Marine generals were available, never again after the Marianas would one of them exercise the highest level of command over Army divisions for any appreciable length of time. The most tragic aspect of the controversy was the anger and animosity that it engendered between soldiers and Marines. Robert Sherrod (!) maybe captured the essence of the problem in a wartime article he wrote for Time:
No one that knew him would have ever described Holland M. Smith as glamorous. he was no smooth-talker, and unlike some other high-ranking officers, he had no political amibitions. His entire purpose, his life's goal, was to command Marines in combat. This he did in spades, leading his men in battles that came to define what it meant to sacrifice and prevail under terrible conditions. Smith was a man with a mission, at the right time in the right place, not just once, but at several junctures during his career.
In many ways, General Smith was a visionary thinker. As one of a small, select group of Marines in the pre-war era, he postulated what role the Corps would play in the coming war. With no budget, practically no resources, hardly any real troops, equipment, tactics, and vehicles not yet envisioned or built, Smith and his compatriots nutured the concept of amphibious assault, an idea that many influntial Navy and Army officers were convinced could not work.
When war came, General Smith was ready. With a doctrinal basis and the means to put it into operation, he helped to train not just Marine units, but Army divisions as well. In a sense, the Marine Corps' doctrine was proven not just int he Pacific, but in each amphibious battle that American troops fought in. And of course, Smith himself led many of these in the critical years of 1943-1944.
The old warrior was shunted away from direct troop command after the Marinas, partly as a result of the firestorm of controversy resulting from Ralph Smith's relief. Although he technically commanded the assault forces at Iwo Jima, General Smith did not play a key role in the actual conduct of operations. His final assignment in the Marine Corps was as commander of the Marine training command in San Diego. Having reached the mandatory retirement age, he retired in August 1946. Among his final words, the General said, "There'll always be a Marine Corps. The country muct have a yardstick to judge the efficiency of the other services." (8)
Official US Marine Corps biographical sketch of General H. M. Smith
The book Howlin' Mad vs the Army - Conflict in Command Saipan 1944 by Harry A. Galley (Presidio Press, 1986) examines the relief controversy in depth, albeit from standpoint that is not altogether unbiased. The author presents Ralph Smith sympathetically, and paints Holland Smith and Graves Erskine in a less than complimentary manner, basically postulating that the relief was uncalled for, and the General Smith was wrong to relieve MajGen Ralph Smith.
For a factual and objective narrative of the 27th Infantry Division's operations on Saipan in the summer of 1944, Campaign in the Marianas by Philip A. Creel (Center of Military History, US Army, 1993) is an excellent reference with maps, day-by-day descriptions of the battle, and relationships between the echelons of command. This book is also available as a web page at ibiblio.org
General Smith's own book made many who who had served with and knew him cringe when they first read it. More than one reader questioned the motives of Smith's co-writer, correspondent Percy Finch. The book itself sparked a mountain of bitter acrimony and recriminations between Smith and other high-ranking officers who had served in the Pacific. War correspondent Robert Sherrod, a true friend to General Smith, and Marine historian Col Robert Heinl urged him to wait on publication, and they even offered to help Smith with the book, but Smith refused the extensive re-working that would have been necessary.
Among Marines themselves, Coral and Brass caused controversy because General Smith bluntly wrote that "Tarawa was a mistake" (pg 134). This notion was refuted in numerous official Marine Corps publications, and some who fought at Tarawa felt that General Smith did the Marine Corps a disservice by this statement.
Norman V. Cooper's A Fighting General - The Biography of Gen Holland M. "Howlin' Mad" Smith presents the best and most-well balanced book available about General Smith. It is essential to understanding the man, and the role he played in shaping the Marine Corps, and its role in the modern armed forces.
This site is owned & maintained by Mark Flowers, copyright 2004, all rights reserved.