Forgotten Warriors

It is nearly axiomatic, at least among military historians, that the Korean War, 1950–53, has been a neglected field of study. Sandwiched between World War II and Vietnam, this especially nasty conflict has rightfully earned the moniker, “the forgotten war.” Fortunately, the acclaimed author of The Sling and the Stone (Zenith Press, 2006), retired Marine Col Thomas X. Hammes, has turned his considerable intellectual talent toward remedying this situation. Hammes focuses his efforts on the activities of those Marines who were truly the “first to fight” in Korea, the 1st Provisional Marine Brigade. Throughout this excellent book, if Korea is the forgotten war, then the Marine brigade at Pusan is its forgotten warriors. But, thanks to Hammes, this is no longer the case.

Forgotten Warriors is divided into 12 well-balanced chapters. And, fortunately, Hammes pays close attention to the important interwar years, 1945 to 1950. He notes in his preface that his purpose in writing this book was threefold—to detail how the Marine Corps was able to maintain its organizational culture and effectiveness despite the difficulties it faced during the intra-Service fights over unification, to dispel historical myths surrounding the formation and employment of the 1st Provisional Brigade, and to provide an accurate accounting of the efforts to get the brigade to Korea on extremely short notice and how well the unit performed in combat once it got there.

Hammes effectively uses detailed research and analysis to dispel these myths, and truth be told, some of it stings. In his early chapters he demonstrates that despite some fairly pervasive historical mythology about the brigade, most notably that its remarkable combat achievement was due to the large number of World War II combat veterans in the ranks and that the brigade had extensively trained together prior to deploying to Korea, these myths are largely untrue. Researching the service background of Marine Corps legends like Raymond L. Murray, Commanding Officer, 5th Marine Regiment, the same regiment that formed the bulk of the brigade combat force, and BGen Edward Craig, the author noted that despite claims of prior histories, the pre-Korean War combat experience of the brigade’s leadership, especially below the regimental level, was not as extensive as has been heretofore believed. But he does not stop there. Hammes goes on to show that despite claims that the success of the brigade can also be attributed to the heightening training regimen the units experienced in the year or so prior to being deployed, this too is largely in error. Again, using hard data, Hammes showed that few of the brigade’s subordinate units had the opportunity to work together. Further, the 3d Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, commanded by LtCol Robert Taplett, did not join the brigade until just prior to deploying to Korea. In fact, the author noted that prior to deployment the brigade actually only had a single combined training opportunity, Operation DEMON III. But fortunately the Marines made the most of DEMON III since the operation emphasized close air support training—experience that proved absolutely invaluable just 2 months later in Korea.

However, in his zeal to disprove official legends, Hammes has a tendency to stretch a point a bit too far. For example, his most controversial chapter will likely be the one on the brigade’s leadership. In making his argument that most of its leaders, especially those below the regimental level, did not have any real pre-Korea combat experience, he neglects to define exactly what he believes qualifies as such experience. While Hammes correctly showed that all three battalion commanders of the 5th Marine Regiment had little direct combat experience during World War II, all three men “experienced” the war in a variety of ways—ways that substantially tested their leadership skills. Such experience, whether acquired in a logistics role in a single campaign or as a prisoner of war as was the case of LtCol George Newton, Commanding Officer, 1st Battalion, 5th Marines, should not be seen as inconsequential. Indeed, at times Hammes seems to imply that unless a Marine served in a billet that caused him to remain in near constant combat with the enemy (i.e., the infantry) he does not seem to especially qualify as having combat experience. Thus former artillery officers, logisticians, and officers who commanded ship’s detachments during the war do not seem to account for much by Hammes’ standards. But this is a minor criticism as he follows up his chapter on the brigade’s leadership with succeeding ones that decisively show that it was the all-pervasive and dominant organizational culture of the Marine Corps, not combat experience, that ultimately wins the day for the brigade throughout its short but violent tenure.

Indeed, Hammes deftly weaves a dynamic cultural analysis throughout the entire book, and his data is extremely persuasive. He shows that, thanks to the critical decisions of the prewar Marine Corps leadership to reconstruct the legendary Marine Corps Air/Ground Team and experiment with its combat formations, and its constant emphasis on cultural attributes of the Corps, such as never leaving another Marine behind or letting your fellow Marines down, the brigade is able to overcome nearly all material and personnel shortfalls that it faced in its frantic deployment as a “fire brigade” to the Pusan Perimeter.

In sum, this book is a must-read for all students of Korean War history. Using hard data and a strong research base, Hammes was able to conclusively demonstrate that the culture of the Marine Corps was far more important than prior combat experience or even unit familiarity. During the Korean War, the old adage that “every Marine is a rifleman” turned out to be a crucial component that enabled the 1st Provisional Brigade to achieve the combat success that it ultimately did.

FORGOTTEN WARRIORS: The 1st Provisional Marine Brigade, The Corps’ Ethos, and the Korean War.

By T.X. Hammes. University of Kansas Press, Lawrence, KS, 2010

ISBN 9780700617326, 280 pp.

$36.95 (Member $33.25)

The Fire Brigade Remembered