Marines in World War II Commemorative Series
Base Defense in a Possible War with Japan
An Organization for Base Defense
Organization and Equipment for the Defense Battalion
The Approach of War
The Saga of Wake Island
A Defensive Buildup
Two African-American Defense Battalions
The South Pacific
South Pacific Tales
Into the Central and Northern Solomons
Fighting Boredom
The Central Pacific Drive
Signs of the Times
Reorienting the Defense Battalion
Tributes to the Defense Battalions
Pacific Victory
Gone But Not Forgotten
Battalion Summaries
Special Subjects
Shoulder Insignia
Antiaircraft Artillery
Antiaircraft Machine Guns
Coast and Field Artillery
Fire Control
Armor and Support

CONDITION RED: Marine Defense Battalions in World War II
by Major Charles D. Melson

Into the Central and Northern Solomons

On 21 February 1943, the 43d Infantry Division, the 3d Raider Battalion, and a detachment from the 11th Defense Battalion secured the Russell Islands as a base for further operations in the Solomons and elsewhere. Seacoast and antiaircraft artillery landed at Banika, and two weeks later, when the Japanese launched their first air strikes, the antiaircraft weapons were ready. The 10th Defense Battalion, under Colonel Robert Blake, arrived on 24 February to reinforce the detachment. The Russells soon became a boomtown — a jerry-built staging area for Allied units arriving in the South Pacific, reorganizing, or moving to other battlegrounds.
LST brings the 9th Defense Battalion to Rendova Island
An LST brings the 9th Defense Battalion to Rendova Island, set up its artillery and antiaircraft guns to support the assault where the unit helped overcome Japanese resistance and then on heavily defended neighboring island of New Georgia. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Naval Institute

The 12th Defense Battalion, commanded by Colonel William H. Harrison, covered the occupation of Woodlark Island, northeast of New Guinea, by Army ground units on 30 June 1943. In just 16 days, Army engineers built an airfield, which the battalion protected until the end of the year. The main purpose of the Woodlark operation was to screen the landings on New Georgia in the central Solomons.

Elements of the 9th, 10th, and 11th Defense Battalions supported the Army's XIV Corps in the central Solomons campaign. The strongly reinforced 9th Defense Battalion, now commanded by Lieutenant Colonel William J. Scheyer, participated in various aspects of the fighting. The 155mm and antiaircraft artillery groups landed on 30 June at Rendova Island, just off the coast of New Georgia. In the confusion of the Rendova landings, during which the assault waves arrived off schedule and out of sequence, antiaircraft gunners doubled as infantry in eliminating light opposition, and members of the 155mm unit, looking for firing positions, clashed with Japanese patrols. The heavy guns set up and registered in time to support the main landings at New Georgia's Zanana beaches on 2 July. The 90mm antiaircraft guns also were ready that same day, fortunately so, since the Japanese launched the first of 159 air raids carried out during the campaign. The battalion's antiaircraft weapons downed 46 aircraft, including 13 of 16 in one formation. Edmund D. Hadley, serving with the antiaircraft group, helped fight off one of the heaviest raids. "I will always think of July 4, 1943, as the day the planes fell," he said, his memory sharpened by the fact that he and his 90mm gun crew had to dive into a mud hole to escape a Zero fighter strafing Rendova.

The curtain of antiaircraft fire that protected Rendova and the Zanana beaches had an unintended effect on one of the two secondary landings on New Georgia — Rice Anchorage and Wickham Anchorage. Fragments from antiaircraft shells fired from Rendova rained down upon Rice Anchorage, to the north, where elements of the 11th Defense Battalion guarded a beachhead seized by the Marine 1st Raider Regiment. The commander of a raider battalion recalled setting Condition Red whenever the 90mm guns cut loose on Rendova, for their "shrapnel was screaming in the air above the trees," as it tumbled to earth.

The main landing on Zanana beach, New Georgia, took place on 2 July under the cover of fire from antiaircraft guns and 155mm artillery on Rendova. Machine guns and light antiaircraft weapons promptly deployed from Rendova across the narrow strait to New Georgia to help protect the beachhead there. Light tanks from the 9th, 10th, and 11th Defense Battalions helped Army troops punch through the Japanese defenses barring the way to the principal objective, Munda Point airfield. The M3A1 Stuart light tanks and their crews defied jungle, mud, and suicidal counterattacks in spearheading a slow and deliberate attack. The tank gunners fired 37mm canister rounds to strip away the jungle concealing Japanese bunkers, followed up with high-explosive shells to penetrate the fortifications, and used machine guns to cut down the survivors as they fled. Captain Robert W. Blake, a tank commander who earned the Navy Cross in the central Solomons, noted that "death on the Munda Trail" was noisy, violent, and far from romantic. "I trip the seat lever," he wrote, "and drop down behind the periscopic sight. I level the sight dot at the black slot and press the firing switch. Wham, the gun bucks, a wad of smoke billows through the trees. The concealing branches are left raw and broken." According to one analysis of the fighting, "A handful of Marine tanks, handicapped by difficult jungle, had spearheaded most of the successful attacks on New Georgia."

Marines operating an optical gun director
Splattered by mud from a near-miss, Marines operating an optical gun director check the equipment for damage as they prepare for the next Japanese air attack on Rendova. On Vella Lavella, Marines downed 42 enemy aircraft in 121 raids. Department of Defense photo (USMC) 58419

On 4 August, the Marine tanks that had survived Japanese fire, formidable terrain, and mechanical breakdown, moved onto Munda Point airfield, littered with wrecked airplanes and pockmarked with shell craters. The infantry mopped up on the next day, and the 9th Defense Battalion moved its antiaircraft weapons into position to protect the captured airdrome, while its 155mm guns prepared to shell the Japanese garrison on nearby Kolombangara.

The 4th Defense Battalion covered a landing by Army forces on 15 August at Vella Lavella, the north-westernmost island in the central Solomons. The battalion's antiaircraft weapons, concentrated near Barakoma harbor, shot down 42 Japanese aircraft during 121 raids. Attempts to land cargo elsewhere on the island, and thus speed the distribution of supplies, triggered a savage reaction from Japanese air power. Speed proved less important than security, and after the sinking of an LST on 1 October, I Marine Amphibious Corps directed that all ships would unload at Barakoma under an antiaircraft shield provided by the 4th Defense Battalion.

The tank platoons of the 9th, 10th, and 11th Defense Battalions — veterans of the conquest of New Georgia — boarded landing craft and sailed due west to Arundel Island, where Army troops landed on 27 August. As had happened during the earlier capture of Munda Point, the Stuart tanks used their 37mm guns to breach a succession of defensive positions, suffering steady attrition in the process. On 19 September, all the surviving armor formed two ranks, the rear covering the front rank, which plunged ahead, firing 37mm canister to strip away the jungle concealment as the tanks gouged paths for advancing soldiers. This charge proved to be the last major fight during the conquest of Arundel Island.

90mm antiaircraft guns
The 90mm antiaircraft guns on Rendova, as this one, threw up a barrier of fire to protect the troops attacking Munda airfield from enemy air raids and, in doing so, showered shell fragments on the Marines across New Georgia at Rice Anchorage. Department of Defense photo (USMC) 60625

On 1 November 1943, the offensive reached the northern Solomons, as the recently organized 3d Marine Division landed at Bougainville. The 3d Defense Battalion, led by Lieutenant Colonel Edward H. Forney, followed the first waves ashore and had heavy machine guns and light antiaircraft guns ready for action by nightfall. The battalion organized both antiaircraft and beach defenses, taking advantage of the dual capabilities of the 90mm gun to destroy Japanese landing barges on the Laruma River. The 155mm artillery group supported Marine raiders and parachutists at Koiari and joined the 12th Marines, the 3d Marine Division's artillery regiment, in shelling Japanese positions at Torokina. The defense battalion would remain at Bougainville into the following year, earning the dubious honor of being "the last Fleet Marine Force ground unit" to be withdrawn from the Solomons.

Colonel William H. Harrison's 12th Defense Battalion supported the landing of the 1st Marine Division at Cape Gloucester, New Britain, in December 1943. The lodgment on New Britain marked the end of the Rabaul campaign — and of participation by major Marine Corps units in the South and Southwest Pacific — for the United States had decided to isolate and bypass the fortress instead of storming it. Radar operator Victor C. Bond, a member of Harrison's battalion at Cape Gloucester, remembered sitting on the exposed "plow seat" of an SCR-268, with 90mm guns barking nearby. "During an air raid," he said, "it was difficult to tell if all the noise and smoke was due to the 90mms or the enemy."

Antiaircraft Machine Guns

A number of "light" antiaircraft artillery weapons and "heavy" machine guns were placed in the weapons groups of the defense battalions to provide close-in defense against low-flying aircraft.

These weapons were flexibly employed and landed found on the beach with the assault waves. They were designated dual-purpose weapons as they were used against both air and surface targets. While organized into batteries by weapons' types, light antiaircraft weapons were often attached to task-organized teams.

The Bofors-designed 37mm and 40mm automatic guns were the backbones of these teams. The M1 40mm antiaircraft gun became the standard piece by July 1942. It was manufactured by Blaw-Know, Chrysler, and York Safe &Amp; Lock in the United States. The M1 was recoil operated and designed for use against aircraft and could serve as an antitank weapon. It fired 1.96-pound shells at a rate of 120-per-minute with a maximum range of over four miles. Its M2 carriage had electric brakes and bullet-resistant tires, was towed at up to 50 miles an hour, and could be put in firing position within 25 seconds. Easily operated and maintained, the 40mm gun was credited with 50 percent of the enemy aircraft destroyed by antiaircraft weapons according to statistics gathered between 1944 and 1945. Another light weapon in the defense battalion arsenal was the Oerlikon 20mm antiaircraft gun. It was made in the United States by Oerlikon-Gazda, Pontiac Motors, and Hudson Motor Car. These were Navy Mark 2 and Mark 4 weapons, first used on static pedestal mounts, but later mounted in pairs on wheeled carriages as a high-speed 'twin twenty.'

It was a simple blowback-operated gun capable of being put into action quicker than larger caliber weapons. It fired explosive, armor-piercing, and incendiary projectiles at a rate of 450 rounds a minute out to a maximum range of 4,800 yards. Mobility, reliability, and high volume of fire enabled it to account for 32 percent of identified antiaircraft shot down during 1942 to 1944 period.

Finally, the battalions were liberally equipped with heavy .30- and .50-caliber machine guns. The Browning M2 water-cooled machine gun was used on an M2 mount as an antiaircraft weapon by special weapons groups to help defend artillery and antiaircraft positions. The Browning M1917 water-cooled machine gun was used for ground and beach defense with crews made up from defense battalion personnel in contingencies.

On New Britain, the 12th Defense Battalion suffered most of its casualties from typhus and other diseases, falling trees, and lightning. "There is no jungle in the world worse than in southwestern New Britain," a member of the 1st Marine Division declared. The effort to limit the effects of malaria, prevalent in the swamps and rain forest, involved the use of atabrine, a substitute for scarce quinine. The remedy required hard selling by medical personnel and commanders to convince dubious Marines to take a bitter-tasting medicine that was rumored to turn skin yellow and make users sterile. In a moment of whimsy, Second Lieutenant Gerald A. Waindel suggested adapting a slogan used to sell coffee back in the United States: "Atabrine — Good to the last drop."

9th Defense Battalion deployed light antiaircraft guns
The 9th Defense Battalion deployed light antiaircraft guns, as this Bofors 40mm weapon, in the Solomons on Rendova and New Georgia, both to protect the Zanana beachhead and to support the accelerating advance against the Munda airfield. Department of (USMC) 60095 by TSgt Jeremiah Sarno

3d Defense Battalion 40mm gun
Each Japanese flag painted on this 3d Defense Battalion 40mm gun on Bougainville represents a Japanese plane shot down. Department of Defense photo (USMC) 74010

In March 1944, a detachment from the 14th Defense Battalion landed at Emirau, St. Mathias Islands, in support of its occupation by Army troops. Technical Sergeant George H. Mattie reported that "the Marines sent some troops ashore, met no opposition, and in a matter of days the Seabees ripped up the jungle" for an airfield. The deadliest things about duty at Emirau, Mattie remembered, were "boredom and loneliness." Other detachments from the 14th Defense Battalion supported the 1st Marine Aircraft Wing's occupation of Green Island, the coup de grace for bypassed Japanese forces at Rabaul and throughout the Bismarck Archipelago. The use of Green Island as an air base for hammering the bypassed stronghold of Rabaul signaled the attainment of the final rung in the so-called Solomons Ladder, which began at Guadalcanal and required the services of three Marine divisions, two Marine aircraft wings, and a variety of special units, including the defense battalions. In a year and a half of fighting, the Marines — along with soldiers and sailors — had not taken any "real, honest-to-God towns," just "grass shacks and lizards and swamp 'gardens' of slimy banyan trees.

As the campaign against Japan gathered momentum, defense battalions on outlying islands like the Ellice group, Samoa, Johnston, Palmyra, and Midway found themselves increasingly in the backwash of war, struggling with boredom rather than fighting an armed enemy. Major General Alexander A. Vandegrift, former commanding general of the 1st Marine Division and since July 1943 the commander of I Marine Amphibious Corps, noticed the fragile morale of some of the defense battalions, as did his chief of staff, Colonel Gerald C. Thomas, during their inspection tour of the Solomon Islands. "The war had gone beyond them," recalled Thomas, and a number of the junior field-grade officers were "pleading just to get into the war" and out of the defense battalions. As a result, some 35 officers received transfers to the Command and Staff College at Quantico, Virginia, for future assignments to corps or division headquarters. The problem of the future of the defense battalions in a changing situation remained unresolved when the year 1944 began.

12th Defense Battalion on the deck of an LST
The light antiaircraft artillery of the 12th Defense Battalion on the deck of an LST approaching Cape Gloucester, New Britain, is poised to fire on Japanese aircraft. Department of Defense photo (USMC) 71623

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Commemorative Series produced by the Marine Corps History and Museums Division