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.

Pacific Theater

By late 1941, the standard table of organization of a defense battalion had evolved to include a unit of about 900 men, composed of three 5-inch coast defense gun batteries, three 3-inch antiaircraft gun batteries, a sound locator and searchlight battery, a battery of .50-caliber antiaircraft machine guns, and a battery of .30-caliber machine guns for beach defenses. That was the standard; the actuality varied with the location. The characteristic all defense battalion garrisons had in common was lots of guns and gun crews. What they were all short of was infantrymen. If an enemy landing force reached the island beaches, the gun crews and other specialists could expect, and would be expected, to prove once again that every Marine was a rifleman before all else.

The 1st and 3d Defense Battalions were the first Marines to reach the is land outposts. Advance elements of the 3d Battalion landed at Midway in May 1940 to conduct reconnaissance and undertake preliminary construction. The rest of the battalion remained at Pearl Harbor providing reinforcing and relief parties until January 1941 when the whole battalion was ordered forward. In February, while the men of the 3d were unloading their heavy equipment at Midway, the advance party of the 1st Battalion left San Diego on board the carrier Enterprise, transferring at Pearl to a small cargo ship, and moving on to Johnston, where two 5-inch guns and an eight-man caretaker detail landed, while the rest of the party, three officers and 45 enlisted men, proceeded to Palmyra. After the rest of the 1st Defense Battalion shipped out to Pearl Harbor, small reinforcing detachments moved for ward to the outpost islands to join in the pick and shovel work of emplacing guns and digging in command posts, magazines, and fire direction centers. It was August 1941 before the first elements of the 1st Battalion reached Wake where a contractor's work force was already building an airfield.

Grumman F3F-2s
Grumman F3F-2s, the last biplane fighter produced for either the Navy or the Marines, served in the FMF from 1937 to 1941. The VMF-2 planes pictured here were stationed at North Island, Coronado near San Diego, California during this period. Department of Defense Photo (USN) 83924

On all the outpost islands where Marines were stationed, the work was constant and boring. The arrival of a plane or ship was an event to celebrate. There was no liberty. If there had been, there was no place to go and nothing to see but the Pacific in all directions. The 14th District established a rotation policy (back to Pearl) for the outpost Marines, but this reward was countered by a pervading urgency to get on with the job at hand, protecting the approaches to Hawaii.

The 6th Defense Battalion, which arrived at Pearl Harbor in January 1941 as a replacement and reserve unit, moved forward to Midway in September to replace the 3d Battalion as the defending ground garrison. The 3d moved back to Oahu for a well earned rest from construction work. On 1 December, the 4th Defense Battalion, fresh from duty at Guantanamo Bay, arrived at Pearl. It was scheduled to replace the half battalion of the 1st on Wake, but its arrival and strengthened force was too late to effect relief. Wake did receive a substantial and welcome reinforcement on 4 December, however, when 12 F4F-3 Grumman Wildcats of Marine Fighting Squadron (VMF) 211 flew off the decks of the Enterprise to the atoll's new and unfinished airfield.

Grumman F4F Wildcat

The Grumman Wildcat served as the primary fighter of the United States Marine Corps at the outbreak of the Pacific War. By December 1941, Grumman Wildcats were being flown by three of four Marine fighter squadrons then in existence.

Designed in 1936 as Grumman's first monoplane fighter aircraft, the Wildcat had retractable handcranked landing gear, vacuum-powered flaps, and a simple electrical system. Although it lost a design contest to its main competitor, the Brewster F2A Buffalo, in 1938, the Navy nonetheless continued to encourage Grumman in the aircraft's development. Wildcats were delivered to the Marine Corps in 1941, replacing the obsolescent Grumman F3F-2 fabric and metal biplanes which had been in service since 1937. The all-metal F4F-3 Wildcat was powered by a Pratt & Whitney R-1830-66 Twin Wasp engine and had two .50-caliber Browning machine guns mounted in each wing.

Grumman F4F Wildcat

By October 1941, Marine Fighting Squadrons (VMFs) 111, 121, and 211 were fully equipped with Wildcats; only VMF-221 was equipped with Brewster Buffaloes. A forward detachment from Marine Fighting Squadron 211 flew to Wake Island in December 1941 as part of a Marine Corps air-ground team just prior to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. During the following defense of Wake Island, they fought the Japanese for 14 days and inflicted heavy losses on the attackers' shipping and aircraft before losing all 12 F4F-3s.

Despite the fact that the Wildcat's performance was inferior to its primary adversary, the Japanese Zero, its staunch ruggedness and greatly superior firepower in the hands of skilled and determined pilots would enable it to compile a distinguished record during the war. There were 34 recorded Marine Corps Wildcat aces.

-Kenneth L. Smith-Christmas

The spread of defense battalion Marines at the beginning of December found 422 officers and men of the 1st Battalion at Wake, 162 at Johnston, 158 at Palmyra, and 261 at Pearl Harbor. Midway's 6th Battalion garrison had 33 officers and 810 enlisted men. The 3d Battalion was 863 strong at Pearl and the newly arrived 4th mustered 818. Both of the larger atolls had six 5-inch coast defense guns and twelve 3-inch antiaircraft guns; Johnston had two 5-inch guns and four 3-inch guns; Palmyra had four of each. Machine guns for defense matched the garrisons' size; Midway had 30 .50-calibers and 30 .30-calibers; Wake had 18 and 30; Johnston and Palmyra each had eight apiece.

SB2U-3 Chance-Vought Vindicator scout-bomber
A SB2U-3 Chance-Vought Vindicator scout-bomber conducts field carrier landing practice at Ewa Field in June 1941. Department of Defense Photo (USMC) 145098

Although VMF-211's Wildcats on Wake were the only Marine aircraft yet to reach the outpost defenses, most of the squadron's parent Marine Aircraft Group 21 had moved from California to Hawaii by December. MAG-21 was the 2d Wing's only tactical air group. Part of the group's ground echelon moved west to Midway in November to await aircraft due to arrive shortly. Meanwhile, all Marine aircraft in Hawaii were concentrated at the Marine Corps Air Station, Ewa, 10 miles west of Pearl Harbor, the site of a Navy dirigible mooring mast field in the 1920s. Those planes of MAG-21 not at the airfield were deployed on board carriers for transportation to reinforce Wake and Midway. VMF-221 with 14 F2A-3 Brewster Buffalo fighters boarded the Saratoga at North Island, San Diego on 7 and 8 December. The Lexington got 18 SB2U-3 Chance-Vought Vindicators of Marine Scout-Bombing Squadron 231. With the fall of Wake, both squadrons were used to reinforce Midway. At Ewa, there were 48 fighters, scout-bombers, and utility aircraft, most scheduled for forward deployment.

Aviation units were not the only elements of the FMF to move forward into the Pacific by December 1941. A sizeable portion of the 2d Marine Division's 2d Engineer Battalion was also deployed to Oahu in the fall in order to build a camp capable of accommodating 5,000 Marines. The location of the new facility, Camp Catlin, was in the canefields east of Honolulu along the island's main highway. Its site selected by a board of Marine colonels, Catlin eventually would see tens of thousands of Marines pass through its gates into the farther reaches of the Pacific as it became the principal replacement and redistribution center for the FMF. In December it was half completed, and its Marine engineer constructors were destined to be the first members of the 2d Division to see combat in World War II.

Back in California, the 2d Marine Division was rounding into shape, engaged as was the 1st Division in constant training and maneuvers. Neither unit had reached its full strength yet as constant demands for Marines for base, fleet, and barracks duty drained the available manpower pool as fast as it filled. San Diego's recruit depot was crowded with men striving to become Marines, but it no longer had to call on the 2d Division for extra drill instructors as it had often in 1940 after the President declared a National Emergency and the recruiting stations were flooded with applicants. The recruit training cycle, down to as few as 24 days on both coasts in 1940, was fairly stable at seven weeks, with three on the rifle range.

F2A-3 Brewster Buffalo
The F2A-3 Brewster Buffalo single-engine fighter planes with which the Marine Corps entered World War II were almost all lost in the Battle of Midway. Department of Defense Photo (USMC) 25414

SBD-3 Douglas Dauntless
A SBD-3 Douglas Dauntless dive bomber runs-up for takeoff from the flight deck of the Saratoga in late 1941. The Dauntless was a multi-seat, low-wing monoplane which carried a 500-pound bomb under the fuselage and bombs under the wings. Department of Defense Photo (USN) 92493

The Fleet Marine Force units in the west, like those in the east, were itching for action, although the Commandant noted at the time that Marines still needed "to train (further) for combat," a quite different situation. Most of the planes and crewmen of the 2d Wing were already at least as far west as Hawaii. The 2d Division was poised to join them.

Marine communicators
For training in the field before World War II, Marines wore either summer service khaki or one-piece blue denim coveralls with their field hats. The Marines below are communicators with state of the art equipment at Camp Elliott in 1941. Photo courtesy of C. M. Craig

Still in the future, the near future, were the great air and amphibious training centers at El Toro and Camp Pendleton. Pendleton, in particular, was to be part of the experiences of most Marines who served in the Pacific either going or coming. In December 1941, the area, as one private on its original survey team remembered, was "pretty barren country" fit only for cattle. His observation was not an uncommon sentiment of later Marines, who followed him into the seemingly endless brown hills and valleys.

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Commemorative Series produced by the Marine Corps History and Museums Division