The Far Reach Of Confidence: An addendum to the strange life story of LtCol Earl H. 'Pete' Ellis

By Col Victor J. Croziat, USMC (Ret.) - Originally Published November 2001

Wind gusts lashed the trees of Ermenonville Forest north of Paris and pelted the solitary home on the open knoll with a cold, unfriendly rain. "I never did like fighting in this weather," remarked my host, Col Jean Teisseire,1 turning from the view windows to attend to the fire, "and neither did my father during his war. I suppose you found it better in the Pacific."

Our wives remained at the partially cleared dinner table deep in conversation. I poured two cognacs to complement the superb meal just ended, settled into an easy chair, and admitted, "The rain in the Pacific may have been warmer, but Mother Nature was never kind. Just ask any Marine who landed on Bougainville about rain and mud. And those who came ashore at Cape Gloucester fared no better. Indeed, I believe the first Marine killed there was crushed by a falling tree weakened by heavy rains."
"Indochina could not have been much different," mused Teisseire. "Everything considered, Algeria was probably best. Weather like California, wine like California, and the women ... well, maybe not like California but very hospitable, if you believe Legion stories of the Ouled Nail's tribal customs."

"I was only a month in Algeria," I recalled, "but after traveling all three Corps Areas and dipping into the Sahara Territory, I feel able to agree.2 Most rewarding was my time in the Oran Corps Area where I fell victim to your determination to keep me on the move from first light to evening star. That, coupled with invirations from your colonel, Felix Brunet, to join in testing variously armed helicopters3 makes me wonder how we ever found the time for that memorable Sunday dinner at the Legion mess in Sidi bel Abbes."

"Well," Teisseire observed, "it was all part of your education. We had not anticipated receiving any American observers, and my instructions were to have you witness all aspects of our operations while ensuring you did not become a casualty and cause us embarrassment. That, incidentally, is why I never mentioned the bullet holes we picked up on one of our more adventurous excursions."

I laughed and remarked, "When the Commandant authorized me to participate in your helicopter assault operations he also cautioned me to avoid us embarrassment by not getting shot. Nice to know you French felt the same way. Obviously," I added, "everyone knows you can't observe combat operations without incurring some risk. We simply were being told to be prudent. Anyway, thanks for not telling me about the bullet holes."

Teisseire acknowledged my thanks with a grin. "But, to get back to Brunet, I knew you would enjoy him. He was a man well worth knowing. Bigeard, our warrior hero of the Indochina War, respected Brunet's soldierly qualities and admired his innovativeness.4 Undoubtedly, you also have such people in the Marine Corps."

"Indeed we do," I replied. "I can think of several, but let me tell you of Pete Ellis, about whom I recently collaborated in a brief biography for The Oxford Companion of American Military History. Ellis first came to my attention as the name given the building at Quantico where I taught amphibious operations back in the early 1950s. Later, I learned he was an inspired planner, tactician, and strategist who had earned the Navy Cross, Legion d'Honneur, and Croix de Guerre in France during World War I (WWI). Five years later he had died in unusual circumstances at Koror in the Japanese occupied Caroline Islands. Koror, incidentally, is just 26 nautical miles north of Peleliu where our Ist Division landed on 15 September 1944 and sustained brutal casualties before the Army took over and finished the job."

Teissiere held up his hand to interrupt me while he looked across the room. Satisfied, he said, "The ladies appear well occupied. Top off our glasses and go on with your story."

I did as bidden and resumed. "Kansas-born Earl H. Ellis, known as Pete, joined the Marine Corps in 1900 and spent most of his first 10 years of service in the Philippines and Far East.5 This gave him a detailed knowledge of the region and an intimate familiarity with problems of base defense. It also introduced him to a number of promising officers, among them John A. Lejeune, who were to guide his development and influence his career. But even as Ellis' brilliant mind and exceptional dedication gained recognition, he revealed himself subject to frequent illnesses, many resulting from the stress of selfimposed demands, from which he sought relief in alcohol.

"The 2 years he studied and taught at the Naval War College upon returning from the Far East did little to alter the complexity of his character. They did, however, enable him to study and write on the defense of advanced naval bases and acquire a unique understanding of offensive amphibious operations. At the start of WWI in Europe, Ellis was on Guam working on a defense plan for the island. That completed, he was called to Washington to serve on the staff of Col Lejeune, the newly appointed Assistant Commandant. Then, when Lejeune was given command of the 4th Marine Brigade being deployed to France, Ellis accompanied him. Ellis' performance as master tactician and gifted planner in the St. Mihiel and Meuse-Argonne Offensives vindicated the confidence Lejeune and other senior officers placed in his professional qualities-and the blind eye they turned on his eccentricities.

"After the war, Ellis joined the Marine brigade in Santo Domingo as intelligence officer. His tour there was brief. When Gen Lejeune became Commandant in 1920, Ellis was recalled to Washington. There he became absorbed in the preparation of a plan for war with Japan. In this prophetic document, that identified objectives and the manner by which they would be seized, Ellis forecast the characteristics of amphibious war and the organization and employment of amphibious forces."

Teisseire had listened to my monologue without comment. But, when I referred to Ellis' plan for war with Japan, he evidently had something to say. Interrupting my narration, I remarked, "You are an amazing listener. Why haven't you interrupted my ramblings?"

"Easily answered," he replied. "Your story evoked memories I needed to sort out. As I now recall, my family acquired a book many years ago concerning an imaginary war between the United States and Japan. It was written in the style of Jules Verne, whose 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and other stories of a future world exploiting the scientific discoveries of the late 19th century, continue to fascinate readers."

Gesturing, Teisseire added, "My father also told me the author was a friend serving in his regiment who was killed in the German attack on Verdun in 1916." Settling back in his chair, he waved me on with, "But, please go on before we lose the thread of your story."

Only too willing, I continued. "Ellis' plan, officially approved by Lejeune in 1921, was a worthy complement to the Orange plans developed by the Army and Navy for war with Japan. Equally important, Ellis' work helped turn the Marine Corps away from thinking of tomorrow in the context of yesterday's WWI experience in trench warfare to preparing for the new challenge of amphibious war.

"When his monumental task was completed, Ellis had approached Lejeune with a long contemplated proposal to visit the Japanese mandated islands in the Pacific and ascertain the status of their defenses.6 Lejeune had unexpectedly agreed, and in May 1921, with a 3-month leave and permission to visit western Europe, Ellis set out for the Far East. Little is known of his activities thereafter beyond records of more hospitalizations and a Japanese visa authorizing entry into the Marshall and Caroline Islands. He was last seen on Koror in the spring of 1923, a driven alcoholic with but a few weeks to live.
"Notice of Ellis' death in May was relayed by the government of Japan to the American Embassy in Tokyo. A chief pharmacist was sent to recover the remains. In Koror the chief had Ellis disinterred and cremated and sailed for Japan with the ashes. There, he was found in his cabin in a cataleptic state. After long treatment and nearly recovering his memory, he died in an earthquake that destroyed the hospital and whatever was known of Ellis' death. Only Ellis' ashes were found in the debris and delivered to his family."

The silence ending my tale was broken by Teissiere exclaiming, "What a strange story. It borders on the incredible. And such a dramatic ending! It is difficult to imagine that a man so enfeebled by ill health would persist on such a mission. Surely Japanese security must have suspected Ellis. And what about Ellis' findings, were there any reports?"

"As a matter of fact," I replied, "it was later learned that the Japanese did suspect Ellis and had kept him under surveillance. As to reports, I know of none. Again, it was later that we learned the Japanese were not building defenses on their mandated islands and only began doing so seriously after 1942 when Doolittle's carrier-launched B-25s hit Tokyo and Evans Carlson's raiders struck at Makin."

"Poor man," interjected Teisseire. "Can you imagine his frustration surmounting bureaucratic obstacles, seeking transport to remote islands, tormented by disease and debility, and then finding nothing to validate his effort."

Our wives now having joined us, Teisseire added wood to the fire and we all settled into an easy conversation without military focus. Later, while we prepared to leave, Teisseire reaffirmed, "Your story of Ellis was fascinating. I am pleased it also reminded me of a book that featured in family discussions long ago. I must find it and send it on to you."

In due course I received a heavy book with its title, The Aviator of The Pacific, brushed over the cover painting of a man standing above the casemate of a coastal battery, holding an American flag, and waving his hat at a twin-engined aircraft passing overhead. This illustrated volume of 512 gold-edged pages, authored by Maj Driant, was copyrighted in 1909 and published in Paris.7 In an accompanying note, Teisseire explained that the book had been given to his older brother before WWI, and he had read it himself about 1922. He recalled having been greatly impressed by Driant's prophetic vision of war and of aviation and left ". . . with a visceral horror of the Japanese and admiration for the Americans ... which has never left me."

I opened the book with the reverence due old and precious things and read a strangely familiar tale of an imaginary war set in my father's generation that turned real in mine.

Maj Driant's Story
(an abbreviated summary)
On a moonless night in late May, a large American freighter and two small cargo ships, 12 days out of San Francisco, were approaching Midway with the last of the coal and ammunition needed to top off supply levels at America's newly completed advanced naval base. The large ship also cartied a French dirigible, accompanied by a French aeronautical engineer, to provide Midway a long-range aerial reconnaissance capability.8

Without warning, a Japanese surface force illuminated the three ships with star shells and launched a spread of torpedoes. Minutes later, all that remained afloat was the gondola of the dirigible and a scattering of other flotsam. The bulky gondola, lashed on deck, had been cut loose by the French engineer who had then pulled himself and the second in command aboard as it floated off the sinking ship.

The two survivors reached Midway to find it under siege, unable to communicate, and with only a 2-weeks' supply of water remaining. The base commander added that Japan was apparently reacting to the news that the American fleet was being shifted from the Atlantic to new bases at Oakland and Hawaii. In any event, his immediate problem was to inform higher headquarters of his situation and need for support. The French aeronaut offered to do so by building an aircraft using the two dirigible engines in the gondola and flying it to Hawaii. Six days later, a frame and fabric airplane with pontoon landing gear and rockets to assist in its takeoff was ready.9

At the end of an uneventful flight, the Frenchman found Japanese troops occupying Oahu. He flew to the island of Hawaii, refueled, and took off for San Francisco. Halfway there, he observed a ship with an unusual array of antennas. Then, still short of landfall and low on fuel, he sighted an American cable layer, landed nearby, and had his aircraft hoisted aboard.

The French pilot apprised the American captain of his mission. The captain replied his transmitter was being jammed and all he could do was head for San Francisco at flank speed. The Frenchman, however, proposed refueling and taking off from the ship's open afterdeck. Several technicians helped rig a system of pulleys to serve as a catapult and the Frenchman was soon airborne.10 He arrived as the last unit of the American fleet entered the Golden Gate. The presence of the American armada was wildly welcomed for the reality of its power brought relief from the tensions and fears the war with Japan had thrust upon the people.

Japan's victory over Russia in 1905 had made it a world power and an adversary to American initiatives in the Pacific. Particularly disturbing was the flow of Japanese into Hawaii and California. In response, America had restricted immigration, and San Francisco had closed its schools to Asians. Dissent had then turned violent and spread to Hawaii and the Philippines. President [Theodore] Roosevelt, seeking to reverse the rush toward disaster, had sent the American fleet on a world cruise. The favorable reception accorded it throughout its voyage, including its visit to Japan, had led many nations to believe peace had been assured.

Although Japan had appeared to share this view, it had been planning otherwise. When President Taft had ordered the Atlantic fleet to the Pacific, Japan had struck at the Sandwich Islands.11 Midway was still holding, but Oahu had fallen in just 4 days. Twenty thousand Japanese combat veterans had been infiltrated into the island labor force over several years. They had received their arms and supplies at night from cargo ships offshore and formed into their units. By morning they were fanning out over the island, encountering little or no opposition.

The operation had been accomplished with few losses because Japan had cut the transpacific cable as it launched its offensive and destroyed all radio transmission facilities as it advanced.12 This respite was brief, however, for news of Japan's incursion into the eastern Pacific had soon reached America via Europe and America's declaration of war had quickly followed.

In California, Japanese immigrants, fearing repetition of the San Francisco Chinatown massacres, had fled west coast cities. The Americans were concerned that Japanese units, known to have mastered landing operations in the Manchurian War, would invade the west coast where there were no local defense forces and no hope of intervention by Federal troops. However, the opportunity to do so had soon ended. In 10 days 40,000 Californians had been recruited, local defenses had been built at vulnerable landing sites, civilian vehicles had been commandeered for troop transport, and local factories had shifted to the production of arms and war materiel.

These consuming endeavors had helped keep emotions at a high pitch, and the French aeronaut found himself in the midst of a madly cheering crowd when he landed. He was rescued by a detachment of volunteers who escorted him to the flagship. There he met the fleet commander who was conferring with his staff and senior subordinates over actions to be taken, despite their lack of information. The French engineer's report quickly dispelled their uncertainties and, within the hour, he was aboard the flagship of a relief force steaming for Midway at better than 20 knots. East of Hawaii it located the ship with the unusual antenna array, confirmed it to be the source of the jamming, and took it as a prize. The force then resumed course for Midway. It arrived to find the base severely damaged, its commander dead, and a depleted garrison resisting a Japanese landing force whose unchallenged naval support assured it eventual victory.

The American ships promptly engaged the Japanese ships, sank several, and drove the others off. The clearing and rebuilding of the Midway base was then organized, and as work started the Pacific battle fleet arrived to coal. Then, in compliance with Presidential directive, it sailed westward to bring the war to Japan. And there the tale ends.

The eerie realism in this entertaining story is enhanced by hindsight. The political climate as it evolved from events in the Far East early in the last century was factually presented. 13 The fictitious war, that prophetically began with a surprise attack by the Japanese on the Hawaiian Islands, was a logical outcome of the violent situation then prevailing. It follows that much of the story presented against this historical background actually came to pass.

Driant wrote of an airplane flying over 1,000 miles nonstop before Bleriot conquered the 20 miles of the English channel. He used rockets to assist the takeoff of an airplane and catapulted a float plane from the deck of a ship onto which it had been hoisted after landing in the water alongside-when all such things were still unknown or untried. He was equally innovative when he had a "fifth column" gain control of Oahu and positioned a specially configured Japanese ship to jam radio traffic. Driant was no less adroit in his strategic thinking. He appreciated the vital importance of bases at Pearl Harbor and Midway, acknowledged the inability of the United States to support the Philippines at the beginning of a war with Japan, and even sensed the tie between Midway's water supply and its endurance under attack.
The parallels between Ellis' plan and Driant's book invite speculation over a possible link between them. Easily dismissed is the matter of a personal meeting. Driant was reportedly killed in action in 1916. Ellis reportedly made his first trip to France from November 1917 to January 1918 on temporary duty orders to gather information on training methods. However, Ellis was hospitalized after the armistice until he was repatriated in August 1919 and would have had the time and opportunity to learn of or even read Driant's book.

Could this have happened? If so, could it have influenced Ellis' thinking about the central Pacific which had long preoccupied him, but over which Japan had acquired control only after the book was published? This appears unlikely, but then, how far is the reach of coincidence?

1. Jean Teisseire is a retired French Air Force colonel who has given France full measure of dedicated service. In the closing days of WWII, he lost a leg to German antiaircraft fire while piloting a light aircraft on a reconnaissance mission he had strongly advised against. Notwithstanding his infirmity, he continued on active duty. He retired after lengthy service as military aide to President de Gaulle to become the international marketing director for the French Falcon Jet, a world-class executive aircraft.
2. Maj David Riley and I were in Algeria from 29 May to 27 June 1957 observing helicopter landing operations against native dissident forces. We had French travel orders granting complete freedom of movement, access to information up to secret, and permission to participate in combat operations.
3. Col Felix Brunet, commanding the Oran Corps Area Air Force Helicopter Group based at La Senia, was concerned over the limited capability of ground-attack aviation available. The SNJ, a U.S. WWII trainer, was most widely used for reconnaissance and ground-attack missions throughout Algeria. Brunet thought to supplement his inadequate resources by arming his helicopters. At the time of my visit he was experimenting with 20mm, .50 cal., and .30 cal. machineguns; 2.36-inch rocket pods; and the French-developed SS10 and SS 11 wire guided missiles.
4. Marcel Bigeard was the top parachute battalion commander in the Indochina War. He was the first to land at Dien Bien Phu to set up a base there. Later, when the French position came under prolonged siege, Bigeard led the many efforts seeking to break their encirclement. In Algeria as a regimental commander, Bigeard pioneered the use of helicopters to maneuver forces fighting elusive guerrillas. He retired as a lieutenant general.
5. Amplifying details of Ellis' life are in LtCol John Reber's fine article entitled "Pete Ellis: Amphibious Warfare Prophet" appearing in the November 1977 issue of the U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings.
6. Japan entered WWI as an ally of Great Britain. Early in that war, Australian, Japanese, and New Zealand naval units seized German held islands in the Pacific. These were retained after the war under League of Nations Mandate. In this fashion the Japanese acquired the Marshall Islands, the Caroline Islands (including the Palaus), and the Mariana Islands, less Guam. Note that the mandated islands that dominate the central Pacific and feature in Ellis' war plan were acquired by Japan several years after Driant's book was published.
7. The author's first name is not given and has nit heen f6ti elsewhere
8. The first manned balloon flight was made in 1783. A manned balloon flew across the English Channel in 1785 and, in 1794, France's Army added a balloon corps. Balloons were first used in combat as observation platforms that same year and continued in that role throughout WWI. Efforts to control (French; diriger) the flight of balloons paralleled the beginning of manned balloon flight. Not until the introduction of the gas engine in 1900 did the dirigible (or airship) become practical. The U.S. acquired a nonrigid airship in 1905 but soon discarded it in favor of the airplane. The French and British made extensive use of blimps to protect convoys and for antisubmarine patrols during WWI. The U.S. Navy procured several rigid airships after that war for long-range scouting missions. But when three were lost, interest waned. Germany built the first rigid airship in 1900. Five of these were soon providing regular domestic passenger service. This was interrupted during WWI when Germany used airships to fly 51 bombing missions over Britain. A plan to bomb New York using three rigid airships was aborted when one airship was shot down. Commercial passenger service was resumed and expanded after the war. But the promising future for the airship ended with the fiery loss of the Hindenburg at Lakehurst, NJ in 1937.
9. Pearl Harbor is just over 1,100 nautical miles from Midway. The world endurance record for airplanes set in December 1908, the same year Driant wrote his novel, was a sustained flight of 2 hours and 20 minutes covering a distance of 77.5 miles. The first overwater flight, Bleriot's crossing of the English Channel, came 6 months later in July 1909.
10. The first flight off of a ship (USS Birmingham) occurred at Hampton Roads on 14 November 1910. This was followed on 18 January 1911 by the landing of an aircraft on the USS Pennsylvania in San Francisco Harbor. A month later, on 17 February 1911, Glenn Curtiss flew a floatplane from the naval base in San Diego to the Pennsylvania, at anchor in the harbor. He landed alongside, was hoisted aboard, and then lowered back to the water for the return flight to base. Further, naval historian Samuel Eliot Morison notes on page 14 of his volume, The Two Ocean War (Boston, Little, Brown & Co, 1963), that the catapult enabling spotting planes to take off from cruisers and battleships was invented in 1919.
11. The Sandwich Islands, now comprising the State of Hawaii, were so named in 1778 by Capt James Cook to honor John Montague, 4th Earl of Sandwich, then serving as First Lord of the Admiralty. Following initial contacts with Europeans, the island group was formed into the Kingdom of Hawaii by King Kamehameha I. The monarchy he established endured for 85 years. Annexed by the United States in 1898 and designated a territory in 1900, Hawaii became a state in 1959. The name Hawaii is most often used to identify the eight major islands at the eastern end of the group. In fact, Hawaii includes an additional 124 smaller islands extending westward along a 1,500-mile arc terminating at Kure atoll.
12. Heinl Jr., LtCol Robert D., Marines at Midway, Headquarters U.S. Marine Corps, Historical Section, Washington, DC, 1948, p. 2. On 29 April 1903 the Commercial Pacific Cable Company established a station on Sand Island, one of the two islands in the Midway atoll. Later, in 1935, Pan American Airways constructed a commercial seaplane base on the same Sand Island.
13. For a comprehensive over-view of the period see Dudden, Arthur Power, The American Pacific, (Oxford University Press, New York 1963), Chapter 6.