Departure from Guadalcanal brought the 1st Marine Division to General Douglas MacArthur's Southwest Pacific Area. Initially the exhausted division was routed to Brisbane, Australia. "Don't call it a camp," railed one battalion commander. "Just say we were dispersed in a swamp." General Vandegrift dispatched staff officers forthwith to scout for a better location. They found the ideal tonic for the division: Melbourne, located in cool, mosquito-free southeastern Australia. When the transport West Point (AP-23) delivered the division there on 12 January 1943, the Melbourne population embraced the Marines in a tumultuous reception.
The Melbourne Interlude
Following the battle at Guadalcanal, General Vandegrift sent scouts to find a place where the 1st Marine Division could go to recover and unwind, and further their training and preparedness.
By Richard B. Frank
In the first weeks, malaria laid low as many as 7,000 men. While that was the greatest scourge, the bodies of most men further served as involuntary playgrounds for a host of other jungle diseases. Bone-deep weariness and weight loss also figured prominently in the division's ills. It took weeks of rest in the salubrious climate as well as infusions of suppressive drugs to tame malaria and the other afflictions that had wrecked the division's combat readiness.
For the majority of the Marines, still extremely youthful by age but now matured beyond their years in experience, Guadalcanal radically dimmed out memories of their recent past. With its wide and lighted streets, trolleys, cars, bars, hotels, houses, and above all warm and exuberant population that greeted them as the "saviors of Australia," beautiful Melbourne presented an idealized version of life without war. The locals literally opened their houses to provide anyone who desired his own home with family life instead of a billet. Most Marines also entertained aspirations for companionship beyond domestic tranquility. They found the Australian girls alluring, and romances flourished. "There were many engagements and a few marriages," deadpanned the division historian.
One of Melbourne's distinctions when the Marines arrived was the scarcity of other servicemen. That changed when the fabled 9th Australian Division, veterans of the battles of Tobruk and El Alamein in North Africa, staged through Melbourne en route to further combat on New Guinea. After a number of pub brawls, the Leathernecks staged a joint beer party that brought peace for its time between the members of the two hard-fighting units.
Training for the 1st Marine Division's next operation began as early as 18 January but initially moved at a very modest pace. The highlight of the first phase was acquainting the Leathernecks with the M-1 rifle. Despite much nostalgia for the M1903 Springfield, the M-1 offered much-superior firepower. Between March and May, training progressed to small-unit tactics and then landing exercises. An Army team that inspected the division in August 1943 concluded that it "is well equipped, has a high morale, a splendid spirit and approximately 75% of its personnel have had combat experience. The average age of its enlisted personnel is well below that in Army Divisions." The report further observed the division's key leadership officers from company level up and the vital NCOs were overwhelmingly combat savvy.
The division shipped out of Melbourne in stages between August and October 1943. There is one unmistakably true measure of what Melbourne meant to the division. For a year after departure, the 1st Marine Division postmaster noted more outgoing mail went to Melbourne than to the United States. Some relationships between Marines and their hosts would endure a lifetime.