The Sailor Who Fought the Marine Corps and Won
Few military organizations have completely changed their roles and missions on a dime and survived the transition. The U.S. Marine Corps is one. The development of modern amphibious doctrine by the Marine Corps during the interwar years, doctrine subsequently adopted by the Navy and Army, is a well–told story. According to J.F.C. Fuller, this shift was “in all probability … the most far reaching tactical innovation” of World War II.
There is a twist to the remarkable story of the way the Marine Corps changed its role: It was not a marine’s idea. It was a sailor’s. That sailor’s critiques of the Marine Corps eventually punctured the defenses of the famously insular service, helped to spur its modernization, and in so doing helped to preserve its very existence. His ideas helped transform the Marine Corps from a ship’s guard to the expeditionary force it is today. But because he was a sailor, it was years before his ideas gained acceptance.
The sailor’s name was William Freeland Fullam. He graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1877 and went on to serve in the Spanish-American War and World War I. A key ally of William Sims and the Navy General Board, he was also an innovator and an outspoken proponent of naval aviation, advocating for a larger role for carriers and submarines even if it meant a diminished role for battleships.
Fullam cast his sharp eye for reform and innovation not only upon his own service, but its sister service as well. In an era when many were debating the future role of the Marine Corps, what was unique about Fullam was that his thinking cast doubt on the service’s very existence. He railed against the presence of marines on ships as enforcers and disciplinarians over the sailors. His full-throated attacks on the Marine Corps and its role even spawned the term “Fullamite,” which became shorthand for enemies of the service.
But the thing is, he was right. And today, as the Marine Corps struggles with another round of questions regarding its purpose, the service could use another thinker like Fullam to help navigate these familiar shoals.
Fullam’s first broadside against the Marine Corps was published by the U.S. Naval Institute in Proceedings in 1890, when he was a lieutenant. The article, “The System of Naval Training and Discipline Required to Promote Efficiency and Attract Americans,” was mostly a call for a modern system of recruitment, retention, and discipline of sailors to ensure that the Navy could attract and retain quality Americans for service. The threat of harsh discipline imposed by marines at sea, Fullam believed, was a detriment to recruitment. At this time, the Marine Corps had few formal tasks and landings were not their sole specialty; sailors armed with small arms and ship’s cannons frequently formed the bulk of any landing force. By arguing for removing marines from ships, Fullam was in effect arguing for the full transfer of that responsibility to the Navy. The article was not, however, a call to disband the Marine Corps. Rather, it proposed removing them from their duties on ship, replacing them with sailors, and allowing the Marine Corps to concentrate on other missions. He stated, “The Marine Corps is needed for duty at naval yards and shore stations.” The article spurred a long debate about whether the presence of marines aboard ships was appropriate and even spurred Commandant of the Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Charles Heywood to complain to the secretary of the Navy of a “conspiracy” in 1894.
Six years later, Lt. Fullam again addressed the role of the Marine Corps, this time in a Naval Institute General Prize essay contest entry that earned an honorable mention. In the essay, “The Organization, Training, and Discipline of the Navy Personnel as Viewed from the Ship,” he reiterated many of his earlier points but also, in a change of tone, presented the removal of marines from ships as mutually beneficial to the Navy and the Marine Corps. Notably, he made a recommendation that presaged the future role of the Marine Corps: Fullam believed the Marines were ideally suited to be the nation’s rapid-reaction force. The Navy and the Marine Corps had acted in that capacity in the past, but it would be years before anyone but Fullam recognized the need for a force designed for such missions.
In 1902, Fullam wrote a response to an article by a Marine captain, Dion Williams, called “The Defense of Our Naval Stations.” By this time, marines like Williams had realized that the Marine Corps was suited for more important missions than at-sea discipline. Like Fullam, Williams presented a future vision of a Marine Corps that defends overseas bases, the mission that would eventually lead to the formation of the Advanced Base Force and then the Fleet Marine Force. (Today, an updated version of this concept is called Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations.) In his response, Fullam endorsed Williams’ idea and even proposed ships designed to carry and deliver marines to foreign shores or, as we call them today, amphibious assault ships.
These ideas were initially not well received by Marine Corps leaders, but they were correct. The Marine Corps’ old mission — shipboard security and boarding parties — was becoming less relevant to both services. In 1908, President Theodore Roosevelt modified the duties of the service through Executive Order 969, which codified the disappearance of Marine ship’s guards and the move toward the defense of shore installations and the provision of expeditionary troops. This was the first official attempt to transform the Marine Corps, although senior marines and their supporters succeeded in convincing Congress to override the order.
Fullam’s crusade, however, did have some Marine converts and it was those heretics who eventually put the institution’s evolution in motion. In 1913, the Navy’s General Board held hearings regarding the formation of Marine Corps units to defend overseas bases, hearings at which Fullam testified. The first training school for such units was established in 1915. The following year, Congress authorized increased funding and manpower to make the plans a reality. In the words of historian Allan R. Millet, “What would have been heresy within the Marine Corps in 1900 had become by 1916 a new creed.” In 1920, Gen. John Lejeune became commandant of the Marine Corps and accelerated the reforms. Fullam’s first article was 30 years ahead of its time.
Military organizations are not designed to change their entire mission and structure but, thanks to the clear vision of amphibious thinkers like Pete Ellis and the efforts of a series of commandants beginning with Lejeune, the Marine Corps did just that. It sought a new mission and found that Fullam’s idea would work. By World War II, the Marine Corps was the most modern naval infantry force in the world with fully integrated aviation units, equipment designed for amphibious assaults, and comprehensive, tested doctrine that both the Marine Corps and the Army used in both theaters of the war. The story of how it determined what its modern mission should be, recreated itself to execute it, and then leapt ahead of all competitors in the space of two decades is one of the clearest examples of innovation in military history.
Today, the Marine Corps finds itself in a similar position to its situation at the turn of the last century when Fullam was writing. Reports of the death of amphibious assault have been greatly exaggerated, a common occurrence in naval history. But amphibious assaults are not the Marine Corps’ raison d’etre. Its core mission is to project combat power ashore in support of the U.S. Navy, and to conduct naval and joint campaigns, whatever form that might take. The modern Marine Corps is having an increasingly difficult time doing that mission from the sea because of modern coastal defense capabilities.
Anti-access and area denial systems, principally consisting of a network of anti-air and anti-ship defenses, are integrated coastal defense systems analogous to integrated air defense systems. Coastal defenses have long been a fact of naval warfare, but the proliferation of precision guided missiles has tilted the advantage away from ships and toward these defenses. The problem is exacerbated by the small number of amphibious assault ships in the Navy’s inventory and the aged amphibious assault vehicles that must be launched close to shore, assets that are necessary to overcome any integrated coastal defense system.
Another problem is experience. With the exception of Operation Odyssey Dawn in 2011, the Marine Corps hasn’t had many naval campaigns to support lately. Instead, it has been operating on and from land, sometimes even in landlocked theaters like Afghanistan. The combat experience gained is valuable, and the Marine Corps has a long tradition of fighting alongside the U.S. Army. But this is not its primary purpose, nor should it be trained, organized, and equipped as a secondary army. Using the Marine Corps to perform Army missions for too long can have deleterious effects. The Marine Corps has become accustomed to being the supported force, rather than the supporting force. The writing and thinking of William Fullam remind us that its primary role is the latter: The Marine Corps is fundamentally a naval force.
To overcome the modern challenge of amphibious operations in a world of integrated coastal defense systems, greater Navy-Marine Corps integration is needed. Given the right equipment, the Marines can offer the Navy a potent weapon against shore-based threats. It may be that amphibious assaults of the future look less like the massive wave assaults of the 20th century and more like repeated, simultaneous raids. At sea, Marine Corps artillery is already gearing up to help the Navy achieve its “distributed lethality” goals. Of course, for the Marine Corps to perform any large-scale operations, they’ll need the support of the Navy, especially in terms of naval aviation and ballistic missile defense.
Better integration between the services will also increase the Marine Corps’ relevance for the Navy, if marines can take on more missions at sea and fewer on land. Ironically, that may mean bringing marines back on ships. Fullam was right that marines were not needed on ships and were better suited for a different role. Today, once again, the Marine Corps needs to perform new roles. While the marines of the late 19th century needed to be separated from the Navy, today, working together in more venues will contribute to familiarity and foster the cooperation necessary in a major conflict. The Navy and Marine Corps are sister services and should start to act like it. Perhaps we need a modern-day Fullam to open the discussion anew.
Rear Adm. Fullam died in 1926 and did not live to see the vast changes his ideas had catalyzed. “Fullamites,” however, will likely never die. Sometimes, they are misguided or advocating for parochial interests. Others, though, like Fullam himself, are asking the right questions and have the interests of the naval services at heart. Marines can be too quick to dismiss the Navy’s perspective and interest in amphibious operations that support naval campaigns. That is a mistake. The Marine Corps is a naval service, its officers are naval officers, and it has a responsibility to the Navy.
The service should not be complacent about that responsibility. The institutional interest in regaining its naval character, judging by the Marine Corps Operating Concept, is clearly there. What is still needed is a sustained effort on the part of both services toward greater and more widespread integration. A modern-day “Fullamite” might well find a more welcoming audience than Fullam himself did.
B.A. Friedman is a military analyst and associate editor at The Strategy Bridge. He is the author of On Tactics: A Theory of Victory in Battle and 21st Century Ellis: Operational Art and Strategic Prophecy.
Image: Public domain, modified