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

The Eve of War

On 1 September 1939, German armored columns and attack aircraft crossed the Polish border on a broad front and World War II began. Within days, most of Europe was deeply involved in the conflict as nations took sides for and against Germany and its leader, Adolph Hitler, according to their history, alliances, and self-interest. Soviet Russia, a natural enemy of Germany's eastward expansion, became a wary partner in Poland's quick defeat and subsequent partition in order to maintain a buffer zone against the German advance. Inevitably, however, after German successes in the west and the fall of France, Holland, and Belgium, in 1940, Hitler attacked Russia, in 1941.

In the United States, a week after the fighting in Poland started, President Franklin D. Roosevelt declared a limited national emergency, a move which, among other measures, authorized the recall to active duty of retired Armed Forces regulars. Even before this declaration, in keeping with the temper of the times, the President also stated that the country would remain neutral in the new European war. During the next two years, however, the United States increasingly shifted from a stance of public neutrality to one of preparation for possible war and quite open support of the beleaguered nations allied against Germany.

America could not concentrate its attention on Europe alone in those eventful years, for another potential enemy dominated the Far East. In September 1940, Japan became the third member, with Germany and Italy, of the Axis powers. Japan had pursued its own program of expansion in China and elsewhere in the 1930s which directly challenged America's interests. Here too, in the Pacific arena, the neutral United States was moving toward actions, political and economic, that could lead to a clash with Japan.

U.S. Marines go ashore from Navy motor-sailers in the prewar era before the advent of Andrew Higgins' landing craft. Department of Defense Photo (USN) 58920

MajGen John A. Lejeune
MajGen John A. Lejeune, 13th Commandant of the Marine Corps, led the Corps in the 1920s, steadfastly emphasizing the expeditionary role of Marines. Department of Defense Photo (USMC) 308342

In this hectic world atmosphere, America began to build its military strength. Shortly before Germany attacked Poland, at mid-year 1939, the number of active duty servicemen stood at 333,473: 188,839 in the Army, 125,202 in the Navy, and 19,432 in the Marine Corps. A year later, the overall strength was 458,365 and the number of Marines was 28,345. By early summer of 1941, the Army had 1,801,101 soldiers on active duty, many of them National Guardsmen and Reservists, but most of them men enlisted after Congress authorized a peacetime draft. The Navy, also augmented by the recall of Reservists, had 269,023 men on its active rolls. There were 54,359 Marines serving on 1 July 1941, all the Reservists available and a steadily increasing number of volunteers. Neither the Navy nor the Marine Corps had need for the draft to fill their ranks.

The Marine Corps that grew in strength during 1939-41 was a Service oriented toward amphibious operations and expeditionary duty. It also had a strong commitment to the Navy beyond its amphibious/expeditionary role as it provided Marine detachments to guard naval bases and on board capital ships throughout the world. Marine aviation squadrons — all Marine pilots were naval aviators and many were carrier qualified — reinforced the Navy's air arm.

Two decades of air and ground campaigns in the Caribbean and Central America, the era of the "banana wars," had ended in 1934 when the last Marines withdrew from Nicaragua, having policed the election of a new government. With their departure, enough men became available to have meaningful fleet landing exercises (FLEXs) which tested doctrine, troops, and equipment in partnership with the Navy. And the doctrine tested was both new and important.

Throughout the 1920s, when Major General Commandant John A. Lejeune led the Corps, the doughty World War I commander of, briefly, the renowned 4th Marine Brigade, and then its parent 2d Infantry Division, had steadfastly emphasized the expeditionary role of Marines. Speaking to the students and faculty of the Naval War College in 1923, Lejeune said: "The maintenance, equipping, and training of its expeditionary force so it will be in instant readiness to support the Fleet in the event of War, I deem to be the most important Marine Corps duty in time of peace." But the demands of that same expeditionary duty, with Marines deployed in the Caribbean, in Central America, in the Philippines, and in China stretched the Corps thin.

MajGen Wendell C. Neville
MajGen Wendell C. Neville, 14th Commandant of the Marine Corps, died after serving little more than a year in office. Neville shared Lejeune's determination that the Marine Corps have a meaningful role as an amphibious force trained for expeditionary use by the Navy. Department of Defense Photo (USMC) 303062

Existing doctrine for amphibious operations, both in assault and defense, the focal point of wartime service by Marines, was recognized as inadequate. All sorts of deficiencies existed, in amphibious purpose, in shipping, in landing craft, in the areas of air and naval gunfire support, and particularly in the methodology and logistics of the highly complicated ship-to-shore movement of troops and their supplies once ashore. The men who succeeded Lejeune as Major General Commandant upon his retirement after two terms in office (eight years) at the Corps' helm, Wendell C. "Buck" Neville, also a wartime commander of the 4th Marine Brigade, Ben M. Fuller, who commanded a brigade in Santo Domingo during the war, and John H. Russell, Jr., a brigade commander in Haiti who then became America's High Commissioner in that country for eight years, all shared Lejeune's determination that the Marine Corps would have a meaningful role as an amphibious force trained for expeditionary use by the Navy. Each man left his own mark upon the Corps in an era of reduced appropriations and manpower as a result of the Depression that plagued the United States during their tenure.

Neville, who had been awarded the Medal of Honor for his part in the fighting at Vera Cruz in 1914, unfortunately died after serving little more than a year (1929-1930) as Commandant, but his successors, Fuller (1930-1934) and Russell (1934-1936), both served to age 64, then the mandatory retirement age for senior officers. All of these Commandants, as Lejeune, were graduates of the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis and had served two years as naval cadets on board warships after graduation and before accepting commissions as Marine second lieutenants. As a consequence, their understanding of the Navy was pervasive as was their conviction that the Marine Corps and the Navy were inseparable partners in amphibious operations. In this instance, the Annapolis tie of the Navy and Marine Corps senior leaders, for virtually all admirals of the time were Naval Academy classmates, was beneficial to the Corps.

pack howitzer
Marines bring ashore a disassembled 75mm pack howitzer. The pack howitzer replaced the French 75, which had served Marine artillery from World War I. Marine Corps Historical Collection

As his term as Commandant came to a close Ben Fuller was able to effect a far-reaching change that John Russell was to carry further into execution. In December 1933, with the approval of the Secretary of the Navy, Fuller redesignated the existing Marine expeditionary forces on both coasts as the Fleet Marine Force (FMF) to be a type command of the U.S. Fleet. Building on the infantrymen of the 5th Marines at Quantico and those of the 6th Marines at San Diego, two brigades came into being which were the precursors of the 1st and 2d Marine Divisions of World War II. In keeping with the times, Commandant Russell could point out the next year that he had only 3,000 Marines available to man the FMF, but the situation would improve as Marines returned from overseas stations.

MajGen Ben C. Fuller, Neville's successor in 1930, found new roles and missions for the Corps as 15th Commandant. Marine Corps Historical Collection
MajGen John H. Russell
The 16th Commandant of the Marine Corps, MajGen John H. Russell, was a graduate of the Naval Academy, as Lejeune, Neville, and Fuller before him, and close to Navy leaders because of their mutual Academy experiences. Marine Corps Historical Collection

The slowly building brigades and their attendant squadrons of Marine aircraft, the only American troops with combat and expeditionary experience beyond the trenches and battlefields of France, came into being in a climate of change from the "old ways" of performing their mission. At the Marine base at Quantico, Virginia, also the home of advanced officer training for the Corps, a profound event had taken place in November 1933 that would alter the course of the war to come.

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Commemorative Series produced by the Marine Corps History and Museums Division