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A Brief Outline of the History of the 1st Marine Division,

“The Old Breed,” in World War II
 

Origins:

     The United States Marine Corps records its history back to 10 November, 1775 in Philadelphia, where the Second Continental Congress passed a resolution to raise two battalions of Marines. The Continental Marines formed at Tun Tavern in Philadelphia to begin a long, colorful and outstanding history.

     Elements of the 1st Marine Division date back to the early 20th Century with the 1st Marine Regiment (1st Marines) being formed on 8 March, 1911 at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The 5th Marines were formed in Vera Cruz, Mexico on 13 July, 1914, the 7th Marines on 7 August, 1917 in Philadelphia and the 11th Marines in January, 1918 at Quantico, VA.

     The 5th and 11th Marines fought in France during the First World War, while the 1st and 7th Marines were stationed in Panama and around the Caribbean to protect U.S. interests.

     These four regiments officially became the 1st Marine Division on 1 February, 1941 aboard the battleship USS Texas.

Components:

  • 1st Marine Regiment (Infantry)
  • 5th Marine Regiment (Infantry)
  • 7th Marine Regiment (Infantry)
  • 11th Marine Regiment (Artillery)

     Other units were attached to the Division as needed throughout the war, but these four regiments were the core of the Division.

Training and Movement Overseas:

     At the start of the war the four regiments were under-strength and positioned at various locations around the world. Following President Roosevelt’s declaration of a “Limited National Emergency” in 1939, the regiments started filling out, but most new Marines joined up after the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor on 7 December, 1941.

     The majority of new recruits received basic training at Parris Island, SC or the Marine Corps Training Center in San Diego, California. Following basic, many new Marines received further training at New River, NC, which was later renamed Camp Lejeune, before joining their regiments and divisions. Those assigned to 1st Marine Division units found themselves boarding ships for New Zealand to stage for the first major offensive land battle of the war.

                                                                             Campaigns:

Guadalcanal (7 August, 1942- 9 February, 1943): 

     The Battle for Guadalcanal began at 0740 on 7 August, 1942 with the invasion of Tulagi, Gavutu and Tanambogo by the 1st Raider Battalion (Edson’s Raiders), 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines and the 1st Parachute Battalion (Para Marines). At 0909, the main force, made up of 1st and 3rd Battalions, 5th Marines and the 1st Marines, landed unopposed on the island of Guadalcanal.

     The Japanese were taken by surprise by this invasion and, though the Tulagi and Gavutu landings were opposed, most of the defenders of the main island of Guadalcanal had scattered.

     The objective of the invasion was to seize the airfield then under construction, secure the island, and use it as a base for further attacks against the Japanese forces in the Solomon Islands. The Marines quickly moved inland, seized the airfield, and began completing its construction for their own use. They named it Henderson Field after a Marine Aviator killed at the Battle of Midway.

     On the night of 8 August, Japanese Naval forces engaged and defeated the Allied Naval screening force for the invasion at the Battle of Savo Island, leaving the transport ships unprotected. The following morning, the ships landed as much of their supplies as they could before leaving Guadalcanal. This left the Marines on the Island without much of their heavy equipment, supplies and the troops that were still aboard the transports.

     Realizing the importance of the island and the threat posed by the 1st Marine Division, the Japanese began sending in reinforcements and organizing their attack plan. The first major battle, the Battle of the Tenaru River( actually the Ilu River), took place on the night of 21 August and continued until late afternoon the following day. Intending to move quietly close to the airfield and launch a surprise attack against the Marine defenders, the Japanese instead stumbled into the 1st Marines dug in along the Tenaru River. The Japanese forces suffered approximately 800 men killed out of 900 who made the attack and the disgraced commander committed suicide. The 1st Marines recorded 34 men killed and 75 wounded.

     As more Japanese forces landed on the island, the next major battle occurred at what became known as “Bloody Ridge”, part of the perimeter around Henderson Field. The attack began at 2100 on 12 September against the ridge manned by the Raiders and Para Marines, both now commanded by Col. Edson. These Marines withstood three separate attacks, some at the point of their bayonets. But by 0230 on the 13th, they had stopped the attackers for the night. That day the Marines consolidated their positions and were reinforced by the 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines. After dark that night, the Japanese attacked again, this time slipping behind the defenders. The resulting battle was fearfully intense and was, in many cases, hand-to-hand, and the 105mm Howitzers of the 11th Marines were firing point blank against the Japanese attackers. By morning, the Marines counted 600 Japanese dead and estimated another 600 had been wounded in the bloody battles. Their own losses were 59 killed, 194 wounded and 10 missing. Attacks against other parts of the perimeter had been defeated during this time as well with the Japanese losing over 200 more of their soldiers.

     Morale on the island was boosted by the return of the US Navy, which brought the 7th Marines as well as food, ammunition, and medical supplies. Marines wounded in the previous battles were now able to be evacuated. Marine and Navy pilots, supported by the returned fleet, were able to engage in daily battles with the enemy planes flying in from Rabaul and inflict great losses on them.

     The Japanese forces received further defeats at battles along the Matanikau River in early October, losing some 700 more men. On the 13th, the US Army’s 164th Infantry Regiment of the Americal Division arrived to reinforce the Marines on the Island.

     The enemy again attacked Bloody Ridge on the night of 24-25 October, this time defended by Chesty Puller’s 1st Battalion, 7th Marines and 3rd Battalion, 164th US Infantry. The lines bent but did not break The Japanese attacked the perimeter the following night but were again defeated. All told in these attacks, the Japanese lost some 3,500 men against US losses of 300 killed and wounded. The rest of October and November were spent consolidating the US presence on the Island and wiping out small pockets of Japanese resistance. 

     In early December, the 1st Marine Division departed Guadalcanal for Australia, leaving the task of finishing off the last of the enemy forces to the Army Divisions now taking over. General Vandegrift said to the Division before leaving the island that their “unbelievable achievements had made Guadalcanal a synonym for death and disaster in the language of our enemy.”

 

Australia (December, 1942 – December, 1943); 

     After a three week stop at Espiritu Santo, the victorious Marines came ashore in Melbourne to the cheers of the citizens of Australia, grateful for the Marines halting the Japanese march toward their country. There followed nearly twelve months of rest, recuperation, resupply and reinforcement. Many Marines suffered from malaria and malnutrition from lack of supplies on Guadalcanal, but by December of 1943, the 1st Marine Division was ready to again enter the fray.

 

New Britain (26 December, 1943 – April, 1944):

     This was another battle focusing on airfields, as many of the Pacific Theater battles would be. It began on 26 December, 1943 with the 7th Marines coming ashore, unopposed, at Borgan Bay, east of Cape Gloucester. The Japanese commander believed the terrain inland of these beaches to be nearly impassable, but the Marines managed to struggle through the swamps onto dry ground and establish a perimeter. 1st and 3rd Battalions of the 1st Marines, moving from the beachhead toward the airfield at Cape Gloucester, soon ran into opposition, but used combined tank and infantry tactics to destroy the numerous bunkers blocking their way. 2nd Battalion, 1st Marines landed 12 miles away on the opposite side of the Cape to establish a blocking position to deny Japanese reinforcements access to the airfield. Upon landing, 2nd Battalion quickly severed the coastal road and dug in to protect the rest of the Division at the Cape.

     The first Japanese attempt to disrupt the Marine invasion came on the night of 27-28 December with an attack against 2nd Battalion, 7th Marines, holding a sector of the main perimeter of the beachhead. This attack was repulsed with losses of approximately 200 Japanese soldiers killed.

     As the 1st Marines approached the airfield on the 28th, they encountered a strong point of roughly 250 Japanese soldiers with machine guns and mortars in well camouflaged bunkers. This battle, at what came to be called “Hell’s Point,” again saw the effective use of tanks and infantry to destroy the enemy positions. The Marines took the airfield on the 29th of December against minimal opposition, but the Japanese launched furious counter-attacks on the 30th against both the airfield and the blocking forces. On 1 January, 1944, after the Marines defeated these attacks, Gen. MacArthur announced to the American public that the airfield was secure.

     The Japanese, however, still held high ground. From Hill 660, which overlooked the airfield, artillery was able to shell the Marine positions. Starting on 2 January, the Marines made slow progress toward Hill 660 through thick jungle and difficult terrain and encountered stiff resistance. After reaching the base of the hill, 660 was shelled by mortars and artillery and bombed by aircraft before the infantry advanced. The Japanese were well dug in and their strong bunkers were not greatly affected by the bombardment. 3rd Battalion, 7th Marines began the attack against the north-west slope of the hill on the 13th but were stopped by the determined defenders. A group of Marines with a bulldozer circled around to the south side of the hill to establish a blocking force. On the 14th, another attack drove the defenders from their positions and into the sights of the blocking force. Many Japanese soldiers were killed as they attempted to escape. On the 16th, the Japanese counter-attacked the hill and fierce fighting ensued, much of it at close quarters. Failing to retake the hill, the Japanese forces started to fall apart. The Marines consolidated their beachhead and advanced on the Willaumez Peninsula, reaching the base on 5 March. The next day the 5th Marines launched an amphibious assault to take the airfield at Talasea. The Japanese offered stiff resistance but were overcome and the airfield was reached on the 9th of March and secured the following day. Final mopping up operations ended the Japanese resistance on the western half of New Britain and the Marines were relieved by the 40th Infantry Division of the US Army.

     The 1st Marine Division spent 131 days on New Britain, suffering 310 Marines killed and 1,083 wounded. Japanese losses were reported as 3,868 killed. Securing western New Britain allowed US forces to isolate the large Japanese garrison at Rabaul at the eastern end of the island and let it whither on the vine, thus avoiding unnecessary casualties.

 

Pavuvu (April, 1944 – August, 1944):

     Anticipating their happy and triumphant return to Australia, the men of the 1st Marine Division were vastly disappointed and disgusted to find themselves landing on the island of Pavuvu, 65 miles northwest of Guadalcanal. This island was swamp infested, received frequent downpours of rain, had minimal facilities, and none of the creature comforts associated with Australia. To top it off, it and the surrounding island were unsuitable for amphibious training. Through work details, often comprised mostly of replacements, the Marines improved living conditions on the island as much as could be expected while recuperating from the wet and dismal living conditions and combat encountered on New Britain. On 26 August, 1944, the Division departed Pavuvu for Guadalcanal to undertake amphibious training in preparation for their next invasion: Peleliu.

 

Peleliu (15 September – 27 November, 1944):

     General Rupertus, commanding general of the 1st Marine Division, told his Marines that the battle for Peleliu would be “rough but fast.” He got the first part right but it was anything but fast as the final resistance was not eliminated until 73 days later. The island was finally declared secure on 27 November.

     The plan for the invasion was for all three infantry regiments to land along a two mile stretch of beach at the southwest end of the island on 15 September with the 1st Marines on the left, the 5th Marines in the center, and the 7th Marines on the right. A planned three day naval and air bombardment began on 12 September but ended one day early as the task force commander, Admiral Oldendorf reported: “We have run out of targets.”

     The invasion began on the morning of the 15th with naval and air bombardment followed by rocket attacks from landing craft equipped with launchers. Amtracks carrying the first waves of Marines reached the beach at 0830 and came under heavy shelling from the nearly untouched and well protected enemy artillery batteries. In the first 90 minutes of the invasion, 60 amtracks were destroyed or severely damaged.

     Peleliu was the 1st Marine Division’s baptism to the new Japanese strategy of in depth defense using underground bunkers and tunnels. Artillery was dug into caves with retractable gun mounts and blast doors to protect them from US shells and bombs. The objective of the enemy commander was to delay the US invasion of the Philippines by holding the island as long as possible and by killing as many attackers as they could.

     The 1st Marines fought a fierce three day engagement to take a section of the island jutting out from the left side of the beachhead the Marines called “the point.” The 5th and 7th Marines advanced across the southern part of the island on D-Day, with 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines reaching the shore opposite the landing beach. During the afternoon, the Japanese launched a tank and infantry attack across the airfield against the 1st and 2nd Battalions, 5th Marines. All 15 tanks were destroyed and about 450 Japanese soldiers were killed. The Japanese never again attacked in the open and in daylight for the rest of the campaign. On day two, the 5th Marines attacked across the airfield and by the 19th they were in control. The 7th Marines continued to secure the southern part of the island. 

     With the southern half of the island cut off, the advance north was set to begin. The 1st Marines and 2nd Battalion, 7th Marines advanced on the Umurbrogol Ridges, the spine of the island, where the Japanese were securely dug in. The Marines suffered heavy casualties in these attacks and named this area of the island “Bloody Nose Ridge.” By 21 September, the 1st Marines had taken so many casualties that Major General Roy Geiger, III Amphibious Corps commander, ordered (against Gen. Rupertus’s objections) that they be relieved. The 81st Infantry Division’s 321st Regimental Combat Team took up the 1st Marines positions on the 23rd. As costly as it was, the 1st Marines had taken 10 ridges, destroyed 3 major strongpoints and 22 pillboxes, cleared 144 caves and inflicted roughly 3500 Japanese casualties.

     The 5th Marines moved up along the west road and secured the north end of the island to stop the Japanese from infiltrating replacements from the northern islands in the chain. 3rd Battalion attacked the small island of Ngesebus on the 28th securing it and the airfield on 29 September. On the 30th, Gen. Rupertus declared the north end of the island secure.

     This left the Umurbrogol pocket, an area of roughly 400 by 900 yards that was held by 1,500 determined and well dug in defenders in the center of the island. Both the 5th Marines and the 7th Marines each had their turn at the cave complex in the mountains as did the soldiers of the 81st Division. During this time the Marines developed and perfected combined operations with their air wings in digging and burning out the determined defenders of the island. Because the airfield was secured early in the invasion, Marine fighter wings started operating on the island as early as day three. The Corsairs of VMF-114 were so close to the fighting that they never cranked up their landing gear during their support missions; Fifteen seconds after take-off, they were dropping their ordinance on the Japanese. Rockets and napalm proved most effective against the hidden caves in the coral ridges.

     The Marines were finally pulled off the line on 15 October, leaving the mopping up to the Army, which resorted to siege tactics to eventually subdue the last of the defenders. 6,500 Marines were killed, wounded or missing in taking the island that ultimately proved to be of questionable value in the overall strategy in the Pacific. General MacArthur had insisted that Peleliu must be taken to protect his right flank as he returned to the Philippines. But even before 15 September, it was apparent that the island was not much of a threat. It was never used as an operating base to support further invasions as were Guam, Saipan and Tinian nor was the airfield used as an emergency landing site for damaged Allied aircraft as Iwo Jima was later in the war. Adding insult to injury, MacArthur’s celebrated return to the Philippines overshadowed this battle in the news, making the battle for Peleliu a nearly forgotten but very costly footnote in the history of WWII.


Okinawa (1 April – 22 June, 1945):

     Following another period of rest and refitting on Pavuvu, the 1st Marine Division returned to combat on April Fool’s Day, 1945. April 1st was also Easter Sunday and the Marines received a gift when the beach landing was essentially unopposed. After the horrors of Peleliu, it was hard for the veteran Marines to believe that this landing was coming off so easily. The Division was part of the U.S. Tenth Army, commanded by U.S. Army Lieutenant General Simon Buckner, and was comprised of the 1st, 2nd, and 6th Marine Divisions as well as the 7th, 27th, 77th, and 96th Infantry Divisions.

     The 2nd Marine Division pulled off a demonstration landing on the Southeast shore of the island to mislead the Japanese defenders. Unfortunately for them, all of the U.S. air cover was focused on defending the real landing site and kamikaze attacks took their toll on this fleet. LST 844 and the troop transport Hinsdale took multiple hits. Most of the 2nd Division remained in reserve for the remainder of the campaign. 

     The initial job of the 1st Marine division was to secure the central region of the island while the 6th Marine Division moved north and the Army moved south. As the Army Divisions in the south came up against increasingly stiff resistance, they began requesting access to the Division’s ammunition stocks, followed by a request for the 11th Marines Artillery and then the tank battalion. General Del Vale, now the commander of the 1st Marine Division, was against splitting his Division and requested that the whole Division be moved into place. Buckner agreed.

     As soon as the Marines began to move into the line on May 1st, they were greeted with Japanese artillery barrages. The Division took the right of the line along the west coast of the island and once again faced a dug in enemy with mutually supporting positions similar to what they faced at Peleliu.

     On the night of May 3rd, the Japanese attempted an amphibious counter attack against the 1st Marine Division’s right rear flank at Oyama. The landing craft pilots became disoriented, however, and came ashore near Kuwan and the southern end of Machinato airfield. Marine mortar and machine gunners destroyed these forces and, by the morning of the 4th, the attack had utterly failed.

     The Division’s experience integrating tanks, artillery and infantry tactics paid dividends on Okinawa but it was still an extremely slow and costly advance through the defenses around Shuri. No sooner would the Marines take a part of a ridge and begin to consolidate their positions than the Japanese soldiers would lunge out of hidden cave entrances or attack from their positions on the reverse slopes. After weeks of fighting, the Marines took Wana Ridge, Wana Draw and Dakeshi Ridge overlooking the Shuri line of defenses. With the high ground in the hands of the Division, the Japanese positions became untenable and they had to pull back to the next line of defenses. This withdrawal was observed, however, and naval and aerial bombardments took a heavy toll on the retreating forces.

     Despite maintaining heavy pressure on the retreating Japanese, prepared positions along Kunishi Ridge covered the withdrawal and stopped the Marines from finishing off the defenders of Shuri. Extremely wet weather also hindered the Marines as supplies were unable to reach the front lines by vehicle. Most of the food and ammunition had to be manhandled forward through deep mud. Wounded Marines had to be evacuated the same way. 

     In the early morning of the 12th of June, the 7th Marines succeeded in fighting their way up to the top of Kunishi Ridge, one of the last major defensive positions on the Island. Daylight revealed that Japanese defenders still held the slopes, however, and the Marines found themselves cut off. Supplies had to be parachuted in or carried by tanks for four days before attacks by the 1st and then the 5th Marines pushed the defenders back. By the 16th of June, Kunishi ridge was firmly in our hands.

    The last positions along Mezado and Makabe Ridges were taken by combined attacks of the 1st and 6th Marine Divisions as well as the 8th Marine Regiment of the 2nd Marine Division which was attached to the 1st Marine Division. It was at this time that 10th Army Commanding General Simon Buckner, who had gone forward to watch the attack by the 8th Marines, was killed during an artillery barrage on the 18th of June. 

     By June 21, it was apparent to the Japanese commander that the battle was lost and he announced his intentions to commit ritual suicide to his remaining officers. With his death, the effective resistance on Okinawa was over, leaving just isolated mopping up actions to completely secure the island.

     During the 82 days of this campaign, the Japanese defenders suffered 141,058 casualties. This total includes roughly 30,000 civilian casualties. US casualties were high as well. The 10th Army reported 7,374 soldiers and Marines killed, 31,807 wounded and 230 missing. There were also 26,221 non-battle casualties. The Navy claimed 4 vessels had been sunk, 368 suffered damage, 4,907 navy personnel had been killed or were missing and 4,824 had been wounded.

     Following the dropping of the atomic bombs on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Japanese government surrendered. The 1st Marine division was sent to China to disarm the Japanese garrisons there and to try and maintain order during the Chinese civil war between the Nationalist and Communist forces. In 1947, the Division returned to the United States and established Camp Pendleton as its home base, where it remains to this day.

Conclusion:

     World War II saw the Division move from generally under strength and separate regiments to become a full size division that has remained in service until the present day, though at times reduced in size. The 1st Marine Division was there at the beginning of offensive land operations as well as at the end and saw some of the worst and bloody fighting of the war.

     The United States Marines of WWII proved and improved the concept of amphibious warfare and learned many important lessons that benefitted later invasion planners. They devised and implemented the fire team concept that is still used today by all US armed forces as well as many other practices and concepts. Perhaps most notable of all, though,  is the level of Esprit de Corps marines share. This spirit is usually only seen at the level of Special Forces, yet every Marine experiences it. Once one becomes a Marine, he or she is always a Marine.

 

Note:

     This outline is accurate to the best of my knowledge and any errors are entirely my own. I highly recommend the sources listed below to further your own education, particularly Sledge and Leckie to get the view from the ground.

 

References 

Alexander, Col. Joseph H. (1997). A Fellowship of Valor: The Battle History of the United States Marines. Harper Collins, New York, NY. 1997

Ambrose, Hugh (2010). The Pacific. New American Library, New York, NY. 2010.

Chenoweth, Col. H. Avery, USMC (Ret.) (2005). Semper FI: The Definitive Illustrated History of the U.S. Marines. Main Street, a Division of Sterling Publishing, New York, NY. 2005.

Leckie, Robert (1957) Helmet For My Pillow. Simon & Schuster, New York, NY

Sledge, E.B. (1981). With the Old Breed at Peleliu and Okinawa. Presidio Press, Novato, California. 1981.

Westwell, Ian (2002). 1st Marine Division: ‘The Old Breed.’ Compendium Publishing, Hersham, Surrey 2002.


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