Lt. Col. Earl Hancock “Pete” Ellis is considered by many to be the “First Reconnaissance Marine,” due to his daring escapade in the Pacific in 1921, over two decades before what was to become 1st Recon Battalion was even formed. A military genius and a careful planner, he was responsible for much of the war plan followed in the Pacific Theater, though he didn’t live to see it.
Ellis enlisted in the Marine Corps in Chicago in 1900. He made Corporal by February, 1901. Following a request by Representative Chester Long, and some tutoring in order to pass the tests, he was commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant in December of the same year.
Over the next couple of years, he learned the ropes as a Marine officer, including a tour in the Philippines, where he is quoted as saying in a letter, “I think that this is the laziest life that a man could find – there is not a blamed thing to do except lay around, sleep and go ‘bug house’. But the same, I am helping to bear the ‘White Man’s Burden’.” He shortly thereafter gained a billet on the Kentucky.
In 1911, he returned to CONUS and attended the Naval War College, where he remained as a lecturer and instructor into 1913. The next year, now a Captain, he was assigned to study the defense of Guam, given the recent sightings of Imperial Japanese Navy warships in the area. It was while at Guam that Ellis began to form his belief that war with Japan was inevitable; he got a first-hand look at Japanese expansionist ambition.
When the US entered WWI, Ellis requested assignment to France, but was instead assigned to assist with standing up Marine Corps Base Quantico and instructing at what was to become Officer Candidate School. However, when 6th Marines were ordered to France, Col. Lejeune took Ellis with him.
In France, Ellis was put to work as a planner, and he was good at it. He was good enough, and dedicated enough–often at the detriment of his own health–that he was awarded the Croix de Guerre, the Legion d’Honneur, the Navy Distinguished Service Medal, and the Navy Cross, for planning the assault and seizure of Mont Blanc.
A raging alcoholic, Ellis was hospitalized several times for alcohol-related illnesses. There is a story that, during a dinner with a Navy Chaplain, Ellis got bored, so he shot the wine glasses off the table. He was also very outspoken, which turned detrimental to his career after the war. At a WWI veterans reunion shortly after the war, he went on a tirade about US foreign policy, criticizing an attitude of appeasement. By this time he was already thoroughly convinced that Japan was our inevitable enemy. When his speech showed up in the morning edition of the DC newspapers, Ellis became persona non grata with Capitol Hill.
While the Marine Corps received instructions in no uncertain terms to put a muzzle on then Major Ellis, when John Lejeune became Commandant in 1920, he immediately ordered Ellis to Washington.
Almost as soon as he arrived, Ellis disappeared into a small office, with “No Admittance” on the door. He was rarely seen outside his cubbyhole, day or night, and when he was, he invariable mumbled something about “special assignment” and retreated. In late spring, 1921, he emerged with a prophetic, 30,000-word document entitled “Advanced Base Operations in Micronesia.”
In this document, he outlined what he saw as the inevitable war with Japan. He even pinpointed the Japanese’ major targets, to include Hawaii, Wake, the Philippines, Midway, and Guam. He also pointed out the targets that the US would have to seize to counter the Japanese offensive, including the Marshall and Caroline Islands, proceeding up through the Marianas, the Philippines, and the Bonin Islands to Japan itself. Even though air power had yet to be accepted as a major factor in warfare, Ellis (who had attempted to get into air wing when he first joined the Marine Corps) foresaw the use of air attacks, and even some of the developments to come in warplanes, to include torpedo bombers.
He also made the point that, considering the US’ policy at the time, that the Japanese would attack first. He was right enough that “Advanced Base Operations in Micronesia” became the basis for “Operational Plan 712-H” or “War Plan Orange,” which was the guiding plan for the island-hopping campaign in World War 2, over forty years later.
None of this, however, makes Ellis the “First Recon Marine.” That came next.
Ellis was not on the best of ground, politically. His theories were going to be met with skepticism among the military, and be called war-mongering by the public. He needed proof. So, three months after finishing the document, he went on leave, officially to visit France, Belgium, and Germany. Curiously, his leave was approved by the Commandant the very same day it was submitted. Even more curiously, he is reported to have given General Lejeune a sealed envelope just before he left.
He was never seen in Europe. When he failed to return from leave, word from higher came down to extend it.
Ellis was heard from in June, 1922. He reported in from Cavite, saying he was proceeding. The response from General Feland simply said that his leave was extended by six months, and to continue.
The only information we have on Ellis’ movements after that came second- or third-hand. A trader named Otto Herrmann met him first in the Marshalls, and then again in the Carolines. Herrmann told the Department of the Pacific that the Japanese had been very angry with Ellis, wanted no foreigners in the Carolines, and intended to arrest Ellis for espionage.
In July, word reached the US that Ellis had died on Palau. Chief Pharmacist Lawrence Zembsch was dispatched from Yokohama to retrieve his ashes. When he returned, he was a complete physical and emotional wreck, apparently heavily drugged. Any further information died with him when the Yokohama earthquake collapsed the Yokohama Naval Hospital on him and his wife.
Exactly how Ellis died remains a mystery. That the Japanese considered him a spy and wanted to capture him is fairly certain. There are stories, however, about his continuing to drink heavily while on his mission, and the theory is out there that he simply drank himself to death. We may never know.
What is beyond doubt, however, is the man’s genius, and his own personal bravery and dedication in going into what could only be considered enemy territory, looking for the proof of his theory, a theory which would be borne out less than twenty years after his death.