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Parachute Marines
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
January 2013

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.


Marine paratroopers disrupt the Army’s 44th Infantry Division, July 1941.

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.

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.


A Marine jumps on the Lakehurst tower.

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.

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.


A Marine paratrooper in camouflage airborne smock and jump helmet, with the much-hated Reising submachine gun.

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.

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.


Marine raiders and a paratrooper seek out a Japanese sniper on Bougainville, November 1943. Note the helmets.

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.

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 series.

Guadalcanal is available now — click here to bring it to your table!