USMC Lt. Gen. Graves B. Erskine

General Graves Erskine

By Bryan Mark Rigg

Background

USMC Lt. General Graves Blanchard Erskine (the “Big E” or “Blood and Guts”) was born on 28 June 1897 in Columbia, Louisiana and descended from strong Southern roots—his maternal grandfather had fought for the Confederacy. He was also proud of his Scottish roots that came from the vicinity of Glasgow. His clan’s motto is “Je Pense Plus” (I think more). Erskine’s military life proves that he lived according to his family’s motto and “thought more.” He was one of the smartest generals the Marine Corps has ever produced.

School and Enlistment

Before World War I, he graduated from high school at the age of 15, where he was class valedictorian. Thereafter, he served in the Louisiana State Guard rising to the rank of sergeant while studying for his bachelor’s, which he received from Louisiana State University in 1917. In that year, he entered the Marines and in 1918, he deployed to France and fought at Belleau Wood, Chateau-Thierry and St. Mihiel. In one battle, he took shrapnel to his hip and leg, but refused to leave his unit. However, his luck ran out on 15 September, when a bullet shattered his lower right leg—one bone was sticking six inches out of his body. He received the Silver Star and a Purple Heart. After recovering, he rose through the ranks. He spent time overseas in Haiti, Nicaragua, Japan and China (American Legation in Beijing 1935-37). Soon after his time in China in 1937, he joined the staff of then Brigadier General Holland M. “Howlin’ Mad” Smith to help develop amphibious warfare, eventually becoming Smith’s Chief of Staff. When World War II broke out, he helped train Marine and Army officers about amphibious warfare and oversaw the training of the Army units that assaulted the island of Attu, Alaska in May 1943 to take it back from the Japanese. 

Colonel Erskine developed much of the guts of how a nation should conduct amphibious warfare. Erskine explored the details of how Marines should be berthed on a ship before an assault, how amphibious tractors (amtracs) should be used ahead of Higgins boat landings, and how the men should deploy on the beach once leaving their crafts. He developed the procedures on how to ascertain when the beachhead was secured enough by the amtracs and Higgins-borne troops ashore (called Erskine’s “amphibious blitzkrieg”) in order to then bring to the beaches the LCIs (Landing Craft, Infantry—158-foot vessels) that could deploy up to 200 troops and all their equipment and LSTs (Landing Ship, Tank—382 foot vessels) that could land tanks, jeeps, artillery batteries and trucks from their bow-butterfly doors to provide a second wave of overwhelming power against the enemy. 

Moving Up The Ranks

Erskine became Smith’s right-hand-man and as Chief of Staff, Erskine ran the outfit behind the scenes allowing Smith to keep amphibious operations in Marine hands by looking after the politics. 

As Smith’s Chief of Staff, Erskine had one of the most important jobs in the Corps. When Brigadier General Mike Edson took over Erskine’s role as Chief of Staff of Amphibious Warfare Operations once Erskine took over the 3rd Marine Division in late 1944, Edson wrote of this billet that it “was easily the fourth, and maybe the third, most important post in the entire Marine Corps and the success or failure of the Corps [resided in this position].” In short, Erskine was largely responsible for developing the operational warfare for the new and more powerful Marine Corps that destroyed Japanese-held islands throughout World War II—his fingerprints, if not his whole stamp of approval, were on most of all the major island campaigns.  

Erskine’s handsome and muscled face and body looked like an advertising ideal for the Corps. Standing at a lean 6’0”, he loved physical fitness and was very strong. He had a sharp tongue and behind his clear, green eyes lurked a mind full of curiosity ripe with critical analysis. 

His keen mind was apparent in his military strategy. He was recommended for a Navy Distinguished Service Medal for his role planning the assaults at Saipan and Tinian. In the end, the award was downgraded to a Legion of Merit, which he received from US Navy Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz. 

After Saipan and Tinian, now Lieutenant General Holland Smith ordered Major General Erskine to assume command of the 3rd Marine Division and when Erskine did so in October 1944, he found it was “in rather poor condition” and “not functioning as a division” because it was divided up into three regimental combat teams. There was no central 3rd MarDiv command controlling all regiments; instead, all three regiments acted independently with 3rd MarDiv support behind them. Erskine felt the division “should be a very highly integrated organization, and it should be absolutely sensitive to the division headquarters,” so Erskine reorganized the command structure. Instead of troops being divided into “four parts” of three combat teams and a fourth comprised of artillery and medical support, Erskine made everything unified under his command. One of his officers claimed his nickname was “Flamethrower” and if you did not “stand up to him, you were a dead duck.”  Anyone showing fear of Erskine would be dismissed. Junior officers had to know everything about their unit’s weapons or there was hell to pay. He wanted hard, driven men under his command who could tell him the unvarnished truth. 

“Toughen Up”

During training, Erskine conducted forced marches and personally led them. At 46, the 6’0” and 200-pound Erskine carried the same gear and frequently led his division in “humping.” “I wish he would slow down,” Medal of Honor recipient Woody Williams said. “He was so tall that for every step he took, I had to take two. He really believed in conditioning….” Hiking was the best way to “toughen up a soldier” in Erskine’s opinion. He also conducted several exercises with live ammunition and, although there were accidents, he insisted such exercises saved men when the enemy bullets started flying.  

Iwo Jima

When Iwo Jima began on 19 February 1945, Erskine’s division was sitting out at sea in reserve in case things got bad on the island. Well, after just one day, the situation got real bad on the island and two of his regiments (the 21st and 9th Marines) hit the shores on 21 February. The first few days, these regiments were attached to the 4th Marine Division, commanded by Major General Clifton Cates, and helped the 4th MarDiv secure its gains and supported its badly mauled units. The 3rd MarDiv remained under Cates until Erskine arrived three days later and officially took back command on 25 February. Erskine was in the heat of battle: “Our headquarters…was not over 500 yards, I don’t think, from the front line. We’d frequently get a spray of machine gun fire.” While in his Command Post, Erskine’s signal officer was talking on the phone when suddenly he grabbed his carbine and shot two attacking “Japs” right before they entered. Erskine believed, if you were not on the front lines, you cannot lead Marines properly. 

After one week on the island, Erskine’s 3rd MarDiv played one of the most important roles on Iwo. It spearheaded the middle thrust up the island “confronting the hostile main [enemy] battle position,” taking over the main airfields and destroying key fortifications. It was the most heavily fortified part of the island. Although it may have been given this vital role because the 5th and 4th Marine Divisions had suffered so many casualties the first days of battle when the 3rd MarDiv sat safely off shore, and thus had rested men, it now had the responsibility of taking the island’s airfields that stretched across Iwo’s middle. Since Imperial Japanese General Tadamichi Kuribayashi had placed most of his defenses in the interior, Erskine faced a large burden for victory, a burden he skillfully bore. 

Erskine’s modus operandi was to explore the enemy’s defenses and, as soon as he sensed a weak spot, he brought all the fire power he had to hit the enemy at the spot of least resistance. According to Marine Corps sources, when he gained momentum, “he exploited the situation by committing reserves at the flanks and through the gaps.” By seizing the initiative and moving forward past the two airfields and beyond “the shambles that was Motoyama Village,” Erskine’s division “cut its way through the main line of resistance into the guts of Iwo Jima.” Erskine maintained momentum up “a narrow front and envelop[ed] the bypassed enemy positions from the rear rather than utilize frontal assault up the entire zone of action. These ideas were a distinct departure from assault doctrine used in most previous Marine campaigns.” 

At this time, reports about how well the Marine divisions progressed made it back to Washington. In President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s last address to Congress on 1 March 1945, he said, “The Japs now know what it means to hear that the United States Marines have landed.” When he said this, Congress erupted in applause. He then claimed Iwo was “well in hand.” There was pride in what the Marines were accomplishing on Iwo Jima. 

Eventually, Erskine’s split the Japanese garrison in half and helped secure the island.  Smith said that Erskine was the general who broke the back of General Kuribayashi on Iwo Jima. After the island was secured, Erskine gave a dedication at the 3rd MarDiv’s cemetery. With tears in his eyes, he said:

“There is nothing I can say which is wholly adequate to the occasion…Only the accumulated praise of time will pay proper tribute to our valiant dead. Long after those who lament their immediate loss are themselves dead, these men will be mourned by the nation. They are the nation’s loss…Victory was never in doubt. Its cost was. The enemy could have displaced every cubic inch of volcanic ash on this fortress with concrete pillboxes and blockhouses, which he nearly did, and still victory would not have been in doubt…Let the world count our crosses…Then when they understand the significance of the fighting for Iwo…let them wonder at how few there are…Let us do away with names, with ranks and rates and unit designations, here. Do away with terms, regular, reserve, veteran, boot, old timer, replacement. They are categorizing words which belong only in the adjutant’s dull vocabulary. Here lie only…Marines.” 

Legacy

According to General Anthony Zinni, Commander in Chief of U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) from 1997 to 2000, Erskine was one of the Corps’ most brilliant general officers during World War II. Historian Robert Burrell agrees with this study’s assessment as well as Zinni’s observation writing that Erskine was “one of the most experienced and intelligent Marine officers of the Pacific.” After the war, Erskine, in describing what he did during the war, simply stated if any nation threatened his country and killed “his Marines,” he would destroy it—and he was a major player in helping “destroy” Japan. 

For his leadership on Iwo, Erskine was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal endorsed by President Harry S. Truman and Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal. This medal is given to those who have exhibited extraordinary service with great responsibility. His citation read in part: 

“For exceptionally meritorious service… in a duty of great responsibility as Commanding General of the [3rd MarDiv], prior to and during the seizure of enemy Japanese-held Iwo…Inculcating in the officers and men of his regiments his own indomitable spirit of determination…Erskine welded his organization into a formidable fighting command… he deployed his units in support of the assault divisions according to plan, quickly assumed control of a difficult sector of the line and waged fierce battle against the fanatic Japanese garrisons. A bold tactician, he maintained his division well in the forefront of the assault, pushing the relentless advance inch by inch through the enemy’s intricate network of defenses to make tortuous but steady progress over the fire-swept terrain, blasting strongly fortified gun positions and fighting off repeated counterattacks as he moved his battalions inexorably forward. Ultimately breaking through to the north coast…he succeeded in splitting the defending Japanese forces into two disorganized and vulnerable groups. Constantly rallying his tried, depleted units…Erskine by his undaunted valor, tenacious perseverance and resolute fortitude in the face of overwhelming odds, inspired his stouthearted Marines in heroic effort…. His dynamic leadership and decisive conduct throughout were important factors in the successful conclusion of the…Campaign.”

 

It was rare for generals in WWII to lead their men from the front, but Erskine was in the fighting lines during combat from 24-28 February. He knew the best way to lead was to get to the front to “see what is happening,” and he proved this was not just empty bravado. He had been shot up by Germans attacking their machine gun nests at Thiaucourt in 1918, and had faced one of the most skillful Japanese generals of WWII and helped beat him. His DSM citation notes he knew firsthand what his Marines had to do in order to secure victory, and he was right there pushing his men forward. Leadership and energy trickle down the ranks and most men in a unit reflect their leader. On an island where Marines proved they were an elite force, Erskine showed that his 3rd MarDiv performed above the average. The 3rd MarDiv Marines’ unique status was forged in the cauldron of fighting against the best on the island and learning how to defeat them. The cost was high—most who landed with the 3rd MarDiv on 21 February were no longer in the ranks by 1 April when its cemetery was full.  In pushing his men, Erskine’s forces suffered heavy casualties, and he and others had solemn moments reflecting on the battle. When Erskine spoke at the cemetery where thousands of his boys lay, he had no idea he would be so praised as in his DSM citation. Erskine’s Marines and those of the other two divisions, according to Secretary of the Navy Forrestal, had just taken a critical step “in the sequence of doom for Japan.” U.S. Army Air Force General Curtis LeMay said, “Having Iwo Jima, Guadalcanal, Guam, Saipan and other islands in the chain as airbases, really won the war for us…without them, it would’ve taken another year or longer to win, maybe 100,000 more American lives lost, until we dropped the atomic bombs.” And due to Erskine’s brilliant planning of the amphibious attacks on Saipan and Tinian and his combat leadership on Iwo, he helped generals like LeMay accomplish their goals of bringing the war to a quick end through air power. 

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