By Bruce F. Meyers
Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2004. ISBN 1591144841. 192 pages, 19 photographs, 9 maps. (Publisher cites 224 pages, 25 photographs, 14 maps.) Hardcover. 6 x 9 inches. $26.95 US
Reviewed by Michael C. Potter (March 2005)
Swift, Silent, and Deadly describes the origin, evolution, and activities of the U.S. Marine Corps’s specialized small units for amphibious reconnaissance. This book will be most useful to readers who already have a good understanding of American strategy in the Pacific war. To see where recon units affected the operational plans for the Pacific campaign a reader needs the Naval Institute Historical Atlas of the U.S. Navy by the same publisher or something similar.Bruce F. Meyers is a postwar recon veteran and unit commander and brings first-hand knowledge to his subject. He plausibly asserts that this short book is the first complete overview of these units’ activities in World War II. General James Jones, USMC, formerly the Commandant of the USMC and currently SACEUR, is the son of a WW2 recon battalion commander and assisted Colonel Meyers in researching this book.Chapters 1–4 describe the equipment and training of the recon units. Originating in 1941, the first recon teams comprised USMC, Navy, and Army personnel. American forces trained with the Royal Marines to gain knowledge. During the war the recon functions became specialized within their parent services. The Navy specialists became independent underwater demolition teams (UDTs) and later the SEALs. This book focuses on the USMC.To me "Tools of the Trade" is the most interesting chapter in this short book. The first units’ first transports were submarines, soon augmented by flying boats, PT boats, and destroyers converted to high-speed amphibious transports (APDs). To a naval-oriented reader, this book usefully records the operational contributions of these often overlooked craft, albeit with only occasional details. PT-109 under Lt(jg) John F. Kennedy, USNR, was involved in recon operations.Chapters 5–11 describe all recon operations of the Pacific campaign from the Solomon Islands to Okinawa. Marine recon comprised sea-based guerrilla units. They worked directly for the operational commander at the USMC division level and higher levels. These were not tactical assault units. Instead they performed their key missions during the planning stages for future operations. Operating ahead of the generally know forward edge of the battle area, recon units several times suffered friendly fire. The author corrects other histories in pointing out that USS Sante Fe (CL 60), not an escorting destroyer, hit the transport submarine USS Nautilus (SS 168), since the shell was 6-inch. The damaged submarine continued her mission. The Marines thought their rubber boats were safer.This book gives insights into sound decisions of the island-hopping Pacific campaign. Recon missions collected material for operational intelligence (a term not used in the book), during the operational planning phase before seeking battle. To decide whether a particular island was even feasible as an objective, the theater commander needed to know whether and where the island was susceptible to amphibious assault. In 200 landings recon units clandestinely visited potential objective islands to evaluate their defenses and their potential for airfields. An example is that the large Solomon Island of Choiseul was bypassed, no doubt avoiding many casualties, after a recon team found its soil unsuitable for an airfield. A more precise characterization of the value of the recon units than swift, silent, and deadly would be early, stealthy, and informed.
At the pinnacle among these units were amphibious corps recon battalions and Force Recon, reporting to the commanding general of the Fleet Marine Force, Pacific. During the Okinawa campaign a general with a perhaps too high opinion of his recon battalion ordered the unit to collect local venomous serpents for use in creating antivenom. The battalion commander (the present General Jones’ father) passed the order to a baffled subordinate recon company whose Marines, not surprisingly, had never sought nor caught a live poisonous snake. Their skills did however include working with the local populace. The recon Marines successfully bartered with villagers, recent enemies, to collect baskets of them.The concluding chapter cites postwar operations from Korea to Vietnam to Iraq. Parachuting became a new method for insertion. Colonel Meyers discusses his personal career in postwar units, including force recon. The book includes small photographs, maps of several islands, a glossary, end notes, a bibliography, an index, and an autobiography.
Limitations in this book: The maps are inadequate. Editing could be better. Several names are misspelled, including Admiral Richard Conolly and Vice Admiral Marc Mitscher, whose names also are missing from the index. Perhaps the errors appeared in original source documents. The Gato-class submarines are cited as the "Guppy" class. The tiny photographs would be more legible and more interesting if printed lengthwise.
Recon missions always were components of naval operations. This book never describes a complete naval-Marine recon operation, from embarkation aboard the transport ship through debarkation at the end. It does describe the ship-shore-ship sortie process. A typical raid lasted about 5 days ashore. A book on this subject could usefully show more about the impact of these missions on successful operational planning. Graphical timelines would be useful to show when these recon missions occurred during the planning and preparation phase for each landing. Reference to modern concepts and terminology such as operational intelligence would make these events clearer to professionals today.
The above criticism notwithstanding, this book is worth reading for its insights into how these missions influenced operational decisions in a successful war effort. Motivation of sailors in navies with these capabilities today will be higher if the sailors understand the importance of such missions.