On 3 May 1946, a little-known battle fought off the coast of San Fransisco on the infamous Alcatraz Island would determine the fate of the U.S. Marines.
To understand the importance of the battle on “The Rock,” we need to first set the stage for what life was like for the Marines in post-war America during the mid-1940s.
Back From the War
When the calendar flipped over to 1946, WWII had just concluded and battle-hardened troops were returning stateside to their families and a new normal. These men had been a part of ferocious battles in Africa, Italy, and all over the Pacific on islands like Iwo Jima and Okinawa. The men who returned home had made it through what many consider to be the toughest war in human history. By the time the war ended, the men who had survived these battles were hardened, decorated, and skilled weapons of war.
Upon their return home, U.S. troops were met with a newly minted “G.I. Bill,” that allowed them to get an education or buy a house or a farm. Radio was becoming ever more popular and television was starting to break through into American culture. Additionally, many professional athletes who had been to war had returned home and now were national heroes on multiple levels. Americans couldn’t seem to get enough of seeing these gods of both sport and war perform. America was certainly progressing beyond where it had been just a decade prior.
Nevertheless, the troops’ return home certainly wasn’t all sunshine and roses.
Besides the fact that the United States lost some 400,000 troops during the war, some of the roughly 670,000 soldiers who were wounded returned home with life-altering physical and mental conditions. There was also the mental shift for the troops as they put the war behind them and moved on with their lives. This shift was also reflected in the federal government’s decision to dramatically decrease the Marine Force by nearly 80 percent.
The U.S. Naval Institute (USNI) summed up the days following the end of the war perfectly:
“Although World War II was over, 1946 was a tough year for all of the services. The overwhelming victory in the war, while gratefully appreciated, also resulted in a desire for the country to move forward. The time for fighting was over, and Americans wanted to build sports cars and yachts instead of jeeps and landing craft. Demobilizing was not a simple process, however, and the government had to make some tough decisions. The Marine Corps, for instance, was reduced from a peak strength of 485,000 Marines during the war to a peacetime level of 100,000.”
The U.S. Government was still trying to decide where Marines fit into the Armed Services equation. Over the last two world wars, the role of each military branch had shifted from its originally stated purpose. Further, cross-training (and fighting) on both land and water was changing the original structure of the U.S. military. The Marine Corps faced the possibility of becoming obsolete. Nonetheless, the Marines, even at a strength of just 100,000, were still a very formidable fight force, their ranks filled with battle-hardened NCOs veterans of the Pacific War.
USMC Warrant Officer Charles Buckner
Like so many other men, Tennessee-native and Marine Warrant Officer Charles Buckner, a veteran of the Bougainville and Guam campaigns, began to settle back into life in the U.S. Buckner was a decorated war hero who, in 1945, had been awarded a Silver Star for his heroic actions during the invasion of Guam. Buckner had disregarded his personal safety and traversed through enemy troops and gunfire in order to reach the high ground. He had then set up his machine gun and opened fire on enemy positions, causing them to scatter. Two days later, Buckner had been wounded by sniper fire, but he had refused to leave his men alone on the island, disobeying a direct order to be evacuated. Warrant Officer Buckner had returned home a decorated war hero.
Then one day, Buckner received a telegram saying that there was a prison escape attempt at Alcatraz. The guards needed reinforcements to secure the prison and the island. According to the press, the lives of the guards were at stake and the convicts were desperate. Prison officials reported their situation as “difficult and precarious.”
Putting down one or two unruly prisoners was certainly within the training and capability of the guards. Yet this riot was different. Almost the whole inmate population had escaped from their cells. Nine guards were being held as hostages. The prisoners had shot five of them and killed one. An attempt by the guards to retake the prison and free their fellow officers had resulted in four more being wounded and another killed. Clearly, the correctional officers were in way over their heads. So, the Warden decided to ask for assistance from the Marines on Treasure Island further up the bay.
This set the stage for W.O. Buckner and his combat-hardened men to come in and restore order on “The Rock.”
Marines vs Alcatraz Inmates
Yet, the Alcatraz mission would be a bit different than Buckner’s last. This was a mission that would be fought on American soil against American citizens.
When W.O. Buckner got the message, he gathered about 30 Marines from the Treasure Island barracks near San Francisco, and they headed towards Alcatraz.
I try to put myself into these Marines’ mindset when they received word of that unique mission and were en route to retake Alcatraz. After fighting across Europe and the Pacific, did these men differentiate the prisoners at Alcatraz from their previous enemies? Back from battle, were they bored at home and happy to get the call for another fight? Were they angry that they were called up to quell this disturbance, or were they excited to administer justice in their now very specialized way?
Did they have the same disdain for the prisoners at Alcatraz as they had for their European and Japanese enemies or was a small part of them excited to visit the historic island and make yet another mark on American history? It’s hard to say and the feelings probably ranged widely from man to man. I think personally I would’ve had bits and pieces of each of those thoughts if I’d have been one of the Marines chosen to secure Alcatraz.
Regardless of their thoughts, however, one thing was clear from the start: If the Marines are sent in, they are coming for blood.
Flamethrowers and Bazookas
When the Marines landed on Alcatraz, they came bearing the firepower of World War Two. They were carrying flamethrowers, bazookas, light machines guns, automatic rifles, and hundreds of grenades.
Many of them would have been familiar with what it took to root Japanese soldiers out from deep caves and bunkers. Alcatraz would have been a reminder of that experience. The prison was basically an enormous steel-reinforced concrete bunker cut into the rock of an island in the middle of San Fransisco Bay.
Once on the island, some of the Marines secured prisoners in the outside prison yard while others shot automatic weapons and mortars into Alcatraz’s windows to force the convicts to hunker down in their cells. The USNI wrote, “The inmates who were outside the cell blocks were herded into the prison yard and kept under guard by the Marines. Very few of the prisoners challenged the armed Leathernecks. Although most of the Marines were still in their teens, they were battle-hardened, having recently returned from Pacific campaigns, and were little impressed by the reputation of the ‘cons.'”
The Marines continued lobbing mortars into the prison, further filling it with dense smoke. But the convicts were yet to wave the white flag of surrender. The battle lasted through the night and into the following morning. At that point, W.O. Buckner decided to end the battle using overwhelming firepower. The Marines’ volleys of automatic gunfire, mortars, grenades, and tear gas were more than Alcatraz’s interior infrastructure could handle. According to Alcatraz History, “The concussions were fierce and the prisoners in D Block hid behind soaking wet mattresses with little protection. The barrage of gunfire, mortars, and teargas was ceaseless. Water from the broken plumbing started flowing from the tiers and flooding D Block.”
Sewage pipes burst with seemingly every explosion leaking waste onto the floors. Electric lines were tattered causing live wires to be strewn about the interior. Chunks of debris were scattered about the prison and the inmates were cold, wet, and hungry. Some of them were injured and no doubt just plain terrified. All that damage had quickly caused the prisoners to determine that they wished no further confrontation with the Marines.
Most of the convicts negotiated surrender. Yet three men, Bernie Coy, Joseph Cretzer, and Marvin Hubbard, decided to fight on. The three remaining convicts had decided to die fighting, as surrender meant death in San Quentin’s gas chamber.
The Convicts’ Last Stand
Coy, Cretzer, and Hubbard barricaded themselves into a cavity within the utility corridor and waited to ambush the guards as they entered. But the guards never showed up.
W.O. Buckner, perhaps sensing that entering the cell block would be leading guards straight into an ambush, concocted a plan. According to the USNI,
“Buckner, a seasoned veteran, knew explosives. Climbing to the cell house roof, he drilled holes in the roof along the track of the crawl space corridor. Most of this area consisted of ventilation shafts that ran over the crawl space. Using two strings (one to pull the firing pin), he systematically lowered fragmentation and concussion grenades into the tight area. Varying the height and position of the explosions, he cleared the expanse along the cell block, blasting every portion of the enclosure.”
In a period of a few hours, Buckner dropped approximately 500 grenades throughout the convicts’ location. No man could’ve lived through that grenade barrage.
The prison guards entered the cell block and found the three remaining convicts dead and covered in bullet and shrapnel wounds. I wonder if at that time W.O. Buckner considered the old adage, “I’m not sure how many [grenades] it took to kill them, but I know how many we used.”
And with that, the short Battle of Alcatraz was over. Warrant Officer Buckner’s platoon of Marines didn’t suffer a single casualty.
The Importance of the Marines’ Actions in Alcatraz
The “Devil-Dogs” had again proven their value. And in doing so had perhaps singlehandedly revitalized the Marine Corps’ standing in the United States military and realigned its mission focus moving forward.
As the U.S. Naval Institute writes:
“The Marine Corps had served well in earlier smaller missions: guarding the mail, stopping seal poaching in the Arctic, and protecting American legations and embassies around the world. The inclusion of an all-encompassing task for the Marines in the National Security Act of 1947, ‘and such other duties as the President may direct,’ reflected these actions, and gave the president the flexibility to send in Marines to solve similar problems short of war, as at Alcatraz… although small by any standard, the Battle of Alcatraz may have been one of the most important fights ever engaged in by Marines. It occurred at a time when the very existence of the Corps was on the line, and reports of the action appeared in papers throughout the nation.”
The Marine Corps was again solidified as one of the premier fighting organizations in our country.
If you’ve never had a chance to visit “The Rock,” I highly recommend it. One gets a magical feeling of nostalgia when standing on “Broadway” between cell blocks or when seeing the battle scars the building still wears after the bloody battle with W.O. Buckner’s troops. When you get the chance to visit, consider for a moment what W.O. Buckner and his men must’ve encountered that fateful day in May; the day the Marines fire-bombed Alcatraz and took back control from some of the most dangerous criminals in America. And then, pause in solitude and thank God for the existence of the United States Marine Corps. Hoorah!
This article was originally published in May 2021. It has been edited for republication.