Chapter 5: The Marine Corps on the Eve of War1

The Inevitable Conflict: Defensive Expansion:

While war came to Europe in September 1939, the United States did not formally enter the struggle against the Axis Powers for another 27 months. The formal declarations of war did not, however, project the nation directly from a state of isolation and indifference into active belligerency. Although the United States declared its neutrality--our aim being to avoid conflict while guarding against totalitarian penetration of the Western Hemisphere--we were gradually drawn deeper and deeper into short-of-war operations in support of Great Britain and her allies.

Initially, the Administration moved with caution. In the years following the "war to end all wars," disappointment in the League of Nation's failure and the world-wide depression of the 1930's had served to increase our isolationist tendencies. Aware of the national sentiment,2 President Roosevelt initiated a program for gradually increasing the armed services, strengthening our bases, and developing a foundation for the expansion of our national resources and industry. On 8 September 1939, seven days after Hitler's armies crossed into Poland, the President officially declared a limited national emergency. As the rising tide of Nazi aggression swept over Europe in 1940 and 1941, American awakened more and more to the peril and supported increasingly the national policy of strengthening our armed forces.

As of 30 June 1939, two months before Hitler's armies launched their Blitzkrieg, Marine Corps strength stood at 19,432 officers and enlisted,3 of whom 4,840 (including aviation components) were assigned to the Fleet Marine Force. FMF ground forces were organized in two units optimistically designated "brigades," each in actuality an understrength infantry regiment4 reinforced by skeletonized supporting elements: 1st Brigade based on the east coast (Quantico), 2d Brigade on the west coast (San Diego). Each brigade had the support of a Marine aircraft group of corresponding numerical designation, and FMF aviation further boasted a scouting squadron (VMS-3) based in the Virgin Islands.

However, conversion of international tension into armed conflict in Europe resulted in a marked quickening of United


States defense efforts. And from that point on the Commandant's Annual Reports reflect a steady succession of upward revisions in personnel planning until by 30 November 1941 total strength stood at 65,881, the number give or take a few, with which the Marine Corps would enter the war against the Axis Powers a week later at Pearl Harbor.

But of greater significance than the increase in over-all strength was the growing proportion of that strength represented by the Fleet Marine Force. Fiscal 1940 saw the numbers of the Corps' striking arm more than doubled: from 4,525 to 9,749; and this figure in turn had more than tripled by 30 November 1941, reaching 29,532. One factor largely responsible for this impressive increase was mobilization in November 1940 of the entire Organized Marine Corps Reserve, both ground and air, thus making available a large number5 of officers and men, at least partially trained, for incorporation into the FMF with a minimum of delay.

This increased strength made possible organization of a unit larger than the Marine Corps had ever operated before: the triangular division, consisting of three infantry regiments, an artillery regiment, supported by engineer, reconnaissance, and signal units plus medical and other service troops. Thus on 1 February 1941 the brigades stationed on the east coast and west coast were officially activated as the 1st Marine Division and 2d Marine Division respectively. To effect the necessary expansion, cadres were drawn from existing units around which to build and train new units of the same type. This proved a slow and laborious process, and months passed before either division could be built up to authorized strength.

Growth of Marine Aviation kept pace with that of the ground forces, and again that pace looked faster on paper than it was in actuality. Simultaneously with the conversion of the two brigades into divisions, the east coast and west coast FMF aircraft groups, based at Quantico and San Diego respectively, were activated as the 1st and 2d Marine Aircraft Wings (MAW). But, as with the divisions, bringing them up to authorized strength proved no overnight process.

Initially, each could boast only a single aircraft group of mixed composition, designated MAG-11 and MAG-21 respectively. On the eve of Pearl Harbor, FMF air personnel numbered 2,716 officers and enlisted out of a total aviation strength of 5,911.6 These were divided among the two wings and the detached squadron in the Virgin Islands. The 1st MAW had remained based at Quantico. But the coming of war found the 2d MAW scattered far and wide, with a squadron at Wake Island, a detachment at Midway Island, and the balance of the wing at Ewa, on Oahu, T.H.7

Through the two divisions and two wings comprised the Marine Corps' principal striking arm, considerations of immediate


AIR EVACUATION OF WOUNDED from Ocotal, Nicaragua was pioneered by Marine aviators who presaged the mass evacuation techniques of World War II. (USMC 5173)

ARMY LIGHT TANK is unloaded from its landing craft during joint Army-Marine amphibious exercises at New River, N.C. in August 1941. (SC 125129)

urgency diverted many FMF personnel into other activities. The United States had no intention of defending America on its own soil as long as the situation permitted any other choice. The Navy already possessed several outlying bases and hoped to obtain more, for security of which it relied on the Marines. Hence there evolved a type of organization specially adapted to this duty: the Marine defense battalion, which was primarily an artillery outfit whose main


armament consisted of antiaircraft and coast defense guns.8 The first four of these, with consecutive numerical designations, were activated during fiscal 1940. By the time of Pearl Harbor the number had reached seven with two more in process of formation.9

Concurrent with the increased numbers came increased responsibilities. The Navy, too, was expanding at an unprecedented rate, diverting more Marines from the FMF to perform the Corps' traditional functions: security of naval installations ashore and service afloat. By 30 November 1941, ships' detachments had grown to 68, manned by a total of 3,793 Marines.10

Ashore the Navy's stepped-up training programs, particularly in naval aviation, created more and more bases, security of which imposed a serious additional drain on Marine man power. In fiscal 1940 the Corps was called upon to provide guard detachments at four new naval air stations in the Continental United States and three in U.S. overseas territories.11 The following fiscal year added another four air stations, a naval ammunition depot, a naval supply depot,12 and 18 other new installations ranging in character and location from David Taylor Basin, Carderock, Maryland, to Naval Magazine, Indian Island, Washington. Furthermore, garrison detachments were detailed to twelve stations overseas, as will be discussed subsequently.

Simultaneously with filling the Navy's demands, the Marine Corps assumed additional security problems of its own as existing bases expanded and new ones were established. (See below.) Thus, the period under discussion saw the activation of seven new guard companies of a non-FMF character: at Quantico, San Diego, Dunedin (Florida), and Bremerton (Washington).

Growth of Marine Training and Operational Bases

Inevitably the problems of housing, training, and equipping rapidly expanding manpower imposed increasing pressure on the Corps' existing facilities, pegged as these were to peacetime needs and the economy of depression years.

Following World War I, activities strictly Marine Corps in nature had been concentrated generally at the recruit training depots at Parris Island and San Diego,13 and at the operational bases at Quantico and San Diego, where the East


Coast and West Coast components of the Fleet Marine Force were stationed. FMF aviation was based nearby at MCAS, Quantico, and NAS, San Diego.

Marines first laid eyes on Parris Island early in the Civil War when they participated in the naval expedition which seized adjoining Port Royal. This served as an important naval base throughout the war, but the Navy did not begin construction of installations on the island proper until 1883. The first record of a separate Marine detachment setting up there permanently occurs in June 1893. The post did not begin functioning, however, it its present capacity until November 1915 when the East Coast Marine recruit depots were transferred there from Norfolk and Philadelphia.

Retained as a permanent base after World War I, Parris Island continued its role as the point of initial contact with military life for all newly enlisted Marines from the East. Partly for this reason, its facilities were maintained at a fairly high level during the lean years of the 1920's and 1930's. Nevertheless, the flood of recruits soon overflowed existing facilities and forced a rapid expansion. Thus in 1940-41, even as the full training program continued and was intensified, new barracks, a new post exchange, and a new rifle range were added to those already operating at full capacity.

The Recruit Depot, San Diego, which had operated as such since August 1923, experienced similar problems and arrived at similar solutions. As events proved, both of these bases managed to keep abreast of the expansion program throughout the war and thus accomplish their basic missions.

Much of San Diego's success in its primary mission was owed to the activation of nearby Camp Elliott in mid-1940 to furnish advanced training and serve as a base for West Coast elements of the FMF. Until then San Diego had housed both of those activities, and with the speeding-up expansion program they were beginning to get in each other's way. The first FMF units began the transfer early in 1941 and greatly eased the pressure; though, as will be seen, Camp Elliott itself was eventually pressured out of existence.

Quantico, acquired by the Marine Corps immediately following U.S. entry into World War I, found its difficulties less readily resolved. During the interim between wars, this post assumed a position of paramount importance in the development of Marine amphibious doctrine and techniques, and in the training of Marine officers and technicians. The passage of years saw additional educational units move in until the Virginia base became the center of higher learning for the Marine Corps.

Advent of the national emergency soon made it apparent that no practicable physical expansion would enable Quantico to continue these activities, all rapidly growing and intensifying in scope, and at the same time serve as home base for east coast FMF units, especially when operational forces were to reach division size. Parris Island, hard pressed to keep abreast of its own problems, could do


little to relieve the pressure. Clearly the situation called for construction of an entirely new and extensive base for FMF operations on the eastern seaboard. This required Congressional approval, which was obtained on 15 February 1941.

The site selected lay in the New River-Neuse River area of the North Carolina coast. The surveying and purchasing of land began immediately. By the end of April this preliminary work had been completed, and construction of Tent Camp #1, Marine Barracks, new River commenced. The isolated location of the area made development an enormous task. Transportation to the site was almost nonexistent, electric power lines were either lacking or greatly overloaded and able to provide but a fraction of the current needed. And the necessary labor could be obtained only by offering special inducements to workers. Both the Marine Corps and civilian contractors approached these problems to such good effect that by the summer of 1941 the far-from-completed camp had reached a stage of development that made it available for use.

The fledgling 1st Marine Division, still understrength,14 moved in shortly after its return from maneuvers in the Caribbean. There it participated in a series of amphibious exercises, one with the Army's 1st Infantry Division, the first of four Army divisions to receive such training jointly with Marine units or under the direction of Marine officers.

Men of the Marine division pitched in to improve camp conditions while continuing their intensive training for combat. Civilian contractors pushed construction of permanent buildings so effectively that soon various specialized training and schooling facilities and other units began transferring to the new base from both Quantico and Parris Island. The 1st Marine Division, however, had long since departed beyond the seas by the time Marine Barracks, New River, reached the stage of development where the powers that be saw fit to dignify it, late in 1942, with the name Camp Lejeune.

Like the division, the 1st Marine Aircraft Wing began outgrowing its Quantico facilities long before it achieved full strength. Even while development progressed at New River, the Marine Corps obtained authorization for a new air base nearby. Cunningham Field, Cherry Point, North Carolina, was designated a Marine Corps Air Station for development purposes on 1 December 1941, and work began on what would become by commissioning day, 20 May 1942, a vast new base capable of handling the greater part of a completely built-up Marine aircraft wing.15

On the west coast, Camp Elliott, less hampered than Quantico by a multiplicity of activities, proved capable initially of handling the vastly increased load of advanced training, though the camp was expanded and developed to many times its original size in the process. Its 29,000 acres housed the 2d Marine Division from its activation until its departure for the Pacific. It also became the home of the Marine Corps' first tank training center and the infantry training center for numerous replacement drafts.


Overseas Commitments: Atlantic16

During the years between wars, the pervasive spirit of pacifism which led to repeated attempts by this country to cooperate in reduction of naval armaments and in international treaties militated against adequate defense preparations, as did budgetary restrictions. Such peace as these measures achieved proved uneasy at best, but the fact that the U.S. lived up to its agreements, whereas some other nations did not, contributed toward making our defense program a shadow of what it might have been. This was particularly serious in the Pacific, as will be seen. But in 1939-41, with war flaming through Europe, the more immediate danger lay in the Atlantic where Hitler's submarines appeared nearly invincible.

In the fall of 1939 the United States armed forces were barely adequate for the defense of the Western Hemisphere. As long as the national sentiment did not sanction total rearmament and military expansion, the administration was forced to rely on existent means and a partial mobilization of both manpower and material. Unfortunately, the lull in military operations in Europe during the winter of 1939-1940 seemed to justify public apathy and made the problem of rearmament more difficult for the President and his military planners.

Britain's historical dominance of the Atlantic sea lanes had given us a false sense of security there, and permitted the United States to commit a major part of the Navy to guard against Japanese aggression in the Pacific. However, the German offensive in the spring of 1940 served to jolt Americans from their complacency. German troops overran Denmark, Norway, the Low Countries, and France. President Roosevelt recognized the danger in this and caused a shift in our military policy to provide greater security in the Atlantic.

During the summer and fall of 1940, Congress stepped up the procurement of aircraft, mobilized the reserves, passed selective service legislation, and launched the two-ocean navy building program. But completion of these measures would take time, and we had no assurance that the Axis partners would sit idly by and enjoy the fruits of their initial aggression. To implement the rearmament program, President Roosevelt adopted the policy of aiding Britain (and Russia after June 1941) while continuing diplomatic relations with Germany and Japan. With industry expanding and the armed forces increasing in size and equipment, the Administration did everything short of war to bolster Britain's tottering position.

In the fall of 1940 Britain and the United States completed negotiations which culminated in one of the most extraordinary military deals in history. Britain, holding numerous Caribbean possessions, desperately needed additional convoy vessels to protect her vital Atlantic supply line against submarine depredations; the U.S., possessor of numerous overage destroyers, wished to strengthen defense of the eastern approaches to the mainland and the Panama Canal. As a result of this situation, on 2 September 1940 the U.S. agreed to swap 50 of these destroyers17


in return for 99-year leases on certain base sites in various strategically placed British possessions: the Bahamas, Jamaica, Antigua, Saint Lucia, Trinidad, and British Guiana.

Since plans called for development of these sites into naval activities of varying nature, the first Americans to move in were Marines of the several security guard detachments. The same held true in the case of two additional bases not included in the destroyer deal: at Argentia (Newfoundland) and in Bermuda. Thus, while in the throes of expanding the FMF, the Marine Corps found itself saddled with still more garrison duty beyond the continental limits of the United States.

Defense of the Western Hemisphere: Martinique

The fall of France and the Netherlands alarmed the United States to the danger that New World possessions of these countries18 might fall into Germany's hands should Hitler force the conquered nations to cede them, or to provide servicing there for German U-Boats operating in the Atlantic.

Martinique, the administrative and economic center of France's colonies on the Caribbean, became the focal point of American interest and concern. For should the three French warships there, including the aircraft carrier Bearn (loaded with 106 American-manufactured fighter planes destined for pre-Vichy France), be taken over by the enemy, the security of British and American shipping in the Atlantic would be seriously threatened. Furthermore, the French High Commissioner for the Antilles, Rear Admiral Georges Robert had declared his allegiance to the Vichy government and was emphatic in his refusal to accept American and British offers of "protection".

One solution, and one which was immediately discarded, called for an American break with Vichy and the occupation of the islands by American forces. It was not expected, however, that Admiral Robert would yield without a fight--and we were not ready to scrap our neutral policy and draw accusations of Yankee imperialism from friendly Western Hemisphere nations. Dire necessity, however, required some plan of operation. On 8 July 1940, the Joint Planning Committee completed a plan for an expeditionary force, to be readied for embarkation from New York on or about 15 July. The 1st Marine Brigade19 was earmarked for the initial landing force, to be followed by a task force based on the Army's 1st Infantry Division.

While the expeditionary force was readied, officials of the Departments of State and Navy worked out a compromise to relieve the tense situation. The American


representative in negotiations that followed, Rear Admiral John W. Greenslade, arrived at an agreement with Admiral Robert to maintain the status quo; and the "hot" Martinique problem was temporarily resolved without the United States being forced into military action.

However, heightened tensions during the late summer of 1940 again indicated the possibility of French connivance with Germany. Accordingly, late in October 1940 the President "... asked the Navy to draft a plan for an emergency operation. ..."20 This plan called for an assault on Martinique, by a naval force including a landing party of some 2,800 Marines of the 1st Marine Brigade, to be supported by two reinforced Army regiments. Later plans increased the size of the force; revised estimates were based on the possibility of more than token resistance from the seven to eight thousand French soldiers and sailors on the island.

Fortunately, the operation against Martinique died stillborn. Admiral Greenslade reached a new "gentlemen's agreement" with Admiral Robert, although there were frequent instances later when President Roosevelt still thought it might be necessary to occupy the island. The Marine Corps remained prepared for possible action until Admiral Robert surrendered his command to American Vice Admiral John S. Hoover in June 1943.

The Azores

As early as spring 1940, President Roosevelt was deeply concerned over the possibility of a German invasion of the Portuguese Azores. These islands lie athwart the vital shipping lanes between the United States and the Mediterranean, and Europe and South America. While the Army considered them of little value in Western Hemisphere defense considerations, their danger was measurable by their value to Germany. From air bases and naval facilities in the islands, German aircraft and submarines could sortie after the bulk of British shipping.

Our deep concern for the safety and integrity of the islands led to a series of discussions with both the British, Portugal's ally, and the Lisbon government. By October 1940, United States Army and Navy planning officers had drafted a plan for a surprise seizure of the Azores. However, the plan to land one reinforced division was built on sand: the Army did not have the necessary troops to commit, nor did the Navy have adequate ships to transport and support the landing force. And, politically, it was contrary to American policy at this time to become a de facto participant in the European war.

By May 1941 intelligence estimates from Europe again indicated the possibility of a German movement into the Iberian peninsula and German occupation of the Azores and adjacent islands. On the 22d of that month, President Roosevelt directed the Army and Navy to draft a new plan for an expedition to occupy the Azores. This plan (GRAY), approved by the Joint Board on 29 May, provided for a landing force of 28,000 combat troops, half Marine and half Army; the Navy was responsible for transporting and supporting the force. Major General H.M. Smith, USMC, would command the landing force, under Rear Admiral Ernest J. King, the expeditionary commander.

However, while these preparations were being made, other factors developed and


altered the original mission of the mixed force. Portugal was opposed to an American occupation of the Azores, and United States planners became preoccupied with the threat of German efforts to occupy South America, particularly Brazil. The succeeding weeks witnessed a change in both the urgency for the Azores operation and in the mission of the Marine complement of the Azores force.

During the early part of June, intelligence sources in Europe produced creditable evidence that Germany did not plan to invade Spain and Portugal but intended rather to attack in the opposite direction. Russia would be Hitler's next objective. The forecast of the German plans put an end to American fears for the safety of the Azores, and permitted the United States to divert the Marines to Iceland.

Distribution Summary

How thin the Marine Corps had to spread its manpower in order to fulfill its many commitments is indicated by the table that follows showing the distribution effective 30 November 1941, on the eve of Pearl Harbor. The fact that the figures quoted do not add up to total Corps strength is accounted for by omission of minor categories involving individuals or small groups of men.

Continental U.S. (non-FMF)
Major Marine Corps Bases21 14,707
Posts & Stations (43) 10,089
Headquarters & Staff 780
Recruiting (4 districts) 847
Total 26,423
Overseas (non-FMF)
Posts & Stations (24) 3,367
Tactical Units22 5,498
Shipboard Detachments (68) 3,793
Total 12,658
Fleet Marine Force, Continental U.S.
1st MarDiv 8,918
2d MarDiv (less dets) 7,540
2d DefBn 865
1st MAW 1,301
2d MAW (less dets) 682
Miscellaneous 633
Total 19,939
Fleet Marine Force, Overseas
5 DefBns (Pacific) 4,399
2d MAW (elements (Pacific) 733
2d MarDiv (elements (Pacific) 489
Total 5,621
Total above categories 64,641
Total strength Marine Corps 65,881


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[1] Unless otherwise noted the material in this chapter is derived from CMC AnRepts, 1939-1941.

[2] The Roper Poll in September 1939 showed that extreme interventionist sentiment was limited to 2.5% of the total population; 37% preferred to have nothing to do with the warring nations. R.E. Sherwood, Roosevelt and Hopkins, An Intimate History (New York: Harper and Brother, 1948), 128.

[3] Table DGB-220-DJF prepared by PersAcctSect, RecordsBr, PersDept, HQMC, 26Nov54.

[4] 5th and 6th MarRegts of WWI fame, based on the east and west coasts respectively.

[5] Total of 5,241 officers and enlisted.

[6] The two groups were identical in composition but slightly unequal in strength. Each contained 2 fighter, 2 scout-bomber, 1 observation, and 1 utility squadrons. MAG-11 had 100 operation aircraft to 90 for MAG-21. The Virgin Islands detachment operated 8 utility-scouting planes, bringing the total of FMF aircraft of all types to 198. Altogether Marine Aviation included 13 squadrons and 204 operational planes of all types.

[7] "Administrative History of U.S. Marine Corps in World War II'" (MS in HistBr Archives), 158, hereinafter cited as AdminHist.

[8] The genesis of the defense battalion was attributable to two factors: (a) the acceptance of the advanced base concept and its logical tactical requirements; and (b) during the pre-World War II period, while the nation was apathetic towards rearmament and/or military expansion, an increase in Marine strength, under the guise of a defense force, was politically more acceptaable.

[9] CNO ltr to CMC, 9Dec41, Encl (a).

[10] Compilation from muster rolls closed 30Nov41 (located at Unit Diary Sect, HQMC).

[11] NAS Key West and Jacksonville, Fla.; Tongue Point, Oreg.; Alameda, Calif.; Sitka and Kodiak, Alaska; and San Juan, Puerto Rico.

[12] NAS Cape May, N.J.; Miami, Fla.; Corpus Christi, Tex.; and Quonset Point, R.I.; NAD Burns City, Ind.; NSD, Oakland, Calif.

[13] Generally, all recruits from east of the Mississippi were trained at Parris Island, all from west at San Diego.

[14] While the table of organization listed three, the 1st MarDiv had only two infantry regiments at this time.

[15] AdminHist, 159.

[16] Unless otherwise noted the material in this and the following sections is derived from Hemisphere Defense; Undeclared War; Strategic Planning; Battle of the Atlantic.

[17] These were 1,200-ton, flush-deck four-stackers, vintage of World War I, many of which had been laid up since that struggle and had to be recommissioned. By the time the trade was completed (10Apr41), the U.S. had become more deeply involved and threw in an additional 10 escort vessels of the "Lake" class Coast Guard cutter. [Individual ships transferred are noted in Ships of the U.S. Navy, 1940-1945: Destroyers]

[18] Dutch Guiana, Aruba, and Curacao; French Guiana on the South American continent; Saint Pierre and Miquelon off Newfoundland; Martinique, Guadeloupe, and several smaller islands in the West Indies.

[19] The 1st MarBrig then based at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, was composed of 5th Mar, 1st Bn, 10th Mar (artillery), 1st EngBn, 1st MedBn, three provisional (casual) companies, BrigH1Co, and one company each of service troops, chemical troops, tanks, and motor transport.

[20] Quoted in Hemisphere Defense, Chap IV, 6.

[21] Quantico, Parris Island, San Diego, Camp Elliott, New River.

[22] 4th Mar (Philippines), 801; 1st SepBn (Philippines), 725; 1st MarBrig(Prov) (Iceland), 3972

Transcribed and formatted for HTML by Patrick Clancey, HyperWar Foundation