OUTPOST IN THE NORTH ATLANTIC: Marines in the Defense of Iceland
by Colonel James A. Donovan, U.S. Marine Corps (Ret)
William K. Jones eventually commanded the 1st Battalion, 6th Marines, at
Tarawa, Saipan, and Tinian. One of the youngest battalion commanders in
World War II, he earned a Silver Star Medal on Tarawa and a Navy Cross
at Saipan. He retired as commanding general of Fleet Marine Force,
Pacific. Author's Collection
Some joint Army-Marine command post exercises were
conducted for the staffs. When the weather and darkness began to
restrict field training, some units of the brigade initiated schooling
for both officers and enlisted Marines. The 1st Battalion, commanded by
Lieutenant Colonel Oliver P. Smith, who was well schooled himself and a
graduate of France's Ecole de Guerre Superieure, held officers'
schools on military subjects. Meanwhile, Lieutenant Colonel William A.
Worton, commander of the 2d Battalion, was interested in establishing
literacy classes in "everything from simple arithmetic to calculus."
Lieutenant William C. Chamberlin, a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Dartmouth
College, who had been working in his spare time on his doctorate degree
at the University of Iceland, was made "Headmaster" of the battalion's
schools which employed officer and NCO teachers. Eventually more than
125 Marines attended classes in a variety of basic subjects. It helped
to keep young minds busy when they had very little else to occupy their
spare time. Before it had become too dark during the days, there had
been a fair amount of range firing of crew-served weaponsmachine
guns and mortarsbut field exercises were just no longer feasible
During their deployment to Iceland, the firing
batteries of the 2d Battalion, 10th Marines, had been attached in
support of the three infantry battalions of the 6th Marines and
initially were located adjacent to the infantry camps. In the late fall,
the batteries were returned to their parent battalion control and
relocated at a new camp, Camp Tientsin. This move was made to facilitate
artillery technical training and permit more efficient field firing
planning and execution by the battalion.
William C. Chamberlain, education officer of the 2d Battalion, 6th
Marines, was made "headmaster" of the battalion's schools which employed
both officers and enlisted Marines as instructors. He had a
distinguished record as a combat leader in the battles for Guadalcanal,
Tarawa, Saipan, and Tinian, He was decorated with both the Navy Cross
and the Silver Star Medal for heroism. Author's Collection
In the ever-darker winter weeks, almost all military
training came to a standstill. Close-order drill in the morning by
moonlight was just not effective. Rifles' barrels had to be inspected
indoors by lamp light reflected from a thumbnail placed in the chamber.
Some weapons drills were held in the huts. Much time was dedicated to
ensuring the health and comfort of the Marines without losing sight of
the defense mission. It wasn't easy. The wind blew constantly with gusts
of 70 to 100 miles per hour and the Marines settled down to whatever
training they could conduct in their quarters.
A traditional pastime which always kept Marines busy
was to maintain personal gear with "spit and polish." The M1903
Springfield rifle had a wooden stock made of carefully selected walnut.
It took a beautiful polish when linseed oil was rubbed into the wood by
the Marine's palm. His rifle was his personal weapon, constantly
inspected and handled with care and pride. The other habitual Marine
practice was to shine the issue chocolate brown-colored, high-top
leather shoes to a high gloss.
Dealing with their own and their Marines' sheer
boredom became a real problem for both junior and senior commanders.
Mail call, though the letters and packages often arrived late in
battered and tattered condition, very often wet, was a highlight in a
day's schedule. Enlisted marines were issued two free cans of beer per
day from the post exchange, an event which also broke the monotony. As
always, card games for high stakes were a popular pastime. Most of the
gamblers' pay "rode the books" as there was no place to spend it.
Because there was little to read, one company commander often to a book
to his men's huts and read to them as they and their salty and grizzled
NCOs sat at his feet and listened with rapt attention. Some nights he
sneaked in a bottle of whiskey for the men. They described these visits
as "the skipper's mail call."
Shortage of organic motor transport in the Brigade
forced it to depend upon the good will of the British or the U.S. Army
for trucking personnel and supplies, or tactical mobility. The only
trucks available in the Brigade were the one-ton artillery prime movers,
as seen here, from the 10th Marines battalion attached to the Brigade.
The bleak desolate quality of Iceland is evident. Department of Defense
Photo (USMC) 185298
With the advancing cold weather and snow, each
battalion formed an ad hoc "ski patrol" with a potential mission of
rescuing crews of downed aircraft or to find persons lost in the rugged
country. The patrol consisted of an officer and a few men, mostly from
New England, who claimed to be experienced skiers. Their chief problem
was that they had no supply of proper ski boots or bindings or wax. The
skis purchased in Charleston were simple wooden ones with a toe strap
only, and the poles provided were basic beginner's bamboo sticks. The
snow was never deep enough around Marine camps for good skiing and
fortunately there were no emergencies calling for a ski patrol
As noted earlier, a major difficulty facing Marine
units in remote outpost camps was the shortage of transportation. Marine
infantry battalions had no motor transport of their ownneither
jeeps nor trucks, prime movers nor weapons carriers. The 2d Battalion,
10th Marines, had small, one-ton truck prime movers for its 75mm pack
howitzers. The brigade had a motor transport platoon with some old
two-ton trucks. The defense battalion had a few vehicles, but there were
no general-purpose, staff, command, or utility vehicles in the brigade.
Only the generosity of the U.S. and British armies, which loaned the
Marines a small number of trucks enabled them to meet the most basic
logistic requirements. The British had also loaned the Marines a few of
their small "staff" or reconnaissance vehicles which were little more
than four-cylinder sport cars painted olive drab. The Army generously
provided the brigade with some jeeps and 3/4-ton trucks available to
transport Marine working parties and for logistic support.
Lack of motor transport was a continuing problem for
the brigade for most of its time in Iceland. With the dearth of motor
vehicles and material handling equipment, the Marines continued to move
by foot and to use their backs to handle supplies. One benefit was that
most enlisted ranks kept physically fit despite the lack of a formal
physical fitness program.
Downtown Reykjavik, the capital of Iceland, was in 1941
a city of grey stucco buildings with a strong odor of fish. It was an
oasis of civilization, however. Col Clifton M. Craig Collection
Recreation for Marines in the city and vicinity of
Reykjavik was very limited. The few existing restaurants were small,
barely able to serve both the local citizens and a few British and
American troops. There were only two small movie theaters and the Hotel
Borgthe largest and best in townwhich were the centers of
the Icelanders' social life. The Borg attracted the Allied officers to
its dances but was "out of bounds" to enlisted troops. Single girls
frequented the hotel to dance with the officers and even to establish
some promising friendships.
Clothing for Iceland
Marines in sheepskin coats and wearing garrison caps or
fur hats pose before the decorated Nissen hut before Iceland's winter
set in. Appropriate weather proofing kept the interior of the huts
relatively warm despite the cold. National Archives Photo 127-N-185074
The Marines were issued items of special winter
clothing: some good 20-year-old stock of mustard-colored wool shirts
which were used in "banana war" campaigns; woolen underwear; heavy wool
socks; rubber galoshes; some short sheepskin-lined canvas coats from
Sears Roebuck and Co.; and "foul-weather gear," black rubber or canvas
coats and pants from civilian sources. Some officers and men obtained
fine olive-drab parkas with alpaca linings from the Army.
Marine in service greens with polar bear patch, fur hat, galoshes, and
heavy wool socks poses in the Icelandic cold.
For working parties and training, the felt field hat
and the one-piece blue denim or olive herringbone utility uniform were
frequently worn. Sweatshirts gave an added layer of warmth, but the
field-combat clothing issued Marines for service in Iceland was far from
satisfactory. The result was that Marines in the field or on the
continuous working parties did not look military. The Marine Corps had
no winter field service combat uniform other than its winter service
greens, including the overcoat in the same heavy wool worn since World
War I, but tailored for appearance rather than field service. marine
officers in Iceland fared a bit better as they had access to British
officers' stores where they could buy fine quality trench coats,
officers' boots, wool shirts, wool socks, and other items.
Marines commander Col Leo D. Hermle is dressed for cold weather in his
fur hat and lined winter parks. The weather was cold, but it hadn't
snowed yet. Col Hermle retired as a lieutenant general at the end of
World War II. National Archives Photo 127-N-185069
Typical of uniforms worn by officers in Iceland is that
of LtCol Oliver P. Smith, commander of 1st Battalion, 6th Marines, at
right. His uniform, breeches with leather leggings, was that of a
pre-World War II field grade officer. Col Clifton M. Craig
The one distinctive item of Marine Corps uniform
issue which was also the most popular was the fur cap with the emblem on
the front. The cap had a green crown and thick brown "fur" trim and ear
flaps. It had a North China-duty Marine ancestry.
Marine rifle squad, all armed with the Springfield rifle, model 1903,
maneuver in the half-light of the Icelandic winter. Note that not all
Brigade Marines had winter clothing other than their forest greens. The
snow made movement difficult. Department of Defense Photo (USMC)
crew of a 37mm antitank gun maneuver it into position for relaying while
conducting gun drill in the snow of the Icelandic winter. They are
wearing the sheepskin coats purchased in Charleston while en route to
Iceland, and the fur cap worn by Marines in North China. Note that the
pipe-smoking NCO in charge of the crew wears a salty field hat.