Giants Of The Corps: The Fighting Third

By Tom Bartlett - Originally published June 1976

Today's generation of Marines assigned to the Third Marine Division lightly refer to themselves as members of "The Third Herd." It makes sense....

"The First Herd" wrote headlines and history as they battled the Japanese during World War II....

"The Second Herd" humped the mountains and paddies of Vietnam.

Today's "Third Herd" is as proud as their predecessors; they've fallen in step, "Smartly!" and they're ready to go.

The following story, highlighting the Third Marine Division, is presented with sincere appreciation to the Marine Corps Historical and Museums Branch; Major General H. L. Wilkerson, present Commanding General of the 3rdMarDiv; to Tom Stowe, Public Relations Officer of the 3rdMarDiv Association, Inc., and to those who have, will, or wish they could have, served as members of "The Fighting Third!"

From its beginning, the Third Marine Division had a fighting background. (It began with the Third Marine Regiment of World War I.) Activated in September 1942 at Camp Lejeune, N.C., the division consisted of a group of officers and enlisted men from the First Marine Division.

America wasn't doing too well in the early days of World War II. Many had fought bravely at Bataan and Corregidor, Midway and Wake, but the fact remains that Japan was having her own way in the Pacific. American servicemen were slowing down the enemy, but Japan couldn't be stopped.

The Third Marine Regiment had to be shaped up quickly, then shipped out to help in the defense. They sailed for Samoa in September 1942 and immediately embarked on an intensive jungle training program. For eight months, the Third Marines trained until they were considered to be one of the best jungle-trained units in the Marine Corps.

Living conditions on Samoa were crude. The Marines lived in small huts, with no modern conveniences. There was little fresh food. There was, however, filariasis (also known as "mu-mu"), which was spread by mosquitoes and caused severe swelling of the arms and legs. It was very painful, and it was contracted by the majority of the regiment.

During March 1943, the regiment was reinforced and it boasted a total of 5,600 men. In May they sailed for New Zealand, where they continued training and battling "mu-mu."

Originally formed as a part of the Second Marine Division, the bulk of the Ninth Marines came from the Second Marines, with the majority of the 1st Battalion representing a great part of the 3rd Battalion, Sixth Marines.

The regiment's training program began on April Fool's Day, 1942, at Camp Elliott, Calif., and it was under the direct supervision of Col Lemuel C. Shepherd, Jr. The object of the training lessons was to mold the regiment into a hard-striking combat team..."The Striking Ninth."

Col Shepherd saw to it that all privates, NCOs and officers received instruction on bayonets, hand grenades, rifles, machine guns, mortars, rubber boats, defense against chemical attack, communications and combat intelligence. In May, the scout-sniper school was held at River Camp, Calif., where Marines were trained in commando-raider tactics, with emphasis placed on physical conditioning, map reading, scouting and observing.

During June, a large number of men of the Ninth Marines were transferred to form the 22nd Marines. Then, in July, another large group augmented the 23rd Marines at New River.

On August 1st, the 1st Battalion, Twelfth Marines (artillery), joined, and two days later, the regiment was detached from the Second Marine Division and assigned as part of the Amphibious Corps, Pacific Fleet.

In late October, additional supporting units were assigned and the regiment was reinforced and organized into three battalion landing teams. By New Year's Day, 1943, the total strength of the regiment was approximately 5,500 men.

Sailing for New Zealand, the regiment arrived in Auckland on February 5. The training continued, and in some cases, it was toughened. The Marines lived in the field on diminished rations and 60-mile hikes.

The Third Marine Division became a combat-ready force, consisting of the Third, Ninth and Twelfth Marine Regiments.

They were joined by the 19th Marines, a war-born unit designed to meet the needs of the Marine Corps. Readied in September 1942 at Camp Elliott, they were organized from a group of the 18th Marines, under the Second Marine Division. Many had been tested under fire at Pearl Harbor.

The 25th Seabee Battalion joined the 19th Marines, and the Navy Construction unit became the 3rd Battalion of the Marine regiment.

Youngest of the three infantry regiments of the Third Marine Division was the 21st Marines, formed from a unit of the 2nd Battalion, Sixth Marines. They were considered to be one of the best-trained units of the Corps, having recently returned from Iceland with the First Marine Brigade.

In July 1942, the regiment began a hectic 13-week training schedule at New River, N.C. The Marines were introduced to the new M-1 rifle. In October, a 31-day training schedule was launched and it included amphibious training in Higgins boats.

The Marines moved across country to California and the loading began for overseas assignment. They sailed for New Zealand, and during April, the regiment (unit by unit) carried out 60-mile hikes (which lasted three days) along with night tactical bivouacs.

On the day of activation of the Third Marine Division, the Division Special Troops were organized from units of the Second Marine Division. These units included the 3rd Headquarters Battalion, the 3rd Parachute Battalion, 3rd Tanks and the 3rd Special Weapons Battalion.

By the time the division was assembled in New Zealand, preparing to move to Guadalcanal, all units of the Special Troops had received extensive training. The entire group was considered "Ready!"

Special Troops? They would draw first blood at Rendova and Vella Lavella.

The other Marines of the Third Division?

Bougainville... Only half the size of Guadalcanal, it held nearly 40,000 enemy soldiers, native head hunters, crocodiles and millions of insects.

On October 27, 1943, the 2nd Battalion, First Marine Parachute Regiment, hit Choiseul (an island southeast of Bougainville) in a diversionary landing. It worked well.

At 0712 on November 1, 1943, the first assault wave of landing craft left the line of departure. For most, Bougainville (largest island of the Solomon Islands group) was a baptism of relief. There was little opposition. The feint by the parachutists had been almost complete.

The Ninth Marines landed "standing up," hitting the deck only when three enemy Zeros strafed. Others of the Striking Ninth swam to shore; the pounding surf and poor beach conditions had knocked out 70 landing boats.

Troops of the 3rd Raider Battalion landed on Beach Green 1 (Puruata Island) and met an estimated reinforced enemy platoon. The opposition was stiff, but the Raiders managed to clean out the area by the following day.

As it turned out, the Third Marines met the first heavy enemy opposition. Four battalions landed side by side; the 1st on Cape Torokina, the 2nd Raiders to the west, the 2nd Battalion to the west of the Raiders and 3/3 on the extreme left, near the Koromokina River.

The first waves of the 2nd and 3rd Battalions landed under light fire. The Raiders hit the beach and were faced by bunkers and a complex of entrenchments occupied by a reinforced platoon. Shooting as they advanced, the 2nd Raiders overran the enemy positions.

The 1st Battalion ran into 300 determined defenders, heavily fortified in log and sand bunkers. The emplacements were mutually supporting and protected by rifle pits. One bunker held a 75-mm. mountain gun that knocked out six of the landing craft.

And then came the Zeros which strafed the ships and beaches. Unloading on the beach was halted as the transports sought deeper waters. As 1/3 continued firing, their ammo ran seriously short, and only by "scrounging" from neighboring units were they able to maintain contact. A counter-attack would have been disastrous!

Forced to fight immediately upon landing, with little or no time for organizing on the beach, 1/3 fought a hundred small battles. In their baptism of combat, the long, hard months of jungle training paid off.

There had been 25 pillboxes. Three were knocked out by naval gunfire prior to the landing. The Marines went to work, "protected" by their khaki shirts.

A demolition team blew up the 75-mm. gun. And Marines charged, throwing grenades and firing from the hip into gunports of bunkers. Men fought with clubbed weapons, knives and fists.

Newsmen later called it "the bloodiest beach in the entire Solomons campaign."

One by one the pillboxes were knocked out. At the end of the battle, 270 Japanese lay dead. One hour after the first Marines landed, a message was sent back to the command ship:

"Old Glory waves on Cape Torokina. Situation well in hand!"

At 0248, November 2, Admiral William F. Halsey (Commander of Task Force 39) reported that an enemy naval force was rapidly approaching Bougainville. Our naval group engaged the enemy. One hour and 50 minutes later, a defeated Japanese force fled north, leaving a sunken cruiser and four destroyers.

Our transport group returned to the beach at daylight to complete unloading.

Communications personnel accomplished near miracles during the first days of the battle, with wiremen forcing their way through jungle so thick that their progress was no more (at times) than 100 yards an hour.

When supplying the advancing troops became a problem, the LVTs were placed on special assignment. The amphibian tractors ferried three of the pack howitzer battalions.

Engineers, pioneers and service troops worked 'round the clock, and the Seabees literally tore their way through the jungle. By D plus 25, the first American planes were using the Torokina strip which had been only a narrow strip of sand dividing the sea from the swamp.

The enemy attempted to land reinforcements during the early morning of November 7. Two battalions on four destroyers managed to land in the area covered by 3/9. Company "K" was ordered to attack, and the battle lasted five hours. (Only two platoons of "K" Company took part in the main engagement. The third platoon was fighting on the banks of the Laruma River.)

After 1/21 (attached to the Ninth Marines) passed through 1/3, 551 enemy lay dead-the result of three days of fighting west of the Korokina River. With 1/12 and 2/9 in support of the 3rd Raiders, the Marines attacked the Piva Trail, inflicting heavy casualties on the enemy.

For nearly two months, the Third Marine Division fought in the front lines against die-hard Japanese defenders. On January 16, 1944, the Army's XIV Corps took over command in the area, and the Marines returned to Guadalcanal.

The following month, the Marines were told they would land against the Japanese on Emirau, but the operation was canceled. The Marines then heard they would hit Kavieng, New Zealand. That landing was also canceled.

When "scuttlebutt" filtered down to the fire teams that the Marines were to get ready for an amphibious assault against Guam, in the Mariana Islands, few believed it would actually happen.

Still, the troops boarded ship on June 2 and 3, 1944, and they sailed for Kwajalein in the Marshall Islands. The Marines sat off Saipan for nearly two weeks in a reserve status. The Second and Fourth Marine Divisions were pushing the enemy back on Saipan, and when the Japanese retreated, the Third Division went back to re-stage.

On July 21, 1944, with three regiments abreast, the "Fighting Third" landed on the western beaches of Guam, near Asan Point. For nearly three weeks the Marines pounded the enemy and, at tunes, the enemy pounded back. On August 10, 1942, the island was declared "secured." The division remained on Guam, mopping up.

During the middle of February 1945, the Third Division prepared for the Iwo Jima landing. It was to be a Marine amphibious operation all the way. The Third, Fourth and Fifth Marine Divisions participated in the battle, supported by the Fleet.

The toll was heavy; 17,372 Marines were wounded; 5,931 were killed.

The Third Division was "in reserve" and remained afloat initially. The 21st Marines landed on February 21st. The remaining units (less the Third Marines in floating reserve) landed on February 24, and the following morning attacked in the assigned zone, between the Fourth and Fifth Marine Divisions.

The terrain was ideal for defense.

The enemy was well organized and determined. The Marines faced pill-boxes, caves and covered artillery emplacements.

Progress was slow; casualties high. But the Fighting Third moved in, securing their zone on March 11. Then they began intensive patrolling and mopping up operations.

On March 16, units of the Third relieved elements of the Fifth Marine Division and delivered the final attack of the Iwo Jima operation against Kitano Point.

Iwo Jima was declared secure, and on April 4, the Fighting Third was relieved by Army units.

The Third Marine Division returned to Guam and began preparing for the next operation...an amphibious landing on the island of Kyushu, Japan. The division, along with the Second and Fifth, was assigned to V Amphibious Corps for the operation.

Japan surrendered. Operation "Olympic" was canceled. The Third Marine Division remained on Guam until it was deactivated on December 28, 1945.

The division was reactivated in January 1952 at Camp Pendleton. It immediately became a division in motion, with intensive combat training based on lessons learned in the Korean War. During 1952, elements of the division participated in many exercises and training problems, including vertical envelopment with the helicopter.

By the end of 1952, the division consisted of the Third, Fourth and Ninth Marines, an artillery regiment (12th Marines) and all divisional support elements.

The bulk of the division arrived in Japan to support the First Marine Division in Korea during August 1953. It remained in Japan until early 1956, when it redeployed to Okinawa. The Fourth Marines (with supporting elements) became a part of the First Brigade in Hawaii.

Forward elements of the division made an amphibious landing at (Red Beach) Danang, Vietnam, on March 6, 1965. During early April, division units were heli-lifted to Hue/Phu Bai to assume defense, of the area.

When the Viet Cong attacked the Danang Air Base in July, the Fighting Third was called upon to extend their defenses. Additional units were brought in from Okinawa, and elements landed at Qui Nhon.

During the Vietnam fighting, the division conducted numerous major operations, including Hastings, Prairie, and the battles on and around Hills 881 and 861.

The Third Marine Division remained in Vietnam to aid in the evacuation of Americans, Vietnamese and Cambodians and to participate in the successful retrieval of the SS Mayaguez and crew.

The Fighting Third.... There's a quotation which applies to the "Third Herd," and to those Marines who served in the Pacific or who may join in the future:

"...it is the courage of the Marines that turns the scale most decisively in favor of victory."

The quote was made by Polybius, who was never fortunate enough to have been a member of the "Third Herd." Polybius wrote the words as a historian, referring to Roman Marines.

That was in 150 B. C.

Or was he writing about the Third Marine Division in 1976?