On to Corregidor —Part I

“The Government of the United States has decided to withdraw the American Marine detachments now maintained ashore in China, at Peiping, Tientsin, and Shanghai. It is reported that the withdrawal will begin shortly.”

—Franklin D. Roosevelt, 14 November 1941

It was thus that the 4th Marine Regiment concluded its fifteen-year duty assignment in Shanghai —and it came as the dark clouds of war began to close in on the old China hands. The United States and Empire of Japan edged resolutely toward hostilities. Everyone felt it. At this time, the 4th Marine Regiment consisted of only two small battalions of less than 1,000 Marines and U. S. Navy attachments. Should war finally come, the regiment would be in a dangerous position. On this basis alone, the regimental commander, Colonel Sam L. Howard, recommended to Admiral Thomas Hart, Commander of the Asiatic Fleet, that the regiment be evacuated. Over several months, Colonel Howard had diverted a number of Marine replacements to a provisional battalion at the U. S. Navy Yard, Cavite, Philippine Islands. He was not authorized to do this; he simply did it because he was in command —he made a command decision.

4th Marines Departing 001Colonel Howard received his order to evacuate China on 10 November 1941 … the Marine Corps 166th Birthday. On 27 November, Lieutenant Colonel Donald Curtis’ 2nd Battalion made its way to the SS President Madison[1] via the lighter Merry Moller, which sailed down the Whangpoo, past Soochow Creek, where the Marines boarded for a destination not yet revealed to them. On the following day, Colonel Howard led the regimental staff and the 1st Battalion, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Beecher, marched smartly through Shanghai toward the SS President Harrison, waiting for them at port. The Harrison made way after 1400 and, once at sea, Admiral Hart ordered the 4th Marines to land at Olongapo (Subic Bay) Navy Yard. The second battalion came ashore on 30 November, the rest of the regiment on the next day. Admiral Hart ordered Howard to get his Marines into the field without delay. Admiral Hart later explained, “We realized these Marines had been cooped up in Shanghai for years where conditions for any sort of field training were very poor; not much time remained.”

The 1st and 2nd Battalions of the 4th Marines began training immediately; the provisional battalion, designated as 1st Separate Marine Battalion and commanded by Lieutenant Colonel John P. Adams, organized as both a defense and infantry battalion with only 700 Marines.

Colonel Howard reported to Admiral Hart in Manila on 3 December 1941. Hart placed the Marines under the command of Rear Admiral Francis W. Rockwell commanding the 15th Naval District. His mission: protect the naval stations on the island of Luzon, primarily Olongapo and the Naval Section at Mariveles. But Howard was given a more important mission: get his Marines ready for field operations. Hart told Howard, war with Japan was imminent. How imminent? Colonel Howard informed his staff, “… only a matter of days, if not hours.” Following a meeting with Admiral Rockwell, Colonel Howard deployed his forces and implemented a training program. Senior Naval and Marine Corps officers were informed of the attack at Pearl Harbor at 0257 hours, 8 December, Philippine Islands time. At this moment, Colonel Howard knew that some of his Marines would never see their families again.

Continued next week


[1] SS President Madison was constructed in 1921 by the New York Shipbuilding Company and served with the American President Lines until April 1942, when the ship was acquired for use as a troop transport ship, renamed USS Kenmore (AP-62). The ship was renamed USS Refuge (AH-11) in 1944.