The Answer to the Amphibious Prayer: Helicopters, the Marine Corps, and Defense Innovation


History shows us that innovation from within the military, rather than forced on it from the outside, is possible. But it will require a modern day reform movement with the right kind of leadership and the right kind of organizations.


A small movement is growing across the defense community which realizes that the challenges of the new century are going to require innovative and creative solutions. Parts of this movement, inspired from the junior ranks of our services, look to embrace the ideals of innovation and entrepreneurship from the business world. These dedicated women and men recognize that the budget, manpower, and resource challenges in a post-war drawdown mean that new ways of doing things will be required. As has been typical throughout American history, they look toward the future and technology to guide their way.

At some innovation events we have heard a mantra that military organizations simply can’t innovate properly. Examples from Silicon Valley are trotted out and we are shown that the military culture is too stove-piped, too conservative, and too top-down to really innovate. The bureaucracy is just too much and the military system just can’t do it right.

But that is simply untrue. It’s ahistorical. Examples of military innovation from inside the system, enhanced and encouraged by the bureaucracy rather than restrained by it, do exist from our past. Principles discovered from an examination of our past can have an important impact on our present and a very real chance to improve our future.

The Amphibious Prayer

In July 1946, in the aftermath of the victory over the Axis powers, the United States military conducted Operation Crossroads. On a tiny Pacific island, called Bikini Atoll, we began setting off atomic bombs. The purpose of the operation was to test the impact of these new weapons on state of the art military equipment and military ideas. Observing the first tests for the Marine Corps was Lieutenant General Roy Geiger. Geiger was one of the Marine Corps’ top amphibious warriors. He had marched across the Pacific, leading Marines in operations at Guadalcanal, Bougainville, and Guam. When it came time for the amphibious assault on Okinawa, he was placed in command of the entire 10th Army.

Geiger watched the mushroom cloud rise over Bikini and saw the damage done to the equipment at anchor in the lagoon. The Navy and the Army Air Force, which would soon become the independent Air Force, observed the tests and became focused on the possibilities of delivering such destructive power and the technological offset it provided. The Army also began to look toward how they could use atomic weapons. Geiger saw something different: a challenge to the very nature of the Marine Corps; a total threat to the amphibious expertise they had spent decades developing. He wrote a letter to the Commandant outlining his observations. In it he said:

…since our probable future enemy will be in possession of this weapon, it is my opinion that a complete review and study of our concept of amphibious operations will have to be made…I can not visualize another landing such as was executed at Normandy of Okinawa.

Marine Corps Commandant Alexander Vandegrift received the letter at Headquarters Marine Corps and understood the implications. Vandegrift had been awarded both the Navy Cross and Medal of Honor for his leadership at Guadalcanal, and all Geiger needed to do was describe what he saw to convince him that amphibious warfare had suddenly changed. He acted immediately by establishing a special board to study the future of amphibious assault. The board was made up of three Major Generals, headed by Lemuel Shepherd.

General Shepherd brought in three staff officers to make up what he called the “secretariat” of the board: Colonel Edward Dyer, Colonel Merrill “Bill” Twinning, and Lieutenant Colonel Samuel Shaw. These three were tasked with doing the actual work for the board, which they would submit to the Generals for review. It didn’t take them long to identify the potential in a particular piece of technology: the helicopter.

The helicopter was less than a decade old. The aircraft were small, slow, and didn’t have much lift capability. They didn’t really appear to meet any of the requirements. But still, these Marines saw something there. Dyer visited with both Igor Sikorsky, who built and flew the world’s first practical helicopter, and Frank Piasecki who was one of America’s leading helicopter designers. Both men reassured him that with current technology, not future developments, they could build larger aircraft that met Marine Corps requirements. Dyer received demonstrations of current aircraft like the Sikorsky R-4 and discussed the future development of the field with engineers and designers at both firms. The three colonels began to believe that the helicopter just might be what they called “the answer to the amphibious prayer.”

But the work of the board languished. Other suggestions needed study, such as a concept that would see large submarines bring landing forces to the beach unobserved. Another idea was to buy a fleet of massive seaplanes that would serve as an airborne Landing Ship, Tank (LST), landing in the surf and taxiing right up to the beach.

Then, one afternoon a Marine test pilot from Pax River flew a Sikorsky Hoverfly helicopter up to Quantico to visit a friend. Standing at the window to their office Dyer and Twining watched as the bird pulled into a hover. Some crazy Marine came running out underneath the aircraft and was hoisted fifteen feet into the air and into the cabin before it flew off. After watching the crazy display, Dyer turned to Twining and said “let’s do this thing, and quit fooling around.” They sat down and wrote a report which told the Commandant that the helicopter was the future of the Marine Corps.

Marching Orders

General Shepherd and the members of the board quickly endorsed the report and forwarded it to the Commandant. On 19 December, 1946, just three days after it reached his office, Vandegrift had read the report, endorsed it, and cut orders to begin work. The orders had two parts: first, to develop doctrine for the employment of the helicopter, and second to establish the Marine Corps’ very first helicopter squadron.

Marine Helicopter Squadron One was designated HMX-1 and was placed under the command of Ed Dyer, who went to the Connecticut headquarters of Sikorsky to qualify as a helicopter pilot. But he needed officers and Marines to staff the squadron. NCOs and enlisted Marines would be relatively simple because he could tap into the manpower of existing Marine Corps aviation to get the mechanics and administrative support he needed. The officers were another story. To ensure that his new squadron and this crazy idea would succeed he needed a particular kind of leader.

In the spring of 1947, Dyer walked into an auditorium at Marine Corps Schools in Quantico, filled with the students enrolled in the junior professional military education course. Dyer launched into a brief on the capabilities of the helicopter. He showed drawings of the aircraft, charts of the performance characteristics, and gave a quick outline of what he thought they could do for the Marine Corps. He offered the 60 junior officers in the room the opportunity to join his new squadron.

Dyer said to the assembled Captains and 1st Lieutenants:

Now there is a large body of opinion in the Marine Corps that figures that helicopters aren’t going any place. So if you are interested stay here and I’ll get your names. If you are not, don’t waste your time or mine, just shove off right now.

Over 40 of the officers got up, turned their backs on the colonel, and walked out. Of those that remained, a few would wash out over the next year. But the Marines that accepted Dyer’s challenge became the first ready room which would bring the Marine Corps into the helicopter age.

The squadron was formally commissioned in December 1947 with Dyer, six officers, three enlisted Marines, and no aircraft. More of the pilots were on the way, still in flight training. The Commandant kept the pressure on the bureaucracy to deliver the enlisted Marines, and on the Navy which was responsible for buying aircraft. By the end of February, 1948 the squadron had five Sikorsky HO3S-1 Dragonflies and Marines were trickling in. They began flying as much as they could and experimented with observation and reconnaissance missions, MEDEVACs, and logistics support.

The other task which Commandant Vandegrift ordered was the development of a doctrine for the employment of the helicopter. This was assigned to Marine Corps Schools, the PME institution in Quantico. At the schoolhouse, just down the road from the hangar for the new squadron, the Helicopter and Seaplane Transport Board was established under the leadership of Colonel Robert Hogaboom.

Hogaboom was director of the senior professional military education course at Quantico and turned to his student body, made up primarily of Lt Colonels and Majors, to work on the board. He continued to direct the school’s other students and programs, and also led studies into the technical requirements for helicopters — so the majority of the work in leading the doctrine development project fell to his assistant director: Lt. Colonel Victor Krulak.

Known since his Naval Academy days to friend and foe alike as “Brute,” Krulak already had a reputation as an innovator and rebel in the Marine Corps. As a lieutenant in China in the 1930s, he collected intelligence on Japanese landing craft and then advocated for their development in the United States. His work was vital to the development of the Higgins Boat with a bow ramp, a piece of equipment that proved central to American amphibious campaigns throughout World War II. During the war he was awarded a Navy Cross for his leadership of a parachute battalion on raiding operations in the Pacific. Brute Krulak also happened to be the crazy Marine who Dyer and Twining had watched being hoisted into the helicopter from their office.

Krulak wrote that “the evolution of a set of principles governing the helicopter employment cannot wait for the perfection of the craft itself, but must run concurrently with that development.” He saw the possibility of this new craft and the changes it could make to modern warfare. He, and the students he had sprung from classes at the senior course, set to work.

As Dyer and HMX-1 learned how to handle the aircraft and experimented with them, he met with Krulak and the two shared ideas. In the spring of 1948, the squadron was in full swing and Krulak invited Dyer to participate in the upcoming command post exercise that Marine Corps Schools ran at the end of each academic year. Operation PACKARD II would be the first military exercise that would include helicopters as more than technological toys or rescue vehicles, but instead as an integrated part of the overall plan.

Krulak and the board members had been studying the theory, but the Marines still needed a document that would govern the nuts and bolts of helicopter operations. This was the Marine Corps, a military organization, and Marines needed manuals and formal instructions to get started. As the theory and experiments crystallized, Dyer and Krulak worked together as the lead authors of a manual that would be the world’s first textbook on helicopter doctrine. As Krulak later said, “we had so little to go on; no data, just conviction.”

The 52-page doctrine was titled Amphibious Operations – Employment of Helicopters (Tentative). As the 31st manual in the amphibious series it became known in shorthand as PHIB-31. It introduced the ideas of air assault and vertical envelopment, concepts that changed maneuver and warfare forever.

With their new doctrine in hand, HMX-1 flew out to the USS Palau in Onslow Bay, North Carolina. Over the course of the daylong exercise they flew 35 missions from ship to shore, completely bypassing the defenses set up on the beach and heading straight inland to their objectives. They conducted the landing of 66 combat loaded Marines to secure their landing zones and then flew logistical missions that brought the regimental command team ashore. They tried to keep expectations low, but even with the limited capability of their little Sikorsky aircraft the exercise was seen as a huge success. Adding dispersion, distance, speed, and surprise to amphibious operations, the helicopter proved itself to be the answer to the amphibious prayer.

The events of 1946, ‘47, and ‘48 were just the start. A system had been established, a virtuous cycle, which continued the development of rotary-wing aviation. Students from Marine Corps Schools were broken off to work advanced projects and expand the theory behind heliborne operations. HMX-1 experimented, flew new designs, and worked with the engineers to develop the aircraft with the size, speed, and lift ability that the Marines needed. And they all worked the exercises where their ideas were tested, sometimes succeeded, sometimes failed, and then sent back for refinement.

World events intervened in the Marine Corps’ helicopter program in June 1950 when North Korea invaded South Korea. But instead of stopping the experimental programs, the Marine Corps doubled down on their new idea. Combat experience was now added to the mix of doctrine development, experimentation, and exercises. Four of HMX-1’s Sikorsky HO3S-1 helicopters, their pilots, and maintenance crews were immediately transferred to Marine Observation Squadron Six and deployed to Korea.

By August, the aircraft flew into the Pusan perimeter as the ground forces of the Provisional Brigade took up their defensive positions. Within a week, the helicopters were flying missions during nearly every daylight hour — including reconnaissance, command and control, casualty evacuations, and critical logistics flights. It was only the beginning. Korea became the proving ground for all kinds of rotary-wing operations, not only for the Marine Corps but for all the military services.

Through the rest of the 1950s, the Marine Corps experienced repeated cycles of development, moving through the ideas, to the experiments, to the exercises and combat, and then back to the ideas. The concepts of the Marine Air-Ground Task Force were developed, designs for amphibious ships with large flight decks were created, and an entirely new vision for amphibious warfare and military maneuver took hold.

Innovation from the Inside

If military organizations don’t fit the Silicon Valley mold for innovation, how did the Marine Corps accomplish such a wholesale and revolutionary innovation? Looking back at the history, it appears that there are two particular lessons we can observe: This kind of innovation requires a particular view of leadership and a distinct kind of organization.

The development of rotary-wing doctrine by the Marine Corps demonstrates that we need much more than the rebel innovator with the good idea. We need senior officers who are quick to recognize a problem and are willing to take action, despite the risks involved. We need senior officers who understand that if you aren’t innovating, you aren’t improving, and if you aren’t improving, you’re falling behind the enemy. Change is good. We need the Vandegrifts and Geigers.

We also need staff officers who can make the bureaucracy work in the service of the innovative idea. Too often the dreaded staff is the place that good ideas go to die. But these experienced leaders know how to work inside the system, and they also how and when they need to maneuver around the system. We need the Dyers and the Krulaks.

Finally we need the junior officers who are willing to gamble their careers. We need smart company grades who are willing to speak up and who accept the risks involved in signing on with that crazy new unit with the crazy new idea. We need the Captain Charles Barbers and Lieutenant Roy Andersons, junior officers among the first HMX-1 pilots to qualify in a helicopter, and the junior officers that stayed behind when Dyer told those who wanted out to “shove off.”

Are we teaching our people to be these kinds of leaders today? Do our personnel policies and promotion systems put the right incentives in place? Do they put the right people in the right jobs?

Second is an example of organizational structure. We need organizations and units that are nimble and adaptive. We need units that have the bandwidth to take on new ideas. Throughout the history of helicopter development in the Marine Corps, it was the flexibility of the commands at Quantico that made things work. The junior and senior courses at Marine Corps Schools were able to break off groups of students to work on the special projects. It didn’t matter that they weren’t able to complete the full curriculum. The organization was flexible enough to make those allowances because they were working for the good of the Corps.

But these also weren’t huge numbers of people: Dyer ended up with about a dozen officers from that first group of 60; the Hogaboom board siphoned off eight members of the senior course. Statistically, these were small percentages invested in a new idea, but are our military organizations willing to invest even small amounts of time and talent today?

The Marine Corps was also able to conduct exercises that experimented with new ideas. These weren’t pre-deployment workups or certification exercises. These weren’t done to test the units on their ability to run checklists and execute established procedure. These were designed specifically to use new ideas, to try things out, to experiment, and even to fail. The whole purpose was to develop lessons learned and then to send them back ashore to hone the concepts.

What are our exercises focused on today? Do we have the time to think about new things, or try creative ideas? Or is our bandwidth so narrow that all we can think about is ensuring the readiness pillars are built in the computer matrix and the checklists are run smoothly to get our grades from the evaluators?

This essay does not purport to have all the answers, but these are the questions we have to ask. These two issues — the importance of adaptive leadership and adaptive organizations — aren’t particularly new ideas. These are insights that other students of military history have already tried to teach us, repeatedly. Yet, as movements like the Defense Entrepreneur’s Forum and organizations like the CNO’s Rapid Innovation Cell attempt to re-introduce organizational innovation, obstacles continue to be reinforced and it appears we need to return to these historic lessons.

While we press on into the 21st Century it is time to consider a modern reform movement for our military and defense industry. Senior officers, staff officers, and junior officers who rise to this challenge must be the adaptive leaders who overcome our modern day military conservatism. They must be the ones who reform the organizations and units from the inside to embrace a nimble and flexible ideal. Just being the insurgent innovator with an inventive idea is great, but it doesn’t get us far enough. Not even close. We must look to reform our leadership models and our organizational structures to embrace the future. As Admiral William Sims wrote a century ago:

Our objective must not be ‘safety first’ in the sense of adherence to already tested practices and implements, but safety first in being the first to recognize, the first to experiment with, and the first to adopt improvements of distinct military value.

Challenging the status quo and developing new and better ways of performing our military responsibilities is not insurgency or disruption. Instead it is the mark of true professionalism.


BJ Armstrong is a naval officer and PhD Candidate with the Department of War Studies, King’s College, London. He is a member of the Naval Institute and this essay is derived from his talk at DEF 2014. His second book, 21st Century Sims: Innovation, Education and Leadership for the Modern Era, will be released in February. The opinions expressed here are his own and are presented in his personal capacity.