Marines in the Mediterranean

 

Historical Overview of U.S. Marines in the Mediterranean

The U.S. Marine Corps presence in the Mediterranean dates back to the earliest days of the Corps. The raising of the American flag over the walled city of Derna, Tripoli in April 1805 by Lieutenant Presley N. O'Bannon signaled to the world that the young republic was not reticent about defending or pursuing its national interests beyond the borders of North America. Although American interest in the area throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was often sporadic, post-World War II foreign policy considerations have made Mediterranean waters a fact of life for the Marine Corps since the 1940s.

During the late 1940s, developing tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union produced a state of "Cold War" between the two superpowers. In March 1947, President Harry S. Truman declared a U.S. foreign policy of supporting "free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures."

In the Mediterranean, the President's actions were directed principally at Soviet attempts to pressure the democratic governments of Greece and Turkey into adopting pro-Soviet policies. It became increasingly clear that American naval sea and air power must be projected into the Mediterranean if the spread of Soviet influence was to be halted.

The resulting U.S. policy of containment, which was formally manifested in the Truman Doctrine in 1947, began to take shape with the build-up of naval forces in the Mediterranean. From that date to the present, there have been U.S. Naval Forces in the Mediterranean, known first as Naval Forces, Mediterranean, then as the Sixth Task Fleet, and since 1950 as Sixth Fleet.

To assist the democratic governments of Greece and Turkey in the Mediterranean region, the U.S. Navy requested in late 1947 that a battalion-size Marine Corps unit be deployed with the Sixth Fleet to bolster its striking power. The request was approved and a CNO dispatch of 20 December 1947 authorized the assignment of a reinforced Marine battalion to augment Marine detachments from Sixth Fleet warships and provide a ready landing force.

The first unit assigned to reinforce the Sixth Fleet was the battalion-strength 2d Marines, which departed Morehead City, North Carolina, aboard the USS Bexaron 5 January 1948. The 2d Marines arrived at the island of Malta on 18 January, where its units were transferred to ships of the Sixth Fleet. The Marines participated in maneuvers of the fleet until relieved in March by the 8th Marines. Except for two periods since the initial deployment, Marine infantry battalions from the 2d Marine Division have been assigned continuously to the Sixth Fleet on a rotational basis.

Over the past four decades, the responsibilities of a Marine Battalion Landing Team (BLT) in the Mediterranean have included assisting in the evacuation of Americans from a crisis area, serving as a landing force for special operations, and when necessary, the seizure of strategic areas. In numerous instances, the Marine battalion responded quickly and decisively in support of U.S. foreign policy interests.

During the Korean War, the 3d Battalion, 6th Marines (Rein) staged to Korea from the Mediterranean via the Suez Canal, leaving the Sixth Fleet, temporarily, without a battalion-sized landing force from late 1950 into early 1951. The 2d Battalion, 6th Marines resumed the assignment when it deployed to the Mediterranean during March 1951 when U.S. interests dictated a show of support for Yugoslavia. Also embarked in one of the Sixth Fleet carriers was Marine Fighter Squadron 122, which conducted a Mediterranean deployment as well.

The reduction of amphibious shipping in the post-Korean War period, however, resulted in the temporary termination of the "rotating assignment of a reinforced infantry battalion" to the Sixth Fleet during 1955. At this point, a detachment of the 2d ANGLICO and a carrier-based Marine fighter squadron comprised the FMF elements stationed in the Mediterranean area. The Navy's Fiscal Year 1956 objectives, however, re-emphasized the need to maintain a "ready force with a high retaliatory capacity and great defensive strength" in the Mediterranean. This objective led to an immediate resumption (1956) of the practice of maintaining a Marine reinforced battalion in the Mediterranean.

The readiness and versatility of the Marine air-ground team in Mediterranean waters have been demonstrated on a number of occasions since the Korean War. On 22 August 1956, BLT 3/2 embarked for duty with the Sixth Fleet, and soon put its previous years' intensive training to good use. Barely two months later, in late October 1956, Israel, France, and Great Britain attacked Egypt after the latter's nationalization of the Suez Canal. During the period 31 October through 3 November, BLT 3/2 landed at Alexandria, Egypt, and assisted in the evacuation of 1,500 civilians from thirty-three different countries. Marines also evacuated some United Nations truce team observers as war threatened between Israel and Egypt.

The ability of the deployed Marine battalion in the Mediterranean-to respond quickly to a potentially dangerous situation was put to the test in the summer of 1958. On 14 July, a coup d'etat toppled a pro-Western government in Iraq and threatened the political stability in the Middle East. Fearing a threat from neighboring countries and the disintegration of his own nation which had been in turmoil for several months, President Camille Chamoun of Lebanon requested the landing of U.S. troops to preserve the peace. At the time of the Lebanese crisis, three Marine landing teams (BLTs 2/2, 3/6, and 1/8) were present in the eastern Mediterranean. Marine units in Lebanon were organized into the 2d Provisional Marine Force under Brigadier General (later Major General) Sidney S. Wade, Commanding General of Force Troops, Fleet Marine Force, Atlantic, who was designated on 15 July as Commander, American Land Forces, Lebanon. Air-transported elements of the 2d Battalion, 8th Marines began arriving 18 July at the Beirut International Airport from Camp Lejeune, North Carolina.

On 26 July, Major General Paul Adams, USA, relieved Brigadier General Wade as CG, American Land Forces, Lebanon. Lebanese national elections were held on 31 July, and by mid-August Marine units had begun to re-embark on board amphibious shipping. The last Marine units departed Lebanon in October, having assisted in maintaining order and assuring the preservation of peace. The Marines did not have to resort to combat, yet their presence, along with U.S. Army forces, had helped to preserve the integrity of Lebanon.

The 1960s witnessed the continued deployment of BLTs to the Mediterranean, although the designation was changed in 1960 from NELM Battalion (Naval Forces, Eastern Atlantic and Mediterranean) to LanForMed (Landing Force Mediterranean). Training exercises kept the LanForMed BLTs in a continued high state of readiness, and the Marines demonstrated their ability to respond quickly to crisis situations.

In August 1965, a period of growing tension on Cyprus that centered on proposed changes to the Cypriatic electoral system brought a Marine Amphibious Ready Group, including BLT 2/2, which operated off the island until tensions subsided.

On 21 April 1967, a military coup overthrew the elected government of Greece. Navy units were immediately alerted and directed to the Ionian Sea. Two Battalion Landing Teams (BLT 3/8, and BLT 1/6) were in the Mediterranean at the time, because of a turn-over; both were active in the operation, which involved a show of force and a contingency (stand-by) evacuation response.

The Six-Day Arab-Israeli War of June 1967 caused the Marine Amphibious Ready Group (BLT 1/6) to be put on alert for possible operations. On 6 June, two carrier task forces moved closer to the fighting, while four days later, President Johnson ordered a high-speed carrier movement toward Syria to facilitate a cease-fire agreement.

On 1 September 1969, a coup overthrew the Libyan monarchy. At the same time, conditions were very unsettled in Lebanon, leading to the 22 October resignation of the Lebanese Prime Minister. Contingency forces in the period 26-30 October included two carrier task forces and the Mediterranean Amphibious Ready Group (MARG) with BLT 1/6 embarked.

Political tensions in Jordan during this period also called for utilization of a Marine presence in the Mediterranean. On 9 June 1970, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) seized 32 hostages in a hotel in Amman; 14 Americans were among those held. In addition, on the same day, there was an unsuccessful assassination attempt against King Hussein. CVA Forrestal moved to the Eastern Mediterranean to provide air cover for potential evacuation operations by the Marine Amphibious Ready Group with BLT 1/8 embarked. The situation had calmed by 15 June, and U.S. forces returned to normal operations on 17 June.

The 1970s also witnessed Marine Corps activity in the Mediterranean. On 6 October 1973, Egyptian and Syrian forces launched a surprise attack on Israel. U.S. Navy forces quickly sortied in response to the war, with two Carrier Battle Groups (CVBGs), the Independence and Roosevelt, and an amphibious force, RLT 34 with BLTs 2/6 and 3/6, embarked in the Mediterranean, and a CVBG, the Kennedy, in the eastern Atlantic, On 25 October, U.S. forces went on Defense Condition (DEFCON) III alert status, as possible intervention by the Soviet Union was feared. A cease-fire gradually eased tensions in the area, but the Sixth Fleet did not resume its normal DEFCON status until 17 November.

On 15 July 1974, Archbishop Makarios of Cyprus was overthrown by Greek Cypriot factions seeking "enosis," or union, with Greece. On 20 July, in a countermove, Turkish forces landed on the north coast of Cyprus. The following day, the 34th MAU (consisting of HMM-162 and BLT 1/8) in its amphibious shipping took station off the south coast of Cyprus in readiness to evacuate U.S. and third country nationals. The 34th MAU was alerted 20 July to standby for evacuation operations. Two days later (22 July), HMM-162 began helicopter evacuation of civilian personnel from Dhekelia, Greece. A total of 466 civilian personnel including 384 Americans were transported from Dhekelia to the USS Coronado. The evacuees were debarked safely 23 July at Beirut, Lebanon. The USS Inchon, with HMM-162 and elements of BLT 1/8 was alerted for special contingency operations, which did not materialize.

The 1980s saw the continued significance of deploying Marine Corps forces in the Mediterranean. As the ground combat element of the 32d MAU, BLT 2/8 assisted in the evacuation of American citizens from Lebanon in June 1982. The MAU then landed in August at Beirut to oversee the evacuation of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). Ultimately, all three battalions of the 8th Marines and one battalion of the 6th Marines were rotated through Beirut as the ground components of the 24th and 22d MAUs, serving as part of the Multinational Peacekeeping Force.

In the Caribbean, BLT 2/8 and HMM-261, as part of the 22d MAU enroute to Lebanon, answered the President's call to action in Grenada. Operation Urgent Fury began on 20 October 1983, and by 2 November, American and Caribbean forces had secured Grenada and the neighboring island of Carriacou. Their part of the mission successfully completed, BLT 2/8 once again set sail for the Mediterranean.

On 23 October 1983, a suicide truck bomber struck the Marine Corps barracks in Beirut, killing 241. On the same day, another suicide car bomb killed 58 French paratroopers. Various Sixth Fleet units were ordered to Beirut, both to reassert the U.S. presence and to assist in rescue operations. Following the attack, the CVBG Ranger was diverted from port calls in Australia to the North Arabian Sea, where it operated for 122 days. On 26 February 1984, the withdrawal of the USMC contingent of the international peacekeeping force was completed.

On 14 June 1985, TWA Flight 847 was hijacked to Beirut by Shiite terrorists. The Nimitz CVBG was ordered from Italy to the Eastern Mediterranean, along with a Marine Amphibious Ready Group of 1,800 Marines. The Nimitz was on station in the Eastern Mediterranean until 24 July, following the release of the passengers and aircraft. Barely three months later, on 7 October, following the Palestinian terrorist hijacking of the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro, Sixth Fleet ships (including CV-60 Saratoga) moved to the eastern Mediterranean. On 10 October, F-14s from Saratoga forced an Egyptian airliner with the hijackers aboard to Italy, where the hijackers were taken into custody.

During February 1989, fighting in Beirut intensified. In mid-February, following the outbreak of fighting near the U.S. Embassy, the Marine Amphibious Ready Group was ordered to move to the Eastern Mediterranean for potential evacuation operations.

The versatility and capabilities inherent in naval expeditionary forces continued to be in high demand during the 1990s. The Marine Corps was continually in the Mediterranean with a number of ongoing peace-keeping operations in Bosinia, a noncombatant evacuation operation in Albania, and peace enforcement operations in Kosovo.

The U.S. Marine presence in the Mediterranean has clearly demonstrated the ability and resolve to support U.S. foreign policy interests in one of the most volatile regions of the world. In their current cycle of six-month deployments, the Mediterranean Marines, as in the days of Presley N. O'Bannon, stand ready to meet the challenges of the new century.

Reference Branch
Marine Corps History Division