Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Holland "Howling Mad" Smith, USMC, in the Great War

Lt. Smith Before WWI
Holland McTyeire Smith became a notable leader and innovator in amphibious warfare during the interwar period. He would later command Marine forces in the Pacific Theater during the Second World War culminating with the conquest of Iwo Jima. He was highly controversial, criticizing the sister services and the Marine Corps at times. He earned the nickname "Howling Mad" Smith and was known to use his fierce temper as weapon. 

Born in Seale, Alabama, in 1882 Smith graduated from Auburn University in 1901 and then received a law degree from the University of Alabama in 1903. He joined the United States Marine Corps as a second lieutenant on 20 March 1905.

He was military commander of Puerto Plata on Santo Domingo's north coast when the United States entered the First World War in April 1917. Within a month Capt. Smith and his company were ordered to Philadelphia where the 5th Regiment was being formed for service in France.

Maj. Smith on the Western Front
He sailed with the first convoy of American troops in mid-June 1917 in command of the 8th Machine Gun Company. Early in 1918 he became, as a major, brigade adjutant of the 4th Marine Brigade. The brigade saw action in a quiet section of trenches near Verdun and then was plunged into the battle for Belleau Wood. Major Smith's role in all this was not dramatic. He had moved from being brigade adjutant to brigade liaison officer. As such he was next assigned to the staff of I Corps, First Army. From this perspective he saw Soissons, St. Mihiel, and the Meuse-Argonne.

In an article, "Liaison," which appeared in the September 1919 Marine Corps Gazette, he called liaison "the nerve center of command." Much of what he called "liaison" is now called "fire support coordination." ("The artillery cannot act efficaciously unless it is in intimate liaison with the infantry which it is supporting.") After being briefly with the Army of Occupation in Germany he came home in March 1919 to duty at Marine Barracks, Norfolk, Virginia. The following year he was sent to the Naval War College at Newport, Rhode Island. He found it "bogged down in obsolescence," particularly in the area of amphibious warfare.

Following his graduation, he was named to the Joint Army-Navy Planning Committee, a kind of forerunner of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, headed by the Chief of Staff of the Army and the Chief of Naval Operations. The planners were already quite certain that Japan was the most likely opponent and were devoting thought to a war in the Pacific. He was the first Marine to be so assigned.

Lt. General Smith on the Beach at Iwo Jima

Sources:  Fortitude: Bulletin of the Marine Corps Historical Program, Fall 1989; WWII Database


  1. I recently spent three weeks on Saipan with the Red Cross due to Typhoon Soudelor and while there had a great opportunity to study the WWII Invasion of Saipan in June/July 1944 which consisted of the 2nd & 4th Marine Divisons and the Army 27th Div (NY National Guard). L Gen Smith was the overall commander of the invasion force which at the time was the largest amphibious invasion force of the war for the US and the highest number of battle deaths 3,400+ among US forces. The 27th Div was responsible for taking the airport which would enable the USA to bomb Tokyo and the Philippines with our new B 29 Superfortress . "Howling Holland" created a great controversy when he removed M Gen Ralph Smith ( no relation) as commander of the 27 Div for not moving fast enough. "Howling" had never visited the grounds or listened to subordinate briefings. The ground was far more difficult and the Japanese were going to defend the airport ( on the northern end of the island ) with everything they had. Gen George Marshall was especially upset at the Marine Corps contempt for the Army and specifically at "Howling Holland".

    1. I've heard stories about another "revered" marine, Chesty Puller, as well. It seems these fellows' histories are glorified like folklore heroes, but the less articulate who slug it out under their command are rarely heard. Being loosey goosey with others lives to gain an objective during wartime is more common than many will admit. Douglas MacArthur for all his criticism had the lowest casualty rates, he was brilliant; able to accomplish the objective with finesse rather than "...well you just have to tough it out old boy..." ...Jasper Jarome Crabbe

  2. Howling Mad had enemies among Marine officers as well. His biographer stated he did not suffer fools gladly. At Makin Island the 27th Inf. Div. also moved slowly, albeit it's first real battle. Where 600 Japanese held up a division, while the Marines fought almost five thousand at Tarawa. The 27th still almost pure NYNG, suffered like many other national guard divisions in early part of war were poorly trained, commanded in most cases by overage officers. After the change of command, the division performed creditably at Okinawa. Much of the controversy dealt with a Marine officer relieving an Army commander. The Army clung to the belief that Marine officers were not capable of commanding large formations of troops, despite evidence to contrary. The élan of the Marines, willing to accept casualties to gain the objective to the more deliberate pace of the army officers who preferred to use more deliberate means to achieve the missions

  3. Ask members of the 32nd Division who survived the "Villa Verde Trail Operation their opinion of the "careful General McArthur" A different story entirely.

    D.L. Combs USMC (Ret)