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Marines In The Early Days Of World War II
by U.S. Marine Corps Laurie Pearson, Logistics Base Barstow
December 27, 2019

U.S. Marine Corps logoIn the days leading up to the Imperial Japanese Navy Air Service’s attack on what is now called Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickham, Honolulu, Hawaii, Marine Corps leadership was actively moving Marines from China to the Philippine Islands with growing concerns over a potential attack.

"The Government of the United States has decided to withdraw the American Marine detachments now maintained ashore in China, at Peiping, Tientsin, and Shanghai. It is reported that the withdrawal will begin shortly." President Franklin D. Roosevelt Press Conference, November 14, 1941

As tensions rose, this announcement by President Roosevelt formally ended nearly 15 years of service by the 4th Marine Regiment in Shanghai. “One could sense the tenseness in the air,” Lt. Col. Curtis T. Beecher remembered. “There was a general feeling of uneasiness and uncertainty in the air.”

The active-duty regiment was comprised of two battalions, with nearly 800 Marines and Navy personnel. With close proximity to Japan, concerns arose that they were in danger of a potential attack if peace talks failed.

Early that year, in September 1941, Marine Corps Col. Samuel L. Howard, Commanding Officer, 4th Marines, already recommended to Navy Admiral Thomas Hart, Commander-in-Chief, Asiatic Fleet, that Howard's regiment be evacuated from its longtime duty station in Shanghai. While waiting for the gears of bureaucracy to move forward with evacuation orders, Hart took action. He had no official Laurie Pearson, Logistics Base Barstowization yet to evacuate, so as Marines finished their duty in Shanghai and left for their next duty station, Hart simply refused to replace those individuals in a position in Shanghai. Instead, he insisted that all replacement personnel be sent to the 1st Separate Marine Battalion in the Cavite Navy Yard, Philippine Islands.

“If we couldn't get all the Regiment out of China, we could at least stop sending any more Marines there until somebody bawled us out most vociferously. They never did," Hart stated.

Then on November 10, 1941, Col. Howard received the orders to prepare for the withdrawal of his regiment from Shanghai to the Philippines. The two ships traveled under heightened war conditions, landing at Olongapo Navy Yard. Personnel darkened the vessels at night, armed for a potential attack, and escorted by two American Naval submarines.

On November 30, 1941, the Madison arrived in Subic Bay, followed on December 1 by the Harrison. Under the orders of Admiral Hart, the regiment moved from ship to field as quickly as possible, without all of its heavy equipment.

"We all knew that they had been cooped up in Shanghai through all those years where conditions for any sort of field training were very poor — and we thought that not much time remained." – Admiral Hart

By December 4, Hart’s mission was clear. He was to prepare his Marines for mobile field operations. He also underscored the proximity to war with the Japanese. Howard informed his staff that Hart felt that war was only "a matter of days if not hours away."

Howard emphasized this certainty by stating that they would be at war with the Japanese within a week then telling Maj. Reginald H. "Bo" Ridgely that they would likely never see their families again. They continued training and making preparations on the Philippine islands.

December 7, 1941, at 7:55 a.m., a Japanese dive bomber descended over Oahu along with a swarm of 360 Japanese warplanes, attacking Pearl Harbor.

“YESTERDAY, December 7, 1941, a date which will live in infamy, the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan. The United States was at peace with that Nation and, at the solicitation of Japan, was still in conversation with its Government and its Emperor looking toward the maintenance of peace in the Pacific,” said President Franklin Roosevelt, December 8, 1941, as he requests Congress to declare war on Japan. “…The attack yesterday on the Hawaiian Islands has caused severe damage to American naval and military forces. I regret to tell you that very many American lives have been lost. In addition, American ships have been reported torpedoed on the high seas between San Francisco and Honolulu...”

Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima is an iconic photograph taken by Joe Rosenthal on February 23, 1945, which depicts six United States Marines raising a U.S. flag atop Mount Suribachi during the Battle of Iwo Jima in World War II.
Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima is an iconic photograph taken by Joe Rosenthal on February 23, 1945, which depicts six United States Marines raising a U.S. flag atop Mount Suribachi during the Battle of Iwo Jima in World War II.

Throughout December 7 and 8, Japan launched attacks against Malaya, Hong Kong, Guam, the Philippine Islands, Wake Island, and Midway Island. With that in mind, President Roosevelt insisted that Japan had undertaken surprise attacks throughout the Pacific area.

“…As Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy, I have directed that all measures be taken for our defense. But always will our whole Nation remember the character of the onslaught against us.” President Franklin Roosevelt

On December 8, at 2:57 a.m., the message of war arrived at the Asiatic Fleet Headquarters and instructions were sent to all ships and stations by 3:15 a.m. LtCol. Adams put the 1st Separate Marine Battalion on Condition One Alert. Their orders were that Japan started hostilities and they were to govern themselves accordingly. Maj. Frank P. Pyzick, an officer on duty December 8, rode in a motorcycle declared! War is declared!” Over the next several days the 4th Marines and 1st Separate Marine Battalion fine-tuned their defensive positions, unloaded barges of rations, ammunition and equipment, established secure positions in the surrounding jungle.

Just past noon on December 10, 54 Japanese aircraft, in three large V formations, approached Cavite, and dropped the first bombs on the area. Marines, sailors and civilians hid under what shelter they could find, as formal shelters were not yet built and available. The aircraft maintained an altitude of over 23,000 feet, which was well above the available resources. First, Lt. Willard B. Holdredge ordered the battery to fire anyway, knowing that the weapons rage was only 15,000 feet.

“We were left with a sense of fatality, which was renewed every time our eyes fell on the Yard across the bay… A toy pistol would have damaged their planes as much as we did.” -First Lt. Carter Simpson

The hospital received a direct hit by Japanese bombs, so a first aid station was set up in the library. Personnel set about extinguishing fires, rendering first aid, and transporting the deceased. Some made makeshift rafts to evacuate Marines, sailors and civilians from the Guadalupe Pier. They established camp approximately 15 miles away from the navy yard for safety, and set about the tasks of guarding fuel supplies, ammunition depots, and building portable kitchens to feed people as able.

On December 12, at approximately 10 a.m. Headquarters, 4th Marines were notified of another attack at Olongapo. Marines opened fire on the Japanese aircraft, but to no avail.

“They evidently were not impressed because they were very casual about their strafing runs.” Sgt. Pat Hitchcock.

Private First Class Thomas S. Allender was stationed on the water tower armed with a .30-caliber machine-gun and soon engaged the aircraft as they strafed the Navy Yard. "That god-damn plane was shooting at him. He'd run around to the other side of the tank and the guy would go by," recalled Master Technical Sergeant Ivan L. Buster, "and then the guy would come back and he'd run around to the other side of the tank again." Allender remained on the tower for the entire raid untouched, although the tank itself was riddled with machine-gun fire, "with water spraying everywhere." A Marine gunnery sergeant lay in a ditch on his back, firing his .45-caliber pistol at the aircraft on their strafing runs. When asked between attacks why he was firing at all, he responded, "This makes me feel better."

The onslaught continued, and the Japanese gained ground and began to crush American and Philippine resistance at Lingayen Gulf. General Douglas MacArthur, commanding officer of the United States Army Forces in the Far East, withdrew all American and Philippine forces to Bataan, where they would make a final stand, in conjunction with Manila Bay, where forces had been fortified. Those remaining in Cavite were moved to Mariveles.

As Marines, sailors and civilians were moved to various points, leadership decided to move the 4th, comprising of approximately 2,000 men, along with six months of rations, a two year supply of summer attire, medicine, ammunition, weapons and equipment to Corregidor. They were attacked again on December 29 at 11:40 a.m. by Japanese aircraft. Bombings continued for two hours, destroying or damaging the hospital, antiaircraft batteries, barracks, fuel depots, and the officers club. Casualties rose. Raids continued throughout January with Japanese dropping not only bombs, but propaganda leaflets as well, which were said to have amused the Marines.

Though lives were lost, and the war continued until 1945, these Marines of The 4th will forever be remembered for their bravery in the face of daunting odds. No matter the number of aircraft, elevation of flight, number of bombs, the Marines rallied together time and again, refusing to accept defeat. They took heed of President Roosevelt’s heartfelt plea to Congress and to the American people...

“No matter how long it may take us to overcome this premeditated invasion, the American people in their righteous might will win through to absolute victory.” President Franklin Roosevelt

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