While Marine Recon got its start in World War II, with the Raiders and the 1st Marine Division’s Amphibious Reconnaissance Company, much of what Recon is today is thanks to Marine Test Unit 1.
After the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, most of the US military started trying to shift their doctrine to a model of a nuclear battlefield. At the time, it was assumed that nuclear weapons would become an integral part of warfare, much like gas had in WWI. As a result of this shift in doctrine, the services started looking at how to operate in a nuclear environment.
In 1946, Col. Robert Cushman (later to become Commandant of the Marine Corps) authored a staff report to the Commandant, Gen. Vandegrift. In this report, Col. Cushman argued that the kind of mass amphibious landings of WWII were no longer viable on the nuclear battlefield–the massed amphibious formations moving into a relatively small beachhead would be easy targets for tactical nuclear weapons. He presented the idea that the Marine Corps had to broaden its focus to a dispersed area of operations up to 200 miles deep, spreading its units around so as to make smaller and harder to hit targets. In this way, a single nuke couldn’t take out the better part of a Marine Division.
At the time, Col. Cushman’s concepts for increased mobility and dispersion weren’t within the Marine Corps’ capabilities. It wasn’t until the helicopter operations in Korea in 1951 that it began to look like it was possible.
In 1954, Commandant Lemuel C. Shepherd Jr. ordered the formation of Marine Test Unit 1 in order to work out new tactics, equipment, and techniques for the nuclear battlefield. Originally intended to consist of a regimental headquarters and service company, an infantry battalion, a 75mm anti-tank platoon, a mortar platoon, a 75mm pack howitzer battery, along with a medium helicopter squadron, three scout helicopters, and supported by six F9F-2 Panther attack aircraft, it took some doing to put it together. The air wing didn’t want to cough up the air assets, citing “operational commitments.” But on July 1, 1954, the unit was activated at Camp Horno, aboard Camp Pendleton, CA.
There were four broad mission taskings assigned to the unit. 1.) Evolve organizational concepts for the Marine landing force under conditions of nuclear warfare. 2.) Determine requirements for lightweight weapons and equipment to permit maximum tactical exploitation of nuclear weapons. 3.) Develop tactics and techniques responsive to the full employment of nuclear weapons. 4.) Evolve operational concepts, transportation requirements, and techniques to enable fast attack force ships and submarines, or a combination of such shipping and airlift, for movement to the objective area and ship-to-shore movement. In addition to these objectives, there were thirty further tasks presented in the form of questions that the Marine Corps wanted Test Unit 1 to answer. Among these questions (although rather far down the list) were reconnaissance requirements.
In March, 1955, Test Unit 1 participated in Desert Rock VI, a tactical nuclear weapons exercise in Nevada. Marines from Test Unit 1 were in the air, in helicopters, minutes after nuclear detonation, conducting a successful maneuver to contact in a nuclear environment. (An analysis of radiation exposure these men endured can be found here. It’s a bit technical, but it lays out the data available.)
It was after Desert Rock VI that Test Unit 1 really started to look at new reconnaissance requirements, and in September of 1955, the reconnaissance platoon was formed, with an officer and 13 enlisted men. The officer chosen was Capt. Joseph Z. Taylor, who had until recently been a company commander with 3rd Reconnaissance Bn. in Japan. The enlisted personnel were mandated to be between the rank of Corporal and Staff Sergeant (though Bruce F. Meyers, in his first-hand history of 1st Force, Fortune Favors the Brave, says that in the case of outstanding candidates, they would select Marines of the rank of PFC or Lance Corporal), be second-class swimmers at minimum, volunteer for parachute duty, and any under the rank of SSgt had to be unmarried. It was going to be hazardous duty and hard training.
While the initial training covered ground reconnaissance, much of which was already known by the Marines who volunteered, and SERE, it was in 1956 that things really started to get off the ground, as Captain Taylor and his Marines were finally able to get quotas to Jump School at Fort Benning. All of them passed with flying colors, especially as Meyers, who had already been a qualified parachutist (the only one in the unit at the time) had set up a pre-jump package for the men who were going to Benning.
After Jump School, the primary focus of the reconnaissance platoon became expanding the Marine capability for parachute insertion, extending the reach of Marine Reconnaissance beyond what helicopters and ground insertion could provide. They became free-fall jumpers, and began to jump every type of parachute available, including the Navy’s QAC and QFB parachutes, T-7A (standard reserve chutes at the time), and conical parachutes. They even had to jump in a full pressure suit. They encountered not a few problems in the course of this intensive parachute test-jumping, including hard openings, line-overs (where at least one of the parachute suspension lines is looped over the canopy–this prevents the canopy from fully inflating), and blown panels.
In addition to testing parachutes and different opening delays, the Marines were also expanding the list of aircraft they could jump from. Their jump logs included transport aircraft from all four services. Their most important, however, was to be the TF-1 Trader.
One of the chief objectives of this testing was to expand Marine parachute capability to carrier aircraft. The TF-1 was the primary carrier-capable transport aircraft at the time. On July 26, 1956, the Test Unit 1 Recon Marines actually inserted from the USS Bennington by TF-1, parachuting into El Centro. It was the first parachute insertion from a carrier. They also conducted the first Marine parachute jumps out of a jet aircraft, in this case the two-seat F3D Skyknight, in August of the same year.
Not everything being done by Test Unit 1’s Recon platoon was jumping, however. At the time, when working with helicopters, pathfinders were extremely important. The pathfinder would find and mark the LZ for the helos to come in. This entailed a considerable amount of work; the pathfinders had to parachute in, move undetected to the chosen LZ, set up comm with the rear, determine the LZ’s suitability, mark it, and talk in the aircraft. Much of the techniques for this pathfinding were developed by the Test Unit 1 Marines themselves.
In January, 1957, Test Unit 1 participated in the large-scale amphibious landing exercise Operation Ski Jump. The Marines were going to parachute into DZ Case Springs to conduct pathfinder and reconnaissance operations in advance of the rest of the exercise.
It went bad.
Severe winds that had not been detected beforehand caught the Marines’ parachutes, dragging them along the ground before they could be collapsed. Lt. Ken Ball, Cpl Ben Simpson, and PFC Matthew J. O’Neill were all killed, their skulls crushed. Both Simpson and O’Neill had been dragged over 1,000 feet. Parachutes at the time did not have quick-releases; the parachutist had to stand up to collapse his canopy, and the severity of the winds made it impossible. Several other Marines were knocked unconscious when they were dragged, but survived. As a result of the fatalities, the Capewell canopy release was installed on all Marine parachutes, allowing a parachutist to release his canopy if he is being dragged.
In April and May of 1957, Test Unit 1 began to wind down. Its mission had been accomplished, and as part of it, the concept of 1st Force Reconnaissance Company had been born. 1st Force was established on June 19th, 1957, largely made up of the Marines from Test Unit 1’s Recon platoon. Test Unit 1 was dissolved on June 30, 1957.