Those Other American Heroes

Origins

Japanese Temple

In the 1880s, scores of Japanese citizens made their way to the Hawaiian Islands and the western United States.  Amazingly, they arrived after the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.  Federal law prohibited Hawaiian plantation owners from hiring much-needed laborers from China, but nothing was to preclude them from engaging the Japanese.  About half of the Japanese workers arriving in Hawaii eventually made their way to California, Oregon, and Washington.  Within twenty years, around 100,000 Japanese had made their migration across the Pacific.  This migration would not have happened without the permission of Japan’s Meiji Emperor, of course, but by 1924, Japanese immigrants to Hawaii and the western states exceeded 200,000.  By 1920, around 40% of the population of Hawaii was Japanese.

The question is, why would so many Japanese want to immigrate to a land so foreign to them in language and culture?  One explanation is that the Japanese government pushed many of its citizens out of their own country.  The Meiji period was one of rapid industrialization and modernization.  The only people suitable for such a shift were educated individuals willing to open their minds to a new way of living.  But there was also a monetary cost to modernization — costs imposed on Japanese farmers in the form of high taxes.  In the 1880s, more than 300,000 Japanese farmers lost their farmlands because they could not pay the Meiji taxes.  When information arrived in Japan that Hawaiian pineapple producers needed laborers, it set into motion “netsu” fever — immigration fever.

Japanese who were of a mind to immigrate realized that if you snooze, you lose.  Hawaiian plantation owners offered the unbelievably high wages of $30.00 a month.  It was no sacrifice to the plantation owners, of course, who also had the advantage of circumstances that precluded the Japanese from forming labor organizations.  Initially, the immigrants were mostly men who, without women, became a lonely, unhappy lot in Hawaii.  This problem was solved when plantation owners devised a plan for “picture brides.”  Picture brides were encouraged by the Meiji government because — well, in Japan, women have limited roles.  Besides, the “picture bride” scheme fits somewhat nicely with Japanese traditional (arranged) marriages.

Institutional Discrimination

If the American people weren’t happy with Chinese folks, the die was cast when waves of Japanese people began moving to California, people who, in the eyes of that translated Oklahoma farmer looked the same as Chinese.  In 1906, the San Francisco School Board excluded 93 Japanese students from attending public school.  They should, instead, attend “Chinese schools.”  Japanese parents first tried to change the mind of school board members, who were under pressure from the Asiatic Exclusion League (AEL).  The goals of the AEL were simple enough: end Japanese immigration.  When the school board refused to reconsider their idiotic ruling, Japanese parents kicked up a fuss, prompting diplomatic problems in Washington.  President Theodore Roosevelt supported the Japanese, although not because he disagreed with racial exclusion, but because he was trying to broker a peace deal between Japan and Russia.  Eventually, San Francisco rescinded their segregation order, which enabled Roosevelt to negotiate a “gentleman’s agreement” with the Japanese government to stop issuing exit visas to Japanese laborers.

Today, school segregation might seem appalling, but in 1906, some Japanese (or other Asians) might have been just as happy with that arrangement as were the whites.  Asians value their culture and wish, whenever possible, to preserve it.  The formation of Chinese or Japanese districts in California wasn’t something simply imposed upon them by whites.  In 1906, Asians preferred their own company and still do.  A considerable section of the Westminster section of Orange County, California, now caters to Vietnamese.

In 1913, California’s legislature passed the California Alien Land Law.  The Webb-Haney Act prohibited “aliens ineligible for citizenship” from owning farmland or possessing long-term leases over it.  The law applied to Chinese, Indian, Japanese, and Korean immigrants — although the law was aimed directly at the Japanese farmer.  Of course, limiting land ownership to people eligible for citizenship does appear reasonable even if the average Joe living in California didn’t care who owned the land.  But white farmers cared.  They preferred not to compete with Japanese farmers for a share of the agricultural market — and wealthy white farmers and industrialists have a tremendous influence in California politicians.

If there was any question about institutional discrimination in 1920, the federal government put that issue to rest with the Immigration Act of 1924.  The Act was a combination of three federal laws that included a process of excluding Asians through quota limitations, by country, and through the creation of the US Border Patrol to enforce those limitations.  The Japanese government was not particularly happy with the Immigration Act of 1924, but there was little they could do about it beyond adding this irritation to a growing list of complaints about American policies.

The federal government doubled down on the Japanese-American population on 19 February 1942 when President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered 127,000 people of Japanese ancestry into internment camps.  Around 112,000 of those people lived on the west coast.  Roosevelt, by executive order 9066, ordered all of them to surrender to the War Relocation Authority.  The federal government took most of those on the west coast to about a dozen internment camps located in California, Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Wyoming, Arkansas, and Utah.

According to some (perhaps, even, many) proof of white racism in the United States was the internment of Japanese-American citizens during World War II.  There may have been racialists in the Roosevelt administration, and indeed, there probably were, but Franklin Roosevelt’s decision to act pursuant to the Alien Enemies Act (1798, amended) was legal — and prudent — on 12 December 1945.  Under this authority, the President may apprehend, restrain, imprison, or deport any non-citizen enemy of the United States.  President Roosevelt exercised this authority by issuing Executive Proclamations 2525 (Alien Enemies-Japanese), 2526 (Alien Enemies-German), and 2527 (Alien Enemies-Italian).  

As for interning citizens of the United States, Executive Order 9066 does not mention any person whatsoever.  It merely asserts the following: “Whereas the successful prosecution of the war requires every possible protection against espionage and sabotage to national-defense material, national-defense premises, and national defense utilities […] authorize and direct the Secretary of War, and the military commanders […] to prescribe military areas in such places and of such extent […] from which any or all persons may be excluded, and with respect to which, the right of any person to enter, remain in, or leave, shall be subject to whatever restrictions the Secretary of War […] may impose in his discretion.”

Were the President to intern only Japanese-American citizens, then we could make a reasonable claim toward racist policies of a white president toward Asian citizens of the United States, but in fact, citizens of the United States of Japanese, German,[1] and Italian ancestry were interned throughout the United States during World War II.[2]

The War

In 1940, there was no shortage of Americans who spoke fluent German, and there was no shortage of people who understood German culture.  However, one article in early 1942 claimed that no more than 100 non-Japanese persons could speak Japanese with any fluency, and none of them understood Japanese culture.[3]  This is an essential aspect of language proficiency because culture often dictates linguistic nuances and facial expressions while speaking.  It wasn’t long after the United States entered into World War II that the War Department realized that Japanese language specialists would become vital to winning the war against Japan.

Here’s what the War Department did know: that, beginning in early December 1941, Imperial Japan had handed the United States and its allies one major defeat after another, from the Japanese Navy’s attack at Pearl Harbor, to tossing the United States out of the Philippines. Japan’s assault was so sudden and unexpected that they destroyed nearly all MacArthur’s aircraft while they were sitting on numerous airfields. Japan also caused the British, French, and Dutch empires in Southeast Asia to fold like a deck of cards, and then on top of all this, the Japanese Empire threatened India, Australia, Alaska, Hawaii, and the West Coast of the United States.  Everyone living in California expected a massive Japanese invasion following Doolittle’s Raid on Tokyo.

American field commanders were desperate for information about Japanese intentions.  Only one group of people in the United States could help answer these questions: Japanese-Americans.  Despite the wholesale internment of Japanese-American citizens, there was not a single instance of any Japanese citizen acting against the United States’ interests in time of war.  None.

Still, until May 1942, the concept of using Nisei (the children of Japanese-born parents) as language interpreters, translators, and interrogators was untested.  The United States created the Fourth Army Intelligence School to test this hypothesis.  The initial results were so successful that the War Department stepped up the training of Japanese-American intelligence specialists.  The success in using Japanese linguists also led the War Department to employ Japanese as all-Nisei combatants in the 442nd Regimental Combat Team (RCT) and 100th (Independent) Infantry Battalion.

On 1 May 1942, the first 40 Japanese-American intelligence specialists (and two officers) graduated from an old, dilapidated hangar at the Fourth Army Intelligence School at Crissy Field.  But these graduates had no idea what awaited them after graduation — and neither did the War Department.  When orders finally arrived for these young men, they still didn’t know where they were going.  In a few weeks, the Navy would win two important sea battles, but only barely.  A few weeks later, Marines would land on Guadalcanal, but their hold on that god-forsaken island would remain tenuous for nearly half a year.  In mid-April 1942, even before class graduation, Army Lieutenant Colonel Moses W. Pettigrew, Head of the Eastern branch of the Military Intelligence Division, allocated one officer and five Nisei language specialists to the US 37th Infantry Division.  However, the division commander would only accept them once Pettigrew certified that these men were reliable, useful, and trustworthy.  Colonel Pettigrew had no hesitance in doing that.

But Pettigrew was hesitant to offer Nisei linguists beyond his capability to provide them.  Forty recent graduates weren’t many, considering the size of the battlespace.  In that first class, of 58 enrolled Nisei, only 40 graduated.  The washout rate was even worse for Caucasian officers.  Of 36 officers who volunteered for the course, only two graduated.  It was a situation that forced Pettigrew into making tough choices about where to send his limited number of Nisei.  One Caucasian officer and eight Nisei went to MacArthur’s headquarters in Australia.  One officer and three Nisei ended up with the US 37th; six Nisei went to New Caledonia.

None of Pettigrew’s graduates went to Hawaii.  The Military Department of Hawaii didn’t want any Japanese-American soldiers, no matter what their specialty.  In fact, after the start of the war, the Selective Service Board of Hawaii suspended inductions of Japanese-Americans, even after 2,000 Nisei were already serving in uniform.  Most of these men ultimately ended up in the 100th (Independent) Infantry Battalion.  Still, in the meantime, as Army and Navy commanders struggled to meet the growing demand for Japanese language specialists, a couple of thousand Nisei in Hawaii found themselves performing engineering tasks and guard duty assignments.

In April 1942, the Army’s Military Intelligence Division dispatched Nisei Masanori Minamoto to Bora Bora, where he was assigned to the 102nd Infantry.  Since Minamoto had no intelligence tasks and no prisoners to interrogate, the Army assigned him to drive a truck.  Driving trucks, standing guard duty, and digging ditches are all these young specialists did through 1942; no one was sure what they were supposed to do.  Occasionally, their commanders tasked them with translating Japanese magazines, books, and letters confiscated by residents — but beyond that, there were no “mission essential” tasks for them to perform.

In August, two American submarines carried a Marine raiding party to Makin Island in the Central Pacific to discover Japanese intentions.  One of these Marines was Captain Gerald P. Holtom, who was born and raised in Japan.  When the Marines returned to Hawaii, they had large quantities of captured Japanese documents, including Japanese plans, charts, orders of battle, and top-secret maps indicating air defenses, military strengths, methods of alerts, types of material, and so on forth.  What these Marines did not bring back with them was Captain Holtom; he was killed and left behind on Makin Island.

The Marines had a handful of men who could speak Japanese when they went ashore at Tulagi and Guadalcanal, but no Nisei.  While the Marines did capture a few prisoners, they could not extract any useful information.  The Marines might have taken a few more Japanese prisoners, but at this point in the war, Marines were in no mood for it, and Marine officers had yet to learn the value of interrogating prisoners rather than shooting them.  It wasn’t entirely the Marines’ fault.

On 12 August, the 1st Marine Division intelligence officer, Lieutenant Colonel Frank B. Goettge, led a combat patrol behind Japanese lines to capture enemy prisoners.  Accompanying the patrol was First Lieutenant Ralph Cory, a Japanese language officer.  Goettge and his Marines walked into a murderous ambush and had to withdraw.  Goettge and Cory were among the wounded men the Marines, out of necessity, had left behind.  Upon returning to friendly lines, the surviving Marines told their story of Japanese soldiers executing the wounded Marines in a most grizzly fashion.  The account spread throughout the command, which convinced Marines that the Japanese were untrustworthy, treacherous bastards.  Afterward, combat Marines were not inclined to take any prisoners.  This attitude was not lost on the Army’s Nisei linguists; they tended to give the Marines a wide birth.

Six additional Nisei intelligence specialists arrived on Guadalcanal between September-November 1942 (and several more school-trained Caucasian officers).  On Tulagi, Marines discovered a list of call signs and code names for all Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) ships and airbases.  The G-1 flew this information to Noumea, where Nisei worked for several days to translate it.  The primary translator, Shigeru Yamashita (California born but raised in Japan until the age of 19), testified to the task’s difficulty but stated that everyone realized the importance of their work and every Nisei wanted to prove their loyalty to the United States.  This is undoubtedly true, but the Marines and soldiers in the forward areas didn’t know that.

The only good Jap …

Captain John A. Burden was born in Japan and rated as an excellent speaker of Japanese.  The Army sent him to New Caledonia with three Nisei translators.  There was little work for translators on New Caledonia, but elsewhere, field commanders were begging for Japanese language specialists.  Despite this demand, Captain Burden languished on that isolated island.  In December, Admiral Halsey visited with the US 37th Infantry Division.  During his visit, the Division G-2 commented, “Sir, I understand you’re looking for a Japanese Language Officer.”  Admiral Halsey replied, “They’re driving me crazy for one, but I don’t know where to find one.”  The G-2 then introduced Captain Burden to Halsey, and the following day, Burden was en route to Guadalcanal.

On Guadalcanal, Burden found two Marine officers and five enlisted men working as interrogators.  Of the seven Marines, only one had any proficiency in the language.  To test their ability, Burden had each Marine interrogate every POW, but at the end of the day, the only information they had was the POW’s name and rank.  What Burden learned was that none of these Marine really understood Japanese.  Burden sent them back to the line.  When he interviewed the POWs, there almost wasn’t enough paper to write down all these prisoners had to say.

On 17 December, the US 25th Infantry Division joined the 1st Marine Division and Army Americal Division on Guadalcanal.  It wasn’t long before Captain Burden noted that soldiers were as reluctant as the Marines to take prisoners.  Burden heard one regimental commander berating his men for bringing in prisoners.  He told his men, “Don’t bother taking prisoners, just shoot the sons of bitches.  The only good Jap is a dead Jap.”  The standard excuse for not bringing in prisoners was that they were “shot while trying to escape.”  Eventually, Burden convinced regimental and battalion commanders of the value of Japanese interrogations and translating documents.  Afterward, field commanders promised ice cream and a three-day off-island pass to anyone who would bring in a live prisoner.  Within a short time, Captain Burden was processing an astonishing amount of information, and what Burden learned from this was that the Japanese were nearly manic in their penchant for writing things down.

Conclusion

Early in the war, the War Department saw propaganda value in forming and maintaining segregated units, generally divided into African, Puerto Rican, Filipino, and Japanese units.  Thus, during 1942, the War Department organized the 1st Filipino Infantry in California, battalion-sized units of Norwegians, Austrians, and Greeks.  Henry L. Stimson complained to Roosevelt about such formations.  He wanted to Americanize the U. S. Army, not segregate it.  Roosevelt demurred, essentially telling Stimson, “I must be the one to determine the advantages, if any.”  So, at the end of November 1942, the War Department decided to form a Nisei regiment.  In announcing the new unit, the always political Roosevelt said, “No loyal citizen of the United States should be denied the democratic right to exercise the responsibilities of his citizenship, regardless of his ancestry.”  The first Nisei volunteers reported to Camp Shelby, Mississippi, for training in April 1943.  The catalyst for this entire process was the initial graduates of the Fourth Army Intelligence School.  The Nisei of military intelligence may not have assaulted the German machineguns in Italy, but there is little doubt that these Japanese language experts saved American lives by providing critical information to field commanders on their march across the Pacific.  The definition of someone who saves lives is … hero.[4]

Sources:

  1. Connell, T.  America’s Japanese Hostages: The US Plan for a Japanese-free Hemisphere.  Praeger-Greenwood, 2002.
  2. De Nevers, N. C.  The Colonel and the Pacifist: Karl Bendetsen, Perry Saito, and the Incarceration of Japanese Americans During World War II.  University of Utah Press, 2004.
  3. Glidden, W.  “Internment Camps in America, 1917-1920,” Military Affairs, v.37 (1979), 137-41.
  4. Harth, E.  Last Witness: Reflections on the Wartime Internment of Japanese Americans.  Palgrave, 2001.
  5. Krammer, A.  Undue Process: The Untold Story of America’s German Alien Internees. Rowan & Littlefield, 1997.

Endnotes:


[1] According to the 1940 census, 1.2 million persons identified as being of German birth; 5 million persons claimed German-born parents; 6 million persons claimed one parent born in Germany.  A large number of these people had “recent connections” to Germany.  The numbers involved and their political and economic influences explain why there was no “large scale” relocation and internment.  However, an estimated 12,000 German-American citizens were interned during World War II.

[2] German-American citizens were similarly interned during World War I.

[3] Life Magazine, September 1942.

[4] This work was prepared as a collaborative effort with Mr. Koji Kanemoto, whose family endured the indignity of Roosevelt’s internment policies, and whose father served in the U. S. Army Military Intelligence Service.

Japanese-Americans and the Military Intelligence Service

Last week, commenting about Our Secret Fighting Womenmy good friend Koji Kanemoto reminded me of one of his earlier blog posts relating to a former member of the Military Intelligence Service during World War II.  In his comment, Koji mentioned a gentleman he met some years ago, a Japanese-American veteran of the war who served, as did Koji’s father (post-hostilities), in the U. S. Army’s Military Intelligence Service.  The man’s name was Grant Ichikawa.  His wife, Mildred (called Millie), also served in the Army’s MIS during the occupation of Japan.[1]  Both have since passed away.

Koji’s comment reminded me of his own family’s story.  If ever there was an American tragedy on the scale of the American Civil War, the Kanemoto family story is its modern version.  In brief, Koji’s grandfather, Hisakichi, migrated to the United States from Japan in the late 1800s and took up residence in Seattle.  He and his Japanese wife produced four sons: Yutaka, Hisao (who died in infancy), Suetoro, and Koji’s Dad, Koso.

In the 1920s, as was the custom in the Japanese-American community back then, Hisakichi’s three sons returned to Japan to visit their ancestral home in Hiroshima to learn Japanese.[2]  Koso Kanemoto returned to the United States before hostilities broke out with Japan in 1941.  Suetoro, for whatever reason, delayed his return to the United States until it was (quite suddenly) too late.  The Imperial Japanese Army conscripted Suetoro for service in World War II.

Koji’s father, Koso, having returned to the United States before Japan’s attack at Pearl Harbor, soon found himself and his family in an internment camp in California.  So much for the “land of the free.”  Eventually, Koso enlisted in the U. S. Army.  Because of his Japanese language skills, the Army assigned Koso to military intelligence.  He worked as an interrogator of repatriated Imperial Japanese soldiers and translated at hundreds of war crimes trials in Quonset huts during the occupation period.

Ultimately, however, Suetoro (who by 1944 was a senior NCO) was killed while fighting US forces in the Philippines.[3]  After the war, Koji’s father resumed his life in Southern California.  He passed away, aged 99 years, in 2018.  The final tragedy was that Koji’s father had little memory of his younger days in his later years.

The Kanemoto family story, while unique, was not entirely one of a kind.  A gentleman I met while stationed in Japan experienced similar circumstances.  His name was Ted Kobayashi, and you can find his story in my earlier post, All about Honor.

In addition to the preceding information, this week, I’m offering a link to one of Koji’s posts, which I found quite interesting.  It’s part of America’s story that few people know.  Feel free to leave Koji a comment on his blog, Masako and Spam Musubi.

Endnotes:

[1] Per U. S. Army Military Intelligence records: Yamamoto, Mildred S. (Ichikawa)

[2] Ironically, most of the Nisei’s assigned to Military Intelligence that were fluent in Japanese had Hiroshima as their ancestral home.  A number of these people had family members who perished in the atomic bombing of that city.

[3] Many Japanese-American U. S. Army veterans assigned to military intelligence duties in the Pacific War, later agonized over the possibility that their work in intelligence-gathering and analysis may have contributed to the death of their family members fighting on the Japanese side.


The American Diplomat Responsible for the Pacific War

Introduction

Walk softly but carry a big stick is a South African axiom most often attributed to former President Theodore Roosevelt.  I find no fault in this adage because I believe that a quiet voice is more respected than a loud bully tone, and when reinforced by a no-nonsense foreign policy, the world becomes much safer for everyone.  The saying, along with President Washington’s sage advice —beware of foreign entanglements — should be the foundation of American foreign policy, but that has not been our diplomatic history.  We are forever involving the American people in foreign affairs that are really none of our business.

Over many years, I have developed a low opinion of diplomats, generally, because their fatuousness has cost the American people dearly in material wealth and the loss of loved-ones.  And, or so it seems, US diplomats never seems to learn any worthwhile lessons from the past.  Worse, diplomats never answer for their ghastly mistakes.  If it is true that military intervention is the product of failed diplomacy, then all one has to do to reach my conclusions (about American diplomacy) is count the number of our country’s wars.

There is no reason to maintain a strong, technologically superior force structure if we never intend to use it.  The decision to employ our military is, of course, a political question.  Once the question has been answered, the military’s civilian masters should step back, out of the way, and allow the military to achieve our national objectives — which hopefully have something to do with national defense.  If the American people must give up a single soldier or sailor to military action, then the United States should walk away from the conflict with something to show for having made that sacrifice.  This has not been case in every conflict.

Background

On 3 July 1853, US warships under the command of Commodore Matthew C. Perry sailed into Tokyo Harbor; their arrival threw the Empire of Japan into turmoil.  The purpose of Perry’s visit was to end Japan’s long practiced isolationist policies.  The Tokugawa Shogunate (government) initially had no interest in meeting with Commodore Perry, but a modest demonstration of the U. S. Navy’s firepower convinced the Japanese that it could be in their national interests to at least hear what the Americans had to say.  Negotiations were proceeding well enough, after a rough beginning, but before they could be concluded, the Shogun (generalissimo), Tokugawa Ieyoshi, died of a stroke.  Whether Commodore Perry’s unexpected visit contributed to Ieyoshi’s death is unknown, but he was soon replaced by his physically weak son Iesada[1].

Soon after Perry’s agreement with the Shogunate to open its ports to American ships for purposes of reprovisioning ships and trade, Great Britain, Russia, and other European powers imposed their own treaties upon the Japanese.  Since Iesada was physically unable to participate in negotiations with foreigners, the task was assigned to the rōjū (elder[2]) Abe Masahiro.  Rather than participate in this national embarrassment, Masahiro also resigned, replaced by Hotta Masayoshi.  Masayoshi was responsible for the treaties negotiated with the United States, United Kingdom, and Russia — collectively known as the “unequal treaties.”

These treaties were regarded as unequal because they stipulated that Japan must allow foreign citizens to visit and reside in Japan, because they prohibited the Japanese from imposing tariffs on imported goods, and because the treaties exempted foreigners from the jurisdiction of Japanese justice courts. When senior samurai became aware of these unequal treaties, radically nationalist/anti-foreign disturbances erupted throughout Japan.  In a short time, the entire nation was wracked with unrest.

If this mischief wasn’t enough, between 4-7 November 1854, the Nankaido earthquakes and tsunamis killed 80,000 Japanese.  This horrific incident was followed by the Tokai earthquake on 23 December with destruction from Edo (Tokyo) to Tokai — a distance of 210 miles, killing an additional 10,000 people.  These were natural occurrences, of course, but superstitious samurai leaders viewed them as a demonstration of the gods’ displeasure with the Shogunate.  Meanwhile, on 14 August 1858, Iesada died from Cholera.  His replacement was Tokugawa Iemochi — who at the time was twelve years old.  Meanwhile, rōjū Masayoshi continued to run the show.

Iemochi died in 1866; he was 22 years old.  His son, 3-year-old Tokugawa Iesato was next in line to become Shogun.  The nation was in crisis and needed adult leadership.  For this reason, the rōjū bypassed Iesato and chose Tokugawa Yoshinobu to serve as Shogun.  Yoshinobu was the fifteenth and last Tokugawa shogun (and the only Tokugawa that never entered Edo Castle).  With civil unrest unraveling the country, Yoshinobu too resigned his office and retired to the countryside.  At that point, the Japanese had emptied out their closet of potential leaders.  In that year, 1868, radical samurai convinced the 15-year old Emperor Meiji to end the Tokugawa shogunate and assume power in his own right.  It is referred to in history as the Meiji Restoration.

The royal family moved from the traditional home of the Emperor in Kyoto (Western Gate) to Edo and changed its name to Tokyo (Eastern Gate).  While the Emperor was restored to political power and assumed nominal power, the most powerful men in Japan were the Meiji oligarchs, senior samurai from Chōshū and Satsuma provinces.

The Meiji Oligarchs wanted Japan to become a modern nation-state — one technologically equal to the western nations that had caused so much civil unrest in Japan.  The oligarchs included such men as Okubo Toshimichi and Saigo Takamori (of the Satsuma Clan) and Kido Takayoshi, Ito Hirobumi, and Yamagata Aritomo from Chōshū.  Among the emperor’s first edicts was the abolishment of the old Edo class structure.  The great lords of Japan and all of their feudal domains became provinces with governors who answered to the emperor.  After this, the Japanese government began the process of modernization.  In less than ten years, the Meiji government confronted another internal upheaval, known as the Satsuma Rebellion, a revolt of disaffected samurai against the modernization efforts of the Emperor Meiji.  Change is never easy.

Chinese Diplomacy

On 12 March 1867, the American merchant ship Rover, while en route from Swatow, China to Newchwang, struck a submerged reef off the coast of Formosa, (also, Taiwan) near the modern-day city of Hengchun.  The ship’s captain, Joseph Hunt, his wife Mercy, and twelve surviving crewman made it to shore only to be massacred by Paiwan natives, the aboriginal people of Formosa.  The Paiwan were fiercely protective of their land and this violent behavior was a revenge killing for earlier depredations by foreign sailors.

When the United States Minister to China, Anson Burlingame, learned of the incident, he ordered his subordinate serving closest to Formosa to investigate.  Burlingame’s subordinate was Charles Guillaum Joseph Émile LeGendre (1830-1899), who served as Consul General in Fujian Province of the Qing Empire.  As Consul General, Legendre was responsible for matters involving United States interests in and around five treaty ports facilitating US trade with China.  LeGendre took an interest in and helped to suppress the illegal trade in coolies (peasant workers) and indentured laborers working on American-flagged ships.  LeGendre was known as a compassionate man.

LeGendre, who was born and raised in France, had the good fortune to marry a woman whose father was an influential New York lawyer.  Through this marriage, LeGendre migrated to the United States and took up residence in the City of New York.

Charles LeGendre 1864

At the outbreak of the American Civil War, 31-year old LeGendre helped recruit young men for service with the 51st New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment.  His recruiting success earned him a commission as a major in the US volunteers.  During the war, LeGendre fought with distinction in several campaigns, was twice wounded, and eventually retired from military service.  In recognition of his courage under fire, the US volunteer army discharged him as a brevet brigadier general.  LeGendre, despite his physical wounds, was an ambitious man.  In 1866, President Andrew Johnson appointed LeGendre to serve as Consul General in China.

In compliance with his instructions to investigate the Rover Incident, LeGendre traveled to Fukien and Chekiang for the purpose of petitioning the Chinese governors-general for their assistance in obtaining guarantees for the safety of American sailors shipwrecked off the coast of China.  The governor-general of Fujian had a better idea — rather than taking direct action himself, he granted LeGendre permission to travel to Formosa and plead his case directly to the island’s governor-general[3].  Action passed (to others) is action complete — Time Management 101.

LeGendre soon learned that the Paiwan natives were barbaric and hostile to all foreigners.  During his investigation, he also learned about the Chinese shuffle, which was how Chinese officials avoided responsibility for unseemly events transpiring within their areas of authority.  The Chinese governor of Formosa actually did not control much of the island — only the small western plain; the Paiwan natives controlled the entire southern region.

When LeGendre’s efforts on Formosa failed[4] the United States government decided to mount a military punitive expedition against the Paiwan natives.  Responsibility for conducting this expedition fell to Rear Admiral Henry Bell, US Navy.  A force of sailors and Marines were organized under Commander George E. Belknap, USN with Lieutenant Commander Alexander S.  MacKenzie serving as executive officer.  Captain James Forney, USMC commanded 31 Marines from USS Hartford, and 12 Marines from USS Wyoming.

Several problems hindered the Belknap Expedition from its beginning.  First, the force was too small for operations in such a large area.  Next, the men were not accustomed to the high humidity of Taiwan and heat exhaustion overwhelmed them as they hacked their way into the dense jungle.  Because the thick foliage easily concealed the island’s hostile defenders, Belknap’s men became sitting ducks for vicious attacks.  When the Paiwan natives opened fire for the first time, LCdr MacKenzie was one of several Americans instantly killed.  Commander Belknap ordered his force to withdraw, and the so-called punitive expedition ended.  Captain Forney’s journal eventually found its way back to HQ Marine Corps where it was later incorporated into what eventually became the Marine Corps Small Wars Manual[5].  This may have been the expedition’s only positive note.

Upon LeGendre’s return to South China, he persuaded the governor of Foochow to send a large military expedition to Formosa.  LeGendre recommended a force of 400-500 men, but the governor reasoned that he could achieve his goals with fewer men.  The Chinese expedition departed for Formosa in July 1867.  Admiral Bell denied LeGendre’s request for a gunboat to assist in the Chinese expedition, so LeGendre chartered SS Volunteer and made his way to Formosa, informing Burlingame that he intended to observe the action.  Upon arrival, however, LeGendre assumed command of the Chinese force.  How he accomplished this is unknown.  What made the Chinese expedition difficult was that the Chinese had to first construct a road into the interior.  Ultimately, LeGendre turned to British diplomat William A. Pickering[6] to help broker a treaty with the Paiwan natives for the protection of American and European shipwrecked sailors.

In early September 1871, a merchant ship from the Ryukyu Islands[7] (present-day Okinawa) was wrecked off the coast of Formosa.  Paiwan natives, as they had with the Rover, massacred the ship’s surviving 54 crewmen.  The treaty brokered by LeGendre and Pickering only applied to shipwrecked Americans and Europeans, not to other Asians.  In February 1872, LeGendre (believing that the Ryukyu Islands belonged to Japan — see note 7) returned to Formosa and attempted to have the earlier treaty extended to include shipwrecked Japanese sailors.  LeGendre’s mission failed once more when the Paiwan natives refused to extend the treaty.  LeGendre’s meddling upset the Chinese government, and this placed LeGendre at odds with his superior.  Minister Burlingame ordered LeGendre to return to the United States.  In December 1872, while en route to the United States, LeGendre stopped off at Yokohama, Japan (a treaty port in Tokyo Bay, south of Tokyo).

Toward Japanese Imperialism

While in Yokohama, LeGendre met with Charles DeLong, the United States Minister to Japan.  It may be remembered, by some, that DeLong was the diplomat who first announced to the Japanese government that the United States was pleased to recognize Japanese sovereignty over the Ryukyu Islands (Okinawa) – an interesting revelation for two reasons: first, because insofar as the Chinese were concerned, the Ryukyu Islands was a sovereign territory of China; second, because it provides some clarity about the ineptness of the US Diplomatic Corps — which unhappily continues to plague the US State Department.

Minister DeLong introduced Charles LeGendre to Japan’s foreign minister, Soejima Taneomi[8]There could not have been a more portentous meeting in the early days of the Meiji Era because it was this former Army brigadier turned diplomat who, having been hired by the Meiji government as an advisor to the foreign ministry, first gave the Japanese government the idea that it had a moral responsibility to expand its empire through colonization.  Japanese expansionism ultimately led to war with China (1894, 1931, 1937), with Russia (1904), Korea (1910), and with the United Kingdom and United States (1941).

LeGendre’s involvement in the Rover Affair and the issue of the shipwrecked Ryukyu ship interested Soejima.  As Soejima’s hired advisor, LeGendre provided a wealth of information about Formosa’s Paiwan natives, the geography of the island, the difficulty of two military expeditions, and likely, LeGendre’s own view about how Chinese officials reacted to both incidents.  Minister Soejima subsequently organized a diplomatic mission to China, which included LeGendre, which took place in 1873.  Soejima’s first achievement was that he was able to meet personally with the Qing Emperor, Emperor Tongzhi.  As it turned out, meeting with China’s Emperor was Soejima’s only success.

The Qing Emperor emphasized to Soejima that the 1871 incident was an internal matter, emphasizing that it was of no concern to the Japanese because Formosa was part of China’s Fujian Province.  Moreover, insofar as the Ryukyu sailors were concerned, the Ryukyu Kingdom was a vassal state of China.  Wisely ignoring China’s assertion that Formosa and the Ryukyu Island were Chinese territories, Minister Soejima argued that several of  the crewmen were Japanese from Okayama Province.  He suggested that it would be proper for China to pay a just compensation for the death of the Japanese sailors.  When the meeting ended, Tongzhi rejected Soejima’s request for compensation because, he said, the Paiwan natives were beyond the control of Chinese officials.

Tongzhi had said too much.  His claim that China exercised no control of the Paiwan natives opened the door for the Meiji government to take other actions.  Both LeGendre and a French legal advisor Gustave Émile Boissonade de Fontarabie[9] urged Japan to initiate a military response.  Once again, LeGendre proved useful to Soejima in formulating plans for a Japanese military punitive operation.  The Japanese hired two additional Americans as advisors to the Japanese foreign ministry: James Wasson[10] and Douglas Cassel[11].  US Minister John Bingham, who had replaced DeLong, objected to both Wasson and Cassel because he felt that their involvement with the Japanese government would violate American neutrality and place the United States in a difficult position with other Asian nations.

Between 1866-73, Japan was faced with several natural disasters and civil upheavals.  Emperor Meiji was hesitant to authorize a military expedition to Formosa.  Meiji also discarded Soejima’s suggestion for a Japanese invasion of Korea.  Soejima promptly resigned his office.

Owing to Japan’s internal difficulties, Meiji delayed the Formosa expedition until 1874.  Japan’s prime minister assigned the expedition to Saigō Tsugumichi.  His publicly announced mission was three-fold: (1) ascertain the facts surrounding the violence committed against Japan’s countrymen; (2) punish the wrong-doers, and (3) ensure that such violence would not reoccur.

The Prime Minister’s private instructions to Saigō were more specific.  After discovering the facts of the matter, Saigō must first consider employing peaceful means to lead “the natives toward civilization.”  He must try “to establish a profitable enterprise.”  If these measures fail, only then was Saigō authorized to use punishing force against them.  Note: it is one thing to translate the Japanese language into English, but quite another to establish clever nuance from those words.  Historians specializing in such matters suggest that Saigō’s instructions were very likely influenced by Charles LeGendre.

Within the historic context of the Taiwan affair, we discover (not for the first time) Japan’s interest in broader objectives: imperial expansionism and establishing a regional influence in East Asia.  The Meiji government’s expedition to Taiwan was a “re-start” of Japanese expansionism[12] — this time, however, adapted to America’s quest for manifest destiny (which the Japanese later called their Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere (1931)).  Historians again claim that LeGendre’s fingerprints are all over Japan’s expansionistic long-term modernization plan.  The expedition proceeded despite objections by UK and US ministers.

The invasion began on 6 May, led by Douglas Cassel to select a beachhead. Four days later, Japanese troops went ashore.  On 15 May, Cassel petitioned the head of the Island’s sixteen southern tribes to hear Saigō’s proposals.  The Paiwan chieftain, named Issa, identified the Island’s Botan tribe as the trouble-makers and, since the Botan people were out of his control, granted his permission for the Japanese to punish them.

Whether Issa was playing fast and loose with the Japanese is unknown.  What is known is that a series of confrontations evolved with casualties on both sides — and so it went until July when an outbreak of malaria wrecked the Japanese expeditionary force.  Ultimately, the Japanese agreed to withdraw from Taiwan after the Chinese government agreed to pay Japan an indemnity amounting to around 18.7 tonnes of  silver.  In total, the Japanese lost 12 men killed in action, 30 men wounded, and 560 dead due to disease.  Both Wasson and Cassel came down with malaria, as well.  Cassel was returned to his home in Ohio where he died from the disease nine months later.

Some historians claim that Japan’s invasion was a failure; other say that given China’s indemnity, it was an unparalleled success.  The latter claim appears valid for several reasons.  First, when China attempted to subdue the Paiwan natives in 1875, the natives defeated the Chinese, and this sent a signal to the Japanese that China was unable to exert its control over areas claimed as part of their empire.  Second, Japan supplanted Chinese influence in the Ryukyu Islands.  Third, China acknowledged Japan’s claim of seeking only to “civilize” barbarian societies — for the greater good of all mankind, and the Japanese were emboldened to exert their influence throughout the Far East region.   

The Meiji government demonstrated its focused interest in learning about western thought, not only by hiring foreign advisors to guide government functionaries, but also by the fact that at one time, nearly every Meiji cabinet official went abroad to study the Americans, English, Dutch, and Germans.  Within two decades, one will discover that the Imperial Japanese Navy was modeled almost exclusively on the British Royal Navy, and the Imperial Japanese Army modeled on Imperial Germany.

From the time when Soejima hired LeGendre in 1872, the Japanese wasted no time employing westerners to help modernize Japan and expand its influence throughout the Far East.  Japanese officials exchanged volumes of correspondence relating to “western thought” and sharing their analyses of information collected by Japanese spies dispatched throughout the United States and Europe.  At no time did the Japanese take their eye off the prize: implementing their own form of manifest destiny.  Charles LeGendre was part of this correspondence group — and we know this because his letters remain available to researchers through primary and secondary sources.

LeGendre’s papers offer several insights into the long-term objectives of Meiji Japan.  The Japanese challenged China’s claim of sovereignty over Taiwan and Okinawa — which they did most effectively, particularly with China’s help.  China’s claims and diplomatic arguments were at best ambiguous and at all times beyond their ability to reinforce with military power.  Secondly, the Japanese sought to impress the western powers and establish their diplomatic bona fides among them, which they accomplished by hiring western advisors, paying them a fortune for their services, and flattering them with prestigious awards.  Japan had begun to negotiate treaties and relationships based on western logic — which the western power fully understood.

The issue of sovereignty over Taiwan and Okinawa demonstrate the differences in how China and Japan addressed the challenges of western imperialism.  The Japanese gave the impression of fully incorporating western influence but limited foreign presence in Japan; the Chinese persistently resisted the foreign devils who took what they wanted anyway.  Japan became an ally; China was always the antagonist — even though both countries relied to some extent on foreign employees/advisors to modernize their military forces.

The foreign advisors in both countries belonged to a small club; they all knew each other, shared information about their clients without qualm, and nearly all of them were in some way associated with treaty ports in both China and Japan.

We must therefore recognize the efforts of Charles LeGendre — at least to some degree — for Japan’s developing interests in Taiwan and Okinawa and the beginning of an ever-widening interest by the Japanese in all of East Asia[13].  Accordingly, or at least I so believe, the American brigadier-turned-diplomat Charles LeGendre was at least indirectly responsible for Japan’s aggressive behavior over the following fifty years.  He preached colonialism to the Japanese, and they accepted it and adapted it to their own purposes.  “Leading the natives to civilization” thereafter became a Japanese codeword for Imperial domination and it could not have been tendered at a better time in Japan’s long history.

Subsequently, the United States lost its corporate memory of Charles LeGendre — but what he accomplished while in the employ of the Japanese government had a lasting impact on US-Japanese relations through 1945.  By extension, we might also note that LeGendre was indirectly responsible for 8.4 million deaths in the Pacific Theater of Operations during World War II.

Conclusion

Charles Guillaum Joseph Émile LeGendre may have been a compassionate man.  His motivation to involve himself as an advisor to the Japanese Imperial government may have been well-intentioned.  The result, however, was disastrous for well-over 8 million people.  Compassion, without a healthy dose of reality, more often than not leads to great sorrow.  America’s diplomatic corps has never learned this worthwhile lesson.

Sources:

  1. Bender, A., and others.  Taiwan.  Lonely Planet Publishers, 2004.
  2. Fix, D. L. and John Shufelt.  Charles W. LeGendre: Notes of Travel in Formosa.  London: Cambridge Press, 2013.
  3. Tartling, N.  A Sudden Rampage: The Japanese Occupation of Southeast Asia, 1941-1945.  Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2001.

Endnotes:

[1] Historians think he may have suffered from cerebral palsy.

[2] The elder of the shogunate was ranked just below the Shogun in power and prestige.

[3] Chinese officials were not known for have a great deal of patience with foreign envoys.  In granting LeGendre permission to proceed to Formosa, it might have been that the governor-general of Fujian hoped the American would receive a similar fate.  In those days, the Formosans were as easy to get along with as Texas Comanches.

[4] As the governor-general of Fujian likely suspected it would.

[5] The Small Wars Manual provided information and guidance on tactics and strategies for engaging certain types of military operations.

[6] Pickering had served for ten years in Hong Kong as Chinese Maritime Customs Supervisor.  He spoke many Chinese dialects and was very useful in dealing with obstinate Chinese officials.

[7] The Ryukyu Kingdom was a tributary state of China.  The location of the islands made the kingdom an important location for maritime trade between East Asia and Southeast Asia.  What made the Ryukyu Island kingdom unusual was that both China and Japan considered the Ryukyu king a vassal to their empires.

[8] Soejima was a student of the English language and a scholar who focused on the United States Constitution and the New Testament.  During the Boshin War, he was a military leader who was committed to the overthrow of the Tokugawa Shogunate and restoration of Imperial rule in Japan.  Soejima was the lead negotiator in the mission to Beijing to protest the murder of 54 crewmen of a Ryukyuan merchant ship by Paiwan (Formosan) aborigines. 

[9] Fontarabie was responsible for drafting most of Japan’s legal codes during the Meiji Era.

[10] James Wasson was a Civil War veteran who later obtained an appointment to the USMA.  Graduating in 1871, and having established a close friendship with Frederick Grant, the President’s son, Wasson was appointed to serve as a secretary to the American Diplomatic Legation in Japan, 1871-72.  After serving in this capacity, he returned to the United States to resign his commission and then accepted the employment in Japan as a surveyor.  In 1874, Japan commissioned Wasson a colonel of engineers and in this capacity, he participated in Japan’s invasion of Taiwan.

[11] Douglas Cassel was a veteran naval officer who, while serving on active duty with the Asiatic Squadron, was granted a  leave of absence to serve as a  naval advisor to the Meiji government.  Cassel, as it turned out, was an abrasive man who found much fault with the Japanese and did not hesitate to express his misgivings over the Japanese inability to relinquish their samurai ways and adopted a more modern approach to naval warfare.

[12] In 1592, the Japanese samurai and daimyo Toyotomi Hideyoshi — regarded as the second great unifier of Japan, led an expedition to the Korean Peninsula with the intent of conquering the Korean people.  This expedition involved two separate wars.  The first begun in 1592 (the Imjin Disturbance), a truce in 1596, and in 1597 (the Chongyu War).  The contest ended in a stalemate and the Japanese forces were withdrawn in 1598.

[13] In his lengthy negotiations with Chinese authorities over the Rover Incident LeGendre urged the Chinese to assume responsibility for civilizing the Paiwan natives.  LeGendre believed that China’s failure to assume the undertaking would lay the groundwork for any other civilized country to civilize these barbarians.  I cannot say whether LeGendre was a cynic or simply idealistic, but it would appear that he believed that the Paiwan natives deserved someone to bring them into the light — and if the Chinese wouldn’t do it, then perhaps the Japanese should.


The First Hell

When Marines landed on Guadalcanal, they came ashore without opposition.  A small Japanese construction force assigned to complete the airfield at Lunga Point wisely withdrew as soon as they realized there were Marines in the area.  Guadalcanal did eventually turn into a combat cesspool, but not during the initial landing.

Marines landing on Tulagi, however, faced off against a determined enemy.  This enemy would eventually let go, of course, but only over their dead body—and the U. S. Marines were plenty capable of accommodating them. 

On 7 August 1942, the Japanese, in their insufferable arrogance, continued to imagine that it could maintain their presence in the central Pacific region, even after their two attempts to extend their homeland defensive perimeter were thwarted in the Battle of Coral Sea (May 1942) and at Midway (June 1942).  These two back-to-back victories gave the Allied forces the opportunity to seize the offensive elsewhere in the Pacific.  Allied planners decided to make this move against the British Solomon Islands: Guadalcanal, Tulagi, and Gavutu-Tanambogo.

As part of their campaign that resulted in the Battle of the Coral Sea, the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) sent naval infantry to occupy Tulagi and nearby islands in the southern Solomons.  The Third Kure Special Naval Landing Force occupied Tulagi on 3 May 1942 [Note 1].  These troops almost immediately began to construct a seaplane base, ship refueling facility, and communications station on Tulagi and Gavutu/Tanambogo and the Florida Islands.

Aware of these activities, Allied planners became even more concerned when they observed Japanese efforts to construct an airfield near Lunga Point.  Admiral Ernest J. King, serving as Commander-in-Chief of the United States Fleet, devised a plan to deny the use of the Solomon Islands.  Otherwise, the Japanese would be positioned to threaten supply routes between the United States and Australia.  King’s long-term objective was to seize or neutralize the Japanese base of operations at Rabaul.  The Solomon campaign would also enable the Americans to support Allied efforts in New Guinea and open the way to re-take the Philippine Islands.

Admiral Chester A. Nimitz, Commander, United States Pacific, established the South Pacific theater of operations, placing Vice Admiral Robert L. Ghormley in command to direct the Allied effort in the Solomon Islands.  Major General Alexander A. Vandegrift, U. S. Marine Corps, moved his 1st Marine Division from the United States to New Zealand for pre-combat training.  Additional Allied units (land, naval, and air forces) established bases in Fiji, Samoa, and New Caledonia.  Vandegrift’s established his forward headquarters at Espiritu Santo in the New Hebrides.  The Solomon campaign would become known as Operation Watchtower.

Initially, Watchtower excluded Guadalcanal—until Allied intelligence noted the airfield construction at Lunga Point.  Nimitz then decided to incorporate Guadalcanal.  The expeditionary force involved 75 warships and troop transports (both American and Australian), which assembled near Fiji on 26 July 1942.  There was only time for one rehearsal landing.

Major General Vandegrift commanded 16,000 Allied (mostly U. S. Marines) and he intended to lead the majority of these ashore on Guadalcanal on 7 August.  Vandegrift assigned a second offensive operation to his deputy commander, Brigadier General William H. Rupertus [Note 2].  Rupertus would command the assault on Tulagi with 3,000 Marines.

Bad weather in the southern Solomon Islands allowed the Americans to approach Guadalcanal undetected early on the morning of 7 August.  The amphibious ready group split into two groups, one earmarked for Guadalcanal, and the other for Tulagi, Gavutu-Tanambogo-Florida.  Aircraft from USS Wasp attacked the Japanese installation on Tulagi in advance of the landing, destroying 15 seaplanes.  The cruiser USS San Juan and destroyers USS Monsoon and Buchanan conducted pre-landing bombardments.  To provide supporting fire for the main landing, the 1st Battalion, 2nd Marines (1/2) made an unopposed landing on Florida Island at 07:40—guided to their objective areas by Australian coast watchers.

The Battle for Tulagi

Tulagi Island is roughly two miles long and about a half-mile wide.  It’s location is south of Florida Island, 22 miles across Sealark Channel from Guadalcanal.  A ridge rising 300 feet above sea level marks the northwest-southeast axis.  Two-thirds of the way down from its northwest tip, the Ridgeline is broken by a ravine, and then rises again toward a triangle of hills.  The farthest southeast hill is designated Hill 208, and the farthest northeast hill is designated Hill 281.  Three thousand yards east of Tulagi are the islets of Gavutu and Tanambogo.  Gavutu Harbor on the Northeast end of the island, and Purvis Bay, southeast of Gavutu, forms an ideal deep-water anchorage.

At 0800, two battalions of Marines made an unopposed landing on the western shore of Tulagi, about midway between the two ends of the oblong shaped island [Note 3].  Thick beds of coral prevented landing craft from reaching the shoreline, so the Marines went over the side of their landing craft and waded ashore—a distance of about 110 yards.

The Marine landing surprised Tulagi’s Japanese defenders and it took them some time to organize their defenses.  The overall Japanese commander of the Tulagi contingent was Captain Shigetoshi Miyazaki of the Yokohama Air Group.  Miyazaki radioed his commander in Rabaul, IJN Captain Sadayoshi Yamada, informing him that Tulagi was under attack, that he was in the process of destroying signals, and his intention to resist the Americans to the last man.

2/5 secured the Northwest end of Tulagi without opposition and then joined Edson’s Raiders in their advance toward the southeastern end of the island.  Japanese resistance was stiff, but isolated.  Around noon, Captain Suzuki, commanding the 3rd Kure Force, repositioned his men on Hill 281 and a nearby ravine at the Southeast end of the island.   Japanese defensive positions included dozens of tunneled caves dug into the hill’s limestone cliffs.  Each of these contained machine-gun positions protected by layers of sandbags.  The Marines reached the primary line of resistance (MLR) near dusk and dug in for the night.

Japanese naval infantry attacked the Marine perimeter five times during the night.  Their tactics included ferocious frontal attacks and small unit attempts at infiltration.  The Marines met teach assault by fire and close combat.  Although taking a few casualties, the Marine line held through the night; the Japanese gave up far more dead or wounded.  Twenty-two year old Private First Class (PFC) Edward H. Ahrens, from Dayton, Kentucky, assigned to the 1st Raiders, single-handedly engaged the enemy in hand-to-hand combat, killing thirteen Japanese before he too was killed [Note 4].

At daybreak on 8 August, six Japanese infiltrators shot and killed three Marines before they were eliminated.  Later that morning, 2/2 landed to reinforce the landing force; 2/5, surrounded Hill 281 and the ravine.  Pounding the enemy with mortar fire, the Marines launched a coordinated attack with satchel charges and well-aimed small arms fire.  Each assault on Japanese held caves and machine-gun positions was expensive.  Japanese naval infantry fought from foxholes, slit trenches, pillboxes, and caves.  Machine-gunners fired their weapons until killed; when one gunner fell, another would take his place and this process continued until everyone in that position was dead.

Stiff Japanese resistance continued until late afternoon, although the Marines found a few stragglers over the next several days, engaged them, and killed them.  In total, only three Japanese soldiers surrendered on Tulagi.  Forty Japanese escaped by swimming to Florida Island.  Over the next several months, Marines tracked down these escapees and killed them.

The Battle for Gavutu-Tanambogo

Gavutu and Tanambogo were islets, so-called because they were little more than exposed mounds of coral rising out of the sea.  The Japanese constructed a seaplane base on Gavutu.  The highest point on Gavutu was Hill 148; on Tanambogo, Hill 121—hills the IJN defended with concrete bunkers and a series of well-fortified caves.

Separating the two islets was a causeway extending some 1,600 feet.  Nearly six hundred troops occupied these islets, including a number of Japanese and Korean civilians assigned to the 14th Construction Unit.  The two islets were mutually supportive; each was in machine gun range of the other.

Marine commanders mistakenly estimated an enemy force of around two-hundred men.  Following a naval bombardment, which  damaged the seaplane base, Marines of the 1st Parachute Battalion stormed ashore at Gavutu at noon on 7 August 1942.  Because naval gunfire had damaged the seaplane ramp, the Marines had to disembark their landing craft in an exposed position.  Japanese defensive fire began ripping up the Marines, wounding or killing one in every ten of the battalion’s 397 troops.  The landing force scrambled to get out of the killing zone. 

Captain George Stallings, the battalion operations officer, ran forward to direct the forward movement of two Browning machine guns and a mortar section.  He directed these weapons against Japanese positions to suppress their murderous fires.  Dive bombers arrived to help suppress the Japanese, with some success.  After about two hours of intense combat, the Marines reached and began climbing Hill 148.  From the top, they began working their way down the other side, clearing Japanese positions with satchel charges, grenades, and hand-to-hand combat.  Other Marines at the top of Hill 148 began delivering automatic weapons fire against the Japanese on Tanambogo’s Hill 121.

The battalion commander radioed General Rupertus for reinforcements before assaulting Tanambogo.  Rupertus detached a company from 1/2 on Florida Island to assist in the assault, ignoring the advice of his operations officer that one company would not be sufficient.  Rupertus reasoned that since most of the Japanese on Tanambogo were aircrew, aircraft maintenance, and construction personnel with no combat training., one company would do.  Again, the Marine hierarchy under-estimated Japanese strength and fighting spirit.  The rifle company was sent to Tanambogo shortly after dark on 7 August.  The Marines came ashore while illuminated by the fires created by earlier naval bombardments.  Five of the landing craft received heavy automatic weapons fire as they approached the shore, which killed or wounded several navy boat crewmen.  Realizing that his position was untenable, the company commander quickly transferred his dead and wounded to the remaining boats to be taken back to the landing ship.  He then led twelve Marines in a sprint across the causeway to cover on Gavutu.

During the night, heavy thunderstorms dropped torrential rains on the islets.  Under this cover, the Japanese launched several assaults against the Marine perimeter.  General Vandegrift, monitoring the operation from Guadalcanal, ordered 3/2 to prepare for landing on Tanambogo the next morning.  The battalion began moving ashore at 10:00 on 8 August.  Initially, the landing received air support from carrier-based attack aircraft, but General Vandegrift called it off after two aircraft accidentally dropped their bombs on Marine positions — killing four Marines.  USS San Juan directed accurate naval gunfire on Tanambogo lasting for about thirty minutes.  Marines from Gavutu provided covering fire while 3/2 went ashore, which enabled the battalion to complete its landing phase by 12:00.

3rd Battalion, 2nd Marines began its assault at 16:15, supported by two Stuart light tanks.  One of these tanks became stuck on a large tree stump and was isolated from its infantry support.  Fifty Japanese airmen assaulted the tank and set it on fire, killing two crewmen and nearly beating the remaining two Marines to death before infantry fire killed most of the attackers [Note 5].

3/2 Marines began clearing operations by systematically destroying the Japanese cave network with satchel charges and hand grenades.  During the night of 8 August, Japanese defenders initiated several assaults, which frequently involved hand-to-hand engagements.  By noon on 9 August, all Japanese resistance on Tanambogo ended.  During the battle for Tulagi and Gavutu-Tanambogo, Marines killed 863 Japanese soldiers/airmen and took twenty prisoners (most of whom were civilian laborers).  Marine and Navy losses were 122 killed in action, 200 wounded.

The U. S. Navy quickly turned the Tulagi anchorage into a naval base/refueling station.  Japanese naval superiority in the “slot” forced Allied ships into the refuge of Tulagi during hours of darkness and ships encountering significant battle damage were usually anchored at Tulagi for repairs.  Later in the war, Tulagi became an operating base for the Navy’s patrol-torpedo boats; Florida Island became an American seaplane base.

Once officials declared the islets “secure,” General Rupertus’ landing force joined the rest of the 1st Marine Division on Guadalcanal.   

Sources:

  1. Alexander, J. H.  Edson’s Raiders: The 1st Marine Raider Battalion in World War II.  Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2000.
  2. Christ, J. F.  Battalion of the Damned: 1st Marine Paratroopers at Gavutu and Bloody Ridge, 1942.  Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2007.
  3. Hammel, E.  Carrier Clash: The Invasion of Guadalcanal & The Battle of the Eastern Solomons, August 1942.  St. Paul: Zenith Press, 1999.
  4. Jersey, S. C.  Hell’s Islands: The Untold Story of Guadalcanal.  College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2008.
  5. Miller, J.  Guadalcanal: The First Offensive.  Washington: Center of Military History, 1995.

Endnotes:

[1] The Special Naval Landing Forces were not called “marines,” but their purpose was identical to those of their American opponents: to project naval power ashore.

[2] William H. Rupertus (1889-1945) was a highly decorated Marine Corps officer who participated in the Banana Wars, as a China Marine, and in World War II at Guadalcanal, New Britain, and the Marianas  Island campaigns.  A distinguished marksman and a member of the famed Marine Corps Rifle Team, Rupertus was the author of the now famous Rifleman’s Creed.  

[3] Commanding officers were: 1st Raider Battalion, Lieutenant Colonel Merritt A. Edson; 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines (1/5), Lieutenant Colonel Harold E. Rosecrans.  Company B and Company D of the 1st Raiders were first ashore, followed by Company A and Company C.  Japanese defenders did not make a serious attempt to oppose the landing; they instead withdrew into a network of caves and dugouts intending to inflict as many casualties on the Marines as possible.  Edson soon realized that naval and aerial bombing had no effect on the Japanese defenses unless they were “direct hit.”

[4] Posthumously awarded the Navy Cross.

[5] Marines later discovered 42 Japanese bodies around the tank, one of whom was the Japanese executive officer of the Yokohama Air Group, Lieutenant Commander Saburo Katsuta, and several of his seaplane pilots.  The overall commander at Tanambogo was Navy captain Miyazaki, who blew himself up inside his command post during the late afternoon of 8 August.