The 12th Defense Battalion of World War II
Thanks to the
Internet, I've been able to do some research that has
revealed details about my dad's experiences during World War
II. Dad was a proud Marine--a veteran of war who suffered and
survived the bitter fighting in the South Pacific for nearly three
years. As you read this account, please take note of
the sacrifices these men made for our freedom. When they
weren't engaged in intense battles, they lived in pup tents; when aboard the
ships, they were often seasick; in the jungles, they fought tropical
diseases; otherwise, they fought boredom, and there weren't even any
nearby towns where they could spend a weekend furlough.
I have tried to present the information chronologically.
My sources include my personal interviews with Dad, as well as
Internet articles and photographs. My Internet sources are listed at the
bottom, where you can read more details.
From Enlistment to Woodlark Island
My dad, Clarence O. Weber, enlisted in the Marine Corps on August 8th,
1942. He left immediately for Boot Camp, traveling by train to San Diego,
CA. In January, 1943, Colonel William H. Harrison activated the 12th
Defense Battalion ("the 12th"), and Dad was among the 1500 men in this
battalion. They left immediately for Hawaii, arriving on the
island of Oahu, and they spent three months in Hawaii, including some
time at Pearl Harbor. In May, 1943, they left Hawaii and
traveled to the Samoan Islands, then on to Australia, arriving at
Townsville. In June, 1943 they traveled to New Guinea, then
to Woodlark Island northeast of New Guinea.
Woodlark Island - First CombatIt was on Woodlark Island where Dad got his first taste of combat,
serving as a Director on a 90-millimeter anti-aircraft artillery crew.
The 12th Defense Battalion suffered heavy bombing from the Japanese as
they covered the occupation of Woodlark Island. They defended Army ground
units while Army engineers and Navy Sea Bees built an airfield in just 16
days. The airfield was completed on June 30th, 1943, and the
12th Defense Battalion protected it until the end of the year. The main purpose of the
Woodlark operation was to screen the landings on New Georgia in the
central Solomon Islands.
The Solomon Islands On November 1st, 1943, the U.S. offensive reached the northern
Solomon Islands, and the 3rd Marine Division landed at Bougainville.
The 3rd Defense Battalion followed the first waves ashore, having heavy
machine guns and light anti-aircraft guns ready for action by
nightfall. The battalion organized both anti-aircraft
defenses and beach defenses, taking advantage of the dual capabilities of the 90-mm gun to
destroy Japanese landing barges on the Laruma River. The
155-mm artillery group joined the 12th Defense Battalion Marines, the
3rd Marine Division's artillery regiment in shelling Japanese positions at Torokina. Some members of
the 12th Defense Battalion remained at Bougainville into 1944,
earning the dubious honor of being "the last Fleet Marine Force ground unit" to be
withdrawn from the Solomon Islands.
- Photo # 1: The photograph below was taken at the Solomon
Islands, and it shows the 90-millimeter anti-aircraft cannon along
with its five-man crew. As a Corporal, Dad served as Director
on one such crew, and it's not entirely impossible that he's even in this photo.
The 12th Defense Battalion supported the landing of the 1st Marine
Division in the assault on Cape Gloucester, New Britain, in December, 1943.
The lodgment on New Britain marked the end of the Rabaul campaign (and of
participation by major Marine Corps units in the
South Pacific), as the United States had decided to isolate
and bypass the fortress instead of storming it. Radar operator Victor C.
Bond, a member of the 12th Defense Battalion at Cape Gloucester, remembered
sitting on the exposed "plow seat" of an SCR-268, with 90-mm guns firing
nearby. "During an air raid," he said, "it was difficult to
tell if all the noise and smoke was due to the 90-mms or the enemy."
- Photo # 2: The photograph below was taken on New Britain
Island, and it shows the actual fire from the 12th Defense Battalion as the anti-aircraft artillery attacked
incoming Japanese planes. I once asked Dad if they ever hit any Japanese
planes, and he explained that there was so much fire in both directions, that
when Japanese planes fell, it was impossible to tell which artillery
hit it. From looking at this photo, it's easy to see what he meant.
- Photo # 3: The photograph below shows the 12th Defense Battalion aboard an
LST (Landing Ship, Tank) on the approach to storm the beaches at Cape
Gloucester, New Britain. Dad occasionally talked about these
LSTs, and it's not such a long shot that he could actually be in this
photo, which might include 100 to 200 Marines from the 12th Defense
On New Britain, the 12th Defense Battalion suffered most of its
casualties from typhus and other diseases, falling trees, and lightning. "There is no
jungle in the world worse than in southwestern New Britain,"
said a member of the 1st Marine Division. Malaria was prevalent in the
swamps and rain forest, and the effort to limit its
effects included the use of atabrine, a substitute for scarce quinine. This
remedy required hard selling by medical personnel and commanders to convince
dubious Marines to take a bitter-tasting medicine that was rumored to
turn skin yellow and make users sterile. In a light-hearted
moment, Second Lieutenant Gerald A. Waindel suggested adapting a slogan used to
sell coffee back in the United States: "Atabrine--Good to the last drop."
- Photo # 4: The photograph below shows a Marine finding an
uncomfortable place to rest. This could also be Dad in this
photo. This lifestyle must have been maddening. One
day you're scared to death and in a battle for your life and the lives of
your fellow Marines; the next day you're bored, with no towns to visit;
the next day you board a ship for three months, and you find yourself
vomiting over the side most of the time.
The 12th Defense Battalion moved back to New Guinea, where they spent
Christmas of 1943. While the Central Pacific campaign moved through the
Gilberts, Marshalls, and Marianas, the 1st Marine Division prepared to
seize Peleliu in the Palau Islands to protect MacArthur's flank as he
re-entered the Philippines. The division landed on September
15th, 1944, triggering a bloody battle that tied down most of the
division until mid-October. Army troops didn't defeat the
last organized Japanese resistance until the end of November.
Lieutenant Colonel Merlyn D. Holmes assumed command of the 12th Defense
Battalion in February 1944, and on June 15th, the 12th Defense Battalion was re-designated as the
12th Anti-aircraft Artillery Battalion. It moved to the Russell
Islands in June, 1944, and in July, 1944 it moved to Guadalcanal, and then to Bonika Island.
In September, 1944, the 12th Defense Battalion moved to Peleliu, where
they endured some of the most heated fighting of World War
II. During the bitter fighting on Peleliu, the 12th Defense Battalion
supported the 1st Marine division while it fought to conquer the island. The
infantry of the 1st Marine Division and others, and the anti-aircraft
defense of the 12th Defense Battalion combined to provide a slow but
decisive victory for the U.S. Peleliu has been described as "the most heavily
fortified ground, square yard by square yard, Marines have ever
assaulted." The Marine anti-aircraft gunners at Peleliu dug
in on what was described as "an abrupt spine of jagged ridges and cliffs -
jutting dragon-tooth crags, bare and black, where Marine
infantrymen fought maniacal Japs."
It was this victory by the Marines at Peleliu that
enabled General Douglas MacArthur to be able to keep his promise of
returning to the nearby Philippine Islands.
As the fury of the fighting abated, the 7th Battalion transferred personnel and equipment to the 12th Defense
Battalion, which (according to logistics officer, Harry M. Parke) received newer
material and "men with less time overseas," who would not become
eligible to return home when the units began preparing for the invasion of Japan.
By the end of 1944, with Peleliu and the Marianas firmly in American
hands, 74,474 Marines and sailors served in island garrisons and base
defense forces. As the defense battalion program focused on
antiaircraft weapons, defense units--most of them by now re-designated
as anti-aircraft artillery outfits--served in the Southwest Pacific,
including battalions stationed at Guadalcanal (the 3d and 4th with III
Amphibious Corps), and the Russell Islands (the 12th Defense Battalion
with III Amphibious Corps). In the early part of
1945, the 12th Defense Battalion moved from Peleliu to Okinawa, and then on to Guam.
MacArthur advanced from the Southwest Pacific through the
Philippines, and Nimitz's controlled the Central Pacific. The
goal of these two campaigns was the ultimate invasion of the Japanese
Home islands. As the Marines continued bitter fighting at Iwo Jima and Okinawa in the early part of
1945, Japanese air attacks attained unprecedented savagery in the
waters off Okinawa. Japan's Special Attack Corps pressed home
the suicidal kamikaze attacks first employed in the Philippines.
(They engaged much like the original Kamikaze, or divine
wind, of the 16th century, that successfully scattered a Mongol
invasion fleet.) Hoping to save Japan, the suicide pilots
deliberately dived into American ships,
with the hope of trading one life for hundreds. Japan also
used other vehicles for suicide attack, including piloted bombs, manned torpedoes, and explosive-laden
motorboats. However, even these desperate measures could not
prevail, and the United States seized the essential base at Okinawa for the planned invasion of Japan.
In mid-1945, the 12th Defense Battalion returned to Pearl Harbor in
Hawaii, and then set out for the U.S. Mainland, thinking that they were returning to
the U.S. only for a short rest and a well-deserved furlough.
It was during this leg of their journey that Marines on Tinian in the Marianas
witnessed the takeoff on 6 August 1945 of the B-29 Enola Gay, which
dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Three days later,
another B-29 also from Tinian's North Field, dropped a second atomic bomb on Nagasaki.
Japan found itself facing many insurmountable challenges, including:
the shock of the atomic weapons; the entry of the
Soviet Union into the war in the Pacific; the cumulative effects of
attrition throughout the vast Pacific; months of conventional bombing
of the Home Islands; and, an ever-tightening submarine blockade.
The formal cessation of hostilities finally ended on August 15th, 1945,
when the Empire of Japan formally surrendered to General MacArthur aboard the
USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay. Members of the 8th Anti-aircraft Artillery
Battalion on Okinawa tracked the last air attack of the war--a
raid that turned back short of the target when the Japanese
The gloomy outlook during the early days in the South
Pacific had been encapsulated in the slogan, "Golden Gate in
'48"--suggesting that the fighting might continue until 1948.
However, this suddenly gave way to a new slogan, "Home Alive
in '45." The actual homecoming would be delayed, however, for
those Marines scheduled for occupation duty in Japan or North China.
However, the 12th Defense Battalion Marines returned to San Diego on
August 20, 1945, after 31 months overseas. Dad soon traveled by train to the
state of Virginia, where he received his Honorable Discharge from the United
States Marine Corps on November 27, 1945, at age 24, after 39 months of
faithful service to his country as a veteran of war.
- Photos # 5 and # 6: The photographs below show eleven
survivors of the 12th Defense Battalion at their 56th reunion in
2009. Their reunion took place aboard the ship that was named
after the bloodiest battle that they were a part of--The
Peleliu. Dad attended several of these reunions during the late 80s and early
90s, and it is likely that he knew some of these 11 men during the
Caption: "ELEVEN MARINE WORLD WAR II VETERANS WERE
JOINED TODAY BY FRIENDS, FAMILY, SAILORS, AND MARINES TO HONOR THEIR
VALOR AND COURAGE DURING THE INFAMOUS AND BLOODY BATTLE OF PELELIU.
FOR THE VETERANS OF THE 12 DEFENSE BATTALION, THEIR 56TH
ANNUAL REUNION TOOK PLACE ABOARD THE SHIP NAMED AFTER THE FIERCE BATTLE THEY
WERE A PART OF. THE VETERANS WERE HONORED WITH A CEREMONY
DETAILING THEIR SERVICE DURING WORLD WAR II, AND SPECIFICALLY THE
BATTLE OF PELELIU. (OFFICIAL USMC PHOTOGRAPH BY LCPL GABRIEL
VELASQUEZ. 15TH MEU PAO)"
Caption: "SAN DIEGO (August 15, 2009) Eleven World War II
veterans of the Battle of Peleliu reunite for a ceremony in the hangar
bay of the battleship's namesake, the Tarawa-class amphibious assault
ship USS Peleliu (LHA 5) in San Diego. Members of the 12th
Defense Battalion held their 56th reunion aboard the ship with more
than 400 friends, family members, Sailors and Marines in attendance.
(U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communications Specialist 2nd Class Leonard J. Mandap/Released)"
Tributes to the Defense Battalions
In 1944, Master Technical Sergeant Alvin M. Josephy, Jr., a Marine
combat correspondent wrote, "... since the beginning of the war many
of the men ... had seen action in units smaller than divisions--in
defense and raider battalions and other special commands.
These Marines had been fighting for a long time."
Leatherneck, a Marine magazine, noted in September 1944 that the complete
story of each defense battalion would not be told until the war was won. Because of
the crucial part they played, "much information about them ... must be withheld,
but there are no American
troops with longer combat records in this war."
Defense battalions deployed early and often in distant and dangerous
places throughout the Pacific campaigns. They were so far away from civilization that they
could not even benefit from post-battle furloughs because there was no
place to go for rest. The
Marines of the defense battalions endured isolation, sickness, monotonous food, and primitive living conditions
for long periods, as they engaged in the onerous task of protecting
advance bases in areas that hardly resembled tropical paradises.
Throughout their existence, the defense battalions demonstrated a fundamental
lesson of the Pacific War--the need for teamwork. As one Marine Corps
officer pointed out, the Marine Corps portion of the
victorious American team was "itself the embodiment of unification." The Corps had
"molded itself into the team concept without the slightest difficulty
... Marine tank men, artillery men, and anti-aircraft gunners of the
defense battalions, interested
only in doing a good job, gave equal support to ... [the] Army and Navy ..."
The role of the defense battalions in the Pacific was defined by their
relationships with other combat units, because they functioned as a
part of a combined effort at sea, in the air, and on the ground.
Finally, especially after the transition to anti-aircraft
artillery battalions, the units tended to perform base-defense or
garrison duty under the Fleet Marine Force, Pacific. The shift of the
defense battalions from fighting front to backwater of the war
reflected the changing strategic reality of the war in the Pacific--not
an arbitrary decision to de-emphasize their role. Some of the Marines in these units
may have felt that the
spotlight of publicity passed them by and focused on the assault
troops, even though anti-aircraft gunners and even artillery men
sometimes accompanied the early waves to an embattled beachhead.
However, the apportionment of press coverage stemmed from the composition of the
Marine Corps and the nature of the fighting. For the worst
moments, such as at Peleliu, the conditions were simply too chaotic and
dangerous to include any press correspondents.
Because the defense battalions were able to train and serve as
independent organizations, they became the logical choice for the first
African-American units formed by the Marines. Segregation
prevailed in the Corps throughout World War II, just as it did
in the rest of the armed forces, as well as in the homeland.
However, the creation of the 51st and 52d Defense Battalions set a precedent for breaking with
racist practices, as they became a milestone toward integration.
Colonel Robert D. Heinl, Jr., a Marine historian had helped to
shape the concept of the defense battalions. He described their
members as a "hard-worked
and frustrated species." He felt that the defense battalions
represented the culmination of Marine Corps philosophy which could trace its
evolutionary course back to the turn of the century. At times, the
weapons, radars, and communications equipment in the battalions represented the
cutting edge of wartime technology. Also, the skill with
which they were used paid tribute to the training and discipline of those
Marines. Charles A. Holmes, a veteran of the defense
battalions at Wake Island, said that anyone could serve somewhere in a
division or aircraft wing, but "it was an honor to
have served in a special unit of the U.S. Marines."
Defense battalion war diaries, muster rolls, and the unit files held by
the Marine Corps Historical Center provide the basis for brief accounts
of the service of the various defense battalions. The actions
of some units are well-documented: for example, the 1st Defense Battalion
on Wake Island in 1941; the 6th at Midway in 1942; and the 9th in the
Central Solomon Islands during 1943. However, few of the battalions
received group recognition commensurate with their contributions to
victory. Each defense battalion created its own
distinctive record as it moved from one island to another, but gaps and discrepancies persist nevertheless.
I believe that this last tribute above holds special significance. These men made huge sacrifices while receiving
little recognition, neither during the war nor after they came home, and this reminds me of Matthew
6:1-4: "Be careful not to do your acts of righteousness before
men, to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward
from your Father in heaven. So, when you give to the needy, do not
announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and
on the streets, to be honored by men. I tell you the truth,
they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the
needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so
that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees
what is done in secret, will reward you."
Although we've taken their efforts and sacrifices for granted, I
believe that Dad and the other believers of the men of the 12th Defense Battalion will
receive their just rewards at the Judgment Seat of Christ.
- Personal interviews with Clarence O. Weber
- Official Website of the United States Marine Corps
- ibiblio Website - Condition Red: Marine Defense Battalions in WW II
- 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit Photo Gallery Website
- The Veteran's Hour Website