Paul Torian and The Old Breed

“I was K Company, Third Battalion, Third Marine Regiment, and Third Marine Division.  So we’re K-3-3-3… which I’ve ordered for my license plate.” — Paul Torian, 2002

One of the initial impetuses for this project was my former commanding officer, Captain Nicholas ‘Nick’ Nuzzo, who suggested in early 2007 that I make a presentation for Kilo Company on the history of the unit.  I obviously couldn’t — it’s been hard enough doing research on the battalion, let alone a single company, but one of the side-effects was that I discovered Paul Torian (1920-2004).

During World War II Paul had served as the commanding officer for Kilo (or ‘King’) Company on Bougainville, where he was awarded the Navy Cross for his actions at the Battle of Piva Forks; he was also the battalion Operations Officer during the invasion of Guam.  He had brief cameo in the John Monks book A Ribbon and a Star, about the Third Marines on Bougainville.

In 2002 Paul did a series of video interviews with friend Dr. Dave Thompson at the Palm Springs Air Museum in California about his experiences during the war, mostly with 3/3.  In 2011 Dr. Thompson was nice enough to send me those interviews.

Early life, Dartmouth, and Camp Lejeune

Camp Lejeune (cont.), Samoa, and Bougainville

Bougainville (cont.), Guam, and his Navy Cross

Navy Cross (cont.) and postwar Marine service

Site News: I first began this site Memorial Day weekend in 2012 and am happy to say we’re nearly done with Afghanistan.  I’m hoping it’ll be all wrapped up in another month or so and then I can move on to other deployments.  We now have an Awards category, for Marines in the unit who received awards for valor.  Also, in honor of Memorial Day, I added memorials from 2006, 2011, as well as individual memorials for 1Lt Fleming, SSgt Ramseyer, Cpl Wrightsman, Cpl Estrella, and LCpl Plotts.

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Fortes Fortuna Juvat: The Third Marines

Third Marine Regimental Headquarters

Third Marine Regimental Headquarters

“Sir, my question is, now that the 3rd Marines have been allowed to show their abilities to the world, are we going to be entering into combat rotations in the near future?” — Question by unknown 1/3 Marine to Secretary of Defense Don Rumsfeld, December, 2004

Third Battalion is just one part of the Third Marine Regiment, the main ground force in the Third Marine Division (3/3/3: the source of its callsign, ‘Trinity’), and a unique unit in the Marine Corps.  Because of Hawaii’s isolated location and lack of higher-ups, the regiment has an unusual amount of autonomy and a reputation to match.

The island is widely seen as a cushy, relaxing post by most of the Marine Corps, which is news to the several thousand infantrymen who think of grueling hikes around Kahuku, weeks shivering at Pohakuloa on the Big Island, and constant bus rides to the few live-fire ranges on the island.  Also it’s incredibly cramped due to a chronic barracks shortage.  Because of the logistical nightmare of trying to simultaneously fit all three battalions at Marine Corps Base Hawaii, one is almost always deployed overseas.

In the first three years of the Global War on Terror, Third Marines kept its eye squarely on the Pacific.  Even while the First Marine Division raced towards Baghdad, the battalions of the Third Marines continued a steady cycle of Unit Deployment Programs to Okinawa, floats on Marine Expeditionary Units (MEUs) sailing around the Pacific, and some combat missions to the Philippines.

But in late 2004, Third Marines finally got into the War on Terror with a vengeance.  First Battalion, embarked on the 31st MEU, was deployed to Iraq in September as the theater reserve for the Second Battle of Fallujah.  In November, Third Battalion began its deployment to Afghanistan.

The pattern over the next seven years would be to cycle all three units continuously through the same battlespace: Regional Command East in Afghanistan (2004-2006), the Haditha Triad in Iraq (2006-2007), Karmah in Iraq (2007-2009), and Nawa District back in Afghanistan (2009-2011).  First and Third Battalions also deployed to Garmsir District in Afghanistan in 2011-2012.

In addition, Third Battalion conducted its own deployment to Iraq in 2009 as Task Force Military Police; that same year, Second Battalion did a one-time deployment into northern Helmand Province and western Farah.  Third Marine Regiment Headquarters conducted its only deployment to the Global War on Terror from 2008-2009 in Helmand Province, serving as the Ground Combat Element for the Marine surge and Operation Khanjar.

Third Battalion on a regimental run.

Third Battalion on a regimental run.

Throughout this whole time, Marines from the regiment were constantly moving back and forth between the battalions.  A whole group of Marines from First Battalion — including Sergeants David Christoff, Benjamin Snyder, and Gayle Anders — even volunteered to deploy with Third Battalion in 2006, despite having just survived Second Fallujah.  Not all relations were as cordial: Second and Third Battalions had a complicated rivalry that lasted through most of this period (more on this later).

There were other Marines who wound up doing individual augment deployments to units already in combat.  One of the first Marines from Third Battalion to die in the Global War on Terror, Corporal Steven Rintamaki, was killed while serving as an augment to 3rd Battalion 1st Marines in September 2004.  The last, Staff Sergeant Scott Dickinson, was killed while serving as an augment to Third Battalion Eighth Marines in July 2012.  Another Third Battalion Marine, Corporal Dakota Meyer, would be awarded the Medal of Honor while serving with an embedded training team in Afghanistan in 2009 while the rest of the battalion was in Iraq.

But throughout this whole time, Marines from the regiment were more than just comrades-in-arms.  When he was attending scout swimmers course, Lance Corporal Nick Kirven from Kilo Company became friends with two First Battalion Marines, Brian Medina and Christopher Lapka.  When both of them were killed at Second Fallujah, Kirven placed a memorial to them on his website.  After Kirven was killed the following month, his grave at Arlington Cemetery was placed right next to Medina’s: Third Marines to the end.

Site News: I’ve finished the last of the SIGACTs from May and June, and am going through and cleaning them up.  I’ve also started fleshing out the other pages, starting with India Company.  In addition, I’ve added several SIGACTs from 2006 and 2007: Haqlaniyah Hotel, FOB Haqlaniyah Attack, 31 Dec 07 Kilo IED Find, and India-3 Weapons Cache.  Doc Hoppy from our sister site has also posted a list of personal decorations for valor from the Global War on Terror.

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Slouching Towards Haditha

Kilo Marines and EOD detonating an IED in Haqlaniyah, May 2006.

Kilo Marines and EOD detonating an IED in Haqlaniyah, May 2006.

While most of the posting I’ve done so far is related to the 2004-2005 deployment, the main reason is because those are the only records I have available.  I’m still continuing my search for more recent command chronologies, but otherwise the next on my list will have to be the battalion’s 2006 deployment to the Haditha Triad in Iraq.

I am not looking forward to it.

Third Battalion’s 2004 deployment involved operating high in the mountains away from major populated centers and fighting small teams of Taliban fighters.  In Haditha, 3/3 would be doing most of its fighting in the middle of cities with tens of thousands of residents. In Haditha, 3/3 would often unknowingly encounter their enemies every day: at checkpoints, marketplaces, and mosques.  It was heavy Algiers-style urban counterinsurgency.

Kilo Marines detaining a suspect in Haqlaniyah, May 2006.

Kilo Marines detaining a suspect in Haqlaniyah, May 2006.

While most people only know of the town because of the infamous 3/1 ‘Haditha massacre‘, there’s been comparatively little interest in the situation in the town at the time of the killings.  Haditha was like Iraq’s version of Stafford, Virginia, or Jacksonville, North Carolina: a town full of retired military veterans, who flocked to the insurgency as soon as it broke out.  To make matters worse the town occupied a crossroads between the Syrian border, Ramadi, and Salah ad Din Province which was vital to insurgent movement and supply in western Iraq.

In other words, Al Qaeda in Iraq possessed both the means and motivation to contest the city.  And they did.

The 3/1 killings occurred in November 2005, but the story broke in the media in April 2006, right as 3/1 and 3/3 were conducting their turnover.  Shortly afterwords, according to many Haditha veterans I’ve talked to, enemy activity exploded.

There’s no doubt that this deployment was 3/3′s crucible in the Global War on Terror.  The battalion lost more Marines there than on every other GWOT deployment combined: 12 killed and 74 wounded.  According to author Bing West in his book The Strongest Tribe: “[3/3] didn’t have the manpower to control the [main roads] and hold Haditha. The Iraqi Army was as blind as we were. The insurgents killed anyone who spoke to us.”  Just two months after relieving 3/3 in Haditha, Second Battalion Third Marines (2/3) had lost 23 Marines.

But numbers alone can’t explain what happened to 3/3 in Haditha.

Eric Swinney, 2013. Jim Seida / NBC News

In April 2013, NBC News ran a story interviewing Eric Swinney, a former 3/3-Kilo Marine now living in a Veterans Affairs house in Phoenix, AZ.  Speaking of his time in Haditha with 3/3, Swinney told the reporter:

“I picked up heads, legs. I picked up blown-up hips from two blocks away, from the roofs of houses. Numerous, numerous occasions. Iraqi people parts…  I have this one image, every time I sleep, of picking up the head of an Iraqi.”

Eric Swinney (Top Center), Iraq 2006

Eric Swinney (Top Center), Iraq 2006

I’ve heard many similar stories from other 3/3 Triad veterans, some similar, some much worse. At the time, I was an impressionable Private First Class and wondered if they might be exaggerating. But even then there were signs: shortly after I checked-in, a practice drill by the base rifle team near the barracks sent dozens of Marines diving for cover on the catwalk.

The deeper I dig, the more I see that something really, really terrible happened to the battalion in the town dubbed Iraq’s “Wild, Wild West.”

Site News: I’m still working the May SIGACTs and have added Operation CELTICS.

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Captain Mattis

Captain James Mattis (second from left) with his company staff in Kilo Company in 1978. 1st Lieutenant Louis Sposato (second from right) would command 3/3 as a Lieutenant Colonel in the Nineties.

Captain James Mattis (second from left) with his company staff in Kilo Company in 1978. 1st Lieutenant Louis Sposato (second from right) would command 3/3 as a Lieutenant Colonel in the Nineties.

Recently our former unit chaplain asked me a simple question: “Did Gen. Mattis ever serve in 3/3?”  According to the general’s official biography, “[a]s a lieutenant, he served as a rifle and weapons platoon commander in the 3rd Marine Division. As a captain, he commanded a rifle company and a weapons company in the 1st Marine Brigade.”

Curious, but not hopeful, a mutual friend e-mailed the general and received this reply:

On your questions, yes, I was in 3/3. It was from the summer of ’78 to the fall of ’81. I commander [sic] Kilo 3/3 for a year, then ass’t ops officer for the battalion, and then the C.O. of Weapons Company for my last year in 3/3. Great outfit, we deployed three times in three years to the Western Pacific and Indian Ocean.

Here’s the more expanded background:

On 20 July 1978, Captain James Mattis formally took command of Kilo Company.  At the time the Marine Corps was just coming out from the shadow of the Vietnam War, which had ended only three years earlier.  On deployments near southeast Asia, Marines occasionally encountered “boat people”: Vietnamese refugees fleeing to the West.  Locals would frequently ask Marines if they had served in Vietnam; many mid-level officers and enlisted had, and it was not unusual to see battalion commanders with Silver Stars.

Shortly after Captain Mattis joined Kilo, Battalion Landing Team 3/3 conducted a tour, or “float,” in the Western Pacific (or WEST-PAC) in September as part of the 31st Marine Amphibious Unit (MAU), going to the Philippines, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan, Okinawa, and Korea.  They returned to Hawaii in April 1979.  On 7 May, immediately following the deployment, Captain Mattis turned over command of Kilo and moved to the S-3 Operations Section.

On 20 January 1980, 3/3 conducted another deployment with the 31st MAU, originally to the Pacific.  However events in the Middle East quickly drew the Marines’ attention there.  On 4 November 1979, Iranian students had overrun the United States Embassy in Tehran, taking 52 Americans hostage.  On 24 December the Soviet Union had invaded Afghanistan.

In response to this, President Jimmy Carter ordered a show of force by the 31st MAU to the Arabian Sea in early February 1980, officially to show the Soviets that the U.S. could deploy ground troops to the region if necessary.  Landing exercises by the 31st MAU in the Philippines scheduled for February were repeatedly postponed, and on 1 March 3/3 sailed to the Indian Ocean.

Although not discussed in the official chronology, a Kilo Company veteran later said that during this time a group of 3/3 Marines were also flown over to the USS Nimitz to discuss the battalion’s role as a back-up force in Operation Eagle Claw, the attempted rescue of the Iranian hostages.  However the battalion would not be called into action and the Marines instead spent their time, “training, doing PT on the flight deck, and sweating in the hold.”

On 31 May, 3/3 and James Mattis ended their first (but not last) visit to the Middle East.  The 31st MAU went on to conduct port calls in Kenya, Australia, and the Philippines, before returning to Hawaii on 24 June 1980.

On 4 August 1980, Captain Mattis assumed command of Weapons Company.  These companies were still relatively new to the Marine Corps; prior to 1978, infantry battalions had possessed four rifle companies. However, on 20 June 1979, 3/3 had been ordered to stand up a company for its specialized weapons systems.  Captain Mattis was 3/3 Weapons’ second commander.

On 21 February 1981, 3/3 and Captain Mattis departed on another WEST-PAC float.   The Marines conducted routine partnered training exercises and port calls in Okinawa, Korea, Hong Kong, the Philippines, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Diego Garcia, Australia, and Thailand, returning on 24 July.

On 28 July 1981, Captain Mattis’ time in Hawaii with 3/3 came to an end and he relinquished command of Weapons Company, moving on to bigger (and some might say better) things.

Sources: E-mail correspondence, 3/3 Command Chronologies: July-December 1978, January-June 1979, January-June 1980, January-June 1981, July-December 1981; BLT 3/3 78-79 WEST-PAC Deployment Cruisebook; New York Times (13 Feb 1980) “U.S. Will Send Assault Troops To Arabian Sea“; RescueAttempt.Tripod.Com: The Hostage Rescue Attempt In Iran, April 24-25, 1980

Site News: I’ve finished up April’s SIGACTs and am starting May’s.  In addition, I’ve added bios for LtCol Cooling and LCpl Kirven.  I’ve also started working on the Kilo Company page from 2007.

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First into the Korengal?


The Korengal Valley, December 2004

Many of the Marines I’ve talked to from the 2004-2005 deployment to Afghanistan swear that 3/3 was the first American unit in the Korengal Valley. Interestingly, other Marines I’ve talked to from 2/3′s 2005 deployment and 1/3′s 2006 deployment all swear the same things about their units.  A pro-Army site even suggests that 1st Battalion, 32nd Infantry Regiment was the first into Korengal in April 2006.  They can’t all be right.  Can they?

I’ve already touched on the problems in the historical narrative caused by the 6-12 month rotation policy.  Another problem encountered by the historians and journalists writing this ‘first draft’ of history is that it’s often hard to fact-check claims like this.  Too many unit records are either needlessly overclassified or have simply vanished.

Many units also did a lousy job archiving their operations outside of the ‘turnover’ briefs with their replacements; in 2010, 3/3 conducted an operation in the Helmand Province village of Shorshorak called New Dawn.  One year later, another Marine unit about to conduct a similar operation had no idea any Marine units had been there before.

Regarding the Korengal, the more I look, the more I’m convinced the first Marines into the Korengal may have actually been 3rd Battalion 6th Marines, who operated in eastern Afghanistan for most of 2004. The evidence is purely circumstantial — two 3/6 Marines were killed on 24 June 2004 about forty kilometers northeast of Korengal — but the location is close enough to suggest 3/6 was operating near there.  Also 3/3 launched Operation Cornhuskers, its first operation into the Korengal, only three weeks after their TOA with 3/6.  To me this strongly suggests that at the minimum 3/6 was looking at the Korengal, if not actually operating there.

Of course this is ultimately a moot point since Army Rangers had been operating in Kunar Province for several years prior and had almost certainly done at least one operation there.

Site News: I’ve added the July events in Hawaii, a previously-unknown deployment by part of Kilo Company to Operation Enduring Freedom – Philippines in 2003, and some of the April SIGACTs.  I’m also looking into transferring this page to a system called Omeka, and have started building a page for our Desert Storm veterans called Task Force Taro so I can play around with it.

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