Marine Corps Shermans

Thanks to service politics and a perception that the Japanese posed a less formidable foe than the Germans, the United States Marine Corps stood well behind the U.S. Army in terms of receiving new weapons and equipment. Marines went to war in the Solomons carrying the Springfield bolt-action rifle while the 1st Tank Battalion had the M2A4 light tank, a vehicle already relegated to training use by the Army.

The United States Marine Corps began its experiments with armor very early, obtaining eight M1917 light tanks (a licensed copy of the Renault FT17) in 1923, and deploying them to China in 1927. By the late 1930’s the Marines had ordered and trained with a series of nearly-useless tankettes built by Marmon-Herrington, but the outbreak of war in Europe showed the need for a real tank. Finally the U.S. Army handed over three dozen M2A1 light tanks in late 1940, and the Marines intended that each of their two planned divisions would include a mixed tank battalion of M2A1 and Marmon-Herrington tanks.

Marine Shermans on Saipan.

The M2A4 would be replaced by the M3 Stuart light tank in the course of the Solomons campaign. When the 1st Marine Division withdrew to Australia in January 1943 the tank battalion went along, and eventually re-equipped one company with Sherman medium tanks. Charlie Company of 2nd Tank Battalion, which had fought alongside the 2nd Marine Regiment on Guadalcanal (detached from 2nd Marine Division as a reinforcement) initially operated the M3 Stuart, and also received new Shermans after leaving the Solomons.

Those two companies received the 22 M4A4 Shermans that the Marines wheedled out of the Army in October 1942. The Army refused to part with any more tanks intended for its own formations, and for the next year the Marines had no luck in obtaining extra Shermans from Army stocks. Finally in November 1943 the Army grudgingly allowed the Marine Corps to take 168 M4A2 Shermans from production intended for shipment to Britain and the Soviet Union.

A Marine Sherman on Guam.

That continued the pattern of Marine units receiving Army hand-me-downs or rejects. The M4A2, equipped with a General Motors diesel engine rather than the gasoline-powered Ford V8 favored by the Army, went to fill Lend-Lease orders. The Marines were denied tanks earmarked for the Army, but managed to snag a few of those intended for the British or the Soviets.

The Marines initially used their diesel-powered Shermans to form two battalions, to support the I (later re-designated III) and V Amphibious Corps; the two battalions were numbered 1st and 2nd, just like those attached to the 1st and 2nd Marine Divisions, and during their brief existence they were usually called “Corps Tank Battalion” or “Medium Tank Battalion.” Their surviving tanks and crews went to help form divisional tank battalions for the new 3rd and 4th Marine Divisions.

Nearly all Marine Shermans carried the original 75mm M2 or M3 tank gun, a weapon originally based on the French M1897 field gun. As an artillery piece, it had been designed for a long barrel life (a feature seldom needed for a tank) which mandated a relatively low muzzle velocity. That yielded relatively poor performance in an anti-tank role, but it had a very effective high-explosive round.

The Marines turned out to prefer the 75mm gun to the 76mm cannon fitted to later-model Shermans. It performed better against both soft targets and fortifications, and also against the lightly-armored Japanese tanks encountered in the Pacific – the higher-velocity 76mm rounds tended to go right through the target. By early 1945, the M4A2 with the 75mm gun had gone out of production in favor of the 76mm-equipped model, and rather than accept the new weapon the Marines managed to wrangle a supply of M2A3 tanks with the 75mm gun, which the Army no longer wanted.

Like the Army, the Marines rarely called the tanks “Shermans” – that British label only came into widespread use after the war. The diesel-engined M4A2 was called a “GM” and the gasoline-engined M4A3 was a “Ford,” based on the engine manufacturer. Otherwise, they were close to identical and most parts could be swapped between them.

Marine Shermans first saw action on Tarawa in November 1943, with one company from the I Amphibious Corps’ battalion attached to 2nd Marine Division. They proved far more effective than the light tanks of 2nd Marine Division’s organic tank battalion, and the Marine leadership decided to do away with light tanks entirely and use only Shermans. That decision couldn’t be implemented immediately, and mixed battalions of light and medium tanks supported the Marines at Cape Gloucester in December 1943 and on Kwajalein in February 1944.

For the landings on Saipan, the 2nd and 4th Marine Divisions’ tank battalions had only Shermans in their tank companies. Each battalion’s three medium tank companies had an additional attached platoon with four “Satan” flamethrowing tanks converted from M3 light tanks and a single M5 light tank still armed with a 37mm gun. Third Marine Division landed on Guam with its Sherman-equipped 3rd Tank Battalion and additional companies attached to two of its regiments.

Against the Shermans, the Japanese deployed their new Type 1 47mm anti-tank gun in some numbers; it could not usually penetrate the Sherman’s frontal armor but was effective against its side or rear (and would have been devastating had the Marines retained light tanks as their primary means of armor support). Infantry anti-tank teams with magnetic mines had success, though often at a great cost in lives. The Japanese had correctly identified the Sherman’s weak points and the anti-tank teams sought to place their explosives over the fuel tanks; while that damage put the tank out of action, the diesel fuel didn’t explode as would have happened in a gasoline-powered tank.

After the Marianas battles (and in some cases, during them), the Marines took steps to address those problems. Crews added wooden planking to their tanks’ armor, filling the gap between the wood and steel with concrete. That made it more difficult to attach magnetic mines to the tanks. More importantly, they added a field telephone to the rear of the tanks, allowing Marine rfilemen – the best defense against Japanese infantry anti-tank teams - to easily communicate with the tank crew during a firefight. Fourth Marine Division also attached large self-sealing water skins to the rear of the tanks so thirsty Marines could refill canteens in the brutal heat.

The Marines found the Satan flamethrowing tanks inadequate; while this was blamed on the vehicles at the time, the Marines did not have access to napalm (more of that hand-me-down treatment) and had to fill their flamethrowers with gasoline, which could only be sprayed about half as far as napalm. On Guam, 3rd Marine Division deployed the first platoon of flame-throwing Shermans (designated E4-5) which would replace the Satans for future operations, and also Shermans equipped with a bulldozer blade.


A heavily-modified Marine Sherman on Okinawa.

Suitably modified, the Marine Shermans fought in close assaults on Iwo Jima and Okinawa, suffering enormous losses. The Sherman had never been intended as an assault weapon; it was supposed to use its speed to exploit breakthroughs in the enemy line. The Army did not share its modified M4A3E2 “Jumbo” with extra armor, nor did it allow the Marines to deploy the M4 variants armed with a 105mm howitzer.

For the upcoming invasion of Japan, the Marines finally won a bureaucratic skirmish, obtaining new M26 Pershings for their tank battalions. These officially were “loaned” to the Marines for the operation, and when Japan’s surrender made the operation moot the Army demanded their return. The Marines reported that they had lost track of the big tanks, only to miraculously “find” them in a storage depot five years later during the Korean War.

Marine Shermans appear in Panzer Grenadier: Saipan 1944, with the expansion book Marianas 1944 adding the flamethrower version (and an immobile captured Sherman in Japanese colors). They’re also found in Korean War: Counter Attack, by which time the Marines had acquired Shermans with 76mm guns. Gold Club members can get upgraded playing pieces for their Shermans in Golden Journal No. 27.

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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and NASA Journalist in Space finalist, he has published an unknowable number of books, games and articles on historical subjects. He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his new puppy. He will never forget his dog, Leopold.

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