This Week in American Military History:
by W. Thomas Smith Jr.
Sept. 12, 1918: Battle of St. Mihiel (France) opens between Allied American-French forces (primarily U.S. Army and Marine forces under the overall command of U.S. Army Gen. John J. “Black Jack” Pershing) and Imperial German Army forces under Gen. Johannes Georg von der Marwitz.
In the afternoon, Lt. Col. (future four-star general) George S. Patton – destined to lead America’s first tank attack against the enemy – and Brig. Gen. (future five-star general) Douglas MacArthur will meet on the battlefield, and according to the U.S. Army Historical Foundation: “The lieutenant colonel [Patton] sported a Colt .45 pistol with an ivory grip and his engraved initials. A pipe was clenched in his teeth. The brigadier [MacArthur] wore a barracks cap and a muffler his mother knitted for him. As they spoke to each other, a German artillery barrage opened up and began marching towards their position. Infantrymen scattered and dove for cover, but the two officers remained standing, coolly talking with each other.”
U.S. Marine Gen. John A. Lejeune, will describe his personal experience of the battle: “In war, if a man is to keep his sanity, he must come to regard death as being just as normal as life and hold himself always in readiness, mentally and spiritually, to answer the call of the grim reaper whenever fate decrees that his hour has struck.”
Sept. 12, 1942: Battle of Bloody Ridge opens on Guadalcanal (see next week).
Sept. 13, 1814: From the deck of a Royal Navy ship aboard which he has been detained, Washington, D.C. lawyer Francis Scott Key pens his now-famous poem, “The Star Spangled Banner,” on an envelope as he witnesses the British night-bombardment of Fort McHenry, Baltimore during the War of 1812.
It will be more than a century before the U.S. Congress adopts “The Star Spangled Banner” as the official national anthem.
Sept. 13, 1847: U.S. Army and Marine forces (including lots of future Civil War generals like Robert E. Lee, James Longstreet, George Pickett, Pierre G.T. Beauregard, Thomas J. Jackson, Joseph E. Johnston, Ulysses S. Grant, future Admiral Raphael Semmes, and I’m probably leaving out a few) participate in the storming of Chapultepec Castle during the Mexican War.
Chapultepec defends Mexico City, which will fall on the 14th.
For those of us fortunate enough since to claim the title, “Marine,” the taking of Chapultepec and ultimately Mexico City will give us two things:
First: The first five words of our hymn: “From the halls of Montezuma, to the shores of Tripoli …”
Second: The “blood” red stripe along the seams of our dress-blue uniform trousers (Marines don’t wear pants).
The origin of the blood stripe is more tradition than absolute fact. But we Marines heartily claim it. According to tradition, the blood stripe represents the blood shed by Marines storming Chapultepec. And the reason only corporals and above are authorized to wear the stripe is because there was such a high percentage of NCOs and officers killed in the storming of the castle.
Sept. 13, 1942: Ninety-five years after defeating the Mexicans at Chapultepec, U.S. Marines beat back a series of wave attacks by Japanese soldiers on Guadalcanal that began on the night of Sept. 12 and will last until the morning of the 14th.
The fighting – since referred to as the Battle of Bloody Ridge (also Edson’s Ridge or Raiders’ Ridge) – is over which side will control the nearby airfield.
Japanese soldiers led by Samurai-sword wielding officers attack the ridge-defending leathernecks in suicidal waves screaming, “Banzai!” and “Marine, You Die!”
At one point during the fighting, the American line — under the command of Lt. Col. (future major general) Merritt “Red Mike” Edson — is nearly broken. But the Marines hold, and beat back the attacks with terrible losses to the enemy.
Edson will be awarded the Medal of Honor for his command of Bloody Ridge. Maj. Kenneth Bailey, killed in the fighting, will also receive the Medal of Honor.
Sept. 14, 1966: Operation Attleboro begins as something of a “feet wet” operation for a green American unit – the U.S. Army’s 196th Light Infantry Brigade – but will evolve into a major combined-arms operation as U.S. forces make contact with a battle-hardened Viet Cong division and a North Vietnamese Army regiment. The end result by November will be the discovery of one of the largest weapons and equipment caches of the Vietnam War to-date, and over 1,000 dead enemy soldiers.
Sept. 15, 1944: Two years after Bloody Ridge, U.S. Marines land on Peleliu.
Sept. 15, 1950: United Nations ground forces – primarily U.S. Marines – under the overall command of U.S. Army Gen. Douglas MacArthur, begin hitting the beaches at Inchon, Korea.
Sept. 16, 1776: Gen. George Washington chalks up his “first victory in the field” against British and Hessian forces under Gen. Alexander Leslie in the Battle of Harlem Heights, New York.
Sept. 17, 1862: The Battle of Antietam (Maryland) – the bloodiest single-day battle in American history – opens between Confederate Army forces under Gen. Robert E. Lee and Union Army forces under Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan. After 12 hours of fighting, some 23,000 Americans are dead, wounded, or missing.
Though a strategic victory for the Union, the battle will prove tactically inconclusive for both sides.
Sept. 17, 1944: Operation Market Garden, an enormous Allied Airborne operation during World War II (in fact, the largest parachute operation in history), is launched to seize strategically vital bridges in German-occupied Holland.
After 10 days of fighting and many tactical successes, the operation will be deemed a strategic failure, and Allied forces will be ordered to withdraw.
(Cornelius Ryan’s book, A Bridge Too Far, and the film adaptation of the same are based on Market Garden)
Sept. 18, 1947: Happy Birthday, U.S. Air Force! America’s air and space warfare service (and the descendent service of the U.S. Army Air Forces), the U.S. Air Force becomes an independent and equal arm of the American military.
Sept. 19, 1777: Battle of Freeman’s Farm — first engagement in the Battle of Saratoga (during the American Revolution) — opens between Continental forces under the command of Gen. Horatio Gates and British forces under Gen. John “Gentleman Johnny” Burgoyne. Brits carry the day, but suffer heavy losses. Continentals will ultimately win Saratoga.
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