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The Chieftain's Hatch: Marines via Australia

Anzac Day is a day of solemn commemoration in Australia and New Zealand. The last time I touched upon this was two years ago, with a bit of background, and then an overview of one of the feats of arms of the Australian forces: The Defense of Tobruk.

Those of you who have seen the miniseries The Pacific might remember an episode set in Melbourne. Australia's role wasn't just to send manpower and equipment to fight for the Crown. The country had a similar role in the South Pacific as the UK did in Europe: A bulwark to hold on the edge of the theater, a staging and training area for future operations, and a place for some R&R.

Some time ago, Ken Estes sent me an article for the Hatch: the reminiscings of Marine officer Rollo Hall. Rollo's writings do not focus on Australia per se -- they are his view of the war as a whole and of the development of the Marine Corps tank force, but the amount of words he wrote about his time in Australia is indicative of just how important the country was to the prosecution of the war for the US, both in practical terms for combat training, as well as the morale effect of cameraderie with allies. This should give something of a holistic view of the general environment. So, I hand the keyboard over to the late Rowland Hall.

A Marine Corps Pioneer Tanker

Rowland L. Hall to Ken Estes, 2001

[As part of his continuing research, Ken Estes asked Lt. Col. Rowland Hall (1916-2004) to discuss how things went for the 1st Tank Battalion, from its formation up to early 1944. One of our earliest USMC tankers, and our oldest living tank battalion commander in 2001, he was born on June 24 1916 in Grand Rapids, MI. He majored in Economics at Dartmouth College and lived out his last years in Northfield, IL. Rowl enlisted in the USMCR on April 18, 1938 at Hanover, NH (Dartmouth). He trained that summer and the next one in the Platoon Leaders Class at Quantico, where he took his commission in the USMCR on Feb. 6 1940. He was on active duty beginning Apr. 1 1940 for the 2nd Reserve Officers Course, Quantico. He then joined H/2/5, 1st Marine Brigade, FMF. Transferred to 1st Tank Co. at Quantico on Sept. 30 1940, he served with that pioneering tank unit and its successors at the 1st Tank Battalion until March 19 1944.

CO, Co. B: Nov. 1 1942
CO, Co. C: Jan. 1 '42
Bn. S-3: 1 Feb. '43
Bn. Exec.: Nov. 1 '43-Feb. 14 '44.

Hall rotated back to the States on Mar. 19 '44 and joined the Tank Training Bn. at Jacques Farm (later moved to Camp Pendleton) as Bn. Exec. and CO through March '45.

He relieved Holly Evans in command of 3rd Tank Bn. on May 4 and ran it until Sept. 23 '45, supervising the change to the new M4A3s and preparing for the invasion of Japan. Rowland left active duty as Lt. Col., USMCR on Jan. 26 '46, resigning his reserve commission on Jan. 1 '50.]

Early Days on the Atlantic Coast

In September 1941, while I was on detached duty, the skeleton elements of the 1st Marine Division's were reunited at a recently-activated facility near Jacksonville, NC known as Marine Barracks, New River (now Camp Lejeune). What was designated as Co. A, 1st Tank Bn. was actually just a single company commanded by Maj. Charles G. Meints, USMC which I had joined a year earlier as the 1st Tank Co. in Quantico. I was the Platoon Leader of its 1st Platoon.

Above: In September 1940, the 1st Tank Company operated its 10 Marmon-Herrington CTL-3A tankettes, one seen here on maneuvers with the LVT-1 Alligator. At the same time, it received its first deliveries of the M2A4 light tank, eventually equipping the successor Company A, 1st Tank Battalion. Below: Tank T-11 (the first M2A4 delivered to the USMC) practices unloading from a landing craft on a relatively calm day on the Atlantic beaches of New River Barracks. (USMC)

The facility, then still under construction, was known as Tent Camp, located south of Jacksonville. While there were semi-permanent mess halls, heads and showers, and a few sort-of warehouse buildings, the officers and men were under canvas with wooden decks.

Officers of B Company 1st Tank Battalion, New River NC, November 1941: Company commander, 2nd. Lt. R.L. Hall, second from left, wearing the US prewar tanker helmet. Soon, Hall took command of C Company. (USMC)

When I returned to the Company HQ, it was crawling with nearly a dozen new 2nd Lt.s, none of whom I knew. Maj. Meints told me that he had received orders to activate a Hdq. Co. and B Tank Co. He would become Bn. CO. Capt. Harvey Walseth, his Co. Exec. would take over A Co., and I, a 2nd Lt., would organize and command B Co. After the Major took a few people to staff Hdq. Co., Walseth and I would "chose up sides," each of us ending up with half of the original A Co. My Company Officers were all new: 2nd Lt.s, Leonard D. Reid, Edward G. Roff. and Warren N. Martin. My 1st Sgt. was H. F. Robinson, recently promoted in the 5th Marines. While not a tanker, he was my "strong right arm" when it came to putting together my new outfit. Early in October, my 18 new tanks began to arrive by rail right off the assembly line from American Car & Foundry's facility at Berwyck, PA. They were M-3s, an improved version of the M2A4s we had in A Co., a bit more armor, trailing idlers to accommodate the extra weight, and somewhat improved vision devices. They were powered with the same W-670 radial gas engines.

M3 light tanks newly issued to B Company, November 1941 (USMC)

Company 1st Sgt. H R Robinson of Company B 1st Tk Bn. in November 1941. (USMC)

Our tank park and training area was a couple of miles south of Tent Camp. It appeared to have been a cotton farm. The rather dilapidated farm house was pressed into service for maintenance and security personnel. The sole remaining residents of the farm were dozens of rattlesnakes. It was a bit daunting to have them slithering around, but those that survived the tank treads soon moved out.

I don't recall any particular activation ceremony for the battalion on Nov. 1, as we started driver training as rapidly as our new tanks were placed in service. At that time, it was the practice to split things up. That is to say, a tank company would be assigned to a regiment and its platoons to the infantry battalions.

This was quite unsatisfactory, since the tank platoon leaders were brand-new in their jobs and the tanks themselves were poorly suited to infantry cooperation. We had no radios for tank-to-tank communication, nor did we have transmuted phones. The thing that bothered me most was that in my company of 18 tanks, only I and three of my NCOs had ever fired a single round of 37mm or machine gun from a tank! Mine was two rounds of 37mm and about 25 rounds from the coax machine gun, and that was a year earlier down at Gitmo. I do recall one bit of joint training when a college classmate who was with the Engineers and I successfully ferried one of my tanks across a narrow inlet on a rubber pontoon raft from his outfit.

Barely five weeks after the activation of my company came a blur of events. First of all, Capt. Francis "Red" Cooper, USMC, recently returned from sea duty, joined the 1st Tank Bn. And as of Jan. 1 '42, 2nd Lt. Rowland L. Hall, USMCR was bumped out of his first command after exactly two months. But guess what -- on that date, that same 2nd Lt. USMCR was given the job of organizing and commanding Co. C, 1st Tank Bn.! I kept that one a lot longer.

Hall's new Company C received a mix of tanks, including this M3 flattop powered by the Guiberson radial diesel engine. The longer intake tube running from the intake filter canister to the engine compartment is virtually the only identification factor for the diesels, which only the USMC took overseas in light and medium tanks. Note the barely scratched-out army registry number on the hull side. (USMC)

Some 60 years later, on Nov. 15 2001, I had the most unique experience of meeting the present CO of Co. B, 1st Tank Bn., his officers and men, and taking their salute. I am unable to recall a more emotional or nostalgic moment in all of my 85 years. They were such a fine body of Marines, trim and proud. We were perhaps not quite as trim, maybe a bit raggedy, certainly not as skilled, but we were proud and we were the very first of a long line!

Reassembly from Guadalcanal to Australia

In early December, 1942, the Battalion looked something like this:

Lt. Col. Charles G. "Griff" Meints commanded the battalion at Lower Hutt, Wellington, NZ along with Hdq. Co. under Master Gunner Theodore Sundhausen, D Co., Capt. Donald J. Robinson, and 1st Scout Co., under Capt. Thomas J. O'Mahoney. At Guadalcanal were Co. A, Maj. Harvey Walseth, and Co. B., Capt. Francis Cooper. At Noumea, New Caledonia was Co. C, Capt. R. L. Hall.

By mid-month, all of the units were at Camp Cable, a few miles west of Brisbane, Australia. I believe it had been used earlier by the Army 32nd Division and had rudimentary facilities for Hdq. buildings, galleys, etc. As I recall, personnel lived in tents. Almost as soon as we arrived, it started to rain and seemed to never quit. The soil was such that it quickly became a quagmire and water ran everywhere. I recall one of my M-3 light tanks bogging down before it moved a couple of lengths.

I don't think in my six years of active service I ever saw Marine units come so close to falling apart. It was like one big binge. One might excuse the people from A and B Cos., but certainly not the NZ contingent. My company had been an "orphan" for nine months and I, frankly, was looking forward to getting back to "family." Was I in for a surprise! Griff Meints couldn't have cared less. The only thing he seemed interested in was continuing the party that started back in July in Wellington. He promptly set up his command post at a beach resort and we rarely saw him.

Lt. Col. Charles G. Meints [r] leads MajGen William Rupertus, now commanding 1st Marine Division, past newly issued M5A1 light tanks. (USMC)

Obviously, Camp Cable was not the place for a bunch of battle-weary malarial Marines. Early in January, 1943, the Division was loaded aboard the large, fast transport that had formerly been the SS America [USS West Point] of the United States Line, which made a mercifully quick trip to Melbourne where the climate was much more suitable than semi-tropic Brisbane. The Tank Bn., along with the Special Weapons Bn. and the 11th Marines, went to Ballarat, a nice little town of 40,000 (peacetime) about 40 miles west of Melbourne. We were billeted in Victoria Park on the west edge of town. An electric trolley line passed the main gate and went about two miles to the center of the town. The citizens took the Marines into their homes and hearts (and not infrequently into their bedrooms, since their mates were off fighting Rommel in the desert). In the evening it was a rare sight to see a Marine on the streets. They were all in the homes.

For about a month, R&R was the order of the day but on a very orderly basis. Many of the 'canal veterans were rotated Stateside, including Wally Walseth, who went to HQMC. and never came out again [He took command of 4th Tk Bn. after Iwo, but it never went into action again --Ed.]. Red Cooper took over an Amtrac Bn.

M3 Scout Cars of the 1st Scout Company, 1st Marine Division offload at Camp New River. These M3s and the CTL-3A tankettes of former 1st Tank Company never went to combat with 1st Marine Division and the prewar notions of mechanized operations faded fast in the South Pacific. By 1943, all the T and SC numbers for tanks and scout cars had been replaced by uniform USMC registration numbers in the 6000 and 5000 ranges, respectively. (USMC)

The Scout Co. was spun off to division control and dismounted, and D Co. was disbanded when the new T/O called for only three tank companies. Its former CO (and my sidekick from the 2nd ROC back in 1940) took over as CO of A Co., soon slated to get medium tanks. Wellington commando Ed Roff took over B Co., and Ed "Boomer" Fowler relieved me as CO of my beloved C Co. I became S-3. The S-2 was John Heath, a former gunnery sgt. from A Co. commissioned on Guadalcanal. While he and I were quite unalike in personality and background, we soon found we had common aims and motivation. We were both of the belief that there were lessons to be learned from Guadalcanal on how NOT to use tanks. Since Griff Meints, true to form, didn't seem to have any interest along these line, John and I had a field day and Griff seemed perfectly content to let us run things. Maybe it was more of a compliment than we realized.

Capt. Don Robinson, CO of A Company, tries out the newly delivered M4A1 medium, the only use of this model tank in the USMC. (USMC)

I guess it was around March when we finally settled down to some serious training. Although we knew we were to get a company of M4A1 mediums and two companies of M5A1 lights, we went ahead with our training using the M3 lights. Replacement personnel began to arrive in large numbers, many from a strange place known as "Jacques Farm." Word had filtered down that we would be re-equipping with a company of M4A1 medium tanks and two of M5A1 lights. Somewhere around this time, D Co. was disbanded and the Scout Co. became Div. Troops, minus their White scout cars, which were surveyed. M-1 rifles were issued to replace the '03 Springfields and officers got M-1 carbines to replace their pistols. Everyone got checked out on their new weapons on an Aussie militia rifle range near Ballarat.

Snapshot of 1st Tank Bn. training on 8Jul43 at the Mornington Peninsula Maneuver area. The army-inspired white stars soon disappeared from USMC tanks. (USMC)

John Heath and I spent quite a bit of time looking for a suitable site for tank gunnery firing, and finally found one down by the coast near Torquay about 40 miles south of Ballarat. We got in some good shooting and succeeded in setting off a grass fire that burned off several square miles of grazing land. Fortunately the locals knew how to deal with such things and were able to contain it. Reportedly, Uncle Sam had to pay a hefty sum for burnt fenceposts and the like.

The Aussies had an armored force school at a place called Puckapunyal north of Melbourne. While most of their troops were in the Middle East, there remained a small group there with some M-3 mediums that had 75mm guns. We sent a group from A Co. up there to learn how to shoot them. The differences between the M-3 and the M4A1 tanks were so vast that the value of this training was minimal.

As you know, the 1st Marine Division had been loaned to MacArthur for one more operation. In retrospect, I would say he got the short end of the stick. Part of the deal was that he would have to re-equip the Division and this involved everything from mess kits to tanks. This is why we got M4A1s instead of the M4A2s used by the Marine Corps. As I recall, it was May, 1943, when we got the new tanks. A civilian technical rep from Cadillac was most helpful in teaching our mechanics the ins and outs of the engines and the hydromatic transmissions on the M5A1s. For the life of me, I can't recall any similiar support from Pacific Car and Foundry, who built the M4A1s.

The other units with us were the 11th Marines and the Special Weapons Bn. We messed with the latter and got to know them quite well. I particularly remember Ray Davis the CO, Jack Leonard his Exec., and Cleve Hundley MC-USN, his medical officer. They were a cut above the average and I enjoyed their company. An amusing side note on Cleve: My younger brother had been a Navy fighter pilot in WW-II. Shortly after the war he was badly injured in a private plane crash down on Martha's Vineyard. Raymond Spruance, a classmate of our uncle's at USNA '07, was in command at the Naval War College and arranged for a Navy hospital plane to pick up my brother and fly him to a Boston hospital. My father accompanied the flight and conversed with the three-striper Navy doctor in charge of the detail. It turned out to be Cleve!

M3A1 light tanks on parade, Ballarat. (USMC)

I was attending the Aussie Armored Force school up at Pucka and missed the famous 4th of July 1943 parade there in Ballarat. As I heard, the 18 M4A1s with their steel tracks roared in column down the main street each executing a 90-degree right turn by the movie theater at the bottom of a small grade. It only took the first two or three to completely remove the thin layer of blacktop that served as pavement, and by the time #18 made its turn there were ruts four feet deep and a high wall of paving and gravel where each had made its pivot!

From the moment we arrived in their country until we left, these people were simply wonderful to us. I believe that the population was barely 7,000,000 souls. They were fiercely loyal to the Crown, and at the same time they were the most independent individuals I have ever met. Their war went back to September, 1939, and they had suffered heavily in the Mediterranean, the Western Desert, and at Singapore. They could expect no help from England, so the US were their saviors and they made no bones about it. They took us into their homes and again, not infrequently into their beds. The one thing that bugged most of us was the attitude and behavior of their labor unions. At the ports we could not lay a hand on our specialized equipment, and as a result they ruined nearly half of our wheeled vehicles. They broached cargoes of badly needed supplies and when we made an issue of it, they struck the ports. The coal miners went on strike so that the railroads were reduced to burning green logs in their locomotive fireboxes. Outside Ballarat it was a common sight to see a train stopped partway up a grade while they built up another head of steam.

The Cape Gloucester Landings

Meanwhile, it was time to get on with the war. MacArthur's people up in Brisbane were working on the plans for the New Britain operation. Some of our top young talent like Don Fuller, Bob Bowen, and Freddie Wiesman were assigned to the CINC' staff. A call came from 6th Army staff that they wanted a tank officer for a few days to consult on some details. Guess who went? Not Griff, the CO, not Reid Fawell, the Exec, but Rollo Hall, the Bn-3. The main thing I recall coming out of the conference was that I recommended that we not accept the offer for a newly arrived Army Tank Destroyer company of M-10s with long three-inch guns. With their light armor, open-top turrets, and no integral machine guns, I thought they would be out of their element in the jungle. My recommendation was accepted. In the operation our M4A1s were able to handle things OK.

M4A1 tanks of A Company 1st Tank Battalion unload at Cape Gloucester. The white stars have disappeared, with simple consecutive tactical vehicle numbers placed at each turret corner. (USMC)

When the Battalion went back up north, I think everyone was ready to go. We had no sooner gotten to Goodenough Island when Reid Fawell made Lt. Col. and was sent stateside. Although junior to Robbie Robinson who had A Co., I was given the additional job as Bn. Exec.

After major Japanese resistance in the Cape Gloucester area had dwindled, the Marines kept pressure on them by a series of aggressive patrols to the east to cut them off from their base at Rabaul. By early March 1944, they had reached Iboki Plantation some 60 miles east of Cape Gloucester, from whence they were to leapfrog to the Williamez Peninsula, another 60 miles. No naval support was available, so all we had was a bunch of Army LCMs and a few LCTs.

The going was tough for the M4A1s at Cape Gloucester, but tank support overmatched the Japanese defenders and enabled the seizure of the western end of New Britain Island. (USMC)

I got talking to Bill Buse, who I knew from his command of the 1st Scout Company back in 1940-41, now Exec. of the 5th Marines. I was Exec. of the 1st Tank Bn., and for this operation was in command of a composite group of four M4A1 mediums and five M5A1 light tanks. What if we fired the 75mm gun from one of the former while in an LCM? I agreed to give it a try. I guess we had forgotten our high school physics since we were going to fire a 35-pound projectile from a gun mounted on a 35-ton tank!

The only noticeable effect was like a big "thunk" transmitted up through the soles of our feet. The next morning during the landing, I think each tank got off only a couple of rounds on the beach before they were masked by the landing troops. I always wished we could have done more with this. I tried to work out something when I came back to the US and was CO at the Jacques' Farm tank school, but it fell on deaf ears.

The other time was in the same operation and it involved only the light tanks. Since the trail across the peninsula to Talasea was too muddy we embarked five of them in LCMs and went out around it.

A prewar example of a diesel light tank in a landing craft off the coast of North Carolina. The old Bureau of Ships tank lighter had an even higher bow ramp and scuttles than the LCM-3 Higgins type craft used from 1942 onward. (USMC)

[Ken's Note: This may well be the beginning of the official USMC requirement that Navy landing craft be capable of permitting the firing of tank armament. The USMC Armor Policy Board made this official in 1949 and the LCMs and LCUs built afterward all permitted this. The LCAC of today doesn't do this, maybe because we never again used this feature in combat! ]

Indirect tank fire in the USMC also had its beginnings at Cape Gloucester. Griff Meints decreed soon after the landing that I would oversee tank operations to the east and Robbie [Donald J.] Robinson would take everything to the west. That meant mine went all the way to Rabaul and Robbie had about 10 miles to the Cape. Around the end of January, 1943 we sent three mediums down to Natamo Point to support a small operation there. Patrols were pushing eastward along the coast. Because of the many creeks and rivers that flowed into the Bismark Sea, the tanks had to go by LCMs.

We were sitting out on the point watching a fairly large movement of troops in the East River/Natamo River area. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a spout of water go up in the bay about three qurrters of a mile east of the troop activity. In less than a minute there was another, about half the distance to the beach from the last one. It was obviously an artillery piece ranging on the troop site. The next thing I saw was a flash in the jungle near Alaido Point, three miles across the Bay. This round fell in the water just off the beach. Not taking my eyes from the area where I had seen the flash (I was on the deck of one of the tanks behind the turret), I yelled to the commander to man his gun and traverse left until I told him to stop and to load WP. I don't recall what I gave him in the way of elevation. The round he fired was good in deflection, but quite a bit short. (The range was well beyond the sight reticules of the gun.) I told the other two tanks to load HE and watch for the WP fall as we walked it up and into the jungle. I didn't notice how many more rounds the Japanese got off but we fired only two or three shots before the 155mm Long Toms back at Silimati Point opened up (they had a forward observer team up in the area). Later a patrol came across an abandoned Japanese 70mm howitzer in the area we had shelled.

Detached From 1st Tank Battalion

A few months later, when I was back at Jacques Farm tank school, I was discussing the incident with an artillery buddy and how much time the tanks and their 75mms just sat around. A battalion of mediums had roughly the same number of tubes as an artillery regiment. He gave me a manual that told about surveying in a battery and stuff like that. The tanks already had azimuth indicators and clinometers, and I located a firing table for the 75mm. With his help we were able to do all of the things the artillery people do. but we never got to do an indirect fire problem.

Once out on Guam as CO of the 3rd Tank Bn., I got together with Col. Earnshaw, CO of the 12th Marines (Artillery), to enlist his support in teaching my people the art of indirect fire. He was lukewarm to the idea but agreed to send some of his people over to work with us. We finally did one shoot but the flat trajectory of the 75 was a handicap.

It was July, 1945 when Division asked if I wanted new M4A3s with 105mm howitzers. The idea was intriguing. I liked the Ford engine, the horizontal volute suspension and 23" track, and the bigger gun. On the other hand I considered the lack of the power turret and stabilizer to be over-riding faults as well as the lack of time to re-train personnel in the new tanks and indirect fire so we turned down the offer. We were, first of all, a tank battalion.

[Ken's Note: The first 105mm armed M4A3s indeed came without turret baskets and power traverse, and the CG FMFPAC recalled the first 68 of them, promising only powered and stabilized versions would reach the troops, as they did later in 1945]


Nicholas Moran (The_Chieftain) is the Military Specalist at Wargaming America.

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