If it weren’t for the Japanese, the Marine Corps’ biggest enemy in the Pacific theater of World War II might well have been the U.S. Army. On at least five occasions, Army commanders were relieved of command for what the Corps deemed was a lack of proper aggression. Those commanders were given the benefit of being relieved by their Army commander. When one brigadier was relieved by his Marine commander, it caused a grudge the branches held on to for years.
Gen. Ralph Smith began World War II with a promotion to brigadier general and a command of American soldiers in the Pacific. With Smith came his experience in previous American conflicts. He served under Gen. John J. Pershing in Mexico, during the Punitive Expedition. He also fought on the Western Front of World War I and was among the first American troops to land in France. He earned two Silver Stars in combat during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive of 1918. His bravery and combat credentials were without question.
When he earned his second star, he also took command of the 27th Infantry Division, an Army unit that was soon folded into the 2nd Marine Division. The new mixed unit formed the V Amphibious Corps under Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Holland M. “Howlin’ Mad” Smith and its target was the Gilbert Islands. The Marines would attack and capture Tarawa while the Army did the same on Makin. The Marine Corps’ Smith thought the Army’s 6,400-plus troops should be able to overwhelm the 400 defenders and 400 laborers who held the reinforced island.
But it didn’t happen as quickly as “Howlin’ Mad” Smith though it should. This would build tensions when it came to take Saipan.
As if Saipan wasn’t tense enough.
On Saipan, the Marines and the Army would fight side-by-side on a dream team that would not be matched until the USA Men’s Olympic Basketball Team in 1992. When the U.S. began its assault on Mt. Tapochau in the middle of the island, the Marines found themselves advancing much further, much faster than their Army counterparts. The soldiers at Mt. Tapochau were tasked with taking an area known as “Hell’s Pocket.” The Army was expected to go into a valley surrounded by hills and cliffs under enemy control.
Now, if terrain is given a nickname by the Americans tasked to take it, that’s a pretty good indication of some intense fighting. But Holland Smith didn’t know that because he hadn’t inspected the terrain. The Army commander devised a plan to split his forces, using one battalion to hold the pocket while the other outflanked the Japanese defenders. Unfortunately, he would not be in command to implement it. It turns out “Howlin’ Mad” Smith was about to live up to his nickname.
The U.S. Army’s 27th Infantry Division marches to the front on Saipan.
With what he saw as a lack of aggression on Makin fresh in his mind, the inability of the Army to advance on Saipan made the Marine Corps’ Maj. Gen. Smith furious. He not only relieved the Army’s Maj. Gen. Smith of command of the Army on Saipan, he ordered Ralph C. Smith off the island. It would be the only time an Army commander would be relieved of command by a superior from another branch, and the Army wouldn’t forget it for years. The firing was so public that Smith could no longer command a unit in the Pacific and spent the rest of the war in Arkansas.
After the war, a panel of inquiry was convened. Known as the Buckner Board, it was staffed entirely by Army brass. When it looked into the Saipan incident, it found that Holland Smith had not looked at the terrain facing the Army on the island and was not in possession of all the facts. The plan hatched by the Army’s Maj. Gen. Smith to take Hell’s Pocket worked, and the Army was able to catch up to the Marines.