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

Gone But Not Forgotten

Defense battalions deployed early and often throughout the Pacific campaigns, serving in a succession of distant places, some dangerous, others boring. They did not benefit from post-battle rest — though few rest areas lived up to their name — nor were their accommodations comparable to those of an aircraft wing sharing the same location. The Marines of the defense battalions endured isolation, sickness, monotonous food, and primitive living conditions for long periods, as they engaged in the onerous task of protecting advance bases in areas that by no stretch of the imagination resembled tropical paradises. After putting up with these conditions for months, many of these same Marines went on to serve as replacements in the six Marine divisions in action when the war ended.

Throughout their existence, the defense battalions demonstrated a fundamental lesson of the Pacific War — the need for teamwork. As one Marine Corps officer has pointed out, the Marine Corps portion of the victorious American team was "itself the embodiment of unification." The Corps had "molded itself into the team concept without the slightest difficulty ... . Marine tank men, artillerymen, and antiaircraft gunners of the defense battalions, interested only in doing a good job, gave equal support to . . . [the] Army and Navy . . . ."

Relations with other combat services, arms, and units defined the role of the defense battalions in the Pacific, for they functioned as a part of a combined effort at sea, in the air, and on the ground. During the war, there were examples of independent deployment, as at Wake Island and Midway. It was equally common, however, for battalions or their components to serve with brigades or divisions, as at Iceland, Samoa, or Guadalcanal, or to operate under corps-level commands, as at New Georgia. Finally, especially after the transition to antiaircraft artillery battalions, the units tended to perform base-defense or garrison duty under the Fleet Marine Force, Pacific. The shift of the defense battalions from fighting front to backwater of the war reflected changing strategic reality and not an arbitrary decision to deemphasize. Some of the Marines in these units may have felt that the spotlight of publicity passed them by and focused on the assault troops, even though antiaircraft gunners and even artillerymen sometimes accompanied the early waves to an embattled beachhead, but the apportionment of press coverage stemmed from the composition of the Marine Corps and the nature of the fighting.

Armor and Support

While defense battalions could defend themselves with small arms and machine guns, ghey lacked maneuver elements which, in turn, made them vulnerable when deployed independently of other ground forces. In 1941, the Marine Corps decided not to form separate infantry units to support the defense battalions. For the most part, they would have to depend upon the infantry elements with which they landed in an amphibious assault. In some cases, however, infantry, armor, and artillery support was provided to reinforce defense battalions in certain operations. During the Pacific War, provisional rifle companies were formed and assigned at various times to the 9th, 10th, and 11th Defense Battalions.

Because the defense battalion could train and serve as an essentially independent organization, it became a logical choice for the first African American unit formed by the Marines. Although segregation prevailed in the Corps throughout World War II, the creation of the 51st and 52d Defense Battalions signaled a break with racist practices and became a milestone on the road toward today's racially integrated Marine Corps.

Colonel Robert D. Heinl, Jr., a Marine historian who had helped shape the concept of the defense battalion and served in one of the wartime units, described the members as a "hard-worked and frustrated species." He felt that the defense battalions represented the culmination of Marine Corps thinking that could trace its evolutionary course back to the turn of the century. The weapons, radars, and communications equipment in the battalions at times represented the cutting edge of war time technology, and the skill with which they were used paid tribute to the training and discipline of the members of these units. Charles A. Holmes, a veteran of the defense battalion that fought so gallantly at Wake Island, said that, in his opinion, anyone could serve somewhere in a division or aircraft wing, but "it was an honor to have served in a special unit of the U.S. Marines."

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Commemorative Series produced by the Marine Corps History and Museums Division