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.

Atlantic Theater

Because the British had fought the Germans since 1939, their combat know-how and experience in air, land, and sea battles were invaluable to the American military. A steady stream of American observers, largely unheralded to the public, visited Britain and British and Allied forces in the field during 1940-41 to learn what they could of such new warfare innovations as radar, pioneered by the British; to see how antiaircraft defenses were operating; to learn what constant air raids and battles could teach; and to see how Britain's land forces were preparing for their eventual return to Europe. The Marine Corps Commandant, Major General Thomas Holcomb, made sure that his officers played a strong part in this learning process from the British.

Holcomb, who had ably commanded a battalion of the 6th Marines in the fighting in France in 1918, had initially been appointed Commandant by President Roosevelt on 1 December 1936. After serving with distinction through the European outbreak of World War II and the Corps' initial war-related buildup, he was reappointed Major General Commandant by the President for a second four-year term on 1 December 1940. The Commandant, besides being a dedicated Marine who championed the Corps during trying times, was also an astute player of the Washington game. A respected colleague and friend of the admirals who commanded the Navy, Holcomb was equally at ease and a friend to the politicians who controlled the military budget. He understood the President's determination to see Great Britain survive, as well as his admiration of the British peoples' struggle. Always well aware of the value of the public image of the Marine Corps as a force "first to fight." Holcomb at times yielded to pressures to experiment with new concepts and authorize new types of organizations which would enhance that image. The Marines whom he sent to Great Britain were imbued with the desire to gain knowledge and experience that would help the Corps get ready for the war they felt sure was coming. The British, who shared the view that the Americans would eventually enter the war on their side, were open and forthcoming in their cooperation.

Marines in ships' detachments, such as this one on board the carrier Lexington, served in major combatant ships of the pre-war Navy. Many seagoing Marines were either commissioned or became senior staff noncommissioned officers in the war. Department of Defense Photo (USN) 51363

In 1941 particularly, the Marine observers, ranging in rank from captains to colonels, visited British air stations and air control centers, antiaircraft command complexes and firing battery sites, and all kinds of troop formations. The weapons and equipment being used and the tactics and techniques being practiced were all of interest. Much of what was seen and reported on was of immediate value to the Americans and saw enhanced development in the States. On the air side, briefings on radar developments were invaluable, as were demonstrations of ground control intercept practices for night fighters and the use of night fighters themselves. Anything the British had learned on air defense control and antiaircraft usage was eagerly absorbed. The Marine air observers would note on their return that they had dealt with numbers of aircraft and concepts of command and control that were not remotely like Marine Corps reality, but all knew that these numbers of aircraft and their control equipment were authorized, funded, and building.

The fascination of the time, although focused on the Battle of Britain's aerial defenses, was not only with the air war but also with the "elite" troops, the sea-raiding commandos, as well as the glider and parachute forces so ably exploited by the Germans in combat and now a prominent part of Britain's army. The role of the commandos, who were then Army troops but who eventually would be drawn exclusively from Royal Marines ranks, raised a natural favorable response in the American Marines. Most of the observers were enthusiastic about the commando potential, but at least one U.S. Marine senior colonel, Julian C. Smith, who watched commando exercises at Inverary, Scotland, was not overly impressed. Smith, who later commanded the 2d Marine Division at the epic battle for Tarawa, told General Holcomb that the commandos "weren't any better than we; that any battalion of Marines could do the job they do."

For the moment at least, Smith's view was a minority evaluation, one not shared, for instance, by commando enthusiast President Roosevelt, and the Marine Corps would see the raising of raider battalions to perform commando-like missions. In similar fashion, and for much the same reasons, Service enthusiasm for being at the cutting edge and popular acclaim of elite formations, the Marine Corps raised parachute battalions, glider squadrons, and barrage balloon squadrons, all of which were disbanded eventually in the face of the realities of the island-dominated Pacific theater. They might have served their purpose well in Europe or North Africa but the Marine Corps' destiny was in the Pacific.

Marines of the pre-Pearl Harbor Corps, filled with memories of their later battles with the Japanese, are sometimes prone to forget that Germany was as much their potential enemy in 1940-41 as Japan. At the time, many must have felt as did one artillery lieutenant and later raider officer who took part in fleet exercises of early 1941 that "we all cut our teeth on amphibious operations, actually not knowing whether we were going to leave Guantanamo for Europe or the Pacific." What the Marines at Guantanamo Bay did know was that their Cuban base was bustling with men as mobilized Reservists and new recruits joined. And as the necessary men came in, the brigade grew in size and abounded with changes of organizations and activations.

training exercise
Marines train for war with the Browning .30-caliber, water-cooled, heavy machine gun at Camp Matthews in California. Painting by Peter Hurd, U.S. Army

The 1st Marine Brigade, at first essentially one infantry regiment, the 5th Marines, one artillery battalion, the 1st Battalion, 11th Marines, and supporting troops, had moved to Guantanamo from Quantico in the late fall of 1940 as its FMF units had outgrown the Virginia base. At "Gitmo," as it was known to all, the brigade's units became the source of all new organizations. Essentially, existing outfits, from battalions through platoons, were split in half. To insure a equal distribution of talent as well as numbers, the brigade commander, Brigadier General Holland M. "Howling Mad" Smith, shrewdly had each unit commander turn in two equallists, leaving off the commanding officer (CO) and his executive officer. As a later combat battalion commander of the 5th recalled the process, when redesignation took place, "the CO would command one unit, one former exec would become CO of the other.... But until the split was made and the redesignation announced, no CO could know which half he would command. In this manner, the 5th Marines gave birth to the 7th Marines and the 1st Battalion, 11th Marines to the 2d Battalion. Not too long after, all the units of the 5th, 7th, and 11th Marines and their supporting elements were again split, this time into three equal lists, leaving out the three senior men. A new regiment, the 1st Marines with its necessary support, was formed equitably from the 5th and 7th, because the COs of the older units did not know whether they would stay behind (two lists) or take over the new outfits.

On 1 February 1941, the 1st Marine Brigade was redesignated the 1st Marine Division while its troops were on board ship heading for the Puerto Rican island of Culebra for maneuvers. At the same time on the west coast, the 2d Brigade, at San Diego, which had grown in a similar fashion from its original infantry regiment, the 6th Marines, was redesignated the 2d Marine Division. Most of its troops, however, were located at a new FMF base, Camp Elliott, in the low, hilly country 12 miles northeast of San Diego.

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Commemorative Series produced by the Marine Corps History and Museums Division