Questions have been raised in certain circles about MARSOC’s future with the US’ role in Afghanistan winding down. It should be remembered, however, that the Marine Corps has a long history of unconventional warfare and special operations long predating SOCOM itself, never mind MARSOC.
On November 29, 1804, Lt. Presley O’Bannon, Midshipman George Mann, seven Marines, and William Eaton, the “Naval Agent for the Barbary States,” landed at Alexandria, Egypt. They were there in response to the seizure of the crew of the USS Philadelphia, after the Pasha of Tripoli, Yusut Karamanli, had declared a state of war with the United States because he was dissatisfied with the tribute payments he was receiving from the US in exchange for not preying on American ships in the Mediterranean.
Meeting up with Hamet, the Pasha’s disaffected brother, and an army of about five hundred Tripolitans and rebellious Mamelukes, with one hundred camels and a few mules, they set off for Derna, Tripoli, on March 8, 1805. Hamet actually was the former Pasha of Tripoli, having been overthrown by his brother in 1793 and exiled in 1795.
The trek was over five hundred miles across the Libyan desert. With a mercenary force consisting of about two hundred Christians and two hundred to three hundred Muslims, sectarian problems were a real concern. While the route took the army along the coast through El Alamein and Tobruk, supported from the sea by the USS Hornet, USS Argus, and USS Nautilus, conditions were still difficult. Early on in the march, some of the Arab cavalry tried to mutiny, and the Marines put them down at bayonet-point. Later, they became cut off from their seaborne supplies, and food and water started to get scarce. Eaton and O’Bannon convinced the mercenaries to kill and eat a pack camel, and put off another mutiny. Pay was also a problem; Eaton had landed with $20,000 to pay for the operation, but had used up the money by the time they got underway.
The ground force and the naval vessels reached Derna after a fifty-day march across the desert. On the morning of April 26, 1805, Eaton sent a letter to Mustapha Bey, the governor of Derna, demanding his surrender. The reply was, “My head or yours!” Two days of maneuvering later, with fire support coming from the three warships off the coast, the Marines and their Arab and Greek mercenaries attacked.
Eaton himself carried a musket on the attack, and was wounded in the wrist. Out of the five hundred mercenaries and US Marines, only fourteen men were killed, two of them Marines. The US flag was raised over the city, marking the first time it had been raised over foreign soil.
Reinforcements from Tripoli arrived after the city had fallen. They briefly laid siege before attempting to storm the city on May 13. They were repulsed by the Marines and mercenaries without losses to the defenders.
The loss of Derna had Yusuf feeling the pressure, and he began to contact the Americans to sue for peace. On June 4, 1805, a peace treaty was signed by Yusuf and Consul Tobias Lear. The signing of the treaty put an end to plans to reinstate Hamet as a friendly Pasha, and he was taken back to Egypt.
Hamet offered Eaton a jeweled Mameluke sword in thanks for his efforts. That sword became the basis for the Marine officer’s sword.
The first foreign use of the Marine Corps in combat was a mission involving a small team forming an alliance with local forces to overthrow an enemy. Pretty much the definition of unconventional warfare. MARSOC may stay, or it may go, or it may be transformed into something completely different from what it is now, but unconventional warfare is a long-standing part of the Marine Corps’ heritage, and if it is to remain the Marine Corps, that can’t be forgotten.