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

At Marine Corps headquarters, it was readily apparent that the planned expansion of the Corps to an FMF strength of at least two infantry divisions and two supporting air craft wings would require a vastly increased supporting establishment. Not least among the new requirements for manpower and equipment were those for a new species of units, defense battalions, which were projected to garrison forward bases, including Guantanamo and key American holdings in the Pacific. Also a drawdown on Marine resources was the need to provide guard detachments for many new naval bases and Navy capital ships which were being rushed to completion. The surging demand for men was matched by equal demand for training facilities.

What occurred then in late 1940 and early 1941 was a thorough search by Marines of the east and west coasts of the United States for base sites suitable for training one or more divisions whose main mission was amphibious warfare. Extensive combat exercise areas with direct access to the ocean were required. At the same time, there was a parallel need for suitable airfield locations near the proposed amphibious training sites which would house the planned for but not yet existing squadrons and groups of one or more air wings, each with hundreds of fighter, scout-bomber, torpedo-bomber, and utility aircraft. When the first divisions and wings moved out to combat, the new bases were projected to be training bases for reinforcing and replacement organizations.

armored half-track
Maneuvering at the Marine Barracks, New River, North Carolina in 1942 is an armored half-tracked mounting a 75mm gun, M1897A4, as well as a 3/4-ton truck carrying a 37mm antitank gun. Later in the war a jeep would pull this weapon. Sketch by Vernon H. Bailey, Navy Art Collection

Camp Elliott and a group of smaller supporting camps which grew up in its shadow in 1941 were barely adequate to house the growing FMF ground establishment on the west coast. The naval air stations in the San Diego area could still handle the limited number of aircraft available. The same situation was not true of the three major Marine bases in the east. While Quantico's air station could accommodate the planes of Marine Aircraft Group 1, the main base itself was keyed to support specialist and officer training and was not suitable for extensive FMF operations. Swamp-bound Parris Island teemed with recruits and had no room for the FMF. The newly developed outlying camp at nearby Hilton Head Island was reserved for essential defense battalion training. The treaty-restricted area of the naval base at Guantanamo had no room for a reinforced division's 20,000 men.

Congress authorized the construction of a vast, new Marine base in coastal North Carolina on 15 February 1941. It was, in a sense, a remote area that had been picked, certainly not one near any center of population. The Commandant, writing to a fellow general, commented "those who want to be near big cities will be disappointed because it is certainly out in the sticks," noting however, that it was a great place for maneuvers and amphibious landings. The chosen spot located in the New River area of Onslow County, was described by the 1st Division's World War II historian as "111,170 acres of water, coastal swamp, and plain, theretofore inhabited largely by sand flies, ticks, chiggers, and snakes." And he might have added covered by pine forest and scrub growth. One of the Marine veterans of the Nicaraguan jungle campaigns said: "Actually, Nicaragua was a much pleasanter place to live than the New River area at the time. They had mosquitoes there with snow on the ground." Despite its perceived faults, the die was cast for New River and construction of a huge tent camp was begun there in April with a projected readiness date of early summer. The famed brick barracks that were a feature of what would become Camp Lejeune were on the architect's drawing boards when Marine Barracks, New River, North Carolina, was activated on the 1st of May.

landing exercise
Troops of the 1st Marine Division conduct landing exercises from the Intracoastal Waterway along Onslow Beach at Marine Barracks, New River, North Carolina. Sketch by Vernon Ho Bailey, Navy Art Collection

The 1st Division soon became acquainted with the place that one regimental commander noted was "the only place between Biloxi, Mississippi, and the New Jersey capes where you could make a landing with two divisions abreast." Coming from Guantanamo, the division spent the summer of 1941 landing across Onslow Beach and moving inland through the swamps and pine barrens. By that time, Tent Camp or "Tent City" was ready to receive its new tenants. Strange as it might seem, these 1st Division Marines reveled in their austere setting amidst the stifling heat. They were already contrasting themselves to those on the west coast, derisively labelled "Hollywood Marines," because some units had appeared briefly in movies being shot at the time. There was a feeling, obviously not shared by those in the west, that Parris Island and New River somehow were the most rugged places to endure, in contrast to those who were close to "civilization."

The new Marine airfield, which was to become an integral part of the North Carolina training complex, was formally established on 18 August 1941 when the administrative office for the new "Air Facilities under Development" was established at New Bern, about 40 miles north of New River. Construction there proceeded at the same frenetic pace that marked the development of the ground training center. In September, the administrators moved to the actual airfield site nearby, Cherry Point, and on 1 December Marine Corps Air Station, Cherry Point, was activated. Most of the planes on the east coast were still at Quantico, but a great start had been made on what became in short order the center of a network of training fields which would house enough squadrons and air groups to feed most of the augmentation and replacement demands of four aircraft wings overseas. The actual establishment of the initial wing commands took place at Quantico (1st Marine Aircraft Wing [MAW]) on 7 July 1941 and San Diego (2d MAW) on 10 July. Initially, each wing could count on only one air group as its main strength, Marine Aircraft Group (MAG) 11 in the east and MAG-21 in the west. The vast increase of aircraft and aviation personnel that marked the growth of Marine aviation in World War II was in the works. The pilots, aircrewmen, and mechanics were training at Navy air facilities and the planes were coming off assembly lines in steadily in creasing numbers. It was August 1942, however, before the impact of the air buildup would be fully felt at Guadalcanal.

As an all-volunteer force, the Marine Corps was fully deployable during this training and preparedness period. In a sense, the Army was hampered in its readiness by the fact that its draftees, which soon composed the bulk of its strength, could not be sent outside the U.S. without a declaration of war. As a result, when the seizure of the French island of Martinique was contemplated in 1940, the planned assault force was the 1st Marine Brigade. When the perceived threat of a garrison in the Caribbean loyal to Vichy France lessened, other overseas expeditions were also contemplated. In the spring of 1941, the Portuguese Azores became the projected target for an amphibious seizure because it was believed that the Germans might take the strategic islands and thereby seriously threaten the sea lanes of commerce and replenishment for British and Allied bases in the home islands, Africa, and the Mediterranean. Again, Marines were to be in the forefront of the landing force and, again, when the perceived threat lessened, the operation was called off.

Springfield '03 Rifle

This rifle was the standard issue to all Marines from the early days of the 20th century into the first year of World War II. As a result of intensive marksmanship training, an inseparable bond formed between the individual Marine and this rifle which paid dividends on the target range and, later, in combat.

The Model 1903 "Springfield" rifle traces its development from the experiences of the U.S. Army in combat against the Spanish Army during the Spanish-American War. The clip-fed Spanish 7mm Mauser rifle, Model 1893, had a flatter trajectory and a higher sustained rate of fire than the .30-.40 caliber Krag-Jorgensen rifles used by the U.S. Army. Beginning in 1900, the U.S. Armory in Springfield, Massachusetts, started work on a new service rifle to replace the Krag.

The new rifle, officially adopted on 19 June 1903, was based on the M1898 German Mauser and originally had a ramrod bayonet. The rifle was redesigned to accept a knife-type bayonet in 1905. This change was a least partially due to the concern of President Theodore Roosevelt who commented to the Secretary of War that: "I must say that I think the ramrod bayonet is about as poor an invention as I ever saw."

The Model 1903 "Springfield" rifle was first issued to Marines in 1908 and saw its first combat during the Nicaraguan Campaign of 1912. The obsolescent Krags were almost entirely supplanted by the new '03 Springfields before the Vera Cruz campaign of 1914. After service in Mexico, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic, the '03 Springfield was exclusively used by Marines serving in France with the American Expeditionary Force during World War I. Following the war, an improved version was used by Marines in China and in the jungles of the Carribean Islands and Central America.

The accuracy of the '03 Springfield was without peer, and the Marine Corps based its developing marksmanship program on this rifle. The Marine Corps designed an improved set of front and rear sights and soon led the other services in prowess with the rifle. Indeed, by the outbreak of World War II, the Marine Corps had formed a cult around the rifle.

-Kenneth L. Smith-Christmas

Marine with rifle

The buildup of forces for the potential Azores campaign did have a profound effect on the Marine Corps, however, despite its cancellation. The core regimental combat team of the 2d Division, the 6th Marines and its supporting units, judged the most ready for active employment, loaded out from San Diego in May 1941 to sail through the Panama Canal and augment the Marine troops on the east coast. Enroute, the Azores objective disappeared and another took its place, Iceland. The strategic island in the middle of the North Atlantic had been occupied by British troops to forestall a similar German move. The British wanted their Iceland occupation troops back in the United Kingdom and asked for Americans to take their place.

When President Roosevelt made the decision to comply with the British request, seeing the move as vital to protecting sea traffic from German raiders, the 6th Marines was at sea and, all unwitting, became the choice for the first American troops to deploy. When the regiment's troop ships reached Charleston, South Carolina, after the Panama passage, the 6th Marines was joined by the 5th Defense Battalion from Parris Island. A new unit, the 1st Marine Brigade (Provisional), was activated. When the ships began to load massive amounts of supplies, including winter protective gear and clothing, the favorite rumor of the Marines, that they were headed to a warm and sunny clime, was effectively scotched. The convoy left Charleston soon after and on 7 July 1941 made landfall at Iceland. For nine months thereafter, one of the precious few trained Marine infantry regiments was in garrison in Iceland, and the 2d Division was short a vital element of its strength. The sudden and un expected deployment of the 6th Marines to the Atlantic was to have a considerable effect on the employment of Marine ground forces in the days after Pearl Harbor.

The drawdown on Marine strength represented by the departure of 5,000 men to Iceland was but a part of the drain of manpower that came about as a result of the fact that Marines could be sent anywhere at any time. In his zeal to support the British in ways short of war, and to enhance American hemispheric defenses, the President in mid-1940 had authorized a swap of 50 average American destroyers of World War I vintage to Britain in return for 99-year leases to bases at British Atlantic possessions. These bases were all naval and naval bases required Marine guards. As a result, a senior Marine colonel, Omar T. Pfeiffer, was made a member and recorder of a board of naval officers, the Greenslade Board, that surveyed the British locations in the late summer of 1940 to recommend appropriate American base strength and facilities.

Flown first to Bermuda, the board members moved on by air to Argentina, Newfoundland, and Nassau in the Bahamas, and from there touched down at Guantanamo where they boarded the cruiser St. Louis for the rest of their journey. Sailing to Kingston, Jamaica; Port-of-Spain, Trinidad; and Georgetown, British Guyana, the board then checked the islands of Tobago, St. Lucia, and Antigua. At each of these places, it was determined that a Marine guard detachment was needed and 50-to-100-man companies were activated for that purpose in January 1941 so that the Marines could guard the facilities as they were built. It was not bad duty for the men involved, but their deployment meant a battalion less of Marines for the FMF.

Colonel Pfeiffer was a participant in British-American discussions of possible measures to be taken in the event of war with Germany and Japan (the Rainbow Plan) which took place in Washington in 1940 and 1941. In April 1941 he was posted to a new position as Fleet Marine Officer of the Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor which drew fully on his expertise and experience.

Despite the possible and actual overseas deployments of Marines in the Atlantic Theater throughout 1941, the weight of Marine commitment was in the Pacific. And there was no question of the potential enemy there. It was Japan.

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Commemorative Series produced by the Marine Corps History and Museums Division