The Marine Raiders were some of the best-known specialized units that fought in the Pacific during World War II. They, along with Army units such as Merrill’s Marauders, carved a name for themselves in a part of the world where the terrain and weather often proved as formidable as the Japanese. Despite the obstacles though, these men rose to prominence and their names are still mentioned today on the lips of historians.
Nevertheless, there was one other unit just as deserving of praise, and of which few ever heard. It was a group just as elite as those mentioned, and possessed the same toughness, courage, and fighting ability through some of the most notable campaigns of the war. Even so, time has largely forgotten them because they were never used as they should have been. In addition, many in authority felt at different times that they were simply not needed.
This unit was the Paramarines, or, United States Marine Paratroopers.
In pre-war America during 1940, calls went out for unmarried Marine volunteers for a specialized unit to be dropped from planes. From the start, it was made clear that they would not be similar to Army paratroopers; rather, they would be more of an elite unit for unique and risky tasks similar to what the United States Army Rangers would later perform in Europe.
With the promise of much better pay, more intensive training and a certain prestige, there was no shortage of volunteers. Once they formed up and begin training in New Jersey in October, it was immediately clear that they had signed up for a 16-week living hell of physical and mental hardship beyond what most could imagine.
In addition to jumping out of planes, they were worked and hounded beyond exhaustion, pushed beyond known human limits to be rewarded with even more. For this, 40% of the volunteers dropped from the course before completing it. Those who did manage to stand on the parade ground had wings pinned on their chests and became part of the 1st Marine Parachute Battalion. In December, the second group followed, with the third coming on line in February, 1941.
Moving ahead 18 months, once the U.S. began its long offensive in the Pacific, the Paramarines found themselves a part of the first actions, when the 1st Battalion was attached to the 1st Marine Division during the invasion of Guadalcanal, which began on August 7, 1942. That same day, the unit bloodied itself when it landed by boat to seize the nearby island of Gavutu, then aided other units in taking another island called Tanambango.
A few days later, the unit began fighting alongside the infantry on Guadalcanal as the campaign deteriorated into a slugfest. The Paramarines aided Colonel Merritt Edson in conducting a landing on the north shore of the island to raid the village of Tasimboko, where ammunition, medical and food stockpiles of the Japanese force were found.
More important was a treasure trove of documents that helped determine the size and positions of enemy forces. This windfall better prepared the marine force when they resisted a major Japanese push toward the island’s all-important airfield in a battle to hold Hill 123, later renamed Edson’s Ridge. Here, over two brutal nights from September 12-14, waves of Japanese were repulsed with the Paramarines joining the infantry in stopping the greatest threat the force would face in saving the island. When it was over, the Japanese had suffered over 1,300 killed and wounded, with Marines losing around 260.
The Paramarines continued the fight until the island was finally secured on February 8, 1943, and the Solomon’s campaign turned its focus on moving up the chain to the largest island, Bougainville. In October 1943, the 2nd Battalion conducted a diversionary raid on Choiseul Island, starting on October 28, 1943, which was intended to make the Japanese think it would be the main focus before any landing on Bougainville began. Over the next five days, the unit killed 143 Japanese and sank two barges, at a loss of 14 killed to witness the main landings commence on November 1, at Empress Bay, Bougainville.
An interesting side note – during the diversion, 50 Paramarines were ambushed on November 2, resulting in three wounded. They ended up being evacuated from Choiseul by PT-59, commanded by LTJG John F. Kennedy.
As the Bougainville invasion progressed, all three Battalions of Paramarines fought alongside each other for the first time, being attached to the 1st Marine Amphibious Corps. Always on the front lines, they suffered as much as their infantry brethren, but the elite nature of their training caused them to push on when others halted for rest.
Once again, the Paramarines were there when the end came, this time with the Japanese being beaten and finally isolated on a remote part of the island until the end of the war. The Paramarines could chalk up another major success on their short combat resume, something all were committed to making longer.
Yet, something was missing. As impressive as their record had been up to that point, the three battalions, who soon became known as the 1st Marine Parachute Regiment, knew they were being under-utilized and under-appreciated. Commanders longed for and requested the time when they would make their first combat jump and truly separate themselves from the infantry.
Sadly, it would never happen. There were not enough transport aircraft available and those coming off the assembly lines saw the Army getting the bulk of them, as their Airborne units were division-sized and had much bigger plans. The Paramarines, good as they were in concept, were destined to be disbanded along with their more famous brothers, the Raiders, on February 29, 1944 and incorporated into existing infantry divisions.
Though gone forever as a unit, the Paramarines legacy did live on in notable individuals. Sergeant Henry Hanson, a member of the first flag raising on Iwo Jima, once wore the wings, as did Corporal Harlon Block and Private First Class Ira Hayes, of the more famous second raising.
Of the 81 Medals of Honor awarded to Marines during the war, 5 were former Paramarines and all received it for actions on Iwo Jima. A fitting tribute for perhaps the most underrated American unit of the war.