U.S. Marines, Cuba, and the Invasion that Never Was: Part 2

The Marine Corps was at the center of President John F. Kennedy’s plan to remove Castro from power and block Soviet military buildup in Cuba. (Photo courtesy of Naval History and Heritage Command)

A row of MAG 26 A-4 Skyhawks line up at Guantanamo Bay Naval Station during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Multiple aerial surveillance missions were conducted to monitor Cuban military activity. (DOD photo)The path to a first direct military confrontation between the U.S. and the Soviet Union became possible when Fidel Castro’s communist revolution toppled Cuban President Fulgencio Batista on Jan. 1, 1959.

Gen David M. Shoup, 22nd Commandant of the Marine Corps, left, and ADM George W. Anderson Jr., Chief of Naval Operations, center, meet with President Kennedy at the White House to discuss escalating missile threats in Cuba. (Photo courtesy of John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum)

At the center of President John F. Kennedy’s joint U.S. military invasion plan to remove Castro from power and block the Soviet military buildup in Cuba was the U.S. Marine Corps. Documents declassified over the last decade, along with firsthand accounts, provide fascinating, previously unknown details of the Marine Corps’ role in planning and the II Marine Expeditionary Force’s (II MEF) part in executing the invasion that never was.


Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara; Gen David M. Shoup, the 22nd Comman­dant of the Marine Corps; and President Kennedy observe an amphibious landing demonstration conducted by the II Marine Expeditionary Force at Camp Lejeune, April 17, 1962. (Photo courtesy of John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum)The Cold War Heats Up
A New Year’s Day parade in Havana on Jan. 1, 1962, provided the world with the first tangible proof of just how far Cuba’s military relationship with the Soviet Union had come. According to the U.S. Atlantic Command’s “Historical Account of the Cuban Crisis,” on parade that day were 60 modern Soviet-made fighter/attack aircraft, light cargo trans­ports, and helicopters as well as thousands of uniformed and well-equipped Cuban infantry followed by artillery pieces, tanks, and an array of armored vehicles. Reports estimated that Castro’s con­ventional ground forces ranged from 75,000 to 100,000 soldiers, a far cry from the 300 or so that had overthrown Batista three years earlier. The Joint Chiefs asked Admiral Robert L. Dennison to keep Cuban invasion planning the U.S. Atlantic Command’s highest priority. Dennison in turn directed his planners to amend its active Cuban invasion plan, OPLAN 314-61, to reflect the realities of this new Cuban army.

Throughout early 1962, Dennison had planners draft two new courses of action. One, OPLAN 316-61, was a “quick reaction” version of OPLAN 314-61 and provided only five days of preparations (including airstrikes) before the airborne assault, with amphibious assaults occur­ring three days or less thereafter. The second plan, OPLAN 312-62, was an air strike-only option with the II MEF reinforcing and expanding the Guantanamo perimeter.

With the invasion becoming less likely despite disconcerting intelligence reports, President Kennedy communicated his resolve through American TV and news­papers. What were normally routine train­ing exercises received national media attention. On April 17, Kennedy and sev­eral senior cabinet and Department of Defense officials traveled to Camp Le­jeune, N.C., to observe one of several II MEF amphibious exercises taking place along the Atlantic seaboard that spring. On hand were Ma­rine Corps Commandant General David M. Shoup, ADM Dennison and his staff, and the II MEF’s new commanding general, Lieutenant General Robert B. Luckey. Lance Cor­poral Stanley E. Gunn from 2nd Battalion, 2nd Marines recalled the exercise: “It’s not every day that you get to train in front of the president, so a lot of us thought Kennedy’s visit was more than to observe an am­phibious landing exercise. It was a final rehearsal.”

Senior cabinet and DOD officials attended the II MEF amphibious landing exercise held at Camp Lejeune. More than 38,000 Marines were spread across two amphibious task forces, 58 ships and four bases in preparation for a Cuba invasion. (Photo courtesy of John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum)
LtGen Robert B. Luckey, Commanding General, II Marine Expeditionary Force. (USMC photo)
Fidel Castro and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev appearing together in public, circa 1960. (Photo courtesy of Library of Congress)

Fidel Castro and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev received Kennedy’s message. The Central Intelli­gence Agency’s Sep­tem­ber 1962 re­port “The Military Buildup in Cuba” linked a Soviet cargo ship surge in Cuba in August (55 dockings) and Sep­tember (66 dockings) to a plan to rapidly “strengthen Cuban defenses against air attack and seaborne invasion.” Delivered to Cuban ports were Soviet-manned SA-2 guided surface-to-air missiles, Soviet-made Badger medium-range bombers, and Komar guided-missile patrol boats, all a clear indication that Castro believed an amphibious assault was imminent. In addition, the CIA estimated as many as 20,000 Soviet military personnel were on the island as stand-ins until trained Cubans could replace them. Most alarm­ing was the CIA’s warning of the potential for Khrushchev to deploy an army group and offensive and nuclear strike capa­bilities (air, surface, and submarine) to Cuba, though the latter was a significant departure from Soviet policy.

Within weeks of Kennedy stepping up aerial surveillance mis­sions over Cuba, an American U-2 recon­nais­sance aircraft pro­duced “hard photo­graphic evidence … that the Russians [had] offensive missiles in Cuba.” Kennedy wanted confirmation before taking any action. The Joint Chiefs and ADM Dennison tasked the Navy and Marine Corps with providing that confirmation. On Oct. 17, Marine RF-8A Crusader crews from 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing’s Marine Com­posite Reconnaissance Squadron 2 endured Cuban ground fire during dozens of photographic missions flown as low as 50 feet above the jungle landscape. “We would go around the island and triangulate to find the radar sites,” retired Lieutenant Colonel Richard Conway explained years later. “We sent that back to Washington, so when they planned our targets, they knew where the sites were. They could direct us over one, over another and another in a straight line because we had located those sites for them.”

President Kennedy met with his na­tional security team and the Joint Chiefs to review the photographs and weigh his options. The military leadership agreed unanimously to air strikes aimed at de­stroying only the sites. A ground invasion, they offered, would be needed to seize the missiles intact. The objective would then shift to defeating Soviet and Cuban forces and removing Castro from power.

Atlantic Command planners revised OPLAN 314-61 and OPLAN 316-61 to reflect the priorities and objectives. Meanwhile, President Kennedy delayed offensive military action for at least 90 days to give diplomacy a chance, but adopted from OPLAN 314-61 the naval quarantine course of action in conjunction with posturing the invasion force to act on a moment’s notice. To do this, the Joint Chiefs directed ADM Dennison in an Oct. 26 memorandum to “abandon OPLAN 314 and concentrate on OPLAN 316-62.”

Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev took office in 1953 after the death of Joseph Stalin and allied with Fidel Castro during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

An aerial view of the MRBM Field Launch Site in San Cristobal, Cuba, photographed Oct. 14, 1962. (Photo courtesy of National Archives)

An aerial view of Battery C, 3rd Light Anti-Aircraft Missile Battalion on John Paul Jones Hill, Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. (DOD photo)

Operation Scabbards
While the diplomatic process played out, invasion forces entered quietly into Phase I of OPLAN 316-62. As a testament to the former II MEF commander’s forward thinking, more than 4,000 Marines of the 4th Marine Amphibious Brigade (MAB) were already in the Caribbean preparing for Exercise Ortsac (Castro spelled backward), scheduled months earlier for the period of Oct. 15-30. The DOD secretly suspended the exercise on Oct. 20 but used it and the fast-approaching Hurricane Ella as a cover for moving ships and aircraft out to sea and to Caribbean bases.

LtGen Luckey activated the II Marine Expeditionary Force officially on October 23. In his role as Fleet Marine Force, Atlantic (FMFLant) commanding general, he requested on Oct. 19 that ADM Dennison land 2/2 (already in the Caribbean) at Guantanamo Bay and ordered Major General Frederick L. Wieseman to have one of his 2nd Marine Division battalions reinforce them as planned and begin moving his units to their embarkation points. Two days later 1st Battalion, 8th Marines joined 2/2 in Cuba as the core of Brigadier General William R. Collins’ Marine Ground Force Guantanamo. The situation caught many Marines by surprise. “We were in Vieques and we started training to invade Cuba but we didn’t know it,” recalled 2/2’s LCpl Ralph E. Johnson. “They told us to go down to Red Beach and a ship would pick us up. We got on board and they said we were headed to Cuba.”

BGen Collins’ aerial reconnaissance of Guantanamo Bay resulted in a request for a third battalion. With the only available units embarking ships, Headquarters, U.S. Marine Corps (HQMC) tasked Fleet Marine Force, Pacific (FMFPac) with providing the battalion. The 1st Marine Division’s 2nd Battalion, 1st Marines flew from Marine Corps Air Station El Toro in California late on Oct. 21. The battalion was in fighting positions and running patrols the next day. They were not the only unit from FMFPac to receive deployment orders.

MajGen Frederick L. Wieseman, (pictured as lieutenant general)Commanding General, 2nd Marine Division. Courtesy of Marine Corps History Division

BGen William R. Collins (pictured as major general), Commanding Officer, Marine Ground Force, Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Courtesy of Marine Corps History Division.


BGen William T. Fairbourn, (pictured as major general) Commanding General, 5th Marine Expeditionary Brigade. (USMC photo)During planning in July 1961, 2ndMarDiv staff raised concerns over conducting “assault landing operations” so soon after seizing Tarara. HQMC agreed and directed FMFPac to create a brigade for the invasion. Given the Cuban Army’s increased capabilities and the potential for direct Soviet military involvement, LtGen Luckey requested on Oct. 23 that BGen William T. Fairbourn’s 5th Marine Amphibious Brigade (MAB) be activated and assigned as Landing Group East and the II MEF’s reserve. FMFPac received the activation message that same day. The entire brigade had to be embarked within 96 hours. Four days later the 9,000 Marine air-ground force departed southern California on board 20 amphibious ships, including the Navy’s newest purpose-built amphibious assault carrier USS Iwo Jima (LPH-2). Embarked were 1st Marines and its two remaining battalions; 1st and 3rd Battalions, 7th Marines; Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 361; and a logistics support group. Marine Aircraft Squadron 121 and Marine Aerial Refueler Transport Squadron 352, with 3rd Light Anti-Aircraft Missile Battalion on board, flew ahead of the ships to assume firing positions at Key West, Florida, and Guantanamo Bay naval stations.

The brigade’s only stop was a brief one inside the Panama Canal, where BGen Fairbourn noted, in an interview years later, that his Marines “loaded blood and a hundred coffins onto the carrier Iwo Jima dockside in Panama” in hopes that there was an audience watching. “And then we sailed.” Private First Class Thad McManus of 1st Battalion, 1st Marines, on board USS Okanogan (APA-220), remembered how loading the coffins “was supposed to impress the Soviets.” The ploy, however, “sure impressed us.” Just be­fore departing, Fairbourn received a naval message with orders “to land on the coast of Cuba, seize Santiago, and march on Havana.”


Gen Shoup speaks with a Marine from 2/1 in defensive positions at Guantanamo Naval Base. (Photo courtesy of National Archives)


PFCs Robert Broughton and Mimmy R. Isabell of 1/8 set their 81 mm mortar on enemy positions along the Main Line of Resistance. (Photo courtesy of Marine Corps History Division)


A Marine from 2/2 watches over the approaches to Guantanamo Naval Base during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. Courtesy of National Archives.With more than 38,000 Marines “mounting out,” LtGen Luckey faced the unenviable challenge of commanding and controlling from Norfolk a force scattered throughout the Atlantic and Caribbean. To take advantage of the communications infrastructure, Luckey and the II Marine Expeditionary Force command element operated from FMFLant command center. There, Luckey and his staff would synchronize air and ground actions by units embarked on two amphibious task forces spread over 58 ships and four bases. The chal­lenge was not lost on even the most junior Marines. “I know that the high ranks thought it was a complete (mess) logistically, command scattered all over the fleet, plans being re-done all the time, but that was way above me,” PFC McManus recalled.

MajGen Wieseman’s staff had the ar­duous process of organizing 2ndMarDiv, the bulk of Landing Group West, into assault elements. Spread out over 40 ships were 1st Battalion, 2nd Marines and 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marines with attached artillery batteries from 10th Marines, engineers from 2nd Pioneer Battalion, tanks from 2nd Battalion, and amphibious tractors from 2nd Amphibian Assault Battalion, all of the battalions and combat support attachments of 6th Marines, and 2nd Battalion, 8th Marines and 3rd Battalion, 8th Marines, re­inforced by combat support attachments. His 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing counter­part, MajGen Richard C. Mangrum, faced a similar test in commanding and controlling Marine Aircraft Groups 14, 24, 26, 31, and 32 and several independent combat aviation and support squadrons operating from aircraft carriers, amphibious assault ships, and the Cecil Field, Key West, Roosevelt Roads, and Guantanamo Bay airfields.


MajGen Richard C. Mangrum, (pictured as lieutenant general) Commanding General, 2nd Marine Air Wing, 1961-1963. (USMC photo)


LCpl Ralph Maynard and Cpl James K. Campbell from 1/8 defend the Main Line of Resistance, Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Courtesy of Marine Corps History Division.

President Kennedy presents personal and unit awards to Navy and Marine Corps aviators at Naval Air Station Cecil Field in Florida for their actions in support of surveillance operations over Cuba October-December 1962. (Photo courtesy of John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum)

Standing Down
After 13 days of tense negotiations that kept the world on the brink of nuclear war, the crisis subsided when President Kennedy and Premier Khrushchev reached an agreement on Oct. 28. In exchange for Khrushchev removing all Soviet nuclear and non-nuclear offensive capabilities from Cuba, Kennedy prom­ised to remove all American nuclear missiles from Turkey at a future date. Had the invasion occurred, the II MEF would certainly have landed at Tarara to establish the beachhead for 1st and 2nd Infantry Divisions to pass through.


Naval aviators CDR William Ecker, left, and Capt John Hudson, right, shake hands, after President Kennedy and Premier Khrushchev reached an agreement on Oct. 28, 1962. (Photo courtesy of Michael Dobbs)


Soviet freighter Kasimov withdraws from Cuba carrying 15 IL-28 “Beagle” bombers on deck. (Photo courtesy of Naval History and Heritage Command)Plan­ners changed the 1st Armored Division’s land site back to Regla, inside the Port of Havana, after 2ndMarDiv handed off Tarara, attacked west to clear the northern coast, secured the Morro Castle at the entrance of the Port of Havana, and se­cured Regla. In the event of a delay, the armor landing site was to shift farther west to the Port of Mariel. According to Atlantic Command’s 1963 historical ac­count, estimated casualties in the 260,000 American invasion force (150,000 ground forces) were 18,484 killed, 8,182 of those coming from the II MEF with 4,462 on the first day alone. Planners estimated 800,000 Cuban serv­icemen and civilians would perish during the anticipated 15 days of combat operations.

Within days of Kennedy and Khrush­chev’s agreement the II MEF stood down incrementally. Most of its units were back at their bases by Christmas. The 5th MAB was back in California by Dec. 10, including 2/1. BGen Fairbourn disbanded the brigade but kept his staff together to finalize plans reflecting the Atlantic Command’s updated invasion schemes following OPLAN 316-63’s approval by the Joint Chiefs in early January 1963 and the II MEF’s updated component plan. In the event Khrushchev did not comply, the brigade made plans for assault landings at Matanzas and Mariel and to retake Guantanamo Bay or Santiago de Cuba, if necessary.

The 1st Battalion, 6th Marines re­mained afloat in the Caribbean for another two months as part of a multinational observation force. “I was on the deck of the Okinawa when we saw the Russian ships leaving Cuba,” PFC Robert P. Hemingway recalled decades later. “The missiles were plainly visible with binoculars on the decks of the Russian ships.”

To maintain their readiness, all units took advantage of training opportunities at Guantanamo Bay and Vieques, includ­ing those awaiting orders to redeploy to Camp Lejeune.


Then-1stLt William M. Keys with his platoon sergeant on board USS Boxer (CV-21) during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. Keys was aboard an OH-43D Huskie helicopter that crashed at sea in early December 1962. (Photo courtesy of LtGen William M. Keys, USMC (Ret))During an exercise in early December, a Kaman OH-43D Huskie helicopter from Marine Observation Squadron One crashed into the Atlantic Ocean forward of USS Boxer (CV-21) during a fire support training exercise. On board the two-man aircraft was First Lieutenant William M. Keys, who, as a platoon com­mander in 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marines, was on a temporary assignment to the squadron as an aerial observer. Knocked out upon impacting the water, 1stLt Keys regained consciousness just as Boxer ran directly over top of the wreckage with him trapped inside. “I somehow kept my composure and focus, freed myself, and swam to the surface where a rescue heli­copter pulled me out of the water,” Keys explained. His commanding officer, LtCol Earl W. Cassidy, attributed Keys’ “physical condition and presence of mind” to his surviving the crash. Some 20 years later MajGen Keys would lead 2ndMarDiv in liberating Kuwait from Iraqi occupation in February 1991 and, later, command both the II MEF and FMFLant as a lieutenant general from 1991 to 1994. (Editor’s note: The article “Genesis of the Second Breach,” from the August 2022 issue explains more about Keys’ role during Operation Desert Storm.)

The magnitude of the crisis surprised many. “No one knew they had nukes down there. We were aware they had missile sites that put Washington, D.C., and a few other places in range,” retired Col Edward Love said long afterward. President Kennedy presented the Dis­tinguished Flying Cross to Love and fellow Marine aviators Fred Carolan, Richard Conway, and John I. Hudson, who retired as a lieutenant general, for their heroic actions over Cuba. Some were shocked the invasion never materialized. Cpl Robert Thomas of 2nd MarDiv’s 2nd Pioneer Battalion recalled, “I thought we were going to war. It got serious for us when we started firing machine guns off the stern of the ship. We thought something might come out of it.”

Still others were just happy to play a part. “Sitting there watching the TV, you feel really proud about what you contributed,” LtCol Conway added years later. “It was a very rewarding experience.” Few were more pleased than Gen Shoup. “I couldn’t be happier about our readiness in this crisis,” he explained. “This time we not only have been ready, we’ve been steady.”


View of the wreckage of the VMO-1 OH-43D Huskie spotter helicopter that crashed into the water during the approach to USS Boxer (CV-21) in December 1962. (Photo courtesy of Lt Gen William M. Keys, USMC (Ret))


A sideview of USS Boxer (CV-21), refueling in Cuba, 1964. (USMC photo)Author’s bio: Dr. Nevgloski is the former director of the Marine Corps History Division. Before becoming the Marine Corps’ history chief in 2019, he was the History Division’s Edwin N. McClellan Research Fellow from 2017 to 2019, and a U.S. Marine from 1989 to 2017.

U.S. Marines, Cuba, and the Invasion that Never Was: Part 1

President John F. Kennedy speaks at a news con­ference in Washington D.C., 1961. The threat of nuclear missile sites in Cuba prompted the president to take defensive action. (Photo courtesy of John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum)
On Oct. 14, 1962, photographic evi­dence produced by an American U-2 high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft revealed the construction of Soviet medium-range nuclear ballistic missile sites in Cuba a mere 90 miles off the southern coast of the continental U.S. Additional reconnaissance flights on Oct. 15 and 16 confirmed site construction as well as the presence of numerous ballistic missiles. One month prior, at the height of the Soviet Union’s military buildup in Cuba that began in 1961, U.S. President John F. Kennedy had warned Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev that “if at any time the Communist build-up in Cuba were to endanger or interfere with our security in any way …. or if Cuba should ever …. become an offensive military base of significant capacity for the Soviet Union, then this country will do whatever must be done to protect its own security and that of its allies.” Although Cuba’s bud­ding mil­itary relationship with the Soviet Union and the deployment of Soviet advisors and operational ground and aviation units to Cuba increased American-Soviet ten­sions, the presence of nuclear-capable offensive missiles brought the two super­powers closer to a direct military con­frontation than at any point during their 47-year Cold War.

In both open and back-channel discus­sions with Soviet officials, President Kennedy demanded the construction of the sites cease and that the missiles be removed. To convince Khrushchev of his resolve, Kennedy ordered a U.S. invasion force, including more than 35,000 Ma­rines, into positions off Cuba and through­­out the Caribbean in anticipa­tion of having to take direct military action. Among the tasks assigned to the II Marine Amphibious Force in military contingency plans was the largest am­phibious assault since Okinawa in 1945 aimed at seizing the Port of Havana and follow-on amphibious and ground as­aults to expand the perimeter of the Guan­tanamo Bay Naval Station. Drawn from documents maintained by the U.S. National Archives and Records Admin­istration in College Park, Md., and the Marine Corps archives at Quantico, Va., this article reveals—for the first time to many—the Marines’ roles in the planning and execution plan for the invasion that never was.

The Joint Chiefs of Staff meet with President Kennedy in the cabinet room of the White House in Washington, D.C. From left to right: Vice Chief of Staff of the Air Force, Gen Curtis E. LeMay; Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, GEN Lyman L. Lemnitzer; President Kennedy; Chief of Staff of the Army, GEN George H. Decker; Chief of Staff of the U.S. Navy, ADM Arleigh A. Burke; and 22nd Commandant of the Marine Corps, Gen David M. Shoup. (Photo courtesy of John F. Kennedy Presidential Library And Museum)

Marines and Initial Invasion Planning

ADM Robert L. Dennison served as the commander in chief of the U.S. Atlantic Command from 1960 to 1963. (USN photo)
Gen David M. Shoup, the 22nd Commandant of the Marine Corps. (USMC photo)

The Joint Chiefs of Staff approved America’s first Cuba invasion plan in July 1959 following communist revolutionary Fidel Castro’s brutal six-year struggle to remove Fulgencio Batista from power. Designed by a multi-service team of planners in Admiral Robert L. Dennison’s U.S. Atlantic Command, Operation Plan (OPLAN) 312-60 called for a brief air campaign followed by an Army XVIII Airborne Corps’ assault on the Jose Marti and San Antonio de los Banos military airfields south of the capital at Havana. After 19th Air Force transports delivered additional Army ground forces to seize the Port of Havana, the Second Fleet’s Atlantic Amphibious Force would land an armored regiment at Regla inside the port to assist in capturing the capital. Planners later changed the armored regiment’s insertion from sea to air. After toppling Havana, the American ground force would have to clear all remaining pockets of resistance east to the Guantanamo Bay. Planners estimated it would take 30 days to complete the invasion.

The Marine Corps did not participate in OPLAN 312-60 planning and, in the event of an invasion, had no role other than defending the Guantanamo Bay Naval Station and providing fixed-wing attack squadrons for air strikes. It is unclear as to why Marines were more or less left out, though the most plausible explanation was President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s open animus toward the Marine Corps and the service’s diminished role in the national defense strategy. With the nuclear triad of missiles, submarines and bombers syphoning off most of Eisenhower’s defense budget beginning in 1953, the Marine Corps endured a more than $40 million budget cut and an end-strength reduction of over 60,000 Marines between 1954 and 1959. The Marine Corps’ 21st Commandant, General Randolph M. Pate, known more for his administrative acumen, overlooked his service’s bloated supporting establishment and deactivated six infantry battalions and six aircraft squad­rons in 1959—a more than 30 percent reduction in combat strength—and left the remaining battalions and squadrons to function at 90 percent and 80 per­cent manning levels. Eisenhower’s misguided policies and Gen Pate’s misplaced priorities kept the Fleet Marine Forces chronically under­strength and incapable of supporting contingency plans like OPLAN 312-60.

This 1962 painting by Richard Genders depicts Navy and Marine officers as they plan for the invasion of Cuba. Courtesy of Naval History and Heritage Command.

The Marine Corps’ scene changed dramatically in 1960 when General David M. Shoup became the 22nd Commandant. Restoring operational readiness as the service’s primary focus, Gen Shoup chose to downsize training and support commands and used a 3,000 Marine end strength increase authorized by newly elected President Kennedy one year later to bring the Fleet Marine Forces back to full capacity. Under Kennedy and Shoup, observed Marine Corps historian Edwin H. Simmons, “technical capabilities had caught up with doctrinal aspirations.” The likelihood that current events would lead the Joint Chiefs to modify the invasion plan were high as were the chances that the Marines would play a part given the changes as a result of Shoup’s operational focus and Kennedy’s defense strategy.

 OPLANS 312-61 and 312-61 (Revised)

Newspaper headline from 1960.  (Courtesy of Newspapers.com)
ADM Alfred G. Ward was the Atlantic Amphibious Fleet commander. (USN photo)
Fidel Castro speaks at a rally in Havana, Cuba, 1959. Castro rose to power after a six-year struggle to forcefully remove Fulgencio Batista from office. (Photo courtesy of National Archives)

The January 1961 Department of De­fense (DOD) study “Evaluation of Pos­sible Military Courses of Action in Cuba,” outlining potential courses of action “in view of increased capabilities of the Cuban Armed Forces and militia” and the Soviet military buildup on Cuba was a clear indication that Marines would have a role in invasion planning and a possible invasion. Specifically, DOD officials included in the study the forces available for an invasion, namely the U.S. Atlantic Fleet’s “two carriers, a Marine Division, and a Marine Air Wing.” When Admiral Dennison reconvened invasion planning in February at the direction of the Joint Chiefs, he invited Fleet Marine Force Atlantic planners to help develop the ground scheme. The resultant OPLAN 312-61 added an amphibious assault by a Marine brigade to seize the Port of Havana.

Concepts derived from Major General Robert E. Hogaboom’s Fleet Marine Force Organization and Composition Boards in 1955 and 1956 offered planners integrated Marine air-ground forces at the exp­e­ditionary unit to force level for rapid deployment anywhere in the world by sea and air. With the pros­­pects of a presidential decision to invade Cuba could come with little-to-no notice, the inclusion of fast landing forces, flexible emergency plans, and pre-loaded combat supplies on amphibious ships in contingency were now essential and part of every discussion.

Intelligence gleaned from the botched Central Intelligence Agency-sponsored Cuba invasion by anti-Castro exiles in mid-April 1961 brought Atlantic Com­mand planners back together. Of par­ticular concern were reports of Soviet-made tanks and antiaircraft systems and a Cuban ground force of upwards of 75,000 soldiers. In turn, planners pro­duced OPLAN 312-61 (Revised). Re­maining in were the air strikes, airborne assault on the military airfields, seizing Havana, and defeating all Cuban forces between the capital and Guantanamo Bay. The most significant change was an amphibious assault east of Havana and a series of land and sea-based attacks by II Marine Expeditionary Force. The Atlantic Amphibious Fleet commander, Admiral Alfred G. Ward, recalled, “We would plan on where the Marines would land, plan what cruisers would be needed in order to provide gunfire support, and what would be necessary to protect these landings.”

Concerned that President Kennedy might order military action with very little notice, the Joint Chiefs directed ADM Dennison to develop a more syn­chronized invasion scheme. Although the concept of operations and force composition remained intact, OPLAN 314-61 now had more elaborate time stric­tures governing force deployments, the air campaign, and the time between the airborne and amphibious assaults. The changes had no impact on II Marine Expeditionary Force’s plan completed during the summer of 1961.

 II Marine Expeditionary Force Operations Plan 312-61

LtGen Joseph C. Burger, Commanding General, Fleet Marine Forces Atlantic, 1959 to 1961. Burger also assumed the command of the II Marine Expeditionary Force in June 1961. (USMC photo)

Marine Corps HUS-1 helicopters with HMR-262 take off from USS Boxer, during operations off Vieques Island with the 10th Provisional Marine Brigade, March 8, 1959. (Photo courtesy of Naval History and Heritage Command.)

An aerial view of Guantanamo Bay Naval Station, Cuba, March 1964. (Photo by William C. Reed, USMC)
An aerial view of Naval Station Roosevelt Roads, Puerto Rico, circa 1964. (USMC Photo)

II Marine Expeditionary Force’s in­volve­ment coincided with General Shoup’s directive that Fleet Marine Force Atlantic and Pacific headquarters also function as expeditionary force-level command elements during di­vision/wing-level exercises and con­tingencies. Lieutenant General Joseph C. Burger, in addition to commanding Fleet Marine Forces Atlantic, acti­vated and assumed command of II Marine Expeditionary Force in June 1961. Explaining to Leatherneck that same month that being “prepared to react in the shortest possible notice” was his focus, LtGen Burger oversaw the detailed planning and completion of both Fleet Marine Force Atlantic Operation Plan 100-60 and II MEF Operations Plan 312-61. Burger’s blueprint for keeping 25,000 Marines ready involved quarterly brigade-size amphibious assault exercises on Puerto Rico’s Vieques Island with several smaller exercises taking place at Camp Lejeune in between. Doing this kept one third of his units assigned to II Marine Expeditionary Force Operations Plan 312-61 embarked and within a few hours transit time from Cuba.

In the event that President Kennedy ordered an invasion, the II Marine Expeditionary Force owned four major tactical tasks; one within each of OPLAN 314-61’s four phases. In Phase I (Counter the Threat to Guantanamo and Prepare for Offensive Operations) LtGen Burger was responsible for defending the naval station. To do this, the battalion afloat in the Caribbean would land and im­me­diately take up positions the length of the demarcation line sep­arating the naval station from sov­ereign Cuba. Burger would then fly 2nd Marine Division’s “ready” battalion and a reg­imental head­quarters directly to Guan­tanamo Bay where it would absorb an armor pla­toon, an engineer detachment, and an artillery battery de­ployed from Camp Lejeune as augments to the naval sta­tion’s permanent Ma­rine Barracks.

With the 2nd Marine Divi­sion (minus those defending the naval station) and 2nd Marine Air Wing’s helicopter squad­rons embarked on am­phib­ious ships at Little Creek Amphib­ious Base near Norfolk, Va., and anchored off Camp Lejeune, N.C., the II MEF deployed to the Carib­bean for Phase II (Position for Operations).

Cuba area of operations. (Map designed by Steve Walkowiak)

Once off Cuba, two heli­copter squadrons had to re­locate to Guantanamo Bay to support 2nd Marine Division elements there. Meanwhile, Marine fixed-wing squadrons tran­sitioned to either aircraft carriers or to the Naval Air Station Key West, Fla., and the Naval Air Station Roosevelt Roads in Puerto Rico.

On the order to invade, 2nd Marine Air Wing’s fixed wing squadrons would strike Soviet and Cuban air defense systems and ground forces in and around Havana and near Guantanamo. As a counter to Cuban and Soviet infantry, armor, and mechanized formations defending Havana, planners tasked the Army’s 1st and 2nd Infantry Divisions and the 1st Armored Division with landing 10 miles east at Tarara and sweeping southwest and then north into the capital. For this to happen, 2nd Marine Division, in Phase III (Assault Havana Area) and “in coordination with airborne and surface-landing of Army forces,” had to establish a beachhead at Tarara. The division’s two infantry regiments reinforced with engineers and armor and supported by an artillery regiment would then attack west to seize the Morro Castle and the Port of Havana.

During Phase IV (Assault Guantanamo Area) operations, the II Marine Force re-embarked amphibious ships for “assault landing operations” in conjunction with 2nd Marine Division elements attacking west from the Guantanamo Bay. A consolidated II MEF would then attack toward central Cuba and link up with the Army’s XVIII Airborne Corps and the 1st Armored Division. Planners assessed that major combat operations would take 60 to 90 days to complete.

President Kennedy and the Joint Chiefs grappled over invading Cuba. The Joint Chiefs’ perspective was that in addition to Castro’s growing military capability and ongoing Soviet military buildup, the failed CIA-sponsored invasion exposed gaps in Cuba’s defenses such that if an invasion were to happen, it should be sooner rather than later. Surprisingly, Gen Shoup disagreed. In his novel “The Best and Brightest,” journalist David Halberstam recalled how Shoup’s primary concern was the size of the invasion force needed to control the island and American casualties. To elaborate, Shoup placed a map of the U.S. on an overhead projector and covered it with a transparent map of Cuba. Drawing attention to Cuba’s vastly smaller size in relation to the U.S., he covered the two maps with a transparency containing a small red dot. When asked what the red dot represented, Shoup explained it was the size of Tarawa before adding, “It took us three days and 18,000 Marines to take it.” Whether or not Shoup influenced Kennedy’s decision is unknown. Talk of an invasion, however, subsided. By the summer of 1962, the U.S. and Soviet Union were once again on the brink of war.

Editor’s note: Read Part II of “U.S. Marines, Cuba, and the Invasion that Never Was,” in the October issue of Leatherneck.

Author’s bio: Dr. Nevgloski is the former director of the Marine Corps History Division. Before becoming the Marine Corps’ history chief in 2019, he was the History Division’s Edwin N. McClellan Research Fellow from 2017 to 2019, and a U.S. Marine from 1989 to 2017.

“We Came in Peace”

Beirut Marines Find a Voice in Forthcoming Documentary Film

By Sara W. Bock
When Greg Wah shops for Marine Corps-related souvenirs or mementos, he never seems to have any trouble finding items specific to those who served in World War II, Viet­nam, Iraq, or Afghanistan. But con­spicuous­ly absent from the typical lineup of offerings, he says, is a part of the Corps’ history that many seem to have forgotten, but he can’t go a day without remembering: Beirut, Lebanon.

The veteran Marine recalls having just celebrated his 18th birthday—“I was still wet behind the ears,” he quips—when the 24th Marine Amphibious Unit (MAU), with Battalion Landing Team (BLT) 1st Battal­ion, 8th Marine Regiment as its landing force, was ordered to replace the 22nd MAU in war-torn Lebanon after the April 1983 bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Beirut. As the year went on, complex and long-festering hostilities among warring factions and militias led to an influx of small arms, rocket and mortar fire spe­cifically targeting the Marines, who as members of a multinational peacekeeping force were not permitted to adequately defend themselves. America may not have officially been at war, but the reality on the ground told a vastly different story. According to a 2003 article in DAV Magazine, by Oct. 22, the eve of one of the most tragic events in Marine Corps history, seven Marines had already been killed and 64 wounded by enemy fire.

Wah, who says that only in recent years has he begun to process the trauma he experienced in Beirut, is not alone in his sentiments when he expresses frustration about the manner in which the entire mission was handled. In his words, “the whole thing has been swept under the rug.”

Director and filmmaker Michael Ivey, left, interviews retired Marine MajGen James Lariviere about his experiences as a young first lieutenant in Beirut, where he served as a reconnaissance platoon commander with 3rd Bn, 8th Marines. Scheduled for release in October 2023, “We Came in Peace” allows those who were there to tell the “boots-on-the-ground truth.”

Still in production, “We Came in Peace” is expected to premiere next year on the 40th anniversary of the Oct. 23, 1983, suicide bombing that decimated the four-story reinforced concrete BLT 1/8 head­quarters building in Beirut and killed 241 Americans—220 of them U.S. Marines. The date would go down in history as the Corps’ deadliest since the Battle of Iwo Jima in 1945.

The film is a labor of love for Ivey, as well as for Elisa Camara, one of its pro­ducers, who at just 17 years old received the news that her beloved older brother, Sergeant Mecot Camara, USMC, was among those killed in the devastating blast. After she wrote the 2013 book, “American Brother,” in which she told the heartfelt story of Mecot’s upbringing in rural West Virginia, his service in the Marine Corps, and his tragic death, Camara began attending the annual Beirut Memorial Observance Ceremony at Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, N.C., held each October, and became closely acquainted with many of the Marines who had served along­side him. There, she found herself part of a “family” bonded by tragedy.

“They were just so embracing of my heartache, and they have their own heartache too,” Camara said with emotion in her voice. “They said, ‘You lost your brother, but you gained a platoon of brothers who will always be there for you.’ ” It came as no surprise, then, that when Dan Brown, who served in Beirut, approached Camara after a 2019 Memorial Day gathering of Beirut Marines and family members in Washington, D.C., and asked for help, she was de­ter­mined not to let him down. His request was straightforward: “Can you help us tell our story, so we’re not forgotten?”

Marine veteran Greg Wah, who served with Co A, 1/8, 24th MAU, is one of the Beirut Marines who shared his story during the production of “We Came in Peace.” (Photo courtesy of Michael Ivey)

That conversation was the impetus for “We Came in Peace,” but it certainly didn’t happen overnight. Camara had pre­viously thought about trying to get a documentary made about the Beirut Marines, but she had no idea where to begin. And then there was the issue of funding. When she’d in­quired with a Los Angeles-based producer, the cost—$500,000 up front—was insurmountable. As fate would have it, a mutual friend connected Camara with Ivey, who also is a West Virginia native and was already familiar with Mecot’s story. A member of the Director’s Guild of America and former com­mentator on National Pub­lic Radio’s long running “All Things Considered,” Ivey had recently made a commitment to creating what he refers to as “work that matters,” when the story of the Beirut Marines fell into his lap.

“I feel like the angels are behind this one, and it all starts with Elisa and her brother,” said Ivey, adding that he con­siders it an honor and a privilege to lev­erage his experience as a storyteller to make the film the Beirut Marines and their families deserve.


Mecot Camara’s sister, Elisa Camara, speaks to attendees at the 31st annual Beirut Memorial Observance Ceremony in Jacksonville, N.C., Oct. 23, 2014. Her conversation with a Beirut survivor was the impetus for “We Came in Peace.”

Lacking the funding to get the project started, Camara first set out to create a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, the American Brother Foundation, that both honors Mecot Camara’s life and funds the production of the film. Up to this point, “We Came in Peace” has been made possible solely through private donations. Ivey has avoided soliciting completion money from networks, who generally exert a heavy influence over the production process, because he’s determined to keep his promise to let the Marines tell the story themselves. Instead, as donations have trickled in, Ivey has traveled around the country to conduct on-camera interviews, the first of which took place in February 2021. As of late July, he’s collected the stories of 45 different individuals, including General Alfred M. Gray, USMC (Ret), who served as the commanding general of 2nd Marine Division at the time of the Beirut bombing and later as the 29th Commandant of the Marine Corps; retired Colonel Timothy J. Geraghty, who commanded the 24th MAU and the U.S. Multinational Peacekeeping Force; and Lieutenant Colonel Larry Gerlach, the commanding officer of BLT 1/8 who survived the bombing of the headquarters.

For Greg Wah, sharing his story on camera brought back a barrage of mem­ories he had long suppressed.

“I think this documentary is going to bring a lot of healing because a lot of the Marines have done the same thing that I have done,” said Wah, who was shot in the leg on his very last day in Beirut, Nov. 7, 1983, just two weeks after the bombing. “When I got out of the Corps, I didn’t talk to anybody about my experience, not even with my own family […] It was bottled—put in a bottle never to be opened.”

Retired Gunnery Sergeant Danny Joy, a friend of Mecot Camara’s who served with Weapons Company, 1/8, is thankful that he and his fellow Beirut veterans finally have been given an opportunity to tell their story. “No one has ever asked us,” he said with a tinge of sadness in his voice. But while he’s appreciative, that doesn’t mean it’s an easy topic for him to talk about, especially around the anniversary of the bombing each year.

“Every year it comes around and it’s like picking a scab off this wound, and now I’m opening the wound up again. It’s emotional, and really, it’s tough,” said Joy, who describes the survivor’s guilt he and others who made it home continue to struggle with decades later. “There’s certain things you saw that you can’t ever unsee.”


Retired Marine GySgt Danny Joy, who was a corporal serving in Dragon Plt, Weapons Co, 1/8 in Beirut, is one of the 45 individuals who have been interviewed for the documentary thus far. (Photo courtesy of Michael Ivey)

The film, which has received the en­dorse­ment of the fraternal organization Beirut Veterans of America, is devoid of the narration and reenactments that are common within the documentary genre. With neither scripted voiceovers nor actors, both Camara and Ivey insist that the film lives up to its claim of telling the “boots-on-the-ground truth” as told by those who were there.

“We’re not doing some revisionist piece,” Ivey said emphatically.

Camara considers those who have participated by sharing their stories to be collaborators in the project, and notes that the major contributors to the funding of the film thus far have been Beirut veterans themselves.

“It’s deeply personal to everyone in­volved, […] and it’s not an easy story to share,” said Camara. “We want to share it for history, but we also want to share it to honor the ones that didn’t come home, and the ones that live with it every day.”

For Camara, a highlight of the entire experience came when she had the opportunity to accompany Ivey to the home of Gen Gray to film his on-camera interview.

“He [Gen Gray] was wonderful, and the last thing I said before we went out was, ‘I can assure you that this will be done with grace and dignity or we will not do it at all, Sir. I can promise you that,’ ” she recounted. “And he looked at me and he pointed his finger at me and said, ‘I am holding you to that, young lady!’ ”

It’s a commitment she takes seriously. So much so, that last October, in concur­rence with the annual observance cere­mony in Camp Lejeune, they held a private screening of the six-minute trailer and asked for feedback and suggestions from the Marines and Gold Star family members in attendance.

The trailer, which can be viewed on the documentary’s website, is a high-quality sample of the hours of interviews Ivey has conducted to date, featuring honest, raw and emotional accounts that invite the viewer to think critically about an important and often-overlooked moment in America’s history.

“It’s time, especially with what’s going on in the world right now,” Camara said. It’s her hope that future generations of Americans will not only know what happened in Beirut, but also will learn valuable lessons that may help prevent history from repeating itself.

There are still Beirut Marines left to interview for the film, and Ivey also aims to secure funding that will allow him to interview diplomats, journalists, and other international peacekeepers—namely, Italians and French—who also supported the multinational effort. The film also will detail the concurrent suicide bombing of the French Paratrooper Detachment in Beirut on Oct. 23, which killed 58 French servicemembers. He hopes that adding additional perspectives will “broaden the circle” and provide an even greater context for viewers to consider.

For retired Marine Gunnery Sergeant Don Inns, a Beirut veteran who served with Mecot Camara in “Charlie” Co, BLT 1/8, the recent loss of three members of his old platoon in a span of only five weeks served as a reminder of the importance of telling this story sooner rather than later.

“Sadly, they took their stories to the grave nearly four decades after Beirut,” said Inns. “This documentary is our last best hope of illuminating the cause and cost of our country’s entanglement in Lebanon […] Supporting it is the least we can do in remembrance of those that sacrificed the most. It is also the best investment we can make for future generations of Marines, as what’s past is prologue.”

According to Camara, the film will be pitched to Netflix and other streaming platforms, and premieres are anticipated to take place in October 2023 both at Camp Lejeune and in West Virginia. It’s Ivey’s hope that their efforts will help shed light on what really happened in Beirut nearly 40 years ago. “Maybe we can do something to make it right, learn the lessons, recognize the people that were there, recognize that it was an undeclared war, and it can effect positive change,” Ivey said. But most of all, he emphasizes, he’s doing it for those who served and sacrificed there. “They live with this every single day,” he added.

According to Camara, the film will be pitched to Netflix and other streaming platforms, and premieres are anticipated to take place in October 2023 both at Camp Lejeune and in West Virginia.

It’s Ivey’s hope that their efforts will help shed light on what really happened in Beirut nearly 40 years ago.

“Maybe we can do something to make it right, learn the lessons, recognize the people that were there, recognize that it was an undeclared war, and it can effect positive change,” Ivey said. But most of all, he emphasizes, he’s doing it for those who served and sacrificed there. “They live with this every single day,” he added.

Grenada, 1983 Operation Urgent Fury

By Capt Michael A. Hanson, USMC

Two CH-46 Sea Knight helicopters are parked aboard the amphibious assault ship USS Guam (LPH-9) during Operation Urgent Fury in October 1983.

The 133-square-mile island of Grenada became embroiled in tur­moil just five years after gaining independence from Great Britain. In 1979, Maurice Bishop and the Joint Endeavor for Welfare, Education, and Liberation, seized power in a coup following the un­popular rule of Prime Minister Sir Eric Gairy. The new order sidelined the island’s representative to the British Monarchy, Governor-General Sir Paul Scoon, while diminishing Grenada’s democratic foun­da­tions and exchanging them with Marxist institutions. Bishop cracked down on critical forms of media, canceled elections and annulled the constitution, thus solidi­fy­ing his role as dictator. The United States became alarmed as he increasingly steered Grenada toward alignment with the Communist Bloc by signing arms and trade deals with the Soviet Union and other communist countries.

Despite its veneer, Bishop’s regime was marred by a power struggle that resulted in a coup against him by hardliners in the Grenadian Communist Central Commit­tee. On Oct. 12, 1983, Bishop was put under house arrest by Bernard Coard, his deputy prime minister. Bishop’s confine­ment was short-lived, however, and after only a week he was freed by a crowd of 3,000 supporters. With his cohorts, he marched on Grenadian army headquarters at Fort Rupert to reassert his authority. Armored personnel carriers and troops under General Hudson Austin, the com­mander in chief of the Grenadian Armed Forces, opened fire on the crowd, killing around 40 people and he took Bishop prisoner once again. Rather than detain him, the troops executed Bishop along with other civic leaders who remained loyal to him.

Jason Monroe

In response to the failed counter-coup, General Austin abolished the government and assumed authority of the country as head of a Revolutionary Military Council. With the Iranian hostage crisis fresh in their minds, senior American officials worried about the welfare of American citizens in Grenada, specifically, 600 American students at St. George’s School of Medicine.

On Oct. 17, the United States’ Re­gion­al Interagency Group (RIG) of the National Security Council (NSC) requested the military begin planning to evacuate the American citizens from Grenada. The RIG met again on Oct. 19 and recognizing the threat of several hundred armed Cubans on Grenada, recommended to the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) to plan for a worst-case situation—an evacuation against armed resistance from Grenadian and Cuban military forces. Later that night the JCS ordered planners to “sub­mit alternative courses of action for a three- to five-day noncom­batant evacuation operation to include one or more of the following options: seizure of evacuation points, show of force, combat operations to defend the evacuation, and post evacuation peace­keeping.” As plans began to be devised, forces began to be allocated for the operation.

Marines patrol in the town of Grenville on the island of Grenada during Operation Urgent Fury.

Late on the night of Oct. 20, the 22nd Marine Amphibious Unit (MAU) consist­ing of 2nd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment (2/8), Marine Medium Helicopter Squad­ron (HMM) 261, and MAU Service Sup­port Group 22 embarked aboard the ships USS Guam (LPH-9), USS Trenton (LPH-14), USS Fort Snelling (LSD-30), USS Manitowoc (LST-1180), and USS Barn­stable County (LST-1197) received orders to change course and head for the Carib­bean Sea. The 22nd MAU had deployed from Morehead City, N.C. only two days before for a peacekeeping mission in Beirut, Lebanon. At 10 p.m. on Oct. 22, the MAU was ordered to make for Grenada. In addition, the USS Independence Battle Group, also on its way to the Mediterranean, changed course as well. Twenty-one American warships carrying 2,000 Marines steamed toward Grenada.

American intelligence agencies esti­mated 1,500 Grenadian People’s Rev­olution­ary Army (PRA) soldiers, 3,000 Grenadian militia, 400 police, as well as several hundred Cuban troops to be on the island. Though this was primarily a light infantry force, it did possess six BTR-60 armored personnel carriers, four ZU-23 23 mm antiaircraft guns, and several 12.7 mm anti-aircraft guns with well-trained crewmen. Intelligence analysts concluded these forces were capable of offering stiff defense on the small island.

Point Salines Airport during the multiservice, multinational Operation Urgent Fury.

These estimates necessitated changes to the operational plan. “Given the un­certain­ty, the JCS determined that a military operation should be a coup de main … a surprise attack with overwhelm­ing force. While catching the enemy off guard, such an operation could perform rescue missions and seize key military targets vital to the enemy’s command and control of defensive operations.” However, the forces organic to the MAU would not be enough to conduct an operation of this scope alone and the operation was ex­panded to include rapidly deployable forces from the U.S. Army. Special Operations Forces, 22nd MAU, and two Army Ranger battalions would form the forces used to seize key terrain and evacuate the Ameri­can citizens while elements of the 82nd Airborne Division arrived immediately in transport aircraft to assume control of the island and conduct peace-keeping operations.

As the 22nd MAU approached Grenada, its Marines devised plans for the non­combatant evacuation operation. The Marines were tasked to take Pearls Air­port and its nearby town of Grenville up north. Oct. 25 was designated D-day and H-hour was set for 5 a.m., little more than 24 hours away.

Marines aboard a CH-46 Sea Knight heli­copter during Operation Urgent Fury in October 1983.


Marines examine equipment inside an abandoned building during Operation Urgent Fury on the island of Grenada in October 1983.

The Marines planned to land at dawn in a simultaneous operation using heli­copters and amphibious vehicles. Hours before the assault was to begin, Navy SEALs performed reconnaissance of the beaches near the airport. Judging the surf conditions, the SEALs reported that, “amphibious tractors might land with great difficulty and other landing craft not at all.” In fact, the seas were so rough that a SEAL team was lost at sea. The amphibious assault was postponed, and landing plans adapted for an assault on Pearls Airport and Grenville by two rifle companies flown in by helicopter.

Shortly before sunrise on Oct. 25, 1983, Marines landed on Grenada. CH-46 Sea Knight transports, escorted by AH-1 Cobra attack helicopters, achieved surprise. The initial wave landed unopposed as the men of Company E, 2/8 quickly secured their landing zone and prepared to move onto their objective, Pearls Airport. Two Grenadian 12.7 mm antiaircraft guns located in the hills above the landing zone fired on a successive wave of helicopters but were immediately dispensed with by 20 mm canon fire and 2.75-inch rockets of the AH-1 escorts. By 7:30 a.m. Pearls Airport was under the control of Company E after a quick engagement between the Marines and Grenadians guarding the airstrip. The Grenadians fired on the Ma­rines breaking through a chain link fence and bolted as soon as the Marines returned fire. Shortly afterwards, the Marines captured two 12.7 mm antiaircraft guns and a weapons cache in the hills nearby. The Grenadians manning the position did not resist; instead, they ran off into the countryside.

Immediately after inserting Company E, the helicopters returned to USS Guam to bring in Company F for the seizure of Grenville. Company F landed unopposed and by 6:30 a.m., secured Grenville. The Marines received a hearty welcome from the Grenadian people, who, “Far from regarding them as invaders, welcomed them as liberators from the rule of Hudson’s military council, which many Grenadians were describing as a gang of criminals and thugs.” Citizens assisted the Marines in identifying Grenadian troops that had shed their uniforms and sought to blend into the civilian popula­tion. They took the Marines to weapons caches and provided intelligence.

A Marine CH-46 Sea Knight helicopter from HMM-261 “Raging Bulls” was shot down by antiaircraft fire on Oct. 25, 1983, during Operation Urgent Fury.

Meanwhile, events had not gone accord­ing to plan on the southern part of the island. Delays caused the Rangers to para­chute onto Salines Airport in broad day­light under significant groundfire from Grenadian antiaircraft units. The Rangers landed, scattered, and took casualties from Cubans defending the airfield. How­ever, the two Ranger companies overcame this resistance and accomplished their mission of seizing the airport, capturing 250 Cubans and enabling two battalions from the 82nd Airborne to land within 30 minutes. Furthermore, within just a few hours, the Rangers evacuated 138 Ameri­can students from St. George’s University Medical School’s True Blue campus which was close to the airport. Unfortunately, the Rangers learned that more than 200 Americans were at a school annex in Grand Anse.

Marines aboard an LVTP 7 tracked landing vehicle after arriving near the town of Saint Georges, Grenada, during Operation Urgent Fury.

As the Rangers fought for control of the Salines area, Marine AH-1 Cobras were dispatched to provide close air sup­port to them. Under direction from Army forward air controllers, the gunships en­gaged Grenadian forces inside Fort Fredrick. After four attack runs, one gun­ship, manned by Captain Timothy Howard and his copilot/gunner Captain Jeb Seagle, were shot down by antiaircraft fire. Both crewmen survived the crash, although Capt Howard was seriously wounded. As Grenadian troops closed on the downed Marine pilots, the other gunship strafed them with 20 mm canon fire and 2.75-inch rockets. This suppressed the Grenadian troops long enough for a Marine CH-46 to land and rescue Capt Howard, although Capt Seagle was killed by the Grenadian troops. Capt Seagle later was awarded the Navy Cross, posthumously. As the CH-46 lifted off with the wounded pilot aboard, the remaining gunship was shot down and crashed into the sea, killing both Major John “Pat” Guigerre and First Lieutenant Jeff Sharver who would each be awarded the Silver Star posthumously.

Despite these losses, Marine air sup­port to the Rangers continued. When the Rangers ascertained the location of the remaining 200 American students at Grand Anse Beach, HMM-261 assisted in their rescue and evacuation. Marine helicopters carrying Rangers landed under fire on the beach while artillery, mortars, and fires from American aircraft rained down on Cuban and Grenadian positions. The Rangers secured the annex and began the evacuation of the students to the waiting Marine helicopters under fire, rescuing 224 American students without any casualties.

An aerial view of Fort Frederick showing damage sustained during Operation Urgent Fury in October 1983.

While the Marines experienced only sporadic resistance up north, St. George’s and Point Salines proved to be where the majority of the defenders were deployed. Navy SEALs encountered heavy resist­ance in St. Georges as well while attempt­ing to rescue Governor-General Scoon, who had been placed under house arrest by Grenadian forces. They managed to reach the residence and even wrest the Governor-General from his captors, but soon the mansion was besieged by Grenadian forces with heavy machine guns and armored personnel carriers. The SEALs held out, but it was unclear how long they could last.

Cubans who were captured on Grenada during Operation Urgent Fury.

Company G, 2/8, still aboard ships after their amphibious landing near Grenville had been postponed, received a new mission: land at Grand Mal Bay and lift the siege of the SEALs at the Governor-General’s mansion. The amphibious as­sault vehicles came ashore in the dark, establishing a beachhead by 7 p.m. Navy landing craft brought in tanks, jeeps, heavy weapons, and other equipment as Marines and Sailors worked through the night to consolidate their foothold ashore. HMM-261 brought Company F in from Grenville before dawn as well. The two companies of Marines, led by tanks and amphibious assault vehicles, pushed toward St. George’s as the sun rose meeting minor resistance from rocket propelled grenade fire. When the Marines captured a Grenadian officer, he told them that his men had fled upon hearing the sound of the oncoming Marine tanks in the dark.

The Marines pressed on toward the Governor-General’s mansion where they successfully relieved the SEALs, Mr. Scoon, and his family. The Marines then turned their attention to Fort Frederick, taking it without a fight. In addition to many abandoned weapons, the Marines found discarded uniforms lying about the place. They also discovered valuable intelligence documents describing defending forces on the island. A Grenadian major they captured explained that Grenadian forces, “did not expect a combined helicopter and surface assault at night and did not expect an attack of any sort north of St. George’s.” Furthermore, “This combined night assault was a psychological shock to the PRA, whereby the few remaining senior officers present opted and agreed to pass the word to lay down their arms and return home.” Within 72 hours of the invasion, the mission reached a turning point. Resistance on Grenada could be characterized as fleeting engagements as American forces consolidated their positions and shifted into stability op­erations. However, the Marines did en­counter some friction.

With three companies spread across the island and unit sectors continuing to expand, the 22nd MAU needed more Ma­rines on the ground. The battalion landing team’s organic artillery battery was sent ashore as a provisional infantry company. The artillerymen contributed immensely to operations ashore by re­lieving two in­fantry companies tied down in St. George’s. Furthermore, this provisional infantry company captured important members of the Grenadian regime in hiding, spe­cifically Deputy Prime Minister Bernard Coard. These former officials were identified with the help of Grenadian locals that did not want them to return to power.

Since D-day, paratroopers of the 82nd Airborne Division continued to arrive and occupy battlespace, growing to 6,140 men on the island. The main island of Grenada was secure, but the attention of the expe­ditionary force shifted to the nearby island of Carriacou. Intelligence efforts noted a Grenadian military head­quarters there and gathered reports that some Grenadian forces had fled to Carriacou, where they remained armed. Therefore, the amphib­ious task force received a follow-on mis­sion to seize Carriacou in a “combined surface and air landing.”

Marine forces on Grenada were relieved by paratroopers of the 82nd Airborne Division and immediately turned to their next mission. The Marines and all of their gear returned to their ships by 8 p.m. on Oct. 31, and prepared for the next landing, scheduled to occur in less than 10 hours. Company F touched down in helicopters at 5:30 a.m. while Company G went ashore in assault amphibians. Carriacou was taken without a shot fired, and the locals welcomed the Marines once again.

The seizure of Grenada was achieved in just over one week. During the course of Operation Urgent Fury, the U.S. mil­itary suffered 19 killed and 89 wounded in action. The Army took the brunt of the casualties with 12 dead and 71 wounded. The Marines lost three killed and 15 wounded while the Navy had four dead and three wounded. Grenadian losses were 45 killed and 377 wounded, including civilians. Cuban forces on the island suffered 24 killed, 29 wounded, and 600 captured. American objectives were achieved with the successful evacuation of 599 American citizens, none killed or injured. Free elections were held in Grenada on Dec. 19, 1983, four days after the last American troops left.

American students sit inside an airport terminal waiting to be evacuated by U.S. military personnel during Operation Urgent Fury.

Author’s bio: Capt Hanson is Wpns Co commander of 3rd Bn, 4th Marines at Twentynine Palms, Calif. He is a con­tributing editor of The Connecting File, an online news­letter dedicated to infantry tactics, tech­niques, procedures and leadership.

Atomic Leathernecks

Nuclear Rocket Artillery in the Cold War


By Jonathan Bernstein

When atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, they effectively ended World War II and ushered in a new era of warfare, but while the United States stood alone as a nuclear power for the first four years after the war, the Soviets detonated their own atomic bomb in 1949. From that point onward, the use of and defense against atomic weapons stood front and center of all U.S. military strategic planning.

For the Marine Corps, the ominous shadow of atomic warfare meant a reimagining of amphibious warfare. How were Marines supposed to come ashore and fight when a single atomic weapon had the potential to destroy an entire assault force before it even reached the beach? How would they counter potential nuclear-armed adversaries once ashore?

In a time of shrinking budgets and shrinking forces, the com­ing of the Atomic Age potentially threatened the very existence of the Marine Corps. The Marines lost 85 percent of total end strength between 1945 and 1950, dropping from a zenith of 474,680 Marines in 1946, to 155,679 the following year and ultimately down to a mere 74,279 by 1950. Ever living up to the adage of “adapt, improvise and overcome,” the Marine Corps had to reimagine how amphibious operations would be conducted in the Atomic Age in order to remain relevant. The National Defense Act of 1947 codified the Marine Corps’ role in protecting the nation into law and ensured its continued existence. From that point, the mission was no longer survival, but achieving and maintaining the cutting edge of American combat power in the postwar era.

The next war came sooner than many expected, and by the end of June 1950, U.S. forces were engaged in combat op­erations against North Korea. After setbacks and retreats through July and August 1950, the first amphibious assault to incorporate the lessons learned from the Bikini Atoll atomic tests landed the 1st Marine Division at Inchon on Sept. 15. Speed, dispersal, timing and surprise were key in getting the Marines ashore, with the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines landing at 6:30 a.m. and securing the approaches to Inchon, enabling the rest of the Division to land later that afternoon.

The Inchon landings showed that while the primary atomic threat to a landing force was still from an air delivered weapon and that air superiority was critical for the ground force to maintain freedom of movement, the potential of tactical nuclear weapons employment lay just over the horizon. By December of that year, the Army’s missile research and development programs kicked into overdrive with one of several goals being the production of a surface-to-surface tactical nuclear weapon to enable American ground forces to attack and destroy potential origin points of an enemy tactical atomic attack.

Development of tactical nuclear weapons took a two-pronged ap­proach, focusing on rocket and gun systems as the delivery method. War in Korea had increased the potential for nuclear conflict, and if there was a chance of a third world war, the Department of Defense wanted to be prepared to fight on the atomic battlefield. As a result, both the gun and rocket systems were given emer­gency priority with prototypes planned for delivery by mid-1951.

The platoon’s 5-ton wrecker also served as the prime mover for the reload rocket. This allowed the wrecker crew to quickly hoist the second rocket onto the launcher for rapid reloading.

Nearly from its inception, the rocket program was intended to result in a mobile, flexible system that would allow for a quick “shoot and scoot” capability; a weapon that would fit in well with an amphibious assault force. Coming ashore via LCU or LST, the launcher and support equipment could quickly be landed, driven to a feasible launch site, and emplaced. The launcher was based on the M139C 5-ton truck, which had the load carrying and off-road capability needed to properly employ the rocket. It was standardized in 1953 as the M289 transporter/launcher.

The Douglas Aircraft Company completed the first five XM31 prototype rockets, nicknamed “Honest John,” by May 1951 and the test program began at the end of June, with the first launch on May 29. The program progressed steadily with modifications and improvements to the rocket and launcher over the subsequent two years. In addition to rocket modifications, the program also developed blast and fragmentation high explosive (HE) warheads, and a chemical/biological capable warhead as well.

While the atomic tests at Bikini Atoll in 1946 made it clear that a nuclear weapon employed against an amphibious assault force had catastrophic potential, the Corps quickly began looking at how to change its doctrine in order to adapt to the new status quo. Its first doctrinal push to acknowledge nuclear weapons was Landing Forces Bulletin (LFB) 2, issued on Feb. 20, 1953, titled “Interim Doctrine for the Conduct of Tactical Atomic Warfare.”

However, it was the 1955 revision of LFB-2 that laid out the framework for Marine Corps atomic doctrine by stating that the Marine Corps would be “tailored to conduct operations against an enemy employing atomic munitions” and would furthermore be “organized, trained and equipped to employ atomic munitions in amphibious or other operations,” with “control of the employment of atomic munitions … decentralized at the lowest echelon possible.”

This doctrinal update coincided with the arrival of the Marine Corps’ six M289 launchers and associated equipment and the standing up of the 1st Heavy Artillery Rocket Battery (HARB), FMF at Camp Lejeune. The six launchers had been appropriated for in October 1954 as part of the Army’s first follow-up purchase after the initial production run. The first Marine M289 launcher arrived in June 1955, with the balance of launchers, rockets and equipment arriving in August. The Fleet Marine Force was almost nuclear capable.

From LFB-2, it was clear that the Marine Corps intended to conduct amphibious landings and fight within a battlefield that had already been heavily prepped by atomic munitions. “An intensive atomic preparation of the objective area will be conducted immediately prior to the assault” pulls no punches as to the environment that the Marines were supposed to fight and survive within. Coming ashore with additional atomic weapons would ensure that enemy forces outside the prepared area and several miles inland could not serve as rally points for enemy reinforcements or survivors from the initial atomic preparation.

The Heavy Artillery Rocket Battery was designed to maximize its effectiveness under this doctrine. The battery was further subdivided into two platoons of two launchers and the requisite support equipment to maintain both as mission capable. The 1st HARB moved to Coronado, Calif., later in the year, and by mid-May had conducted a series of tests to identify minimum operational loads for both LCU and LST-class landing craft. They also determined the proper dispersal to ensure the survivability of at least one firing unit within an assault force. The dispersal between those firing units effectively relegated the final decision for the use of atomic weapons to the section chief, an E-6, per guidance from LFB-2.Image

Although it was supposed to fit aboard an LST, the overhead in the ship’s well deck prohibited the launcher vehicle from carrying a rocket. In fact, the launcher rail frame required modification for just the vehicle to fit with enough clearance.

The intent of the May loading exercise was to determine whether a complete firing unit could be brought ashore by a single landing craft. Loading plans were quickly worked out and a configuration for a complete firing unit was standardized for each type of craft to rapidly facilitate combat offloading. Although there were some issues with the overhead in pre-LST-1156 class that required support from higher echelon ordnance teams, the 1st HARB determined that both the LCU and the LST would allow for a complete firing unit aboard.

Once declared operational, the 1st HARB was assigned to the Field Artillery Group, under Colonel M.J. Hooper at Twentynine Palms, Calif., conducting their first field exercise as part of the Group in February 1958, using the XM4 flash/smoke practice rocket for live fire training.

The battery deployed to Okinawa in 1960 for an 18-month tour of duty, joining U.S. Army Honest John units already there. Okinawa was and continues to be critical to the U.S. presence in Asia and served as a significant “special weapons” logistics center for all of the services through 1972. Were tensions to boil over in South Vietnam or with China, the 1st HARB was prepared to jump off from Okinawa to wherever necessary.

The 1st HARB was finally disbanded in 1965 after the decision was made not to upgrade to the M50 improved Honest John rocket. While the principles behind the doctrine of medium range, medium yield atomic weapons were sound in theory, the practical survivability concerns became all too apparent. As the Cold War dragged on, newer, more efficient methods of nuclear weapons delivery ensured that the Marines would be able to continue with their historic mission of assault from the sea, while no longer needing to maintain an atomic force to hold the door open once they were secure on land.

The Honest John rocket and launcher failed to reach initial operational capability during the Korean War, but the concerns of a wider war spurred its development and gave the Marine Corps a tactical nuclear platform with which to defend an amphibious landing force from atomic attack. This nuclear amphibious landing capability, however small within the Corps, allowed for a far more capable Fleet Marine Force in the decade between 1955 and 1965. Aerial and artillery tube-delivered nuclear weapons outpaced the Marines’ need for a surface-to-surface rocket propelled nuclear deterrent, but allowed the Marine Corps to remain a relevant and significant nuclear deterrent force in its own right throughout the remainder of the Cold War.
Author’s bio: Jonathan Bernstein is the Arms and Armor Curator for the National Museum of the Marine Corps. Previously he was the Director/Curator of the Air Defense Artillery Museum. Bernstein began his museum career in 1991 at the USS Intrepid Sea Air & Space Museum and has served in a number of museum roles since then. He was an Army aviation officer, flying AH-64A and D Apache attack helicopters with the 1-104th Attack Reconnaissance Battalion, PA NG from 2006-2012. He has also published a number of books and articles on military and aviation history.Image

Members of the launcher crew lower the launch rail to ensure overhead clearance aboard an LST.