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 Eve of War

That month, all classes of the Marine Corps Schools were suspended and the students and faculty, including a sprinkling of Navy officers, were directed to concentrate their efforts on developing a detailed manual which would provide the guidance for the conduct of amphibious operations. The decision was not purely a Marine Corps one, since Quantico and the staff of the Naval War College at Newport, Rhode Island, had been exchanging ideas on the subject for more than a decade. All naval planners knew that the execution of the contingency operations they envisioned worldwide would be flawed if the United States did not have adequate transport and cargo shipping, appropriate and sufficient landing craft, or trained amphibious assault troops. But the Quantico working group, headed by Colonel Ellis B. Miller, proceeded on the assumption that all these would be forthcoming. They developed operating theories based on their experience and their hopes which could be refined by practice. They formulated answers to thorny questions of command relationships, they looked at naval gun fire and air support problems and provided solutions, they addressed the ship-to-shore movement of troops and developed unloading, boat control, and landing procedures, and they decided on beach party and shore party methods to control the unloading of supplies on the beaches. In January 1934, a truly seminal document in the history of amphibious warfare was completed and the "Tentative Manual for Landing Operations" was published by the Marine Corps. In the years that followed, as fleet landing exercises re fined procedures, as the hoped-for improved shipping and landing craft gradually appeared, and as increasing numbers of seamen and assault troops were trained in amphibious landing techniques, the Quantico manual was reworked and expanded, but its core of innovative thinking remained. In 1938 the Navy promulgated the evolved manual as Fleet Training Publication (FTP) 167; it became the bible for the conduct of American amphibious operations in World War II. In 1941 the Army published FTP-167 as Field Manual 31-5 to guide its growing force of soldiers, most of whom would train for and take part in amphibious operations completely unaware of the Marine Corps influence on their activities. Truly, the handful of Marine and Navy officers at Quantico in 1933-34 had revolutionized the conduct of amphibious warfare.

MajGen Holland M. Smith
MajGen Holland M. Smith, Commanding General, Amphibious Force, Atlantic Fleet observes landing operations with his aide, Capt Victor H. Krulak, at Fort Story, Virginia, in the winter of 1941. Department of Defense Photo (USMC) 528648

Despite the fiscal constraints of the Depression, the number and variety of naval ships devoted to amphibious purposes gradually increased in the 1930s. As the threat of American involvement in the war also grew stronger, vastly increased funds were made available for the Navy, the country's "first line of defense," and specialized transport and cargo ships appeared. These were tested and modified and became an increasing factor in the FLEXs which took place every year from 1935 on, usually with practice landings at Culebra and Vieques Islands off Puerto Rico in the Atlantic Ocean, at San Clemente Island off the southern California coast, and in the Hawaiian Islands.

While the number of "big" amphibious ships, transports and cargo vessels, slowly grew in number, the small boat Navy of amphibious landing craft similarly evolved and increased. They were vital to the success of landing operations, a means to get assault troops ashore swiftly and surely. For most Marines of the era, there are memories of ships' launches, lighters, and experimental boats of all sorts that brought them to the beach, or at least to the first sandbar or reef offshore. Rolling over the side of a boat and wading through the surf was a common experience. One future Commandant, then a lieutenant, recalled making a practice landing on Maui in the Hawaiian Islands as his unit returned from expeditionary duty in China in 1938. He described the landing as "one of those old timers" made in "these damned motor launches, you know, with a prow and everything — never made for a landing." The result, he said in colorful memory, was "you grounded out somewhere 50 yards from the beach and jumped in. Sometimes your hat floated and sometimes you made it."

The landing craft that changed this picture was the Higgins boat, named after its inventor, Andrew Higgins, who developed a boat of shallow draft that could reach the beach in three to four feet of water, land an infantry platoon, and then retract to return for another load. First used on an experimental basis in FLEX 5 (1938) at Culebra, it won its way over rivals and was adopted as the standard personnel landing craft by 1940. In its initial hundreds the Higgins boat had a sloping bow that required of its passengers an over-the-side agility after it grounded. In 1941, a version, most familiar to World War II veterans, was introduced which had a bow ramp which allowed men and vehicles to exit onto a beach or at least into knee-high, not neck-high water. This was the 36-foot Landing Craft, Vehicle and Personnel (LCVP) which was fitted to the boat davits on every amphibious transport and cargo vessel. Its companion boat, the 50-foot, ramped Landing Craft, Mechanized (LCM), also a development of Andrew Higgins, provided the means for landing tanks, artillery, and heavy vehicles.

Higgins landing craft
The design of this Higgins landing craft, loaded with a military truck, shown here in May 1941, served as the basis for the landing craft, vehicle and personnel (LCVP). Department of Defense Photo (USN) 73812

The variety of landing craft that eventually evolved, and the tasks to which they were put, was limited only by the ingenuity of those who planned their uses and the seamanship of the sailors who manned them. But for most prewar Marines, the memories of practice landings featured the rampless Higgins boat, various tank lighters which made each beach approach an adventure, and all sorts of "make do" craft of earlier years which were ill suited for surf or heavy seas.

landing net training
"Wet" landing net training was conducted for 1st Division Marines off the Intracoastal Waterway at Marine Barracks, New River. Note different landing craft used in the exercise. These Marines soon would be descending the nets at Guadalcanal. Sketch by Vernon H. Bailey, Navy Art Collection

Roebling Alligator Amphibian Tractor

Developed and, in part, financed by its inventor, Donald Roebling, the Alligator amphibian tractor is the predecessor of every Landing Vehicle, Tracked (LVT) in the world. The story of the Roebling amphibian tractor starts with the devastating hurricanes which struck southern Florida in 1926, 1928, and 1932. Donald Roebling's father, financier John A. Roebling, had witnessed the loss of life brought about by these storms in the swampy areas of the Okeechobee region. Spurred by a challenge from his father to use his engineering talents to design and develop a vehicle "that would bridge the gap between where a boat is grounded and a car is flooded out." Donald Roebling, the grandson of the designer and builder of the Brooklyn Bridge, started work on his Alligator amphibian tractor in early 1933.

Roebling and his staff completed their first model Alligator in early 1935. It used aluminum, a comparatively new and unproven material, in the construction of the hull to reduce weight and increase buoyancy. It was propelled on land and water by paddle-tread tracks and was then powered by a Chrysler 92-horsepower industrial engine. This first model was then modified and upgraded so extensively that it is generally referred to as the second model Alligator. This second Alligator had improved tracks with built-in roller bearings which rode in specially designed steel channels which eliminated the need for idler and bogie wheels to support the tracks, as were used on most tractor and tank designs.

In 1937, U.S. Navy Rear Admiral Edward C. Kalbfus, Commander, Battleships, U.S. Pacific Fleet, showed Major General Louis McCarty Little, Commanding General, Fleet Marine Force, an article on Roebling's amphibian tractor in the October 4th issue of Life magazine. In turn, General Little forwarded the article to the Commandant of the Marine Corps. In March 1938, Major John Kaluf of the Equipment Board at Quantico was dispatched to Clearwater, Florida, with orders to investigate the military potential of the Roebling Alligator. Major Kaluf returned a favorable report in May 1938 the Commandant of the Marine Corps requested that a "pilot model" be purchased for "further tests under service conditions." This request was down by the Navy's Bureau of Construction due to limited funding.

In the fall of that year, the new President of Corps Equipment Board, Brigadier General Emile P. Moses, and Kaluf's replacement as Secretary, Major Ernest E. Linsert, made a visit to Clearwater which would become a turning point in the development of the amphibian tractor. It was during this visit that General Moses persuaded Roebling to design a new Alligator which would incorporate a number of improvements. The fact that the Marine Corps did not have any available funds at this time forced Roebling to come up with most of the $18,000 required to fabricate this vehicle from his own pocket. Construction on this new Alligator was completed in May 1940.

The development of the amphibian tractor, or LVT, which began in the middle 1930s provided the solution and was one of the most important modern technical contributions to ship-to-shore operations. Without these landing vehicles our amphibious offensive in the Pacific would have been impossible.
Lieutenant General Holland M. Smith, USMC

With the political and military situation in Europe and Asia worsening, military appropriations from Congress improved and the Navy's Bureau of Ships was able to fund a $20,000 contract with Roebling for the construction of a new test vehicle. It was almost identical to "Alligator 3," but was powered by a 120-horsepower Lincoln-Zepher engine. This Alligator was completed in October 1940, and was tested at Quantico, Virginia, and later in the Carribean. While the testing of this fourth Alligator revealed some deficiencies, the general design was deemed a success. The tractor was redesigned using a welded steel hull and incorporating many of the recommendations of the test team. A contract was then let by the Navy for 100 LVT-1s. The first of these production LVTs would roll off the Food Machinery Corporation's (FMC) assembly line in July 1941.

-Anthony Wayne Tommell

Roebling AmTrac

Gen Thomas Holcomb
Gen Thomas Holcomb, 17th Commandant of the Marine Corps, was a decorated World War I combat leader. From 1936, when he became Commandant, to December 1943, when he retired, he guided the Corps and led it into war. Department of Defense (USMC) 12444-B

One amphibious craft development of the prewar years, equal in its impact on amphibious landings to the LCVP and the LCM, was the tracked landing vehicle, the LVT. Developed in the late 1930s by Donald Roebling for use as a rescue vehicle in the Florida everglades, the LVT, or the Alligator as it was soon popularly named, could travel over land or water using its cupped treads for propulsion. The stories of the "discovery" of Roebling's invention and of its subsequent testing and development are legion. It proved to have an invaluable capability, not considered in its initial concept; it could cross coral reefs, and coral reefs fringed the beaches of most Pacific islands. The amphibian tractor, or amtrac to its users, was a natural weapon for Marines and there was hardly a whisper of opposition to its adoption. When the first production LVTs rolled off Roebling's assembly line at his plant at Clearwater, Florida, in July 1941, there was already a detachment of Marines at nearby Dunedin learning to drive and maintain the new tractors and to develop tactics for their effective use.

In the new Marine divisions then forming on each coast there would be a place for an amtrac battalion. The LVTs were conceived at first as a logistics vehicle, a means to carry troops and supplies onto and inshore of difficult beaches. But no sooner did the LVTs make their appearance in significant numbers than the thought occurred that the tractors could be armed and that they could have a role as an assault vehicle, leading assault waves.

Innovations in amphibious shipping and landing craft in the late 30s and early 40s were not solely based on American concepts. With the exception of the LVT, most amphibious craft developments and certainly amphibious shipping developments were influenced by British concepts, requirements, and experience. Although officially neutral in the fighting at sea in the Atlantic and ashore in Europe, the United States was in fact deeply involved in supporting the embattled British. For a long period in 1940-41, the Marine Corps was concerned in this effort, and to the troops in training, particularly those on the east coast, there was a real question whether they might leave their bases for Europe or the Pacific. Marine pilots had a definite fascination with the exploits of the Royal Air Force in its battles with the German Luftwaffe.

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Commemorative Series produced by the Marine Corps History and Museums Division