OPENING MOVES: Marines Gear Up For War
by Henry I. Shaw, Jr.
At Marine Corps headquarters, it was readily apparent
that the planned expansion of the Corps to an FMF strength of at least
two infantry divisions and two supporting air craft wings would require
a vastly increased supporting establishment. Not least among the new
requirements for manpower and equipment were those for a new species of
units, defense battalions, which were projected to garrison forward
bases, including Guantanamo and key American holdings in the Pacific.
Also a drawdown on Marine resources was the need to provide guard
detachments for many new naval bases and Navy capital ships which were
being rushed to completion. The surging demand for men was matched by
equal demand for training facilities.
What occurred then in late 1940 and early 1941 was a
thorough search by Marines of the east and west coasts of the United
States for base sites suitable for training one or more divisions whose
main mission was amphibious warfare. Extensive combat exercise areas
with direct access to the ocean were required. At the same time, there
was a parallel need for suitable airfield locations near the proposed
amphibious training sites which would house the planned for but not yet
existing squadrons and groups of one or more air wings, each with
hundreds of fighter, scout-bomber, torpedo-bomber, and utility aircraft.
When the first divisions and wings moved out to combat, the new bases
were projected to be training bases for reinforcing and replacement
Maneuvering at the Marine Barracks, New River, North
Carolina in 1942 is an armored half-tracked mounting a 75mm gun,
M1897A4, as well as a 3/4-ton truck carrying a 37mm antitank gun. Later
in the war a jeep would pull this weapon. Sketch by Vernon H. Bailey, Navy Art
Camp Elliott and a group of smaller supporting camps
which grew up in its shadow in 1941 were barely adequate to house the
growing FMF ground establishment on the west coast. The naval air
stations in the San Diego area could still handle the limited number of
aircraft available. The same situation was not true of the three major
Marine bases in the east. While Quantico's air station could accommodate
the planes of Marine Aircraft Group 1, the main base itself was keyed to
support specialist and officer training and was not suitable for
extensive FMF operations. Swamp-bound Parris Island teemed with recruits
and had no room for the FMF. The newly developed outlying camp at nearby
Hilton Head Island was reserved for essential defense battalion
training. The treaty-restricted area of the naval base at Guantanamo had
no room for a reinforced division's 20,000 men.
Congress authorized the construction of a vast, new
Marine base in coastal North Carolina on 15 February 1941. It was, in a
sense, a remote area that had been picked, certainly not one near any
center of population. The Commandant, writing to a fellow general,
commented "those who want to be near big cities will be disappointed
because it is certainly out in the sticks," noting however, that it was
a great place for maneuvers and amphibious landings. The chosen spot
located in the New River area of Onslow County, was described by the 1st
Division's World War II historian as "111,170 acres of water, coastal
swamp, and plain, theretofore inhabited largely by sand flies, ticks,
chiggers, and snakes." And he might have added covered by pine forest
and scrub growth. One of the Marine veterans of the Nicaraguan jungle
campaigns said: "Actually, Nicaragua was a much pleasanter place to live
than the New River area at the time. They had mosquitoes there with snow
on the ground." Despite its perceived faults, the die was cast for New
River and construction of a huge tent camp was begun there in April with
a projected readiness date of early summer. The famed brick barracks
that were a feature of what would become Camp Lejeune were on the
architect's drawing boards when Marine Barracks, New River, North
Carolina, was activated on the 1st of May.
Troops of the 1st Marine Division conduct landing
exercises from the Intracoastal Waterway along Onslow Beach at Marine
Barracks, New River, North Carolina. Sketch by Vernon Ho Bailey, Navy Art
The 1st Division soon became acquainted with the
place that one regimental commander noted was "the only place between
Biloxi, Mississippi, and the New Jersey capes where you could make a
landing with two divisions abreast." Coming from Guantanamo, the
division spent the summer of 1941 landing across Onslow Beach and moving
inland through the swamps and pine barrens. By that time, Tent Camp or
"Tent City" was ready to receive its new tenants. Strange as it might
seem, these 1st Division Marines reveled in their austere setting amidst
the stifling heat. They were already contrasting themselves to those on
the west coast, derisively labelled "Hollywood Marines," because some
units had appeared briefly in movies being shot at the time. There was a
feeling, obviously not shared by those in the west, that Parris Island
and New River somehow were the most rugged places to endure, in contrast
to those who were close to "civilization."
The new Marine airfield, which was to become an
integral part of the North Carolina training complex, was formally
established on 18 August 1941 when the administrative office for the new
"Air Facilities under Development" was established at New Bern, about 40
miles north of New River. Construction there proceeded at the same
frenetic pace that marked the development of the ground training center.
In September, the administrators moved to the actual airfield site
nearby, Cherry Point, and on 1 December Marine Corps Air Station, Cherry
Point, was activated. Most of the planes on the east coast were still at
Quantico, but a great start had been made on what became in short order
the center of a network of training fields which would house enough
squadrons and air groups to feed most of the augmentation and
replacement demands of four aircraft wings overseas. The actual
establishment of the initial wing commands took place at Quantico (1st
Marine Aircraft Wing [MAW]) on 7 July 1941 and San Diego (2d MAW) on 10
July. Initially, each wing could count on only one air group as its main
strength, Marine Aircraft Group (MAG) 11 in the east and MAG-21 in the
west. The vast increase of aircraft and aviation personnel that marked
the growth of Marine aviation in World War II was in the works. The
pilots, aircrewmen, and mechanics were training at Navy air facilities
and the planes were coming off assembly lines in steadily in creasing
numbers. It was August 1942, however, before the impact of the air
buildup would be fully felt at Guadalcanal.
As an all-volunteer force, the Marine Corps was fully
deployable during this training and preparedness period. In a sense, the
Army was hampered in its readiness by the fact that its draftees, which
soon composed the bulk of its strength, could not be sent outside the
U.S. without a declaration of war. As a result, when the seizure of the
French island of Martinique was contemplated in 1940, the planned
assault force was the 1st Marine Brigade. When the perceived threat of a
garrison in the Caribbean loyal to Vichy France lessened, other overseas
expeditions were also contemplated. In the spring of 1941, the
Portuguese Azores became the projected target for an amphibious seizure
because it was believed that the Germans might take the strategic
islands and thereby seriously threaten the sea lanes of commerce and
replenishment for British and Allied bases in the home islands, Africa,
and the Mediterranean. Again, Marines were to be in the forefront of the
landing force and, again, when the perceived threat lessened, the
operation was called off.
Springfield '03 Rifle
This rifle was the standard issue to all Marines from
the early days of the 20th century into the first year of World War II.
As a result of intensive marksmanship training, an inseparable bond
formed between the individual Marine and this rifle which paid dividends
on the target range and, later, in combat.
The Model 1903 "Springfield" rifle traces its
development from the experiences of the U.S. Army in combat against the
Spanish Army during the Spanish-American War. The clip-fed Spanish 7mm
Mauser rifle, Model 1893, had a flatter trajectory and a higher
sustained rate of fire than the .30-.40 caliber Krag-Jorgensen rifles
used by the U.S. Army. Beginning in 1900, the U.S. Armory in
Springfield, Massachusetts, started work on a new service rifle to
replace the Krag.
The new rifle, officially adopted on 19 June 1903,
was based on the M1898 German Mauser and originally had a ramrod
bayonet. The rifle was redesigned to accept a knife-type bayonet in
1905. This change was a least partially due to the concern of President
Theodore Roosevelt who commented to the Secretary of War that: "I must
say that I think the ramrod bayonet is about as poor an invention as I
The Model 1903 "Springfield" rifle was first issued
to Marines in 1908 and saw its first combat during the Nicaraguan
Campaign of 1912. The obsolescent Krags were almost entirely supplanted
by the new '03 Springfields before the Vera Cruz campaign of 1914.
After service in Mexico, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic, the '03
Springfield was exclusively used by Marines serving in France with the
American Expeditionary Force during World War I. Following the war, an
improved version was used by Marines in China and in the jungles of the
Carribean Islands and Central America.
The accuracy of the '03 Springfield was without peer,
and the Marine Corps based its developing marksmanship program on this
rifle. The Marine Corps designed an improved set of front and rear
sights and soon led the other services in prowess with the rifle.
Indeed, by the outbreak of World War II, the Marine Corps had formed a
cult around the rifle.
-Kenneth L. Smith-Christmas
The buildup of forces for the potential Azores
campaign did have a profound effect on the Marine Corps, however,
despite its cancellation. The core regimental combat team of the 2d
Division, the 6th Marines and its supporting units, judged the most
ready for active employment, loaded out from San Diego in May 1941 to
sail through the Panama Canal and augment the Marine troops on the east
coast. Enroute, the Azores objective disappeared and another took its
place, Iceland. The strategic island in the middle of the North Atlantic
had been occupied by British troops to forestall a similar German move.
The British wanted their Iceland occupation troops back in the United
Kingdom and asked for Americans to take their place.
When President Roosevelt made the decision to comply
with the British request, seeing the move as vital to protecting sea
traffic from German raiders, the 6th Marines was at sea and, all
unwitting, became the choice for the first American troops to deploy.
When the regiment's troop ships reached Charleston, South Carolina,
after the Panama passage, the 6th Marines was joined by the 5th Defense
Battalion from Parris Island. A new unit, the 1st Marine Brigade
(Provisional), was activated. When the ships began to load massive
amounts of supplies, including winter protective gear and clothing, the
favorite rumor of the Marines, that they were headed to a warm and sunny
clime, was effectively scotched. The convoy left Charleston soon after
and on 7 July 1941 made landfall at Iceland. For nine months thereafter,
one of the precious few trained Marine infantry regiments was in
garrison in Iceland, and the 2d Division was short a vital element of
its strength. The sudden and un expected deployment of the 6th Marines
to the Atlantic was to have a considerable effect on the employment of
Marine ground forces in the days after Pearl Harbor.
The drawdown on Marine strength represented by the
departure of 5,000 men to Iceland was but a part of the drain of
manpower that came about as a result of the fact that Marines could be
sent anywhere at any time. In his zeal to support the British in ways
short of war, and to enhance American hemispheric defenses, the
President in mid-1940 had authorized a swap of 50 average American
destroyers of World War I vintage to Britain in return for 99-year
leases to bases at British Atlantic possessions. These bases were all
naval and naval bases required Marine guards. As a result, a senior
Marine colonel, Omar T. Pfeiffer, was made a member and recorder of a
board of naval officers, the Greenslade Board, that surveyed the British
locations in the late summer of 1940 to recommend appropriate American
base strength and facilities.
Flown first to Bermuda, the board members moved on by
air to Argentina, Newfoundland, and Nassau in the Bahamas, and from
there touched down at Guantanamo where they boarded the cruiser St.
Louis for the rest of their journey. Sailing to Kingston, Jamaica;
Port-of-Spain, Trinidad; and Georgetown, British Guyana, the board then
checked the islands of Tobago, St. Lucia, and Antigua. At each of these
places, it was determined that a Marine guard detachment was needed and
50-to-100-man companies were activated for that purpose in January 1941
so that the Marines could guard the facilities as they were built. It
was not bad duty for the men involved, but their deployment meant a
battalion less of Marines for the FMF.
Colonel Pfeiffer was a participant in
British-American discussions of possible measures to be taken in the
event of war with Germany and Japan (the Rainbow Plan) which took place
in Washington in 1940 and 1941. In April 1941 he was posted to a new
position as Fleet Marine Officer of the Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor
which drew fully on his expertise and experience.
Despite the possible and actual overseas deployments
of Marines in the Atlantic Theater throughout 1941, the weight of Marine
commitment was in the Pacific. And there was no question of the
potential enemy there. It was Japan.