Not since World War I had so many troop ships, supply vessels and their escorts been assembled in one American port as were now present in Charleston (SC). While enlisted men enjoyed the hospitality of this charming and historic southern town, senior officers were completing plans that would detach the Sixth Marines from the Second Division and form the First Marine Brigade (Provisional) consisting of the Sixth Marines, the 5th Defense Battalion, one company of engineers, one platoon of scout cars from the First Division, a chemical platoon, Company A, 2nd Medical Battalion, a band, and a headquarters company. "Midnight Marston," as he was known to the China Marines, was the brigadier general in command. His nickname came from his orders that all liberty would end at midnight.
The TO [Table of Organization] didn't concern us as we enjoyed the southern hospitality of Charleston, but when the time to leave approached we noticed a lot of new faces plus some of the old ones had disappeared. We were busy loading all sorts of supplies and weapons. The scuttlebutt was we might be going to Russia, but our destination was a well-kept secret. On 22 June we reluctantly left Charleston behind and headed north. When we passed near New York we were joined by a large number of ships, including the battleship USS Texas and one other that I can't remember.
By now we had nearly 25 ships in the convoy. After the full convoy was formed and steaming north, we were told we were going to Iceland to relieve British troops. Even though it was late June, the weather was cold, the wind was strong and sharp, and being on deck was no fun. I drew the 4-to-8 submarine watch on the fan tail of the Biddle. Hell, I couldn't have spotted a submarine unless it was right on deck. Life lines were strung fore and aft. The waves were so high that at times I could see the top of the screws as the aft part of the ship rose to the crest of the wave while the bow seemed to be heading for the ocean floor. I kept kicking myself for not volunteering for mess duty — at least I would've been inside and warm.
After all this preparation and troop movement, the convoy pulled into Argentina, Newfoundland on 27 June — because permission to land in Iceland had not been received. We were there four days, but we did get ashore for short periods to loosen up and do some exercise. Try lifting a 15.5-pound BAR when your hands are numb and the fluid in your shoulders is frozen solid. I know some of you have — Semper Fi!
On 1 July we heard that Iceland's Parliament had reluctantly given its permission for us to land and occupy the country. There wasn't much joy and no singing because it looked to us like things were going from bad to worse. On 7 July 1941, we arrived at Reykjavik, as the first American combat troops sent overseas as a result of WW II. We arrived about mid-afternoon — mid-afternoon my ass! We'd forgotten about the "land of the midnight sun" and all that stuff, but here we were right in the middle of it. Sunset, if you can call it that, came about 0100 the next morning. Sunrise on the 8th was about 0300. The red glow never left the horizon.
We were told that we'd be in Iceland until September, when we would be relieved by the U.S. Army (Anyone heard that one before?). The British troops were very friendly and helpful to us, but their main question was, "When are you blokes going to get in the war?" Our reply was usually, "Hopefully never." Most of them were veterans of the war in Europe and had been evacuated from Dunkirk, so they carried a different outlook on the war from ours. However, they were a cheerful bunch and on the first day of contact taught us their version of the English tune, "Bless 'Em All."
F**k 'em all, f**k 'em all,
the long, the short and the tall. F**k all the sergeants and WO ones, f**k all the corporals and their bastard sons. And we're saying goodbye to them all as off to our billets we crawl. There'll be no promotion this side of the ocean, so cheer up my lads f**k 'em all.
There are a number of different verses to this melody — even one penned by some long-forgotten BAR man. The English ale was stronger than our beer (which we didn't get much of), so we frequently joined the Brits at their camps for a rollicking night of drinking and singing. ("Night," of course, is a figure of speech during Iceland's summer).
The British were sure that the Germans might try to occupy Iceland by plane and/or parachute troops at any time, so we prepared defenses against that possibility. Live ammunition was again issued all around but nothing happened, except a few German planes occasionally flew over at high altitude. When they were spotted we manned our positions. Some of my happiest recollections are those of running from the camp to my position carrying my best friend, the BAR gun, a belt full of clips and two bandoleers full of ammo totaling 240 rounds. We knew we were keeping the peace.
None of our camps were permitted to fly the American flag because Washington did not want the Germans to know we were in Iceland in force. We were at different camps for different periods of time. While at the first place we occupied, we had a fellow from Texas who played the guitar and fashioned words to existing music. We called him Tiny because he was huge in every sense of the word. He is Vernon Adams from Hurst, Texas. His song is sung to the tune of "The Wabash Cannon Ball."
We started out from Dago the first day of June,
then down to Panama, but left there much too soon;
Then around to Charleston, down South Carolina way,
where the whiskey all is rotten and the girls don't want to play;
I went to the beach to get myself some brew and to get a little lovin',
like a good Marine should do;
The whiskey cost me five bucks and the taxi cost me ten,
but I couldn't find a sea hag a-looking for a friend;
Oh, the Skipper lost his marbles and the Captain beat his chops
and they dropped us off in Iceland on a great big pile of rocks.
Also at this camp we had a field musician named Dahl. He was a nice enough guy, but most of us thought he was a candidate for a Section 8. One morning we were standing inspection and Dahl was up at the head of the platoon's first row, which was his normal position, to my right. I was in the second row, three or four men to Dahl's left. The 90-day wonder that was our pla- toon leader grabbed Dahl's .45, did a fairly good inspection, then hands it back Dahl. He takes it, slams the clip home, releases the slide and pulls the trigger and darn near got himself a lieutenant. The rest of us hit the deck immediately and I nearly broke an arm falling on my BAR because we weren't ready for this. Dahl continued waving the Colt around, not knowing what to do.
Alvin Carlson, our acting platoon sergeant, walks up to him, slaps him in the face and at the same time grabs the Colt, ejects the clip and slowly pulls the slide back and empties the chamber. We almost ran out of toilet paper that day. Dahl never again had a clip for his .45, nor did he ever live down the ribbings.
Not much happened while we were at that camp (right). There wasn't any hot water for shaving or for showers, so we would get a bucket and warm water on top of the stove in the hut. Then four or five of us would shave at the same time until the water got cold, then it was time for the next bunch. There wasn't much we could do about bathing except bucket baths, so everyone began to smell pretty ripe. It was while we were there that we joined the British Army. The Brigade, for tactical reasons, was attached to the British 79th Division and took orders from its commander. The shoulder insignia of the 79th Division shows a white polar bear on a black background, and we were directed to wear it. We had a hell of a time getting those things sewn on, but eventually we mastered it. Only the "Iceland Marines" of 1941~42 wore that patch (I still have a couple).
Also while we were at that camp, Winston Churchill stopped at Iceland on his way to an Atlantic Conference with Franklin D. Roosevelt. A huge parade was held for him, and just before the parade we formed in a platoon-on-line formation. Churchill, with his party, walked the entire length of the Marine and British forces. From time to time he would stop and make some remark about someone or something. The highlight of my career, up to then, was when Churchill stopped in front of our platoon, came toward me, looked at my BAR, turned to James Roosevelt and said, "They carry heavy artillery, don't they?" It was about this time we got word that our stay in Iceland would be indefinite. The Icelandic girls were threatened with having their heads shaved if they fraternized with the American Marines, so dating any of them was a hazardous undertaking. The one theater in Reykjavik sold only reserved-seat tickets in advance of the movie being shown. George Anderson and I had met a couple of local girls, so we would buy four theater tickets, arrange to meet the girls on a street corner and pass them two of the tickets, then we would head for the theater where we would all sit together.The news photo was taken just after we had passed the girls the tickets. I never saw the picture until I arrived home on furlough in February 1942.
Shortly thereafter we were moved to a new camp about 20 miles from Reykjavik. There was no transportation into town, so our liberty there was over. The camp was a mud hole -- no running water or sanitary facilities. Some guys even said they should have joined the Army. By comparison with Camp Elliott in the early days, Elliott seemed like a deluxe resort. It was under these conditions that we learned the Army had finally arrived, but instead of leaving we were separated from the British Army, detached from the Marine Corps and, on 22 September 1941, became part of the U.S. Army.
In October, just after joining the Army, K Company and one section of machine guns from M Company were ordered to a small fishing village called Akranas, on a long peninsula that jutted directly out into the Atlantic. This was about 20 miles west of Reykjavik by water or 65 miles by land over an impassible road. We had 187 men and four officers — we almost outnumbered the villagers. When we arrived, by fishing scow, we formed on the dock and marched to the former British camp. There was no one on the street. We thought the town was deserted, but once in a while we could see people peeking through window curtains. We found out later that the former occupants of the camp had told the townspeople that all American Marines were Chicago gangsters or wild cowboys ready to take the town apart. It took until Christmas to assure them we were just like everyone else, except a little better. We had no boats of our own so we were supplied with provisions and mail by Icelandic fishing boats once a week. As a result, all our Hershey bars tasted like fish.
We were at Akranas for four months. In addition to the other luxuries we enjoyed was one that we called the "honey-and-wine detail." There was no way to dispose of human waste because the ground did not permit digging slit trenches. The head was a shed about 8 feet by 10 feet with a concrete floor. One side of the shed was a step-up platform with wooden toilet seats. The front of this raised platform had a door for each stool — six of them. Large steel buckets with side handles were placed through these doors and under the seats. Defecation took place in the buckets.
Each morning four or six men were assigned to the honey-and-wine detail. We had a one-ton truck that had been pressed into service as the "shit cart." In the bed of the truck was an old 50-gallon gasoline drum, fastened down so it wouldn't move. Two men would pull the buckets from under the platform and drag them outside the shed to the waiting truck, which was backed as close as possible to the shed, then two men would lift the bucket up to the bed of the truck while two men in the truck would assist them by pulling the bucket onto the truck. Then those two men would lift the bucket and dump its contents into the 50-gallon drum.
This would be repeated until each bucket was emptied, then the head and the buckets would be cleaned. When that was done everyone would get in or on the truck and it was driven through town and out the other side for about three miles, where an old concrete pier jutted out into the ocean. The wind always blew strong in Iceland, and on one day when I had this detail we also had my good friend Henry Edelstein with us.
Hank was a misfit in the Marine Corps. He had been a student at the University of Minnesota when the organized reserves were activated and he had been in the reserves in Minneapolis. He had never done any kind of work in his life except maybe pick his teeth with a toothpick after a good meal. When we were on a working party together back at Elliott he called me aside and, in all seriousness, begged me to show him how to use a stupid stick [shovel] — but he was my friend.
Anyway, when the truck got to the end of the pier everyone would back off to a safe distance except the two guys, elected by lot, to remove the fasteners and dump the barrel. Hank was on one side and I (having been there before) was to windward, on the other side, as we began to dump the barrel. Hank couldn't stand the odor and with a big gasp he stepped back — but he forgot to let go of the barrel. He pulled it out of my hand and it turned toward him with its gaping mouth — discharging its contents all over him. We made him ride at the rear end of the truck on the way back while we chanted, "The wind blew, the shit flew and there stood Edelstein."
For days after he would suddenly begin to shudder and shake for no apparent reason.