The Road to War

U. S. Marine Corps Defense Battalions

Some Background

The Marine Corps mission, now a long tradition, is to locate, close with, and destroy the enemy by fire and maneuver, or to repel the enemy’s assault by fire and close combat.  No matter what occupational specialty assigned, every Marine is a trained rifleman.  Up-close and personal is how Marines fight.  As an organization, the Corps has two essential purposes: (1) making Marines, and (2) winning battles.

People who seek to join the Marine Corps are already psychologically unique because every potential recruit knows what the Marine Corps will expect from them from the very beginning of their enlistment process.  Knowing this, however, is insufficient.  Every enlisted recruit and every officer candidate must measure up to the Corps’ uncompromising high standards.  They must demonstrate that they have what it takes to serve as a US Marine.  They do this either at recruit training depots or at the officer candidate school — which is where they earn the title, MARINE.

Marines are naval infantry.  Between 1775-1900, Marines primarily served in ship’s detachments, navy yards, and provisional forces for expeditionary service ashore.  Between 1900-1940, Marines participated in irregular warfare and counter-insurgency operations in support of American foreign policy.  Conventionally, Marines served with enviable distinction in the Spanish-American War, World War I, World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and in the Middle Eastern Wars.

Organizationally, the Marine Corps is composed of its Headquarters element (Headquarters Marine Corps) (HQMC), its supporting establishments (Marine Corps Bases and Air Stations), and the Operating Forces.  The Operating forces (presently) consist of three infantry divisions, three air wings, three logistical commands, and their reserve counterparts.  The Marine Corps organizes its deployed forces as Marine Air-Ground Task Forces (MAGTFs), which range from battalion landing teams to reinforced infantry divisions.  While war strategies are matters for senior (flag rank) officers, battlefield tactics frequently fall within the purview of Marine noncommissioned officers (NCOs). 

The structure of the Marine Corps (1775-present) has been an evolutionary process.   At its beginning, Congress authorized the recruitment of two Marines battalions and directed that their officers organize them for service aboard ships of war as riflemen.  Historically, the size of the Marine Corps has expanded and contracted to meet the nation’s demands in times of peace and war.  In the Revolutionary War period, for example, the size of shipboard detachments depended on the ship’s size to which assigned. The size of the Marine Corps depended on the missions assigned to it by Congress.  Following the Revolutionary War, the new U.S. Congress determined that it could no longer afford to maintain a naval force, so both the Navy and Marine Corps disbanded between 1783-1798.  The Navy and Marine Corps have continuously served the American people since 1798; their size in ships and manpower ceilings is always a matter for the Congress to decide.

Sea Change

1898

Victory over Spain in 1898 was a pivotal event because it propelled a somewhat backwater United States onto the world stage and had a sudden and significant influence on the growth of the US Navy and Marine Corps.  With victory over Spain came vast territorial acquisitions that included the Philippine Islands, Guam, Samoa, Cuba, and Puerto Rico.  These were in addition to already existing US interests in Central America (Nicaragua and the Isthmus of Panama).  Territorial acquisition meant that the United States would have to defend these faraway places, and the only service that could do that was the US Navy — challenges never imagined before 1898.

Realizing that the post-Civil War Navy was initially out of its depth in this new world order, the Secretary of the Navy (SECNAV) established the General Board of the Navy in 1900.  The Board’s membership included the Navy’s most senior officers, men who were at the end of their careers upon whom he could rely on offering deliberate and objective analyses of world events and offering recommendations on a wide range of issues — from ship design to naval strategy and contingency planning and training.  The General Board undertook the development of war plans for responding to anticipated threats against the US East Coast, the Antilles, and, eventually, the Panama Canal.

Initially, the General Board of the Navy viewed Great Britain as a “most likely” threat to American interests and sovereignty.[1]  With greater allied cooperation with the United Kingdom, however, the General Board turned its attention toward Imperial Germany,[2] especially after Spain sold its Central Pacific territories to Imperial Germany and German military construction projects  in the Pacific and coastal China.  Japan’s victory over Imperial Russia in 1905 forced the US to consider conflict with the Japanese, as well.[3]

In late 1901, the Navy General Board demanded that (then) Major General Commandant Charles Heywood develop a four-company infantry battalion for expeditionary and advanced base defense training.  The Navy Board envisioned a Marine battalion that could rapidly deploy (ship to shore) in defense of American territories as part of the Asiatic Fleet and do so without awaiting the arrival of US Army units from the United States.  The writings of Captain Dion Williams,  (then assigned to the Office of Naval Intelligence), emphasized the importance of the Navy’s ability to refuel its ships from Pacific coaling stations.  Since it was incumbent upon the Navy to defend those advanced bases, the Navy turned to the Marine Corps for this purpose.

One achieves an understanding of warfare by reading history and then thinking about an event’s causes, its actors, what they did, why they did it, the mistakes they made, and the consequences of conflict.  Learning how to prepare for war is a bit more complicated — often involving many years of trial and error.  In 1907, a battalion under Major Eli K. Cole[4] participated in a training exercise in Subic Bay, the Philippine Islands.  It took his Marines ten weeks to set emplace 44 heavy shore battery guns.  The lesson the Marine Corps learned from this exercise pointed to the wisdom of pre-staging men and material as “rapid response” elements of the naval expeditionary forces.  Cole’s exercise prompted the Navy Board to recommend establishment of permanent advanced bases within the Navy’s defensive sphere.

In 1913, Major General Commandant William P. Biddle ordered a Marine Corps Advanced Base Force.  He named it the 1st Advanced Force Brigade.[5]  Biddle further re-designated the Brigade’s two regiments as the Fixed Defense Regiment (under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Charles G. Long)[6] and the Mobile Defense Regiment (under Colonel George Barnett).[7]

World events temporarily interfered with the Corps’ effort to improve the Advanced Base Force concept.  In 1914, the President dispatched a Marine expeditionary force to Vera Cruz, Mexico.  The Marines used this event to test and validate previously developed theories;[8] these, in turn, providing essential lessons for ongoing developments in Marine Corps force structure.

SgtMaj Dan Daly USMC

During World War I, the 4th Marine Brigade operated as one of two brigades within the US Second Infantry Division.  The 4th Marine Brigade consisted of the 5th Marine Regiment, 6th Marine Regiment, and the 6th Machine-gun Battalion.  A fully deployed combat brigade was a significant increase in overall Marine Corps strength, but the American Expeditionary Force in Europe was not the only iron in the fire.  HQMC formed an additional expeditionary brigade for service in the Caribbean and Central America during the so-called banana wars.  In 1919-1920, post war reductions in funding forced the Marine Corps to disband several infantry regiments/separate battalions.

In 1921, Major General Commandant John A. Lejeune continued the work undertaken in previous decades — work that actually continues today.  Each achievement, methodological or technological, becomes the foundation upon which new ideas emerge — and so it goes.   In 1933, creating and perfecting the Advanced Base Force led to the creation of the Fleet Marine Forces (Atlantic and Pacific) — which became an integral part of the United States Atlantic and Pacific Fleets.

The primary mission of the Fleet Marine Force (FMF) was the seizure and temporary defense of advanced bases, in concert with US fleet operations.  In the 1920s and 1930s, the United States participated in a series of naval conferences designed to reduce the likelihood of war by limiting armaments (i.e., the size of national navies).  It was, at best, a romantic assumption.  The US Congress began thinking defensively, prompting a significant reduction in the size of the military services.  Defense is not how the Marine Corps wins battles; senior Marine officers remained focused on offensive operations and defensive thinking had no appreciable impact on the readiness planning of the Fleet Marine Force.

 The vast range of US territories and the requirement to defend them continued as a vital interest to the Navy and as a primary responsibility of the Marine Corps.  A formal review of responsibilities assigned to the Army and Navy, designed to avoid duplication of effort, determined that the Army should confine itself to continental land operations. The Navy should focus its attention on the security of overseas territories and possessions.

By 1937, the Navy began to consider creating Marine Corps security detachments, particularly at vulnerable locations in the Pacific, in conjunction with Plan Orange.  Initially, the Navy Board envisioned security detachments as battalion-sized organizations.  In 1938, the Navy Board recommended the placement of defense battalions at Midway, Wake, and Johnston Islands —in sufficient strength and size to repel minor naval raids.

Defense battalions were coastal artillery units armed with 5-inch guns (6), anti-aircraft guns (12), machine guns (48 .30 caliber) (48 .50 caliber), searchlights (6), and sound locators (6).  The Battalion’s usual complement involved 28 officers and 482 enlisted men, but a battalion’s size depended on the specific size of the area the battalion was charged to defend.  Once ashore, owing to the size of naval guns, the Battalion would become “immobile.”  In effect, once defense battalions assumed their positions, there would be no retreat.[9]

Initially, the Marine Corps envisioned four defense battalions; their importance (in relation to the Marine Corps as a whole) was significant.  Of the Corps’ total strength (27,000 officers and enlisted men), 9,000 Marines would serve as part of the Fleet Marine Force, and 2,844 of those would serve in defense battalions.

Defense battalions began to form in late 1939.  By 7 December 1941, there were seven active battalions: the 1st, 2nd, 6th, and 7th formed at Marine Corps Base, San Diego, California; the 3rd, 4th, and 5th formed at Parris Island, South Carolina.  The 5th Defense Battalion was the first such battalion to deploy to a potentially hostile shore.

Under the command of Colonel Lloyd L. Leech, the 5th Defense Battalion deployed to Iceland in June 1941 as part of the 1st Marine Brigade (Provisional).  In addition to the 5th Defense Battalion, the Brigade included the 6th Marines, 2nd Battalion, 10th Marines, and various other supporting units to reinforce British forces charged with blocking any German attempt to seize Iceland.  To facilitate training and instruction for the American Marines, the brigade commander assented to the 5th Defense Battalion’s incorporation into the British air defense system.

Over time, it became increasingly unlikely that Germany would seize Iceland.  However, while the Pacific command urgently needed the 1st Brigade, its eventual reassignment was contingent upon the arrival in Iceland US Army units to replace the Marines.  Before Pearl Harbor, statutory provisions precluded the assignment of non-volunteer troops to overseas locations.  Army conscripts could not serve in Iceland until a state of war existed between the United States and its adversaries.  The Brigade was finally relieved by Army units in March 1942.

Of the remaining defense battalions, all but one (2nd) deployed to the Pacific before Pearl Harbor.  The 2nd Defense Battalion, under Lieutenant Colonel Raymond E. Knapp, joined the 2nd Marine Brigade in Samoa in January 1942.  Already serving in Samoa was the 7th Defense Battalion, under Lieutenant Colonel Lester A. Dessez.[10]  The 7th Defense Battalion was the first FMF unit to operate in the South Pacific theater of operations.

The 3rd Defense Battalion formed in late 1939.  After initial training, the Battalion embarked for Pearl Harbor in April 1940.  In September, the Commanding General, Fleet Marine Force, Pacific ordered elements of the Battalion to Midway Island.  The entire Battalion reformed at Midway in February 1941.  In September 1941, the 6th Defense Battalion replaced the 3rd Battalion at Midway, which then returned to Hawaii and participated in defense of Pearl Harbor. Also, in Hawaii on 7 December 1941, was the 1st Defense Battalion, Lieutenant Colonel Bert A. Bone, and the 4th Defense Battalion, under Colonel Harold S. Fassett. 

The preceding may seem like an orderly process, but it was far from that.  Moving large numbers of Marines and their heavy (and expensive) equipment is never easy, rarely tidy, and always compounded by higher headquarters.  For instance, in 1939, the 1st Defense Battalion formed by renaming the 2nd Battalion, 15th Marines, and then reorganizing it, re-equipping it, and re-positioning it to serve in its new role.  In February 1941, the 1st Defense Battalion arrived at Pearl Harbor from San Diego.  No sooner had the Battalion arrived when higher authority split it apart into subunits and redistributed them throughout the Central Pacific.  FMF Pacific (also, FMFPac) dispatched Detachment A, 1st Defense Battalion to Palmyra Island (arriving 10 March).  A month later, HQMC renamed the unit “Marine Detachment, 1st Marine Defense Battalion, Palmyra Island.” Additional subunits became Marine Detachments at Johnston (mid-July) and Wake (late-July).  Thus, on 7 December 1941, the 1st Defense Battalion had subunits on three atolls with their headquarters element remaining at Pearl Harbor.

By early December, Marine defense battalions defended Midway, Johnston, Palmyra, Samoa, and Wake.  The global war plan, then in effect, renamed “Rainbow Five,” called for the development of air bases at all these sites.  After 7 December, the United States had to concede Guam (and its small naval facility) to the Japanese owing to its position in the center of the Japanese-held Marianas Island group.  The Navy’s intention behind creating these small forward bases was two-fold.  Samoa would help protect communication routes in the Southwest Pacific; Midway, Johnston, Palmyra, and Wake were offered for the protection of Oahu installations.  None of the forward bases provided much protection, however.

At Pearl Harbor

Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor started at 0755 on 7 December 1941.  The assault lasted two hours.  The defense battalions offered limited (and generally ineffective) opposition to Japanese forces.  This generally poor performance was not the fault of the defense battalions, however.  Japan’s attack was a surprise event well-timed for Sunday morning.  Accordingly, all US responses were haphazard. 

Before the Japanese attack, the United States was already preparing for hostilities — albeit with only limited intelligence information.  Hawaii-based commanders heard nothing from Washington beyond cautionary advice.  Reacting with caution, senior commanders ordered all munitions secured at widely dispersed locations.  Motor vehicles were carefully stored in are motor pools, berthed ships and parked aircraft were lined up neatly for ease of monitoring security — in case Japanese agents attempted to sabotage American military equipment.  When the Japanese attacked, air defense positions had no ammunition with which to shoot down enemy planes.  Within a few moments of the attack, air and ground commanders ordered munitions, but there  were no vehicles available to transport it.  By the time ammunition did arrive, the Japanese attack was over.

Within six minutes of the beginning of the Japanese attack, Marines from the defense battalion had machine guns set up and engaged the enemy.  These were the only weapons used in the defense of Pearl Harbor.  It was a bit too little. 

Within mere hours after Japan’s attack, Navy and Marine commanders took steps to reinforce outlying island garrisons, rushing substantial numbers of Marines to Midway, Johnston, and Palmyra.  These Marines and their equipment came from the 1st, 3rd, and 4th Defense Battalions. Midway’s assets included 17 Scout/Bombers, ferried to the island commander via the aircraft carrier USS Lexington.  Once the ship returned to Pearl Harbor, additional flights were direct over-ocean movements.  The distance from Pearl Harbor to Midway was 1,137 miles.

Guam

The situation on Guam was bleak.  Lieutenant Colonel William K. McNulty’s 122 Marines (and 15 additional Marines serving on detached duty with the Guamanian Police Force) were overwhelmed by Japanese forces.

Johnston Island

Johnston Island, a spec of sand in the middle of the ocean, was too small and too close to the Hawaiian Islands to risk a land assault, but it was a tempting target.  Major Francis B. Loomis, serving as the 1st Defense Battalion executive officer, was present at Johnston Island when the Japanese made their move against Pearl Harbor.  As the senior officer present, Loomis assumed overall command of American military assets.

The first contact the Johnson Island Marines had with the Japanese occurred on 12 December when a submarine surfaced  8,000 yards off Sand Island and began firing green star clusters, which exploded high overhead.  Marines returned fire with a 5-inch gun, and the submarine withdrew.  Three days later, two Japanese ships opened fire and damaged several buildings and an oil storage facility.  Again, the Marines answered with a 5-inch gun, and the enemy ships withdrew before suffering any damage.  On the nights of 18, 21, and 22 December, enemy submarines returned to deliver harassing fire.  By the end of the month, reinforcements arrived from Hawaii, adding another 5-inch battery, another 3-inch battery, and 16 more machine guns —but the Marines heard no more from the Japanese for the duration of the war.

Palmyra Island

Palmyra Island experienced a single Japanese attack on 24 December.  A Japanese submarine surfaced 3,000 yards offshore and fired its deck guns at a dredge in the lagoon.  The 5-inch battery drove the submarine away.  Lieutenant Colonel Bone, commanding the 1st Defense Battalion, arrived with reinforcements at the end of December.  The Palmyra garrison became 1st Defensive Battalion in March.  Spreading Marines all over the Central Pacific had the effect of diminishing unit cohesiveness within the defense battalions.  To solve this problem, local commands absorbed the various “detachments” into their organizations.

Wake Island

By mid-December world attention was focused on events unfolding at Wake Island.  The unfolding battle electrified everyone.  On 7 December 1941, the Wake Island detachment totaled barely 400 officers and men, including 9 officers and 200 enlisted men who had only joined the detachment in the previous month.  The detachment commander was Major James P. S. Devereux.  The Island’s air support squadron included 12 F4F-3 Wildcats of Major Paul A. Putnam’s VMF-211 detachment, which arrived on 4 December.[11]  Putnam reported to Devereux, who reported to the Island Commander, Commander Winfield S. Cunningham, USN.

There were no optimists among the Marines of Wake Island.  Devereux’s detachment was understrength; one battery of 3-inch guns was completely unmanned.  Two other batteries could field only three of four guns (each), and Echo Battery had no height-finding equipment.  Ground and anti-air crew-served weapons were only half manned.  The detachment had no radar and no sound-locator equipment.  By the time Wake Marines learned of the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor, VMF-211’s dawn patrol was already aloft.  Putnam dispersed his remaining aircraft, and the detachment’s Marines manned their posts.

Shortly before noon on 8 December (Wake Island was in a different date-time-zone from Hawaii), 36 Japanese bombers attacked Wake Island, their bomb load mostly hitting the airstrip where seven of the eight parked Wildcats were destroyed, exploding aviation gas storage tanks, and killing 23 of the 55 enlisted aviation ground crewmen.  The bombers returned each day for the next six days, always at the same time of day.  Each day, the Japanese inflicted more damage and took more lives.  At 0300 on 11 December, a Japanese assault force appeared offshore.  Warships moved in after dawn to begin raking fire prelude to troop landings.  By 0615, the Marines had severely damaged the cruiser Yubari and sunk the destroyer Havate.  Additionally, Marines damaged a light cruiser, two destroyers, and a troop transport.  The Japanese withdrew to Kwajalein Island.

In the following week, Marines lost an additional three aircraft to Japanese bombers, half their trucks, and engineering equipment, most of their diesel fuel and dynamite, and the motor pool, warehouse, machine shop, and the blacksmith shop was wholly destroyed.  The Japanese destroyed the last two Wildcats on 22 December during aerial combat.  By this time, the Marines at Wake Island were running a pool on their expected shelf-life.

At dawn on 23 December, another Japanese assault force appeared offshore.  One-thousand Imperial Japanese Army and 500 Imperial Japanese Navy prepared to land on Wake Island.  Marines engaged the first wave of Japanese at 0245, but none of the 5-inch guns were able to take destroyers/transports under fire.  The 3-inch guns inflicted some damage, but not enough to hinder the landing.  Lacking any infantry support, overwhelming Japanese forces pushed the Marines back to secondary defensive positions.  Gun crews, in defending themselves, had to forsake the big guns.  By 0500, the Marines realized that the dance was about over.  At dawn, enemy carrier-based fighters and bombers arrived overhead.  Devereux advised Cunningham that he could no longer maintain organized resistance.  With Cunningham’s concurrence, Devereux surrendered his force to the Japanese landing force commander.

The story of Wilkes Island unfolded differently, however.  At Wilkes, the battle raged so fiercely that at daybreak, Captain Wesley Mc. Platt[12] not only destroyed the Japanese landing party after the initial Japanese assault, but he also reorganized his men and ordered a ruthless counterattack, killing every Japanese soldier he could find, one after another.  Captain Platt was out of contact with Devereux and did not know of the surrender until around 1330 when Platt saw Devereux approaching a Japanese officer.  Platt was not a happy camper, but he obeyed Major Devereux’s order to relinquish his arms to the Japanese.

Midway

Admiral Yamamoto’s plan for seizing Midway Island was typically complex.[13]  He also based his assumptions on faulty intelligence.  He believed that only two aircraft carriers were available to the Pacific Fleet after the Battle of the Coral Sea in May 1942.  After the repair of USS Yorktown, the Navy had three carriers: Enterprise, Hornet, and Yorktown.  He also misread the morale of  the US Armed Forces and the general American population.  Admiral Yamamoto was a crafty fellow, but he did not know that the Americans had broken the naval code.  The key for the Americans was learning that the Japanese designation of Midway Island was JN-25.

Lieutenant Colonel Harold D. Shannon ordered his 6th Defense Battalion to “general quarters” as soon as he learned of the Japanese attack at Wake Island.  It was a sensibly prudent order, but its effect was that it kept his Marines on edge for an extended period.  No action developed that day, but shortly after dark, the Japanese destroyers Akebono and Ushio arrived offshore.  Their mission was to harass the Island’s defenders and determine the placement of Marine shore batteries.  Two Japanese rounds hit the Island’s power plant and disrupted the communications center.[14]  As the two ships set up for their second run into the beach, Shannon ordered his Marines to engage enemy targets at will.  Battery A’s 5-inch guns remained silent due to the break down in communications, but Battery B and Battery D opened up with their 5-inch naval artillery and 3-inch anti-aircraft guns.  The .50 caliber machine-guns fired once the destroyers were within range.  The Japanese ships withdrew shortly afterward.

Reinforcements and resupply soon arrived from Hawaii.  Among the heavy weapons were 7-inch guns removed from World War I ships that had been in storage for many years.  Midway Island was well-armed and adequately manned to repel an enemy assault; the American defenders responded to several Japanese probing raids early in 1942.  Aviation assets at Midway included both Navy and Marine Corps combat aircraft.  The Navy had four PBY squadrons (31 Patrol planes), and six Grumman TBF Avengers from VT-8.  Marine Corps aircraft included Scout/Bomber squadron VMSB-231 (17 SB2U-3 Vindicators), and the remainder of VMF-221 (arriving at Midway from USS Saratoga with 14 F2A-3 Brewster Buffaloes).  Following the Battle of the Coral Sea, the Pacific Fleet quickly replaced lost aircrews with additional Navy and Marine Corps air squadrons.

In May 1942, FMFPac reinforced the 6th Defense Battalion with three additional 3-inch batteries, a 37-mm anti-aircraft battery, a 20-mm anti-aircraft battery, and two rifle companies from the 2nd Raider Battalion with five light tanks in direct support.  FMFPac ordered all Marine aircraft at Midway consolidated under Marine Aircraft Group (MAG)-22.  The MAG received 16 SMD-2 Dauntless Diver Bombers and seven Grumman Wildcat fighters.

As the Battle of Midway Island began on 4 June 1942, it became apparent that the defense of the atoll was of secondary importance to the air engagements at sea, but Midway was the bait that had drawn Yamamoto’s task forces within range of US carrier aircraft.  The Marines ashore were, however, ready for any eventuality.  PBYs from Midway first spotted Japanese naval units at 0900 on 3 June.  Army B-17s launched that afternoon to bomb the Japanese fleet, but none of the bombs hit their targets.  At 0545 on 4 June, Navy PBYs fixed an approaching air assault position consisting of over 100 Japanese torpedo, dive bombers, and escort fighters (numbers estimated).  US aircraft were in the air within ten minutes to intercept them.  Japanese Zeros easily destroyed Marine buffaloes, but not without losing several bombers and fighters of their own.  The survivors arrived over Midway at around 0630.  The Japanese attacked lasted thirty minutes.  Marine anti-air defenses claimed ten kills and seemed anti-climactic, but Japan’s air assault was what the Navy fleet commander wanted.  As these planes returned to their carriers, US aircraft followed them.

The Battle of Midway’s significance was that it signaled the end of the United States’ defensive war and the beginning of America’s offensive.  In these early days of a long war, the Defense Battalions’ Marines had played their role and contributed to the war effort.  With the arrival of additional Marines, most of whom had enlisted after the attack on Pearl Harbor, many found their way into the Defense Battalions.  By the end of 1942, the Marine Corps had 14 defense battalions.  Two years later, there were twenty such battalions.

Guadalcanal and beyond

The assault of Guadalcanal was the first American land offensive in the Pacific war.  The 3rd Defense Battalion provided support to the 1st Marine Division’s landing.  The landing force commander split the Battalion to support simultaneous operations at Guadalcanal and Tulagi.  The Battalion’s machine-gun sections and 90-mm anti-aircraft guns[15] went ashore in the first assault waves.  Similarly, the 9th Defense Battalion supported the assault on the Munda Peninsula in July 1943.  By this time, defense battalions employed 155-mm and 40-mm guns.  On Vella Lavella, the 4th Defense Battalion’s 90-mm gun was the Japanese pilot’s worst nightmare.  Both the 9th and 14th Defense Battalion went ashore with the landing forces at Guam in 1944.  When Japanese aircraft were no longer capable of threatening Marine occupied terrain, senior officers decided that the battalions had served their purpose.  HQMC disbanded most defense battalions after the war —but one (sort of) remains today.  One Marine responsibility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, is to defend the naval base.  This mission is similar to that of the World War II-era defense battalion.

Sources:

  1. Cole, E. K.  Advanced Base Force Training.  Philadelphia: 1915.
  2. Davis, H. C.  Advanced Place Training.  Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1911.
  3. Jackson, R. H.  History of the Advanced Base.  Records of the General Board of the Navy, 1913.
  4. Jackson, R. H.  The Naval Advanced Base. Records of the General Board of the Navy, 1915.
  5. McBride, W. M.  Technological Change and the United States Navy, 1865-1945.  Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001.
  6. Millett, A. R.  Semper Fidelis: The History of the United States Marine Corps.  New York: The Free Press, 1991.
  7. Simmons, E. H.  The United States Marines: A History.  Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1974.

Endnotes:

[1] Incorporated as War Plan Red.

[2] Incorporated as War Plan Black.

[3] Incorporated as War Plan Orange.

[4] Eli Kelley Cole (1867-1929) graduated from the US Naval Academy in 1888, served as a naval officer for two years, and transferred to the US Marine Corps in 1890.  In 1915, Cole, Williams, Earl H. Ellis, John H. Russell, and Robert H. Dunlap were the Marine Corps’ deepest thinkers.  While commanding the 1st Provisional Brigade in Haiti, he received the Navy Cross Medal.  He later commanded the US Army’s 41st Infantry Division during World War I, and served as the first Assistant Commandant of the Marine Corps.  He passed away while still serving on active duty.

[5] The forebear of the 1st Marine Division.

[6] Designated 2nd Regiment, Advance Base Brigade on 18 February 1914 (today, 1st Marines).

[7] Designated 1st Regiment, Advance Base Brigade on 18 February 1914 (today, 2nd Marines).

[8] Fleet exercises were important rehearsals in the development of amphibious warfare and the establishment of advanced base defenses, including the art and science of loading/un-loading ships, transfer of equipment from ship to shore, employment of shore artillery, signal science, combat engineering, harbor construction/defense, and the employment of automatic weapons.

[9] See also, Wake Island (in three parts).

[10] Colonel Dessez’ also formed and trained the 1st Samoan Battalion (infantry) (territorial reserve).

[11] One of Putnam’s flight officers was Captain Frank C. Tharin, a graduate of the US Naval Academy (1934).  While serving on Wake Island, Tharin distinguished himself through his courage and aeronautical skill against overwhelming Japanese air forces.  He was a recipient of the Distinguished Flying Cross, Silver Star Medal, and two Air Medals.  Tharin spend the war in a Japanese POW camp.  I worked for LtGen Tharin in 1968 at a time when Tharin served as the Operations Deputy to the Commandant of the Marine Corps.  General Tharin passed away in 1990.

[12] Wesley McCoy Platt survived the war as a POW.  The United States subsequently awarded him the Silver Star Medal, Legion of Merit, and Purple Heart Medal.  During the Korean War, Colonel Platt died of wounds while serving on the staff of Major General Oliver P. Smith, USMC, who commanded the 1st Marine Division at the Chosin Reservoir.

[13] Warfare is by its nature complex; overly complicated war plans simply increase the likelihood of failure at critical moments of the battle.  

[14] First Lieutenant George H. Cannon, a communications officer, received severe wounds from Japanese guns but he refused evacuation until the communications center was once more up and running.  Cannon died shortly afterwards. He received the Medal of Honor posthumously, the first Marine to receive the nation’s highest medal during World War II.

[15] The round of the 90-mm gun weighed 23 pounds.  It had a maximum range of 39,500 feet.


One Face of War

Private First Class John Wilson Hoffman, USMC

Lott, Texas is a small town in Falls County.  The settlement began in 1889 with the construction of the San Antonio & Aransas Pass Railroad.  The town was named after Uriah Lott, who at the time was president of the railroad company.  In 1889, the settlement involved a total of around two-hundred folks.  They were church-going people, as evidenced by the fact that Lott, Texas had three churches in 1892.  There were also two cotton gins, and two gristmills.  In 1892, there were 350 people living in Lott and by then the town had a weekly newspaper.  In eight more years, the town had grown to 1,200 citizens.  Besides those working for the railroad, there were local farmers who raised corn and cotton.

But Lott was typical of small Texas towns.  Economic conditions were meager, and folks scratched out their existence through hard work barely rewarded.  And, as with most other Texas communities, the Great Depression took its toll and people began to move away.  In 1930, only 650 people were recorded living there in the national census.  Roosevelt’s Public Works Administration helped, of course.  Government subsidies encouraged diversification from farming into stock raising and truck farming.  Even now, though, economic opportunities are limited, and the town relies heavily on the speed trap along State Highway 44/US Highway 77.  In 2010, 759 people lived in Lott, Texas.

One of its citizens, born and raised for a time in Lott, was John Wilson Hoffman.  One of four children, John was born in 1922.  His parents, John Wilson Hoffman, Sr., and Sadie Hoffman, moved their family to Houston in 1929.  John graduated from Stephen F. Austin High School in the class of 1940 and the 18-year old went to work for Lindle Air Products Company as a shipping clerk.  In August 1942, John was 20-years-old, the nation was at war, and the young patriot John Wilson Hoffman, Jr. joined the United States Marine Corps.

J. W. Hoffman

After recruit training, the Marines assigned Hoffman to the 18th Marine Regiment — combat engineers with the 2nd Marine Division.  The regiment was not slated to participate in the Battle of Guadalcanal, but the 6th Marine Regiment was organizing and needed men to fill their ranks.  In mid-December 1942, John Hoffman was one of several dozen engineers transferred to the 6th Marines and Hoffman ended up in Lima Company, 3/6.  The regiment shipped out to New Zealand for pre-combat training.

The ladies of New Zealand are lovely to look at, and young Marines are easy to fall in love — as did John W. Hoffman, and he was so much in love with his New Zealand lassie that he didn’t want to leave her.  When 3/6 sailed for the Solomon Islands, John was not among them.  In fact, no one saw Hoffman again until 7 January 1943, when he surrendered to New Zealand police in Wellington.

When 3/6 returned from Guadalcanal in late February 1943, Hoffman was waiting for them at Camp Russell.  Hoffman received a court-martial for missing his movement.  During war, this is a serious offense — but it could have been worse.  Had his superiors charged him with desertion in time of war, he may have faced a death penalty.  Hoffman was found guilty of “missing movement,” and sentenced to ninety days in the brig.  He was also fined $15.00 per month for three months.  It doesn’t seem like much of a fine, but Hoffman was only making $50/month in 1943.

After three months of confinement in a Marine Corps brig, Hoffman was a changed man.  Upon release, he returned to his unit, stayed out of trouble, and applied himself to combat training.  His transformation from a love-starved puppy to a fighting grunt was so impressive that his company commander promoted him to Private First Class (PFC).

John Hoffman had become a “squared away” Marine.  When Lima Company mustered for their next combat assignment, John Hoffman was present and accounted for.  What no one in Lima Company knew was that their next assignment would take them to a tiny atoll in the middle of a very large ocean.  The atoll had a name — Tarawa.  The island was Betio.

Far above the station of mere privates, America’s war planners had been looking for an air base capable of supporting operations across the mid-Pacific — to the Philippines in the South, and to Japan in the North.  The need for advanced bases led these war planners to focus their attention on the Mariana Islands, which at the time were heavily defended by the Imperial Japanese Army and Navy.  Before the US could seize the Marianas group, they would have to control the Marshall Islands, but the Marshalls were cut off from direct communications with Hawaii by a Japanese garrison  on the small island of Betio, on the western side of the Tarawa Atoll in the Gilbert Islands.  Before the Americans could concentrate on the Mariana Islands, they would have to neutralize the Japanese on Betio.

Betio Island is Tarawa’s largest.  It is located about 2,400 miles southwest of Pearl Harbor.  Despite its size on the atoll, it is infinitesimally small.  It is a flat island, two miles long, triangle shaped, and at its widest point, only 800 yards from shore to shore.

If Evans Carlson’s diversionary raid at Makin Island accomplished anything at all, besides getting good Marines killed, it was that it sent a signal to the Imperial Japanese that their Island defenses were vulnerable to American attack — and that the Americans viewed the Gilbert Islands as an important objective. 

Thus warned, the Japanese reinforced Betio with its 6th Special Landing Force (Japanese Marines).  In total, the Japanese island commander, Rear Admiral Tomonari Saichiro, commanded 5,000 defenders.  An experienced engineer, Saichiro directed the construction of the Betio defenses.  Saichiro’s plan was to stop the Americans before they reached the island’s shore; and if that failed, then to make the American’s pay dearly for their audacity.  The Evans Carlson gave the Japanese a year to perfect Betio Island’s defenses.

The Gilbert Islands campaign was the largest invasion force yet assembled for a single operation in the Pacific.  There were seventeen aircraft carriers, twelve battleships, twelve cruisers, sixty-six destroyers, and thirty-six troop transports.  Aboard the transports were the 2nd Marine Division and the US 27th Infantry Division — totaling 35,000 troops.  The Marines began their assault at 0900 on 20 November 1943.  The 6th Marines, under the command of Colonel Maurice G. Holmes, would dedicate the 1st Battalion (William K. Jones, commanding) and 3rd Battalion (Kenneth F. McLeod, commanding) in the third and fourth wave assaults at Green Beach.[1]

It was at Green Beach, during the fourth wave attack, that Private First Class John Wilson Hoffman, Jr., met his end.  As Lima Company moved up to relieve elements of the 1st Battalion, an enemy bullet found Hoffman and instantly killed him.  The Marines of Lima Company gently laid his body to rest along with thirty other members of his company.  They did their best to mark the grave site as lethal battle raged around them and the Marines continued to move forward under heavy Japanese resistance.  It was a horrific battle.  The movement of tanks, artillery, and troops soon obliterated the grave marker.

As with so many other Marines who died at Betio over a period of 72-hours — 1,009 killed, 2,101 wounded — the Marine Corps eventually notified Hoffman’s parents that their son’s remains were unrecoverable.  History Flight[2] recovered John Hoffman’s body, where it had lain undisturbed on Betio Island for 76 years.  John Hoffman finally came back home to Texas in the spring of 2020.  There was no one left alive in John’s family who remembered him.

Some gave all.

Sources:

  1. Alexander, J. H.  Utmost Savagery: The Three Days of Tarawa.  Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1995.
  2. Graham, M. B.  Mantle of Heroism: Tarawa and the Struggle for the Gilberts.  Presidio Press, 1998.
  3. Hammel, E. & J. E. Lane.  Bloody Tarawa.  Zenith Press, 1998.
  4. Smith, H. M.  Coral and Brass.  New York: Scribeners & Sons, 1949.

Endnotes:

[1] The 2nd Battalion (Raymond G. Murray, commanding) was assigned to assault and occupy the outer islands of Tarawa.  Murray later commanded the 5th Marines during the Battle of the Pusan Perimeter during the Korean War and in that capacity, participated in the Battle of the Chosin Reservoir.  Both Jones and Murray achieved flag rank with Jones retiring as a lieutenant general and Murray as a major general.

[2] History Flight is a privately operated non-profit organization dedicated to researching, recovering, and repatriating the remains of American servicemen from World War II through the Vietnam War period.  Since 2003, History Flight has recovered 130 missing servicemen in both the ETO and PTO.  John Hoffman’s remains were one of these.


The Atlantic War, 1939-45

Some background

Most people associate the World War II Era Navy and Marine Corps with the Pacific War — which is certainly accurate; the U. S. Navy was unquestionably the dominant force in the Pacific.  But the Allied powers could not have won the European war without superior naval power, as well.  Victory at sea was a keystone for allied triumph over the Axis power in all World War II theaters.

  • Pacific-Asian fronts
  • Europe (Nordic, Western, Eastern fronts)
  • Mediterranean, Africa, Middle East

Victory at sea involved the formidable task of keeping sea lanes open for the movement of troop transports,  combat equipment, raw materials, and food stores — in massive quantities earmarked for the United Kingdom, nearly isolated by hostile German forces.

Complicating the Navy’s Atlantic mission was the fact that theater area commanders had to compete for limited naval resources.  There were only so many aircraft carriers, only so many landing craft, only so many carrier-based aircraft — only so many men.  It was up to theater area commanders to find the best way of distributing these limited assets where they would do the most good.  As one can imagine, the Navy’s mission to protect ships, men, and material over vast areas of the world’s major oceans was no small undertaking — and neither was denying access to them by the Axis powers.

Within 15 years from the end of World War I, Germany began rebuilding its military and naval forces.  Between 1933 and 1939, without opposition and emboldened by European politicians who sought to avoid war at any cost, Germany seized and annexed Alsace-Loraine, Austria, and Czechoslovakia.  When Adolph Hitler discovered that the “free world’s” only response to this aggression was appeasement, and in concert with the Soviet Union, he launched a lightning invasion of Poland.  Allied powers responded to the invasion by declaring war on Germany, prompting Germany’s invasion of Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands, Belgium, and France — and then began its assault on the United Kingdom through aerial bombing and naval blockades.  Once Germany believed that it had neutralized the United Kingdom, Hitler foolishly invaded the Soviet Union.

Following the First World War, the United Kingdom decided to place all of its military aircraft under the Royal Air Force, completely neglecting its naval arm vis-à-vis sea-launched aircraft.  As a result of this poor thinking, the United Kingdom lost its maritime superiority.

In the years leading up to World War II, Royal Navy Aviation competed with the RAF for scant resources.  The decision taken by Britain’s war policy board was that strategic bombing must occupy a higher priority than seaborne attack aircraft — and did so even after the United States proved that long-range bomber aircraft were only marginally effective against moving ships at sea.  The use of B-24 Liberator aircraft against Japanese ships of war during the Guadalcanal campaign in 1942-43 reinforced the American’s earlier conclusion.

In 1939, the Royal Navy had a substantial base structure at both ends of the Mediterranean, at Alexandria, Egypt, Gibraltar, and Malta.  The French Navy had naval bases at Toulon and Mers-el-Kébir and deluded themselves into believing that the Mediterranean was “their sea.”

In September 1939, when the UK declared war against Germany, there were only seven aircraft carriers in the British fleet.  These were capital ships highly vulnerable to German submarines, battleships, and land-based aircraft.  Because the British had no carriers in the First World War, there was no battle-tested procedure for protecting aircraft carriers.

Substantial loses during the UK’s initial carrier operations underscored weaknesses of command decisions and employment doctrine.  HMS Courageous was lost in the second week of the war, sunk by the German submarine U-29HMS Ark Royal might have been lost in the following week were it not for defective torpedoes fired by U-39.  From these two incidents, the British Admiralty decided that carriers were too vulnerable for use as a submarine screening force.  In early June 1940, HMS Glorious was lost to German battleships off the coast of Norway [Note 1].

At the beginning of 1942, the U. S. Atlantic Fleet operated Carrier Division Three, which included the fleet attack carriers (CVA) USS Ranger, USS Hornet, and USS Wasp, and the escort carrier (CVE) USS Long Island.  Over the course of the war, American and British carriers became increasingly effective in a number of operational assignments — from providing air cover during amphibious operations to patrolling in search of enemy ships.

Unlike the Pacific war, where naval and ground commanders planned and implemented combat strategies and operations, European heads of government were the decision-makers in the Atlantic war.  Both Winston Churchill and Adolph Hitler directly involved themselves in the details of operational planning; in contrast, Franklin Roosevelt left the details of fighting to his military commanders.

The Battle of the Atlantic

The Battle of the Atlantic was a contest of strategies between the Allied and Axis powers.  Both sides attempted to deny use of oceanic shipping.  British and American navies sought to blockade German shipments of raw materials from Norway; the Germans attempted to block American shipments of food and vital supplies to the United Kingdom and the Soviet Union.

Germany relied principally on its submarines, merchant raiders, battle cruisers, and land-based aircraft to destroy American shipping — of those, submarines were by far the most effective [Note 2].  Allied use of aircraft carriers contributed significantly to the ultimate success of the Battle of the Atlantic — used not only to protect convoys, but to locate and destroy German submarines, as well.  This success was the direct result of the Allied capture and deciphering German code machines.

In September 1939, Germany had fifty-seven submarines; twenty-two were suitable for combat operations in the Atlantic and only eight or nine could operate “on station” because of the time it took to return to their base for fuel, refit, and replenishment.  By March 1940, this small submarine force accounted for the sinking of 222 Allied ships — including two aircraft carriers, a cruiser, and two destroyers.  Germany’s application of underwater naval assault was “unrestricted,” evidenced by Germany’s sinking of the civilian passenger ship Athenia.

On land, it took Germany only six weeks to conquer France, Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands (10May-24 June 1940).  With the fall of France, Germany was able to establish a submarine base along the French coast, which brought their U-boats 1,000 miles closer to Allied convoy routes.

Within the space of two years, the production of German U-boats was sufficient to allow Germany’s Grand Admiral Erich Raeder and Admiral Karl Dönitz to begin employing submarines in groups (from eight to twenty) (the wolf pack).  In April 1941, German submarines destroyed half the convoy ships transiting from Halifax to Liverpool.  The action was significant enough to cause President Roosevelt to order the transfer of USS Yorktown, three battleships, and six destroyers from the Pacific Fleet to the Atlantic Fleet.  In September 1941, Roosevelt transferred 50 American destroyers to the Royal Navy [Note 3].  It was at this time that the United States Navy began escorting Britain-bound convoys as far as Iceland.  Despite these efforts, by the time the United States entered the war, German U-boats had destroyed 1,200 cargo ships.

American Attitudes, 1939-41

The American people well-remembered the terrible loss of life during World War I and they wanted nothing whatever to do with another European War.  Franklin Roosevelt campaigned for reelection with the promise of neutrality [Note 4].  When war broke out in Europe in 1939, Roosevelt declared American neutrality — but he also established a “neutral zone” in the Atlantic within which the United States would protect shipping.  The Navy assigned USS Ranger to patrol this “neutral” zone.

Even before 1939, Roosevelt’s opposition party in Congress watched developing world events and the president with growing concerns.  Members of Congress were well aware that Roosevelt was itching to involve himself in the European war, so in the 1930s, the congress passed a series of neutrality acts (1935, 1936, 1937, and 1939) that reflected the mood of the American people.  Americans had become isolationist and non-interventionist.  Whether these were carefully thought-out restrictions may not matter today, but the Acts made no distinction between victim or aggressor.

As Congress pushed back against Roosevelt’s apparent desire to engage in the emerging world war, Mr. Roosevelt crafted clever ways around congressional restrictions.  The so-called Lend-Lease program was enacted in early March 1941; it permitted President Roosevelt to provide Great Britain, Free France, the Republic of China, and Soviet Union with food, oil, and war materials [Note 5].   Congress earmarked more than  $50-billion for this purpose (about 17% of the USA’s total war expenditure) (in modern dollars, around $600-billion), most of which went to the United Kingdom.  Under this agreement, nations receiving war materials could use them until returned to the United States (or were destroyed).  Very little war material was returned to US control [Note 6].  The net-effect of Lend-Lease was that it removed any pretense of neutrality by the United States.

After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941, President Roosevelt asked Congress for a declaration of war against the Empire of Japan.  On 11 December, Germany and Italy declared war against the United States.  Mr. Roosevelt had his war.

Carriers and Their Functions

Large areas of the Atlantic were beyond the range of land-based aircraft in Canada, Iceland, and Great Britain.  The UK, with insufficient fleet resources, initiated programs to enhance convoy protection.  In 1940-41, Britain converted three ocean-going vessels, a seaplane tender, and an auxiliary cruiser  [Note 7] to help extend the protective range of land-based aircraft.  They called these vessels Fight Catapult Ships (FACs), Catapult Aircraft Merchant Ships (CAMs), and Merchant Aircraft Carriers (MACs).  Germany sank three of these ships in 1941 — the same year the British converted thirty-five additional merchant ships into catapult ships.

In January 1941, the United Kingdom began converting captured German merchant ships to escort carriers (CVEs).  While CVEs were slow and lightly armored, they did provide platforms for dispatching and retrieving land-based aircraft.  Britain’s first CVE was christened HMS Audacity.  The ship carried six operational aircraft with room for an additional eight, but because there was no hanger deck or elevator, aircraft were maintained on the flight desk.

In April 1941, the United States began converting merchant hulls to CVEs.  The first American CVE was christened USS Long Island.  A second American CVE was transferred to the UK, who christened her HMS ArcherArcher was capable of operating 15 aircraft.  The Americans constructed five additional CVEs, (transferring four to the Royal Navy): HMS Avenger, HMS Biter, HMS Dasher, HMS Tracker, and the USS Charger.

Lessons learned from USS Long Island led to substantial improvements to forty-four successive CVEs.  The new constructs were capable of carrying between 19-24 aircraft.  Thirty-three of these went to the United Kingdom.  Additional CVEs were constructed from tanker hulls, which were longer and faster than the merchant hull ships.

Aircraft carriers operating in both oceans had similar functions.  They supported amphibious landings, raided enemy ports, searched for enemy submarines, escorted merchant convoys, transported aircraft, troops, vital supplies, and served as training platforms for carrier-rated pilots.

The Turning Point

In the spring of 1943, German submarines assaulted 133 Allied ships, a major decline from previous periods.  The Battle for the Atlantic had taken an abrupt turn.  On 21 April, Germany sent 51 U-boats to attack a 42-ship convoy transiting from Liverpool to Halifax.  Designated Convoy ONS-5, the shipments were protected by nine naval escorts.  U-boats sunk thirteen ships; escort vessels and Catalina flying boats sunk seven U-boats and badly damaged seven more.  In total, for that month, Allied forces destroyed 43 German submarines.  For the next six months, beginning in May 1943, the Allies dispatched 64 North Atlantic convoys with 3,546 ships to Great Britain.  Not a single ship was  sunk en route.

Faced with such massive losses, Grand Admiral Dönitz ordered his submarines into the Central Atlantic, South Atlantic, and Indian Oceans.  These were the areas used by the United States to transport men and materiel to the Mediterranean to support operations in Sicily and the India-Burma campaign.  To counter Dönitz’ strategy, the U. S. Navy authorized anti-submarine groups, which included destroyers and CVEs, to operate apart from convoys.  Between June – December 1943, Allied hunter-killer groups [Note 8]  destroyed 31 German U-boats, including ten of the so-called resupply submarines.  Admiral Dönitz’ strategy in the Central and South Atlantic fared no better than his North Atlantic scheme.

Hunter-killer battle groups were a team effort.  CVEs used the F4F Wildcat fighter to look for submarines, and when spotted (either by air or radar), dispatched TBF Avengers with bombs, depth charges, and torpedoes.  Allied destroyers and destroyer escorts served to screen the CVE hunter-killer groups [Note 9].

By the end of 1944, the Allied powers dominated the Atlantic.  Dönitz moved his submarine force around, but the US & UK were reading the admiral’s mail.  He ordered 58 U-boats to counter Allied landings at Normandy.  German U-boats sank four Allied ships at the cost of 13 U-boats.  After Normandy, Dönitz withdrew his submarines to Norwegian waters, which drew the Allies’ attention to the German battleship Tirpitz (a sister ship to Bismarck), which lay at anchor in Norway.  Tirpitz did very little during World War II, but the ship did offer a potential threat to Allied navies.  In early 1944, the Allies’ focus on Tirpitz deceived the German high command into believing that an Allied invasion of Norway was imminent.  Once Tirpitz was sunk in November 1944, the Royal Navy felt comfortable sending the carriers HMS Formidable and HMS Indefatigable to the far east to join the British Pacific Fleet.

At the beginning of 1945, HMS Implacable was the only Allied fleet carrier in the Atlantic, supported by 12 British and 10 American CVEs.  All other fleet carriers were sent to the Pacific Theater to finish the war with Japan even as the war with Germany continued.  Thirty German U-boats attacked a 26-ship convoy in February 1945, supported by German Torpedo-Bombers, but aircraft from CVEs Campania and Nairana drove the U-boats away with no loss of merchantmen.  Convoys bound for Russia continued through May 1945 [Note 10].

Marines in the Atlantic

We seldom read or hear about Marines who served in the Atlantic War.  This is very likely because fewer than six-thousand Marines participated in Atlantic, North African, and European campaigns during World War II.  Of course, before the war, US Marines served at various U. S. Embassies.

In 1941, about four-thousand Marines of the 1st Provisional Marine Brigade served in Iceland through February 1942.  But given the expertise of U. S. Marines in amphibious warfare, the Navy Department assigned several senior Marine officers to serve as planners/advisors for invasions of North Africa, Sicily, and Normandy.  For example, Colonel Harold D. Campbell [Note 11], an aviator, was responsible for planning air support for the 6,000 man raid on Dieppe [Note 12].  Marines were also responsible for training four U. S. Army combat divisions in preparation for their amphibious assault of North Africa.  In North Africa, Marines from ship’s detachments executed two raids in advance of the main invasion: one operation involved seizure of the old Spanish Fort at the Port of Oran; a second raid secured the airfield at Safi, Morocco.  Both operations took place on 10 November 1942, the Marine Corps’ 167th birthday.

Fifty-one Marines served with the U. S. Office of Strategic Services (OSS), participating in behind the lines operations in Albania, Austria, Corsica, Egypt, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Morocco, Rumania, Sardinia, and Yugoslavia from 1941 to 1945.  See also: Marines and Operation Torch, Behind the Lines, and Every Climb and Place.

At sea, Marines assigned to detachments aboard battleships and heavy cruisers served as naval gun crews during the North African, Sicily, and Normandy invasions [Note 13].  Reminiscent of the olden days of sailing ships, Navy ship commanders sent their Marine sharpshooters aloft to explode German mines during Operation Overlord (the invasion of Normandy) [Note 14].  On 29 August 1944, Marines from USS Augusta and USS Philadelphia participated in the Allied acceptance of the surrender of Marseilles and 700 German defenders.

When General Eisenhower assumed the mantle of Supreme Allied Commander, his staff consisted of 489 officers.  Of these, 215 were American officers, including Colonel Robert O. Bare, who served on the staff of Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsey, Allied Naval Commander.  Bare worked on the plan for the Normandy invasion.  While serving with the British Assault Force, Bare was awarded the Bronze Star Medal.  At the completion of his tour in Europe, Bare participated in the Palau and Okinawa campaigns.  During the Korean War, Bare served as Chief of Staff, 1st Marine Division.

Colonel Jeschke (1894-1957)

Rear Admiral Alan G. Kirk served Eisenhower as Commander, Western Naval Task Force.  Assigned to Kirk’s staff was Marine Colonel Richard H. Jeschke [Note 15].  Jeschke served Kirk as an assistant planning officer in the operations staff.  Of the total 1.5 million Americans serving in Europe, 124,000 were naval personnel.  Fifteen-thousand of those served on combat ships, 87,000 assigned to landing craft, 22,000 assigned to various naval stations in the UK, and Marine Security Forces, United Kingdom.  On 6 June 1944, Rear Admiral Don P.  Moon (Commander, Force Uniform), frustrated with delays in landing operations, dispatched Colonel Kerr ashore to “get things moving.”  Kerr diverted troops scheduled to land at Green Beach to Red Beach, which expedited the operation.  Colonel Kerr credited the low casualty rates during the landing to the accuracy and rate of fire of naval artillery.

The landing at Omaha Beach was a different story.  German defenses inflicted 2,000 casualties on a landing force of 34,000 men.  Rear Admiral John L. Hall dispatched Colonel Jeschke and First Lieutenant Weldon James ashore at Omaha Beach to observe and report back to him the effectiveness of naval gunfire support from USS Texas.

Colonel John H. Magruder II, USMC served as the naval liaison officer to Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery’s 21st Army Group.  Many Marine officers were assigned to various posts because of their fluency in foreign languages.  Magruder was fluent in Dutch.  Major Francis M. Rogers served as an interpreter for General Edouard de Larminent, Commander, II French Corps.  Rogers was fluent in both French and Portuguese.    

Sources:

  1. Allen, H. C.  Britain and the United States.  New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1955.
  2. Dawson, R. H.  The Decision to Aid Russia, 1941: Foreign Policy and Domestic Politics.  Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1959.
  3. DeChant, J. A.  Marine Corps Aviation Operations in Africa and Europe.  Washington:  Marine Corps Gazette, 1946.
  4. Donovan, J. A.  Outpost in the North Atlantic.  Washington: Headquarters, U. S. Marine Corps, 1992.
  5. Edwards, H. W.  A Different War: Marines in Europe and North Africa.  Washington: Marine Corps Historical Center, 1994.
  6. Eisenhower Foundation.  D-Day: The Normandy Invasion in Retrospect.  Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1971.
  7. Morrison, S. E.  The Two-Ocean War: A Short History of the United States Navy in the Second World War.  Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1963.
  8. Menges, C. A.  History of U. S. Marine Corps Counter-intelligence.  Washington: Headquarters, U. S. Marine Corps, 1991.
  9. Roskill, S.  The Navy at War, 1939-1945.  Chatham, Kent, Great Britain: Mackays of Chatham, 1960.

Endnotes:

[1] Glorious was ordered to help evacuate aircraft during the UK’s withdrawal from Norway.  The ship left the main body of the fleet when discovered by the German battleships.  German 11-inch guns literally ripped Glorious apart.  Alone, without aircraft aloft, and only 4-inch protective guns, Glorious had no chance of survival in a hostile sea.  Captain Guy D’Oyly-Hughes, commanding Glorious, was a former submarine skipper.  He decided to set out alone so that he could, once at sea, court-martial Wing Commander J. B. Heath, RN, and Lieutenant Commander Evelyn Slessor, RN, who had refused to obey an order to attack shore targets.  Heath admitted his refusal, but argued that his mission was ill-defined and his aircraft unsuited to the task.

[2] German submarines accounted for 70% of world-wide allied shipping losses.

[3] The agreement was also known as the Destroyers-for-Bases Agreement.

[4] In a joint statement issued on 14 August 1941, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill announced their joint goals for the world following World War II.  Later dubbed The Atlantic Charter, it established an outline of objectives that included dismantling the British Empire, the formation of NATO, and a general agreement on tariffs and trade.  An American-British alliance was formed in 1939 with Roosevelt and Churchill secretly meeting eleven times.  The Atlantic Charter made clear Roosevelt’s support of Great Britain, but in order to achieve the charter’s objectives, the United States would have to become a participant in the war.  This could not happen, politically, unless there was first of all a cataclysmic event that propelled the United States into the war.  From 1939 forward, Roosevelt did everything he could to cause the Japanese to attack the United States —which they did on 7 December 1941.

[5] Canada had a similar program they referred to as “Mutual Aid.” 

[6] The Lend-Lease arrangement with China (suggested in 1940) involved a plan for 500 modern aircraft and enough war materials to supply thirty divisions of ground troops.  With the Chinese civil war “on hold” until the defeat of China’s common enemy (Japan), Roosevelt dealt independently with both sides through General Joseph Stilwell.  Neither Chiang Kai-shek nor Mao Zedong ever intended to return Lend-Lease equipment to the United States; rather, both sides intended to use these armaments on each other after war with Japan was settled.  As it turned out, American Marines died from weapons and ammunition manufactured in the United States when turned against them by Mao’s communist forces in 1945.

[7] OBVs were merchant ships pressed into service by the Royal Navy and converted into auxiliary carriers.

[8] The hunter-killer groups included US CVEs Card, Bogue, Core, Block Island, Santee, and HMS Tracker and Biter.  USS Block Island was the only American CVE sunk in the Atlantic War.

[9] At a time when the Washington Naval Arms Limitation Treaty (1922) limited the construction of large battleships, the United States began building replacement ships for obsolete World War II destroyers.  The Navy produced 175 Fletcher-Class destroyers (DD), designed as torpedo attack ships with a secondary mission of anti-submarine warfare and screening for capital ships.  Destroyer Escorts (DE) were a smaller variant ship with specialized armaments capable of a smaller turning radius.  Both ships were referred to as “tin cans” because they were lightly armored.  They relied more on their speed for self-defense.  During World War II, the U. S. Navy lost 97 destroyers and 15 destroyer-escorts.

[10] Convoys to Russia during the war involved 740 ships in 40 convoys, which provided 5,000 tanks and more than 7,000 aircraft.  German U-boats destroyed 97 of these merchantmen and 18 escorting warships.  Germany lost three destroyers and 38 U-boats.

[11] Harold Denny Campbell (1895-1955) served in both the First and Second World War.  On 6 December 1941, Colonel Campbell assumed command of Marine Aircraft Group 11 at Quantico, Virginia.  In May 1942, he was personally selected by Lord Mountbatten to serve as a Marine Aviation advisor to the British Combined Staff.  After promotion to Brigadier General in 1943, Campbell assumed command of the 4th Marine Aircraft Wing in Samoa and in 1944 commanded the 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing in the Peleliu campaign.

[12] The raid was conducted by British and Canadian commandos.  Tagged as Operation Jubilee, the purpose of  the amphibious raid to test the feasibility of lightening raids for intelligence gathering and boosting the morale of “folks back home.”  It was a much-needed learning experience because aerial and naval support was inadequate, the tanks were too heavy for a “lightening raid” and the Allies under-estimated the strength of German defenses.  Within ten hours of the landing, the German army killed, wounded, or captured 3,623 British/Canadian commandos.  The British also lost 33 landing craft and a destroyer.  Operation Jubilee became a textbook lesson on what not to do in an amphibious operation.

[13] U. S. Navy battleships usually included a detachment of two-hundred Marines; battle cruisers usually had a detachment of around 80 Marines.

[14] I am trying to imagine a Marine sharpshooter 200 feet in the air on a pitching ship, shooting German anti-ship mines with any degree of accuracy.  Damn.

[15] Colonel (later, Brigadier General) Jeschke (1894-1957) served with distinction in both the Atlantic and Pacific campaigns: on Guadalcanal, and during the invasions of Sicily and Normandy.

The Cactus Air Force

Guadalcanal — 1942

Some Background

After the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, Hawaii on 7 December 1941 (an event that crippled the United States Pacific Fleet), Japan intended to seize a number of Pacific atolls for their own use.  Doing so would increase their access to natural resources and locations suitable as advanced military and naval bases.  Advanced Pacific Rim bases would extend the defensive perimeter of the Japanese home islands.  In addition to their successful attack against the US Fleet, the Japanese also seized control of Hong Kong, the Philippine Islands, Thailand, Malaya, Singapore, the Dutch East Indies, Wake Island, New Britain, and Guam.

The Battle of the Coral Sea (May 1942) and the Battle for Midway Island (June 1942) thwarted additional Japanese efforts to seize advance bases.  Both battles were significant because (1) the Allied forces [Note 1] demonstrated to the world that the Empire of Japan was not invincible, and (2) the battles enabled the Allies to seize the initiative and launch a counter-offensive against the Japanese.  The United States, United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand chose the Solomon Islands as their place, and August 1942 as their time.

Allied intelligence learned that the Japanese Imperial Navy (JIN) occupied Tulagi in May 1942 and had established a seaplane base in the Solomons.  They also discovered that the Japanese had embarked on the construction of an air base suitable for long-range bombers at Lunga Point on the island of Guadalcanal.  If the Allies failed to interdict Japan’s efforts, Japanese air forces would be in a position to disrupt allied lines of communication between Australia/New Zealand, and the United States.  Only one month earlier, in July, Australian reserve (territorial) battalions fought a stubborn action against Japanese advances in New Guinea.  Although victorious, Australian reserves were seriously depleted.  The arrival of the Second Imperial Force (Australia) in August (returning from the Mediterranean) allowed Australian forces to deny Japan’s seizure of Port Moresby, and Milne Bay.  The Australian victory, with supporting American forces, was Japan’s first land defeat in World War II.

The author of the plan to attack the Solomon Islands was Admiral Ernest J. King, Commander-in-Chief, U. S. Fleet.  The US Marines invaded Tulagi and Guadalcanal on 7 August 1942 [Note 2], capturing the partially completed airfield at Lunga Point, although the airfield required additional work before the allied forces could use it.

Assembling Air Forces

Major Lofton R. Henderson, USMC

The Americans renamed the field after Major Lofton R. Henderson, USMC [Note 3], who lost his life during the Battle of Midway while in command of VMSB-241.  The first allied aircraft to land on Henderson Field was a patrol bomber (designation PBY) on 12 August.  Eight days later, 31 Marine Corps Wildcat (F4F) fighters and Dauntless (SBD) dive bombers landed from the fast carrier USS Long Island.  Following them on 22 August was a squadron of U. S. Army Air-Cobra (P-39).  Additionally, B-17s began operations from Henderson Field (although the large bombers had an abysmal record against Japanese targets) [Note 4]. 

This ensemble of multi-service personnel and their dwindling collection of outdated, dilapidated, and inferior combat aircraft became known as the Cactus Air Force — “Cactus” being the Allied code name for Guadalcanal.  Henderson Field barely qualified as an airfield.  The Japanese designed it in an irregular shape, half of it sitting within a coconut grove, and its runway length was inadequate the wide range of for Allied aircraft.  Even after combat engineers began their work to improve the field, it remained in such poor condition that it caused as many losses to aircraft as those lost in air combat.  Rain, which was ever present on Guadalcanal, transformed the field into muddy swamp.  Some of the allied aircraft were too heavy for the matting used for expeditionary airfields; takeoffs and landing also damaged the field.  Despite these on-going problems, Henderson Field was essential to the U.S. effort of confronting the Japanese, distributing critical combat resupply, and evacuating wounded personnel.  Henderson Field was also vital as an alternate airfield for Navy pilots whose carriers were too badly damaged to recover them.

In mid-August 1942, Guadalcanal was very likely one of the most dangerous places on earth.  Allied naval forces were under constant threat of attack by Japanese air and naval forces.  To safeguard carriers and their air groups from possible submarine or enemy carrier aircraft, once the amphibious force disembarked at Guadalcanal, the U. S. Navy withdrew its carriers, transports, and resupply ships from the Solomon Islands.  This placed Allied ground forces at risk from Japanese naval artillery and air attack.  The Allies needed aircraft—badly.  Marine Fighter Squadron (VMF)-123 (flying F4Fs) began its operations at Henderson Field in mid-August.  One squadron was insufficient to demand, however.  The Allies needed more aircraft —sooner rather than later.  Higher headquarters scheduled the arrival VMF-223 and VMTB-232 on Guadalcanal around 16 August.  The pilots and aircraft arrived on 20 August, but because the demand for shipping exceeded available transport, ground crews became stranded in Hawaii; ground crews would not arrive on Guadalcanal until early September.  The formula was simple —no ground crews, no operational aircraft.

The delay of ground crew at a critical period prompted Admiral John S. McCain, Sr. [Note 5] to order Major Charles H. “Fog” Hayes, serving as the Executive Officer, Marine Observation Squadron (VMO)-251 to proceed to Guadalcanal with 120 Seabees of the advance base force (operationally known as CUB-1) [Note 6] to assist the 1st Marine Division combat engineers in completing Henderson Field and then serve as ground crewmen for the Marine fighters and bombers presently en route.  Ensign George W. Polk, USN [Note 7] commanded the Seabee detachment.

Henderson Field, OFFiCIAL USMC PHOTO

The men from CUB-1 embarked aboard ship and departed Espiritu Santo on the evening of 13 August, taking with them 400 55-gallon drums of aviation fuel, 32 55-gallon drums of lubricant, 282 bombs (100 to 500 pounds), belted ammunition, tools, and critically needed aviation spare parts.  They arrived on Guadalcanal on 15 August and began assisting Marine engineers with their task of enlarging the airstrip.  Despite daily assaults by Japanese aircraft, Marine engineers and Seabees completed the field on 19 August.  CUB-1 technicians installed, tested, and operated an air-raid warning system in the Japanese-built field control tower.

VMF-223 with 19-aircraft and VMSB-232 with 12 planes arrived on 20 August; all aircraft arrived safely at Henderson Field and the pilots immediately began combat operations against Japanese aircraft over Guadalcanal.  As immediately, the Sailors of CUB-1 began servicing these aircraft with the tools and equipment at their disposal.  Aircraft refueling was by hand crank pumps when they were available but otherwise tipped over on the wings and funneled into the gasoline tanks.  Loading bombs was particularly difficult because hoists were rare; bombs had to be raised by hand … 100-500-pound bombs.  Belting ammunition was also accomplished by hand.  The gunners on the dive bombers loaded their ammunition by the same laborious method.

CUB-1 personnel performed these tasks for twelve days before the arrival of Marine ground crews.  As with all military personnel on Guadalcanal, CUB-1 crews suffered from malaria, dengue fever, fungus infections, sleepless nights, shortages of food, clothing, and supplies.  Living conditions on Guadalcanal were some of the most difficult ever faced by Marines.  Pilots and ground crews lived in mud-floored tents in a flooded coconut plantation called Mosquito Grove.  Everyone on Guadalcanal was subjected to mortal danger.  Japanese aircraft and artillery bombarded the airfield nearly every day.  On the night of 13-14 October 1942, two Japanese battleships fired more than 700 heavy shells into Henderson Field.  Ensign Polk’s men remained on the island until 15 February 1943.

For the first five days after the arrival of the Marine aviators, there was no “commander” of the air component; instead, the senior aviator reported directly to Major General Alexander A. Vandegrift, Commanding General, 1st Marine Division.  Technically, the Cactus Air Force was under the authority of Rear Admiral McCain, but as the local senior-most commander, Vandegrift and his operational staff exercised direct authority over all air assets, whether Army, Navy, or Marine.

Colonel William W. Wallace served temporarily as the first air group commander.  On 3 September, Brigadier General Roy S. Geiger [Note 8] arrived to assume command as Commander, Aircraft, Guadalcanal (also, COMAIRCACTUS) and of the 1st Marine Aircraft Wing.  By the time of Geiger’s arrival, air squadrons had already suffered significant losses.  The pilots were sick, undernourished, and demoralized.  Geiger changed that.  By his personality, energy, and positive attitude, General Geiger raised the collective spirits of squadron survivors.  The cost to Geiger, in the short-term, was that within a few months, the 57-year-old Geiger became seriously fatigued.  Eventually, General Vandegrift relieved Geiger of his duties and replaced him with Geiger’s Chief of Staff, Brigadier General Louis E. Woods [Note 9], who was one of the Marine Corps’ outstanding aviators.

Ground Combat Interface

As previously mentioned, the Japanese started construction of the airfield at Lunga Point in May 1942.  The landings of 11,000 Allied forces on Guadalcanal, Tulagi, and the Florida Islands on 7-8 August 1942 was a complete surprise to the Japanese—and they weren’t too happy about it.  As a response to the Allied landings, the Imperial General Headquarters ordered the Imperial Japanese Army’s (IJA) 17th Army (a corps-sized command under Lieutenant General Harukichi Hyakutake), to retake Guadalcanal.  His advance force began to arrive on Guadalcanal on 19 August.  Allied planes operating from Henderson Field challenged Japan’s slow-moving transport ships, which had the effect of impeding Hyakutake’s efforts.  On 21 August, General Hyakutake ordered a force of just under a thousand men to seize the airfield.  Known as the Battle of Tenaru, Marines soundly defeated the IJA’s first attempt.

The IJA made a second attempt on 12-14 September, this time with a brigade-size force of 6,000 men.  Known as the Battle of Edson’s Ridge, the Marines repelled that attack, as well.  Convinced that the Japanese were not through with their attempts to reclaim Lunga Point, Major General Alexander A. Vandegrift, commanding all Allied land forces in the Solomon Islands [Note 10], ordered the strengthening of defenses at Henderson Field.  He additionally ordered his Marines to increase combat patrolling in the area between Lunga Point and the Matanikau River.  IJA forces repulsed three different company-sized patrols operating near the Matanikau River between 23-27 September.  Between 6-9 October, a battalion of Marines crossed the Matanikau and inflicted heavy losses on the IJA 4th Infantry Regiment, forcing a Japanese withdrawal [Note 11].  

By 17 October, IJA forces on Guadalcanal numbered 17,000 troops, which included the 2nd Infantry Division (under Lieutenant General Masao Maruyama), one regiment of the 38th Infantry Division, and artillery and tank units.  The IJN ordered heavy and light cruisers to support Hyakutake and conduct bombardments of Allied positions, including Henderson Field, warranted because the Cactus Air Force posed significant threats to Japanese transports ferrying replacements and supplies from Rabaul [Note 12].  On 13 October, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto dispatched a naval force under Vice Admiral Takeo Kurita to bombard Henderson Field.  Kurita’s force included two battleships, one light cruiser, and nine destroyers.  Beginning at 01:33, the Japanese Navy fired just under 1,000 rounds into the Lunga Point perimeter.  The Japanese attack destroyed most of the aviation fuel, 48 of the Cactus Air Force’s 90 aircraft, and killed 41 men —of which were six CAF ground crewmen.  As devastating as this attack was, Seabees restored the airfield to operating conditions within a few hours.

As Japanese infantry under Lieutenant General Maruyama began their march toward Lunga Point, aircraft of the 11th Air Fleet at Rabaul attacked Henderson Field with 11 G4M2 bombers and 28 A6M2 Zero fighters.  The Cactus Air Force responded with 24 F4F Wildcats and 4 P-39s.  A large and complex air battle ensured.  Allied aviators could not determine how many losses they imposed on the Japanese, but on F4F received extensive battle damage with no loss of its pilot.   

Just after nightfall on 23 October, two battalions of Japanese infantry (supported by tanks) attacked Marine positions behind a barrage of artillery.  Marines quickly destroyed all nine tanks and responded with devastating artillery fire.  Forty Marine howitzers fired 6,000 rounds into the attacking Japanese.  The Japanese broke off their attack shortly after 01:00 hours.  Partly in response to this attack, 2/7 (under LtCol Hanneken) redeployed to the Matanikau and assumed advanced defensive positions.  LtCol Louis B. “Chesty” Puller’s 1/7 (with around 700 men) was the only battalion left to defend Henderson Field, a 2,500-yard perimeter on the southern face of Lunga Point.  Puller’s outposts reported enemy movement at around 21:00 hours.

Heavy rain began falling an hour or so before, the torrential downpour inhibiting the advance of a Japanese infantry regiment.  In the dark of night under a pouring rain, a Japanese battalion more or less stumbled into Puller’s defensive line at around 22:00.  The Marines repulsed the Japanese advance, but the Japanese commander believed that his battalion had taken Lunga Point.  At around 00:15, the IJA’s 11th Company of the 3rd Battalion assaulted the perimeter held by Marines from Alpha Company.  Within thirty minutes, the Marines destroyed the 11th Company.

Further west, at around 01:15, the 9th Company charged into positions held by Charlie 1/7.  Within around five minutes, a machine-gun section led by Sergeant John A. Basilone, killed nearly every member of the 9th Company.  Ten minutes after that, Marine artillery had a murderous effect on the IJA regiment’s assembly area.  Puller requested reinforcement at 03:30.   The 3rd Battalion, 164th US Infantry rushed forward and quickly reinforced Puller’s perimeter.  Just before dawn, the Japanese 3rd Battalion, 29th Infantry penetrated Allied artillery and assaulted the Marine position.  1/7 Marines killed most of these men, but about one-hundred Japanese broke through the American defense and created a bulging salient in the center of Puller’s line.

With daybreak on 24 October, the Japanese 2nd Battalion joined the assault, but the Marines soon defeated them, and they withdrew almost as quickly as they had appeared.  Puller ordered his Marines to attack and eradicate the 100-or-so enemy soldiers within the salient, and to search and destroy any Japanese remaining alive forward of the battalion’s perimeter.  Marines performing these tasks ended up killing around 400 additional enemy troops.  But the battle was far from over.  IJN platforms began to pummel the Marines just after midnight.  A destroyer assault force chased away to US minesweepers, destroyed the US tugboat Seminole and an American Patrol Torpedo Boat.  Just after 10:00, Marine shore batteries hit and damaged one Japanese destroyer.  Cactus Air Force dive bombers attacked a second Japanese navy assault force which caused the sinking of a Japanese cruiser.  While this was going on, 82 Japanese bombers and fighters from the 11th Air Fleet attacked Henderson Field in six separate waves throughout the day.  The Cactus Air Force also attacked Japanese Aircraft, inflicting the loss of 11 fighters, 2 bombers, and one reconnaissance aircraft.  The Allies lost two aircraft, but recovered the crews.

After completing mop-up operations, ground Marines began improving their defense works and redeploying troops to strengthen the line.  In the West, Colonel Hanneken tied in with the 5th Marines; Puller’s Marines and the soldiers of 3/164 disentangled and repositioned themselves to form unit cohesive defenses.  The 1st Marine Division reserve force, 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marines (3/2) moved in behind 1/7 and 3/164.  The IJA still had more to say to the Allied forces at Lunga Point.

General Maruyama regrouped his beleaguered forces, adding the 16th Infantry Regiment from his force reserve.  At around 20:00 on 25 October and extending into the early morning hours of the 26th, the Japanese made numerous frontal assaults against the Marine/Army line (Puller/Colonel Hall).  The Marines employed well-aimed small arms, automatic weapons, artillery, and canister fire from 37-mm guns directly into the attacking force with devastating effect.  Marines completely wiped out the headquarters element of the 16th Infantry Regiment, including the regimental commander and four of the regiment’s battalion commanders.  Another attack came at 03:00 on 26 October.  Colonel Akinosuke Oka’s 124th Infantry Regiment hit the Matanikau defenses manned by LtCol Hanneken’s 2/7.  Fox Company received the brunt of Oka’s attack.  Machine-gun section leader Mitchell Paige destroyed many of his attackers, but the Japanese managed to kill all of the Marines except for Paige and an assistant gunner in their assault.  By 05:00, Oka’s 3rd Battalion managed to push the remains of Fox Company out of their defensive positions.  Major Odell M. Conoley, Hanneken’s executive officer, quickly organized a counter-attack, leading the survivors of Fox Company and elements of Golf and Charlie companies to retake the ridge line.  Within an hour, the Japanese pushed the Japanese back, which ended Colonel Oka’s assault.  2/7’s casualties included 14 killed and 32 wounded.  Oka’s losses exceeded 300 dead.

Aftermath

Six Marine aviators in the Cactus Air Force received the Medal of Honor: Major John L. Smith, USMC, CO VMF-223; Major Robert E. Galer, USMC, CO VMF-224; Captain Joseph J. Foss, USMC, XO VMF-121 (Former Governor of South Dakota); Lieutenant Colonel Harold W. Bauer, USMC, CO VMF-212; First Lieutenant Jefferson J. DeBlanc, USMC, VMF-112; and First Lieutenant James E. Swett, USMC, VMF-221.

Medals of honor awarded other personnel included Major Kenneth D. Bailey, USMC (KIA), Sergeant John Basilone, USMC, Corporal Anthony Casamento, USMC, Platoon Sergeant Mitchell Paige, USMC [Note 13], Major Charles W. Davis, USA, Colonel Merritt A. Edson, USMC, Sergeant William G. Fournier, USA, Specialist Lewis Hall, USA (KIA), Signalman First Class Douglas A. Munro, USCG, (KIA), Rear Admiral Normal Scott, USN (KIA), and Major General Alexander A. Vandegrift, USMC.  

In all, 20 Marine Corps aviation squadrons served on Guadalcanal.  Joining them, at various times, were ten U. S. Navy air squadrons (5 operating from USS Enterprise), two USAAF squadrons, and one Royal New Zealand air squadron.   

Sources:

  1. 1.Braun, S. M.  The Struggle for Guadalcanal (American Battles and Campaigns).  New York: Putnam, 1969.
  2. 2.Christ, J. F.  Battalion of the Damned: The First Marine Paratroopers at Gavutu and Bloody Ridge, 1942.  Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2007
  3. 3.De Chant, J. A.  Devilbirds.  New York: Harper Bros., 1947.
  4. 4.Mersky, P. B.  U.S. Marine Corps Aviation—1912 to the Present.  Nautical Publishing, 1983.
  5. 5.Paige, M.  My Story, A Marine Named Mitch: The Autobiography of Mitchell Paige, Colonel, United States Marine Corps (Retired).  Palo Alto: Bradford Adams & Company, 1975.
  6. 6.Sherrod, R.  History of Marine Corps Aviation in World War II.  Washington: Combat Forces Press, 1952.
  7. 7.Simmons, E. H.  The United States Marines: A History (Fourth Edition).  Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2003.

Endnotes:

[1]The Allied forces in the Pacific during World War II were the US, UK, Australia, New Zealand, Soviet Union, and China.  As a practical matter, given the requirements of global war at other locations in the world, and limitations of certain Allied countries to participate in the conflict, the US played the largest role in the Pacific War.

[2] The Guadalcanal campaign lasted through 9 February 1943.

[3] Initially identified by the Japanese as simply Code RXI, the incomplete airfield became the focus of one of the great battles of the Pacific war in World War II.  Major Henderson (1903-1942) was a graduate of the U. S. Naval Academy (Class of 1926) and served in China, various Caribbean stations, and aboard the carriers Langley, Ranger, and Saratoga.

 [4] B-17 aircraft were unsuitable for use against Japanese ships at sea.  High altitude bombing of moving targets could hardly yield the results of Torpedo/Dive Bomber aircraft.  Moreover, B-17 crews were young, inexperienced airmen who, while doing their level best, could not engage enemy ships with precision.

 [5] At the time, Admiral McCain served as Commander, Aircraft South Pacific (1941-42).  He was the grandfather of John S. McCain III, former Navy aviator POW and US Senator from Arizona.

[6] See also: Building the Hive.

[7] George W. Polk enlisted with the Naval Construction Battalion at the beginning of World War II.  He also served as a “volunteer” dive bomber and reconnaissance pilot, receiving combat wounds and suffering from malaria, which required nearly a year of hospitalization.  After the war, Polk joined CBS news as a journalist.  Communist insurgents murdered him while he was covering the Greek Civil War in 1948.

[8] Roy Stanley Geiger (1885-1947) was a native of Florida who completed university and law school before enlisting in the US Marine Corps.  While serving as a corporal in 1909, Geiger completed a series of professional examinations to obtain a commission to second lieutenant on 5 February 1909.  After ten years of ground service, Geiger reported for aviation training in 1917 and subsequently became Naval Aviator #49 on 9 June.  Geiger was variously described as curt, cold, ruthless, and determined.  Geiger became the first Marine Corps general to command a United States Army during the Battle of Okinawa. 

[9] Lieutenant General Woods later commanded the tactical air forces under the 10th U.S. Army during the Battle of Okinawa.

[10] The 7th Marine Regiment arrived on Guadalcanal on 18 September, adding an additional 4,157 men to Vandegrift’s ground combat element.

[11] Meanwhile, Major General Millard F. Harmon, Commander, U. S. Army Forces, South Pacific, convinced Admiral Robert L. Ghormley, Commander, Allied Forces, South Pacific, to reinforce the Marines immediately; one division of Marines, he argued, was insufficient to defend an island the size of Guadalcanal.  Subsequently, the U. S. 164th Infantry Regiment (North Dakota Army National Guard) arrived on Guadalcanal on 13 October 1942.

[12] Allied naval forces intercepted one of these Japanese bombardment missions on the night of 11 October, resulting in a Japanese defeat at the Battle of Cape Esperance. 

[13] Colonel Paige died on 15 November 2003, aged 85 years.  He was the last surviving Medal of Honor recipient of the Guadalcanal campaign.

Sugar Loaf

The bended knee is not a Marine Corps tradition

Island of Okinawa

In 1944, the Japanese Empire was in agony.  Its Pacific defensive perimeter had been shattered and was suddenly a very narrow band.  The Co-Prosperity Sphere was little more than a memory.  The motherland was under threat of invasion.  Japanese industries were unable to replace the hundreds of airplanes destroyed by the Americans and their allies.  Worse, there were no experienced pilots to train them and no facility suitable for educating a new generation of combat aviators.  There were also limited quantities of fuel to propel aircraft.  The Imperial Japanese fleet was sitting at anchor at death’s door.  The Japanese high command was well aware of this, of course, but had no intention of surrendering to Allied forces.  National pride would not allow it.  There would be no withdrawals and no surrender.  Japan’s new strategy was to cause so many casualties that American public opinion would demand that Roosevelt end the war on terms favorable to the Japanese.

The island of Okinawa lies 330 miles southwest of the southernmost Japanese island of Kyushu.  If an invasion of the Japanese home islands became necessary, Okinawa would be the place from which the allied attack would come.  The Japanese high command knew this.  In the White House, there was some doubt about whether a new wonder weapon under evaluation in the United States would work.  If it didn’t work, then an invasion of Japan would be inevitable.  General Douglas MacArthur told Roosevelt that he estimated a million more Americans would die in a land battle in Japan.  

On 7 September 1944, anticipating the need for an invasion of the Japanese home islands, Marine Corps headquarters ordered the formation of the Sixth Marine Division (6thMarDiv) in the southern Solomon Islands.  It was a typical Marine infantry division; three rifle regiments with three battalions each, and direct support battalions of engineers, artillery, field medical personnel, pioneer, motor transport, tanks, and headquarters and service battalions.  The division organization included the newly reconstituted Fourth Marine Regiment, the 22nd Marines, and 29th Marines.

The division was “new” to the Marine Corps, but it was in no way a “green” division.  The men who formed the division previously fought as part of the 1st Provisional Marine Brigade on Guam and with the 2nd Marine Division on Saipan.  Half of the force in three regiments were combat veterans.  The division received its initial training as a combat organization on Guadalcanal.  Its first stop on the way to Japan was the island called Okinawa.

The Allied force landed on Okinawa on 1 April 1945.  The 6th Marine Division was but one element of the US Tenth Army, consisting of the XXIV Corps (four Army infantry divisions) and the III Amphibious Corps (three US Marine infantry divisions).  The 6th Marine Division was one of those.  To everyone’s astonishment, there was no opposition to the allied landing.

The Japanese had set their trap, and the Allies walked straight into it.  Japan’s strategy called for a defense in depth of Okinawa —a fierce defense similar to that of Iwo Jima, but with significant differences.  Commanding a Japanese force of between 96,000 and 130,000 troops [Note 1], General Mitsuru Ushijima would allow the Americans to land ashore unopposed. Once they had, a large Kamikaze force would destroy the allied fleet, thus cutting the allies off from their supply line and leaving the Americans with no opportunity for withdrawal.  In this setting, the Imperial Japanese Army (IJA) would systematically annihilate the men stranded onshore.  The construction of Japanese defensive positions had begun in the summer of 1944, which included the use of existing caves, constructing tunnels and underground command posts, establishing interlocking fields of fire, ranged artillery, and spider holes for snipers.  Ushijima’s defensive line was along the island’s southern tip, stretching from the Pacific Ocean to the East China Sea. 

Hiromichi Yahara

The architect of the Japanese strategy for Okinawa was Colonel Hiromichi Yahara, who served as Chief of Staff to General Ushijima.  Yahara prohibited any of his defensive troops from adopting the popular philosophy of “self-sacrifice.”  Such notions were self-defeating at a time when Japan needed more, not less, manpower.  Instead, he intended that the IJA outlast the allied forces.  He intended to accomplish this by establishing a defensive structure incorporating snipers, artillery, mortars, and well-constructed pillboxes.  Should the Allied forces continue to press the Japanese defense, then the IJA would fight these Americans in close quarters combat, where they could not use artillery or mortars against the Japanese.

With great cunning and ingenuity, General Ushijima and Colonel Yahara organized their ground defense in the Shuri area of southern Okinawa.  Japanese security included a series of concentric positions adapted to the contour of the terrain.  Caves, emplacements, blockhouses, and pillboxes were built into the hills, connected by elaborate underground tunnels and skillfully camouflaged and concealed positions.  Many Okinawan burial tombs were fortified by the Japanese, as well.  They even reinforced the reverse slopes of hills.  Artillery was placed in the caves and thoroughly integrated into General Ushijima’s defense plan.

The Japanese defensive line consisted of three perimeters.  There was no greater example of Japanese ferocity in battle than their defense of Okinawa.  The battle for hacksaw ridge began on 24 April; it did not end until 6 May, and then only after imposing massive casualties on the attacking allied forces —and at which time the Japanese fell back to a new position and waited once more for the Americans to attack it. 

After going ashore on 1 April 1945, Army headquarters tasked the 6th Marine Division with clearing the island’s northern end.  This operation cost the division 236 killed, 1,601 wounded, and seven missing in action.  A month later, the division replaced the Army’s US 27th Infantry Division.  By 6 May, the 6thMarDiv bivouacked near Chibana, Okinawa, less than ten miles from the battle area’s forward edge.  In replacing the army division, the Marines would participate in the Battle for Naha, Okinawa’s capital city.

On 10 May, the 6th Marine Division launched its first attack against the Japanese main line of resistance (MLR) when the 22nd Marines crossed the River Asa in the early morning hours.  A demolished bridge necessitated the construction of a footbridge.  The enemy, being fully aware of the Marines’ activities, sent sappers to destroy the footbridge.

At 0330, the First and Third Battalions crossed the Asa; the first battalion waded across upstream on the regiment’s left, while the third battalion used the partially destroyed footbridge.  At first, Japanese resistance was light, but the opposition became furious with greater awareness of the Marine advance.  Despite heavy artillery and mortar fires, the Marines advanced to the first area of ridges.  By nightfall, the 22nd Marines had established a bridgehead 1,400 yards wide and about 400 yards deep—but it was a day of heavy casualties.  

On 11 May, the regimental commander committed his reserve component, 2/22, to cover the left flank of 1/22, fighting to reduce an enemy stronghold on a formidable coral hill southeast of Asa village.  When flanking action failed to secure the hill, the troops withdrew to allow naval gunfire to access the target area [Note 2].  Meanwhile, combat engineers labored under enemy fire to construct a bailey bridge [Note 3] across the River Asa.  When completed, Marine tanks rushed across to support the rifle companies.  Then, with the added power of tanks, the 1/22 renewed its attack and was successful.  On the right, 3/22 fought for three hours before capturing the precipitous cliff area in its zone of action.

On 12 May, the 22nd Marines, with all three battalions online, continued to advance against Japanese positions and did so despite increasing enemy resistance.  The regiment was receiving fire from the front, and its left flank, an enemy entrenchment on Wana Ridge; the Shuri Heights permitted the observation of troop movements, allowing the Japanese to bring fire to bear at a moment’s notice.  With the Division’s left flank in peril, the Division Commander [Note 4] ordered 3/29 into the line.  He would have to commit another regiment to maintain the Division’s momentum.

2/22, and 3/29 continued the assault on 13 May.  All that they were able to achieve, however, is about 300 yards.  Enemy resistance was vicious.  In the late afternoon, 1/29 and 2/29 moved up behind 3/29 and prepared to attack the morning of 14 May. 

Sugar Loaf, 1945

At about this time, the Commanding General discovered the enemy’s western anchor to their main line of resistance.  He also learned that there were three terrain features, heavily fortified and manned, with mutually supporting fires, that formed this anchor.  Heavily guarded corridors led into each terrain feature, and no ground offered covered avenues of approach.  Before the Division could reach Naha, it would be necessary to pass over these features; features so small that they did not even show up on standard military maps.  Cartographers simply listed hill locations as Target Area 7672G.  They were later named Horseshoe Ridge, Sugar Loaf Hill, and Half-Moon Hill.  Of these, Sugar Loaf Hill was the highest in elevation.

The Japanese called it Suribachi Oka [Note 5]. Under normal conditions, a single Marine rifle company would have the task of seizing this hill, but there was nothing “normal” about the Battle for Okinawa.  The Marines of the 6thMarDiv would struggle with this hill for ten excruciating days.  Ownership changed eleven times.  The fighting took place under the worst of all possible conditions: unabated driving rain and rivers of mud.

The Battle for Sugar Loaf Hill is the story of a Japanese soldiery determined to keep it, and American Marines, who were more determined to take it.

By this time, the 22nd Marines’ combat efficiency was critical.  The regiment had lost over 800 Marines killed or wounded since crossing the River Asa.  The capital city of Naha lay open to the 22nd Marines, but the regiment could not advance without taking Sugar Loaf Hill and its two sisters.  The problem was that the Sugar Loaf Hill defensive area formed a triangle and was mutually supporting.  Troops attacking any one of these three hills received fire from the other two.  There was no room for extended maneuver.  On the right of the 6thMarDiv was the sea; on the left, the 1stMarDiv, which offered no protection or cover.

Late in the afternoon of 14 May 2/22 attempted a tank-infantry assault, and despite heavy enemy fire that pushed the Marine tanks back, a few Marines from Gulf Company succeeded in reaching the top of Sugar Loaf.  The attack caught the Japanese by surprise. 

Major Courtney

Ordered to hold his position in static defense for the night of 14-15 May 1945, Major Henry A. Courtney, Jr., while serving as the Executive Officer, 2/22, commanded the Marines during a Japanese counterattack.  Courtney weighed the effect of a hostile night-time counterattack against the tactical value of an immediate Marine assault and resolved to initiate that assault.

With permission to continue his advance and seize the hill’s forward slope, Courtney explained the situation to his few remaining Marines and declared his intention of moving forward.  Promptly moving toward the enemy, Courtney boldly blasted nearby cave positions and neutralized the enemy as he advanced.  Inspired by his courage, every Marine took up their arms and followed Courtney without hesitation.  Together, these intrepid Marines braved a terrific concentration of Japanese gunfire and skirted the hill on the right, reaching the reverse slope.  Temporarily halting his advance, Major Courtney sent guides to the rear for more ammunition and reinforcement.  Twenty-six Marines and a Landing Vehicle Track (LVT) soon joined Courtney and his remaining men, the LVT bringing forward several cases of hand grenades.  Courtney then stormed the crest of the hill for the purpose of crushing any possible Japanese counterattack before it could gain momentum.  Courtney pushed ahead with unrelenting aggressiveness, hurling grenades into cave openings with devastating effect.

Upon reaching the crest of the hill, Major Courtney observed a large number of Japanese forming up for a counterassault less than 100 yards away.  He instantly attacked these Japanese and waged a furious battle, killing many of the enemy and forcing the remainder to take cover in surrounding caves.  Determined to hold, he ordered his men to dig in and, with cool disregard of enemy mortar fire, rallied his weary troops.  With the Marines now “set in,” Courtney tirelessly aided his wounded Marines and assigned his men to more advantageous positions.  Although instantly killed while moving among his men, Major Courtney, by his astute military acumen, indomitable  spirit, and leadership, contributed to the campaign’s overall success against the Sugar Loaf Defensive line.

Major Courtney received a posthumous award of the Medal of Honor for this action.  Camp Courtney, Okinawa, the present location of the 3rd Marine Division and III MEF Headquarters was named in his honor.  

The Marine success was short-lived, however.  During the night, the Japanese organized a Battalion-sized counterattack that overwhelmed the remnants of Gulf Company and drove 2/22 back to the north and into the area controlled by the 29th Marines.  Major Courtney’s assault initiated the most bitter fighting yet seen by the 22nd Marines.  1/29 and 3/29 experienced the same painful refusal to give way to the American Marines.

In the corridor leading to the Half-Moon, 3/29 reduced a pocket of Japanese resistance, but the fight was so intense that it prevented further advance.  On the afternoon of 15 May 3/22 moved up to relieve 2/22, which had lost over 400 men since 12 May.  1/22 assaulted along the ridge overlooking Asato but could advance no further due to heavy fire from Horseshoe and Sugar Loaf.  Japanese mortars and artillery rained down on the Marines throughout the night of 15-16 May.  It was also raining cats and dogs.  Among these Marines, there was no rest for the weary.

Early the next morning, the 6thMarDiv, with its 22nd and 29th regiments in the assault, again attacked to seize Sugar Loaf and Half-Moon hills.  Enemy fire was withering, and it was apparent that the Japanese were rushing reinforcements to bolster the Sugar Loaf Hill system.  Working its way into position on the regimental left, 3/22 prepared to assault Sugar Loaf Hill.  Behind the battalion, tanks and artillery lobbed round after round into Sugar Loaf Hill.  On the signal to go, 3/22 rapidly advanced up the pitted slope in the face of the enemy’s entire arsenal of weapons.  Several times, the battalion reached the top of the hill and engaged the Japanese in hand to hand fighting but were driven back.  With devastating casualties, 3/22 withdraw.

The Division commander hoped that the 29th Marines might seize Half-Moon Hill.  Supported by tanks, these Marines moved forward to the edge of the ridge by late afternoon, but before they could organize defensive positions, the Japanese poured in so much fire from Shuri, Sugar Loaf, and their reverse slope positions of the Half-Moon Hill that the troops had to withdraw under cover of smoke.  Casualties were extremely heavy.  16 May was the bitterest day for the Marines of the 6thMarDiv; two regiments had fought bitterly contested battles without achieving their objectives.  The 22nd Marines had lost so many men that it was nearing combat ineffectiveness.  General Shepherd shifted the attacking force’s burden to the 29th Marines; he ordered the 22nd Marines to hold their positions.

Before the 29th Marines’ attack, Japanese positions in the Sugar Loaf defenses received a massive pounding from 16-inch naval artillery, 8-inch howitzers, and 1,000 aerial bombs.  Then, with tanks in close support, 1/29 and 3/29 edged their way to the northern edge of Half-Moon Hill.  3/29 seized a slim foothold on the hill’s northwestern border, but Japanese fire made their position untenable, and the battalion withdrew.  Meanwhile, Echo Company 2/29 maneuvered for a flanking attack on the east side of Sugar Loaf.  Despite heavy mortar fire and Japanese grenades, the company drove to the top of the hill three times.  Each time, the Japanese counterattack drove them off the hill.  Finally, around 1830, the company made a fourth assault.  This time the Marines defeated the Japanese counterattack, but there were so few men left alive that the company didn’t have enough manpower to defend it.  Echo Company pulled back to better ground for the night.

At dusk, Marines observed the Japanese rushing in troops to reinforce the hill.  Almost immediately, twelve battalions of American artillery took the Japanese under fire and inflicted so many losses that they discontinued the effort.  While it was true that Sugar Loaf and Half-Moon hills remained in Japanese hands, the 6thMarDiv had made substantial but unrealized gains at the time.  The Japanese had suffered so many losses that Ushijima was unable to sustain his stalwart defense.  As the barrage was going on, the 29th Marines moved into position for an assault on the next morning.

At 0830 on 18 May 1/29 and 3/29 again, assaulted Japanese positions on Half-Moon Hill.  Once the Marines established a foothold, the battle turned into a slugfest.  With the Japanese thus occupied, 2/29 tried to surround Sugar Loaf Hill.  Enemy mines, 47-mm fire, and artillery disabled six Marine tanks and drove the battalion back.  2/29 then launched a combined arms attack with infantry and tanks in a coordinated maneuver.  One tank managed to edge its way around the hill’s west side and commenced firing into the enemy’s reverse slope positions.  As the Japanese moved to counter this threat, another tank worked its way around to the east side of the hill and emptied its machine gun into the backs of the Sugar Loaf defenders.  It was pure pandemonium as troops swarmed over the hill and engaged in brutal fighting.  After an hour, the Marines held the hill.  Marines from Fox Company, 2/29 assaulted Horseshoe Ridge and destroyed enemy mortar positions by fire and close combat.

During the night, Japanese troops counterattacked the Company F position, driving the Marines back to Sugar Loaf.  Marine attempts to regain the hill were unsuccessful.  On the left flank, 1/29 and 3/29 held their positions at the base of the Half-Moon Hill and did so despite intense enemy fire.

To exploit the Division’s gains, General Shepherd brought in the 4th Marines to replace the 29th on 19 May.  On the right of the Division’s front, the 22nd Marines remained in their positions but were in no condition to continue the attack.  After relieving the 29th Marines, the 4th Marines prepared to attack to seize the upper reaches of the Asato River.  During the night, the Japanese made full use of their artillery to pound the Marine positions, but American casualties were light.

The 4th Marines launched their assault on the morning of 20 May and managed to seize a part of Horseshoe Ridge.  As the fighting raged, the Japanese positions on Shuri Hill massed their weapons and hit the 4th Marines’ flank with heavy fire.  At 2130, following a massive mortar barrage, the Japanese counterattacked Sugar Loaf.  The Japanese focused on 3/4 as its primary objective —their assault lasting until after midnight.  The use of naval illumination allowed artillery spotters to target the Japanese; six battalions of American artillery defeated the counterattack, but before driving the Japanese back, the 4th Marines committed part of its regimental reserve.  Nearly 300 Japanese died, with only one Marine killed and 19 wounded.

Marines made slight gains the next day within the interior of Horseshoe Ridge, but they were unable to exploit their foothold on Half-Moon Hill.  Until the Shuri Line fell, it would be impossible to seize the Half-Moon in its entirety.  On 22 May, the 4th Marines advanced slowly to the Asato.  General Shepherd was ready to exploit his gains by employing a holding attack [Note 6] on the left of the Division’s front.  After a reconnaissance, the 4th Marines moved two battalions across the river in the afternoon of 23 May.  What the Marines found was determined enemy resistance.  The situation facing the 4th Marines was challenging but not precarious.  All of its critical supplies had to be hand-carried across the river.  Massive amounts of rain made the terrain water-logged; the mud was above ankle-deep, and stretcher-bearers moved wounded Marines to the rear with much difficulty.  Marine vehicles had an impossible time navigating through the morass of mud and slime.

The 4th Marines continued their attack on 25 May, seizing most of the north-south ridge west of Machishi.  A company-sized attack by the Japanese kept 3/4 busy for most of the night, but the 4th regiment continued its advance into the eastern outskirts of Naha City.  The Division Reconnaissance Company (ReconCo) crossed the Asato near its mouth and penetrated Naha west of the north-south canal.  Enemy Resistance was light, with only a few snipers challenging the Marine advance.  The next morning, with rain falling in buckets, the 4th Marines confined its efforts to aggressive patrolling, and the ReconCo moved further into Naha.

On 26 May, the Marines observed signs of an enemy withdrawal.  Shepherd ordered all units to commence patrolling so that he could determine the extent of the enemy’s departure from the Shuri Line.  2/22 passed through the ReconCo and pushed further into Naha.  By this time, the city was almost a total wreck; only a few buildings remained standing, and these only barely.  The 4th regiment’s patrols moved 300 yards forward and found only weak opposition.

On 27 May, General Shepherd reoriented his assault by ordering the 22nd Marines to complete Naha’s capture and prepare to advance through the hills that overlooked the Kokuba River.  The 29th Marines relieved the 4th Marines and prepared to continue the attack southeast toward the Shichina hills.  The regiment completed its mission on 28 May.  Initially, the 29th Marines were to carry out a holding attack while supporting the 22nd Marines by fire.  On 29 May, the 22nd Marines crossed the north-south canal and commenced to fight through the low hills leading to Shichina, which ran parallel to the Kokuba River.  Initially, the assault progressed rapidly but slowed considerably with increasing enemy resistance, a rearguard force stationed in the hills.  Japanese resistance continued through 1 June.  From its position on the Kokuba River, Shepherd could observe the Naha-Yonabaru Cross-Island highway; across the river, he could see the materials abandoned by the withdrawing Japanese.

The Battle of Okinawa was the bloodiest campaign of the Pacific Theater during World War II.  In total, US and Allied forces gave up 14,009 dead, with 55,162 wounded in action [Note 7].  An allied estimate of Japanese killed in action was between 77,166 to 110,000.  The 6th Marine Division gave up 1,700 killed and nearly 8,000 injured from early May to 21 June 1945, making the Battle of Sugar Loaf Hill the island’s bloodiest battle.  Marine gallantry and intrepidity during this horrific battle earned the division the Presidential Unit Citation [Note 8], which reads as follows:

Presidential Unit Citation

 For extraordinary heroism in action against enemy Japanese forces during the assault and capture of Okinawa, April 1 to June 21, 1945. Seizing Yontan Airfield in its initial operation, the SIXTH Marine Division, Reinforced, smashed through organized resistance to capture Ishikawa Isthmus, the town of Nago, and heavily fortified Motobu Peninsula in 13 days. Later committed to the southern front, units of the Division withstood overwhelming artillery and mortar barrages, repulsed furious counterattacks, and staunchly pushed over the rocky terrain to reduce almost impregnable defenses and capture Sugar Loaf Hill. Turning southeast, they took the capital city of Naha and executed surprise shore-to-shore landings on Oroku Peninsula, securing the area with its prized Naha Airfield and Harbor after nine days of fierce fighting. Reentering the lines in the south, SIXTH Division Marines sought out enemy forces entrenched in a series of rocky ridges extending to the southern tip of the island, advancing relentlessly and rendering decisive support until the last remnants of enemy opposition were exterminated and the island secured. By their valor and tenacity, the officers and men of the SIXTH Marine Division, Reinforced contributed materially to the conquest of Okinawa, and their gallantry in overcoming a fanatic enemy in the face of extraordinary danger and difficulty adds new luster to Marine Corps history and the traditions of the United States Naval Service.

Sources:

  1. Astor, G.  Operation Iceberg: The Invasion and Conquest of Okinawa in World War II.  Dell Books, 1996.
  2. Frank, R. B.  Downfall: The End of the Imperial Japanese Empire.  Random House, 1999.
  3. Hastings, M.  Retribution—the Battle for Japan, 1944-45.  Knopf Books, 2007.
  4. Nichols, C. S., and Henry I. Shaw.  Okinawa: Victory in the Pacific.  Battery Press, 1989.
  5. Stockman, J. R.  The Sixth Marine Division.  Historical Division, Headquarters, U. S. Marine Corps, 1959

Endnotes:

[1] Ushijima was in dire need for ground troops.  The HQ IJA ordered the 9th Infantry Division to Formosa (Taiwan), which forced Ushijima to mobilize the entire civilian population on the Island to augment his 32nd Army.

[2] Naval gunfire was provided by the USS Indianapolis.

[3] A portable, prefabricated truss bridge developed by the British for use during World War II.  Components of the bridge are small and light enough to be carried in trucks and lifted in place without the use of a crane.

[4] Major General Lemuel C. Shepherd, Jr., a future Commandant of the Marine Corps.

[5] This Japanese word describes a bowl or kitchen implement whose purpose was to grind to a pulp whatever was placed inside it.  A mountain or elevated terrain referred to as Suribachi would resemble a bowl turned upside down.  

[6] A holding attack is one designed to hold the enemy in his position, to deceive him as to where the main attack is being made and prevent him from reinforcing his positions.  A holding attack may also force the enemy to prematurely commit his reserve force at an unwise location.

[7] The numbers of US and allied servicemen killed and wounded are estimates and vary among those who cite the statistic.  These numbers also include US and allied navy casualties that resulted from massive Kamikaze attacks off the coast of Okinawa.

[8] The Presidential Unit Citation recognizes US and foreign/allied units for extraordinary heroism in actions against an armed enemy after 7 December 1941.  To qualify, the unit cited must display such gallantry, determination, and esprit de corps in accomplishing its mission, under extremely difficult and hazardous conditions, so as to set it apart from and above all other units participating in the same campaign.  The collective degree of valor against an armed enemy by the unit nominated is the same criteria that would justify an individual award of the Navy Cross medal. 

Air Balloons and Such

Every Marine, regardless of military occupational specialty, is a rifleman.  There are specialists in the Marine Corps, of course —people trained to perform a specialized task, which, when combined with all other specialties, form the Marine Corps Team.  The Marine team has but one purpose: winning battles.  In contrast to the United States Army, which consists of several corps (three infantry divisions and supporting elements form a single corps, three such corps form a field army), the Marines are a single corps (three divisions, three air wings, and supporting elements).

Because the Marine Corps is a much smaller organization, which is the way we like it, Marines do not have the luxury of employing cooks or communicators that only cook and communicate.  Every Marine is a rifleman, including combat pilots, administrators, supply pogues, truck drivers, field engineers, and computer technologists.  Whether a general or a private, the Corps trains every Marine to pick up a rifle and kill an enemy.  The notion that every Marine is a rifleman makes the Marine Corps unique among all U.S. Armed Services.  The Corps’ distinctive training creates a common bond between Marines: officer and enlisted, men and women, whether ground, air, or logistics combat elements.  Marine aviators, for example, are hell on wings; they are also a lethal force on the ground should it become necessary.  Every Marine earns the title, Marine.

Marine Corps aviation began on 22 May 1912 when Marine First Lieutenant Alfred A. Cunningham reported to the Naval Aviation Camp at Annapolis, Maryland, for duty under instruction.  He was the nucleus of what would become the Marine Corps’ air combat element.  A few short years later, Congress declared war against Imperial Germany, and the United States entered the First World War.  This event became the catalyst for the Navy and Marine Corps air arm, and a greatly accelerated growth in both Navy and Marine Corps manpower and combat technologies.

In those days, responsibility for procuring aircraft fell under the Navy Department’s Bureau of Aeronautics (Also, BuAer).  Marine graduates of the U.S. Navy Flight School, Pensacola, Florida, became Naval Aviators.  Since those early days, the Navy and Marine Corps have developed aviation equipment, strategies, and tactics common to their unique “naval” mission of protecting the fleet through air superiority and projecting naval power ashore.  Marine pilots, however, provide close air support to ground forces —and this they do better than any other aerial arm of the Department of Defense.

At the beginning of the First World War, the entire Marine Corps consisted of a mere 511 officers and 13,214 enlisted men.  At the end of the “war to end all wars,” 2,400 officers and 70,000 men served as Marines.  Initially, HQMC assigned Captain Cunningham to command the Marine Aviation Company at Philadelphia.  Since there was only one aviation company, this simple designation was enough.  These early aviators’ mission was traditional, which is to say, attack and destroy enemy aircraft and provide intelligence on enemy forces’ location and movement.  Suddenly, the Marine Corps incurred a separate mission requiring different equipment types and a different aeronautical skill set.

With the expansion of Marine aviation, Captain Cunningham’s Aviation Company became the 1st Marine Aeronautic Company (1stMAC) with a workforce ceiling of ten officers and 93 men. 1stMAC’s mission was flying anti-submarine patrols in seaplanes.  HQMC approved a new aviation unit, designated as 1st Aviation Squadron (AS-1), to support the Marine Brigade in France. AS-1’s mission was to provide reconnaissance and artillery spotting missions.  The strength of the 1st Aviation Squadron was 24 officers and 237 enlisted men.

Following the war in Europe, Navy and Marine Corps planners distributed aviation personnel and equipment to Naval stations to support operating forces throughout the east coast of the United States and those in Haiti and the Dominican Republic.  In the post-war environment, with less money available to sustain air combat forces, the Marine Corps began its desperate struggle to convince Congress that it should maintain, as a minimum, prewar levels of aviation personnel, bases, and equipment.  Leading the charge in this endeavor was Major Cunningham, who strenuously argued for Marine Corps aviation’s permanent adoption.

Congress officially limited the Marine Corps’ strength to one-fifth that of the U. S. Navy, in total, approximately 27,000 Marines.  Due in no small measure to Cunningham’s efforts, Congress approved an additional 1,100 Marines for aviation units.  Congress also approved permanent Marine Corps Air Stations at Quantico, Virginia, Parris Island, South Carolina, and San Diego, California.  On 30 October 1920, Major General Commandant John A. Lejeune approved an aviation table of organization[1] for four squadrons, each consisting of two flights. Simultaneously, the 1st and 4th Aviation Squadrons supported combat operations in the Dominican Republic and Haiti, the 2nd and 3rd Aviation Squadrons trained at Quantico, Virginia.  By 1924, the Marine Corps had two air groups, each consisting of two squadrons.  The second air group took up station in San Diego, California.

As previously mentioned, the Marine Corps petitioned Congress for funds to maintain its air arm.  Part of this effort involved demonstrating to Congress and the American public the utility and worthiness of Marine Corps aviation.  To this end, the Marine aviators found it necessary to combine tactics and air strategy with headline-hunting public exhibitions.  One of these involved a march of 4,000 Marines from Quantico, Virginia, to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.  In this demonstration, the ground combat element maintained constant contact with aircraft along the route of march and provided air resupply of the men on the ground.

Additionally, Marine pilots continually tested new equipment and flying techniques, including record-breaking long-distance flights and air show competitions.  In the 1920s, air races became an American institution.  Marines sometimes flew navy aircraft in these competitions. Sometimes, they flew their own squadron’s aircraft. They occasionally flew experimental planes, testing not only their endurance but also the reliability of aircraft prototypes.  During this period, Notable pilots included First Lieutenant Ford O. Rogers, Major Charles A. Lutz, and Captain Arthur H. Page, Jr.

Arthur Hallet Page, Jr. was the first Naval Academy graduate to enter the Marine Corps Aviation program.  He may have been typical of aviators in his day, or at least he seems to have been the sort of fellow popularized in Hollywood films of that period —the flamboyant devil-may-care fellow.  From available sources at the USNA, we believe Captain Page had a colorful personality, a remarkable character, and was the embodiment of mature judgment.  He was good looking; a natty dresser had a good singing voice, possessed a near-professional dancing ability, and was frequently in the company of beautiful women.

Page was also a daring, foolhardy risk-taker —but a man others might describe as lucky as hell.  He graduated from the USNA, Class of 1918 (one of fourteen graduates) a year early due to the emerging European War.  Second Lieutenant Arthur H. Page, Jr., became a Naval Aviator (No. 536) on 14 March 1918.  His aviator number tells us how many Navy and Marine Corps pilots preceded him.

Capt A. H. Page, Jr., USMC

Today, we have few details about Page’s military career.  For the most part, early assignments appear typical of young officers.  He received his wings at the NAS Pensacola (1918). He then served several tours of duty attached to the Marine Barracks, Quantico, Virginia —which may not have had anything to do with base security or operations (1919-20, 1923-24), service with the 1st Provisional Marine Brigade in Haiti —likely duties involving flight operations (1920-21), assignment as a flight instructor at NAS Pensacola (1924-25), as a student at Marine Corps Schools, Quantico (1925-26), service with the 3rd Marine Brigade in China (1926-28), an assignment at Marine Corps Base, San Diego, California (1928), and duty with the East Coast Expeditionary Force (1929).  His final assignment was at Headquarters Marine Corps (1929-30), during which time he engaged in flying exhibitions (previously discussed).

We also know that the Marine Corps established its first balloon detachment on 28 June 1918 under Captain Page’s command, very likely at Quantico.  The detachment’s mission artillery spotting in support of the 10th Marine Regiment (artillery), which in 1918 trained at Quantico for service with the American Expeditionary Forces.  After the Armistice on 11 November 1918, there being no need for the 10th Marines in France, HQMC deactivated the regiment in April 1919.

An aside:  Change within the Navy and War Departments, particularly involving aviation, was never easy.  Senior officers within both departments were simply the product of their training and experience and somewhat intractable in their national defense views.  Even following the First World War, Army and Navy leaders remained unconvinced that aviation should assume a more significant national defense role.  They may have maintained this view had it not been for the relentless efforts of William Lendrum Mitchell (1879-1936), an Army aviator.  Mitchell believed that “floating bases” was necessary to defend U.S. territories against naval threats, but the CNO, Admiral William S. Benson, dissolved navy aeronautics in 1919 (a decision later reversed by Secretary of the Navy Franklin D. Roosevelt).  It was a bit of service rivalry that senior navy aviators argued that land-based pilots no more understood naval aviation demands than ground commanders understood airpower capabilities.  They resisted any alliance with Mitchell.  Despite these attitudes, Mitchell urged the development of naval air service, arguing that air-delivered bombs would become a serious threat to enemy ships.  Not even Roosevelt agreed with Mitchell’s proposals in 1919.

BrigGen “Billy” Mitchell USA

Convinced that he was right on this issue, Mitchell became publicly critical of the Army and Navy’s senior leadership, judging them as “insufficiently far-sighted” regarding airpower.  Despite their misgivings, the secretaries of War and the Navy agreed to a series of joint Army/Navy exercises that incorporated captured or decommissioned ships as targets.  Mitchell believed that the nation’s spending on battleship fleets was a waste of money; he intended to demonstrate how easily aircraft could defeat the Navy’s dreadnaughts.  Mitchell received public support for the joint exercise when the New York Tribune revealed that the Navy had cheated on its test results.

Despite his popularity with the press, Mitchell’s criticism of Army/Navy leadership made him a pariah in both departments.  Nevertheless, the joint exercise proceeded with bombing attacks on a former German battleship by Army, Navy, and Marine Corps pilots armed with 230, 550, and 600-pound bombs.  Air-delivered bombs’ success and the German ship’s sinking caused the Navy to suspend shipbuilding and focus more on the possibilities of naval air power, but there were also political ramifications.  For starters, the Navy’s perceived weaknesses embarrassed President Harding —the blame of which fell at Mitchell’s feet.

As for Mitchell, his prickly personality left him with few friends in the Army hierarchy, a condition that only grew worse after Mitchell appeared before a Congressional committee and criticized his superiors and senior Navy officers.  In 1925, a tragic accident involving the airship Shenandoah prompted Mitchell to accuse senior Army/Navy leaders of gross incompetence and treasonable administration.  As Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, President Coolidge ordered Mitchell court-martialed.  The court-martial proceeding was more on the order of a media circus. Mitchell’s defense attorney was a sitting congressman.  Of the thirteen officers detailed as judges, which included Major Douglas A. MacArthur, none had an aviation background.  In its deliberations, the court ruled that the truth or falsity of Mitchell’s accusations were immaterial to the charge against him: Violation of the 96th Article of War, “Bringing disgrace and reproach upon the military services,” which included six specifications.  When the court found General Mitchell guilty of the charge and all specifications, he resigned his commission.

Despite Mitchell’s pissing-contest with Army/Navy leaders, the Marine Corps continued its experimentation with aviation platforms and aerial balloons.  Between 1924-29, the Marine Corps established a balloon observation squadron (designated ZK-1M).  Captain Page, meanwhile, continued evaluating experimental aircraft while challenging his aeronautical skills.  He flew the Curtiss F6C-3 plane to victory in the Curtiss Marine Trophy Race on 31 May 1930, defeating a field of mostly Navy pilots.  The F6C-3 was a member of the Hawk family of biplane fighters that, because of its performance evaluations by Navy/Marine Corps aviators, went through a series of design modifications to make it suitable for naval service.  Captain Page lost his life while participating in the Thompson Air Race in 1930.  There are old pilots, and there are bold pilots; there are no old bold pilots.

By the spring of 1940, planners at HQMC were acutely aware of the problems associated with defending advanced bases against enemy air attack.  To address these issues, the Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) convened a board of senior officers to study air defense aspects.  It became the duty of the Anti-Aircraft Defense Board to formulate policies suitable to both the Navy and War Departments.  One agreement concerned the division of responsibility for barrage balloons and kite defenses protecting U.S. military installations.  Under this agreement, the Army assumed air defense responsibility for permanent naval bases. Simultaneously, the Navy would develop shipboard defenses and “at such advanced bases as are not defended by the Army.”

On 27 December 1940, the Secretary of the Navy assigned responsibility for anti-air defenses (not defended by the Army) to the Fleet Marine Forces.  From that point forward, Marine advanced base battalions assumed responsibility for the anti-aircraft defense mission at Guantanamo, Midway, Johnson Island, Palmyra, Samoa, Wake, Guam, and “any future location seized by American forces.” The CNO subsequently asked various bureaus and offices to comment or offer suggestions on the extent to which the Marine Corps should enter the barrage balloon field.  There were two views:

  1. The Director, Navy War Plans Division opined that balloons were unreliable anti-air defense mechanisms and noted that the small size of several advanced base locations (islands) meant that balloon defenses would be ineffective except against dive bombers. Moreover, the placement of such balloons would have to be so as not to interfere with friendly air operations, which would require moveable barge platforms.  At no time did the War Plans Division mention any reliance on carrier-based attack aircraft.
  2. The Director, Fleet Training Division expressed confidence in the efficiency of balloon defenses. He relied on the United Kingdom’s experience in London’s defense; it appeared to him that 50-100 balloons would provide adequate anti-air defenses.  Based on this one assumption, the Director envisioned that the Marine Corps would require two to four squadrons of 24 balloons each and around 200 men per squadron.  There was also the problem of availability because requisitions for Army balloon equipment strained industrial production capacities.

Barrage Ballon (Samoa)

The CMC took immediate steps to procure balloons, not only for the initial issue but also for replacement balloons.  HQMC also recalled to active service retired Major Bernard L. Smith[2] and placed him in charge of the Corps’ barrage balloon development.  During World War I, while serving as an assistant naval attaché in France, Major Smith’s study of lighter-than-air craft made him an “expert” in the field of balloon defense mechanisms.

In late April 1941, Major Smith (assisted by Captain Aquillo J. Dyess and Captain Robert S. Fairweather) established a training school at Marine Corps Base, Quantico, Virginia.  Smith led his officers and ten enlisted men to the Naval Air Station, Lakehurst, New Jersey, for a two-week course of instruction in the art of flying British-made Mark-5 and Mark-6 balloons.  Returning to Quantico, Smith and his Marines prepared course curriculum and liaised with balloon manufacturers.  When, more than a year later, Smith and his staff had yet to receive their first student, HQMC directed Smith to move his cadre to New River, North Carolina, where it became part of the Marine Corps Training Center, Camp Lejeune.

Still without students, Smith’s “school” essentially became a balloon research/development center; the Navy’s Anti-Aircraft Defense Board provided Smith with several varieties of British prototypes.  Smith was also involved in the study of rockets and fuses suspended from aloft balloons.  By late 1941, the arrival of balloon equipment allowed Smith to commence teaching balloon defense’s art and science.  Concurrently, HQMC directed the establishment of the 1st and 2nd Barrage Balloon squadrons to further order that defense battalions incorporate these squadrons into training and operations.  Typically, HQMC wanted to review the defense battalion’s evaluations of the practicality of barrage squadrons.  By early December, Smith advised HQMC that the 1st Barrage Balloon Squadron (designation ZMQ-1) was ready for deployment. In late December, Smith’s report was timely because the Army requested the Marines provide a squadron to defend the Panama Canal Zone.  Administratively, ZMQ-1 fell under the Fifteenth Naval District; operationally, the squadron supported the Army’s artillery command. ZMQ-1’s “temporary” assignment lasted through mid-September 1942.

Barrage Balloon maintenance facility

Meanwhile, ZMQ-2, under Captain Henry D. Strunk, joined the 2nd Marine Brigade in Samoa.  War with Japan led the Marine Corps to activate six additional Barrage Balloon Squadrons, although planners estimated a need for as many as twenty squadrons by 1944.  To meet this demand, HQMC increased Smith’s training unit’s size to five officers and 43 enlisted men.  In April 1942, HQMC assigned ZMQ-3 to the Pacific command; by September, the squadron was operating on the island of Tulagi —but with significant restrictions.  Concerned that deployed balloons would attract enemy aircraft to vital airfields and logistics storage areas, senior Navy and Marine Corps officers curtailed the use of balloons at Tulagi and Guadalcanal.  Instead, squadron personnel performed ground defense (infantry) duties.  ZMQ-3 departed Tulagi for Noumea, where it joined with ZMQ-1, ZMQ-5, and ZMQ-6.  HQMC ordered the deactivation of ZMQ-4, serving in Samoa, on 20 February 1943.  The unavailability of helium at forward bases hindered squadrons’ performance, as in Noumea’s case, forcing unit officers to alter their tactics: they only launched their balloons when an enemy attack was imminent.

Shortages of helium wasn’t the only problem plaguing ZMQ squadrons.  The task of logistical resupply in the Pacific was incredibly difficult.  Since senior commanders in the Pacific questioned barrage balloons’ utility, balloon squadrons had a lower priority for resupply than did the most-forward units.  Army logisticians paid scant attention to the needs of the attached Marines.  Back in Washington, the demands placed on BuAer to prioritize the resupply of aircraft squadrons similarly left the balloon squadrons only marginally effective.  For example, each balloon squadron required 4,000 high-pressure hydrogen cylinders.  The Marine’s demand for 14,500 cylinders per month fell considerably short, and there was nothing anyone could do about it.  To help coordinate balloon activities and address logistical shortfalls, HQMC ordered Major Charles W. May to assume command of the Marine Barrage Balloon Group on 10 January 1943.

One wartime epiphany was the Marine Corps’ realization that anti-aircraft guns had a greater effect on the enemy than the barrage balloons did.  In the spring of 1943, the Marine Corps’ Commandant asked the U.S. Army to assume full responsibility for aerial balloon activities.  The Commandant’s decision made perfect sense because, at that time, all Marine balloon squadrons served under the operational control of the U.S. Army.  In June, the Army agreed to absorb the balloon mission, making 60 officers and 1,200 enlisted Marines available to serve in other (more critical) combat units.  Beginning in March 1943, Marines of ZMQ-5 began training with 90mm anti-aircraft guns; ZMQ-6 followed suit.  By August, manning anti-aircraft guns became the primary focus of training and operations.  ZMQ-2 disbanded on 21 August, with all its Marines joining the 2nd Defense Battalion.

All barrage balloon squadrons ceased to exist by December 1943, and all Marines assigned to them transferred to the Marine Corps’ defense battalions.  Luckily, these Marines were not only skilled balloonists; they were also deadly as hell in their new assignment as anti-aircraft gun crewmen and as a rifleman, the essential role of every Marine.

Sources:

  1. Updegraph, C. L. S. Marine Corps Special Units of World War II.  Washington: History and Museums Division, Headquarters, U.S. Marine Corps, 1972.
  2. Barrage Balloons, Aerospace Power Journal, Summer 1989.
  3. 225th AAA Searchlight Battalion Veterans Association, online.
  4. Hillson, F. J. When the Balloon Goes Up: Barrage Balloons for Low-Level Defense.  Maxwell AFB: U.S. Air Force Command and Staff College, 1988.

Endnotes:

[1] The purpose of military tables of organization (and equipment) (also, T/O and T/O&E) is to standardize the personnel staffing of military units according to their mission and includes the numbers and types of weapons and accoutrements required by such organizations to complete their mission.

[2] Major Smith was the 6th Marine officer designated as a naval aviator.

Marine Glider Pilots

On 20 May 1941, German forces launched an airborne invasion of the Island of Crete.  It was the first airborne invasion in history.  German casualties at the end of the first day were massive.   Greek and allied forces in defense of Crete were confident they could hold off the German Luftlandeschlacht.  Those defenders were wrong.  On the second day, German airborne units seized the airfield at Maleme, and from that base, pushed the defenders entirely off the island.  It wasn’t long after that when the Secretary of the Navy telephoned the Commandant of the Marine Corps and asked, “Dude, how cool was that?”

The Commandant of the Marine Corps (CMC), Lieutenant General Thomas Holcomb,[1] had already announced his decision in October 1940 to designate one battalion of each infantry regiment as “air troops.” Marine Corps planners envisioned that these “air troops” would fly to their destinations.  Holcomb further imagined that one company would be trained parachutists, and the remaining two companies would e “air-landed” troops.  The verbiage was confusing, but this was the language used in 1940: air-troops vs. air-landed-troops.  One problem that went undiscovered until well-into pre-combat training was that the United States lacked enough aircraft to accomplish vertical assaults.  Another pinch of sand in the “para-Marine” concept was landing Marines in dense jungle terrain.  Oops.

After 1941, the subject of glider aircraft was always associated with the Marine Corps’ concept of airborne assault forces, which originated from “high level” interest after the successful German airborne invasion of Crete.  Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox was in awe of the concept.  He directed General Holcomb to study the issue and determine whether it held any promise for amphibious operations.  Because the German’s operation in Crete involved gliders carrying 750 troops, the Commandant was also asked to consider glider operations.

Apparently, what the Commandant meant by “air troops” in 1940 was parachutists, and what he meant by “air-landed” troops were Marines landing near the battle area in aircraft.

As for the suitability of such aircraft, it was the duty of the Navy Department’s Bureau of Aeronautics to study the feasibility of such operations and for procuring suitable vehicles to facilitate such tactics.  Headquarters Marine Corps (HQMC) would only recruit men for such service once the Navy decided they were both feasible and practical for projecting naval power ashore.  When the Chief of Naval Operations asked the Commandant how he intended to go about staffing a glider program, General Holcomb opined that he would find second lieutenants to volunteer for pilot training.  He would select co-pilots from among the noncommissioned officer ranks.  I can almost see the CNO’s eyebrows fluttering before he artfully changed the subject to another pressing issue.

Meanwhile, the Bureau of Aeronautics, which had already undertaken gliders’ study, found Secretary Knox’s suggestion underwhelming.  In 1940, Naval Aviation had far more significant problems to deal with than glider feasibility.  Besides, the Navy had already studied (and shelved) the possibility of using gliders as flight training vehicles.  They determined that gliders did not contribute as much to flight training as engine-powered aircraft.  In any event, the Chief, Bureau of Aeronautics advised the CNO that glider design studies were underway, noted that these projects incorporated both land and sea-based gliders.  He had serious reservations about the practicality of gliders in any capacity.

Nevertheless, CMC issued his call for volunteers in July 1941, advising all officers (second lieutenant through captain) that he needed 50 officers and 100 NCOs during the fiscal year 1942 to undertake glider training.  Initial training would occur at civilian schools, restricted to officers only until the Marine Corps could establish a glider school for enlisted men.  HQMC anticipated the need for 75 gliders capable of transporting ten combat loaded troops and two pilots —judged sufficient to transport one airborne battalion.  Such a project would challenge any early-war aeronautical industry but made even more perplexing because the largest glider manufactured in the United States in 1941 was a four-seat model not intended for people wearing combat gear.  Europeans had developed larger gliders, however, so American builders knew that it was doable.

Seeking to provide its unwanted assistance to the Bureau of Aeronautics, HQMC identified “desirable” features of the aircraft in its design: For instance: (1) The ability to take off from land or water; (2) Capable of transporting equipment, including light vehicles, 37-mm anti-tank guns, and if possible, light tanks[2]; (3) Configured for static line paratroop jumping; (4) Machine gun mounts for self-defense while airborne, and (5) a weight capacity of 12 men, each weighing 250 pounds in combat gear.  It is difficult to keep from laughing.

The Navy’s BuAer evaluated two prototypes, both of which fulfilled the Marine Corps’ requirement.  One of these was an amphibious, float-wing model available for production and open to bids.  The second glider was a twin-hulled seaplane glider whose plans were still on the drawing board the day before yesterday.

Glider pilot training presented unique problems.  When HQMC learned that the Army had enrolled officers in a soaring school in Elmira, New York, The Commandant directed First Lieutenant Eschol M. Mallory to evaluate this training.  By the way, Mallory was a Marine Corps Aviator who had certain biases against the idea of glider aircraft.  While in Elmira, Mallory learned that there was a second school in Lockport, Illinois.  Taking it upon himself to investigate both facilities, Mallory wrote a report for the CMC recommending that (1) glider training be restricted to qualified naval aviators because of (a) control problems, (b) navigation issues, and (c) because night/instrument flying precluded safe flight operations with novice pilots on the stick.  Additionally, in recognizing that 150 glider pilot trainees could not be pulled from existing resources, small as they were, Mallory recommended that should the CMC decide to proceed with the program, that (a) novice pilots be sent to the Lewis School outside Chicago and (b) that experienced pilots be sent to the Motorless Flight Institute at Harvey, Illinois.

The process of glider development was, from this point on, somewhat convoluted.  A series of conferences in 1941 to evaluate the progress of glider adaptation to Marine Corps combat service seemed favorable.  By October, the HQMC position on glider utilization had been fully developed and enunciated by the CMC.  Planners actually envisioned that gliders would be outfitted with outboard motors so that they could maneuver inside lagoons and other protected areas.  Of course, a few questions remained, such as the location of operating facilities where they would not interfere in regular aviation operations.

The CMC, who had earlier resisted the creation of commando battalions, was now on record as fully supporting the notion of glider operations within parachute battalions.  In retrospect, the situation illustrated senior leaders’ inability to foresee all possible tactical situations and the impact of their reluctance to conduct an adequate study, feasibility assessment, or experimentation and training.

Vernon M. Guymon

In November 1941, four Marine Corps officers, led by Lieutenant Colonel Vernon M. Guymon[3], enrolled in the glider pilot’s course at Motorless Flight Institute.  All of these officers were qualified naval aviators.  Guymon had been awarded the Navy Cross for his role in the air evacuation of sick and wounded Marines during the Nicaragua intervention in 1929.  Eight additional officers reported for training at the Lewis School.  All officers graduated shortly after the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.  But to maintain their proficiency, they had to fly —and at this early stage, there was still no glider aircraft in the Marine Corps aviation inventory.

In early January 1942, the Director of Aviation at HQMC indicated some hesitance in proceeding with the program.  First, he recommended a “temporary allowance” to form a glider detachment instead of a permanent glider organization.  The CMC concurred, and on 15 January, approved the temporary assignment of 14 officers and 56 enlisted men to the newly created Glider Detachment.  The manufacturer delivered one and two-man gliders to the Marine Corps during mid-March; the first 12-man gliders’ delivery was promised a short time later; it was a promise unfulfilled.  On 16 March 1942, the CMC requested the CNO to approve the formation of Marine Glider Group (MGG) 71, which would consist of an H&S Squadron 71, and Marine Glider Squadron (VML) 711.  The CNO approved the requested table of organization.

Activation of MGG 71 took place at the Marine Corps Air Station, Parris Island, South Carolina.  Initially, the group was equipped with three N3N-3 trainers, one SNJ-2, one J2F-3, one JE-1, and seven (7) two-man gliders.  Two of these gliders were kept in reserve.  HQMC assigned Lieutenant Colonel Guymon as Group Commander.

N3N-3 Trainer

By the summer of 1942, Guymon believed that training in two-man gliders was a waste of time.  Since all glider pilots (so far) were qualified naval aviators, the only training these pilots needed was transitional flying —best achieved in the 12-man gliders.  Colonel Guymon’s point was moot, however, because the Marine Corps still did not have 12-man gliders.  A search for a suitable glider base was undertaken and eventually selected at Eagle Mountain Lake, Texas.  HQMC considered additional sites, but none ever developed as glider bases or training facilities.

Two-place Glider

MGG-71 departed MCAS Parris Island on 21 November 1942 and arrived at Eagle Mountain Lake two days later.  Training continued even though the 12-man gliders still had not been delivered.  In February 1943, HQMC ordered the glider program’s suspension until the Marine Corps could satisfy the Pacific theater’s more pressing needs.  At HQMC, the Plans and Operations Division and Aviation Division jointly concluded that parachute battalions and glider squadrons were impractical in the Pacific War’s island-hopping campaigns.  CMC ordered the glider program terminated on 24 June 1943.  The Navy Department reassigned all USMC Glider aircraft to the U. S. Army; the Eagle Mountain Lake facility transitioned to a night fighter training base.

Sources:

  1. Updegraph, C. L. Jr., S. Marine Corps Special Units of World War II. History and Museums Division, HQMC, Washington, 1972.
  2. Sherrod, R. History of Marine Corps Aviation in World War II.  Washington: Combat Forces Press, 1952.
  3. Grim, J. N. To Fly the Gentle Giants: The Training of US WWII Glider Pilots.  Bloomington: Author House Press, 2009.

Endnotes:

[1] Thomas Holcomb (1879-1965) served as the 17th Commandant of the Marine Corps (1936-1943).  He was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant on 13 April 1900.  Holcomb was awarded the Navy Cross medal, four awards of the Silver Star Medal, and the Purple Heart.  Holcomb was a descendant of Commodore Joshua Barney of the Continental Navy.

[2] Proving that not every Marine officer was a genius unless one officer intended to defeat the program on the drawing board.

[3] Vernon Melvin Guymon (1898-1965) was a highly decorated Marine Corps mustang officer who retired as a Brigadier General in 1949.  Throughout his 30 years of service, he was awarded the Navy Cross, Silver Star, Legion of Merit, and two Purple Hearts.  While serving as a gunnery sergeant, Guymon was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in December 1918.  After service in the so-called Banana Wars in the early 1920s, he applied and was accepted for flight school.  He was designated a naval aviator on 15 November 1926.  Following the deactivation of MGG-71, Guymon was assigned to MAG-12 in the Pacific Theater, where he served as the Group Commander and later as Chief of Staff, 4th Marine Aircraft Wing.  Brigadier General Guymon retired from active duty on 1 March 1949.

The Gun Maker

There are many positive things to say about the American Republic —along with a few deserved criticisms.  One of my criticisms is that we Americans seem never to learn important lessons from history —so we are continually forced to relearn them.  This relearning process is too often painful for our nation —for its complex society.  Maybe one day we’ll smarten up, but I’m not holding my breath.

Speaking of lessons unlearned, given their experience with the British Army the founding fathers were distrustful of standing armies.  I find this odd because the British Army’s presence within the thirteen colonies prevented hostile attacks against British settlements.  Years later, at the Battle of Bladensburg during the War of 1812, observing how the American militia cut and run when confronted with a well-trained British Army, President James Madison remarked, “I could never have believed so great a difference existed between regular troops and a militia force if I had not witnessed the scenes of this day.”

Our reliance on state or federal militia to defend our homeland was one of those unlearned lessons.  War is not for amateurs.  Federalized state militias during the American Civil War were not much of an improvement over the Revolutionary War minute men.  History shows us, too, that finding enough resources to fight a war against Spain in Cuba was very close to becoming an unmitigated disaster.  There was only one combat force ready for war in 1898; the U. S. Marine Corps was able to field a single (reinforced) battalion —one that was engaged with the enemy before the Army figured out which of its senior officers was in charge.  Who knows how many horses drowned because the Army couldn’t figure out how to unload them from transport ships and get them to shore.

The United States was still unprepared for combat service at the beginning of the First World War.  Politicians —those geniuses in Washington— had little interest in creating and maintaining a standing armed force.  Worse, our military leaders were incompetent and complacent, and as a result of this, the US military lacked modern weapons.  When Congress declared war against Imperial Germany, the American army was forced to rely on weapons provided by Great Britain and France.  It wasn’t that the United States had no weapons, only that our arsenal was a mishmash of firearms requiring an assortment of munitions that were both inadequate and inefficient for the demands of general war.  In particular, the United States arsenal included ten different revolvers of varying calibers, 12 rifles of foreign and domestic manufacture, and six variants of automatic weapons/machine guns.

Some Background

The Puckle Gun

The world’s first rapid-fire weapon was the brainchild of James Puckle (1667-1724), a British inventor, a lawyer, and a writer, who in 1718 invented a multi-shot gun mounted on a wheeled stand capable of firing nine rounds per minute.  The Puckle Gun consisted of six flintlock barrels, operated manually by a crew.  The barrel was roughly three feet long with a bore measuring 1.25 inches (32mm).  The weapon was hand loaded with powder and shot while detached from its base.  To my knowledge, this device was never used in combat.

Today, we classify machine guns as either light, medium, or heavy weapons.  The light machine gun (with bipod for stability) is usually operated by a single soldier.  It has a box-like magazine and is chambered for small caliber, intermediate power ammunition.  Medium machine guns are general purpose weapons that are belt-fed, mounted on bi-or tripods, and fired using full power ammunition.  The term “heavy machine gun” may refer to water-cooled, belt-fed weapons, operated by a machine gun team, and mounted on a tripod (classified as heavy due to its weight), or machine guns chambered for high-powered ammunition.  Heavy machine gun ammunition is of larger caliber than that used by light and medium guns, usually .50 caliber or 12.7mm.

Gatling Gun

One example of America’s use of rapid-fire weapons was the weapon designed by Richard J. Gatling in 1861, which seems to follow the Puckle design.  Called the Gatling Gun, it was the forerunner of the modern machine gun (and of modern electric motor-driven rotary guns and cannons).  It saw only occasional use during the American Civil War, and only sporadic use through 1911.  It was not an easily transportable weapon.

Wide use of rapid-fire (machine) guns changed the tactics and strategies of warfare.  Magazine or belt fed ammunition gave opposing armies substantial increases in fire power.  No longer could soldiers advance in a frontal assault without incurring massive casualties, which then led to trench warfare.  Machine guns would never have been possible without advances in ammunition —a shift away from muzzle loading single-shot weapons to cartridges that contain the round, propellant, and means of ignition.

The first recoil-operated rapid-fire weapon was the creation of Sir Hiram Stevens Maxim in 1884, a British-American inventor.  The Maxim gun was used by the British in several colonial wars between 1886-1914.  Maxim’s work led to research and development by Hotchkiss[1], Lewis, Browning, Rasmussen[2], Mauser, and others.

First World War 

The only machine guns available to the United States at the beginning of World War I were the Hotchkiss M1909 Benét–Mercié, the Chauchat M1915, M1918 (pronounced Show-sha), which was a light machine gun made in France, Belgium, and Poland, the Colt-Vickers (called the potato digger) was a British water-cooled .303 caliber gun, the Hotchkiss 1914, and the Lewis gun[3].  While the Lewis gun was designed in the United States in 1911, no one in the Army’s Ordnance Department was much interested in it, which caused inventor Colonel Isaac Newton Lewis to seek license for its production in the United Kingdom in 1914.

Some of these machine guns were more dependable than others; they are, after all, only machines.  But one consequence of faulty weapons was the needless combat-related deaths of many young men, whose weapons failed to work at critical moments.  Whenever combat troops lose confidence in their weapons, they become less aggressive in combat; they lose their determination to win —they lose battles.

America’s War Department in 1914 was inept.  Not only were the Army’s senior leader’s incompetent, the entire organization was ill-prepared to carry out the will of Congress.  Of course, the Congress might have taken note of these conditions before declaring war on Germany in 1917, but it didn’t.  Before America could go to war, it was necessary to increase the size of the Army through conscription, complete re-armament was necessary, and massive amounts of spending was required to satisfy the needs of general war.  Until that could happen, until war technology could be developed, the American soldier and Marine would have to make do with French and British armaments.

In 1917, John Browning personally delivered to the War Department two types of automatic weapons, complete with plans and detailed manufacturing specifications.  One of these weapons was a water-cooled machine gun; the other a shoulder fired automatic rifle known then as the Browning Machine Rifle (BMR).  Both weapons were chambered for the US standard 30.06 cartridge.  After an initial demonstration of the weapons capabilities with the US Army Ordnance Department, a second public demonstration was scheduled in south Washington DC, at a place called Congress Heights.

On 27 February 1917, the Army staged a live-fire demonstration that so impressed senior military officers, members of Congress, and the press, that Browning was immediately awarded a contract for the production of the BMR and was favored with the Army’s willingness to conduct additional tests on the Browning machine gun.

In May 1917, the US Army Ordnance Department began this additional testing of the machine gun at the Springfield Armory.  At the conclusion of these tests, the Army recommended immediate adoption of Browning’s weapon.  To avoid confusing the two Browning automatic weapons, the rifle became known as the M1917 Rifle, Caliber .30, Automatic, Browning.  Over time, the weapon was referred to as simply the Browning Automatic Rifle, or BAR.

What was needed then was a company capable of producing the weapons in the quantities needed to arm a field army —which is to say, three infantry corps, each consisting of three infantry divisions, each of those having three regiments, and each regiment consisting of three infantry battalions.  It would be a massive undertaking.  Since the Colt Firearms Company was already under contract to produce the Vickers machine gun for the British Army, Winchester Repeating Arms Company was designated the project’s primary manufacturer.  Winchester, after providing invaluable service to Browning and the Army in refining the final design to the BAR, re-tooled its factory for mass production.  One example of Winchester’s contribution was the redesign of the ejection port, which was changed to expel casings to the left rather than straight up.

The BAR began arriving in France in July 1918; the first to receive them was the US 79th Infantry Division.  The weapon first went into combat against German troops in mid-September.  The weapon had a devastating impact on the Germans —so much so that France and Great Britain ordered more than 20,000 BARs.

B. A. R.

The Marines, always considered the red-headed stepchildren of the U. S. Armed Forces, now serving alongside US Army infantry units, were never slated to receive these new weapons.  Undaunted, Marines of the 1st Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment developed a bartering system with co-located units of the 36th Infantry Division.  The Marines traded their Chauchats to the soldiers in exchange for the new BAR.  Given what I know of the average Marine’s ability to scavenge needed or desired resources, I have no doubt that the Marines were able to convince the doggies that one day, the soldiers would be able to retain the French guns as war souvenirs[4], whereas the BARs would have to be surrendered after the war.  Unhappily for the Marines, senior Army officers learned of this arrangement and the Marines were ordered to surrender the BARs and take back their Chauchats.

The BAR was retained in continual use by the US Armed Forces (less the Air Force, of course) from 1918 to the mid-1970s.  The BAR’s service history includes World War I, Spanish Civil War, World War II, Second Sino-Japanese War, Chinese Civil War[5], Indonesian Revolution, Korean War, Palestinian Civil War, First Indochina War, Algerian War, and in Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Cyprus, and the Thai-Laotian Border War.

The Man

The BMG and BAR were not Browning’s only accomplishments.

John Moses Browning was born into a Mormon family on 23 January 1855.  His father, Jonathan, was among literally thousands of Mormon pioneers that made their exodus from Illinois to Utah.  The elder Browning established a gun shop in Ogden in1852.  As a Mormon in good standing, Jonathan had three wives and fathered 22 children.

John Browning began working in his father’s gun shop at around the age of seven where he learned basic engineering and manufacturing principles, and where his father encouraged him to experiment with new concepts.  He developed his first rifle in 1878 and soon after founded the company that would become the Browning Arms Company.  In partnership with Winchester Repeating Arms Company, Browning developed rifles and shotguns, from the falling block single shot 1885 to the Winchester Model 1886, Model 1895, the Model 1897 pump shotgun, and Remington Model 8.  He also developed cartridges that were superior to other firearm company designs.

John Moses Browning

Browning Arms Company is responsible for the M1899/1900 .32 ACP pistol, M1900 .38 ACP, M1902 .38 ACP, M1903 Pocket Hammer .38 ACP, M1903 9mm Browning Long, M1903 Pocket Hammerless .32 ACP, M1906/08 Vest Pocket .25 ACP, M1908 Pocket Hammerless .380 ACP, the US M1911A1 .45 ACP, Browning Hi-Power 9mm Parabellum, the Colt Woodsman .22 long rifle, and BDA handguns in .38 and .45 ACP.  He developed ten variants of shotgun, eleven rifles, six machine guns, and was awarded 128 patents. 

The Legacy

What it takes to win battles is reliable weapons expertly employed against the enemy.  John Browning gave us expertly designed, quality manufactured weapons to win battles.

We no longer rely on state militias to fight our wars, but we have taken a turn toward including more reserve organizations in our poorly chosen fights.  The US also has, today, a robust weapons development program to give our Armed Forces a battlefield advantage.  Despite past failures in providing our frontline troops quality weapons, the US Marines have always succeeded against our enemies with the weapons at their disposal.  Occasionally, even entrenching tools were used with telling effect against the enemy.

If American Marines have learned anything at all about warfare since 1775, it is that success in battle depends on never taking a knife to a gunfight.

Sources:

  1. Borth, C. Masters of Mass Production.  Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1945.
  2. Browning, J. and Curt Gentry. John M. Browning: American Gunmaker.  New York: Doubleday, 1964.
  3. Gilman, D. C., and H. T. Peck (et.al.), eds. New International Encyclopedia.  New York: Dodd-Mead.
  4. Miller, D. The History of Browning Firearms.  Globe-Pequot, 2008.
  5. Willbanks, J. H.  Machine guns: An Illustrated History of their Impact.  Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2004.

Endnotes:

[1] Benjamin B. Hotchkiss (1826-1885) was an American who, after the American Civil War, with the US government little interested in funding new weapons, moved to France and set up a munitions factory he named Hotchkiss et Cie.

[2] Julius A. Rasmussen and Theodor Schouboe designed a machine gun that was adopted by the Danish Minister of War, whose name was Colonel Wilhelm Herman Oluf Madsen.  They called it the Madsen Machine Gun.

[3] The invention of Colonel Isaac Newton Lewis in 1911 that was based on the initial work of Samuel Maclean.  The US Army’s ordnance department was not interested in the Lewis Gun because of differences between the Chief of Ordnance, Brigadier General William Crozier and Colonel Lewis.

[4] Larceny has been a Marine Corps tradition since the 1890s.  During World War II, Marines were known to steal hospital sheets from adjacent Navy hospitals, make “captured Japanese flags” out of them, and sell them to sailors and soldiers as war souvenirs.  During the Vietnam War, anything belonging to the Army or Navy that was not tied down and guarded 24-hours a day was liable to end up on a Marine Corps compound.  In 1976, three Marines were court-martialed for stealing two (2) Army 6×6 trucks, attempting to conceal the thefts by repainting the trucks and assigning them fraudulent vehicle ID numbers.  In 1976, our Marines were still driving trucks from the Korean and Vietnam War periods.  Despite overwhelming evidence that these three Marines were guilty as hell, a court-martial board consisting of five Marine officers and a Navy lieutenant, acquitted them.  Apparently, no one sitting as a member of the court thought it was wrong to steal from the Army.

[5] Franklin Roosevelt’s “lend-lease” program provided thousands of US made weapons to the Communist Chinese Army during World War II.  The Communists under Mao Zedong hid these weapons away until after Japan’s defeat, and then used them to good advantage against the Chinese Nationalists.  Some of these weapons were used against American soldiers and Marines during the brief “occupation” of China following World War II.  The United States  government continues to arm potential enemies of the United States, which in my view is a criminal act.

Flying Sergeants

Aviation history began before there were airplanes and the first use of aviators actually began with lighter-than-air balloons.  In 1794, French observation balloons were used to monitor enemy troop movements.  Balloons were also employed during the American Civil War, as part of the Army Signal Corps, for observing enemy movements and artillery spotting, and this in turn necessitated the development of a system for communicating between aviators and ground personnel.

In 1906, the Commandant of the Army Signal School at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, Major George O. Squier, began studying aeronautical theory and lectured student-officers on the Wright flying machine.  One of his fellow instructors was a captain by the name of Billy Mitchell, whose expertise included the use of balloons in reconnaissance missions.  Mitchell also became interested in aeronautical principles.

Major Squier later served as an executive assistant to the Army’s Chief Signal Officer, Brigadier General James Allen.  In 1907, at Squier’s urging, Allen created the Aeronautical Division of the Signal Corps.  In December of that year, the Signal Corps requested bids for a heavier-than-air flying machine.  Not everyone in the Army agreed with this development, but ultimately, the Aeronautical Division became the world’s first military aviation organization[1] when it purchased the Wright Model A aircraft in 1909.

American naval interest in aviation followed the Royal Navy’s interests in developing aviation capabilities in 1908, when Prime Minister H. H. Asquith approved the formation of an Aerial Subcommittee within the Imperial Defense Committee.  At this time, the British were primarily interested in dirigible airships for over-water reconnaissance.

In 1910, American aviation pioneer Glenn Curtiss contracted with the U. S. Navy to develop and demonstrate an aircraft utility for ships at sea.  One of Curtiss’ pilots, Eugene Ely, took off from the cruiser USS Birmingham anchored off the Virginia coast in late November 1910.  Then, in January 1911, Ely demonstrated the ability to land on a navy ship by setting down aboard the USS Pennsylvania in San Francisco Bay —efforts which validated Curtiss’ theory.  At the time, landing and takeoff platforms were crude temporary constructs.  On 27 January 1911, Curtiss further demonstrated the suitability of naval aviation by piloting the first sea plane from San Diego Bay.  The next day, Navy Lieutenant Theodore G. Ellyson became the first Naval Aviator when he took off in a Curtiss grass cutter.

Marine Corps aviation began on 22 May 1912 when First Lieutenant Alfred Austell Cunningham[2] reported to the Naval Aviation Camp at Annapolis, Maryland “for duty in connection with aviation.”  Lieutenant Cunningham became the first Marine aviator in August of that year when he took off in a Burgess Model H aircraft, presented to him by the Burgess Company of Marblehead, Massachusetts.

In those early days, the Navy and Marine Corps had different concepts of naval aviation and they were substantial enough to lead Marine aviators to conclude that the Marines should have their own section within the Navy Flying School (created in 1914).  In the next year, the Commandant of the Marine Corps authorized the creation of a Marine Aviation Company for duty with the Advanced Base Force.  The company, manned by ten officers and forty enlisted men, was assigned to the Navy Yard, Philadelphia.

A major expansion of the Marine air component came with America’s entry into World War I.  Wartime enlargements resulted in renaming organizations and a substantial increase in personnel.  In July 1918, Marine Aviation Company was divided and renamed First Aeronautic Company and First Marine Air Squadron.  The aeronautic company deployed to the Azores[3] to hunt for German submarines, while air squadrons were activated and assigned to the 1st Marine Aviation Force in France.

In France, Marine aviators in provided bomber and fighter support to the Navy’s Northern Bombing Group.  Within the short time span of America’s participation in World War I, Marine aviators recorded several aerial victories and credit for dropping in excess of fourteen tons of ordnance on enemy forces.  In total, the 1st Marine Aviation Force included 282 officers and 2,180 enlisted men operating from eight squadrons.  Second Lieutenant Ralph Talbot[4] was the first Marine Corps aviator to earn the Medal of Honor for action against the Luftstreitkräfte, the air contingent of the German Imperial Army.

By the end of the First World War, Marine aviators had gained aeronautical expertise in a wide range of air support roles, including air to air, air to ground, close air support for ground troops, and anti-submarine patrolling.  Congress authorized an aeronautical force of 1,020 men and permanent air stations at Quantico, Parris Island, and San Diego.  From that time forward, whenever and wherever Marines confronted an enemy, their aviation arm accompanied them —at the time, in Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and in Nicaragua.  It was during the Banana Wars that Marine Corps pilots expanded their unique application air air-ground tactics, resupply of ground forces in remote locations, and air-to-ground communications.

If there was one area where Marine aviation stood apart from the other services, it was in the number of enlisted men serving as pilots, especially in time of national emergency/war.  Enlisted pilots were not a “new” concept.  The French air services employed enlisted men as pilots, but if there was a general rule, it would have been that commissioned officers were the primary source for aviators[5].  The Navy implemented its (enlisted) Naval Aviation Pilot designation in 1919.  The Marines, as part of the Naval Services, also authorized enlisted men to serve as pilots.  First Sergeant Benjamin Belcher was the first Marine enlisted man to serve as a NAP in 1923.  Some of these men later received commissions, such as Marine Ace Lieutenant Colonel Kenneth A. Walsh[6], who scored 21 kills and earned the Medal of Honor during World War II.  Walsh served as an enlisted pilot in the 1930s until he was commissioned in 1942.  In that year, there were 132 enlisted pilots serving in front line (fighter/bomber) squadron.  In later years, enlisted pilots flew helicopters and jet aircraft.

Technical Sergeant Robert A. Hill, USMC performed 76 combat missions as the pilot of an OY aircraft.  Hill earned the moniker “Bulletproof” because he often returned to base after a combat mission with massive amounts of bullet holes in his bird.  Hill was awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross for evacuating wounded Marines near the Chosin Reservoir while under heavy enemy fire.  Enlisted pilots also flew R4D[7] transports, which were also used to medevac wounded men and the remains of men killed in action.

During the transition from propeller to jet aircraft, enlisted pilots trained in the Lockheed P-80 (also, TO-1) but only after 1949 and not without some objection by a few squadron commanders who did not want enlisted men flying high performance aircraft.  It was a bit confusing and difficult.  Some of the enlisted pilots in the Korean War had been commissioned during World War II and then reverted to their enlisted ranks in the post-war demobilization period.  Some of these temporarily commissioned pilots left the Marine Corps after World War II and then later regretted doing so.  It was possible for these men to re-join the Marine Corps, but only as enlisted men.  Reenlistment within 90 days entitled these men to rejoin at the rank of Master Sergeant (in those days, E-7[8]), and if beyond 90 days, they could be accepted as Technical Sergeant (E-6).

VMF-311 was ordered into the Korea War with its F9F Panthers and several NAP pilots.  Master Sergeant Avery C. Snow was the first NAP to complete 100 combat missions in a jet aircraft.  Snow achieved the rank of captain during World War II while serving with VMSB-232.

In 1952, Master Sergeant Lowell T. Truex was ordered to fly over an area near the Yalu River.  During his pre-flight briefing, Truex was told that Air Force F-86s would fly escort for his mission.  He was not at all happy to learn that he had no escort and he was flying alone in Indian Country.  When Truex spotted several MiG-15s taking off, he started sweating.  He hurriedly completed his photo-reconnaissance mission and returned to base.  Truex had a few unkind things to say about the Air Force during his post-Op debrief, but he was reassured that the Air Force birds were on station and had kept a close eye on the MiG’s.  The problem was service-rivalry; Air Force pilots had little regard for Marine Corps enlisted pilots, so they occasionally went out of their way to make the flying sergeants feel uncomfortable.

Master Sergeant James R. Todd completed 101 combat missions before rotating back to the States.  He flew 51 missions in Banshees, 10 in the F9F, 23 in the F7F, 13 in F4U-5Ps, and four escort missions in F4U-4Bs.  The F4U-4B was an armed aircraft, but in all the others, Todd had only his sidearm for self-defense —and a high-performance engine.  Like many of his contemporaries, Todd had been commissioned as a second lieutenant in World War II.  He was mustered out in September 1946 but returned to active duty in November of the same year.  He resigned his commission as a first lieutenant and then enlisted as a private.  After the ceremony, he was advanced to the rank of master sergeant.  He received photo reconnaissance training at NAS Pensacola, Florida so that by the time the Korean War broke out, he was well-experienced recon pilot.  It was a skill that would come in handy in the Korean conflict.

Note that in addition to their flying duties, NAPs also shared responsibility for supervising their squadron’s various divisions (flight line, powerplant, airframes, avionics, tool shed, and supply sections).

Enlisted Marines also flew combat missions in the Vietnam War, but by this time there were only a few remaining NAPs.  In 1973, there were only 4 NAPs on active duty;  all four of these men retired on 1 February 1973: Master Gunnery Sergeant Joseph A. Conroy, Master Gunnery Sergeant Leslie T. Ericson, Master Gunnery Sergeant Robert M. Lurie, and Master Gunnery Sergeant Patrick J. O’Neil.

A colorful era in Marine Corps aviation ended with the retirement of these flying sergeants.

Endnotes:

[1] The progenitor of the US Air Force.

[2] Cunningham (1882-1939) from Atlanta, Georgia, served in the 3rd Georgia Volunteer Infantry during the Spanish-American War.  Following his voluntary service, he worked as a real estate agent in Atlanta for ten years until 1903.  In 1909, he received a commission to second lieutenant in the U. S. Marine Corps.  His enthusiasm for aviation was contagious and he soon convinced the Commandant of the Marine Corps, Major General William P. Biddle, that aviation was well-suited to the concept of the advanced base concept.

[3] An autonomous region of Portugal, an archipelago consisting of nine volcanic islands in the North Atlantic.

[4] Ralph Talbot (1897-1918) from South Weymouth, Massachusetts, joined the U. S. Navy in 1917.  Owing to his participation in college level artillery reserve training, the Navy appointed him as a Seaman 2nd Class.  After ground training and flight training, he was appointed Naval Aviator #456.  At the time, the Marine Corps was having problems recruiting aviators so Talbot (and a number of other Navy pilots), in realizing that he would be in a better position to receive a combat assignment in the Marine Corps, resigned his navy commission and accepted a commission in the USMC.  He was assigned to the 1st Marine Aviation Force for duty with “C” Squadron.  Talbot was killed in an accident during takeoff at La Fresne aerodrome, France.

[5] At the beginning of World War II, the Royal Air Force would have been even worse off during the Battle of Britain were it not for their enlisted pilots.

[6] See also: A Damned Fine Pilot.

[7] This aircraft became a workhorse for America.  From its first design, the aircraft had several service and mission designations, including DC-3, R4D, C-47, Skytrain, Dakota, RC-47, SC-47, Spooky, EC-47, C-53, C-117, and C-129.

[8] In 1949, the highest enlisted grade was Master Sergeant (E-7).

Alamo of the Pacific, Part II

Wake Island Prisoners of World War II

—By James W. Wensyel

Early on the morning of December 8, 1941[1], Wake Island hummed with activity. For months, the wishbone-shaped Pacific atoll of three small islands–Wake, Wilkes and Peale–less than 10 miles long and barely above sea level, had been the site of construction work. Working feverishly to complete an airstrip and defensive fortifications were 449 U.S. Marines of the 1st Defense Battalion, commanded by Major James P.S. Devereux; Marine Fighter Squadron (VMF)-211, equipped with 12 Grumman F4F-3 Wildcats, led by Major Paul A. Putnam; 71 Naval personnel; a five-man Army radio detachment, commanded by Captain Henry S. Wilson; and 1,146 American civilian construction workers of the Contractors Pacific Naval Air Bases Company, managed by Dan Teters –all under the overall command of Commander Winfield S. Cunningham.

War with Japan was imminent, and an airstrip on Wake, about 2,000 miles west of Hawaii, would allow American heavy bombers to strike the Japanese-controlled Marshall Islands. And, if Guam were lost to the Japanese, Wake would be one of the closest American outposts to the Japanese mainland. Each day work began early and finished late. There were no other diversions on the tiny, barren atoll, and the defenders all realized that war could begin at any time.

Around 7 o’clock that morning an Army radio technician on Wake picked up a radio alert from Hawaii: ‘Hickam Field has been attacked by Jap dive bombers. This is the real thing.’ Devereux shouted for his bugler, Alvin J. Waronker, and soon the clear notes of ‘General Quarters’ sounded across the atoll.

At 8:50[2] the Marines raised the American flag on its staff, something Marines did every morning all over the world, and Waronker began to sound ‘To the Colors.’ In the past he had had trouble with the bugle call, never getting it quite right, but this time he did not miss a note, and for several minutes all activity stopped as each man stood at attention and saluted the flag. Devereux recalled: ‘The flag went up, and every note was proud and clear. It made a man’s throat tighten just to hear it.’ Not long after the flag raising, 36 Japanese Mitsubishi G3M2 Nell bombers crossed Wake in three V-formations. Soon their fragmentation bombs, accompanied by a steady drumming of machine-gun fire, tore the island to pieces. For Wake’s defenders, the war had begun.

Japanese land-based aircraft from Roi in the Marshalls, later joined by aircraft from approaching Japanese carriers, pounded the atoll day after day. Before each attack, a dwindling number of American Wildcat fighters rose to meet them. At 3 a.m. on December 11, a Japanese invasion task force commanded by Rear Adm. Sadamichi Kajioka, consisting of a light cruiser, six destroyers, two troop carriers and two armed merchantmen, confidently approached Wake’s beaches. Marine gunners let them close to 4,500 yards before their 5-inch naval guns opened fire. Their patience was rewarded with the sinking of one Japanese destroyer and damaging of the cruiser and three additional destroyers. Kajioka retreated, now knowing that Wake would not be taken without a fight.

By the 21st, the last of the Wildcats had been destroyed in dogfights over the atoll. With nothing left to fly, Putnam’s aviators were assigned duty as riflemen. Japanese airplanes now roamed over the island at will, pounding American positions in preparation for a renewed attempt to seize the atoll.

In the dark, rain-swept early morning hours of December 23rd, Kajioka returned, his fleet bolstered by four heavy cruisers and various other warships, including landing craft, to assault Wake’s beaches with more than 900 well-trained infantrymen of the Special Naval Landing Force. At 2:35 a.m., the first Japanese landing barge ground ashore. Soon a desperate battle was being fought across the atoll between groups of men fighting with rifles, bayonets, grenades and fists. The Americans fought hard, but more Japanese landed and pushed them toward the island’s center. Teters’ civilian construction workers, many of whom had manned anti-aircraft guns earlier in the fight, now took up rifles and grenades to fight beside the American servicemen.

At dawn, Devereux and Cunningham, separated but talking over the single phone line between the islands, took stock of the situation. The American flag still flew from a battered water tower, the highest point on Wake, but Japanese flags fluttered everywhere else. Reports from the three islands were discouraging; there were simply too many Japanese and too few Americans. Cunningham radioed Pearl Harbor: ‘Enemy on island. Issue in doubt.’

Meanwhile, enemy planes continued bombing and strafing while Japanese ships, beyond the range of the few remaining shore batteries, shelled pockets of American resistance. Devereux, unable to contact his remaining strongpoints, had no idea what was happening a few yards beyond his own command post. Later he would reflect: ‘I tried to think of something …we might do to keep going, but there wasn’t anything …We could keep on expending lives, but we could not buy anything with them.’

Cunningham, as the ranking officer, made the inevitable decision to surrender. The naval commander phoned Devereux to tell him the depressing news. The major gulped, then quietly agreed, ‘I’ll pass the word.’

Devereux and Sergeant Donald R. Malleck, who carried a white cloth tied to a mop handle, then walked across the island, ordering surviving Americans to lay down their weapons. Stunned defenders threw away rifle bolts, destroyed delicate range-finding instruments, drained hydraulic fluid from recoil cylinders and then surrendered. Eighty-one Marines, eight sailors and 82 civilian construction workers had been killed or wounded.

The Japanese, however, paid a heavy price for their victory. The fight for Wake Island had cost them two destroyers and one submarine sunk, seven additional ships damaged, 21 aircraft shot down and almost 1,000 men killed.

Enraged by their losses, the Japanese treated their prisoners —military and civilian— brutally.  Some were stripped naked, others to their underwear.  Most had their hands tied behind their backs with telephone wire, with a second wire looped tightly from their necks to their wrists so that if they lowered their arms, they would strangle themselves. Personal valuables were taken, and wounds ignored.

The prisoners were then jammed into two suffocating concrete ammunition bunkers. Later they were herded to the airstrip and made to sit, naked, on the blistering hot concrete. When the Japanese set up machine guns nearby, most of the prisoners expected to be executed. That night, bone-chilling winds replaced the heat. The prisoners sat there, still waiting for food, water or medical treatment. The unfortunate prisoners remained sitting on the airstrip for two days. Finally, they were given food, much of it spoiled by the heat, and water, contaminated from being placed in unclean gasoline drums. Piles of assorted clothing seized earlier were placed before them; an individual had little chance of finding his original clothing. Marines found themselves in civilian dress, civilian workers in Marine khaki. Private First Class Carl Stegman, Jr., was dressed in a bloodstained shirt, ill-fitting Marine trousers and a pair of sneakers.  Lieutenant John Manning would begin his captivity in a pair of Marine trousers and two oversized, hip-length rubber work boots.

After returning his prisoners’ clothes, Kajioka, resplendent in white dress uniform and gleaming samurai sword, read a proclamation to the assembled prisoners. When he concluded, a Japanese interpreter informed the Americans that “the Emperor has graciously presented you with your lives.”  To which a resolute Marine croaked, “Well, thank the son of a bitch for me!”

During the next 10 days the prisoners were given small amounts of food taken from the remaining stores on the island. They cared for their own wounded with whatever supplies they could obtain.

On January 11, 1942, Kajioka informed the prisoners that they would soon be transferred. This was alarming news because although they had been poorly treated by their captors, both sides had come to some accommodation with one another. Now all that would change.

The next day most of the prisoners were taken to the merchant ship Nitta Maru.  Before boarding, however, they were forced to run a gantlet of cursing and spitting Japanese sailors who struck them with clubs, fists and heavy belts. Crowded into the ship’s hold, they next confronted a Japanese officer who shouted the rules that would govern them.

Thousands of miles from home, crammed into Nitta Maru‘s dimly lit hold, with several buckets for toilets, no heat or ventilation and confronted by brutal guards, the prisoners’ future was bleak. Even so, they were luckier than the 380 prisoners the Japanese kept on Wake to rebuild the island’s defenses. Those unfortunates would slave away until October 1943, when, in retaliation for the strikes on the island by a U.S. Navy task force and fearful of an Allied invasion, the Japanese garrison murdered them all.

It took Nitta Maru six days to reach Yokohama, Japan. During that time the prisoners never left the ship’s hold and were given only tiny amounts of food.  Not understanding Japanese was no excuse for prisoners who failed to instantly obey their captors’ shouted orders. Beatings were commonplace.  In one instance a Japanese guard thought he saw PFC Herman Todd talking without permission.  The private was ordered to jump up and grab an overhanging beam. As Todd hung suspended above the deck, a Japanese bayonet was thrust at his stomach while a Japanese petty officer beat him with a pick handle.

Once they had reached Yokohama, eight American officers and 12 enlisted men were sent to a prison camp in Japan while the remainder of the men continued on to Shanghai, China.  On the voyage to China, Lieutenant Toshio Sato, commander of the Japanese guard detachment, selected five Americans, three seamen and two Marines, at random, blindfolded and bound them, and took them on deck. There, surrounded by 150 Japanese sailors, the Americans were made to kneel. Sato then read to the Americans in Japanese: “You have killed many Japanese soldiers in battle. For what you have done you are now going to be killed … as representatives of American soldiers.”  The bewildered, frightened Americans understood none of his speech.  Perhaps it was just as well, for when Sato finished speaking the five unfortunates were beheaded.  Their bodies were then used for bayonet practice before being thrown overboard.

After landing at Woosung the prisoners were forced to march five miles to what the Japanese called the Shanghai War Prisoners Camp —seven gray, ramshackle single-story buildings with no fresh water or plumbing and limited electricity. To deter escape, the camp was surrounded by barbed wire, electric fences and four constantly manned guard towers.

The prisoners were housed in large, open rooms called sections. Within each section 36 men slept shoulder to shoulder on wooden pallets. Although the temperature seldom exceeded 20 degrees, most of the men wore ragged garments and many had no shoes. There was no heat. In the cold, crowded rooms disease spread quickly. Enforcement of prison rules was simple —if any man in a section misbehaved, all were punished.

At Woosung the Japanese commissary routinely issued food for only 300 prisoners. Rations provided only about 500-600 calories per man per day.  Each of the Wake prisoners would lose at least 60 pounds during his captivity at the prison.

The Americans would never forget Woosung.  The bleak loneliness, bitter cold winds whistling through their flimsy huts, wormy stone-studded rice and dawn-to-dusk work made a lasting impression.  The excesses of the Japanese guards only added to their misery. Although a few of them adopted a live-and-let-live attitude toward the Americans, most of the guards were brutal.

The worst of the Japanese at Woosung was Isamu Isihara, a civilian interpreter who enjoyed beating the helpless Americans.  Although he was a civilian who had once driven a taxi in Honolulu, Isihara wore a samurai sword and insisted that the prisoners treat him as an officer.  Without reason or warning he would fly into a rage, and the prisoners dubbed him the ‘Beast of the East.’

Sergeant Bernard O. Ketner later recalled: “I was severely beaten by Isihara. He struck me four times … with a saber.  Later … the sentry held a bayonet against my abdomen [while] they beat me with their fists … I was kicked in the testicles twice.  Isihara spit in my face and called me a white American son of a bitch.  I was then thrown into the brig for four days, two of which I was given no food.”

When the former British governor general of Hong Kong, Sir Mark Young, refused to salute him, Isihara tried to behead Young with his sword.  Finally, Japanese military officers took the sword away. Instead, Isihara resorted to a leather riding crop with a leaded handle that could be used as a blackjack.

Commanding the Woosung prison camp was Colonel Goichi Yasue, notorious for his violent and unpredictable temper.  He organized the prisoners into 10-man’shooting squads,’ explaining that if “one-man escapes, the other nine die.”

Yasue, whom the Marines called ‘Useless,’ died in March 1942, and was replaced by Colonel Satoshi Otera, dubbed ‘Handlebar Hank’ by the Marines for his moustache. Otera, more concerned with his personal comforts than with his duties, could also be very harsh. In one instance he discovered a hole in a 100-pound bag of sugar and in retaliation denied all of his prisoners food for 72 hours.

The Japanese captors’ attitude toward their prisoners was based on Bushido, the code of the samurai warrior. Bushido taught blind loyalty to the emperor and a disregard for death. A soldier should die before surrendering. Those who surrendered to the enemy surrendered everything, even their lives. Thus, the prisoner became the slave of his captor, to be spared or killed as the captor wished.  As an interrogator explained to the prisoners, “You gave up everything when you surrendered. You do not even own the air that is in your bodies—you are the slaves of the Japanese.”

At Woosung life became a war of wills.  Devereux recalled: “The main objective of the Japanese … was to break our spirit, and on our side was a stubborn determination to keep our self-respect whatever else they took from us.  That struggle was almost as much a part of the war as was the battle we fought on Wake Island.”

Colonel William H. Ashurst, Commander of the Marine Detachment captured at the U.S. Legation at Tientsin, his executive officer, Major Luther A. Brown, and Devereux ensured that their fellow Marines would never succumb to their captors.  Ashurst and Brown, using Brown’s battered copy of the Army field manual, The Rules for Land Warfare, repeatedly confronted Japanese officers with their violations of the Geneva Convention of 1929, prescribing proper treatment of prisoners of war.

Devereux insisted on the same military discipline found at a stateside Marine base. He also insisted that the Marines exercise every day, despite their weakening bodies. Some hated him for maintaining such practices, but later, when they saw that they were winning the mental battle with their captors, most respected him for leading the way.

Despite the terrible conditions inflicted on them, American prisoners saluted their officers, maintained their chain of command, and walked with pride and dignity. They held their own religious services and, using fellow prisoners as instructors, began a series of classes —including history, English, photography, beekeeping and navigation.  They leveled a field for softball and soccer and began a vegetable garden.

Occasionally they scored small victories against their captors that encouraged them to fight on.  Put to work repairing roads, the prisoners instead widened or deepened potholes or loose-packed the dirt so the holes would soon get worse. Assigned to clean weapons, they polished the metal until it was too thin to be safely fired, lost parts, hid bearings, loosened bolts or substituted incorrect parts.

Survival was never easy.  Soon after their arrival at Woosung, the prisoners began to die of illness, untreated battle wounds and malnutrition.  Others died more violently. In June 1942, a young Japanese sentry playfully pulled the trigger of his rifle, and Lonnie Riddle, a civilian construction worker, fell dead at his feet.  Two months later Seaman Roy K. Hodgkins was electrocuted while trying to recover a softball from beneath an electrified fence.  Later, Marine Corporal Carroll W. Boncher died when he accidentally fell against the same fence.

After nearly a year at Woosung, the Americans were moved to another prison camp at Kiang Wang.  By now they were hardened to days with little or no food, brutal guards and backbreaking work, but it all became even worse upon their arrival at Kiang Wang, which Devereux called “the worst hellhole in our captivity.”

At Kiang Wang, Japanese engineers ordered the Americans to build what they described as a playground complex for Japanese children.  The prisoners were forced to engage in a year-and-a-half’s labor to complete the complex, which they called the “Mount Fuji Project.”  Divided into six-man work teams, the prisoners first cleared an area 600 feet long by 200 feet wide, all by hand. Each team had a few crude spades and perhaps a mattock.  They were forced to remove the soil in large woven baskets slung on their backs.

When they had cleared the large area, they began to build an earthen mound 45 feet high, a miniature Mount Fujiyama.  As it grew, the prisoners laid a narrow-gauge railroad track up its slope.  Then they pushed small mine cars, loaded with dirt and stone, to its summit.

When American officers realized that the ‘children’s playground’ really was to be a large rifle range for the Japanese army, they protested, citing Article 31 of the Geneva Convention forbidding prisoners of war to work on military projects.  Otera, however, dismissed their complaint with a sharp retort, “Japan did not sign the Geneva Convention.”

By the summer of 1943, as a result of their sparse prison diet and 12-hour workdays, the prisoners were living skeletons, plagued by dysentery, tuberculosis, pellagra, influenza and malaria.  Month after month of hunger, cold, pain, bone-weary fatigue, loneliness and despair were severely trying the prisoners.  Despite the privation, there was only one rule –survive.

Many prisoners remembered that only the occasional delivery of packages of food, medicine and clothing from home, and the personal, and dangerous, intervention of two men saved their lives.

Loved ones heard little from the prisoners but continued sending them packages and letters.  Most mail got as far as the prison camp but never reached the intended recipient.  Japanese guards pilfered the packages or kept them in supply rooms for months before delivering them to the prisoners.  By September 1943, an estimated 1,000-1,500 pieces of mail had reached the prison camp, but only 719 of them had been given to the prisoners.  Christmas mail arrived on December 23, 1943 but was not delivered until April 12, 1944.  Mail that did reach the men, however, kept them apprised of the war’s progress.  Although Japanese censors read each letter and would not deliver obvious reports of Allied victories, some cleverly disguised messages slipped through.  In one case, the prisoners learned of the American victory at Midway Island. ‘Uncle Joe and Uncle Sam met at the halfway house and had one hell of a fight.  Uncle Sam won,’ read the letter.

Critical to the Americans’ survival was the intervention of Edouard Egle, a Swiss representative of the International Red Cross.  Because they saw their Shanghai War Prisoner Camp as a model for the world, the Japanese allowed Egle far greater access to the American prisoners there than other camps.  Egle was a very competent, compassionate man.  Between 1942 and 1945, he constantly risked Japanese retaliation by insisting upon providing medical and dental help for the prisoners and by supplying them with food and medical packets.  Although Japanese guards looted the packets, enough got through to help the Americans survive.

Egle also provided clothing for the ragged prisoners (critical during the bitter-cold winter months), some heating stoves, books, seeds and livestock for the prisoners’ farm.  Learning that four American doctor-prisoners, aided by a kindly Chinese doctor, had set up a small hospital in the prison compound and were performing surgery with razor blades, closing incisions with common thread or fishing line, and treating dysentery with grains of burnt rice scraped from cooking pots, he provided them with medical instruments and other desperately needed supplies and equipment.

In March 1944, with the prisoners’ situation desperate, Egle personally delivered six food parcels and a pair of coveralls, a cap and a pair of boots to each prisoner.  For some of the men it was their first change of clothing in two years.

The prisoners also remembered the kindness of an American civilian, ‘Shanghai Jimmy’ James, a Minnesotan who, at the outbreak of the war, owned four American-style restaurants in Shanghai that the Japanese somehow allowed to continue operating for some time.  At Christmas 1942, Shanghai Jimmy provided a Christmas tree with trimmings, cigars, cigarettes and a hot turkey dinner for the Woosung prisoners, a tremendous boost to both health and morale.  He continued to send food, medicine and other help to the prisoners until he, too, was interned in the prison camp.

In the spring of 1945, the Americans’ lot improved.  The prisoners received a shipment of food and medical packets, and the Mount Fuji Project finally ended.  More important, their captors saw that the war was winding down.  The Allies’ drive across the Pacific was nearing Japan, and American warplanes had begun bombing Shanghai. The Japanese now knew that the war would soon end, and the Allies would be the victors.  The guards now made the occasional friendly gesture to their prisoners.

Japanese frustration at the course of the war and at the prisoners’ continuing resistance, however, still made life hazardous and uncertain. The Kiang Wang prison was located between two military airfields.  American airstrikes against these facilities endangered their countrymen.  Sometimes Japanese guards, angered at the bombing, took out their frustration on the prisoners.  On January 20, 1945, for example, when prisoners cheered U.S. North American P-51 fighter planes shooting down a Japanese plane, furious guards bayoneted three of them[3].

While listening to a clandestine radio, the prisoners learned that the Allies were nearing Japan. Then Boeing B-29s, en route to bomb Japanese installations around Shanghai, appeared overhead.  On another occasion, American fighter planes buzzed the prison compound, so low that the prisoners reveled in the pilots’ waves of encouragement.  The Americans were getting too close for the Japanese, who were not about to release the Kiang Wang prisoners. On May 9, 1945, they loaded them aboard a train for a five-day trip to Fengtai, eight miles southwest of Peking. During the long train trip from Kiang Wang to Fengtai the only successful escape occurred. Five Americans —two Marines captured from the legation at Tientsin, two Wake Island Marines and one Marine pilot— jumped from the prison train.  Finally found by Chinese Communist troops, they walked for 42 days through more than 700 miles of occupied China before reaching friendly territory and freedom.

The Fengtai prison, a large brick warehouse surrounded by a moat, barbed wire and guard towers, held more than 1,000 prisoners in an area 200 yards long by 146 yards wide. Prisoners slept on Fengtai’s hard concrete floor and used a single spigot for water.

Fortunately, the Americans’ stay in Fengtai was brief.  On June 19, they again were crowded into boxcars for another hard ride, this one to Pusan, Korea, where they were held in shacks, stables and warehouses until a ship could be found to carry them across the Tsushima Strait to Japan.

At dusk on June 28, the prisoners boarded a small coastal steamer for the hazardous 12-hour trip across the strait to Shimonoseki, on the southwestern tip of Honshu.  At Shimonoseki they were crowded into another train.

Seeing the mass destruction American bombers were wreaking everywhere on the Japanese homeland while riding on the train, one Marine exclaimed, ‘I never saw such destruction in all my life.’  They were in Osaka during a B-29 raid and, while changing trains in Tokyo, narrowly escaped death or injury when an angry civilian mob attacked them as their Japanese guards looked the other way.

At Osaka some of the prisoners were diverted to a prison camp at Sendai.  Most of them, however, continued to the northern tip of Honshu, where they were ferried across narrow Tsugaru Strait to Hakodate, site of the group’s final prison.

Hakodate’s guards were brutal.  A Marine recalled: ‘The Japanese required every prisoner to stand up and bow or salute every member of the guard whenever they passed by.  If the prisoner was … slow … the guards beat him.  Prisoners were beaten because they could not understand the Japanese language….’

Most of the prisoners worked 12-hour shifts in a coal mine; others worked in a lumberyard.  Some Marine prisoners labored in an iron mine seven days a week, with a daily ration of three small bowls of rice and soybeans or a small teacup of soup made from weeds.  Civilian foremen beat prisoners to encourage better production or, it seemed to the Americans, for the fun of it.  In one instance, three Japanese civilians were beating Marine Sergeant Bernard H. Manning when PFC Norman H. Kaz interfered. Japanese guards then beat Kaz senseless before tying him to a pit timber at the bottom of the mine shaft.  Then, for two weeks he was beaten every day, emerging with a pair of black eyes, a broken nose and several teeth knocked out.

After they had been at Hakodate for several weeks, however, the Americans noticed that the attitudes of their guards and civilian supervisors changed. The brutal interrogations and beatings ended, prisoners were fed a bit better, and their captors even began to smile cordially at them. One day a Japanese guard explained to one of the prisoners, “Very soon we will all be friends again.”

In late July 1945, Japanese officers treated American officers to a formal dinner at which they offered many toasts to their guests, bowed often and professed friendship with the Americans.  Finally, a senior Japanese officer stood and proposed a toast to “everlasting friendship between America and Japan.”  The other Japanese smiled, nodded and waited for an appropriate response from the Marines.

The American officers sat quietly for a long moment, the gaunt, haggard men looking uncertainly at each other. Then, Major Luther A. Brown, for so long a thorn in his captors’ side, stood, looked about and said matter-of-factly, “If you behave yourselves, you’ll get fair treatment.”

There were other encouraging signs.  On August 15 a mine official suggested that Leonard Mettscher work in another part of the mine because it would be “less dangerous there.”  And on the same day, the prisoners’ work ended early, an unprecedented gesture.  From scraps of a Japanese newspaper they also learned that the Soviet Union had entered the war, attacking Japanese-held Manchuria.

The next day the prisoners woke to find their prison unguarded. Fearful of reprisals by local civilians, the Americans stayed inside the camp.  Later that day, Japanese boy-soldiers, so small that the tips of their bayonets stood high above their heads, appeared at the camp’s perimeter, apparently more intent on protecting the prisoners from civilian assault than in preventing their escape.  That night the prisoners’ rations were increased.

On the 17th they learned about the atomic bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  On the 23rd several Marines scaled the prison’s fence and ventured around the nearby village.  Seeing them, young Japanese guards begged them to return to the safety of the camp. The following morning, a Japanese army colonel assembled the prisoners to announce that Japan had surrendered to prevent further bloodshed.

The prisoners now decided to wait for the U.S. Army’s arrival rather than wander around the countryside of a defeated nation.  On August 28 and 30, B-29s parachute-dropped 55-gallon drums crammed with food, medicine and clothing to the war-weary prisoners, a sure sign that their rescue was near.  Many of the men, so long deprived of adequate food, became sick from the feast that followed.

On September 1, Hakodate’s prisoners used colorful cargo chutes to fashion an American flag and, using a Japanese bugle, for the first time in three years, nine months and 21 days Marines sounded ‘To the Colors’ as they hoisted their makeshift flag above the prison camp.  Cautiously, more adventuresome Americans now began to explore the area outside their prison.  On September 9, during the last airdrop of clothing and provisions, a parachute bearing a fuel drum packed with supplies malfunctioned, killing a Marine and two Army prisoners.  They were the last Wake Island prisoner casualties of the war.

Several days after these final tragic deaths, troopers from the 1st Cavalry Division reached Hakodate. For the prisoners there the long war was at last over.

This article was written by James W. Wensyel and originally appeared in the November 2001 issue of World War II magazine.  For more great articles subscribe to World War II magazine!

Endnotes:

[1] Date/Time variation is accounted for by the International Dateline.

[2] Colors are raised each morning at 0800, without variation.

[3] It is certain that had the situation been reversed, the Americans would have done the same.