Marine Defense Battalions

Photograph of Marine Defense Battalion embarked on an LST

U.S. Marine Corps #71623

A Marine Defense Battalion was a formation specialized for holding islands or other valuable coastal points.  Since this role did not require tactical mobility, a Marine Defense Battalion was equipped with large numbers of heavy weapons:  12 90mm AA guns, 30 0.30 machine guns for beach defense, 16 to 30 0.50 machine guns for antiaircraft use, and 6 to 8 5"-7" (127mm-178mm) coastal defense guns with searchlights. However, rifle companies were attached to some of the Defense Battalions to provide a maneuver force. Most of the battalions were equipped with radar (SCR-270 or SCR-602) as sets became available.

The first few Marine Defense Battalions were organized in late 1939, when the isolationist American public were reluctant to support "offensive" units. They were deployed on the small islands guarding the approaches to Hawaii, including Johnston, Palmyra, Wake, and Midway1 Marine Defense Battalion at Wake turned back the first Japanese landing attempt in spite of being understrength, with the help of air support from Marine Wildcats.  This was the only major amphibious assault by either side in the Pacific War that failed to get ashore. 3 Marine Defense Battalion protected the beaches within the Guadalcanal perimeter, but did little more than fend off infiltrators, since the main Japanese counterlandings were all away from the perimeter and unopposed.

As the war progressed and the Allies gained the ascendancy, it became clear that the static defensive role of Marine Defense Battalions was better filled by garrison troops rather than elite infantry.  The likelihood of Japanese counterlandings against defended points was also vanishingly small.  These highly trained battalions were therefore converted to antiaircraft battalions and their rifle companies disbanded to provide cadre for 4 Marine Division.


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