Recent book recounts recon's infancy

6 Apr 2001 | Lance Cpl. John Lawson III

Bruce Meyers developed and commanded the Marine Corps' first Force Reconnaissance company.

Now he has written a book, "Fortune Favors The Brave: The Story of First Force Recon," that chronicles the development of this distinguished part of the Marine Corps.

When he retired as a colonel in 1970 - after 28 years of service - he had served as a platoon leader in World War II, a rifle company commander in Korea, and commander of the 26th Marine Regiment at Khe Sanh in Vietnam.

Because the bulk of Col. Meyers' career involved reconnaissance operations and training, he is able to tell a complete story about the birth of Force Recon.

Colonel Meyers does more than lay out the mission and methods that defined Force Recon at its inception. He also captures the ethos that lives on to this day.

A particularly distinctive characteristic of Force Recon is its set of rugged entry standards. These standards have held a sacred place in Force Recon since the beginning.

"We would task an NCO to take the candidates, officers and enlisted alike, through a very grueling fitness test," Col. Meyers writes. "... I do believe our NCOs took an almost perverse delight in conducting the tests."

After a round of pull-ups and sit-ups culminating in sheer exhaustion, candidates went on a run of three to five miles. To fully tax the runners' stamina, they were required to chant all the way. Next came a one-mile swim. Then it was time for another run.

"A few would actually lose consciousness from the exhaustion because they were trying to hard," Col. Meyers writes. "And these were usually included among the ones we selected. A Marine who wanted to be in recon so badly that he would push until he passed out - that was the kind of person we were looking for. We knew we could develop the endurance, fitness, and style of those dedicated few."

Fewer than 8 percent of all candidates qualified for Force Recon.

Training for dangerous missions necessarily carries some hazards, and Col. Meyers has somber stories to tell about drownings and fatal parachute jumps. Colonel Myers himself once sustained a broken pelvis during a jump, but he was back parachuting out of airplanes after only five weeks.

Because recon Marines require stealth, they often must capitalize on the latest technologies. During the conception and birth of Force Recon, Col. Meyers did pioneering work with HALO (high altitude, low opening) jumps out of jets, jumps from carrier-launched aircraft, and operations from Navy submarines.

Some techniques were quite sophisticated, while others were quite simple. For example, one method for making contact with a submarine involved banging K-Bar knives together so that submarine sonar operators could home in on the sound. A more technologically advanced method involved underwater telephones.

In most respects, Col. Meyers captures the recon techniques of yesterday that paved the way for the recon techniques of today. However, in certain instances, he writes about pioneering work that technology ultimately made obsolete.

As Col. Meyers points out, helicopters and infantry units in today's military can know exactly where they are thanks to the Global Positioning System. However, in the 1950s and 1960s, when Force Recon was in its infancy, crucial navigational information often came from pathfinders. Pathfinders were trained to drop into pivotal areas and provide detailed navigational guidance to units operating nearby. Naturally, pathfinding was an important part of Force Recon operations. These days, pathfinders no longer exist.

This is a book about a period - the early days of Force Recon. It lays out the needs and doctrines that gave rise to Force Recon. It lays out what it was like to start an elite force. And it captures a famous section of the Corps before it was famous.

Most books about military history are, quite reasonably, books that revolve around combat. This book is a nice complement to those books. While this book includes combat accounts, the focus is on training and getting Marines ready for combat. Colonel Meyers gives the reader a look at what it's like to prepare cutting-edge warriors and refine war-fighting techniques.

Fortune Favors The Brave: The Story of First Force Recon
By Bruce F. Meyers
256 pages
Naval Institute Press

Headquarters Marine Corps