Marines in World War II Commemorative Series
Outpost in the North Atlantic
Lieutenant General Leo D. Hermle
Major General John Marston
Special Subjects
Activiation of the 2d Marine Division
Life of the Prewar Marine Corps
Uniforms and Equipment
Polar Bear Patch
Relations with the British
Nissen Huts
Clothing for Iceland
Staff and Command List — 1st Marine Brigade

OUTPOST IN THE NORTH ATLANTIC: Marines in the Defense of Iceland
by Colonel James A. Donovan, U.S. Marine Corps (Ret)

As the winter days passed, and no movement orders had been published, the Marines began to face the possibility of an indefinite stay in Iceland. They had no way of knowing that in November, powers in Washington had decided to begin redeploying them early in 1942, when more Army troops were scheduled to arrive in Iceland. The brigade would then return to the United States on the Army transports which brought soldiers. When word spread of the pending move home, griping about the dark, dull life in the barren camps declined and the days became more bearable. The prospect of returning to Marine Corps command was also heartening.

During the weeks leading up to 7 December and the entry of America into the war, the Marines had no real morale problems outside of the boredom already described and an inability to wander far from their camps. After 7 December, attitudes, motivation, and interests focused upon the Pacific War and the fate of Marine friends attacked and captured by the Japanese at Wake Island, Guam, China, and the Philippines. The outbreak of the Pacific War didn't change the conditions under which the Marines existed in Iceland, as they were already in a war theater and on war alert. There had been rumors of the Marines going elsewhere than home when the Army arrived, but no firm plans had been prepared, at least on the brigade level. After 7 December, the Marines' great fear was that they would be left in Iceland. There were no more complaints by troops about Iceland hardships, they just wanted to get to the Pacific.

Christmas 1941 was a relatively good day for the marines. They enjoyed a proper holiday meal of turkey, baked ham, and the other traditional elements of a Christmas dinner plus free beer and cigars. The Navy had provided a number of small trees for the mess halls and all hands turned to in efforts to do some appropriate decorations. The first really heavy snowfall blanketed the drab camps to provide a proper white Christmas.

Some fortunate Marines who had made friends with Icelandic families were invited to their homes for the evening. Marine officers and some British officers enjoyed traditional family celebrations to which they were able to contribute some gin, nuts, fruit, candy, and items not easy for the Icelanders to obtain. These hospitable families shared their children, food, songs, and good will with the soldiers and Marines occupying their country. It was a memorable and merry day for all.

By January, the wind was blowing so hard and so constantly, many camps had to install hand lines from the huts to the heads and mess buildings to help keep all Marines from being blown and sliding off the paths into the mud. Major David M. Shoup wrote his wife on 20 January 1942:

Well, we had a couple days ago one of those wind storms for which this place is noted. And in spite of the huts that are built and banked to "take it," a number had the ends sucked out, others just pressed together and some messhalls of Icelandic concrete construction were laid low... I saw men rolled along the ground. I moved all out of my hut that was loose and locked the safes and field desks ... and hoped... The wind was 80 miles per hour all day with intermittent gusts reaching velocities of 120 miles per hour.

In January 1942, the brigade received orders to begin moving home. The redeployment was to be executed by battalions. First to leave was the 3d Battalion, scheduled to depart on 31 January. The battalion quickly turned its camps over to Army units and embarked, but not until it had set up the Army's metal bunks and made up their beds (as ordered by Iceland Base Command). The Marines short-sheeted most of the bunks as a farewell gesture to the soldiers. The advance echelon of Army officers arrived in a cold, howling snowstorm and proceeded to slip, slide, and fall on the icy roads. The "Thundering Third" departed in a hurry and left the soldiers to their new misery.

The small convoy of a couple of cargo vessels and a troop-ship with the 3d Battalion took a far northerly route off the coast of Greenland in order to avoid German submarines which were becoming increasingly active in the North Atlantic. The escort consisted of a light cruiser and a few destroyers. The weather was very heavy with green water breaking over all the weather decks. Gun crews on decks had to be secured from their stations. ice formed all over the ships and most of the Marines took to their bunks sea-sick.

After a week of rough sailing, the convoy pulled into the Brooklyn Navy Yard and the troops rapidly debarked. Marines from eastern states were to go on 15 days' leave while those from states west of the Mississippi would take a troop train to San Diego where they would begin their leave. The battalion was to reassemble at Camp Elliott in early March.

A large number of Marines scattered into Manhattan dressed in fur caps and green winter overcoats, with polar bear shoulder patches and the 6th Marines' fourageres — the shoulder cord representing the Croix de Guerre awarded the 6th in World War I — and a rolling seaman's gait from the rough sea passage. They were the first units to return from the European Theater of Operations and received a warm welcome from New Yorkers wherever they went.

During February, the Army infantry battalion which had replaced the 3d Battalion at Brauterholt was ordered to move back into the Reykjavik area where the 10th Infantry Regiment was concentrating its units. So, the 1st Battalion, reorganized as a provisional battalion, went to considerable effort to move troops and equipment in horrible weather back out to the unattractive camp. A few weeks later they returned and embarked for the States. The 1st and 2d Battalions, with attachments from other brigade units, began to mount out for the return home on 8 March 1942. The weather was cold, wet, and windy, making the movement to the docks miserable and hazardous. But loading went on around the clock as all hands were ready and eager to get going. The brigade headquarters and 1st Battalion, 6th Marines, and its attached units, were the last of the brigade to depart Iceland. Their ships sailed from Reykjavik at 0800 on 9 March, then delayed for three days up the Hvalfjordur fjord waiting for the ships coming from Ireland to gather and form up the convoy for the trip home.

The North Atlantic is on its worst behavior during the late winter months, so each of the battalions experienced the same rough seas, cold temperatures, and icing as the convoy constantly changed its heading to avoid submarines while enroute to New York harbor and the welcome sight of the Statue of Liberty.

Hermle, Marston
Col Leo D. Hermle and MajGen John Marston hold the Iceland Challenge shield presented to the 1st Brigade "as a token of comradeship by the British Forces in Iceland, 1941-42." The brigade took it home to Camp Pendleton. Marine Corps Historical Collection

On 8 March 1942, General Marston had moved his command post from on shore to the transport USS McCawley, and the Marine brigade returned to its place within the naval establishment. So ended a unique phase of World War II wherein a Marine unit was "detached for service with the Army by order of the President." The brigade headquarters landed at New York on 25 March at which time the brigade was disbanded.

With the rest of the 1st Marine Brigade (Provisional), the 5th Defense Battalion was relieved by Army units in March. The 61st Coast Artillery took over Marine positions and guns and the battalion embarked for New York in the U.S. Army Transport Boringuen. By July of 1942, most of the battalion was enroute to the South Pacific: New Zealand, Guadalcanal-Tulagi, and Funafuti, ERllice Islands. The 6th Marines and the artillery battalion of the 10th Marines rejoined the 2d Division at Camp Elliott in California, as did other supporting units.

How much strategic value the Marine deployment had remains a question. It did not actually relieve many British troops. The German threat became minimal because the Nazis were already overcommitted in Russia and North Africa. The deployment tied up numbers of experienced officers and men in Iceland when they were sorely needed in California. The end of March 1942 saw all Iceland Marines — except those on leave — back in California where they provided trained cadres for numerous newly formed units: raiders, defense battalions, artillery, and the 9th Marines of the new 3d Marine Division.

Marines loading gear on board a transport
Marines load their gear on board a transport which has just unloaded U.S. Army units which are relieving the 1st Marine Brigade. On the way home, the ships would be wallowing in the North Atlantic heavy seas and coated with ice. Marine Corps Historical Collection

By the end of 1942, some of these Marines were battling the Japanese on Guadalcanal in the South Pacific. Other Iceland Marines went on to serve with distinction in the other major amphibious assaults of the Pacific War.

The Marines in the brigade were benefited by a unique experience of field service which added to the record and character of the Corps. Their tour in Iceland gave validity to the first line of the second verse of the Marines' Hymn, "In the snows of far off northern lands ..."

Staff and Command List
1st Marine Brigade (Provisional)
July 1941

Brigade Headquarters
BGen John MarstonCommanding Officer
Col Charles I. MurrayExecutive Officer
Maj Walter A. ChurchillB-2
Maj Edwin C. FergusonB-3
Capt George H. BrockwayB-4
Capt Robert E. HillAdjutant and B-1

6th Marines
Col Leo D. HermleCommanding Officer
LtCol William McN. MarshallExecutive Officer
Maj David M. ShoupR-3
Capt Arnold F. JohnstonR-1
Capt William T. WiseR-2
Maj Ralph D. LeachR-4

1st Battalion
LtCol Oliver P. SmithCommanding Officer
Maj Clarence H. BaldwinExecutive Officer
1stLt Robert W. RickertBn-1
1stLt Loren E. HaffnerBn-2
1stLt Charlton B. Rogers, IIIBn-4

2d Battalion
LtCol William A. WortonCommanding Officer
Maj Joseph F. HankinsExecutive Officer
Capt Thomas J. ColleyBn-3
1stLt Rathvon McC. TompkinsBn-1
1stLt William W. Young, Jr.Bn-4
2dLt William C. ChamberlinBn-2

3d Battalion
LtCol Maurice G. HolmesCommanding Officer
Maj Chester B. GrahamExecutive Officer
Capt Robert J. KennedyBn-3
1stLt Harold C. BoehmBn-2
2dLt Cyril C. SheehanBn-4

5th Defense Battalion
Col Lloyd L. LeechCommanding Officer
LtCol Charles N. MuldrowExecutive Officer
Maj George F. Good, Jr.Bn-3
Cap H.S. LeonBn-2
Capt Charles W. SheldurneBn-4

Reinforcing Units
2d Battalion, 10th Marines
LtCol John B. WilsonCommanding Officer
Maj Archie V. GerardExecutive Officer
Capt Harry A. Traffert, Jr.Bn-4
1stLt Thomas S. IveyBn-3
1stLt Martin FentonBn-2

1st Scout CompanyCapt Reed M. Jawell, Jr.
1st Engineer Battalion1stLt Levi W. Smith, Jr.
2d Medical BattalionLCdr Ralph E. Fielding (MC)
2d Service Battalion2dLt Arthur F. Torgler, Jr.
2d Tank BattalionCapt John H. Cook, Jr.

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Commemorative Series produced by the Marine Corps History and Museums Division