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Send in the Marines

Send in the Marines

After the attack on the American fleet at Pearl Harbor, the Japanese military continued its relentless advance across the Pacific region for the next several months, which saw them capture Malaya, Singapore, Hong Kong and several other major targets. By the 9th of June 1942, they had taken the Philippines islands and dozens of other islands such as Tarawa, Saipan and Tinian. Not everything went their way, because six days earlier the Imperial Japanese Navy task force had been defeated by the US Navy at the Battle of Midway. The American victories at sea would prove instrumental in slowing down the Japanese and finally bringing a halt to the advance all together.

Island hopping

On the 7th of August, the US 1st Marine Division landed on the island of Guadalcanal, which the Japanese had occupied on the 6th of July 1942. It was the first of many more amphibious landings to come, in a strategy which would become known as ‘Island Hopping’, designed to isolate and capture Japanese garrisons across the region. The capture of each island would push the Japanese back and allow the Americans to advance towards the Japanese home islands of Honshu and Kyushu. Churchill and Roosevelt had agreed that the Pacific Theatre of Operations would be an American domain, leaving British forces to concentrate on land operations.

Spread out across many thousands of square miles, the campaign was only possible because of the enormous force that was the US Navy, which would transport all the troops, their weaponry and equipment, plus provide fire support during these landings. US Navy and Marine pilots flew from aircraft carriers to provide air support.

Commanding this huge theatre were General Douglas MacArthur (South-West Pacific Command) and Admiral Chester Nimitz (Central Pacific Command). The fighting would be conducted on land, at sea and in the air, involving regular army units, but it would be the US Marine Corps which would bear the brunt of the fighting.

As a subject, the Pacific campaign is of interest to military enthusiasts and historians who study it, while for collectors it offers an opportunity to acquire items of those units involved in the fighting, such as the different units of US Marines and the pilots. This leaves re-enactment groups to depict this unusual subject, some of which are supported by vehicle owners who mark their vehicles as serving in the theatre of operations. Millions of men and women were involved in the fighting, and moving the logistics required by each side to keep their forces supplied was a herculean task. Special units such as the American ‘SEABEES’ combat engineering battalions were created to build airfields and other essential support services.

Semper Fi

The US Marines were formed in 1798 and have served in all wars involving American forces, but it was during WWII that the regiment’s strength grew exponentially to six divisions, whilst aviation expanded from 10 squadrons in 1940 to 129 squadrons by 1945. The Corps sustained 18,000 killed and more than 70,000 wounded while fighting the tenacious Japanese garrisons on islands such as Iwo Jima and Okinawa. For example, during the six months of fighting on Guadalcanal, the Allies lost some 7,100 killed and nearly 7,800 men were wounded. This was out of a force of 60,000 men that landed on the island. The Japanese had 36,000 men deployed on Guadalcanal, of which they lost over 19,000 killed, with the remainder being evacuated by sea between the 4th and 7th of February 1943.

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The history of the Pacific Theatre is fascinating to learn about. Max Hasting’s epic book, ‘Nemesis’ and ‘Helmet for My Pillow’, written by Robert Leckie, are both well worth a read.


Collecting Japanese militaria has recently become more popular, largely because more is now available, and US Marine items have always been a favourite subject. At one time, only a few Japanese photographs were offered, but now a wide range of items, including medals and personal artefacts, are offered by traders at fairs and other shows. At the 2019 annual Tankfest, hosted by the Tank Museum at Bovington in Dorset, the star of the show was a fully restored Japanese Type 95 Ha-Go tank, which had everybody reaching for their camera.

The Wartime in the Vale Show, held at the Ashdown Camp near Evesham in Worcestershire (www.ashdowncamp.com), features a unique line-up of those vehicles used in the Pacific theatre by the SEABEEs, including ‘Wrecker’ recovery vehicles, bulldozers and even a DUKW. They are owned by Emma James, who organises the event, and they allow re-enactment groups depicting the USMC to expand on their displays.

A few years ago, an owner at this show displayed his Landing Vehicle Tracked, known as a ‘Buffalo’, as used in many of the Island Hopping operations. This presented an ideal photo opportunity using a Jeep draped with a Japanese flag and the LVT with a couple of re-enactors, who later posed using the vehicle’s weapons.


Iconic photographic images emerged from every theatre of operations, with the Pacific presenting more than its fair share. The raising of the flag on Mount Suribachi during the fighting on Iwo Jima was immortalised on camera and led to it being used as the inspiration for the US Marine War Memorial in Arlington. Another is the image showing a single Marine, fully equipped and running in action on Okinawa in May 1945. He has been identified as PFC Paul Ison of 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines of the 1st Marines Division. It takes very little persuasion to get a re-enactment group to recreate these scenes as closely as possible. They often have all the items necessary in their collection and plenty of willing volunteers to participate in the display.

Some re-enactors have been collecting items connected to the USMC for years, including weapons from shotguns to flamethrowers, which they exhibit at shows. Such a range of items allows tactics to be demonstrated by members showing how a foot patrol was conducted. Dogs were sometimes used by US Marines during the war, such as on Iwo Jima, and owners have included their animals in some of these recreated scenes.

Re-enactment groups depicting the USMC have recently been joined at shows by groups depicting Japanese soldiers, which gives a good balance of history. Sometimes Japanese nationals participate, wearing uniforms, carrying weapons and displaying national emblems, which look very authentic. They are completely at ease when asked to participate in recreating scenes of surrender, which involve handing over their swords.

The public responds well to seeing these unusual presentations and enjoys the opportunity to see items up close and ask questions. Museums have displays of Japanese artefacts from the war and books include illustrations, but to see the actual objects up close, even if they are replicas, makes all the difference in understanding them. Military enthusiasts of all interests, including modellers, welcome these displays of the Pacific theatre because of the unusual subject.