The 'Old Breed' Girds for Battle

By Colonel Joseph H. Alexander, U.S. Marine Corps (Retired)

John Basilone, Robert Leckie, and Eugene Sledge, the principal characters in HBO's World War II miniseries The Pacific , all served in the 1st Marine Division. In the 10-part series, executive producers Tom Hanks, Steven Spielberg, and Gary Goetzman artfully weave the personal experiences of these men into the Old Breed's Pacific war combat history, which consists of the battles of Guadalcanal, Cape Gloucester, Peleliu, and Okinawa.

The 1st Marine Division earned its spurs in these island campaigns, mixing salty nonchalance with a gritty esprit de corps that would challenge subsequent Leathernecks to toe the mark. The Old Breed was the first division-sized, integrated amphibious striking force in the U.S. military, and in 1942 only 18 months after its lowly birth the division spearheaded the United States' first major offensive in the Pacific, enduring the forces of hell to defeat the Japanese in the battle for Guadalcanal.

The 1st Marine Division's battle streamers currently include nine separate Presidential Unit Citations, beginning with Guadalcanal and continuing through to the "march up" to Baghdad in 2003. It was fitting that Major General Holland M. "Howlin' Mad" Smith, the outspoken amphibious warfare pioneer, became the division's first commanding general. Smith's fiery insistence on training his men in the complex details of seaborne embarkation and assault eventually bore fruit in combat. The division's first four Presidential Unit Citations reflected the successful execution of extremely difficult landings at Guadalcanal, Peleliu, Okinawa, and Inchon within a period of six years.

Yet in 1941 little was newsworthy about the Marine Corps activating its first division-sized units. The U.S. Army had fielded temporary divisions throughout the 19th century and established its first permanent division, the 1st Infantry Division, in 1917. A typical Army division in World War II comprised about 15,000 Soldiers and consisted of three infantry regiments, an artillery regiment, and other supporting arms and service units.

Such large organizations were unsuited for the U.S. Marine Corps in the first 166 years of its service preceding World War II. With the notable exception of forming two brigades for combat in France during World War I, the early Leathernecks most often fought as lightly armed expeditionary troops in improvised battalions or regiments. As late as 1939 senior Marines feared their role in the gathering martial storm might be limited to providing defense battalions for backwater islands.

Then, as war against the Japanese grew more likely, the Marines' naval roots, inclination for close combat, and growing proficiency in seaborne landings made the small, nautical Corps a logical source for amphibious storm troops to seize key Pacific islands. Anticipating such a new mission in the mid-1930s, the Marines created the first permanent combined-arms landing force, the Fleet Marine Force (FMF), and with encouragement from the Navy, introduced a revolutionary new doctrine for waging amphibious assaults from the sea against fortified positions ashore. The initiatives provided an early opportunity to increase the power projection of the U.S. Fleet, but the threadbare, overcommitted sea services of the late 1930s could rarely find the time to develop the new capability.

Navy war plans in 1941 specified two "amphibious divisions" for active defense of the sea frontiers and future opportune landings, but none existed. The U.S. Army faced its own urgent requirements to staff and equip scores of infantry, armored, airborne, mountain, and cavalry divisions for a global war. Perhaps by default, the Department of the Navy on 1 February 1941 authorized the establishment of two Marine divisions for amphibious missions.

On that date, the men of the 1st Marine Brigade, an FMF unit built around the 5th Marine Regiment, were crammed into every nook and cranny of the USS Texas (BB-35) as the 30-year-old battleship steamed across the Caribbean from Guantanamo Bay toward a practice landing at Culebra, Puerto Rico. The men reacted with skepticism to the announcement that they now comprised the 1st Marine Division, quickly discerning that no additional troops or ships accompanied the designation.

As it turned out, even their bragging rights as the first-ever division in the Corps were diminished by the same-day activation of the California-based 2d Division, the former 2d Marine Brigade (derisively called the "Hollywood Marines" by their blue-collar East Coast counterparts). Only the difference in time zones allowed the 1st Marine Division to claim seniority over its rival. The new "plank owners" quickly solidified their claim by unfurling the nickname the Old Breed, a deliberate expropriation of John W. Thomason's description of the greybeards among the Marines he went to France with in 1917: "They were the Leathernecks, the Old Timers. . . . the old breed of American regular, regarding the service as home and war as an occupation."

The Old Breed remained a division in name only for months. Amoebic growth took place. The 5th Marines split to provide a cadre to form the 7th Marines. Both regiments split again to form the 1st Marines. The situation improved with the arrival of the division's own artillery regiment, the 11th Marines, but manpower remained in short supply until war came to America. At the time of the 7 December 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the 1st Marine Division numbered fewer than 7,500 men, smaller than the 4th Marine Brigade in France in 1918.

Pearl Harbor opened the floodgates of volunteers for all the services. The Old Breed welcomed its newest members while simultaneously trying to fend off demands from headquarters to forfeit troops for elite new units raider, parachute, and glider battalions. A greater "amputation" occurred on 21 March 1942, when Marine headquarters detached the 7th Marines for immediate deployment to Samoa in the face of a Japanese threat forming in the Coral Sea. This was a significant loss in the division's front-rank leadership. The 7th Marines contained a sizeable core of veteran NCOs and such proven jungle fighters as Lieutenant Colonels Lewis "Chesty" Puller and Herman Hanneken. The Old Breed had taken pride in its expectation to be "the first to fight" the Japanese. Giving up one of its best regiments to compete for that same distinction rankled. As it turned out, the 7th Marines would rejoin the division on Guadalcanal.

Training intensified when General Vandegrift, a 55-year-old Virginian with 33 years' experience, took command of the 1st Marine Division on 23 March. Sailing orders soon arrived. The division was heading to New Zealand, reportedly for six months of advanced amphibious training before entering combat in the South Pacific. Morale immediately soared, and after the forward echelon arrived in Wellington, it rose even higher. Japanese advances in the southern Solomon Islands demanded the quick intervention of the 1st Marine Division without benefit of its final training. The Old Breed would become first to fight after all.

Headquarters swiftly replaced the Samoa-bound 7th Marines with the 2d Marines, a regiment extracted under protest from the 2d Marine Division. Concerned about his ability to hold and defend a large island indefinitely, Vandegrift requested further augmentation by the 3d Marine Defense Battalion from Pearl Harbor and the 1st Marine Raider Battalion from New Caledonia. These last-minute reinforcements enabled the Old Breed to sortie for Guadalcanal in late July 1942 with nearly a full complement of 19,000 officers and men, including an organic naval component of several hundred surgeons, corpsmen, dentists, and chaplains.

By any measure this was an unusually large division, even one created to wage long-range amphibious warfare. Its order of battle reflected the addition of such uniquely amphibious units as an amphibian tractor battalion with 100 tracked landing vehicles (LVTs), a naval construction battalion (Seabees), and a pioneer battalion (beachhead cargo handlers and stevedores). Subsequent revisions to the tables of organization and equipment during World War II would result from lessons learned in the early landings, adding flame-throwing tanks, an armored amphibian tractor battalion, and reconnaissance and joint assault signal companies.

In late July 1942, however, as the division's far-flung components struggled to embark their combat cargo aboard the 22 small ships of the South Pacific Amphibious Force, a decade's worth of theoretical equipment tables collided with a stark operational reality. With only five cargo vessels available among the flotilla of transports, the Marines very quickly ran out of cargo space. Vandegrift had to choose which minimum levels of firepower, tactical mobility, engineering, and sustainability he could take and still accomplish his mission and which he would have to leave behind indefinitely. One draconian decision deleted the artillery regiment's lone 155-mm howitzer battalion from the campaign. The 11th Marines would fight the Japanese over the next four months with a single battalion of 105-mm howitzers and three light battalions of 75-mm pack howitzers, veterans of mule-borne expeditions in the 1920s "Banana Wars."

The 1st Marine Division and the South Pacific Amphibious Force steamed into the Solomons without benefit of joint training except for an unhappy rehearsal landing in Fiji en route from New Zealand. In light of this collective inexperience and the meager assortment of "amphibious" ships hastily converted liners and tramp steamers taken from the commercial trade one might wonder why the expedition did not suffer the same fate as the Allied landing disaster at Gallipoli in 1915.

Yet the urgent embarkation and accelerated sortie paid huge dividends. The novice task force caught the Japanese garrison by surprise, and the Marines quickly seized Guadalcanal's valuable airfield, holding it against all counterattacks over the ensuing four months. Guadalcanal proved to be one of the Pacific war's major turning points. While the ultimate victory required the joint effort of Allied Marines, Soldiers, Sailors, and Airmen, it clearly represented the 1st Marine Division's finest hour in World War II.

After recovering in Australia (where the Marines adopted "Waltzing Matilda" as their marching song), the Old Breed helped defeat a series of Imperial Japanese Army forces in the protracted amphibious campaigns of Cape Gloucester and Talasea, Peleliu and Ngesebus, and Okinawa. Seizure of Cape Gloucester isolated Rabaul and protected General Douglas MacArthur's advance up the New Guinea coast. The Peleliu campaign bottled up large Japanese forces in the western Carolines and protected MacArthur's invasion of the Philippines. Victory at Okinawa positioned major Allied forces within 350 miles of the Japanese Home Islands.

The Old Breed paid a stiff price. More than 4,500 Marines and 150 organic Navy (mainly hospital corpsmen) died in combat during the four campaigns. Other Marine divisions suffered more casualties, made more landings, or received more media coverage, especially in comparing the highly publicized Tarawa and Iwo Jima operations with the 1st Marine Division's obscure fighting on Cape Gloucester and Peleliu. But the Old Breed was the first to cross the line of departure against a Japanese shore, and it did so with the least preparation, lightest weapons, poorest intelligence, and most uncertain prospects of victory than any subsequent division-level assault.

General Vandegrift, who would eventually become the 18th Commandant of the Marine Corps, earned the Medal of Honor for leading the Old Breed during Guadalcanal. In 1949 he saluted the veterans of that campaign, stating: "I shall always consider command of the 1st Marine Division as one of the highest honors that could come to a professional fighting man. Never has a group of Marines given fuller meaning to the words ' Semper Fidelis' and ' First to Fight.'"


See the full Naval Institute guide to The Pacific.


Col. Joseph H. Alexander, USMC served in the Corps for 29 years as an assault amphibian officer. He has written six books, including Utmost Savagery and Edson’s Raiders. He was the Naval Institute Author of the Year in 1996 and Naval History Author of the Year in 2010. He was the principal historian and writer on the exhibit design team throughout the construction of the National Museum of the Marine Corps. He lived in Asheville, North Carolina. Col. Alexander passed away on 28 September 2014. He was 76 years old.

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