Iceland

By MajGen R. McC. Tompkins - Originally Published November 1965

A tale of the Far Off Northern Lands, where "the nights are long and the nights are cold. . ."

After almost a quarter of a century it's still easy to remember the excitement in San Diego on that Saturday afternoon. Col Leo D. Hermle's 6th Marines were embarking for an unknown destination. The attack transports Biddle, Fuller, and Heywood lay alongside the Navy pier at the foot of Broadway. Nearby were the fast destroyer transports Manley, Little, McKean, and Stringham. It was a fine sight, all those ships crowded with Marines.

The band played and the pretty girls on the pier waved goodbye as the ships worked out into the stream. Most of us were very innocent and very much filled with dreams of glory. It was the 31st of May and the year was 1941.

The war in Europe had gone from bad to worse for 20 months and scuttlebutt had the regiment going to all manner of places. The executive officer of the 2d Battalion, a man of full figure, carefully prepared himself to meet any type of contingency. In addition to the usual winter and summer service uniforms with breeches and boots, he came aboard with evening dress, mess dress, a civilian tailcoat, and a full set of golf clubs. He had often observed that there was no sense in a fellow getting caught short.

On the basis of the evidence available today, scanty enough in all conscience, it would appear that the French island of Martinique was the original objective for the 6th Marines. As noted by John L. Zimmerman: ". . . Martinique had been a sore spot for several months. Its government was apparently whole-heartedly collaborating with the German masters of France and there was considerable suspicion that information was being given . . . to the submarine packs that were operating in the Caribbean. Emile Bertin, a light cruiser, and Beam, an aircraft carrier . . . were in port" (in Martinique).

Regardless of the original destination, things in Washington were moving apace. The ships carrying the 6th Marines turned north after the Panama Canal and on 17 June docked at Charleston. Units joined from the 1st Marine Division and the 5th Defense Battalion. The force now totalled 4,095 men and was designated as the 1st Marine Brigade (Provisional), BGen John Marston Commanding. There were high-level conferences and much hurrying and scurrying by senior officers. The lieutenants supervised endless working parties earnestly loading more ammunition and other staples that might come in handy. We spent our base pay (§125 a month) at the Club and made long distance phone calls to San Diego. It was all very confusing.

The mystery of future employment was rather abruptly revealed as a result of supply officers' activities. These worthies ranged up and down the East Coast and purchased, wherever they could lay hands on it, the available stock of outdoor clothing such as is worn by duck hunters and deer hunters. Large packing cases began arriving at the Charleston Navy Yard destined to the "1st Marine Brigade (Provisional) Iceland."

President Roosevelt had concluded a secret agreement with the Icelandic government to relieve British troops defending the island with American troops. But under the law he could not send Army reserves for duty outside the United States except in time of war. This prohibition he discovered did not apply to the US Marine Corps though a very large part of the 1st Brigade were reservists who were called up under the authority of the Limited National Emergency Act of 1939. There were no regular Army units that could then be spared for such duty and the Marine Brigade was just what the doctor ordered.

Thus it came about on 22 June that Biddle, Heywood and Fuller together with the veteran World War I transport Orizaba and the supply ships Arcturus and Hamul stood out of Charleston. They were guarded by two destroyers who shepherded them up the coast where they joined their escort, which for sheer size and firepower must have been unique: two battleships (New York and Arkansas), two new cruisers (Nashville and Brooklyn), and 10 destroyers. And the United States was not then at war.

After a two-day stop at Argentia, the convoy put to sea again through waters in which submarine contacts became almost constant. On 5 July a Marine standing lookout spotted a drifting lifeboat that contained the survivors of a torpedoed ship. Among them were four American girls of the Harvard Red Cross Unit who had volunteered for duty in England; eleven Marines destined for the Embassy at London and seven of the girls had gone down with the ship.

On 7 July, on a fine bright morning, the convoy dropped anchor off Reykjavik. On this day President Roosevelt revealed to a startled Congress that they were faced with a fait accompli: the Marines were in Iceland.

We were attached for operational control to the British 79th Division and wore their black and white polar bear shoulder insignia until Headquarters, to our distress, directed us to remove it upon our return to the United States the following year. The majority of the 25,000 British troops in Iceland made up the 79th Division commanded by MajGen H. O. Curtis, CB, DSO, MC. The balance comprised RAF, RN, and various logistic support groups and staffs. Included in the latter category was a most frustrated individual, the Staff Railway Officer. He had arrived almost a year previously with his clerks and a trunk full of government railway scrip and passes. The only trouble lay in the fact that there are no railroads in Iceland.

Various British units were turned out of their Nissen-hut camps and went under canvas to make room for the Marines. The 2d Battalion of the 6th Marines took over the camp at Baldurshagi which had been occupied by the 2d/6th Duke of Wellington's Regiment and shortly thereafter the Marines caused the Government of Iceland to transmit a huffy complaint to the President of the United States. Through Baldurshagi flows one of the most famous salmon fishing waters in the world. Syndicates of British sportsmen, before the war, used to lease the stream for large sums of money. To the Marines it seemed that the most practical way to snare the huge fish infesting the stream was to drop a live hand grenade into one of the many pools where the salmon swarm lazily. The ensuing reverberations, as I have said, were heard in Washington. The battalion commander, LtCol William Arthur Worton, on this occasion was not happy with his people.

Logistic arrangements for the support of the Brigade apparently had not been given much thought in Washington. There were no fresh vegetables locally available and only tiny amounts of native mutton and fish; these two latter items were regarded with dislike and distrust by the Marines. The invariable ration was built around Spam or one of its close relatives, plus dehydrated vegetables and dried milk. There was no entertainment available For troops and it was not until several months later that the camps received movie projectors.

Relations with the British troops, many of whom had been at Dunkirk, were extremely good. The Americans were better paid, but His Majesty's forces received a daily rum ration and much bartering went on in this department.

The mission of the combined Anglo-American force, under MajGen Curtis, was to secure Iceland against enemy attack. To this end the Brigade was assigned certain areas of responsibility and integrated into the overall defense plan. Camps were wired in; small arms ammunition and hand grenades were kept in each Nissen hut assigned as living spaces. Frequent exercises at manning designated fighting positions were carried out, though they tended to become routine after a few months. About once a week, usually on the weekend, one or two German planes would appear high overhead and cruise leisurely over the southwestern portion of the island. The RAF would scramble the Hurricanes but they were never able to bag the intruders. On these occasions we hopefully manned .30 cal machine guns that we had mounted on posts with improvised gear to permit 360-degree traverse in the sky.

The ingenuity of the Marines was never better displayed than on the night of the finals of the Anglo-American boxing tournament. This gala affair took place in the town hall of Reykjavik kindly loaned by the City Fathers. MajGen Curtis and his ranking officers took their seats on one side of the ring while BGen Marston and his staff sat opposite. The hall was crowded to the rafters by other, lesser folk. The Marine band took station in the gallery. When all hands were assembled the Adjutant announced that the band would play the "Star Spangled Banner." This was rendered in a most stirring fashion. Then the Adjutant announced the band would now play "God Save the King." Nothing happened. The Marine musicins were observed searching frantically through their sheet music. The seconds dragged by and then the mortifying silence was broken by the bandmaster's rasping command to his troops: "Play 'My Country 'Tis of Thee'-slowly."

My diary entry for 16 August reads: "This battalion (2/6), together with the other battalions of the 6th Marines and Brigade units, was this day inspected by Winston Churchill, Prime Minister of England. He was accompanied by Sir John Dill, Chief of the Imperial General Staff; Sir Dudley Pound, the First Sea Lord; and a clutch of other dignitaries. The line of assembled troops-USMC, Air Corps Engineers, RAF, British infantry, Norwegian flyers, etc.-stretched along the cement highway from the outskirts of Reykjavik to the bridge just below Ripon, a distance of four miles. I would judge that there were about 10,000 troops on the line. Churchill walked the whole distance and appeared to scrutinize the troops very closely. He is a short, square, stocky man with a pale determined face and light blue eyes. He was a grim-looking little man, dressed in a short-peaked blue yachting cap and a finger-length navy blue reefer . . . The 6th Marines led the march past the reviewing stand, which was occupied by Churchill alone. Our band was playing 'From the Halls of Montezuma' as we came down the line and I admit that cold shivers ran up and down my spine. There is no one in the world that can march like the Marines when they feel like it and the proper music is played. Today was one of those days; the band was in fine fettle and we walked proud. We were all 10 feet tall . . ."

US Army units had been infiltrating since early in August and it was on 22 September 1941 that the Brigade fell heir to a peculiar distinction enjoyed only rarely by Marine Corps units. On that day the President directed BGen Marston to report with his Brigade to MajGen Bonesteele for duty with the Army. The administrative nightmare that ensued is painful to recall even now.

In spite of the earnest efforts of the supply officers in their shopping foray while at Charleston, the Brigade-and, I suspect, the whole Marine Corps-then at the unbelievable figure of about 40,000 officers and men-was singularly illequipped for field duty. The artillerymen had sheepskin coats (to ward off the early morning chill of the Mojave desert) and the tank company had a highly admired twill windbreaker. But the infantry had only their winter service uniforms and tight-fitting overcoats. Certain elements of the 5th Defense Battalion persisted in wearing sun helmets for reasons best known to themselves; certainly it was not for fear of sunstroke. Washington took heed and in due course the Brigade was equipped with flannel shirts, long underwear, a species of parka, and round pile hats with fur earpieces similar to those worn by Marines in China.

The British observed with some amazement the officers of the Brigade on field exercises. The standard uniform for these evolutions was winter service with breeches and-for field officers-riding boots; for all below field grade the regulations called for either shoes and puttees, or knee-high lace boots. Top these costumes with a trench coat such as we all purchased at the British officers' clothing depot and it was something to behold. As one British officer was heard to say, "You look like a picture of my father on the Somme in 1916."

More and more Army troops arrived in Iceland and the Brigade units spent much time in building Nissen huts to be occupied by these newcomers. While the food improved markedly with the arrival of the Army, the weather deteriorated as the days grew shorter and shorter. When we had landed in July the sun barely dipped below the horizon before it rose again. Now, in December, there were only a few hours of daylight. The always bleak and desolate landscape of southwestern Iceland seemed even grimmer.

We were at dinner on 7 December when the unbelievable news came through on the radio: Pearl Harbor and Manila being bombed; Oklahoma on fire and West Virginia sunk. And that was all we could learn although we sat up very late in an agony of impatience for more news. The next day another bulletin announced that the Japs had taken Wake and Midway. We began getting our gear together, certain that the Major General Commandant would send for us at once to help deal with affairs in the Pacific.

On 15 December I made the following note in a diary: "We'll probably be here for the duration. Have been issued more winter clothing. We continue the working parties and build camps for the Army."

But by March 1942 the Brigade was back in the United States and its various units returned to their parent organizations. Places with then unknown names-like Guadalcanal, Tarawa, Peleliu, Iwo Jima, Okinawa-were still to be visited.

Of the 134 Marine officers who embarked at San Diego on that last day of May in 1941, only 18 are still in the Marine Corps. This means that there are a dwindling number of characters who can start a long-winded story with, "Now, when we were in Iceland. . . ."

Perhaps it's just as well. That was another war and a long, long time ago.