The Visionaries

By Lieutenant Colonel Ronald J. Brown

U.S. Marine Corps Reserve, Retired

The wake of the World War II, with its ominous specter of nuclear weapons, forced the Marine Corps to rethink existing amphibious doctrine. The conclusion was that previous methods of ship-to-shore movement were no longer sufficient to ensure a successful landing so alternative methods had to be developed. Several options looked promising, but the only one that stood the test of time and combat was vertical envelopment—the use of helicopters to move troops and supplies.

In 1946, Commandant Alexander A. Vandegrift—at the urging of Lieutenant General Roy S. Geiger, the “Gray Eagle” of Marine aviation who had just witnessed post-war nuclear tests—formed a special board culled from Marine Corps headquarters to study existing tactics and equipment then make recommendations for restructuring the Fleet Marine Force. Assistant Commandant Lemuel C. Shepherd, Jr., a graduate of Virginia Military Institute, who was arguably the Marines’ most innovative division commander in the Pacific, headed the board. Shepherd was an excellent choice because he was both a traditionalist and a visionary who would later become Commandant. Other members of the board included Major General Field Harris, the director of Marine aviation, and Brigadier General Oliver P. Smith, the head of plans and operations division. All three men would be reunited in Korea in 1950 where they would put into practice the revolutionary doctrines they set in motion; Shepherd as the commanding general of Fleet Marine Force, Pacific, Harris as commanding general of the 1st Marine Aircraft Wing, and Smith as commanding general of the 1st Marine Division. Two colonels assigned to the board secretariat were particularly influential, Edward C. Dyer and Merrill B. Twining. Dyer, a Naval Academy graduate and decorated combat pilot, was master of all things aeronautical while Merrill Twining, a highly regarded staff officer, handled operational theory. Neither a formal member of the board nor its secretariat but keeping close tabs on what transpired was Brigadier General Gerald C. Thomas, Vandegrift’s trusted chief of staff. Dyer eventually commanded the first Marine helicopter squadron and Thomas replaced Smith as 1st Marine Division commander in Korea.

Doctrinal development for vertical assault was done at Marine Corps Schools located at Quantico, Virginia. First, a board headed by Lieutenant Colonel Robert E. Hogaboom laid out what was needed in a document titled “Military Requirements for Ship-to-Shore Movement of Troops and Cargo.” Even though no suitable aircraft were yet available, the thinkers at Quantico came up with new doctrine published as Amphibious Training Manual 31, “Amphibious Operations—-Employment of Helicopters (Tentative).” One of the drivers of this project was Lieutenant Colonel Victor H. Krulak, a tough former paratrooper who had been wounded in the Pacific but was also known for his high intellect and an unsurpassed ability to get things done. He was a prolific writer and a demanding taskmaster who kept his finger on the pulse of several vital projects including helicopter development.

Despite the nearly unlimited future potential of helicopters for assault and support of landing forces, there was ingrained resistance to such a revolutionary concept. Most young pilots wanted to fly sleek jets and dogfight enemy aces, not manhandle temperamental aircraft to deliver troops and supplies; experienced fliers were comfortable with aircraft they already knew well and were reluctant to give up their trusted planes; and critics claimed helicopters were too slow and vulnerable. Twining took the lead in addressing these problems when he pointed out the Marine Corps had far more pilots than planes and noted that the wishes of the individual were always subservient to the needs of the Marine Corps. He also asserted that the speed and vulnerability of helicopters should not be properly compared to fixed-wing aircraft but to surface landing craft (helicopters were both faster and more agile than boats or amphibious tractors).

All early helicopter advocates were highly motivated and dedicated men. Their achievements and foresight kept the Marine Corps’ reputation for innovation alive despite severe budgetary constraints and concurrent inter-Service unification battles. In fact, many of the men also played key roles in the “Chowder Society,” whose behind-the-scenes work successfully protected Marine Corps interests during the bitter “unification battles” after the World War II.

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