Jun 22

The Navy/Marine Corps Team Sails for Iceland, 22 June 1941

Wednesday, June 22, 2011 12:01 AM

By late spring 1941, with the war in Europe a year and a half old, Britain’s back was against the wall and Prime Minister Winston Churchill asked President Franklin D. Roosevelt to send American troops to Iceland to replace the British Garrison there.

Roosevelt agreed, and on 5 June directed the Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Harold R. Stark, to have a Marine brigade ready to sail in 15 days’ time.

The 6th Marine Regiment was diverted from joining the 1st Marine Division in the Caribbean, to Charleston to be the nucleus of the 1st Provisional Marine Brigade. The brigade was formed on 16 June, the day following the arrival of the 6th Marines in Charleston, and commanded by Brigadier General John Marston. Admiral Stark’s mission statement was simple and direct: In cooperation with the British garrison, defend Iceland against hostile attack.

Six days after the 16 June activation, the 4,095 Marines sailed on 22 June for the North Atlantic. Added to the convoy at Charleston were two cargo ships and two destroyers. It was met outside the harbor by an impressive force of warships and escorts. When the entire convoy began its move towards the North Atlantic, it consisted of 25 vessels, including two battleships and two cruisers.

The brigade reached the capital city of Reykjavik, Iceland, on the morning of 7 July, where it would remain until sailing for home on 8 March 1942. By the end of 1942, some of the Iceland Marines and sailors were battling the Japanese on Guadalcanal in the South Pacific, and many others went on to serve with distinction in the other major Navy/Marine Corps amphibious assaults of the Pacific War.

 
 
 
  • Jim Valle

    In order to keep this garrison supplied the Roosevelt Administration needed a fleet of merchant ships that were not subject to American neutrality laws. About sixty German, Italian and and Danish freighters interned in American ports were suddenly siezed by the United States Coast Guard. The Maritime Commission than “sold” the vessels to private owners who put them under Panamanian Registry and then chartered them back to the Maritime Commission to carry cargoes to Iceland and Lend – Lease supplies to Britain. To facilitate this activity the government of Panamanian President Oscar Arias, which was pro-German, had to be overthrown and a more friendly regime installed and all this had to take place “under the radar” of the American public, isolationist Republicans and anti-New Deal Democrats. Several of these ships were sunk on the Iceland run but others served throughout the War wearing their Panamanian colors and crewed by just about anybody who was willing to sign on.

  • Andy (JADAA)

    Jim,
    Fascinating back story. Can you point me in the direction of some books, articles or other sources about the US-Panama-Iceland connection? Especially the covert overthrow of the Panmanian government; very interesting, indeed!

  • Jim Valle

    Andy: Thanks for your inquiry which sent me rummaging through some dusty boxes in my garage. The story of the confiscated ships is told in Bailey, Thomas A. and Paul A. Ryan, Hitler vs Roosevelt, The Free Press, New York, NY, 1979. I ran across the story of President Arias’ overthrow while listening to a book on tape from a series on the history of the Central American Republics put out by the CBS news organization ( If I remember correctly ! ). That tape is no longer in my possession so I can’t furnish the exact citation. We probably sold it off in a garage sale. It’s not a story anybody likes to dwell on these days but Arias was a ideological fascist, albiet democratically elected, and I suppose his opposition to having the ships registered in Panama was just a trigger needed to get him removed. After all, who would have wanted an Axis friendly government astride the Panama Canal with hostilities clearly on the horizon.

  • Andy (JADAA)

    Jim, thanks for the leads, I’ll look into it some more!

  • CAPT Donald Taub, USCG, Retired

    Somewhat related to USA’s taking over the protection of the Danish island, Iceland, starting in mid-May 1940,U.S.Coast Guard vessels were sent to Greenland, and began USA’s protection of Greenland’s neutrality as a part of the Western Hemisphere. The vital cryolite mine at Ivigtut (which was then necessary in the process of making aluminum)was promptly secured and included a garrison of discharged & civilianized USCG volunteers. The search for potential sites for U.S.military airbases and other facilities including weather stations and aids to navigation promptly began. Construction of the main airbase at Narsarssuak BW-1 began in July 1941, followed by other sites on both coasts.

  • Kevin Kennedy

    Just to add that Brigadier General Marston’s name lives on. Marston Pavillion at Camp Lejeune, NC is a building that has been there for years and is used for a wide variety of social events. After Icelad, Brigadier General Marston was promoted to Major General and commanded the 2d Marine Division on Guadalcanal.

  • Larry M. Robinson, Capt USAF ret.

    FDR had to use Marines because Army draftees could not be sent overseas; it was part of the compromise that allowed the draft bill to be passed. Establishind a base in Iceland also gave an excuse for the USN to be in the Eastern Atlantic and hunt Nazis; it’s in S. E. Morison’s official history that the ATLFLT went looking for the Tirpitz in Nov 1941.