Marine Corps Basing and Deployment Patterns



Marine Corps basing and deployment patterns began to evolve in the years after the conclusion of World War II. As the Marine Corps attempted to modify the Fleet Marine Force (FMF) for operations in the nuclear age, the Corps began a decade long struggle to save the FMF and, in affect, its own existence.

 The Marine Corps had peaked in strength in 1945 at nearly half a million men in six divisions and five aircraft wings. The postwar Corps shrank to fit federal budgets rather than adjust realistically to fit the contingency needs of the Cold War era. Available manpower fell to 83,000 men in 1948 and dropped to just over 74,000 by the spring of 1950. About 50,000 men were assigned to the operating forces, but the FMF had only about 30,000 men in the two skeletal divisions and aircraft wings. Fewer than 12,000 Marines comprised FMFPac which included the 1st Division at Camp Pendleton and the 1st Marine Aircraft Wing (MAW) at El Toro, California. On the East Coast, the 2d Division at Camp Lejeune and the 2d MAW at Cherry Point, making up FMFLant, numbered just under 16,000 Marines. At the outbreak of the Korean War, no Marine unit of any size was based or deployed in the Far East.

The Corps’ supporting establishment was so small and its tasks for maintaining Marine Corps bases so extensive that many FMF troops spent more time housekeeping than training. The Marine Corps share of the federal budget was simply not enough to buy adequate manpower, training, or new equipment. The main threat to the nation was seen in inflation and unbalanced budgets rather than in the Soviet armed forces. On the eve of the Korean War, the FMF seemed doomed to fall to six battalion landing teams and twelve squadrons in 1950.

The realities of the Korean War brought major changes in the basing and deployment of Marine Corps forces. The Corps strength ballooned to 192,000 men in June 1951, to 232,000 a year later and nearly 250,000 by June 1953. More than half the troops actually served in the operating forces, and the 1st Marine Division and 1st MAW, operationally employed in Korea, were kept up to strength. In the meantime, the 2d Marine Division and 2d MAW reached full strength for their European contingencies. In June 1951 Headquarters activated the 3d Marine Brigade, built around the 3d Marines at Camp Pendleton. In 1952 the brigade expanded to become the 3d Marine Division, and the same year the 3d MAW formed and occupied a new base in Miami. In another important reorganization, Headquarters in 1951 formed an organization known as Force Troops in order to provide the heavy artillery and other combat support and combat service support units necessary to sustain a Marine division in a land war.

 The three-division/three-wing force structure decreed by the June 1952 passage of the Douglas-Mansfield Act, gave legislative support to the stated roles and missions of the Corps. The defense assumptions and programs of the Eisenhower Administration, however, left the Marine Corps role, and the corresponding basing and deployment strategy, less clearly defined. The emphasis on strategic forces over conventional forces, coupled with domestic economic implications of high defense costs and unbalanced federal budgets, challenged Marine Corps leaders of this period.

During the years 1953 to 1955, significant changes in the basing and deployment of Marine forces were realized. The 3d Marine Division deployed from Camp Pendleton to the Far East in the summer of 1953. Based in Japan, the Division followed regimental landings in Japan and Okinawa with a full-dress division landing exercise on Iwo Jima in March 1954. Significantly, the division began redeploying from Japan to Okinawa in 1955 and by February 1956 the Headquarters of the 3d Marine Division was moved to Okinawa where its remains today. Teamed with the 3d Division, the bulk of the 1st Marine Aircraft Wing, in Japan with headquarters at Atsugi, provided the air portion of a ready U.S. expeditionary force in the Far East.

The 1st Marine Division, meanwhile, which had been in Korea since the summer of 1950, was returned to Camp Pendleton in 1955. The 3d MAW during the same period moved from the East to the West Coast to support Pacific deployments.

In 1954, the 1st Provisional Marine Air-Ground Task Force, built around a reinforced infantry regiment and a reinforced air group, was established at Hawaii in response to strategic requirements in the Pacific Theater. One reinforced regiment of the 3d Marine Division, together with elements of the 1st Marine Aircraft Wing were shifted from the Far East to Oahu to build the task force, later called the 1st Marine Brigade, to desired strength.

On the other side of the world, the commitment of a Marine battalion landing team to the Sixth Fleet in the Mediterranean, which began in 1948, continued except for brief periods in 1950-51 and 1955. During the Korean War, this practice was briefly interrupted due to wartime needs and during 1955 a reduction in amphibious shipping forced the termination of the rotating assignment for nearly a year. The deployment to the Sixth Fleet was designed to give the fleet commander a ready landing force in an area left unstable in the aftermath of World War II.

Events in the Far East from 1955 on likewise pointed out the need for a ready battalion of Marines afloat with the fleet, and from 1960 on, the 3d Marine Division maintained such a floating battalion under Commander Seventh Fleet.

The period from 1956-1960 witnessed the Corps’ continuing development of a permanent base structure to support its force in readiness mission as well as the procurement of supplies and equipment for a wide range of contingencies. Bases were developed stateside for cold-weather training at Pickel Meadows, and for desert warfare and supporting arms training at Twentynine Palms, both in California. Budget cuts and resulting reduced end strengths, however, became formidable obstacles to meeting desired manning levels for FMF units. The reductions resulted in all three divisions being placed on reduced manning levels in 1957 and total Marine Corps strength fell below 200,000. Commandant of the Marine Corps Annual Reports for the years 1957 through 1960 reflect the reduced manning levels throughout the FMF, stating of the Divisions and Wings, “their capability for sustained combat has been seriously diminished.” Reserve training also suffered during this period due to lack of funding.

By 1960, Marine Corps strength had fallen to 170,000 – down 30,000 in just three years. Over the same period the Marine Corps “green dollar” budget dropped from an already austere $942 million in FY1958 to $902 million in FY1961. Certain elements of the FMF had to be placed in cadre status. Perhaps just as damaging to the Corps’ readiness posture was the low priority given in the “blue dollar” budget to the construction of amphibious shipping and particularly helicopter-carrying ships, which threatened the development of the vertical assault mission.

To improve readiness in the Pacific, a system was implemented to rotate infantry battalions between the 3d and 1st Divisions. Beginning in 1959, the “transplacement” program had battalions forming and training in the 1st Division, then deploying to Okinawa for fifteen months’ service as a cohesive unit. The 2d Division began a similar program in 1960 which aided personnel stability and continuity, but as in the Pacific, it meant that several battalions could not be easily deployed in a crisis.

Nevertheless, in 1960 the Marine Corps began a five-year surge in its readiness that brought it to its highest level of peacetime effectiveness by the eve of the Vietnam War. The results of the Presidential election of 1960, coupled with internal redirection in the Corps, combined to form the highly favorable conditions for the Marine Corps to consolidate its amphibious force in readiness mission. The “Flexible Response” strategy of the new administration was ideally suited to the Marine Corps -- stressing conventional force improvements in manpower, equipment modernization, and strategic mobility. Marine Corps budgets grew, as did the strength ceilings, and just as significantly, improvements were realized in obtaining amphibious shipping. During this period, as well, Headquarters enhanced the readiness of the Reserve with the formation of the 4th Marine Division and 4th Marine Aircraft Wing in the Marine Corps Organized Reserve.

The combination of increased amphibious exercises and contingency deployments kept the tactical units of the FMF busy during the early 1960s. The size of the possible Marine role in Europe grew as Headquarters aimed at a larger role in NATO. In 1964 II MEF conducted Operation Steel Pike I, an amphibious exercise in Spanish waters that exceeded all earlier exercises in both the size of the Marine force deployed and the distance covered. An amphibious force of 60 ships carried 22,000 Marines and over 5,000 vehicles to the amphibious objective area.

While FMF Atlantic forces were being exercized in Europe, the Caribbean, and Africa, FMF Pacific units trained throughout the Far East, Hawaii, and California. In 1964 there were 45 landing exercises worldwide, and by the beginning of the major U.S. involvement in Vietnam, in 1965, the FMF, both regular and Reserve, was as effective a force as the Corps had ever fielded in peacetime.

The Vietnam War proved to be the ultimate test of the Corps’ basing and deployment decisions of the 1950s and early 1960s. From the March 1965 landing of Marine ground troops as Da Nang until the departure of the last large Marine units in June 1971, the war impacted drastically on all Marine forces within and outside the III Marine Amphibious Force. Peak Marine strength in Vietnam was reached in 1968 when more than 85,000 Marines were in Vietnam out of a Marine Corps numbering just over 300,000.

By 1972 the Marine Corps was once again down to 200,000 men and post-Vietnam redeployments had returned the Corps to the same basing and deployment patterns that had been in effect from 1960 to 1965. The 3d Marine Division was back on Okinawa and the 1st Marine Brigade had been reconstituted in Hawaii. The 1st Marine Division was back in Camp Pendleton and the 3d MAW remained at El Toro. On the East Coast, the 2d Marine Division and 2d MAW remained in North Carolina.

As it moved into the 1970s, the Marine Corps once again faced close scrutiny of its missions, force structure, and personnel policies. The Marine Corps continued to emphasize global strategic flexibility and reemphasized the Corps’ amphibious mission, developing the concept of “sea-basing,” which aimed at greatly increasing sea-borne logistic support. At the same time, FMF Atlantic launched its first time NATO exercise outside the Mediterranean when a Marine Amphibious Unit (MAU) conducted maneuvers in Norway and northern Germany in 1975. These exercises, which became annual and expanded to brigade size, and their underlying mission of preparing to assist in the defense of NATO’s Northern flank, represented the Marine Corps single most significant change in deployment patterns until the end of the decade.

The revolution in Iran, the seizure of the U.S. Embassy and hostages there, and the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan in 1979 gave impetus to a Department of Defense plan to improve U.S. non-NATO military capability. The Rapid Deployment Force was created in response to the realization of the range of contingencies short of general war that faced the United States. In particular, the CONUS-based joint task force, with designated forces from all four services, was created with responsibility for operational planning, training, and exercises for designated rapid deployment forces worldwide with the initial focus on Southwest Asia and the Indian Ocean. The new force widened the FMF’s force in readiness role without compromising its amphibious mission.

The Maritime Pre-Positioning Ships (MPS) Program was instituted in late 1979 with the goal of providing three Marine amphibious brigades ready for airlift to potential crisis areas where they would unite previously positioned ships carrying their equipment and supplies. The MPS concept gave the Marine Corps and the U.S. a significant new dimension in mobility, sustainability, and the global response.

Marine Corps basing and deployment patterns throughout the post-World War II period, reflected the Corps’ commitment to developing the Fleet Marine Force as the nation’s amphibious force-in-readiness. The roots of the Marine Corps’ basing and deployment strategy lay in the years during and immediately after the Korean War when Marine amphibious forces established and then refined the deployment strategies that would be the cornerstone of the FMF for the next three decades. Although challenged by differing perceptions of the roles and missions of the Marine Corps in the nuclear age, and by periodic reductions in strength and funding levels, the Corps’ commitment to readiness remained steadfast. After World War II, and again in the aftermath of the Korean War and the Vietnam War, domestic economic concerns over high defense costs and unbalanced budgets threatened the ability of the Marine Corps to deploy combat-ready forces to those regions of the world where U.S. forces were needed. Nonetheless, prevailing strategic and operational commitments along with the Corps’ resolve to carry out its mandated mission resulted in the basing and deployment patterns that served the Marine Corps and the Nation so well throughout the second half of the 20th century.


Reference Branch
USMC History Division