Operation Collar

British CommandoAfter the British Expeditionary Force had been evacuated from Dunkirk in 1940 [1], then Prime Minister Winston Churchill ordered the creation of a force capable of carrying out raids against German occupied Europe.  Churchill envisioned a “ … specially trained troops of the hunter class, who can develop a reign of terror down these coasts, first of all on the ‘butcher and bolt’ policy (hit and run).”  What transpired from Churchill’s order was the formation of the British Commando, an idea inspired by Lieutenant Colonel Dudley Clarke, whose suggestion was forwarded to General Sir John Dill, then serving as the Chief of the Imperial General Staff.  General Dill, who was aware of Churchill’s directive, approved Clarke’s proposal.

The Commandos were assigned to the operational control of the Combined Operations Headquarters with overall command assigned to Admiral Sir Roger Keyes, who was a veteran of the Gallipoli Campaign and the Zeebrugge Raid of World War I.  Accordingly, a call went out for volunteers from among serving British Army regulars within formations still in Britain and the men of the disbanded divisional independent companies [2] originally raised from the Territorial Army units who had seen service in the Norwegian Campaign [3].  By autumn of 1940, more than 2,000 men had volunteered for commando training.

Under pressure from Churchill, the Combined Operation Headquarters developed a plan dubbed OPERATION COLLAR.  Its objective was a reconnaissance of the French coast and the capture of German prisoners.  The operation was planned to commence just three weeks after the completion of Operation Dynamo [4].  This early in the war, the British Commando was inadequately trained to conduct amphibious raids, and most units were significantly understrength.  One of the Independent Companies, Number Eleven, was selected for the mission.  Its commander was Major Ronnie Tod from the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders.  The company was formed by soliciting volunteers from among the men already serving in Independent Company One through Ten.  The strength of Number Eleven was 25 officers and 350 enlisted men.

Major Tod removed his company from Scotland to the south coast city/seaport of Southampton.  Not long after arrival, Number Eleven began a series of exercises against local infantry battalions on the River Hamble.  Tod soon realized that the boats he had been provided were inadequate for transporting his men across the English Channel.  There being no other resources available for this purpose, Major Tod approached the Royal Air Force for the use of their air rescue craft that were based at Dover, Ramsgate, and Newhaven.  Lacking navigational equipment and reliable compasses, none of the boats were equipped for this type of operation—but they would have to do.

The final raiding plan would be carried out by 115 officers and men, who were divided into four groups targeting the beaches at Neufchâtel-Hardelot, Stella Plage, Berck, and Le Touquet.  During the crossing of the English Channel, the RAF pilots, who were unaware of the operation, flew close overhead of the boats to investigate, which endangered the men to the notice of German military and naval units.  Fortunately, the men proceeded without notice of the Germans and arrived at their designated targets at around 0200 on 24 June.

At Le Touquet, the raiders were assigned the Merlinmont Plage Hotel as an objective.  British Intelligence had suggested that the Germans may have been using the hotel as a barracks.  The raiders met this objective but discovered that it was empty and all doors and windows had been boarded up.  Unable to discover another target, the group returned to the beach only to find that their boat had withdrawn back to sea.  While waiting for the boat to return, two German sentries stumbled on the raiders and were quickly killed by bayonet.  Another German patrol happened by and discovered the raiders.  Unable to engage the Germans by fire, to protect the security of the three other units, the raiders of the Le Touquet operation abandoned their weapons and swam out to their boat.

The raiders at Hardelot penetrated several hundred yards inland, but encountering no Germans, they returned to their boat.  At Berck, the raiders discovered a heavily defended seaplane anchorage.  The mission being one of reconnaissance and capture, these raiders decided against attacking the anchorage.  At Stella Plage, Major Tod engaged a German patrol in a short-lived fire fight, which resulted in an observer, Lieutenant Colonel Clarke, receiving a slight wound.

Overall, the mission was one of mixed success.  The commandos learned something about the equipment they would need for future operations, they killed two enemy and stirred up other German units, and they caused Adolf Hitler to proclaim them as “terror and sabotage troops,” who, because their mission was “the murder of innocent civilians,” were acting contrary to the Geneva Convention.

Once the commandos had returned safely to England, the British Ministry of Information announced, “Naval and military raiders, in cooperation with the RAF, carried out successful reconnaissance of the enemy coastline.  Landings were effected at a number of points and contact was made with German troops.  Casualties were inflicted upon the enemy, but no British casualties occurred and much useful information was obtained.”  It wasn’t a precisely accurate announcement, but it did have a positive effect on the British people.  

The British Commando was an all-volunteer force organized for special services.  While they originally came from the British Army, the force would eventually consist of all branches of the British military along with certain foreign volunteers from countries occupied by Nazi Germany.  In time, the Commandos formed more than 40 separate units and four assault brigades.

Throughout World War II, commando service took place in all the theaters of war, from the Arctic Circle to Europe, the Middle East, and in the Pacific campaigns.  Operations ranged from small groups of men landing from the sea, or by parachute, to brigade-sized assaults that spearheaded the Allied invasion of Europe and Asia.

Following World War II, most commandos were disbanded, leaving only the Royal Marine 3 Commando Brigade, the Parachute Regiment, Special Air Service, and the Special Boat Service —all of which can trace their origins to the British Commandos.  Today, British Royal Marines and the Parachute Regiment share this tradition with the Dutch Corps Commandotroepen, and the Belgian Paracommando Brigade.

Sources:

  1. Chappell, M.  Army Commandos, 1940-45.  Osprey Publishing, 1996.
  2. Dunning, J.  The Fighting Fourth: No. 4 Commando at War, 1940-45.  Sutton Publishing, 2003
  3. Joslen, H. F.  Orders of Battle, Second World War, 1939-1945.  Naval & Military Press, 1990.

Endnotes:

  1. My father-in-law (now deceased) was one of the more than 400,000 British, Belgian, and French forces evacuated from Dunkirk between 26 May and 4 June 1940.  Operation Dynamo became necessary when British and allied forces were surrounded and cut-off by three corps (nine divisions) of German troops and Panzer tanks during the six-week long Battle of France.  In total, the evacuation included the British Expeditionary Force (BEF), three French field armies, and what remained of Belgian forces.  During the Battle of France, the BEF lost 68,000 men (dead, wounded, missing, or captured) along with 2,472 artillery pieces, 20,000 motorcycles, and nearly 65,000 other vehicles.  Also given up were 416,000 short tons of stores, 75,000 short tons of ammunition, and 162,000 short tons of fuel.  All 445 British tanks were abandoned at Dunkirk.
  2. Independent companies were originally raised by the English Army and later the British Army during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries for garrison duty in the homeland and at overseas colonies.  Independent companies were not part of larger military units (battalions/regiments), although they may have been detached from larger units.  In the 20th Century, the term applied to units organized to support temporary expeditionary missions.  During World War II, Independent Companies were raised from volunteers from Territorial Army divisions.  The Territorial Army formations were reserve units placed throughout the British Isles.
  3. The Norwegian Campaign was an attempt by Allied forces to liberate Norway from invading Nazi forces between 9 April – 10 June 1940.  The unsuccessful campaign prompted King Haakon VII and his family to flee to Great Britain.
  4. France’s Vichy government signed a peace accord with Nazi Germany on 22 June 1940, hence the term “Occupied France.”

The Eighth Marines – Okinawa

 Preface

Okinawa mapToday, Okinawa is the southern-most prefecture of Japan and accounts for two-thirds of the Ryukyu Island Chain that extends for a thousand miles from Kyushu to Taiwan.  It has a long and interesting history extending back to the Stone Age period.  It was once a kingdom in its own right and, because of its location, became an important trade center.  The kingdom entered into the Imperial Chinese tributary system during the Ming Dynasty beginning in the fifteenth century.

In 1609, Japanese warlords from present-day Kagoshima invaded the Ryukyu kingdom and forced the Okinawan king to accept the terms of the Tokugawa Shogun to become a vassal state, while at the same time maintaining is relationship with China as a tributary state.  Despite these two powerful controlling factors, the Okinawan kingdom retained a considerable degree of domestic political freedom for over two hundred years.  Four years after the Meiji Restoration, the Japanese government officially annexed the kingdom and it became known as Ryukyu-has.  Okinawa became a Japanese prefecture in 1879, much to the chagrin of the Chinese.

From the sixteenth century, European seafaring nations began to expand their trade routes west and east.  Driven by the expectation of commercial gain and perceived national interests, early explorers sought and discovered new maritime routes into the Pacific Ocean Area. These voyages of discovery created a demand for larger and faster ships; new shipbuilding technologies met these demands and laid the foundation for the creation of powerful and influential nation states.

The history of European empires is one of maritime interests because sea routes were faster and more secure in delivering raw materials and finished goods from one end of the planet to another.  The age of sail lasted from around 1600 to 1850.  It was also a period of rapid changes in scale, technology, society, and politics … a period when many of the political and legal institutions, scientific ideas, and economic structures shaped the modern world.

Naval and military forces were needed to protect overseas colonies, trading posts, and sea (or trade) routes.  This interest and effort expanded from the 1600s in the Atlantic, the Caribbean, Gulf of Mexico, South Atlantic, and eventually into the southern, middle, and northern Pacific.  European empires drew significant wealth from their colonies, and given the institution of slave labor, cost them very little money.  Among the most powerful nations engaging in such enterprises was the British Empire, whose trade good included silk, dye, salt, and tea.

Great Britain’s loss of the American colonies, Spain’s loss of its Caribbean and South Atlantic colonies [Note 1] and competition from Russia, Germany, France, the Netherlands, Belgium, Austro-Hungary, Italy, and the emerging United States pushed colonial interests into the Indian Ocean and Pacific Ocean area.

Until around 1850, most seagoing vessels were powered by sail.  Even after the invention of steam powered engines, most ships used them only as a source of auxiliary power.  Still, the use of steam required coal, so it was incumbent upon these European powers to establish coaling stations and safe harbors for the repair of ships and rest stops for crews.

Before the Civil War, the United States’ only coaling station was located at Key West, Florida.  After the war, when the United States began looking toward the Pacific with increased interest, a coaling station was established at Honolulu, Hawaii.  As the conversion to steam powered ships increased, so too did the demand for coaling stations—and if the competing nations intended to invest the capital for the creation of coaling stations, then they would require an expanded navy and military to safeguard them —as well as protecting established trade routes.

At the beginning of the First World War, Japan agreed to join the allied powers on condition that it would be permitted to seize and retain control over German advanced bases located on several Pacific Islands [Note 2].  While Japan’s contribution to World War I was limited to guaranteeing the security of well-established sea lanes from the German Imperial Navy, its participation did increase Japan’s national prestige and provide justification for the expansion of the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN).

When one considers the Japanese colonies prior to World War I [Note 3], the territories seized from Imperial Germany [Note 4] appears small and inconsequential, but they became part of Japan’s national pride.  And while the Japanese were helping themselves to German foreign territory, they may as well pick up a few additional islands that no one seemed to care about, such as at Iwo Jima.

Following World War I, loud voices demanded world peace and disarmament.  Perhaps the loudest of these voices were from women, who had only just won the right to vote in many “civilized” countries.  The ladies [Note 5] convinced leading politicians that money could be saved, votes won, and the future secured, by putting a halt to the arms race.  In the United States, practically every protestant organization became a strong proponent of international peace.

At war’s end, the United Kingdom still had the strongest navy in the world.  Even so, the British Navy was becoming obsolete and the costs associated with replacing the British fleet were astronomical.  The United States and Japan were quite quickly increasing the size of their respective navies.  Politicians became concerned about the increased rivalry between the United States and Japan [Note 6] in the Pacific Ocean Area.  Many viewed this rivalry as a long-term threat to the peace and security of the world.  To put a halt to needless, expensive, and possibly dangerous arms race, the major powers of the world met to consider a series of naval disarmament agreements.  It was called the Washington Naval Conference (1921-22).

The conference resulted in three major treaties: the Four Power Treaty [Note 7], the Five Power Treaty [Note 8], and the Nine Power Treaty [Note 9].  There were a number of smaller agreements, as well.  A subsequent conference was held in London in 1930, fittingly referred to as the London Naval Treaty.  Limitations of naval armaments placed on Japan, which were nationally insulting (given their status as a World War I ally), prompted the Japanese to cancel their agreements in 1936.

Notwithstanding these agreements, all signatories continued to expand their naval power as if there had been no international agreement at all.  In any case, the foregoing explains how Japan attained possessions of the Pacific Islands that American and allied serviceman would spill their blood to recapture during World War II.  Okinawa was one of these … in the Ryukyu Islands.

The Battle

USMC EGA 1775-1992Okinawa was the largest and bloodiest battle fought by the Americans against the Empire of Japan.  Seizure of Okinawa was to have been the final step before an actual invasion of the Japanese home islands.  Allied possession of Okinawa would provide air bases for B-29 Bombers and open the way for tightening the blockade of Japanese shipping.  Okinawa would also provide a major staging area for supplies, should an invasion of Japan be necessary.

Late winter, 1945 witnessed extraordinary effort in the preparation for the invasion and seizure of Okinawa, an island only 350 miles from the southernmost tip of Japan.  This would be a joint Army-Navy-Marine Corps operation.  To execute it, the Tenth United States Army (X Army) was created around its commander, Lieutenant General Simon B. Buckner, who would command nearly 200,000 men and women serving in infantry, artillery, medical corps, quarter master, aviation, and combat engineer fields.  X Army would include 4 US Army Divisions and 3 Marine Divisions.  In addition to these land forces, naval forces included the Fifth Fleet, composed of Task Force 50, Task Force 58, and Task Force 57 (British).  For the total naval force, see [Note 10] and add 450 fighter aircraft of various specifications.

The enemy was commanded by Lieutenant General Ushijima Mitsuru.  He would have around 100,000 soldiers of the Imperial Japanese Army (IJA) at his disposal.  These forces were augmented by tens of thousands of Okinawan/Japanese civilians, some of whom aided the IJA, most of whom were simply in the way.

The 2nd Marine Division’s role in the upcoming operation would be similar to its initial assignment in the Tinian campaign.  The division would mount a feint assault on the Southeast coast of Okinawa near the city of Minatoga, while the main landings were taking place on the western coast.  Landing Day (L-Day) was scheduled for Easter Sunday, 1 April 1945.

Following the feint, 2nd Marine Division would be on call as III Amphibious Corps Reserve, Major General Roy S. Geiger, USMC, Commanding [Note 11].  “On call” means either as a reserve force or as reinforcements for any other divisional sized command.  The convoy arrived in adjacent waters early in the morning of 1 April.  At 0520, Japanese Kamikaze pilots, flying suicide missions, attacked the task force and struck ships carrying Marines of the 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment (also said as Battalion Landing Team (BLT) 3/2).  The landings on the Western side of the Island were unopposed by Japanese forces, and so without even getting ashore, the 2nd Marine Division had sustained the only significant casualties on L-Day.

The convoy carrying the 2nd Marine Division steamed off the coast of Okinawa for several days, anticipating that the division would be needed and would soon go ashore.  Concern about aerial attacks resulted in the redeployment of the convoy back to Saipan.  In mid-May 1945, Lieutenant General Buckner specifically requested that the 8th Marines be returned to Okinawa.

8th Marines and 2/10 (artillery) departed Saipan on 24 May.  Its orders were to seize outlying islands near Okinawa in order the long range radar and aircraft detection equipment could be installed to offset the Kamikaze threat.  Shortly after 0600 on 3 June, BLT 2/8 and BLT 3/8 made an unopposed landing on the island of Iheya-Shima, which was 15 miles northwest of northern Okinawa.  The Island was declared secure the following day.  On 9 June, BLT 1/8 made a similar landing on Aguni-Shima, with no opposition, but these Marines did capture two Japanese Navy pilots.

US Army units relieved the 8th Marines a few days later and the regiment was redeployed to Okinawa to reinforce X Army in its final push through the Shuri Line [Note 12], a string of Japanese fortifications established for defense in depth.  By this time, X Army had pushed the Japanese into Southern Okinawa and fought its way into the capital city of Naha.  Fresh troops were needed against the entrenched enemy on the Kiyamu Peninsula.  For this operation, the 8th Marines would be attached to the 1st Marine Division as a relief for the battle-weary 7th Marines.

Men of the 1st Marine Division on Wana Ridge with Browning Automatic Rifle.On 18 June, 8th Marines led off the 1st Marine Division assault.  2/8, now commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Harry A. Waldorf, moved from Mezado Ridge; Lieutenant Colonel Paul E. Wallace, commanding 3/8, marched to contact from Kunishi Ridge.  The regiment would make a lightening strike to the coast.  BLT 2/8 made a rapid advance some 1,400 yards in the face of moderate machine gun fire, individual rifle fire, mortar, and light artillery fires.

At mid-day, Lieutenant General Buckner (and staff) paid a visit to Colonel Wallace, the regimental commander.  While at the 8th Marine command observation post overlooking 3/8’s sector, six shells from a Japanese 47mm anti-tank gun slammed into the position.  General Buckner was mortally wounded by jagged pieces of coral that were thrown up in the explosions.  This was a tremendous loss to the Marines, whom Buckner admired, and which occasioned his visit.  Roy S. Geiger was promoted to Lieutenant General and assumed command of  X Army.

By mid-afternoon, 2/8 had seized the Kuwanga-Makabe Road and the Marines prepared to set in a perimeter defense late in the afternoon.  Company B, 1/8 was sent forward to assist in the night defense.

OFFICIAL U.S. MARINE CORPS PHOTO 120562The next day, 3/8 advanced through the lines of the 2nd Battalion to storm the heights of Ibaru Ridge.  On the heels of an American artillery assault, the battalion moved out under cover of dense phosphorus smoke and rushed the Japanese defenders at the top of the ridge.  Surprised by the sudden attack, the Japanese were pushed down the other side of the ridge into the sea.  By 1700, all elements of the regiment had broken through the Japanese defense and were on the beach.  This breakthrough severed the enemy’s defense structure on the peninsula and the Battle of Okinawa was almost over.

For the next two days, the 8th Marines worked with the units from the 1st Marine Division and 6th Marine Division to clear pockets of resistance.  India Company, 3/8 incurred heavy losses during one clearing operation on 20 June.  In retribution, the town of Makabe was overrun by the 8th Marines on 21 June.  There would be no more resistance from that town.

Okinawa 002On 22 June, 8th Marines participated in a final search and destroy operation into Naha.  On that afternoon, General Geiger announced that the island had been secured.  It had been 82-days of bitter and bloody fighting with this important victory going to the United States and allied forces.

In its brief participation in the Battle of Okinawa, 8th Marines and its attachments lost 48 killed, 357 wounded.  The 8th Marines were returned to Saipan on 1 July, where they rejoined the 2nd Marine Division.  They immediately began training for the invasion of Japan.

On 15 August 1945, the Emperor of Japan made a radio announcement that the Empire surrendered to US and Allied Forces.  No invasion of the homeland would be necessary.  Instead, the 2nd Marine Division was ordered to Kyushu, Japan to begin a period of occupation duty.  On Kyushu, the 2nd division joined the 5th Marine Division and 32nd Infantry Division.  8th Marines was assigned a sector of responsibility, and their mission was:

  • Disarm and demobilize all Japanese military forces
  • Enforce the terms of surrender
  • Assume control of all military installations
  • Dispose of all ordnance, explosives and weapons
  • Apprehend war criminals
  • Process military and civilian personnel returning to Japan from various regions of the Empire.  In connection with this last assignment, the Marines had to also process thousands of Koreans, Taiwanese, Okinawan’s, and Chinese and return them to their native lands.

When the 5th Marine Division received a new mission and departed from Japan, 2nd Marine Division assumed its area of responsibility and duties.  Afterward, the Marines would also take over the Army division’s duties as well.  

On 25 February 1946, BLT 3/8 was detached from the regiment and returned to the United States, where the battalion was deactivated.  In June, the 2nd Marine Division received orders to redeploy to the United States, turning over its duties to the 24th Infantry Division.  The 8th Marines, consisting now of only two battalions, sailed for Norfolk, Virginia, bringing to an end four and one-half years of combat deployment to the Far East.  Henceforth, the home of the 8th Marines would be Camp Lejeune, North Carolina.

Post Script

Most other Japanese-held Islands were either uninhabited or had evacuated its civilian population.  This was not the case with Okinawa, which had a very dense indigenous civilian populace.  In planning for this operation, Army officials estimated as many as 300,000 civilians were on Okinawa.  A third of these people died during the Battle of Okinawa.

War changes men permanently, and quite often, terribly.  One American soldier admitted that there was a time when American troops tried to distinguish between the uniformed enemy and civilians, but after 82 days of bitter fighting, the troops reached the point where they didn’t care if their targets were soldiers or civilians.  If people were moving, those people were going to die.

Okinawa populaceThis sad fact wasn’t unique to the American military.  According to the Okinawan Prefectural Peace Memorial Museum, Japanese soldiers demonstrated complete indifference to civilian safety and its soldiers even used civilian as human shields.  There were also instances where Japanese soldiers murdered their own citizens to steal their food.  A Japanese commander ordered the execution of 1,000 innocent civilians as a demonstration of what would happen to the Okinawan people if they were caught spying for the American.  For the most part, however, Okinawan civilians were killed by artillery barrages, by starvation, disease, and suicide.

It’s enough to make an old man cry …

Sources:

  • Santelli, J. S.  A Brief History of the 8th Marines.  Washington: History and Museums Division, Headquarters, USMC, 1976
  • Rottman, G. L.  U. S. Marine Corps World War II Order of Battle, 1939-45.  Westport: Greenwood Press, 2002
  • Rottman, G. L.  Okinawa 1945: The Last Battle.  Osprey Publishing, 2002
  • Manchester, W.  Goodbye Darkness: A Memoir of the Pacific War.  Boston: Little, Brown, 1960
  • Feifer, G.  The Battle of Okinawa: The Blood and the Bomb.  Lyons Press, 2001
  • Hastings, M.  Retribution: The Battle for Japan, 1944-45.  New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2007
  • Sledge, E. B.  With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa.  Oxford University Press, 1990
  • Potter, E. B. And Chester Nimitz.  Sea Power: A Naval History.  Prentice Hall, 1960.

Endnotes:

  1. And abolishment of the slave trade.
  2. Japan’s primary role in the First World War was to secure the sea lanes in the Western Pacific and Indian Oceans against the German Imperial Navy.  This arrangement enabled the Japanese to expand its sphere of influence in China and gain recognition as a “great” power in postwar geopolitics.  Seizing these islands cost the Japanese very little, and benefitted the Japanese a great deal.  Seizing German-held Islands was actually the brainchild of the Japanese themselves in 1914.
  3. Taiwan, Korea, Okinawa, Southern Sakhalin, Kuril Islands, and Port Arthur.
  4. South Pacific Mandate Islands and Shandong, China.
  5. International Council of Women; International Woman Suffrage Alliance.
  6. At the end of World War I, the United Kingdom was still a close ally of Japan but the Anglo-Japanese Alliance was getting ready to expire (1923) and, viewing Japanese activities in China, Korea, and its war with Russia, the British began to think that it would be better for their long-term interests to broker a close alliance with the United States, rather than with Japan.
  7. United States, United Kingdom, France, and Japan.  All parties agreed to maintain the status quo in the Pacific by respecting the Pacific territories of the other signatories, not seeking further territorial expansion, and mutual consultations in the event of a dispute.  The Four Power Treaty voided the Anglo-Japanese Alliance of 1902.
  8. United States, United Kingdom, France, Italy, and Japan.  All parties agreed to limit the construction of battleships, cruisers, and aircraft carriers.  The numbers of cruisers, destroyers, and submarines were not limited, but restrictions on tonnage were imposed.
  9. United States, United Kingdom, Belgium, France, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Portugal, and the Republic of China.  This treaty affirmed the sovereignty and territorial integrity of China as well as the “Open Door” Policy.  The Open Door Policy legitimized the notion that all nations should be permitted to trade with China on a equal footing and that China would not “close its door” to trade with signatory nations.  The Nine Power Treaty lacked any enforcement mechanism.  Japan blatantly violated this treaty when it invaded Manchuria in 1931.
  10. US Combat Ships: 11 Fleet Carriers; 6 Light Carriers, 22 Escort Carriers, 8 fast Battleships, 10 old Battleships, 2 large cruisers, 12 heavy cruisers, 13 light cruisers, 4 anti-aircraft light cruisers, 132 destroyers, 45 destroyer escorts.  US Amphibious Assault Ships: 84 Attack Transports, 29 Attack Cargo Ships, and numerous LCI, LSM, LST, and LSV ships.  US Auxiliaries: 52 submarines, 23 fast minesweepers, 69 minesweepers, 11 minelayers, 49 oilers.  Royal Navy Ships: 5 Fleet Carriers, 2 battleships, 7 light cruisers, 14 destroyers.
  11. Roy S. Geiger (1885-1947) joined the Marine Corps in 1907 and served as an infantry officer and naval aviator in his 40 years of active duty.  As a flag officer, he commanded the 1st Marine Air Wing, I Amphibious Corps, III Amphibious Corps, Tenth US Army, and Fleet Marine Force, Pacific.  He is the only Marine Corps officer to command a U. S. Army.  Geiger passed away from cancer while still serving on active duty in 1947, aged 62-years.  He was posthumously advanced to the rank of four-star general by the 80th Congress of the United States.  His personal decorations included the Navy Cross (2), Navy Distinguished Service Medal (3), and the Army Distinguished Service Medal.
  12. The Shuri Line was constructed to incorporate the fortification known as Shuri Castle.  The castle was constructed in 1429 and served as the palace of the Ryukyu Kingdom.  It was almost completely destroyed in the Battle of Okinawa.  On 31 October 2019, a fire destroyed the reconstructed main hall and adjacent buildings.  In all, six buildings were completely gutted.  The fire was attributed to an electrical fault.  It was the fifth time the castle had been destroyed.  The Japanese plan to rebuild it.

The Eighth Marines – Tinian

Preface 

USMC SealTinian is a 12 mile long by 6 mile wide island three miles off the southern coast of Saipan.  It isn’t as rugged as Saipan, but almost completely encircled by tall cliffs which vary anywhere from six to 100 feet.  Its proximity to Saipan, its 9,000 Japanese defenders, and its suitability for a large air base made the island a target for capture and pacification.  Tinian thus became the next mission assigned to V Amphibious Corps.  General Smith was replaced by the former 4th Marine Division commander, Harry Schmidt [Note 1].

Preparations

For 43 days beginning on 11 June 1944, the U. S. Navy began a sustained campaign of bombing Tinian.  Army and Marine Corps artillery batteries, firing from the southern tip of Saipan, joined the assault on 20 June firing, in total, more than 24,000 rounds of 155 mm ammunition.  V Amphibious Corps scheduled an invasion for 24 July 1944.  The troops would go ashore on two narrow beaches on the northwestern side of the island.  The 2nd Marine Division would make a feint toward the southwest coast in order to prevent the Japanese from reinforcing the actual landing site.

Tinian LVTsEven a feint can produce a lethal result.  At dawn on 24 July, a navy convoy with seven transports appeared on the horizon off the coast of Tinian town.  The 2nd and 8th Marines loaded into landing craft, rendezvoused at a point four miles offshore and began their feint.  At about 2,000 yards, the Japanese opened fire with large calibre mortars.  The landing craft turned about and headed back out to sea.  Japanese 6-inch shore batteries then opened up on the USS Colorado (BB-45) and the USS Norman Scott (DD-690).  Colorado was hit 22 times within 15 minutes, Norman Scott received six rounds.  In total, navy casualties exceeded 60 killed and 240 wounded.  The Marines suffered no casualties.

The Battle

The feint landing force was re-embarked and headed to join the 4th Marine Division by 1100.  By this time, the 4th division was already ashore.  The 2nd division came in behind them, with 1/8 the first battalion ashore.  Because it was late in the day, 1/8 went into reserve for the 4th Marine Division; the rest of the 2nd Marine Division would come ashore the next day.  The Japanese assaulted the American perimeter three times during that night.

Colonel Wallace [Note 2] and the 8th Marines headquarters came ashore just after dawn the next morning, the balance of his regiment following later in the day.  The Japanese attempted to counter these landing operations through sporadic and ineffective artillery fire.

Once the 8th Marines was again intact, the battalions moved out of the perimeter to expand the beachhead.  The 8th Marines primary objective was Ushi Point, the northern-most peninsula.  At first, the regiment experienced no opposition, but this changed as the Marines worked their way over the gnarled and rocky terrain.  Enemy snipers and machine gun fire sent the Marines into cover and the advance came to a standstill late in the morning when 1/8 came into contact with a company of Japanese riflemen.  The Marines flanked the enemy and they were soon neutralized.  After the regiment moved forward once again, 2/8 set the pace to the airfield at Ushi Point.  Upon arrival, the 8th Marines tied in with 1/24 and the Marines went into  bivouac.   

Tinian Aircraft 001The regiment moved against the airfield on the next morning only to find it abandoned with the wreckage of Japanese aircraft strewn along the landing strip—the result of the Navy’s bombardments.  1/8 and 2/8 proceeded to the east coast, confirming that the enemy had departed the area.  8th Marines then went into Corps reserve and saw little enemy action for the next few days.  A typhoon slammed the island on 28 July and the Marines remained soaking wet for the next two days.

By the end of the month, Marines had cleared the northern end of the island; the Japanese had relocated south.  The 2nd Marine Division moved south to join the 4th in pursuit of the enemy.  The 8th Marines was ordered to support the right flank of the 2nd division’s front.  By the end of the day, the 8th Marines were in place and the men went into bivouac.

By the next morning, the Japanese were compressed within a small area on the southern end of Tinian.  The navy launched a massive bombardment; within two hours, 625 tons of munitions had been lobbed into the Japanese position.  When the firing stopped, the Marines moved out and confront whatever remained of the entrapped Japanese.

In the 2nd Marine Division’s front was a cliff where some number of Japanese had taken refuge.  Colonel Wallace directed 1/8 (LtCol Lawrence C. Hays [Note 3]) and 3/8 (LtCol Gavin C. Humphrey) to assault this position, 2/8 (LtCol Lane C. Kendall) following in trace mopping up isolated pockets of the enemy.  8th Marines’ forward units reached the base of a massif at around noon with elements of the 4th division on their right.  3/8 was ordered to scale the heights where there were several caves and crevices masked by dense foliage.  From these positions, the Japanese directed intense fire down upon the Marines.  The navy’s bombardment had not done its job and 3/8 was pulled back.

Meanwhile, 1/8 had started its own ascent, their forward movement continuing despite heavy Japanese fire.  Two platoons made it to the top of the massif at around 1630.  Colonel Wallace directed 3/8 to continue his assault.  At 1700, Kendall moved up to support Humphrey.  Meanwhile, three companies of Hays’ battalion had pushed their way to the top of the cliff.  As Kendall moved his 2nd battalion into position to follow in trace, the Japanese launched a strong infantry assault on Echo Company, forcing 2/8 to assume a defensive perimeter for the night.

That night, the Japanese initiated several probing assaults to discover weaknesses in the Marine line.  Contact between Hays and Humphrey was lost.  Just after midnight, the Japanese infiltrated a large group of soldiers behind the Marine positions and launched an attack against Kendall’s 2/8.  The Marines drove the Japanese back and then launched a counter-attack killing most of the infiltrators.  Colonel Wallace requested reinforcements.  The division commander ordered 3/6 to move up at 0320 to support the 8th Marines.  Artillery was assigned fire missions on the hill.  

At 0515, six-hundred Japanese soldiers and sailors assaulted the 8th Marines.  Kendall’s battalion was hardest hit, and Echo Company took the brunt of the attack.  The enemy failed to penetrate the Marine’s lines, but again, Echo Company was nearly overrun in a fanatical banzai charge.  Echo Company’s survival was likely the result of two 37mm guns employed with canister shot into the enemy assault.  When the Japanese withdrew, they left behind 200 dead.  8th Marines suffered 74 killed and wounded.

Hardest hit, Kendall’s battalion went into reserve.  At daybreak, Humphrey made his way to the top of the cliff and linked up with Hays’ battalion and 3/6.  Kendall’s 2/8 reached the top a short while later.  From this position, the Marines discovered a large body of Japanese and Korean civilians hiding in the caves. 

Tinian Mopping up 001Tinian was declared secure on 1 August 1944, but there did remain surviving pockets of Japanese enemy who had no intention of surrendering.  The 8th Marines assumed sole responsibility for finding and dealing with Japanese holdouts.  This task kept Hays’ 1/8 busy for the rest of the year.  Between 1 August and 1 January 1945, an additional 500 Japanese were killed; the Marines lost 38 killed and suffered 125 wounded in action routing them out —which was approximately half the total casualties suffered by the 8th Marines during the actual operation.

In total, the Americans suffered 1,900 casualties on Tinian.  The Japanese dead came to 5,500.

The United States began constructing a B-29 air base at Tinian almost immediately.  The atomic weapons dropped on the Japanese homeland were launched from Tinian.  But in January 1945, the war was far from over.

Next week: Okinawa

Sources:

  1. Santelli, J. S.  A Brief History of the 8th Marines.  Washington: History and Museums Division, Headquarters, USMC, 1976
  2. Rottman, G. L.  U. S. Marine Corps World War II Order of Battle, 1939-45.  Westport: Greenwood Press, 2002
  3. Rottman, G. L. And Howard Gerrard.  Saipan and Tinian 1944.  Oxford: Osprey Publishing 2004.
  4. Potter, E. B. And Chester Nimitz.  Sea Power: A Naval History.  Prentice Hall, 1960.

Endnotes:

  1. General Schmidt (1886-1968) (known as Dutch to his friends) was commissioned a second lieutenant on 17 August 1909.  In a career spanning nearly 40 years, Schmidt served at sea, in South and Central America, and China.  As Commanding General, 4th Marine Division and Commander, Fifth Amphibious Corps, he led Marines at Kwajalein, Saipan, Tinian, and Iwo Jima.  He was awarded the Navy Cross, Navy Distinguished Service Medal (3), Legion of Merit, and Bronze Star Medal (with combat V device).
  2. Gerald R. Wallace (1897-1988) received his commission as a Marine after graduation from the U. S. Naval Academy in 1919.  In addition to normal sea service, Wallace served in Haiti, China, and England.  During World War II, he participated in combat operations at Kwajalein, Saipan, and Tinian.  Colonel Wallace was advanced to Brigadier General on the retired list on 30 June 1949.  His military decorations include the Legion of Merit (2) (with combat V device) and the Bronze Star Medal (with combat V device).
  3. While serving as a major, Hays was wounded on Tarawa; he participated in the battles of Saipan and Tinian.

The Eighth Marines – Saipan

Preface

Crossed Flags EGASaipan is an island within the Marianas Island group.  It is 12 miles long and just under 6 miles wide, altogether encompassing around 90 square miles.  Following the Spanish-American War (1898), the United States occupied the island of Saipan, a Spanish-held territory, for a short period of time.  Subsequently, Spain sold the island to Germany in 1899.  Germany administered the island as part of German New Guinea, but there was never any serious attempt to develop of settle the island.  Essentially, control of Saipan remained in the hands of its Spanish/Mestizo landowners.

During World War I, Japan was an ally and therefore an enemy of Germany.  Japan “captured” Saipan and, with appreciation for their participation in World War I, the League of Nations granted to Japan formal control over it.  In time, Saipan became one of Japan’s more important possessions and a place for Japanese settlement beginning in the 1920s.  Extensive sugar plantations were developed and the Japanese began to improve the island’s infrastructure—including port facilities.  In October 1943, the civilian population of Saipan was just under 30,000 Japanese.

During World War II, the Japanese regarded Saipan as one of its last lines of defense of the Japanese homelands and became strongly committed to defending it.  Unhappily for the Empire of Japan, the allied military campaigns of 1943-44 successfully defeated the Imperial Japanese Army in the Solomon Island, Gilbert Islands, Marshall Islands, and on the Papuan Peninsula of New Guinea.  All the Japanese had remaining at this point in the war was the Philippine Islands, the Caroline Islands, the Palau Islands, and the Mariana Islands.

General Douglas MacArthur, Commander of the Southwest Pacific Area, did not favor Admiral Nimitz’ mid-Pacific island-hopping campaign.  In his opinion, island-hopping was a tragic waste of available manpower.  On the other hand, history reflects that were it not for these bloody campaigns, American air power would have been restricted at a time when it served the interests of the United States to pound the Japanese into submission.

Preparation

After leaving Tarawa, the 8th Marine Regiment was transported to Hawaii, stopping first at Peal Harbor to off-load the wounded for treatment at military hospitals.  The regiment then proceeded to the big Island of Hawaii for billeting.  Their bivouac site was located 65 miles from the city of Hilo, in the mountainous area between Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa (two active volcanoes).  It was up to the men to construct their own camp, which they did and named Camp Tarawa.  The Island of Hawaii provided these Marines with a much cooler climate than they were used to, but it also helped men still suffering from malaria.  In January 1944, the Commanding General, 2nd Marine Division ordered his staff to begin working on a training syllabus that would prepare his men for the next combat mission.  Before this could happen, however, the 8th Marines needed personnel replacements and a refit in uniforms and equipment.

Admiral Nimitz targeted Saipan as the Division’s next operation sometime during the summer of 1944.    Major General Thomas E. Watson [Note 1] replaced Julian C. Smith in April 1944.  Saipan was important to Admiral Nimitz because he judged it as being the key to controlling the central Pacific area.  Capturing Saipan would disrupt Japanese communications with the home islands, and provide air and sea bases for the U. S. Navy.  From Saipan, the United States could strike at Japanese installations in the Philippines, Formosa, China, and even the Japanese home islands.

Once more, Lieutenant General H. M. Smith would command the V Amphibious Corps.  His landing force at Saipan would include the 2nd Marine Division under General Watson, and the 4th Marine Division under Major General Harry Schmidt.  Serving in reserve was the US 27th Infantry Division under Major General Ralph C. Smith.

The terrain features of Saipan range from hilly with rolling plateaus in the eastern and Northern region to narrow coastal flats and at some locations, the rocky hills end abruptly in high cliffs that drop into the sea.  In the southern and western areas, the island is relatively flat.

Japanese defensive structures, while incomplete, were still formidable.  For one thing, the Japanese had learned how to fight a defense-in-depth [Note 2], which is costly to the attacking force.  Meanwhile, US intelligence under-estimated the Japanese strength and calculated it to be around 19,000 men.  In reality, it was closer to 32,000 and every one of these men were committed to give up their life for their Emperor.  

The American expeditionary force began an incremental departure from Hawaii in May 1944.  In total, 110 transport ships were required to carry this force to the Marianas.  Air and naval bombardments began on 11 June, but by now, particularly among the veterans of Tarawa, few Marines had much confidence in the effectiveness of either source; they would not be disappointed.

The 2nd Marine Division was assigned to assault the beaches just north of Charan Kanoa in the southwestern sector of the island.  The 8th Marines, now commanded by Colonel Clarence R. Wallace, would assign 2/8 and 3/8 to the initial landing.  As the Navy bombarded the coast shortly before dawn on 15 June, the assault units loaded into LVTs and the tractors aligned themselves for a dash to shore, scheduled for just after 0800.

The Battle is Joined

Saipan 003The command to “land the landing force” came on schedule and the Marines were on their way.  As the amphibian vehicles approached shore, they came under intense fire from Japanese cannons, anti-boat guns, artillery, and mortars.  Many of the tractors were hit and either sunk or were disabled.  Despite these conditions, 8,000 Marines were on the beach in the first twenty minutes.  In the confusion caused by Japanese defensive fires, LVT drivers came ashore in the wrong landing zones.  The entire division assault group landed 400 yards north of their assigned sector.  Moreover, communications with the 4th Marine Division was disrupted.  By landing the Marines at the wrong beach, there was an accidental massing of troop formations, and these became easy targets for Japanese gunners.

Both 2/8 and 3/8 moved into the attack against a formidable Japanese defense.  At 0950, Lieutenant Colonel Lawrence C. Hays, commanding 1/8 received orders to go ashore.  Two battalions were not enough to expand the perimeter.  1/29 under Lieutenant Colonel Tannyhill was attached to the 8th Marines for this purpose.  By noon, other Marine units had come ashore and moved inland 1,000 yards.  Marines seized the air strip near Charan Kanoa and a Japanese radio station.  Within the hour, Japanese were battling to stop the Marines.  Heavy fighting near Afetna Point persisted throughout the day.  Golf 2/8 overran Japanese positions and captured seven anti-gun boats.  Given the close proximity of Marine battalions, many Marines were armed with shotguns in order to avoid accidentally hitting fellow-Marines.  Moreover, the shotguns had a wide dispersal pattern and were found more efficient at killing Japanese at close range. 

Confusion during the landing caused the 8th Marines to fall behind schedule in meeting their objectives.  Making things worse, all three battalion commanders in the regiment were hit during the landing phase.  3/8’s commander was badly wounded by a mortar round; the XO of 3/8 was also wounded.  1/8’s CO was hit with rifle fire on the beach; 2/8’s LtCol Crowe [Note 3] was also wounded, suffering a gunshot wound to his left lung but he initially refused evacuation.  While being examined at the aid station, however, a Japanese mortar round exploded nearby sending fragments into his chest, left arm and shoulder, and right leg.  The obstinate colonel was forcibly removed from the beach.  Command shifted to Major William C. Chamberlin, who also received wounds but continued to exercise control of his battalion.

Saipan 002That night, the Japanese mounted several counter-attacks, but they were weak efforts and more likely designed to keep the Marines awake.  At the end of the first day, the 2nd Marine Division suffered 1,300 killed or wounded; 300 Marines were reported as missing in action.  The Marines had committed their reserve force and that, along with the number of casualties sustained on the first day, compelled General Smith to commit the Corps Reserve.  Major General Ralph C. Smith [Note 4], commanding the US 27th Infantry Division, was ordered to land his division.  The division, however, was not fully ashore for another four days.  

On 17 June, the tempo of battle increased for the 8th Marines when 1/8 and 3/8 began their advance inland and quickly achieved their objectives; 1/29, however ran into stiff resistance in the marsh surrounding Lake Susupe.  Elements of the 4th Marine Division reached the East coast of Saipan on the 18th, which severed the island into two parts.  The 2nd Marine Division prepared to execute a wheeling maneuver to move north.  The 27th US Infantry Division was assigned the task of mopping up remnants of enemy positions bypassed on Nafutan Point [Note 8].

General Smith ordered V Amphibious Corps to execute a major offensive for 22 June.  Both Marine divisions would participate in the attack with most of the 27th brought up for additional muscle.  When the operation commenced, 2nd Marine Division occupied the left flank with the 4th Marine Division on the right flank.  The 8th Marines made excellent progress until reaching the lower slopes of Mount Topotchau.  Here, the terrain became rugged and impeded further advance.

Operations commenced again the next day.  The 27th US Infantry Division was now committed to the center of the Corps’ formation.  Terrain again slowed progress, but there was another problem.  8th Marines, operating to the right of the Division’s TAOR, lost contact with the 106th Infantry Regiment, which was assigned to the 8th Marines’ immediate right.  The Army division’s main attack had been halted in an area that became known as “Death Valley” [Note 5]  It was an area with strong Japanese fortifications.  The 8th Marines continued their attack, but again, rough terrain slowed their pace.

Colonel Wallace ordered another attack on 25 June: four battalions (including 1/29) pushed forward to achieve the summit.  Now under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Rathvon M. Tompkins [Note 6], 1/29 reached the summit and discovered an exceptional observation post.  Enemy counter-attacks failed to dislodge the Marines.  Below, the balance of the 8th Marines struggled over the challenging ground.  Enemy riflemen, afforded good cover and concealment, harassed and ambushed the Marines.

On 28th June, the regiment advanced on three small hills where they met stiff enemy resistance.  As these Marines were exhausted, Colonel Wallace halted the push at 1600.  The next morning, the Marines executed a series of probes to discover enemy defenses and for the next two days searched for a practical route suitable for heavy equipment (tanks).  A path for tanks was found and with their aid two of the hills fell to the Marines.  After smashing the remaining two hills with artillery and rockets, the 8th Marines enabled the 2nd Marine Division to proceed in good order to the destroyed city of Garapan, Saipan’s largest.

The 8th Marines, now consisting of the 1st and 3rd battalions and 1/29 made a thrust at Tanapag Harbor.  The terrain was wooded but not prohibitive and the Marines made good use of their tank/infantry coordination.  On 2 July, a Japanese machine gun raked the entire front of 2/8 and 1/29.  Colonel Tompkins fell wounded.  He was replaced by LtCol Jack Juhan, the regimental executive officer.  The Japanese continued to pour fire into Marine positions.  Flame weapons and armor were rushed forward, but the Japanese position could not be defeated.  Ultimately, Wallace decided to bypass the position and continue the advance.  Fox 2/8 was detailed to remain behind to contain the Japanese.  Two days later, the 8th Marines reached the sea.  General Smith ordered the 2nd Marine Division into Corps reserve for the rest of the day.

On the night of 6-7 July, 5,000 Japanese launched a banzai charge which nearly overran the entire 105th Infantry Regiment and spilled over into the lines of the 10th Marines (artillery).  This bloody fight ended when Marine/Army units were rushed to reinforce the 105th, but not before the Army experienced yet another 1,000 casualties.  The cost to the Japanese, however, was much higher: 4,000 enemy killed.

SAIPANThe 2nd Marine Division went back on the line on 8 July to relieve the exhausted 27th and began a final drive against the shattered Imperial Japanese Army.  The 8th Marines pushed north and then wheeled inland through the hills, south of Marpi Point, back to Saipan’s northeastern beach.  The maneuver was completed on 9 July and the 8th Marines joined with the 2nd Marines, 24th Marines, 25th Marines at Marpi Point.  It was here that the Marines witnessed hundreds of Japanese soldiers and civilians leaping to their death from the rock ridges overlooking the sea.  Japanese propaganda had informed these people that they would be tortured and killed if they were captured by the Americans.  It was a horrific event that marked the end of organized enemy resistance on Saipan.  Mopping up operations would take several additional months, however.

The Japanese lost 23,800 killed in action; US experienced 16,500 casualties (killed and wounded).  The 8th Marines lost 300 killed in action with 1,100 wounded.  Saipan gave the United States its first B-29 base, from which the Japanese home islands were easily reachable.  After the war, Japanese officials acknowledged that Saipan marked the beginning of the end for the Empire of Japan.

Next week: Tinian

Sources:

  1. Santelli, J. S.  A Brief History of the 8th Marines.  Washington: History and Museums Division, Headquarters, U. S. Marine Corps, 1976
  2. Rottman, G. L.  U. S. Marine Corps World War II Order of Battle, 1939-45.  Westport: Greenwood Press, 2002
  3. Rottman, G. L. and Howard Gerrard.  Saipan and Tinian 1944: Piercing the Japanese Empire.  Osprey, 2004
  4. Johnson, R.  Follow Me: The Story of the 2nd Marine Division in World War II.  Canada: Random House, 1948.
  5. Potter, E. B. And Chester Nimitz.  Sea Power: A Naval History.  Prentice Hall, 1960.
  6. Morison, S. E.  New Guinea and the Marianas, 1944.  A History of United States Naval Operations in World War II.  Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2001
  7. Goldberg, H. J.  D-Day in the Pacific: The Battle of Saipan.  Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 2007

Endnotes:

  1. Major General Watson (1892-1966) (sometimes referred to as “Terrible Tom” ) served as a US Marine Officer from 1912-50.  He commanded 2/6, 3rd Brigade, 2nd Marine Division, and Fleet Marine Forces, Pacific.  He retired in grade as a Lieutenant General.
  2. A tactical scheme of mutually supporting positions that are each capable of an all-round defense that have sufficient depth to prevent an enemy from achieving freedom of maneuver.  Strategically, a succession of defended areas permits the continuation of hostilities after forward areas have been lost.
  3. See also: The Eighth Marines-Guadalcanal; The Eighth Marines-Tarawa.  LtCol Crowe was one tough old buzzard.
  4. Major General Ralph C. Smith, United States Army, (1893-1998) served in World War I and World War II.  He commanded 1st Battalion, 30th US Infantry Regiment, 27th US Infantry Division, and the 98th US Infantry Division.  His personal decorations include the Silver Star Medal (2), Legion of Merit, and the Purple Heart.  General Smith was a fine officer who unfortunately ran afoul of LtGen “Howling Mad” Smith, his immediate superior at Saipan.  The clash caused problems between the Army and Marine Corps that lasted for many years.
  5. “Death Valley” was a result of the conditions explained in Note 2, above.
  6. Retired as a Major General.  His command experience included 1/29, 5th Marines, 2nd Marine Division, MCRD Parris Island, 3rd Marine Division, and MCB Camp Lejeune, NC.  He passed away in 1999, aged 87 years.

The Eighth Marines – Tarawa

EGA 012Preface

In order to establish forward air bases that were capable of supporting land operations across the Pacific to the Philippines and Japan itself, it was necessary that the United States seize the Mariana Islands, which were heavily defended by the Japanese.  To achieve this, war planners in Hawaii determined that they would require land-based aircraft to help weaken Japanese defenses and protect the naval invasion forces.  The nearest islands suitable for land-based aircraft were in the Marshall Islands, which were also held by the Japanese.  Standing in the way was one island in particular.  They called it Betio, on the western side of an atoll named Tarawa in the Gilbert Islands.  In order to seize the Marianas, Marines would first have to snatch Tarawa away from the Japanese.

After Guadalcanal, the 2nd Marine Division was withdrawn to New Zealand for rest and refit.  In July, the Joint Chiefs of Staff in Washington directed Admiral Nimitz, Commander-in-Chief, Pacific Fleet, to prepare plans for an offensive operation in the Gilbert Islands.  Within a few weeks, Admiral Spruance flew to New Zealand to meet with the new commander of the 2nd Marine Division, Major General Julian Smith.  The Battle of Tarawa would involve the V Amphibious Corps (Lieutenant General Holland M. Smith), which at the time included both the 2nd Marine Division and the US 27th Infantry Division.  The 2nd Marine Division (18,000 men) would attack Betio; the US 27th Infantry Division would seize Makin Island.

Holding Tarawa was the Japanese 3rd Special Base Defense Force (formerly designated 6th Yokosuka Special Naval Landing Force) and the 7th Sasebo Special Naval Landing Force [Note 2].  In total, the US Marines would face off against 2,636 Japanese troops, 14 tanks, 40 artillery pieces, 14 naval guns, and they would encounter an additional 2,200 construction laborers.  

Betio Island is located about 2,400 miles southwest of Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.  It is the largest island in the atoll, positioned at the southernmost area of its lagoon.  Most of the Japanese defenders were located at Betio.  The Island is two miles long, and at its widest point, 800 yards.

In August 1942, Lieutenant Evans Carlson [Note 3] led his Marine Raiders in a diversionary assault at Makin Island.  The unforeseen consequences of this operation was that the raid made the Japanese aware of the vulnerability and strategic significance of the Gilbert Islands.  Accordingly, the Japanese began a vigorous effort to reinforce the Gilberts and assigned Rear Admiral Tomonari Saichiro (an experienced engineer) to direct the construction of defensive structures at Betio.  Admiral Tomonari’s plan was to stop any attackers at the water or pin them down on the beaches.  Accordingly, he constructed a series of pill boxes at locations that afforded the Japanese defenders with exceptional fields of fire over the water and across the sandy shoreline.  Tomonari’s construction efforts lasted for over a year.  Admiral Tomonari was eventually replaced by Rear Admiral Keiji Shibazaki, who boasted that it would take one-million men one-hundred years to conquer Tarawa.

Preparations

Once the 2nd Marine Division received replacement arms and munitions, a series of training exercises were begun to get the Marines back in shape and to integrate replacements.  This training did not begin until September 1943, however.  What was needed was to transition the Marines from experienced jungle fighters into amphibious assault troops.  The code name for the upcoming operation was GALVANIC [Note 4]. 

During mid-September 1943, 2nd Marine Division was assigned to the operational control of the V Amphibious Corps and tasked with supplying the assault force for GALVANIC.  Holland M. Smith and Julian C. Smith (not related) anticipated that wresting the island of Betio away from the Japanese would be a difficult task.  The division commander had to place his operation together with only two regiments, since the 6th Marines had been removed from the 2nd Marine Division and placed under V Amphibious Corps as its reserve force.  Both of these Marine Corps generals realized that Betio was a fortress; they both realized that they would be facing a vicious and determined enemy.

On 7 November 1943, the men of the 8th Marines were riding at anchor off the New Hebrides Islands.  When the departed New Zealand, no one knew anything about where they were going; now, however, the Marines knew what they were getting ready to do, and why.  Landing exercises were completed by 13 November; the next day, the Marines were on their way to hell on earth.

Colonel H P Crowe
(Then) Major “Jim” Crowe

The American invasion force arrived off Betio before dawn on 20 November.  At 0500, the Japanese welcomed them with their shore batteries; the US battleships Colorado and Maryland answered.  The battle had begun.  As the navy battled with Japanese artillery, the Marines began to board their landing craft.  The initial unit to land at Red Beach 3 would be 2nd Battalion, 8th Marines (2/8), then commanded by Major Henry Pierson Crowe [Note 5] (formerly the commander of Weapons Company, 8th Marines).  Two additional assault battalions were 2/2 and 3/2.  The three battalions formed Combat Team 2 with Colonel David M. Shoup [Note 6] (Commanding 2nd Marines) in overall command.  The landing force bobbed around in the sea for four hours while naval gunfire and aviators bombed and staffed Japanese positions.

The initial landing force were loaded into the new Landing Vehicle Track (LVT).  As these were in short supply, follow-on units were landed by Higgins boats (Landing Craft, Vehicle and Personnel, or LCVPs).  As the LCVPs drew three feet of water, getting Marines over the offshore reefs was a concern, but the Marines, in planning the operation, did not have adequate knowledge of tidal conditions off Betio Island.  The Marines designated for the LCVPs were advised that they may have to exit the craft and wade into shore.  This is, in fact, what happened.  As a consequence, many Marines never reached the shore line; the Japanese cut them to pieces with automatic weapons.

Tarawa 001The first wave went ashore at approximately 0900.  The preselected landing  sites were on the lagoon side of the island for two reasons: (1) the heaviest concentration of enemy weapons was on the sea side, and (2) because of heavy swells rolling in from the ocean.  2/8 landed east of a long pier that jutted out into the lagoon near the tail of the island.  1/8 and 3/8 were placed in reserve.  2/2 and 3/2 went ashore west of the pier.   

2/8 landed at approximately 0917 and were immediately engaged by Japanese defenders.  Up until that point, casualties had been light, but once the Marines exited their LVTs, and struggled to get beyond the beach, losses increased dramatically.  E/2/8 [Note 7] lost five of its six officers within minutes of landing.  Devastating enemy fire prevented Major Crowe from seizing the air strip; his Marines were forced to dig in and hold their positions.  The Marines realized that the navy’s four-hour long preparatory fires had little to no effect on the Japanese defenses.

Shortly after coming ashore, two Japanese tanks rumbled toward the 2/8 position.  Major Crowe braved enemy fire to direct his men to move two 37mm guns into position to confront the tanks.  The Marines fired these weapons at point blank range, killing one tank as the other scurried back to wherever it had come from.

Holding the beach head on Betio rested in good measure with Major Crowe and 2/8 because his battalion landed in organized formations.  In contrast to this, 2/2 and 3/2 had both sustained a substantial number of killed and wounded in their movement to shore.  Among those killed was the Battalion Commander 2/2, Lieutenant Colonel Herbert R. Amey.  Shoup had to rely on 2/8 to defend the beach head, but also expand its perimeter.  Four hundred yards separated 2/8 from the 2nd Marines.  In the struggle to get past the Japanese obstacles, one platoon from F/2/8 was completely wiped out.

Tarawa 002Major General J. C. Smith realized that it was time to send in additional Marines.  When 3/8 came ashore, its survivors were attached to Crowe’s battalion.  2/8 still could not push past the pier.  Four tanks came to the aid of 2/8 but three of these were destroyed.  By nightfall, the Marines of 2/8 and 3/8 were dying, not for yards, but for inches of Betio sand.  Shoup and Crowe fully expected a Japanese counter-attack after sundown, but such an assault never took place.  Apparently, the Japanese were unaware of how precarious the Marine positions were.

Smith had intended to land the rest of the 8th Marines on the afternoon of 20 November (consisting of the Regimental headquarters and 1/8), and while the Marines were ready to execute their assault, the regimental commander, Colonel Elmer E. Hall, never received the order to proceed ashore.  As a result, these Marines bobbed at sea for more than 12 hours.  Many of these Marines were sea sick and so nauseous as to make them ineffective for combat.  The delay in receiving the order to land was later attributed to the fog of war when the Division’s staff were unsure of where any of the 8th Marine’s units were located.  Moreover, Colonel Hall and his first battalion were confused with elements of the 10th Marines. Finally, Hall received his landing instructions: land west of the pier and attack westward toward the 2nd Marines sector.

The first wave of 1/8 reached the reef at 0615 on 21 November and were immediately taken under fire by Japanese defense with automatic weapons and artillery.  Casualties again were high.  By 1400, the majority of the Marines had reached the shore line and were in the thick of the fighting.  Major Hays, commanding 1/8, was able to report that his men had succeeded in destroying several Japanese positions, and had isolated several groups of Japanese defenders.

Meanwhile, 2/8 continued in its slug-fest with the enemy at the base of the pier.  Shoup ordered Crowe to make another effort to reduce the Japanese fortifications.  Fox company advanced against two fortifications (a pillbox to its immediate front, and a bunker to its right-front).  Japanese reinforcing fires halted the Marines.  Additional support from Golf Company proved fruitless.  3/8, on Fox company’s right, could not advance.  Colonel Shoup’s doubt about the success of the assault continued into the second day.  His message to Smith was, “Casualties many.  Percentage of dead not known.  Combat efficiency—we are winning.” 

1/6 under the command of Major William K. Jones, was ordered ashore with instructions to land on the east side of Betio along a beach that had been cleared by 3/2.  1/6 went ashore at 1855 with little Japanese opposition.  Jones did not advance that night, but waited until the next morning’s scheduled general attack.

At 0700 on 22 November, 1/8 struck westward against strong enemy fortifications, supported by three tanks, but not even point-blank firing could penetrate enemy pill boxes and barricades.  Additional support to 1/8 was provided by Weapons Company, 2nd Marines: two 75mm pack howitzers quickly reduced to only one.  1/8 remained thwarted by Japanese defenses.  While Bravo company applied pressure to the Japanese positions, Alpha and Charlie companies moved to outflank the Japanese.  Succeeding, the Japanese attempted a counter-attack, but it was quickly defeated.  With nightfall, Major Hays had his battalion deployed in a semi-circle around the Japanese strongpoint—thereby establishing a blocking force to prevent Japanese escape.

At this point three Japanese strongholds stood in the way of the 2/8 and 3/8: a steel pillbox, a coconut log emplacement, and a large bombproof shelter.  As preparations were underway for a continuation of the attack, supporting mortars lobbed shells at the entrenched enemy.  One of these shells detonated a supply of ammunition, which blew the bunker apart.  Concurrently, a Marine tank took the pillbox under fire with 75mm rounds.  Fox and Kilo companies began their advance.  Bitter fighting evolved with Marines employing flame throwers and satchel charges on the Japanese bombproof structure.  The Japanese then launched a counter-attack and fell to overwhelming Marine fire.  Within a few moments, more than 100 Japanese soldiers had been killed.

2/8 forged ahead with its attack until it reached the enemy airfield and halted, not want to be come under the fire of 1/6.  Crowe ordered his Marines to dig in and await the possibility of an enemy counter-attack, which did occur in the evening.  Their assault was mainly focused on the 6th Marines, but artillery and naval gunfire destroyed the Japanese.

On the morning of 23 November, the fourth day, the 8th Marines (less 1/8) stood down and were moved to the nearby island of Bairiki which had previously been secured by the 6th Marines.  On Betio, the Marine advance continued.  1/8 engaged Japanese forces on the northern shore.  Augmented with flame throwers, the battalion made good progress and linked up with 3/2 at 1000.  1/8 and 3/2 surrounded the pillboxes and the Japanese occupants were defeated.  

A half hour later, Major General Julian C. Smith declared the island was in American hands and there being no further Japanese resistance.  Nevertheless, a mopping up operation lasted through 24 November.  Betio Island was a shambles; American and Japanese dead littered the landscape; the stench was overwhelming and it was necessary to inter the American and Japanese dead as soon as possible.  Currently, an effort is underway to recover the American dead, identify them, and return their remains to their loved ones/descendants —76 years later.

Of the total Japanese military assigned to the garrison at Betio (2,636), and the civilian construction workers (2,200—of which included 1,200 Koreans and 1,000 Japanese), 4,690 were killed (either by lethal American military action, or their own hand).  Only 146 enemy soldiers/construction workers allowed themselves to be captured.  Of the Marines, 1,100 were killed in action and 3,000 others received wounds from enemy action.  Though American casualties were high, Admiral Nimitz was convinced that the action at Tarawa had the effect of knocking down Japan’s front door in the mid-Pacific.

Following this operation, the 2nd Marine Division was withdrawn to Hawaii leaving 2/8 behind to help clear the battlefield of unexploded ordnance, provide security for the Seabees, and aid in the burial of the dead.  As a result of this battle, the Navy established the Underwater Demolition Teams (UDT), the forerunner of the U. S. Navy Seals.

Tarawa was unlike any previous campaign.  For the first time in history, a seaborne assault had been launched against a strongly defended enemy position.  Mistakes were made (there are always costly mistakes in war) but the feasibility of Marine Corps’ doctrine of amphibious warfare was confirmed and refinement and improvement was immediately undertaken.  

Next week: Saipan

Sources:

  1. Santelli, J. S.  A Brief History of the 8th Marines.  Washington: History and Museums Division, Headquarters, U. S. Marine Corps, 1976
  2. Rottman, G. L.  U. S. Marine Corps World War II Order of Battle, 1939-45.  Westport: Greenwood Press, 2002
  3. Johnson, R.  Follow Me: The Story of the 2nd Marine Division in World War II.  Canada: Random House, 1948.
  4. Potter, E. B. And Chester Nimitz.  Sea Power: A Naval History.  Prentice Hall, 1960.
  5. Alexander, J. H.  Utmost Savagery: Three Days of Tarawa.  Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1995.
  6. Hammel, E. And John Lane.  Bloody Tarawa.  Zenith Press, 1998.

Endnotes:

  1. Smith was a 35-year veteran and holder of the Navy Cross from service in Corinto, Nicaragua.  He served as Commanding Officer, 5th Marines, as naval attache at the US Embassy, London, Director of the Fleet Marine Force Training Schools, and assumed command of the 2nd Marine Division in May 1943.  General Smith passed away in 1975.
  2. The Japanese did not have a “Marine Corps” organization, but organized Army units to serve as naval infantry.  In mission and prestige, however, they were more or less equivalent to marines.  
  3. See also: Marine Raiders.
  4. The American military began using coded designations for military operations during World War I.  They were used to conceal upcoming military operations, the details of which are always highly classified.  In some instances, the code name or words themselves are classified.  The expression that evolved during World War II was, “Loose lips sink ships.”  
  5. Crowe was born in 1899 and enlisted in the Marine Corps shortly after World War I.  In all, he served on active duty for forty years, retiring as a colonel in 1960.  In those 40 years, Crowe served fourteen years as an enlisted man, 7 years as a Chief Warrant Officer, and 19 years as a commissioned officer.  For some reason, Crowe picked up the nickname “Jim,” which when combined with his last name has a distinctly southern ring to it.  Colonel Crowe passed away on 27 June 1991, aged 92-years.
  6. Shoup was awarded the Medal of Honor for his courage under withering fire at Betio.  He was later selected by President Kennedy to serve as the Commandant of the Marine Corps.  He retired on 31 December 1963, shortly after Kennedy’s assassination.  General Shoup was a vocal opponent of US involvement in the Viet Nam War, objecting to its poor strategy and the undue influence of US corporations and military officials in the development of foreign policy.  Shoup passed away on 13 January 1983.
  7. I served with E/2/8 at Camp Lejeune, NC (1963-64).  Sergeant Major Mason, our battalion sergeant major, had served with the regiment during this battle.    

The Eighth Marines – Guadalcanal

Preface

The U. S. Marine Corps is part of the naval service organized under the Secretary of the Navy.  Since the American Revolution, the U. S. Navy and Marine Corps have maintained a close relationship.  In the days of sail, U. S. Marine Detachments served aboard Navy ships as sharpshooters, gunners, shipboard security, and as a landing force.  Shipboard Marines served the ship’s captain and received their orders through their detachment commander, whose rank depended on the size of the ship.  The Navy and Marine Corps have a long history of conducting expeditionary operations at sea and on foreign shore in furtherance of United States foreign policy, noting that the Navy-Marine Corps do not make foreign policy; they implement it.

Over these many years, the Navy and Marine Corps developed a distinct naval culture that based on their shared operational experiences, while at the same time retaining their own distinct character.  It has not always been a bed of roses, as significant differences emerged between the Navy and Marines in the period leading up to the Spanish-American War.  Through the Civil War, Marine Officers were often commissioned through patronage rather than through examination and demonstrated leadership potential.  The Marine Corps addressed this problem, and solved it.

When the Navy transitioned from sail to steam, some senior naval officers argued that Marines were no longer needed aboard ship; they would be better employed if formed into expeditionary battalions for use within the fleet.  This particular controversy continued into the early twentieth century.  The fact was that at this time, the Marines did not have a unique mission that only they could perform—only traditional roles that could be as easily performed by sailors or soldiers.

The first employment of Marines as a landing force occurred during the Spanish American War when the Secretary of the Navy directed the formation of a landing battalion for service in the Caribbean.  The battalion was formed with six rifle companies; its commander was Lieutenant Colonel Robert W. Huntington, and his mission was to secure an advanced base near Santiago, Cuba for use by the Navy as a coaling station.  Soon after going ashore, Huntington and his Marines were confronted by a sizable Spanish force in a nearby village.  Supported by naval gunfire, Huntington defeated the Spanish garrison at Cuzco—and the Marine Corps’ unique mission was at last revealed: amphibious warfare.

There is nothing simple about amphibious operations; it is a highly complex operation and if Mr. Murphy ever had a home, it was tucked away in amphibious warfare.  It was after the Spanish-American War that the Navy and Marine Corps began to develop amphibious warfare doctrine.  This work began in earnest in the Caribbean in 1902 and 1903, and in the Philippine Islands in 1907.  In that same year, Marine Corps planners began to consider a possible war with Japan, which involved the defense of the Philippines.  This planning and training helped the Marine Corps identify inadequate military weapons and equipment.  Important lessons were being learned, but few in Congress, which controls military expenditures, took any notice of these deficiencies or the need for modernization.   

In 1910, the Secretary of the Navy directed the Commandant of the Marine Corps to establish an Advance Base School to train Marine Corps officers in the defense of advanced naval bases.  This work was tested in the Atlantic Fleet exercises in 1913-14.  Subsequently, the Marine Corps formed an Advance Force Brigade whose mission was to assault from the sea, establish a defense on shore, and repel any attack by opposing forces.

World War I interrupted this work, but it was restarted in the 1920s.  In addition to reorganizing the Marine Corps to satisfy its Advance Force framework, other officers began projecting the likely need for amphibious warfare troops.  One of these was Earl Hancock (Pete) Ellis, who actually predicted what the Japanese would do in future decades, and almost precisely when they would begin to do it.

This was the work accomplished prior to World War II, which was uniquely suited to the U. S. Marine Corps.  The officers who re-activated the 8th Marines were all trained in amphibious operations.

Reactivation

After general demobilization of the Armed Forces following World War I, the United States military was little more than a cadre force.  No one back then believed that the United States needed a standing army.  The outbreak of general war in Europe in the fall of 1939 prompted the United States to rethink this proposition.  President Roosevelt and the US Congress began funding a rebuilding and strengthening of the Army-Navy-Marine Corps.  Beginning in 1940, the Marine Corps began to increase the number of its units on active duty.  The first major organization established was the 8th Marines [Note 1]. 

8th Marines was re-activated on 1 April 1940 at San Diego, California.  The regiment then consisted of a headquarters company and two infantry battalions.  Each battalion consisted of a headquarters company and four lettered companies.  It strength was slightly over 1,000 officers and men.  The 8th Marines was initially assigned to the 2nd Marine Brigade and training began immediately.  A third battalion was added on 1 November 1940.

2nd MarDiv Patch
Second Marine Division

In February 1941, two Marine Divisions were activated: the 1st Marine Division in the Caribbean from the then existing 1st Marine Brigade, and the 2nd Marine Division at San Diego from the then existing 2nd Marine Brigade.  The 8th Marines has been part of the 2nd Marine Division ever since.  The 8th Marines (and other regiments) engaged in intensified training at San Clemente Island, off the coast of California, until 7 December 1941 when the Japanese struck Pearl Harbor.  The 2nd Marine Division (less the 6th Marines garrisoned in Iceland) was initially instructed to defend the area from the border of Mexico to Oceanside, California against a possible Japanese attack.

Once the initial fear of a Japanese attack abated, the 8th Marines returned to San Diego and prepared for deployment.  The 8th Marines, augmented by 1/10 (an artillery battalion) was detached from the 2nd Marine Division to form the nucleus of a new 2nd Marine Brigade.  On 6 January 1942, the Brigade proceeded to American Samoa to preserve vital communications between the United States, Australia, and New Zealand [Note 2].  The Marines went ashore on 19 January.  1/8 was assigned the job of beach defenses.  When this task was completed, Marines began jungle warfare training.  By the summer, the 8th Marines shifted from a defensive role to preparation for offensive operations against the Empire of Japan.

The 1st Marine Division commenced operations on Guadalcanal on 7 August 1942.  Included in the Guadalcanal campaign were Guadalcanal, Tulagi, Florida, Gavutu, and tanambogo in the southern Solomon Islands.  This was America’s first amphibious assault in World War II and the initial allied ground offensive in the Pacific Ocean Area.  For these Marines, Japanese infantry were only part of the problem.  They also faced oppressive heat, heavy rainfall, malaria, dengue, and fungus.  It would have been nice if the Marines had all of their food stores, but the Navy had landed the Marines and then departed with most of what the Marines needed to sustain themselves in the Solomons.  Lack of adequate nutrition made the Marines more susceptible to disease and the effects of heat and humidity.

Guadalcanal 001
Clearing Operations

By mid-October 1942, it was time to replace the 1st Marine Division on Guadalcanal.  The US Americal Division began arriving at this time, and they would be reinforced by the 8th Marines, who after 9 months in Samoa, were already acclimatized for jungle warfare.  The 8th Marines landed at Lunga Point on 4 November 1942.  1/8 began clearing operations east of the Tenaru River almost immediately.  2/8 and 3/8 moved to Point Cruz on 10 November where they linked up with the 2nd Marines and elements of the US 164th Infantry Regiment.  This combined force aggressed the village of Kokumbona, encountering sporadic opposition from the ever-willful Japanese soldier.  This advance was halted on 11 November and the Americans recalled across the Matanikau River in preparation for Japanese counter-attack.  General Vandegrift wanted to reinforce Lunga Point.

Vandegrift’s intelligence was golden.  The Japanese Navy were moving thousands of fresh troops to Guadalcanal to confront the Americans.  On the night of 12-13 November, a Japanese covering force for a troop convoy en route to Guadalcanal collided with US Navy escorts for a convoy transporting the US 182nd Infantry Regiment.  The Navy lost two light cruisers and four destroyers; the Japanese lost one battleship and two destroyers.  Navy and Marine aircraft discovered 11 enemy troop transports steaming toward Guadalcanal on 14 November.  American air so pounded these transports that out of 10,000 Japanese troops, only 4,000 came ashore.  That same night, the Japanese lost another battleship and two heavy cruisers.  These engagements all but decided the outcome of the Guadalcanal campaign.

Despite serious losses, the Japanese continued fighting on Guadalcanal into early 1943.  On 18 November 1942, the 8th Marines provided flank security to Army units aggressing the Matanikau River.  A few days later, the 8th Marines passed through the Army and assumed the offense.  On 23 November, the regiment encountered strong opposition.  Casualties were light, but General Vandegrift halted the assault to avoid needless casualties.  Instead, the 8th Marines began a series of combat patrols, which included night ambushes and lightening forays into enemy-held areas.  In the first week, the 8th Marines suffered 111 casualties.

On 12 December, the 8th Marines linked up with the 2nd Marines and began a series of hit and run attacks, designed to keep the Japanese off balance.

General Vandegrift passed overall command of Guadalcanal forces to Major General Alexander M. Patch, commanding the Americal Division.  The 1st Marine Division began retrograde operations to Australia.  No offensive operations took place until 10 January 1943.  At that time, General Patch assigned three divisions to drive out the Japanese who remained on Guadalcanal: US Americal Division, US 25th Infantry Division, and the 2nd Marine Division.  The 2nd Marine Division (now including the 6th Marines) and the Americal Division had orders to seize Cape Esperance by driving along the northern coast.  The 25th Division would approach Cape Esperance by an inland route.  The 25th Division led off the assault followed by the 2nd Marine Division on 13 January.  The 2nd Marines was followed by the 8th Marines.

Guadalcanal 002While the Marines made good progress through the jungle setting, 3/8 encountered withering fire from an entrenched enemy position and all progress came to a halt.  Captain Henry P. Crowe [Note 3], a former enlisted man, commanded the regimental weapons company.  He rushed forward to find out what the problem was and found 3/8 Marines taking cover and somewhat disorganized.  While the Marines thought that Crowe has lost his temper, he was actually rallying them to continue their assault.  At one point, he yelled at the Marines, telling them, “God-damn it, you’ll never get the Purple Heart hiding in a foxhole.  Follow me!”  Crowe led them in a charge that overwhelmed the Japanese position.  Afterward, “Follow Me” became the 2nd Marine Division’s motto.

Patch’s offensive succeeded in pushing the Japanese westward.  The 8th Marines, with naval gunfire support, hammered the Imperial Japanese Army (IJA) and it was the Marine’s first real test of naval gunfire support of forces in the attack.  On 15 January, the Marines encountered stiff resistance and rushed flame throwers to the point of contact.  It was the first time the weapon was used in the Pacific war.

The 8th Marines were pulled off the line between 16-18 January, serving as Division Reserve.  On 23 January, the US 27th Infantry captured Kokumbona.  By this time, the Japanese realized the futility of trying to hold out against an ever-strengthening American military.  General Patch was so certain that the Japanese were defeated that the 8th Marines began their withdrawal from the Solomons on 31 January.  Weapons Company and 1/8 embarked aboard the USS Crescent City (AP-40) and sailed for New Zealand.

The Japanese began withdrawing their forces from Guadalcanal on 1 February; some 11,000 IJA troops were evacuated during the night of 7-8 February and the island was declared “secure” on 9 February.  On that date, the rest of the regiment boarded USS Hunter Liggett (AP-27) and USS American Legion (AP-35) and sailed for Wellington, arriving on 16 February 1943. 

As with every American serving on Guadalcanal, the Marines were undernourished.  Arriving in New Zealand, the 8th Marines were feed up to five meals a day and they consumed massive quantities of steak, eggs, and mutton.  Hunting parties went into the wilderness and helped themselves to the local deer, which at the time was significantly overpopulated.  Venison was added to the mess hall menu.  They also consumed large quantities of milk, which put a strain on local dairies.  The genuine friendliness of the New Zealanders probably explains why hundreds of Marines ended up marrying local ladies.  

Next week: Tarawa

Sources:

  1. Santelli, J. S.  A Brief History of the 8th Marines.  Washington: History and Museums Division, Headquarters, U. S. Marine Corps, 1976
  2. Rottman, G. L.  U. S. Marine Corps World War II Order of Battle, 1939-45.  Westport: Greenwood Press, 2002

Endnotes:

  1. The Marine Corps replaced the word “regiment” with “Marines” in the 1930s.  The designation 8th Marines means the 8th regiment of Marines.  Subordinate units within the regiment are designated by the number of the battalion slash the number of the regiment to which they belong.  1/8 is the designation for 1st Battalion, 8th Marines.  The designation of companies within battalions follows a similar arrangement.  Company A, 1st Battalion, 8th Marines would be abbreviated A/1/8 or sometimes Alpha 1/8. 
  2. The 8th Marines was the first Marine Corps regiment to deploy overseas to the Pacific theater in World War II.
  3. Crowe was awarded both the Silver Star and Bronze Star medals for his courage under fire on Guadalcanal.  He had previously served in Haiti, Nicaragua, and China.

Diminished Honor

Occasionally, one wonders, “What in the hell is the matter with people?”  I have to say that the American navy has a rich history of honor, sacrifice, and fortitude, but there are a few blemishes, as well —which is true within all our military branches.  Our military is representative of our society —its strengths and weaknesses.  There is no justification for dwelling on them, but they do present important lessons and we either learn from them or repeat them to our sorrow.

Two disgraces stand out.  The first involves Rear Admiral (then Captain) Leslie Edward Gehres, USN (1898-1975) whose primary contribution to the Navy was his toxic leadership while in command of the USS Franklin (CV-13) (1944-1945).  Gehres assumed command of USS Franklin at Ulithi, relieving Captain J. M. Shoemaker.  Under Shoemaker, USS Franklin had come under attack by Japanese kamikaze aircraft.  At the change of command ceremony, Gehres told the ship’s crew, “It was your fault because you didn’t shoot the kamikaze down.  You didn’t do your duty; you’re incompetent, lazy, and careless.  You don’t know your jobs and I’m going to do my best to shape up this crew.”  The vision of this takes us to the film Caine Mutiny, starring Humphrey Bogart—a psychopath placed in command of the fictional destroyer, USS Caine.  One can only imagine how Captain Shoemaker felt having to listen to Gehres’ tripe on his last moment of command.

Gehres was raised in Rochester, New York and Newark, New Jersey.  He enlisted in the New York Naval Militia in 1914.  His unit was activated for World War I service and Gehres was assigned to USS Salem, USS Massachusetts, and USS Indiana.  Subsequently, Gehres attended the Reserve Officer’s Course at the USN Academy.  He was commissioned an ensign on 24 May 1918.  Gehres received a regular commission in the Navy in September of that year while serving aboard USS North Dakota in the Atlantic.  He was assigned to flight training at Pensacola, Florida and received his designation as a Naval Aviator in August 1927.

In November 1941, Gehres commanded Fleet Patrol Wing 4.  He spent most of World War II in the Aleutian Islands.  His subordinates referred to him as “Custer” because of his illogical tactics and erratic behavior.  Despite a rather poor reputation among his subordinates, Gehres was advanced to the rank of Commodore —the first Naval Aviator to achieve this rank.

USS Franklin
USS Franklin

In November 1944, he took a reduction in rank designation in order to assume command of USS Franklin.  His remarks at the change of command ceremony must not have done very much for crew morale.  In 1945, Franklin was assigned to the coast of the Japanese homeland in support of the assault on Okinawa.  Ship’s aircrews initiated airstrikes against Kagoshima, Izumi, and southern Kyushu.  At dawn on 15 March, the ship had maneuvered to within 50 miles of the Japanese mainland and launched a fighter sweep against Honshu Island and Kobe Harbor.  It was a stressful time for the crew, who within a period of six hours, had been called to battle stations on six separate occasions.  Gehres finally allowed the crew to eat and sleep but maintained crewmen at gunnery stations.

A Japanese aircraft appeared suddenly from cloud cover and made a low-level run on the ship to drop two semi-armor piercing bombs.  Franklin received a “last minute” warning of the approaching aircraft from USS Hancock, but Gehres never ordered “general quarters.”  One-third of the crew were either killed or wounded.  It was the most severe damage of any surviving USN aircraft carrier in World War II.  As a result of officer and crew activities, ten officers and one enlisted man was awarded the Navy Cross —one of those being Gehres.

(Chaplain) Father Joseph T. O’Callaghan refused the Navy Cross for his participation in the aftermath of the Franklin bombing.  Some speculated that the priest turned down the award because his heroic actions in the aftermath of the bombing reflected unfavorably on Gehres leadership as Commanding Officer.  President Truman intervened, however, and Father O’Callaghan was awarded the Medal of Honor on 23 January 1946.  True to form, Captain Gehres charged crewman who had jumped into the water, to avoid death by fire, with desertion.  Gehres charges against crewmen were quietly dropped by senior naval commanders in the chain of command.  Captain Gehres, while advanced to Rear Admiral (Lower Half), was never again assigned to a position of command.  By 2011, Gehres was universally excoriated for significant deficiencies in leadership.  Admiral Gehres became a study of poor leadership —but one wonders why the Navy promoted him to flag rank.  His behavior in command of USS Franklin became the very definition of “toxic leadership.”  Indeed, it was.

Charles B McVay III
Captain Charles B. McVay III

A second failure in navy leadership involved the case of Captain Charles B. McVay III (1898-1968).  Captain McVay was a highly decorated navy officer in command of USS Indianapolis (CL/CA 35) when the ship was torpedoed and sunk in the Philippine Sea on 30 July 1945.  Of the 1,197 crew, only 317 survived the sinking.  Of all ship’s captains in the history of the US Navy, McVay was the only officer ever court-martialed for the loss of his ship in a combat action.

At the time, USS Indianapolis, a heavy cruiser (formerly the flagship of Admiral Raymond Spruance, 1943-1944), was on a top-secret mission and under the direct authority of the President of the United States.  Its mission was to deliver two atomic bombs to Tinian Island.  Because the mission was top secret, speed was of the essence and to prevent attention to her course, no escorts were authorized.  This was a catastrophe of epic proportions.  Captain McVay, wounded, ordered his crew to abandon ship.  Of the 897 (approximate) crewmen who went overboard, 317 survived massive shark attacks over a period of five days.

Why was Captain (later promoted to Rear Admiral) court-martialed?  The Navy accused him of hazarding his ship by not following a zig-zag course through the Philippine Sea.  He was found “not guilty” of a second charge of “failing to order abandon ship in a timely manner.”  The fact was, however, that the Navy failed the USS Indianapolis on several fronts.  First, the Navy refused to provide the cruiser with escort ships, to which it was entitled during war.  Second, the Navy delayed its rescue of the crew (owing to the secret mission assigned to the ship) and no report of an overdue ship was made, again owing to the nature of its secret mission.

A navy court of inquiry recommended that Captain McVay be court-martialed.  Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, Commander, U. S. Pacific Fleet disagreed, but he was overruled by the Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Ernest J. King [1].  The Japanese commander of the submarine that sank Indianapolis was called to testify at McVay’s court-martial.  He stated that given the proximity of Indianapolis to his submarine, zigzagging wouldn’t have made any difference —Indianapolis was dead the minute the torpedoes were fired.  Ultimately, Admiral King ordered any punishments to be set aside.

Captain McVay suffered for the remainder of his life over the death of his crew, but not a single man lost was the result of McVay’s competence.  After the loss of his wife to cancer in 1967, Charlie McVay took his own life in 1968.  This too was a failure of Navy leadership.  McVay was a good man chastised for no good reason other than as a scapegoat for poor Navy leadership.

Sources:

  1. The Day the Carrier Died: How the Navy (Nearly) Lost an Aircraft Carrier in Battle. James Holmes, National Interest Newsletter, 28 April 2019
  2. Stanton, D. In Harm’s Way: The Sinking of the USS Indianapolis and the Extraordinary Story of Its Survivors. Reed City Productions, 2001
  3. Hulver, R. A. and Peter C. Luebke, Ed. A Grave Misfortune: The USS Indianapolis.  Naval History and Heritage Command, 2018.

Endnotes:

[1] According to author Richard F. Newcomb (Abandon Ship), Admiral King’s insistence that Captain McVay appear before a court-martial was because Captain McVay’s father, admiral McVay (II) once censored King, as a junior officer for regulatory infractions.  According to Newcomb, Admiral King never forgot a “grudge.”