Marines in World War II Commemorative Series
The Eve of War
Atlantic Theater
Pacific Theater
The Stage is Set
Special Subjects
Roebling Alligator Amphibian Tractor
Springfield '03 Rifle
Grumman F4F Wildcat
Helmets of World War II
Bubblegum Cards
Marine Corps Strengths and Dispositions

OPENING MOVES: Marines Gear Up For War
by Henry I. Shaw, Jr.

The Stage is Set

On 22 November 1941, General Holcomb spoke to the American public on NBC radio as part of a Navy public relations program. In his brief remarks, he summed up the Corps' situation in the context of the country's readiness. He noted that there were 61,000 Marines in uniform and that:

Beyond the continental limits of the United States, Marines do duty as the frontiersmen of the nation's huge new defense network. The existing stations from the Philippines to the Virgin Islands have had their garrisons increased. The Navy's new bases — Iceland, Newfoundland, Bermuda, Santa Lucia, Antigua, Trinidad, Jamaica, British Guiana, Dutch Harbor, Samoa, Kodiak, the Hawaiian Island group, and other outlying stations — all are garrisoned and guarded, at least partially, by United States Marines.

rifle range
Every Marine in the prewar era was required to qualify annually with his T/O weapon and generally spent two weeks in preparing to fire for record. Here, West Coast FMF troops are at the La Jolla rifle range in 1940 for their weapons training. Photo courtesy of C. M. Craig

On the same day, he wrote to Brigadier General John Marston, commanding the 1st Provisional Brigade in Iceland, telling him that it was "important to get the Brigade home" and promising "you can be sure that we will leave no stone unturned to accomplish it." Its men were wanted back in the 2d Marine Division and the arrival of U.S. Army reinforcements in strength in Iceland gave the Marine Corps strong argument for the recovery of its forces. The fact that the Marines had come under Army command did nothing to lessen the urgency of the situation.

Marine recruits drill on parade ground
Marine recruits are drilled on the parade ground at Paris Island in the early 1940s. Note the sun helmets on the troops as they march to the cadence of the DI. Sketch by Vernon H. Bailey, Navy Art Collection

In his radio report, the Commandant did not mention the Marines stationed in China, perhaps because the decision had been made to withdraw them. In September, the American Consul-General at Shanghai, the Navy commander of the Yangtze River Patrol, and the Commanding Officer, 4th Marines had jointly recommended that all U.S. naval forces in China be pulled out of Japanese-controlled territory, a recommendation heartily endorsed by the Commander, Asiatic Fleet. The authorization for the evacuation was delayed by State and Navy Department negotiations until 10 November and it was the 27th before the first of two chartered passenger liners, the President Madison, loaded half the 4th Marines and its equipment and departed Shanghai. The next day, the rest of the regiment boarded the President Harrison and sailed.

Helmets of World War II

One of the most noticeable changes in the Marine Corps uniform at the outset of World War II was the transition from the M1917A1 helmet reminiscent of World War I to the familiar M1 helmet of World War II, Korea, and Vietnam.

At the outbreak of World War II, Marines were wearing a modernized version of the helmet first introduced to Marines serving in France during World War I. The American M1917 helmet was nearly identical to the British "Brodie Pattern" helmet. In 1939, this helmet was superceded in the Marine Corps by the improved M1917A1 helmet (as shown below, worn by men of the 6th Marines in Iceland). The padded leather liner and two-piece canvas chinstrap of this updated version of the "tin hat," as it was then called, made it far more comfortable and sturdier than its predecessor. The steel helmet shell remained the same. In the Marine Corps, the helmet was worn both with and without insignia and, while most Marines wore the helmet in the rough olive drab paint, some units, most notably those in China, burnished, waxed, and polished theirs. Less than two years after the Marine Corps' adoption of the M1917A1, a U.S. Army research team at Fort Benning under of Major Harold Go Sydenham, began working on a new design for a two-piece helmet which offered far more protection for the wearer. Adopted by the government as the M1 helmet on 9 June 1941, the Hadfield manganese steel helmet was first made by the McCord Radiator Company of Detroit, Michigan, while the fiber liner was manufactured by the Hawley Products Company. At the suggestion of General George S. Patton, the liner's suspension system was patterned after a design by John T. Riddell that was used in contemporary football helmets. The new helmet was issued to the Marine Corps in the spring and early summer of 1942 and, by the time of the Guadalcanal campaign later that summer, had all but supplanted the old "dishpan" helmet.

-Kenneth L. Smith-Christmas

helmeted soldiers
Photo courtesy of Col Tames A. Donovan, USMC (Ret.)

The destination of both liners was the naval base at Olangapo in the Philippines where the 4th was to join the naval forces defending the islands, in particular the 1st Separate Battalion at Cavite. The ships arrived on 30 November and 1 December. The President Harrison, as planned, was unloaded quickly in order to return to China and pick up the Marines stationed at Peiping and Tientsin, but it was too late. The Japanese Pearl Harbor attack force was already well on its way to its target.

The embassy guard detachments in China were assembling their gear to ship out through the all-weather port of Chinwangtao. The small Marine camp there was named Camp Holcomb, a fact that annoyed the Commandant somewhat as he believed no Marine facilities should be named after living persons. He pointed out in his 22 November letter to General Marston that the camp still bore his name "but it will be a thing of the past in a few days." The Commandant was obviously referring to the impending evacuation of the embassy Marines, but in fact these men, trapped in a hopeless situation, less than 200 in number, were captured on the first day of the war.

Camp Elliott
Scene at Camp Elliott in spring 1941. The new base, near San Diego, was activated in mid-1940. It housed west coast FMF units and also served for advanced training. Photo courtesy or Col James A. Donovan, USMC (Ret)

In 1940, Fleet Marine Force units stationed at the San Diego fields of the Mission Bay area, in khaki uniforms with the Recruit Depot conducted some small unit training in the open 1903 Springfield rifle, and wearing World War I helmets. Photo courtesy of Col James A. Donovan, USMC (Ret)

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Commemorative Series produced by the Marine Corps History and Museums Division