By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
On 10 May 1940, German parachutists jumped into the Netherlands
and Belgium to help spearhead the German sneak attacks on
these small neutral nations. Four days later, U.S. Marine
Corps commandant Maj. Gen. Thomas Holcomb issued orders to
create a Marine parachute force.
With typical Marine initiative, the corps staff skipped feasibility
studies and went straight to work acquiring materials and
recruiting instructors. Unsure how to design a training tower,
the Marines ordered a copy of the parachute tower used as
a thrill ride at the New York World’s Fair. By October,
the first volunteers arrived at Lakehurst, New Jersey for
jump training at the naval air station, where the amusement
park reject had been assembled. The jump school’s commandant,
Capt. Marion L. Dawson, broke his leg on the very first test
of the jump tower, but training proceeded anyway. The Marines
could only find one transport plane, and Dawson soon had his
men jumping off Navy blimps stationed at Lakehurst as well
to get in more training.
Organization proceeded very slowly, as Dawson’s ad hoc
training regimen could only produce at best a few dozen jump-trained
Marines every month. By the summer of 1941 the 1st Parachute
Battalion, formed at Quantico, Virginia, had only two companies
of fully qualified parachutists. Volunteers proved easy to come
by, given the enormous bonus pay (an extra $100 per month for
officers, at a time when lieutenants made $125, and an extra
$50 for enlisted men, when a private first class received $36),
but experienced jump masters were a different story.
Marine paratroopers disrupt the Army’s 44th Infantry
Division, July 1941.
The new battalion’s commander, Capt. Robert H. Williams,
emphasized that airborne jumps represented only a tiny fraction
of a Marine parachutist’s role. He trained his men hard
in long-distance marching and hand-to-hand combat, and soon
his small unit had an elite reputation within the corps. The
legend grew when Williams “mistakenly” planned
a training jump to land on top of the Army’s 44th Infantry
Division headquarters during a completely unrelated exercise.
The resulting bureaucratic warfare launched by the Army greatly
cooled the Marine brass’ enthusiasm for paratroopers,
and growth of the battalion and its newly-formed West Coast
sister unit lagged. The Marine generals instead transferred
their passion to the new Raider battalions, a pet project
of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. By March 1942 the 1st
Parachute Battalion had only 60 percent of its authorized
strength, and the 2nd Parachute Battalion about one-quarter
of its strength.
In June, the 1st Marine Division began to move to New Zealand,
and took the 1st Parachute Battalion with it to help make good
the numbers lost when units had been detached to the 3rd Marine
Brigade for garrison duty in Samoa. Ordered to prepare plans
for an assault on Guadalcanal on very short notice, the division
staff allotted the paratroopers the task of seizing the tiny
twin islands of Gavutu-Tanambogo. A Japanese seaplane base
there had to be captured on the invasion’s first day,
and intelligence indicated a battery of coast-defense guns
was sited there as well.
A Marine jumps on the Lakehurst tower.
The paratroopers’ hard training had not included beach
landings, but no transport planes available for Operation
Watchtower could reach the target from New Zealand. The division
command conducted two brief division-scale rehearsals in Fiji,
which went poorly for all the division’s elements, the
parachute battalion included. Despite pleas for more time
to prepare, the 1st Marine Division was ordered to the Solomons.
On 7 August 1942, the paratroopers landed on Gavutu. Despite
intense bombardment from the anti-aircraft cruiser San Juan,
the paratroopers met heavy fire when they landed. The cruiser
had knocked out the coast-defense battery, but the Japanese
had well-concealed machine-gun positions as well as riflemen.
This was the first opposed amphibious landing made by the
Marine Corps in World War II.
Within a short time Williams had been wounded and the battalion’s
intelligence and communications officers both killed, as well
as Capt. Richard J. Huerth of Company C. The Japanese fought
from well-concealed caves and tunnels, a tactic that took
the Marines completely by surprise. But by the end of the
day the island had been secured, and a company of Marine infantry
arrived to reinforce them. Through the night Japanese infiltrated
back onto Gavutu, often swimming from Florida Island. Tanambogo
required repeated assaults, plus reinforcement by a fresh
Marine battalion, before it fell on the 9th.
A Marine paratrooper in camouflage airborne smock and
jump helmet, with the much-hated Reising submachine
Losses had been heavy: Of the just under 400 men committed,
28 had been killed (including four officers and 11 NCO’s)
and 50 wounded. The battalion went to Tulagi, hampered by
the loss of all its mess and field gear, apparently tossed
into the sea by sailors who had brawled with the paratroopers
in Fiji. In early September, they crossed to Guadalcanal.
Down to less than 300 effectives due to rampant disease, division
command attached the paratroopers to the 1st Raider Battalion
and they fought alongside the raiders in the Tasimboko amphibious
raid and on Edson’s Ridge in September.
The fearsome two-day battle on Edson’s Ridge cost the
parachute battalion 128 casualties, or nearly half its strength,
but they and the raiders held on in what Gen. A.A. Vandegrift
called the campaign’s most crucial moment. Now useless
as a combat unit, the remnants of the battalion embarked for
New Caledonia on 17 September.
The 2nd Parachute Battalion joined the 1st in New Caledonia
in January 1943 and the 3rd Parachute Battalion arrived in March.
On April Fools’ Day they combined to form the 1st Marine
Parachute Regiment, with the now-recovered Williams (promoted
to Lt. Colonel) in command. They conduced small training jumps,
but with all the transport planes in the theater tied up ferrying
emergency supplies to Guadalcanal and bringing back the enormous
numbers of wounded, few could be spared for this duty. After
several abortive plans for airborne landings in the central
Solomons (brought to naught by the lack of transport), the paratroopers
became the reserve force for the landing on Bougainville. Second
Battalion provided a diversion, landing on the nearby island
of Choiseul in late October 1943. After several days of heavy
fighting, the battalion withdrew and went to Bougainville where
the rest of the regiment joined it in late November.
Marine raiders and a paratrooper seek out a Japanese
sniper on Bougainville, November 1943. Note the helmets.
That would be the regiment’s last operation; in early
1944, it returned to the United States to form the cadre for
the new 5th Marine Division. The Corps did not want to expend
elite manpower on specialized units, and had been moving toward
heavier firepower for its infantry rather than lightly-armed
units like the paratroopers. Marine bureaucrats pointed to
the paratroopers’ bonus pay, now totaling $150,000 per
month, that would be saved if the regiment’s battalions
(now totaling four) re-joined the regular establishment. The
new assignment also gave the fresh division a highly trained
core: several former paratroopers, including the famous Ira
Hayes, participated in the emotional flag-raising on Iwo Jima
in February 1945.
Marine paratroopers appear in several scenarios in our Panzer
Grenadier: Guadalcanal game. They have lower firepower
ratings than standard Marine Rifle units, but boast the extraordinarily
high morale (9/8) only seen a very few times in this game
Guadalcanal is available now — click here to bring it to your table!