From Belleau Wood to Pacific Beaches: Major Developments in the U.S. Marine Corps

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The United States Marine Corps entered World War I as a small arm of naval infantry. Three decades later, the Marine Corps was poised for war with enhanced amphibious and aviation capabilities that proved vital in defeating Imperial Japan. Pivotal to the transformation of the Marine Corps was the Battle of Belleau Wood in 1918. The Battle of Belleau Wood, although on land, led to the development and refining of the Marines’ amphibious doctrine. The Marine Corps’ amphibious innovation was motivated in part by a threat to its organizational independence and was aided by lessons in logistics learned at Belleau Wood. Additionally, experiences on the Western Front with artillery and enemy airpower helped motivate the expansion of Marine aviation and artillery, which together led to the development of combined arms capabilities. Without the lessons from Belleau Wood, and the integration of them, the Marines would have been much less adequately prepared for conflict with Japan in World War II.[1]

During the late 18th and all of the 19th century, the Marine Corps served as a naval infantry force, having been created to augment naval forces during the American Revolution. For more than a century, the role of the Marine Corps centered around ship security and boarding operations, as well as land expeditions. The Marine Corps further served as a constabulary and counterinsurgency force in places such as Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and Nicaragua. Throughout the 19th century, Marines fought alongside Army units to bolster regular Army forces. In World War I, the Marine Corps again engaged in such land campaigns and again in support of the Army. However, World War I was, in terms of manpower, the Marines’ most significant extended experience in conducting land operations, after which the Marine Corps redefined its key functions.[2]

The entry of the United States into the Great War ultimately led to the experiences that enhanced the capabilities of the Marine Corps. When the U.S. entered World War I, the U.S. Army and National Guard had too few trained units available to send to Western Europe. To fill out the remainder of the required force sent overseas, the Marine Corps contributed the 4th Marine Brigade to the fight.[3]

By June 1918, the 4th Brigade had integrated into the Army’s 2nd Division. When the Germans made a rapid push towards Paris in the summer of 1918, the commanders rushed the 2nd Division from areas north and west of Paris. On June 1, the 4th Marine Brigade arrived, intending to halt the German attack. Two days later, the Germans unsuccessfully attempted to break the Marines’ defensive line. While the Marines held off the Germans, retreating French forces gave up the area known as Belleau Wood for which the battle would later be named.[4]

On June 6, the 4th Brigade made two attacks against the German forces in Belleau Wood. Both attacks gained ground, but at a terrible cost. The Germans constructed interlocking fields of machine gun and artillery fire that wreaked havoc on the Marines, especially as the American forces crossed the exposed wheat fields spanning the front of Belleau Wood. What made the German defenses all the more lethal were German observation balloons north of the village of Belleau, from which operators could see all that occurred in the fields. Once in the woods, the Marines continued to make slow, bloody progress while holding out against German counterattacks. After weeks of fighting, on June 26, the Germans were finally cleared out from Belleau Wood. It was then that Major Maurice E. Shearer announced over his radio, “BELLEAU WOODS NOW U.S. MARINE CORPS ENTIRELY.”[5] The Marines had achieved victory. The lessons drawn from later analysis of this triumph drove the redefining and improvement of fundamental Marine Corps functions. This process of reflection, application, and enhancement prepared the Marine Corps for an even greater challenge in the next world war.[6]

Georges Scott (1873-1943) illustration "American Marines in Belleau Wood (1918)," originally published in the French Magazine Illustrations (Wikimedia)

Admittedly, the Battle of Belleau Wood has been cited by Marines such as Lt. Col. Philip Pierce (Ret.) and Lt. Col. Frank Hough (Ret.) as having stunted the progression of amphibious capabilities.[7] However, further examination reveals that the Battle of Belleau Wood was, instead, crucial to the development of the Marines’ amphibious mission in the following decades. First, Belleau Wood catalyzed the Marine Corps to embrace its amphibious function as a manner of maintaining its organizational independence. After the Great War, two factions formed within the Marine Corps. One faction held that the performance of Marines alongside the Army earned the Marine Corps great distinction and opened the possibility for Marines to serve as a land force in future campaigns. The opposing faction maintained that duplicating the Army’s function (i.e., fighting land battles such as that at Belleau Wood) would result in a loss of the Marine Corps’ separate identity. The fears of the latter faction, coupled with the growing potential of conflict with Japan, prompted development of the amphibious function of the Marine Corps.[8]

Experiences from Belleau Wood further provided logistical lessons that greatly benefited the Marines’ amphibious operations in World War II. During the battle, Marines who reached the woods relied on supplies that must have crossed the wheat fields. German artillery made the movement of sufficient supplies nearly impossible, forcing Marines to gather water, food, and ammunition from the dead men around them. This experience led survivors, such as Marine officers Holland Smith, Clifton Cates, Gerry Thomas, and Lem Shepherd, to call for reliable methods of logistical support during amphibious landings. The Marine Corps recognized that a failure to provide supplies, such as that seen in France, would prevent any amphibious operation from being successful. Wargaming and experimentation in preparation for war with Japan reiterated this point and ended in the development of a more effective system for sea-based logistics.[9]

Beyond contributing to amphibious innovation, the Battle of Belleau Wood also significantly impacted the development of combined arms capabilities within the Marine Corps. Moving through the wheat fields revealed to the Marines the importance of supporting artillery fire and aerial bombardment—basic combined arms. Prior to the first Marine attacks at Belleau Wood, a short artillery barrage had been conducted with the hopes of softening the German defenses. However, the barrage was of shorter length and of lesser strength than typical barrages that had been used by American forces before advances across no man’s land. The commanders planning the operation hoped a shortened artillery attack would preserve the element of surprise, at least partially, for the assault force. However the barrage proved inadequate, as German defensive positions exacted numerous casualties on the advancing Marines. Furthermore, the Marines attacking Belleau Wood relied upon a rolling artillery barrage to cover their forward progression, which did not yield the desired effect. The poor performance of artillery in support of the Marines’ operation made clear the need for greater fire support.[10]

While the Americans on the ground suffered for the inefficacy of their supporting fire, German observation balloons north of the battlefield aided the Germans in their own employment of artillery and machine guns. The German spotting balloons, responsible for providing fire corrections and troop movement data, were so critical that when Marine General Charles C. Krulak researched the events of Belleau Wood nearly a century later, every oral history he encountered from Marine veterans mentioned the balloons at the battle. Unable to get the needed French air support to eliminate the balloons and lacking their own aviation elements in the area, the Marines discovered the importance of possessing organic airpower. The need for better artillery support, in combination with the inability to address enemy aircraft, helped motivate the push for a combat-ready aviation component within the Marine Corps.[11]

The Marine Corps did possess an aviation element in World War I. However, it remained too small to be truly effectual before the Armistice in 1918. At the beginning of the war, the Marine Corps’ aviation community totaled five officers, thirty enlisted personnel, and not a single airplane. By war’s end, the Marine aviation community had expanded to a total of 2,500 personnel and 340 aircraft, although it had virtually no operational history of which to speak.[12]

In isolation, the expansion of the Marine aviation community and the advancements in artillery following Belleau Wood were important, but their true significance lays in their unified employment. Failures, such as the failure to eliminate German balloons at Belleau Wood, motivated advancements in aviation. The inadequacy of the Marines’ artillery at Belleau Wood prompted developments in artillery. Together, the development and expansion of artillery and aviation were merged in new air-ground, combined arms capabilities. These capabilities provided Marines in World War II with a far greater resource for fire support. Success in the Pacific three decades later was, in large part, a result of the joint air-ground tactics that were derived from the Marines’ experiences in World War I.[13]

Amphibious assault on Iwo Jima. (Wikimedia)

By the time the United States began conducting military operations against the Japanese in earnest in 1942, the Navy and Marine Corps had already been planning for war with Japan. The leading American strategy during the interwar years was dubbed “War Plan Orange,” which required an amphibious force to storm Japanese beaches and conquer defended islands. Armed with improvements drawn from the challenges at Belleau Wood, the Marine Corps was ready to act. The Marine Corps put its adaptations and preparations to work with success in numerous landings against Japan. The Marines’ amphibious doctrine was not perfected, but its merits were demonstrated in operations such as the landings at Tarawa, Guadalcanal, and Iwo Jima. In addition to utilizing its amphibious function, the Marine Corps employed its air-ground capabilities, particularly making using of its expanded aviation component, to contribute to Japan’s demise. Marine aviators provided close air support for Marines on hostile beaches and also served to protect American naval vessels from Japanese fighters, bombers, and kamikaze planes. Such combined arms were invaluable to the Pacific Campaign.[14]

Reflections on the Battle of Belleau Wood provided the Marine Corps with the knowledge that helped prepare the organization for World War II. The transformation that took place between the world wars was directly influenced by the events that unfolded in France during the Great War. Marines in 1918 paid in blood for breakdowns in logistical support, ineffective fire support, and other costly failures. Thankfully, the blood shed at Belleau Wood was not in vain, as the lessons provided there about logistics during amphibious landings, artillery and air support for infantrymen, and other tactical necessities were acknowledged and used by Marines time and again over the following decades. The Battle of Belleau Wood gave the Marine Corps the guidelines that it would need to live by during the darkest hours of the 1940s, and it laid the groundwork for innovations that contributed to Imperial Japan’s downfall.[15]

Robert E. Schrader IV is a Midshipman at the U.S. Naval Academy. Upon graduating with a B.S. in History with the class of 2021, he aspires to become an infantry officer in the Marine Corps. The views expressed are the author's own and do not represent to position of the Department of the Navy, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

This article appeared originally at Strategy Bridge.


[1] Rudy Frame, “The Battle of Belleau Wood,” Marine Corps Gazette 96, no. 11 (2012): 20.

[2] Martin Binkin and Jeffrey Record, Where Does the Marine Corps Go From Here? (Washington, D.C.: The Brookings Institution, 1976), 4-5. James Bradford, America, Sea Power, and the World(West Sussex: John Wiley & Sons, 2016), 154.

[3] Pierce and Hough, Compact History, 176-177. Binkin and Record, Go From Here, 5. Walter Ford, “The U.S. Marines in World War I Part I: The U.S. Marine Corps Reserve Comes to Force,” Marine Corps History 1, no. 2 (2016): 36. George Clark, Battle History of the Marine Corps, 1775-1945 (Jefferson: MacFarland and Company, 2010), 119.

[4] Pierce and Hough, Compact History, 177, 181-182.

[5] Clark, Battle History, 123.

[6] Pierce and Hough, Compact History, 177, 181-182. Charles Krulak, “Through the Wheat to the Beaches Beyond: The Lasting Impact of the Battle of Belleau Wood,” Marine Corps Gazette 82, no. 7 (1998): 14. Clark, Battle History, 123. Will Price, “Remembering the Battle of Belleau Wood,” Marines: The Official Website of the United States Marine Corps (accessed May 13, 2018).

[7] Pierce and Hough, Compact History, 176.

[8] Binkin and Record, Go From Here, 5. Pierce and Hough, Compact History, 176, 193-194. Krulak, “Through the Wheat,” 14-16.

[9] Pierce and Hough, Compact History, 176, 193-194. Krulak, “Through the Wheat,” 14-16.

[10] Krulak, “Through the Wheat,” 13, 16.

[11] Ibid. Frame, “Belleau Wood,” 21.

[12] Pierce and Hough, Compact History, 188-189.

[13] Ibid.

[14] James Bradford, America, Sea Power, and the World (West Sussex: John Wiley & Sons, 2016), 187-189, 221, 226-227, 243-247.

[15] Frame, “Belleau Wood,” 22.

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