Peacetime Landing Operations

by Maj John F. Schmitt, USMCR

All Marines are familiar with actions such as Tarawa, Iwo Jima, Okinawa, and Saipan-wartime amphibious assaults against fortified beaches in the race of staunch resistance. They are the stuff of legend. Less familiar to us, but just as much a part of our history, are countless landing operations that did not involve an assault against a fortified beach-peacetime operations in which the objective was not to seize a lodgment or an advanced base, but to protect U.S. citizens abroad, keep the peace, or stabilize a government. We have a tendency to think of such landing operations as simply easier versions of the more demanding amphibious assaults. In the sense that these operations do not involve a bloody struggle just to get to the beach, that may be true. But these operations have their own peculiar problems-problems that demand peculiar answers. Since these are precisely the type of operations we will most often be called on to conduct in the future, we would do well to study them.

The opening phase of the U.S. intervention in Haiti in 1915 serves as both a reminder of our amphibious past and as a possible lesson for our amphibious future, particularly in light of the renewed attention Haiti has begun to receive of late.


In early 1915, a revolutionary movement arose in the northern Haitian port of Cap Haitien against the Haitian government at Port-au-Prince. Haiti was especially important to the United States because it dominated the Windward Passage to the newly opened Panama Canal. A variety of U.S. firms and European nations also had commerical interests in Haiti, and the United States wanted to pre-empt any European action in the region. Consequently, the armored cruiser USS Washington, carrying RAdm William B. Caperton, USN, was ordered to Cap Haitien to restore the peace. On 27 July, as the Washington sat off Cap Haitien, violence broke out in Port-auPrince. Some 200 political prisoners were massacred by the chief of police. In response, supporters of those murdered, bodily dragged Vilbrun Guillaume Sam, Haiti’s President, from the French Legation, where he had sought refuge and hacked him to pieces. His chief of police was similarly dragged from the Dominican Legation and murdered. When the Washington arrived off of Port-au-Prince there was no government control. The densely populated city was in turmoil. The American, British, and French ministers requested immediate intervention. Caperton concurred.

The Naval Force

The landing force totalled about 340 men organized into 5 companies: the Washington’s Marine detachment, organized as a company; the 12th Company of embarked Marine expeditionary troops; and three companies of bluejackets formed from the Washington’s crew.

The landing force commander was Capt George van Orden, commander of the Marine detachment. The landing force was organized into two battalions: the First Battalion, comprising the thee bluejacket companies, and the Second Battalion, comprising the Marine force, commanded by Capt Giles Bishop, Jr., commander of the 12th Company.

The Washington, with her 10-, 6-, and 3-inch guns would be in position to support the landing by fire, if necessary. A Navy lieutenant would control the movement of the landing force to shore and would support the landing force with two armed steam launches from the Washington.

The Timing of the Landing

The Washington had arrived at Port-au-Prince shortly before noon on the 28th. Caperton made the decision to land troops at 1600 after conferring with various ministers. (Instructions from the Navy Department to land troops did not arrive until 2200.) Planners preferred to land early in the day, but Caperton decided that the volatility of the situation demanded immediate intervention. Troops would have to land at dusk in the face of an unknown situation.

Where To Land

As with any amphibious operation, in any conditions, the critical question was where to land. There were only two sites suitable for the Washington’s boats. The first was at the newly constructed municipal pier in the heart of the city. A year earlier, Marines had successfully made a similar landing in the face of sporadic resistance at the pier at Veracruz, Mexico. The second option was to land across a beach near an abandoned naval yard at the suburb of Bizoton, some distance west of the city proper.

The former option would involve landing troops directly into the most densely populated part of the city. The critical phase of getting organized ashore would have to take place in the dark in the midst of a potential threat. There was little chance that the landing might actually be defeated, but there was definite potential for trouble.

Other considerations that had to be considered included:

* Fort Islet, an old stone fortress at the end of the municipal pier, which dominated any approach. It might or might not be defended.

* The long axis of the city was north-south. A landing at the pier would involve moving eastward across the narrow axis of the city, leaving portions of the city unsecured on either exposed flank of the landing force.

* Naval gunfire in support of a pier landing would be in the form of overhead fires, which, especially in the dark, would be more dangerous and less effective. Additionally, if needed, naval gunfire at this landing site would cause greater destruction to the city.


* A landing at the abandoned naval yard would likely meet little if any resistance. This would likely allow commanders to get their troops organized ashore before having to deal with any resistance-especially important since most of the troops were untrained in landing operations.

* If it did become necessary to support the landing with naval gunfire, the sparsely developed area of Bizoton would suffer less damage than would the heart of the city.

* By landing at Bizoton and moving east and then north, the landing force would clear the city along its long axis, with its left flank anchored securely on the shore. Additionally, moving from south to north rather than west to east, the landing force would be clearing a narrower front.

* Because the landing force would be moving parallel to the shore, the armed launches and the Washington would be able to support by fire more effectively, firing across the front of advancing troops rather than over their heads. Additionally, with the armed launches moving abreast of the landing force along the shore, control of naval gunfire would be easier.

Based on these considerations, Caperton decided to make the landing at Bizoton. In fact, he had long before selected Bizoton as his landing site in the event that a landing might become necessary. The plans had already been prepared.

There would be no element of surprise in this operation. As the landing force was preparing to disembark, Capt Edward L. Beach, USN, Caperton’s chief of staff, went ashore to notify Haitian leaders of the landing. At the National Palace, he confirmed the landing and stated that the intent was to restore peace but that no resistance would be tolerated. He instructed Gen Ermane Robin, the commander of Haitian forces, to order his troops into their barracks and to keep people off the streets. Then, he and Robin went to personally guide the landing forces through the city. Beach also sent word through the legations for all foreigners to remain indoors and to display their national flags from their residences.

The Landing and Subsequent Operations

The Washington moved to a point close to the shore where it could support the landing and the advance on the city. Shoving off at 1650, the boats made the ship-to-shore movement protected by armed launches. No supporting fires were deemed necessary.

The landing was completed without resistance by 1750, and the landing force advanced on the city in column, the Marine battalion as advance guard and the bluejacket battalion (under the close supervision of Capt van Orden) as the main body, minus a single company assigned as the rear guard. The landing force order specifically stipulated that “Companies will open fire only upon orders from a commissioned officer. Patrols will fire only in self-defense.”

The armed launches kept abreast of the advancing column. At Fort Lerebours, which guarded the southern portal of the city proper, the landing force deployed onto line. Capt Beach and Gen Robin met the advancing landing force at Fort Lerebours and, as instructed, Robin guided the troops through the city without incident. The Marine battalion advanced on the first five north-south streets inland from the shore with one section per street. The bluejacket battalion moved up on the right, with one section advancing on the next street, the Rue de L’Egalite, and one squad providing flank security on the next street inland after that. In this way the landing force fronted the enure native section of the city. Further inland was the foreign section, from which no trouble was expected. Van Orden held the rest of the bluejacket battalion in reserve, echeloned to the right rear, thus protecting the right flank and making the reserve readily available to extend the line in that direction if it became necessary to clear the foreign section of town.

At one point, an angry mob barred the advance. Officers marched at the head of their columns direcdy into the mob, dispersing it without firing a shot. The only firing came from rooftop Haitians who fired a few rounds over the heads of the Marines. The landing force soon reached the Rue des Casernes, where it halted its clearing operation for the night, having secured the National Palace and all other important government buildings. The troops had disarmed Haitians along the way, collecting over five wag-onloads of arms and ammunition. There were reports of sporadic gunfire all during the advance through the city. Some sniping occurred, but much of the gunfire was from the indiscriminate firing of weapons into the air, the typical Haitian response to unrest in the city. There were no American casualties; 2 Haitians died and 10 were wounded.

That night the 12th Company was sent to protect the legations and foreign colony. The rest of the landing force bivouacked for the night of the 28th in the city marketplace. Gen Robin and Capt van Orden went throughout the city that night to ensure that Haitian troops complied with the orders to remain indoors.

By the following morning, the Washington had moved farther north to support the continued advance by fire, if needed. By the end of the second day, the Fort National had been captured against sporadic sniping and the city secured. Two U.S. seamen died, probably from the undisciplined friendly fires of the bluejacket battalion rather than from Haitian resistance.


The military operation was an unqualified success. Through prompt and discreet action, the landing force quickly diffused a volatile situation with minimal loss of life and property. The British Minister, R. M. Kohan, reported to his Foreign Office that:

The landing party put ashore at Port-au-Prince on the 28th July was not strong. … A skillful show of strength was, however, made and by at once seizing all points of military importance, together with practically all Government arms and ammunition and disarming all Haitian military and civilians, die landing force was able to anticipate any serious resistance which might have been offered.


A Marine company from Guantanamo Bay arrived on the 29th. On 4 August the USS Connecticut arrived from Philadelphia with a regimental headquarters and five more companies. On 15 August the USS Tennessee arrived with a brigade headquarters and another regiment. With the Tennessee was Col Littleton W.T. Waller who was to take command of the Marine brigade, now over 2,000 strong. Its mission: occupy the country. The Marine occupation of Haiti then lasted in one form or another until 1934.


While much has changed in the nearly eight decades since this operation, many of the characteristics of the landing can be of use to us today. The following are meant as food for thought, not as a checklist for conducting similar operations:

* The operation involved landing troops in a densely populated, depressed urban area where there was little local governmental control and a large portion of the population possessed weapons-conditions similar to those we would face in many Third World situations today.

* The situation was unclear and extremely tense, especially in regards to the amount of resistance that the landing force could expect. Tactical considerations, such as security and surprise, were clearly subordinated to political considerations. Caperton believed that “reasons of policy greatly outweighed those of tactics.” But just as important, policy did not demand what was tactically impossible.

* Discretion was essential in the conduct of the operation. Although resistance could be expected, the overall environment was not treated as openly hostile. The plan effectively minimized collateral damage.

* The need for action arose quickly when only a small expeditionary force was available. The plan envisioned the later deployment of reinforcements.

* The plan called for early coordination with any remaining local governmental forces.

* Simple and workable rules of engagement were relied upon and clearly disseminated. This made maximum use of the judgment of local commanders.

* Superior firepower was withheld until absolutely required, but it was immediately available whenever needed.

Clearly, given the likelihood of Marine Corps missions at the low end of the intensity spectrum, we have something to learn from operations like the intervention of Haiti. And who knows-we may find ourselves there again.