OPENING MOVES: Marines Gear Up For War
by Henry I. Shaw, Jr.
By late 1941, the standard table of organization of a
defense battalion had evolved to include a unit of about 900 men,
composed of three 5-inch coast defense gun batteries, three 3-inch
antiaircraft gun batteries, a sound locator and searchlight battery, a
battery of .50-caliber antiaircraft machine guns, and a battery of
.30-caliber machine guns for beach defenses. That was the standard; the
actuality varied with the location. The characteristic all defense
battalion garrisons had in common was lots of guns and gun crews. What
they were all short of was infantrymen. If an enemy landing force
reached the island beaches, the gun crews and other specialists could
expect, and would be expected, to prove once again that every Marine was
a rifleman before all else.
The 1st and 3d Defense Battalions were the first
Marines to reach the is land outposts. Advance elements of the 3d
Battalion landed at Midway in May 1940 to conduct reconnaissance and
undertake preliminary construction. The rest of the battalion remained
at Pearl Harbor providing reinforcing and relief parties until January
1941 when the whole battalion was ordered forward. In February, while
the men of the 3d were unloading their heavy equipment at Midway, the
advance party of the 1st Battalion left San Diego on board the carrier
Enterprise, transferring at Pearl to a small cargo ship, and
moving on to Johnston, where two 5-inch guns and an eight-man caretaker
detail landed, while the rest of the party, three officers and 45
enlisted men, proceeded to Palmyra. After the rest of the 1st Defense
Battalion shipped out to Pearl Harbor, small reinforcing detachments
moved for ward to the outpost islands to join in the pick and shovel
work of emplacing guns and digging in command posts, magazines, and fire
direction centers. It was August 1941 before the first elements of the
1st Battalion reached Wake where a contractor's work force was already
building an airfield.
Grumman F3F-2s, the last biplane fighter produced for
either the Navy or the Marines, served in the FMF from 1937 to 1941. The
VMF-2 planes pictured here were stationed at North Island, Coronado near
San Diego, California during this period. Department of Defense Photo (USN)
On all the outpost islands where Marines were
stationed, the work was constant and boring. The arrival of a plane or
ship was an event to celebrate. There was no liberty. If there had been,
there was no place to go and nothing to see but the Pacific in all
directions. The 14th District established a rotation policy (back to
Pearl) for the outpost Marines, but this reward was countered by a
pervading urgency to get on with the job at hand, protecting the
approaches to Hawaii.
The 6th Defense Battalion, which arrived at Pearl
Harbor in January 1941 as a replacement and reserve unit, moved forward
to Midway in September to replace the 3d Battalion as the defending
ground garrison. The 3d moved back to Oahu for a well earned rest from
construction work. On 1 December, the 4th Defense Battalion, fresh from
duty at Guantanamo Bay, arrived at Pearl. It was scheduled to replace
the half battalion of the 1st on Wake, but its arrival and strengthened
force was too late to effect relief. Wake did receive a substantial and
welcome reinforcement on 4 December, however, when 12 F4F-3 Grumman
Wildcats of Marine Fighting Squadron (VMF) 211 flew off the decks of the
Enterprise to the atoll's new and unfinished airfield.
Grumman F4F Wildcat
The Grumman Wildcat served as the primary fighter of
the United States Marine Corps at the outbreak of the Pacific War. By
December 1941, Grumman Wildcats were being flown by three of four Marine
fighter squadrons then in existence.
Designed in 1936 as Grumman's first monoplane fighter
aircraft, the Wildcat had retractable handcranked landing gear,
vacuum-powered flaps, and a simple electrical system. Although it lost a
design contest to its main competitor, the Brewster F2A Buffalo, in
1938, the Navy nonetheless continued to encourage Grumman in the
aircraft's development. Wildcats were delivered to the Marine Corps in
1941, replacing the obsolescent Grumman F3F-2 fabric and metal biplanes
which had been in service since 1937. The all-metal F4F-3 Wildcat was
powered by a Pratt & Whitney R-1830-66 Twin Wasp engine and had two
.50-caliber Browning machine guns mounted in each wing.
By October 1941, Marine Fighting Squadrons (VMFs)
111, 121, and 211 were fully equipped with Wildcats; only VMF-221 was
equipped with Brewster Buffaloes. A forward detachment from Marine
Fighting Squadron 211 flew to Wake Island in December 1941 as part of a
Marine Corps air-ground team just prior to the Japanese attack on Pearl
Harbor. During the following defense of Wake Island, they fought the
Japanese for 14 days and inflicted heavy losses on the attackers'
shipping and aircraft before losing all 12 F4F-3s.
Despite the fact that the Wildcat's performance was
inferior to its primary adversary, the Japanese Zero, its staunch
ruggedness and greatly superior firepower in the hands of skilled and
determined pilots would enable it to compile a distinguished record
during the war. There were 34 recorded Marine Corps Wildcat aces.
-Kenneth L. Smith-Christmas
The spread of defense battalion Marines at the
beginning of December found 422 officers and men of the 1st Battalion at
Wake, 162 at Johnston, 158 at Palmyra, and 261 at Pearl Harbor. Midway's
6th Battalion garrison had 33 officers and 810 enlisted men. The 3d
Battalion was 863 strong at Pearl and the newly arrived 4th mustered
818. Both of the larger atolls had six 5-inch coast defense guns and
twelve 3-inch antiaircraft guns; Johnston had two 5-inch guns and four
3-inch guns; Palmyra had four of each. Machine guns for defense matched
the garrisons' size; Midway had 30 .50-calibers and 30 .30-calibers;
Wake had 18 and 30; Johnston and Palmyra each had eight apiece.
SB2U-3 Chance-Vought Vindicator scout-bomber conducts field carrier
landing practice at Ewa Field in June 1941. Department of Defense Photo (USMC)
Although VMF-211's Wildcats on Wake were the only
Marine aircraft yet to reach the outpost defenses, most of the
squadron's parent Marine Aircraft Group 21 had moved from California to
Hawaii by December. MAG-21 was the 2d Wing's only tactical air group.
Part of the group's ground echelon moved west to Midway in November to
await aircraft due to arrive shortly. Meanwhile, all Marine aircraft in
Hawaii were concentrated at the Marine Corps Air Station, Ewa, 10 miles
west of Pearl Harbor, the site of a Navy dirigible mooring mast field in
the 1920s. Those planes of MAG-21 not at the airfield were deployed on
board carriers for transportation to reinforce Wake and Midway. VMF-221
with 14 F2A-3 Brewster Buffalo fighters boarded the Saratoga at
North Island, San Diego on 7 and 8 December. The Lexington got 18
SB2U-3 Chance-Vought Vindicators of Marine Scout-Bombing Squadron 231.
With the fall of Wake, both squadrons were used to reinforce Midway. At
Ewa, there were 48 fighters, scout-bombers, and utility aircraft, most
scheduled for forward deployment.
Aviation units were not the only elements of the FMF
to move forward into the Pacific by December 1941. A sizeable portion of
the 2d Marine Division's 2d Engineer Battalion was also deployed to Oahu
in the fall in order to build a camp capable of accommodating 5,000
Marines. The location of the new facility, Camp Catlin, was in the
canefields east of Honolulu along the island's main highway. Its site
selected by a board of Marine colonels, Catlin eventually would see tens
of thousands of Marines pass through its gates into the farther reaches
of the Pacific as it became the principal replacement and redistribution
center for the FMF. In December it was half completed, and its Marine
engineer constructors were destined to be the first members of the 2d
Division to see combat in World War II.
Back in California, the 2d Marine Division was
rounding into shape, engaged as was the 1st Division in constant
training and maneuvers. Neither unit had reached its full strength yet
as constant demands for Marines for base, fleet, and barracks duty
drained the available manpower pool as fast as it filled. San Diego's
recruit depot was crowded with men striving to become Marines, but it no
longer had to call on the 2d Division for extra drill instructors as it
had often in 1940 after the President declared a National Emergency and
the recruiting stations were flooded with applicants. The recruit
training cycle, down to as few as 24 days on both coasts in 1940, was
fairly stable at seven weeks, with three on the rifle range.
F2A-3 Brewster Buffalo single-engine fighter planes with which the
Marine Corps entered World War II were almost all lost in the Battle of
Midway. Department of Defense Photo (USMC) 25414
SBD-3 Douglas Dauntless dive bomber runs-up for takeoff from the flight
deck of the Saratoga in late 1941. The Dauntless was a
multi-seat, low-wing monoplane which carried a 500-pound bomb under the
fuselage and bombs under the wings. Department of Defense Photo (USN)
The Fleet Marine Force units in the west, like those
in the east, were itching for action, although the Commandant noted at
the time that Marines still needed "to train (further) for combat," a
quite different situation. Most of the planes and crewmen of the 2d Wing
were already at least as far west as Hawaii. The 2d Division was poised
to join them.
training in the field before World War II, Marines wore either summer
service khaki or one-piece blue denim coveralls with their field hats.
The Marines below are communicators with state of the art equipment at
Camp Elliott in 1941. Photo courtesy of C. M. Craig
Still in the future, the near future, were the great
air and amphibious training centers at El Toro and Camp Pendleton.
Pendleton, in particular, was to be part of the experiences of most
Marines who served in the Pacific either going or coming. In December
1941, the area, as one private on its original survey team remembered,
was "pretty barren country" fit only for cattle. His observation was not
an uncommon sentiment of later Marines, who followed him into the
seemingly endless brown hills and valleys.