Even among the World War II generation, it commonly is believed that Marine Corps combat operations in the war were only in the Pacific.
Not so. In fact, when the First Marine Brigade landed in Iceland on 7 July 1941, it became the first American combat unit ashore in the European theater. The occupation of Iceland was the culmination of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s undeclared war in the North Atlantic.
President Roosevelt’s moves to assist beleaguered Great Britain were abetted by a series of naval incidents. The first was on 10 April 1941 when the destroyer USS Niblack (DD-424) dumped depth charges on a Nazi U-boat while rescuing 60 Dutch sailors from their torpedoed freighter. Until then, commanders of Ameri-can warships convoying merchant ships to Great Britain and Murmansk, Russia, operated under neutrality laws. USS Greer (DD-145) later was fired upon while tracking a U-boat, and the destroyer USS Kearny (DD-432) suffered a torpedo hit and lost 11 men killed in action, the first U.S. combat deaths of WW II.
While Congress engaged in a heated debate between isolationists and inter-ventionists, the President agonized over British Prime Minister Winston Church-ill’s pleas for assistance. German submarines were inflicting a frightful toll on Allied shipping: 698,000 tons in a single month, including 10 British destroyers. At that point, President Roosevelt instituted his lend-lease plan: 50 WW I-vintage destroyers from the mothball fleet in exchange for bases at British military installations stretching from Guiana in South America to the North Atlantic.
President Roosevelt and his military chiefs in the War and Navy departments began thinking of defenses to reduce the submarine threat to North America. An option in his defensive alternatives was Iceland, occupied by some 25,000 British troops. Churchill, who characterized Iceland’s strategic location as a pistol pointed at England, Canada and America, begged for U.S. troops to relieve his British soldiers, sorely needed in the defense of the home islands. President Roosevelt had to make a move.
Meanwhile, in the parched and dusty arroyos and mesas of Camp Elliott, Calif., just out of San Diego, Marines of the newly formed Second Marine Division were engaged feverishly in tactical exercises. It was Japan, not Germany, in the thoughts of the Marines, ever mindful of their comrades already guarding bases across the Pacific.
In May 1941, the Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral H. R. Stark, ordered the Marine Corps to ready its best rifle regiment “for temporary duty beyond the seas.” Colonel Leo D. Hermle’s Sixth Marine Regiment, reinforced by an artillery battalion of the 10th Marines, armed with 75-millimeter pack howitzers, a com-pany of light tanks and assorted support troops, was readied for deployment.
On 31 May, the reinforced regiment embarked in three Navy attack transports, USS Fuller (AP-14), USS Heywood (AP-12) and USS William P. Biddle (AP-15), and three fast destroyer escorts. The convoy quietly slipped out of San Diego Bay and headed toward the Panama Canal. At sea, special details in each unit began stamping out identification tags with die sets. Crooked lettering individually hammered onto oval-shaped stainless-steel blanks spelled out the name of each man along with his serial number, blood type and religious preference. It was the first reminder of the seriousness of the expedition.
On 16 June, the ships tied up in Charles-ton, S.C., where supplies waited on the docks. For six days troops wrestled rations, camp equipment, clothing, weapons and supplies into the transport holds. The 5th Defense Battalion, with 3-inch antiaircraft batteries and .50-caliber machine guns, arrived from Parris Island, S.C., bringing troop strength to about 4,100.
The eventual destination of the Marines remained a mystery, even to Brigadier General John Marston, who arrived to take command of the First Marine Brigade (Provisional). “I never officially knew what the original mission of the 6th Marines was, until after Argentia Bay,” BGen Marston said in an interview after the war. Argentia Bay, Newfoundland, would be the final stop before crossing to Iceland. His orders stated that Army troops would relieve his brigade in September.
President Roosevelt had intended to send the Army in the first place, but was chagrined to learn that Congress would not permit sending draftees overseas. It would have taken an Army division weeks to shake out the draftees and replace them with regulars. The Marine Corps relied on its Reserves who had been called to active duty and could be sent anywhere the regulars went.
In Washington, the isolationist faction in Congress continued to assail the President’s undeclared war in the North Atlantic. On 4 July, Senator Burton Wheeler of Montana announced that Marines were on their way to Iceland. The ships’ radios picked up the announcement and printed it in the daily news bulletin for distribution to crews and troops. It was a critical moment: Hitler’s submarine packs already swarmed in the northern waters.
On 7 July, as the transports entered the tiny harbor of Reykjavik, troops hanging over the rails saw green valleys and bright sunshine, not the barren wintry scene they had envisioned. It was the season of the midnight sun. Some Marines waved at the locals. In return, they received only stone-faced stares. It would be that way for the seven months of occupation.
In spite of Hitler’s brutal conquests in Europe, many Icelanders admired the Germans. Before the war, German engineers had built roads and aqueducts that carried steaming water from the country’s thermal springs into their homes.
Marines turned to unloading the ships with a zest and speed never seen by the local population. The British troops, thankful for the first sign of help from the United States, had vacated their Nissen huts and moved into tent camps so the Marines could move into comfortable quarters.
Even before departing Argentia Bay, BGen Marston became aware that the brigade was badly equipped for the operation, from the fragile soles of garrison shoes to the inadequacy of transportation. Refrigeration for meats and food supplies was insufficient, as were power generators. There was only one water cart where 15 were needed. Twelve of the light tanks were in need of overhauling, but there were no spare parts.
Marston frantically dispatched requests for critical supplies, but the attitude in Washington was that Army troops soon would relieve the brigade; therefore, there was little concern for the “raggedy-assed Marines,” the title of a ribald barracks ballad that fit the current situation.
BGen Marston reported that the Marine Corps trucks, particularly their shock absorbers, built for high-speed U.S. highways, were ill-suited for the unimproved roads of the volcanic island. BGen Marston wrote to the Assistant Commandant, BGen A. A. Vandegrift, that his own staff car “was very nearly racked to pieces on one trip.”
In August, an advance element of 300 Army troops of Major General Charles H. Bonesteel’s 5th Infantry Division arrived, and in September, MG Bonesteel himself landed with an additional 3,000 troops. The coming of the Army was both good and bad news for the Marines. It was proof that they would be going home, although no one knew exactly when. The bad part was that as long as they remained, the Marines would come under the administration and command of the Army.
BGen Marston’s objection to total Army control was backed by the Marine Corps Commandant, MajGen Thomas Holcomb, but fell on the deaf ears of Army and Navy brass in Washington. The best argument BGen Marston could muster was that Army courts-martial procedures and fitness reports of officers were different.
In general, he said, “They [the Army] have a tremendous amount of paperwork which the Marine Corps seems to be able to avoid.”
Meanwhile the brigade had settled into a routine. Its defense role had been established as that of a mobile column to guard Reykjavik and its outlying areas, including the naval base at Hvalfjordur, 40 miles up the coast. Particular emphasis was placed on defending likely glider- and parachute-landing sites. Battalions and companies were widely dispersed, straining command and control.
Only 700 miles across the North Sea in Norway were three German divisions. German reconnaissance planes occasionally flew over, drawing desultory antiaircraft fire. A squadron of Army pursuit planes arrived soon after the Marine landing, but there were no aerial engagements.
BGen Marston envied the practical field uniforms of the British Tommies—brass-buttoned overcoats and woolen battle jackets with baggy trousers tucked into polished field boots with hobnailed soles. His Marines wore the standard winter service garrison uniforms, with khaki or woolen shirts, field scarves (neckties) and overcoats. For field operations they laced on canvas leggings and donned WW I tin helmets. They were armed with 1903, bolt-action Springfield rifles.
As the weather turned colder, the clothing became less uniform and more individually “raggedy assed.” Some men wore sheepskin coats, others parkas, most likely “liberated” from Army quartermaster stores, and still others turned out in field jackets and rain gear. Rubber arctic boots with felt insoles were issued, as were Russian-style fur caps of the type worn by North China Marines.
In mid-August the British commander, MajGen H. O. Curtis, alerted the various commands that “a very distinguished visitor is expected from England” and issued plans for a parade. The visitor was the British prime minister, en route home from Argentia Bay where he and President Roosevelt had put together the historic Atlantic Charter, a blueprint for the defeat of Hitler.
Winston Churchill arrived on a pleasant, sun-splashed day and was driven to the outskirts of Reykjavik where thousands of troops were arrayed on a treeless meadow. There were the British, the Marines and small detachments of Norwegian and Dutch troops who had escaped the Continent.
Churchill, in his navy blue seafaring uniform, slowly trooped the line, occasionally stopping to look a man in the eye and exchange banter. To the Marines he seemed old, pale and stoop shouldered, yet with a stubborn bulldog countenance. A veteran Marine sergeant standing rigidly at attention politely corrected him when addressed as an “old soldier.”
“I’m an old Marine, sir, not a soldier.”
“Well, an old sea soldier, isn’t that a good term?” Churchill rejoined, quite accurately. “Yes, sir,” the sergeant agreed.
The troops paraded along a short concrete road, probably the only surfaced road in the entire country. The skirling bagpipes of the Tyneside Scottish Regiment echoed across the field, mixing with the brassy sounds of “The Marines’ Hymn.” Later, Churchill recalled that the Marine song had played hauntingly through his mind on his journey home.
The pleasantly long days of summer waned into a chilly, drizzly autumn. The first fires were stoked in the pot-bellied coal-burning stoves, one to a hut. The prefabricated Nissens, forerunners of the American Quonset huts, were constructed of curved, corrugated metal sheets forming a semicircle and enclosed at each end with plywood. To anchor them down against the arctic blasts, the sides were banked high with sandbags and sod. The fierce winds, more than the cold, were of most concern.
Marines from Minnesota and Wisconsin scoffed at the mildness of the winter. “You call this snow?” they would snicker, much to the annoyance of the lads from the Deep South.
Unlike the snow which thawed, the attitude of the natives toward occupation troops remained frigid. The Icelandic government even enacted a public-morals policy known as “astand.” Girls under the age of 18 were forbidden from socializing with troops and were ostracized if they did. In Norway, Gen Curtis’ troops adopted a distinctive shoulder patch showing a polar bear on an ice floe. Gen Curtis suggested to BGen Marston that “because of their efficiency and conduct” the Marines also wear the patch. Headquarters, U.S. Marine Corps approved, and Marines soon were sporting the polar bear on their garrison uniforms.
In Reykjavik, Marine noncommissioned officers visiting their British counterparts guarding a prisoner-of-war stockade saw their first Germans, survivors of sunken U-boats. At Saurbaer, Iceland, a towering headland overlooking the entrance to Hvalfjordur and the naval base, Marines often gazed down on crippled ships, victims of the Nazi submarine wolf packs. Most listed awkwardly; others showed gaping holes in their hulls, and some even had their bows missing.
The U.S. destroyer Kearny passed by, a black hole showing from the waterline halfway to the bridge. On 17 Oct., while on convoy duty off the coast of Greenland, Kearny was hit amidships by a German torpedo. A gallant effort by the crew kept the ship afloat and restored power. Pearl Harbor was still six weeks away.
All during the fall and winter the Marines built camps for the Army’s arrival. It was not enough to build the huts; they even set up the cots made up with sheets and pillowcases, comforts they never enjoyed. As supply ships arrived, they became stevedores, working around-the-clock shifts unloading supplies. In reprisal, they pilfered wantonly from cargo holds: winter clothing, boots, beer, cigarettes and chocolate bars.
The days became darker and shorter, and the snow fell horizontally. Military training came to a standstill. Recreation almost was nonexistent. Winds of up to 120 miles an hour were routine, requiring safety lines of rope and communications wire for troops headed to latrines and mess halls. “Burrowed down” was the way BGen Marston described it.
Word from Washington came the week of Thanksgiving: The brigade would begin its withdrawal to New York in February. The December Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor actually served as a morale booster—the Marines would be heading for the Pacific where they belonged.
Reports from brigade headquarters to the Commandant described morale in upbeat terms, but such was not the case in the more remote outposts where discipline became lax. Even after the brigade returned to Camp Elliott, the term “Icelandic Marine” carried a negative connotation among commanding officers of the 2dMarDiv.
However, the Iceland veterans quickly found themselves in leadership positions in cadres of new regiments. They would acquit themselves in the highest standards of the Corps in Pacific Island battles. Many would win battlefield decorations, and many would die, but Iceland was forever added to the growing list of Marines in every clime and place.