Parachute Marines

1st Para RegtPrior to the outbreak of war with Japan, Marine Corps planners were taking seriously the predictions of Lieutenant Colonel Pete Ellis[1]; during the 1930s, Marines began to experiment with commando type operations as part of larger amphibious training exercises. Annual fleet training programs included the deployment of raiding and patrolling parties, generally disembarked from high-speed transports and destroyers, making landfall in rubber boats. The idea of creating commando-type units matured two years prior to Japan’s attack at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. American Marines were impressed with the audacity in which British commandos executed raids against German installations.

Similarly, Marine Corps parachute units could trace the motivation for their development to the expansion of special purpose forces by European powers during World War II. Although the Marines had limited experience with parachute employments, some experimentation had been taking place since 1927 when 12 Marines parachuted from a transport plane over Anacostia. However, the realization of such forces only occurred after the outbreak of war in Europe.

Marine Parachute battalions began forming in October 1940. As envisioned, these would be specially organized infantry battalions with one platoon of 75mm pack howitzers (two guns), three units of fire for every man, three days rations and water, and the potential for additional attachments of light anti-aircraft and anti-tank weapons.

The first of these battalions went into action with the 1st Marine Division during the Guadalcanal campaign on 7 August 1942. The 1st Parachute Battalion conducted an amphibious assault on the small island of Gavutu and later helped to seize the neighboring island of Tanambogo.

In many respects, the 1st Parachute Battalion had the toughest mission during the campaign for Guadalcanal[2]. It was a battalion of only 361 Marines —about half of a regular infantry battalion, they lacked the infantry weapons available to all other infantry organizations (heavy mortars and machine guns), and many of their squad automatic weapons were of inferior design (Reising sub-machineguns[3]). The landing occurred at H Plus Four, which removed any element of surprise. A coral reef reduced the landing area to a boat basin, which was well defended by the Japanese and subject to flanking fires from Tanambogo. A steep coral hill dominated the coastal area and worst of all, these 361 Marines were attacking a much larger force. Their only advantages were these: they had a high level of training and esprit, and they were pissed off.

Gavutu-TanambogoPreceding the landing, the island was continually bombed and strafed by sea borne aviation assets, but the bombing produced few casualties and only managed to destroy one three-inch Japanese gun and the seaplane ramp within the boat basin. While the Japanese were still stunned by the air assault, Company A Marines assaulted the dock, encountering little opposition, but it didn’t take long for the Japanese to recover and they stopped the company advance after they had only advanced 75 yards. Then the Japanese began to focus on the two subsequent waves of landing craft, inflicting heavy casualties.

Still, Company B was able to land against stiff opposition, and Company C came in 7 minutes behind them. Captain Richard Huerth, the commanding officer of Company C, was killed as he exited his landing craft. Also killed was Captain Emerson Mason, the battalion intelligence officer. Two platoons of Company C set up positions firing into Tanambogo while Company B began moved around Hill 148, which gave them cover from Japanese weapons on Tanambogo. On Gavutu, the Japanese were well fortified in caves; several Marines were killed when they approached too close to what seemed to be benign hollows. One of these Marines was the battalion communications officer. It appeared to the Marines that the caves were impervious to grenades, so they began hurling in satchel charges.

Twenty minutes into the battle, the battalion commander, Major Robert H. Williams, was taken out of action by a Japanese bullet and could not be immediately retrieved. The Battalion Executive Officer, Major Charles A. Miller took command and immediately called for supporting fires. He then ordered Company B (with survivors from Company A) to continue their attack on Hill 148. The Marines worked their way from enemy dugout to dugout employing concentrated fire and demolition charges to destroy these well-fortified Japanese. Captain Harry L. Torgerson and Corporal Johnnie Blacken distinguished themselves by attacking Japanese positions. Sergeant Max Koplow and Corporal Ralph Fordyce ran into the hollows and unloaded their automatic weapons. Sergeant Harry M. Tully began picking off Japanese snipers.

“The island was a maelstrom of machinegun fire and explosions. Tracers crisscrossed all along the Marine beachhead. American mortars on Gavutu pounded Tanambogo. Japanese antiaircraft guns aimed horizontally on Tanambogo hammered the Americans on northeast Gavutu. A Navy destroyer pounded Tanambogo with its five-inch guns. Japanese soldiers on Hill 148 raked Marines crawling for cover among splintered trees and ravaged buildings and sheds. Navy Dauntless bombers dropped 500 pound bombs, Marine automatic riflemen and machine gunners raked the caves to suppress the Japanese fires. The earth shook both islands. Smoke rose in a gigantic cloud, stretching 1,000 feet into the air where aviation fuel had been set on fire. In the midst of that raging battle, individual men clung to whatever cover they could find, trying to stay alive.[4]

A few moments ago, I mentioned that the Marines of the 1st Parachute Battalion were pissed off. From all accounts, and particularly indicated by the citations of personal decorations, there is little doubt that these Marines were hot headed and highly motivated killers. One citation reads as follows:

“The President of the United States takes pleasure in presenting the Navy Cross to Robert Green Fuller, Private First Class, U.S. Marine Corps, for extraordinary heroism and devotion to duty while serving with the FIRST Parachute Battalion, FIRST Marine Division, during the assault on enemy Japanese forces at Gavutu, Solomon Islands, on 7 August 1942. When heavy opposition retarded the progress of his unit, Private First Class Fuller displayed courageous disregard for his imminent danger by attacking a heavily fortified gun emplacement from which the deadly fire was emanating. Charging forward against the withering blasts of hostile weapons, he unhesitatingly engaged the enemy in perilous hand-to-hand combat and killed all eight of the Japanese, thereby annihilating a strong and hazardous obstacle. His daring aggressiveness and valiant devotion to duty were in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service.”

Supporting fires from dive-bombers and Navy destroyers arrived around 1430; the battle area was so small that bombs dropped from friendly aircraft wounded some Marines. Reinforcements began to arrive at 1800; their arrival allowed the Para-Marines to evacuate their dead and wounded. Major Williams survived his wound.

 

Notes:

[1] Improvise, Adapt, Overcome; Fix Bayonets Essay 27 June 2014

[2] Jon T. Hoffman, Silk Chutes and Hard Fighting: U. S. Marine Corps Parachute Units in World War II

[3] In 1943, Marines refused to accept the M50 as a combat weapon. The weapons were withdrawn from the Fleet Marine Forces and transferred to stateside security detachments and the OSS.

[4] James M. Christ, Battalion of the Damned: The 1st Marine Paratroopers at Gavutu and Bloody Ridge, 1942