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“The God of Death has Come” The Battle of Tarawa

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

There are some things that should not be forgotten, unfortunately many of them are lost to history. One of these events was the American assault against the Japanese fortress on Tarawa Atoll in November 1943. The battle was one of the deadliest encounters of the Second World War, and was waged for the control of a tiny coral atoll that only occupied one square mile of the earth’s s surface. Dug in on that atoll were about 4,000 Japanese defenders.

The only Japanese officer to survive, Warrant Officer Kiyoshi Ota recalled, “We could see the American landing craft coming towards us like dozens of spiders over the surface of the water.  One of my men exclaimed, ‘The God of Death has come!’”

I hope that this small attempt to detail that battle helps you understand the sacrifice of the men who fought there.

Peace

Padre Steve+

The American Decision: Operation Galvanic

The Target: Betio Island, Tarawa Atoll

Following the Guadalcanal campaign and the shift of significant naval forces away from the Solomons, the focus of the U. S. Navy and Marine Corps shifted to operations in the Central Pacific. Unlike the Solomons campaign, which was initially a Navy and Marine Corps Operation, but shifted to Army control under General Douglas MacArthur as the campaign shifted to Borneo; the operations in the Central Pacific would be an almost total Navy and Marine Corps operation.

Operation Galvanic was the first offensive operation in the Central Pacific. It came about as a result of the Joint U.S. Strategic Committee decision in April 1943 to favor an advance in the Central Pacific while continuing to maintain McArthur’s offensive in the South Pacific.[i]

Betio Island after the Battle

The driving force behind this strategy was Admiral Ernest King. King fought for the plan and “insisted that any campaign should focus on the destruction of Japan’s overseas resources, which meant an offensive directed only toward the Western Pacific sea lanes.”[ii] The Joint Chiefs believed that a simultaneous attack by the forces of Admiral Chester Nimitz in the Central Pacific, and MacArthur in the South Pacific would “keep the Japanese guessing” in regard to which direction the Americans would strike. [iii] The decision of The Joint Chiefs was presented to the British at the TRIDENT meetings in May 1943 and while the British resisted the American plans, a compromise was reached which allowed the Americans to “simultaneously…maintain and extend unremitting pressure against Japan….”[iv]

Japanese Troops Emplacing 8″ Vickers Gun

The decision to begin operations in the Central Pacific meant that the priority that MacArthur’s had been given in logistics and personnel would be reduced in order to launch the Central Pacific operation.  MacArthur protested to no avail, and the Joint Chief’s stood firm in their decision that the Central Pacific operation “would make it easier to isolate Japan from her domain in the south.”[v]

MacArthur was allowed to continue OPERATION CARTWHEEL in order to neutralize the key Japanese base at Rabaul while Nimitz’s forces attacked the Marshall and Caroline islands.[vi] Nimitz’s staff began their preparations and decided on a conservative course to capture the Gilberts first before taking the more heavily defended Marshalls.[vii] This was in part due to the “need to minimize the risks to his untried amphibious forces against such heavily fortified enemy bases out of reach of air cover.”[viii]

Japanese Naval Infantry conducting Live Fire with Type 99 Machine Guns

Several factors were considered by Nimitz and his planners considerations in this choice.  Nimitz did not have enough troops to capture all of the vital heavily defended locations in the Marshalls without dividing his forces.[ix] Additionally the Gilbert operation could be supported by land based bombers.[x] A final consideration was the Joint Chief’s decision to allow MacArthur to retain control of 1st Marine Division, which Nimitz had hoped to employ in his operations in the Central Pacific.[xi] The Staff of CINCPAC did a thorough photo reconnaissance of the Gilbert’s, and convinced the Joint Chiefs that Tarawa and Makin needed to be taken to provide air bases for the assault on the Marshalls.  Finally, the order for Galvanic was issued on 20 July 1943 with its execution planned for November 1943.[xii]

Japanese Preparations

Rear Admiral Keiji Shibasaki

“It will take a million men a thousand years to take Betio”

The Japanese had done little to prepare against potential American offensive operations against the Gilbert’s until Makin Island was raided by elements of the 2nd Raider Battalion in August 1942.  The Makin raid shook the Japanese and they reinforced Makin and occupied Betio.[xiii]

The Japanese deployed the Yokosuka 6th Special Landing Force, essentially Naval Infantry or Marines[xiv] and the 111th Construction Battalion to Betio on 15 September 1942, over nine months after they attacked Pearl Harbor.[xv]

These forces were commanded by Admiral Tomanari Sachiro, who at once began to fortify Betio. Tomanari was a skilled officer who appreciated the value of strong fortifications on exposed islands like Betio. Likewise, recognizing that his forces were inadequate to the mission, Tomanari asked Tokyo for reinforcements. The reinforcements came in the form of Commander Sugai’s 7th Sasebo Special Naval Landing Force, which landed on 14 March.[xvi]Commander Sugai’s troops were the famed Rikusentai, the best of the Japanese Navy’s land forces and considered to be better disciplined, trained, and effective than Imperial Army Units of the same size.

Japanese Gunnery Exercises before the Invasion

The fortification of Betio proceeded slowly until Rear Admiral Shibasaki relieved Tomanari, who returned to Japan. [xvii] Shibasaki was a tough veteran of service at sea and ashore including 19 months as a Rikusentai[xviii] officer in China. Shibasaki was chosen by Admiral Mineichi Koga, Admiral Isoruku Yamamoto’s to instill a better fighting spirit on the island.

The Imperial General Headquarters, issued a “New Operations Plan,” which ordered the outer defensive islands, such as Tarawa, to “hold up any American advance while an inner line of fortresses was constructed….”[xix]

Shibasaki drove the garrison hard, inspiring them to “extraordinary heights of labor that resulted in Betio’s superb defenses.”[xx]Betio mounted four 8” Naval guns[xxi], four 14 cm guns, four dual mount 5.5” dual purpose guns[xxii] six 80 mm anti-boat guns, eight 75 mm dual purpose guns, ten 75 mm mountain guns, six 70 mm guns and nine 37 mm anti-tank guns, numerous machine guns. The defenders were also equipped with light AA guns and 14 Type 95 Ha-Gō light tanks.[xxiii]

These weapons were mounted in well camouflaged, armored, or reinforced pillboxes, connected by trenches. [xxiv] In accordance with the directives of the high command, Shibasaki ordered his troops “to defend to the last man all vital areas and destroy the enemy at the waters’ edge.”[xxv]

The Japanese records note that Shibasaki “immediately began to strengthen morale and carried out advanced training, and as a result…the garrison remarkably enhanced its fighting capability and they were full of confidence.”[xxvi] Even the service troops were thoroughly trained to fight from their superb defensive positions.[xxvii] Shibasaki reportedly told his men that it would take a million men a thousand years to take Betio.

American Preparations for Galvanic

LVT Amphibious Tractor

Nimitz organized his forces into three major commands, the 5th Fleet, commanded by Admiral Raymond Spruance, the 5th Amphibious Force under Admiral Richmond “Kelly” Turner, and the V Amphibious Corps under Major General Holland “Howlin’ Mad” Smith, USMC.[xxviii] The 2nd Marine Division, which was assigned to assault Tarawa, was commanded by Major General Julian Smith.

The force that sustained this operation, and the subsequent amphibious operations was the Service Force Pacific Fleet.[xxix] This was a collection of ships whose mission it was to sustain the fleet in mobile operations. [xxx] This force, greatly “increased the range and power of the Navy in amphibious operations.”[xxxi] The plans for Galvanic called for the Army’s 27th Division take Makin Island, and the 2nd Marine Division which had been blooded at Guadalcanal, to take Tarawa, supported by the carriers and battleships of Admiral Raymond Spruance’s 5th Fleet.

Galvanic was the first application of new amphibious tactics developed for the Pacific war.[xxxii] Air and sea bombardment would precede the actual assault. The Marines would be transported ashore in a new vehicle called an LVT (Landing Vehicle Tracked) and other amphibious ships and craft including the LSD (Landing Ship Dock), LCM (Landing Craft Mechanized) and LCVP (Landing Craft Vehicle Personnel).

The LVTs were absolutely vital at Tarawa because of the distance that the reef extended from the beaches. The LVT’s, nicknamed “Amtracks” or “Amphtracks” were essentially a tracked amphibious personnel carrier. They were developed from a commercial vehicle used by U.S. Forrest Service Rangers in the Florida Everglades and were capable of crossing coral reefs that other craft could not cross.

The early LVTs had retrofitted armor and mounted a .50 cal. machine gun.  At Tarawa the Marines deployed 75 LVT-1s[xxxiii] and 50 LVT-2s. A total of 93 LVTs were part of the first wave of the Marine assault.[xxxiv] The LVTs were transported to Tarawa aboard LSTs (Landing Ship Tanks.)

Other innovations in this new form of amphibious warfare included the assignment of Naval Gunfire Support teams to the Marine Regiments, and down to some battalions. [xxxv] The attack at Tarawa was the first time that the Marines used the M4 Sherman tank in combat. [xxxvi]

Tarawa, ended up being a real combat proving ground for the tactics and equipment which would be improved on and used in every subsequent amphibious operation in the Pacific.  Tarawa also marked the last major use of rubber landing craft by the Marine Corps in an opposed landing.[xxxvii]

There were limitations to American preparations. First the size of the force meant that it could not be assembled in one place for rehearsals or to train as a team.[xxxviii] A second problem for the Americans was the assumption that high and low tides would be sufficient to get their landing craft across the reef in spite of warnings to the contrary.[xxxix] Likewise, the Americans failed to completely anticipate the scope to which the Japanese had fortified the island.

The latter was a failure of commanders to appreciate good intelligence that had been provided to them. In particular, aerial photos taken by the Air Force, and ULTRA intercepts provided good information on the strength and composition of the Japanese units on the island, as well as the layout of the defenses.[xl]

Likewise, some important equipment shortages were not remedied. The Marine Bazooka’s did not arrive, and neither the 6th or 8th Marines had ever made an actual amphibious assault.  At Guadalcanal the these regiments made an administrative landing, and few field-grade officers remained from the 2nd Marine Regiment who had landed at Tulagi.[xli] Despite their combat experience, they were far from the “amphibious experts” that they would become.[xlii]

However, they made up for their lack of practical amphibious experience by their cohesiveness, high morale and esprit. Likewise, they were well armed and equipped, in top physical condition and knew the basic tools of their trade: “weapons proficiency and field firing, close combat techniques, fire and maneuver, tactical leadership, fire discipline.”[xliii]

Japanese Vickers 8″ Gun Emplacement

The most critical aspect of the operation was to get across the reef onto the island.  There were few good landing sites and it was decided to make the landings from inside the atoll’s lagoon onto the Betio’s north shore.  This decision meant that transports embarking the Marines would have to unload outside of the lagoon and that the landing craft would have to make a 10 mile trip to get to the beaches.[xliv]

Another problem was that there was only one entrance into the lagoon, and it was not deep enough for heavy ships to enter.[xlv] This meant that ships such as battleships and cruisers would not be able provide direct, close range fire on the Japanese positions which were best situated to disrupt the Marines.

The execution of the plan involved land based bomber strikes beginning on D minus 7. Carrier aircraft would begin their operations on D minus 2.  Cruisers and destroyers joined the cacophony of destruction on D minus 1 and the battleships on D-Day itself.[xlvi]

On D-Day the Navy planned to bombard the island with 3,000 tons of shells in 2 ½ hours.[xlvii] The Navy was confident in its bombardment plans. Rear Admiral H. F. Kingman, who commanded the fire support group declared “We will not neutralize; we will not destroy; we will obliterate the defenses on Betio!”[xlviii]

Four battalions of Marines would land in the first wave, the three battalions of the 2nd Marines Regiment, and 2nd Battalion 8th Marines, all commanded by Colonel David Shoup.

Colonel Shoup would win the Medal of Honor on Betio and later became the Commandant of the Marine Corps. However, he assumed command of the 2nd Marines when the Regimental commander fell ill on the journey to Efate.[xlix] The division reserve were the remaining two battalions of the 8th Marine Regiment. The Division’s 6th Marine Regiment served as the corps reserve.[l]The assault units would be reinforced by tanks, and the 1st and 2nd Battalions 18th Marine Regiment, the division’s combat engineers.

The Invasion: Day One

Marines Going Ashore on Day One

The final naval gunfire bombardment commenced at 0542 hours on 20 November, and the assault waves began their trek to the beaches.  The transports were out of range of Japanese guns, but since they were so far out, the small amphibious craft boats have to make a 10 mile trip to get to the beaches. [li]At this point things began to go seriously wrong for the Marines.

LCT (Landing Craft Tank) Sinking after Being Hit

Unfortunately, Admiral Kingman and the Navy had “badly miscalculated the amount of softening-up that could be done in two and a half daylight hours bombardment.” Although the bi Vickers guns were silenced, not enough damage was done to the Japanese defenses.[lii] The Japanese unwittingly helped the Marines by firing their larger guns at the warships instead of holding fire, thus identifying their positions to Navy gunners.[liii]

The bombardment was lifted to allow an attack by carrier based aircraft. However, the aircraft were late to arrive and the ships did not resume fire, allowing the Japanese to emerge and re-train their weapons on the approaching landing craft.[liv] Likewise the destroyers USS Ringgold and USS Dashiell, the only ships operating inside the lagoon and providing close Naval Gunfire Support, were ordered to cease fire, knowing the Japanese gunners along the shore were still active.[lv] Some believe that an extra half hour of direct fire from the destroyers would have saved many lives.[lvi]

The LVTs in the first three waves were delayed by a heavy chop outside the lagoon and did not make landfall until 0913, which threw off the landing schedule.[lvii] The expected and planned for rise in tides did not materialize, and tides remained unpredictably low for the first 48 hours. As a result, no landing craft other than the LVTs could cross the reef, and the Marines were forced to wade ashore from distances of 600 to 1000 yards.[lviii]

Marines Wading Across the Lagoon

Shoup’s Marines landed on three beaches.  Red One and Red Two lay to the west of a 500 yard long pier, while Red Three lay to the east.  Third Battalion Second Marines (3/2) landed on Red-1, while 2/2 on Red-2. Second Battalion Eighth Marines (2/8) landed on Red-3, while elements of 1/18 and the scout snipers landed at the pier, with First Battalion Second Marines (1/2) remained at sea in reserve to land behind the battalion making the best progress.[lix]

As soon as the Amtracks hit the reef the Japanese began firing.  Every “working weapon along the north and west shorelines….blazed forth in fierce, interlocking fields of fire.”[lx] As they watched the Amtracks craw over the reef that Japanese knew they were in for a tough fight, one of Warrant Officer Ota’s men exclaimed “Heavens! The God of Death has come!”[lxi]

The Marines of 3/2 on Red-1 received enfilade fire from Japanese guns emplaced in a U around the beach. Even before the Marines landed they began to take causalities, Amtracks were hit in the lagoon and most that were not sunk or destroyed were unfit for further use.[lxii] The 2000 Marines who landed on the beaches in the first hour of the assault were badly disorganized, and the commanding officer’s of 2/2 and the Amtracks were killed. 3/2’s commander was isolated on the reef and only 2/8’s commander was with his troops. 2/8 was the only battalion being to reach the shore relatively intact.[lxiii] 3/2 was down to 65% of its strength and Kilo Company, 3/2 had taken over 50% casualties.[lxiv]

The Marines in the fourth to sixth waves were struggling to wade ashore from the reef. Landing craft “ran aground or milled about helplessly outside the reef, which was swept by crossfire from behind the beaches and from a grounded hulk northwest of the pier.”[lxv] Most of the tanks were put out of action either through accurate fire by Japanese guns or by sinking in deep areas of the lagoon, the Tank battalion commander was blown out of his Amtrack, wounded and survived 24 hours by clinging to a pile of dead bodies to keep from drowning.[lxvi]

Colonel Shoup Directing Operations

Colonel Shoup landed at Red-2 and began directing operations on the beach.  He knew that he had to get more troops ashore to exploit the minimal gains his Marines had made.  The news from Red One and Two was bad; he decided to bring 1/2 in at Red-2 thought that 3/8 should go in at Red-3.[lxvii] At 1018 General Julian Smith ordered the 8th Marines to dispatch 3/8 to Red-3.[lxviii] The Marines of 3/8 had to make their way across 700 yards through the water to get to the beach. They were slaughtered, and only 30 percent of the first wave got ashore, while the second and the third “were practically wiped out.”[lxix]

Close Combat

As Shoup’s Marines struggled to reach the beaches, those who had gotten ashore engaged the Japanese at point blank range. First Lieutenant William Hawkins of the 2nd Marine Scout and Sniper platoon and five of his men engaged the Japanese on the pier in vicious hand to hand fighting. [lxx] Staff Sergeant Bordelon of the Engineers on Red-2 though grievously wounded knocked out four gun positions, some by lobbing dynamite charges into them and galvanizing survivors into action, finally being killed while taking on a Japanese position alone.  Both Marines would be awarded the Medal of Honor.[lxxi]

Wounded Being Evacuated by Rubber Raft

By afternoon Julian Smith realized that he needed more troops, his last battalion, 1/8 waited to go ashore.[lxxii] Smith asked for the 6th Marines. He had Rear Admiral Wilbur Hill, Commander of Amphibious Group Two, send a message to Admiral Richmond K. Turner stating “Issue in doubt. I concur.” This message sent a chill through the listening Naval Staff.[lxxiii]

Ashore, Colonel Shoup brought in howitzers from 1st Battalion 10th Marines on his surviving Amtracks to the eastern edge of Red Two near the pier. [lxxiv] The howitzers landed in the early evening.[lxxv] Shoup sent Lieutenant Colonel Carlson to make a personal report to General Smith that he would hold onto his beachhead no matter what happened.

Shoup ordered his Catholic Chaplain to lay out a cemetery and begin burying the dead who were already decomposing in the tropical heat.[lxxvi] As this transpired, 2/8 got two of its 37mm anti-tank guns into position to drive off Japanese tanks approaching the beachhead.[lxxvii]

Members of the Second Marine Division Band assisted Navy Hospital Corpsman in bringing back wounded Marines.[lxxviii] For the rest of the day the Marines continued to eke out a beachhead. Shoup’s Marines on Red-2 and Red-3 managed to advance about halfway across the island, while 3/2 and elements 1/2 and 2/2 were isolated. Major Ryan of Lima Company 3/2 pulled them back to meet an expected Japanese counter-attack.[lxxix]

By nightfall the Marines had taken over 1500 casualties of 5000 men landed the first day.[lxxx] There is no evidence that Shoup considered withdraw that night.[lxxxi] No counterattack occurred due to Japanese command and control problems. The primary cause was that Admiral Shibasaki and his staff were killed while shifting the position of their headquarters during the afternoon,[lxxxii] and the Japanese communications were in shambles. A well organized counterattack would have been disastrous for the Marines,[lxxxiii] but it did not happen, even though the Japanese assembled over 1000 men to oppose the Marines on day two.[lxxxiv] Had Shibasaki lived and the Japanese communications survived, a counterattack might have had ramifications far beyond Tarawa.[lxxxv]

Day Two

Advancing Under Fire

The second day began with the First Battalion EighthMarines landing on Red Two, while the 6th Marines began to land on Green Beach at the far western tip of Betio.  Like the Marines who landed on the first day, 1/8’s landing turned into a bloodbath, the tide fell even lower than the previous day. As they hit the reef and waded ashore they drifted into some of the heaviest Japanese defenses. Japanese guns, including the dual 5.5” guns took direct aim at the boats, while Marines ashore watched helplessly. War correspondent Robert Sherrod noted: “This is worse, far worse than it was yesterday.”[lxxxvi] Only half of 1/8 reached the beach with none of their heavy weapons or equipment.  Shoup ordered the remnants of the battalion into line on his western flank in preparation for an advance inland.[lxxxvii] During five hours of landings on day two, the “Marine casualties reached a higher rate than that sustained on the first morning.”[lxxxviii]

Meanwhile, Shoup ordered Ryan’s “orphans” to make an attack down the right flank of the Japanese positions on Green Beach. Shoup’s decision and Ryan’s leadership made the attack a success. The “American victory at Betio evolved from the attack during one intense hour the second morning.”[lxxxix]

Taking every available Marine, two surviving Sherman tanks, and some mortars, Ryan gathered his force and coordinated Naval Gunfire support. The area contained a number of heavy guns including two of the remaining 8” mounts.  A destroyer blanketed the Japanese positions with 5” shells and fire from her light AA guns.[xc] Attacking behind the beach, Ryan’s Marines isolated and destroyed everyone and everything that looked hostile.[xci] Against minimal opposition Ryan’s Marines quickly seized the gun positions and the western end of the airfield.  Within an hour his Marines occupied the entire western side of Betio up to a 200 yard depth. At 1200 he radioed Shoup to let him know the good news, and that he now intended to advance east against the airfield.[xcii] The attack allowed the Marines to land intact battalions with supporting arms for the first time battle.[xciii]

To the east behind Red Two and Red- Three, the 8th Marines and survivors of 1/2 and 2/2 attacked against fierce Japanese opposition near Shibasaki’s former command bunker and two other large bunkers which were mutually supporting.  The attack by the 2nd Marine survivors eventually succeeded in getting completely across the south side of the island.[xciv] During the attack Lt. Hawkins of the Scout Snipers, who had distinguished himself at the pier the previous day was mortally wounded.

The attack cut the island in two, but the Japanese launched a viscous counterattack on the Marine positions which was beaten back.[xcv] The 8th Marines faced a more difficult task going against what was now the heart of the Japanese defense as the defenders had been reinforced by Lt. Minami and his third company of the 7th Special Naval Landing Force.

Vicious fighting ensued and by nightfall “the Marines had little to show for their heavy losses,[xcvi] but they did make significant inroads against the Japanese to warrant optimism for D+2.[xcvii] By evening the Marines on Red-1 and Red-2 had consolidated their beachhead so that reinforcements were finally able to land, including jeeps, artillery and heavy equipment.

By mid-day the Marines noted that Japanese defenders were beginning to commit suicide, and they began to feel that Japanese morale had broken.  By late afternoon Shoup transmitted the message: “Casualties many. Percentage of dead unknown. Combat efficiency-We are winning.”[xcviii] By late afternoon Major Jones’s First Battalion Sixth Marines landed on Green beach in their rubber boats, reinforcing Ryan’s orphans. It was the first of the 7 battalions on the island to get ashore intact.

Ryan and Jones coordinated their units for a night defense and an early attack the next morning.[xcix] Meanwhile, Second Battalion Sixth Marines cleared the nearby island of Bairiki, allowing the artillery of Second Battalion Tenth Marines to land its howitzers on the island.  This in cut off any line of retreat for the defenders of Betio.[c] Colonel Merritt Edson came ashore during the evening to relieve Shoup[ci], who remained to help coordinate the next day’s attack. Once again there were no coordinated Japanese counterattacks. The senior officer, Commander Takes Sugai, was isolated in the pocket between the Red and Green beaches, and no senior officer could coordinate any attacks.[cii]

Mopping Up: Day Three and Four

Wrecked LVT’s and Dead Marines Litter the Beach

Day three began with attacks against Japanese strong points and the arrival of more reinforcements, including 3/6 which landed on Green Beach, and three light tank platoons which landed on Red-2.[ciii] The Marines attacked from Green Beach, sweeping east to join the 2nd Marines who had cut the island in two the day before.  The 8th Marines continued to attack the heavily fortified bunker complex, and eventually captured the heavily fortified and defended positions.

During the assault First Lieutenant Sandy Bonnyman of 1/18 won the Medal of Honor for leading the assault on these positions, including destroying a major bunker defended by 150 Japanese, he was killed during the fight.[civ] Fighting remained fierce throughout the day and General Smith arrived to take command on shore.  The Marines continued to attack supported by tanks, artillery and naval gunfire.  By the evening they were established at the east end of the airfield.

The now desperate Japanese defenders launched a series of Banzai charges which beginning about 1930 hours and ending about 0400 when the Marines annihilated the last attack with the assistance of artillery.[cv] The attack, which could have succeeded the first or early the second day, now aided the Marines by killing troops that might have been used to exact a higher price in Marine lives for the tail of the island.[cvi]

The next morning the Marines pushed forward and eliminated the last Japanese defenders, and by 1200 Betio was secured.  Of about 5000 defenders only 17 Japanese and some Korean laborers were taken prisoner.[cvii] The Marines lost over 1000 killed and 2300 wounded.[cviii]

One of the Japanese Survivors being Interrogated

Epilogue

The Marines paid a heavy price for Betio, but it was not to be a useless sacrifice. However, it was a source of great controversy especially among politicians.[cix] Historian Ronald Spector wonders if waiting for better tides or a full moon would have saved lives.[cx] Holland Smith later argued that Tarawa should have been bypassed, but Nimitz’s biographer, E. B. Potter notes “if the lessons of the amphibious assault had not been learned at Tarawa, they would have to be learned elsewhere, probably at greater cost.”[cxi]

The lessons learned aided all future amphibious operations in the Central Pacific and elsewhere.  Timing and coordination of naval gunfire support, air strikes and combat loading of transports were all refined in future operations. Large numbers of armored and up-gunned Amtracks would be part of every future operation.[cxii] Intelligence was emphasized and replicas of the Japanese fortifications were built and tested to determine the best way of destroying them.[cxiii] Likewis, the Marines shocked the public by releasing photos and films of the carnage on Tarawa to awaken them to the challenges ahead.[cxiv]

Today the battle is remembered annually by the 2nd Marine Division at Camp LeJeune, North Carolina. Each year, an ever shrinking number of veterans of the battle attend the ceremonies.  Samuel Eliot Morison put it best: “All honor, then, to the fighting heart of the United States Marine. Let the battle for that small stretch of coral sand called Betio of Tarawa be remembered as terrible indeed, but glorious, and the seedbed for victory in 1945.”[cxv]

Appendix: The Commanders

Lieutenant General Holland Smith and Major General Julian Smith

General Holland M. “Howling Mad” Smith USMC: (1882-1967) Lieutenant General Holland M. Smith commanded V Amphibious Corps during the Gilberts operation.  Prior to the war he had worked extensively on amphibious warfare doctrine for both the Marine Corps and Navy. Unlike many senior officers Smith was not a Naval Academy graduate having matriculated from the Alabama Polytechnic Institute (now Auburn University) in 1903 and law school in 1903.  Smith served as Adjutant of the 4th Marine Brigade in the First World War and served in Panama and the Dominican Republic in addition to other Marine tours afloat and ashore.  He served well and had many key assignments between the wars culminating in as the Assistant Commandant of the Marine Corps.  Subsequent to the Gilbert campaign he served as Commanding General of the Fleet Marine Force, Pacific and later commanded the Marines at Iwo Jima.  He retired in 1946.

Major General Julian Smith USMC: (1885-1975) Major General Julian Smith served as Commanding General 2nd Marine Division at Tarawa.  He graduated from the University of Delaware and was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in 1909.  He served in Haiti, Santo Domingo and the Vera Cruz expedition. During the First World War he served as an instructor in the Marine Officer training camps at Quantico. After the war he served in Cuba, Nicaragua and various command and staff posts including the Army Command and General Staff College.  He commanded 5th Marines in 1938 and in 1942 was promoted the Major General serving as director of Fleet Marine Force Schools, New River, NC.  He took command of 2nd Marine Division in May 1943 and served there until April 1944 when he became Commanding General, Expeditionary Troops, Third Fleet and in December 1944 took command of the Military Department of the Pacific.  He retired in 1946.

Colonel David Shoup

Colonel David Shoup USMC: (1904-1983) Colonel David Shoup commanded the 2nd Marines at Tarawa, being appointed as commander when its commander fell ill.  Shoup won the Congressional Medal of Honor for his actions on Tarawa.  A 1926 graduate of DePauw University, Shoup was commissioned a Second Lieutenant through the ROTC program that year.  He served in various assignments to include service in China, at sea on the battleship Maryland and Marine Barracks Puget Sound Navy Yard. He joined the staff of 6th Marines in October 1940 and assumed command of 2/6 in February 1942.  He was assigned as the Assistant Operations Officer for 2nd Marine Division in July 1942 and promoted the Lieutenant Colonel.   He went with the Division to New Zealand where he became the G-3 and from which he was fleeted up to command 2ndMarines at Tarawa.  After Tarawa he served as the Division Chief of Staff at Saipan and Tinian.  After the war Shoup continued to be assigned in key billets at the Pentagon and as commanding General, 1st Marine Division and then the Third Marine Division.  He became Chief of Staff, Headquarters Marine Corps in 1958 and was appointed as the 22nd Commandant of the Marine Corps by President Eisenhower, a post that he retained until his retirement in 1963.

Rear Admiral Tomanari Sachiro

Admiral Tomanari Sachiro IJN: (1887-?) Commander of Tarawa garrison until relieved by Rear Admiral Shibasaki.   Graduate Naval Academy 1910, initially a communications officer he held various commands including three destroyers, an Oiler, the Light Cruiser Yuma, Heavy Cruisers, Furutake and, Haguro and the Battleship Kirishima. Assigned to Tarawa in February 1943, he helped design and supervised the initial construction of the defenses until he was relieved by Admiral Shibasaki on 20 July1943.  He returned to Japan and served the remainder of the war on Navy Division of Imperial General Headquarters.  Tomonari survived the war though nothing is mentioned as to his postwar fate.

Rear Admiral Shibasaki Keiji

Rear Admiral Shibasaki Keiji IJN: (1894-1943) Commanded Tarawa Garrison until his death during the battle.  He graduated from the Naval Academy in 1915 and he was a skilled navigator and instructor.  Prior to the war he had served afloat and ashore and ashore and had commanded a ship and naval station and served as a naval attaché to Prince Kuni Asaakira, a member of the Imperial Family.  Among his assignments was 19 month combat tour with the special Naval Landing Forces in China, where he served as Chief of Staff of Shanghai Special Naval Landing Force.  Shibasaki’s leadership helped the garrison improve their defensive capabilities and combat skills as he inspired them to great heights and executed an intense training program. He was killed in the battle.

A Personal Note

I have not been to Tarawa but feel that I know it well.  I served in Second Marine Division from April 1999 through December 2001.  Due to my prior service experience I was used to fill gaps where chaplains were needed and ended up serving in four different battalions.  I served in 2nd Combat Engineer Battalion, the descendant of 1/18, the combat engineers.  We had a WWII Bulldozer outside our command post named after Sergeant Bordelon, the Medal of Honor Citations for Bordelon and Boonyman were prominently displayed.  I also served in 1/8 and 3/8.  I knew the accounts of the slaughter of these Marines as they attempted to land but as I re-read the accounts I was moved by their courage under fire.  The CPs of these battalions are also adorned with citations of their heroes lost at Tarawa.  Veterans would visit our units during Tarawa Days at Camp LeJeune, worn by the battle and the years they always made a great impression on me.

There is almost a mystical connection between the Second Marine Division and the Marines of Tarawa; it was a crucible that defined the division, whose motto is the same as the Army Infantry School. “Follow Me!”

Semper Fidelis,

Padre Steve+

Notes

[i] Spector, Ronald H. Eagle Against the Sun: The American War with Japan.  The Free Press, New York, NY 1985. p.253

[ii] Murray, Williamson and Millett, Allan R. A War to Be Won: Fighting the Second World War, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA 2000. p.338

[iii] Ibid. Spector. p.253

[iv] Ibid. p.255 The conference also set a date for the invasion of France.

[v] Toland, John. The Rising Sun: The Decline and Fall of the Japanese Empire, 1936-1945. Random House, Inc. New York, NY 1970. p.468

[vi] Ibid. Spector. p.255

[vii] Costello, John. The Pacific War 1941-1945. Quill Publishing, New York, NY 1982. p.430

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] Potter, E.B. Nimitz. Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, MD, 1976, Third Printing with Revisions 1979. p.243. Nimitz’s forces would have had to seize 5 major Japanese bases and his staff was not sure that the Pacific carrier force would be strong or experienced enough to provide the necessary air cover for the operation.

[x] Ibid.

[xi] Ibid. pp.243-245

[xii] Morison, Samuel Elliott. The Two Ocean War: A Short History of the United States Navy in the Second World War. Little Brown and Company, Boston and Toronto, 1963. p.296.

[xiii] Hammell, Eric and Lane, John E. Bloody Tarawa: The 2nd Marine Division, November 20-23, 1943. The Zenith Press, St. Paul MN 2006.  Text copyright 1998 Eric Hammell and John E. Lane. p.4

[xiv] See Alexander, Joseph H. Utmost Savagery: The Three Days of Tarawa.Ivy Books, published by Ballantine Books, New York, NY. 1995. pp. 39-40.  This unit became the Third Special Base Unit on its deployment and was joined by the 111th Construction Battalion.

[xv] Ibid. Hammell. p.4

[xvi] See Alexander pp.39-40. This unit was basically a reinforced infantry battalion with 3 rifle companies, a weapons battery, anti-aircraft battery, a light tank company and support units numbering about1600 men.

[xvii] Ibid. Alexander. p.43

[xviii] Alexander p.27 The Rikusentai was the Japanese equivalent of Marines, who numbered about 50,000 men.  The officers attended Army schools and qualified enlisted men attended additional Army specialist training.

[xix] Ibid. Costello. p.431

[xx] Ibid. Hammell. p.22

[xxi] See Alexander p.77. While most writers say that these guns were brought from Singapore, Alexander notes that British writer William H Bartsch submitted proof (serial numbers) that the guns were sold by Vickers to Japan in 1905 as a legitimate business transaction.

[xxii] These are the same guns (127mm) mounted as the secondary armament of Nachi and Takao Class Heavy Cruisers and later mounted on light cruisers to replace the main battery with a more effective anti-aircraft armament.

[xxiii] Ibid. Hammell. p.22

[xxiv] Hammell notes that many of these bunkers and pillboxes were so well concealed that they could not be seen.

[xxv] Ibid. Toland. p.469.

[xxvi] Ibid. Alexander. p.43.

[xxvii] Ibid. Hammell. p.28

[xxviii] Ibid. Morison. p.297

[xxix] Ibid. Costello. p.429

[xxx] At this point the force could provide everything except major permanent repairs to warships.

[xxxi] Liddell-Hart, B.H.  History of the Second World War. G.P. Putnam’s Sons, New York, NY 1970. p.511

[xxxii] Ibid. Costello. p.431

[xxxiii] The older LVT-1s had boiler plate armor added as a field modification and were given a heavy machine gun. Prior to this they were unarmored and had two light machine guns.

[xxxiv] Ibid. Morison. p.303

[xxxv] Hammell includes a by name list of these officers in Appendix B.  Of note for today, each MEUSOC (Marine Expeditionary Unit, Special Operations Capable) has an assigned Naval Gunfire Support Team.

[xxxvi] Ibid. Alexander. pp. 61-62.  The Shermans had to be transported aboard pre-loaded LCM-3s carried in the well decks of the LSDs.

[xxxvii] Ibid. Alexander. pp.58-59

[xxxviii] Ibid. Morison. p.297.  As a sidebar discussion it should be noted that Galvanic helped provide the model for the organization of all further Marine Corps amphibious doctrine now known by the acronym PERMA; Planning, Embarkation, Rehearsal, Movement and Assault, which describes the 5 phases of a amphibious assault.

[xxxix] Ibid. Hammell details the intricacies of the particular tides seen at Tarawa and the knowledge that the Marines had from the former Resident Commissioner of the Island, Major Frank Holland who warned the division staff that he knew that there would not be enough water over the reef to get landing craft across it. (pp.18-20)

[xl] Ibid. Alexander. pp.75-77

[xli] Ibid. Alexander. pp.67-68.

[xlii] Ibid. p.70

[xliii] Ibid. p.71

[xliv] Ibid. Morison. p.302

[xlv] Ibid. Hammell. p.16

[xlvi] Johnston, Richard W. Follow Me! The Story of the Second Marine Division in world War II.  Copyright 1948 by the Second Marine Division History Board and published by Random House Publishers, New York, NY 1948. p.106

[xlvii] Ibid. Liddell-Hart. p.511  Johnson says 2,700 tons. (p.106)

[xlviii] Ibid. Johnston. p.106

[xlix] Ibid. Hammell. p.17

[l] Ibid.

[li] Ibid.. Hammell. 46-47

[lii] Ibid. Morison. p.303

[liii] Ibid. Alexander. p.113.  Alexander notes that the Japanese would have been better served by using these guns on the stalled out landing craft.

[liv] Ibid. Hammell. p.47.

[lv] Ibid. Hammell. p.58

[lvi] Ibid.

[lvii] Ibid. Morison. p.303

[lviii] Ibid. Alexander. p.79

[lix] Ibid. Hammell. p.17

[lx] Ibid. Alexander. p.121

[lxi] Wukovits, John. One Square Mile of Hell: The Battle for Tarawa. NAL Caliber, published by New American Library, a division of Penguin Group USA, New York NY, 2006. p.112

[lxii] Ibid. Johnston. p.116

[lxiii] Ibid.

[lxiv] Ibid. Wukovits. P.119  Other companies suffered as grievously, K/3/2 was not alone in its suffering.

[lxv] Ibid. Spector. pp.263-264

[lxvi] Ibid. Alexander. pp.136-138

[lxvii] Ibid. Hammell. p.90

[lxviii] Ibid. p.95

[lxix] Ibid. Spector. p.264

[lxx] Ibid. Wukovits. p.114

[lxxi] Ibid. Alexander. pp.139-140

[lxxii] 1/8 did not arrive on the beach due to botched communications until D plus 1.

[lxxiii] Ibid. p.150  The last time this signal had been sent it was by Major Devereaux at Wake Isalnd

[lxxiv] Ibid. p.151

[lxxv] Ibid. Johnston. p.132

[lxxvi] Ibid. Hammell. p.112

[lxxvii] Ibid. p.130

[lxxviii] Ibid. Johnston. p.122

[lxxix] Ibid. Johnston. p.122

[lxxx] Ibid. Costello. p.436

[lxxxi] Ibid. Alexander. p.163

[lxxxii] Ibid. Alexander. pp.157-158  Hammell notes that Shibasaski was most likely killed by fire from Ringgold or Dashiell.

[lxxxiii] Ibid. Hammell.pp.139-140

[lxxxiv] Ibid. Alexander. p.162

[lxxxv] Ibid.  Wukovits. p.176. Wukovits notes how this could have affected the planning for the Normandy invasion.

[lxxxvi] Ibid. Alexander. p.173

[lxxxvii] Ibid. Hammell. p.160

[lxxxviii] Ibid. Costello. p.437

[lxxxix] Ibid. Alexander. p.170

[xc] Ibid. Hammell. p.163

[xci] Ibid. Hammell. p.166

[xcii] Ibid. Wukovits. p.178

[xciii] Ibid. Alexander. p.170 Ryan would be awarded the Navy Cross for his efforts.

[xciv] Ibid. Hammell. p.172

[xcv] Ibid. Alexander. p.179

[xcvi] Ibid. Alexander. p.181

[xcvii] Ibid. Hammell. p.178

[xcviii] Ibid.. Wukovits. p.194

[xcix] Ibid. Hammell. p.202

[c] Ibid. Hammell. p.212

[ci] Shoup would be awarded the Medal of Honor and eventually go on to be the Commandant of the Marine Corps.

[cii] Ibid. Alexander. pp.191-192

[ciii] Ibid. Johnston. p.134  2 platoons landed on Red-2 and one on Green Beach.

[civ] Ibid. Alexander. pp.202-205

[cv] Ibid. Johnston. pp.145-146

[cvi] Ibid. Johnston. p.147

[cvii] Ibid. Toland. p.470

[cviii] Ibid. Murray and Millett. p.345

[cix] Ibid. Liddell-Hart. p.511

[cx] Ibid. Spector. p.266

[cxi] Ibid. Potter. P.264

[cxii] Ibid. Murray and Millett. p.347  The Amtrack in improved forms has been part of the Marines ever since. The current model serves in a traditional amphibious role as well as a Armored Personnel Carrier for Marines involved in ground combat operations ashore.

[cxiii] Ibid. Costello. p.439. The method found to work best was long range plunging fire by heavy guns found on battleships and heavy cruisers.

[cxiv] Ibid. Murray and Millett. p.346

[cxv] Ibid. Morison. p.306

Bibliography

Alexander, Joseph H. Utmost Savagery: The Three Days of Tarawa. Ivy Books, published by Ballantine Books, New York, NY. 1995.

Costello, John. The Pacific War 1941-1945. Quill Publishing, New York, NY 1982

Morison, Samuel Elliott. The Two Ocean War: A Short History of the United States Navy in the Second World War. Little Brown and Company, Boston and Toronto, 1963

Hammell, Eric and Lane, John E. Bloody Tarawa: The 2nd Marine Division, November 20-23, 1943. The Zenith Press, St. Paul MN 2006.

Johnston, Richard W. Follow Me! The Story of the Second Marine Division in world War II.  Copyright 1948 by the Second Marine Division History Board and published by Random House Publishers, New York, NY 1948

Murray, Williamson and Millett, Allan R. A War to Be Won: Fighting the Second World War, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA 2000

Potter, E.B. Nimitz. Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, MD, 1976, Third Printing with Revisions 1979

Spector, Ronald H. Eagle Against the Sun: The American War with Japan.  The Free Press, New York, NY 1985 Toland, John. The Rising Sun: The Decline and Fall of the Japanese Empire, 1936-1945. Random House, Inc. New York, NY 1970

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The Longest Day and Afterwards: D-Day and the Normandy Campaign, an Introduction

The author with Marines at Point du Hoc, Normandy in 2004

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Every year about this time I try to write about D-Day.  This year I spent more time on the Battle of Midway writing or rewriting a total of five articles.

Since we are now about to begin a time of major repairs to our home due to flooding from an plugged air conditioning condensation drains I have decided to do is to re-post a short research paper that I did for one of my Master’s degree courses tonight, actually posting it on Sunday night for publication today, and hope to follow it up with some more articles over the week on specific aspects and personalities of the campaign.  What I hope is that people that are not familiar with the campaign as well as those that are can use this as a portal to other resources on the web and in print.

I have visited Normandy once in 2004 on a trip with the Marines of the Marine Security Force Company Europe that took me to Belleau Wood as well as Normandy.  In both places I had the good fortune to be able to explain aspects of both battles, at Normandy discussing the invasion from the German side of the fence.  The Normandy battlefields are well worth visiting.  Hopefully in the next few years I will get a chance to go back and do some serious exploring.

Introduction

General Dwight D Eisenhower Commander in Chief Allied Forces Europe

The American landings on Omaha Beach were critical to the success of the Allied invasion northwestern Europe in the overall Overlord plan.  Without success at Omaha there would have been a strong chance that the German 7th Army and Panzer Group West could have isolated the remaining beachheads, and even if unsuccessful at throwing the Allies into the sea could have produced a stalemate that would have bled the Allies white.  This quite possibly could have led to a political and military debacle for the western allies which would have certainly changed the course of World War II and maybe the course of history.[i] This is not to say the Germans would have won the war, but merely to state that a defeat on Omaha could have changed the outcomes of the war significantly.   Subsequent to the successful landing there were opportunities both for the Allies and the Germans to change the way that the campaign unfolded, thus the battles leading up to the breakout at Avranches are critical to its development and the subsequent campaign in France.

OVERLORD: The Preparations

Eisenhower’s Key Lieutenants: Patton, Bradley and Montgomery

The planning for the Normandy invasion began in earnest after the QUADRANT conference in Quebec in August 1943.  The timetable for the operation was established at the Tehran conference where Stalin sided with the Americans on the need for an invasion of France in the spring of 1944.[ii] Prior to this there had been some planning by both the British and Americans for the eventual invasion initially named ROUNDUP.  These preparations and plans included a large scale raid at Dieppe in 1942 which ended in disaster but which provided needed experience in what not to do in an amphibious assault on a heavily defended beach.        The failure at Dieppe also darkened the mood of the Allies, the British in particular to the success of such operations, bringing to mind the failed Gallipoli campaign of 1915 as well as the opposed landings at Salerno and the USMC experience at Tarawa.[iii] Despite this the Americans led by General Marshall pushed for an early invasion of northwest Europe. Churchill and the British due to their weakness in land power pushed for land operations in the Mediterranean, and even in Norway as an option to the assault in France. The conflicted mindset of the Allies left them in the position of planning almost exclusively for the success of the initial landings and build up to the near exclusion of planning for the subsequent campaign once they landed. This especially included what one writer described as “the maze of troubles awaiting behind the French shore.”[iv]

Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, Commander of Army Group B

Despite conflicts between the Americans and British political and military leadership the planning for the Normandy landings detailed in NEPTUNE and OVERLORD moved ahead.  General Dwight Eisenhower was appointed as the commander of SHAEF with his major subordinates for Land, Air and Sea which caused consternation on both sides of the Atlantic.[v] [vi] The planned operation was expanded from the initial 3 division assault on a narrow front to a minimum 5 division assault on a broad front across Normandy[vii]supplemented by a strong airborne force.[viii] Overall the plan as it developed reflected a distinctly “American willingness to confront the enemy head-on in a collision which Britain’s leaders had sought for so long to defer.”[ix] It is ironic in a sense that the British avoidance of the head on attack was based on their known lack of manpower.  Britain had few infantry reserves to sustain the war effort and the Americans only late recognized their own deficiency in both quantity and quality of infantry forces on which their strategy depended.  That the western allies, so rich in material and natural resources would be so deficient in infantry manpower was a key constraint on the subsequent campaign in France and Germany.  The shortage of infantry forces would cause great consternation among the Allies as the campaign in France wore on.

German Beach Obstacles

The Germans too faced manpower shortages due to the immense losses sustained on the Eastern front, those lost in Africa and those tied down in Italy, the Balkans and Norway as well as the drain caused by Luftwaffe Field Divisions and troops diverted into the Waffen-SS.   The German Army resorted to smaller divisions and the created many “static” divisions manned by elderly or invalid Germans to plug the gaps along the Atlantic wall. The Germans were also forced to recruit “Volksdeutsch” and foreign “volunteers” to fill out both Wehrmacht and Waffen-SS formations.

German fortifications at the Pas de Calais

Prior to the final decision to mount an invasion the Allied planners had contended with the location of the assault in northwestern France.  The Pas de Calais provided a direct route was rejected because it was where the Germans would expect the strike to occur and because it was where the German defenses were strongest.  The fiasco at Dieppe had provided ample proof of what could happen when making an assault into a heavily fortified port.  Likewise the mouth of the Seine near Le Harve was rejected because of the few beaches suitable for landing and because the forces would be split on both sides of the river.  Brittany was excluded due to its distance from the campaigns objectives in Germany.[x]This left Normandy which offered access to a sufficient number of ports and offered some protection from the weather. Normandy offered options to advance the campaign toward the “Breton ports or Le Harve as might be convenient.”[xi] Omaha beach, situated on the center right of the strike would be crucial to the success of the assault situated to the left of UTAH and the right of the British beaches.

Rommel inspecting beach obstacles

Once Normandy was selected as the location for the strike by the Allies, the planning sessions remained contentious.  This was especially true when the Allies debated the amount and type of amphibious lift that could be provided for the landings, particularly the larger types of landing ships and craft to support the Normandy invasion and the planned invasion of southern France, Operation ANVIL.  The increase in OVERLORD requirements for landing craft had an impact in the Mediterranean and resulted in ANVIL being postponed until later in the summer.

“Dummy” Sherman Tank: The Allies created a fictional Army Group to deceive German planners

As part of their preparations the Allies launched a massive deception campaign, Operation FORTITUDE.  This operation utilized the fictitious First Army Group under the “command” of General George Patton. Patton was still smarting from his relief of command of 7th Army following slapping commanded an “Army Group” which incorporated the use of dummy camp sites, dummy tanks, aircraft and vehicles, falsified orders of battle and communications to deceive German intelligence.[xii] The success of this effort was heightened by the fact that all German intelligence agents in the U.K. had been neutralized or turned by the British secret service.  Additionally the Luftwaffe’s limited air reconnaissance could only confirm the pre-invasion build ups throughout England without determining the target of the invasion.[xiii] The German intelligence chief in the west, Colonel Baron von Roenne “was deceived by FORTITUDE’s fantasy invasion force for the Pas de Calais.”[xiv] Despite this Commander of the 7thArmy recognized by 1943 that Normandy was a likely Allied target and efforts were made to shift 7th Army’s center of gravity from Brittany to Normandy.  The one potential German success in getting wind of when the Allied landings would occur was lost when German intelligence discovered two lines of Verlaine’s “Chason d’ Automme” in June 1944 which were to alert the French Resistance of the invasion.  The security section of 15th Army heard them transmitted on the afternoon of 5 June and notified General Jodl at OKW, but no action was taken to alert forces on the coast.[xv] Allied intelligence was aided by ULTRA intercepts of coded German wireless transmissions. However this was less of a factor than during the African and Italian campaigns as more German communications were sent via secure telephone and telegraph lines vice wireless.[xvi] Allied deception efforts were for the most part successful in identifying German forces deployed in Normandy. However they were uncertain about the location of the 352nd Infantry Division which had been deployed along OMAHA and taken units of the 709th Infantry Division under its command when it moved to the coast.[xvii]

USAAF B-17 Bombers and others helped isolate German forces in Normandy by bombing railroads, bridges, and supply lines

The Allied air campaign leading up to the invasion was based on attempting to isolate the invasion site from German reinforcements. Leigh-Mallory the Air Chief developed the “TRANSPORTATION PLAN” which focused efforts on destroying the French railroad infrastructure.[xviii] A more effective effort was led by General Brereton and his Ninth Air Force which was composed of medium bombers and fighters.  Brereton’s aircraft attacked bridges and rapidly achieved success in crippling German efforts to reinforce Normandy.[xix] Max Hastings gives more credit to the American bombing campaign in Germany to crippling the German defense in the west. General Spaatz and the 8th Air Force destroyed German production capacity in oil and petroleum as well as the degraded the German fighter force.  The American daylight raids so seriously degraded the German fighter force that it could not mount effective resistance to the invasion.[xx] Russell Weigley also notes that Albert Speer the Reich Armaments Minister said that “it was the oil raids of 1944 that decided the war.”[xxi]

 

US Navy LST’s being loaded for the invasion

Planning and preparations for OMAHA were based around getting the 1st and 29th Infantry Divisions ashore and them securing a beachhead “twenty-five kilometers wide and eight or nine kilometers deep.”[xxii] American preparations were thorough and ambitious, but the American assault would go through the most heavily defended sector of German defenses in Normandy.  The landing beaches were wide and bordered by dunes which were nearly impassable to vehicles and “scrub covered bluffs thirty to fifty meters high…rough and impassable to vehicles even to tracked vehicles except at a few places.  The exits were unimproved roads running through four or five draws that cut the bluffs.”[xxiii] Dug in along those bluffs was the better part of the 352nd Division. The Americans compounded their selection of a difficult and heavily defended landing zone the Americans failed to take advantage of many of the “gadgets” that were offered by the British which in hindsight could have aided the Americans greatly.  The Americans made use of two battalions of DD (Dual Drive) tanks but turned down the offer of flail tanks, flamethrower tanks, and engineer tanks, the “funnies” developed by General Hobart and the British 79th Armored Division.[xxiv]

Dual Drive amphibious tanks were included as part of the US invasion package

Weigley believes that the American view of “tanks as instruments of mobility rather than of breakthrough power.” Likewise the Americans victories in the First World War were won by infantry with little tank support.[xxv] In this aspect the Americans were less receptive to utilizing all available technology to support their landings, something that when considering the fact that Americans were great lovers of gadgets and technology. The British use of the Armor, including the “Funnies” on the beaches to provide direct fire into German strong points lessened their infantry casualties on D-Day. Due to this lack of armor support on the beach American forces on OMAHA had little opportunity to exercise true combined arms operations during the initial landings.[xxvi]

 

Rommel with Artillerymen of the 21st Panzer Division in Normandy

German preparations for an Allied landing in Normandy were less advanced than the Pas de Calais.  However they had made great strides since late 1943. Field Marshal Rommel greatly increased defensive preparations along the front, including the Normandy beaches.  One of Rommel’s initiatives was to deploy Panzer Divisions near the coast where they could rapidly respond to an invasion.  However Rommel did not get everything that he wanted.  The OKW only allotted him two Panzer Divisions to be deployed near the Normandy beaches.  Only one of these the 21st Panzer Division was deployed near Caen in the British sector.  One wonders the result had the 12th SS Panzer Division been deployed behind OMAHA. [xxvii]

OMAHA: The Landings

The venerable USS Nevada, resurrected from the mud of Pearl Harbor bombarding German positions at Utah Beach

Like the rest of the Allied invasion forces the 1st and 29th U.S. Infantry Divisions set sail from their embarkation ports with the intent of landing on June 5th.  General Bradley, commanding the First Army until the American XII Army Group would be activated accompanied the invasion force.  The OMAHA landing was under the command of General Gerow and his V Corps while VII Corps led by the 4th Infantry Division landed at Utah supported by airdrops of the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions inland.  American command and control during the invasion was exercised from sea as in the Pacific, although General Officers were to go ashore with each of the American divisions.  A severe channel storm disrupted the plan to land on the 5th and Eisenhower delayed the invasion one day catching a break in the weather and electing to go on the 6th.[xxviii] This delay while uncomfortable for the embarked troops caused the Germans to believe that no invasion would take place until the next favorable tide and moon cycle later in the month.[xxix] The assumption that no invasion was possible ensured that a number of key senior German leaders, including Rommel were absent from the invasion front when the Allies landed.[xxx]

US Troops ride a LCVP toward Omaha 

The landing beaches at OMAHA stretched about 6500 meters from Colleville-Sur-Mer to Vierville-Sur-Mere in the west.  The beaches are wide with bluffs overlooking them and a seawall between the beaches and the bluffs.  Additionally several small towns dot the beach. To the west of the town of Vierville, a prominent height overlooked the entire beachhead.  Named Pont du Hoc, it was believed to house a 150mm battery sighted where it could enfilade the OMAHA landing zones.  The Americans assigned to the 2nd Ranger Battalion to make a seaborne assault to land, scale the cliffs and take the battery.  Companies from this battalion made a heroic landing and scaled the cliffs to capture the strongpoint only to discover that the guns had not been emplaced.  The Rangers took heavy casualties and held their isolated beachhead against German counterattacks until relieved by the 29th Division on the morning of June 8th.[xxxi]

Landing craft passing the USS Augusta in heavy seas heading toward Omaha Beach

H-Hour for OMAHA was 0630.  Unfortunately the assault troops were transferred to their LCVP landing craft 16-20 kilometers from the beach.  The result was a long and dangerous ride in the small craft for the infantry.  Most of the infantry were completely soaked in sea spay and seasick before going ashore and they carried loads far above what they normally would carry into battle.[xxxii] The Armor support was one battalion of DD tanks, the 741stArmored Battalion, supporting the 16th Infantry Regiment of 1st Infantry Division. These were also launched too far out and nearly all of the tanks were swamped and lost before firing a shot in anger.[xxxiii] Other American support units needed to provide firepower on the beach were equally unfortunate. Weigley notes that at OMAHA “at least 10 of the LCVPs sank” as did “the craft carrying almost all of the 105mm howitzers that were to be the first artillery ashore after the tanks.”[xxxiv] The losses would cripple the assault on OMAHA and nearly cause its abandonment.

Bloody Omaha

As the soldiers of the American divisions on OMAHA came ashore they faced German defenders of the 352nd, 716th and a regiment of the 709th Infantry Division, the latter under the tactical command of the 352nd.   Without the bulk of their tanks artillery and lacking close air support the Americans struggled across the beaches and were cut down in large numbers before being pinned down behind the sea wall.[xxxv] With the Americans pinned down on the beach unable to advance, the time tables for the reinforcing waves became snarled amid the German beach obstacles which had not been cleared.  This was in large part due to 40% casualties among the Combat Engineers and the loss of all but five bulldozers.[xxxvi] Naval officers were frustrated in their attempts to provide naval gunfire support by the lack of identifiable targets on the beaches.  Yet German strongpoint’s were “knocked out by either by superbly directed vigorous gunfire from destroyers steaming as close as 800 yards offshore, or by determined action from Rangers or infantry.[xxxvii]

 

US Infantry struggles ashore at Omaha

Soldiers ashore discovered that they were not facing the static 716th Division but the veteran 352nd Division as well.[xxxviii] Only the leadership and actions of Brigadier General Norman Cota the 29th Division’s Deputy Commander and Colonel Charles Canham of the 116th Infantry kept the situation from complete collapse.  They were able to rally their troops. Under their leadership small units from the 116th which had its linage back to the “Stonewall Brigade” as well as elements of the 16th and 18th Infantry Regiments began to move forward.  Surviving junior leaders began to lead survivors through the dunes and up the bluffs to attack German defenders of the roads leading up from the beach from the flank and rear.  A mid-day break in the weather allowed some close tactical air support giving the troops badly needed support.

US 1st Infantry Division Troops at the Omaha sea wall

With the situation desperate General Bradley considered the evacuation of OMAHA.  At sea events were as confused as Bradley and his staff attempted to make sense of what was going on.  Even later in the evening there was discussion of diverting all further reinforcements from OMAHA to the British beaches.[xxxix]At 1330 hours “Gerow signaled Bradley: “Troops formerly pinned down on beaches…advancing up heights behind beaches.”[xl] By the end of the day Bradley’s aid Major Hansen noted Bradley’s comments to Collins: “They are digging in on Omaha beach with their fingernails. I hope they can push in and get some stuff ashore.”  And Montgomery: “Someday I’ll tell Gen[eral] Eisenhower just how close it was for a few hours.”[xli]

German Fallschirmjaeger Trüppen in Normandy, the German Parachute forces fighting in an infantry role were very effective in the Normandy campaign

The landings at OMAHA succeeded at a cost of over 2000 casualties.  Critical to the success of the landings were the German inability to reinforce their defending troops on the beach.  Likewise the weakness of the units available to mount the standard counterattack that was critical to German defensive plans on D-Day itself kept the Germans from driving the Americans back into the Channel. The 352nd Division fought superbly under the full weight of V Corps and the British XXX Corps on its right suffering heavy casualties as they contested every inch of ground.  The 716th Division composed of second rate troops melted under the onslaught.  Allied air supremacy played a key role as sorties by the 8th and 9th Air Forces helped keep German reinforcements from arriving and interdicted counter attacks inland.  Weigley credits the Allied air superiority with the success of the landings and with limiting casualties.[xlii]Von Rundstedt and other German commanders in France were limited by the delay and refusal of Hitler and OKW to release Panzer reserves when needed most early on June 6th.  By the close of D-Day allied forces had secured the five invasion beaches but not achieved their objectives of taking Caen and Bayuex.  Since the forces on the various beachheads had not linked up the beaches would have been extremely vulnerable had the Germans been able to mount a rapid counterattack by Panzers and strong infantry formations as they had at Salerno.

Major Battles to the Breakout at Avranches

Securing the Beachheads

It took the V and VII Corps nearly a week to secure the beachheads. German forces including the stalwart 352nd Division resisted stubbornly and mounted sharp local counterattacks which kept the Americans off balance.  Elements of the 29th Division and the 90th Division began to push inland and to expand the beachhead toward UTAH. Opposed by the 352nd Division and elements of the 91st Airlanding Division and other non-divisional units the fighting revealed the inexperience of the American infantry formations and the uneven quality of their leadership.  As the Americans tackled the Germans in the labyrinth of the Bocage country the defensive skill of the Germans cost many American lives and delayed the joining of the beachheads. On the 13th the link up was solid enough to enabling the Americans to conduct the follow up operations needed to expand the beachhead, secure Cherbourg and clear the Cotentin.

A Panther tank of the Panzer Lehr Division in Normandy

In some American divisions the hard fighting triggered a leadership crisis.  The lack of success of the 90th Division led General “Lightening Joe” Collins of VII Corps relieve the division commander and two regimental commanders of command, a portent of things to come with other American units.[xliii] As the V and VII corps pushed into the “Bocage” they were followed by a massive build up of troops and equipment delivered to the beaches and to the artificial “Mulberry” harbors.  Despite their numeric superiority, air supremacy and massive Naval gunfire support and facing the weakened 352nd, 91st and the 6thParachute Regiment and other less than quality formations, survivors of the static divisions, the Americans made painfully slow progress as they moved off the beachhead and into the Bocage.[xliv]

The Capture of Cherbourg

US Soldiers of the 29th Division surrender to German Fallschirmjaeger in Normandy

Once the beachheads had been consolidated the Americans turned their attention toward Cherbourg. Cherbourg was the major naval port at the far northwest tip of the Cotentin.  D-Day planners counted on its swift capture and rehabilitation to serve as a supply port for the Allied forces. The 9th Division drove south to the coast near Barneville on the 18th of June cutting off the German forces covering the approaches to Cherbourg.[xlv] This put the Germans in a bind as the 7th Army “had to split its forces in the peninsula in order to hold the fortress a little longer and thus to gain time for the establishment of the southern front on the Cotentin peninsula.[xlvi] The German forces arrayed before Cherbourg waged a desperate defense centered around the 243rd Infantry Division and other assorted battle groups of LXXXIV Corps, whose commander General Marcks one of the best German Generals was killed in action on 12 June.[xlvii] The U.S. VII Corps under Collins with the 9th, 4th and 79th Divisions pushed up the peninsula capturing Cherbourg on June 29th.  Bradley pushed hard for the capture of the port as the Mulberries had been ravaged by a severe Channel storm the week prior. The port of Cherbourg was thoroughly demolished by German engineers and would not be fully operational for months. The loss of the Mulberries and delay in Cherbourg’s availability meant that few supplies were landed on the beaches would “hinder the escape from the constricting land of the hedgerows into which the Americans had come in search of a port.[xlviii]

The Battle of Caumont Gap

Panzer IV Tank in Normandy

V Corps under Gerow made a cautious advance by phase lines toward Caumont, St Lo and Carentan.  The deliberate advance by the Corps toward a line weakly held by the Reconnaissance battalion of the 17th SS Panzer Grenadier Division was directed by Bradley who did not want to divert attention from the effort against Cherbourg.   After capturing Caumont V Corps halted and continued aggressive patrolling to deceive the Germans while digging in.[xlix] The possibility existed that a strong push against the weak German line could have led to an opportunity to envelope the German line west of Caen. This was a missed opportunity that in part led to the bloody and controversial campaign to capture Caen.[l]

British efforts around Caen

German Panzer Ace Waffen SS Captain Michale Wittman single handedly destroyed a British Battalion at Villers Bocage in his Tiger Tank

Montgomery had ambitious plans to break out of Normandy by capturing Caen on D-Day and driving toward Falaise and Argentan.  The British plans for this were frustrated by the rapid reinforcement of the sector by the Germans and the activities of 21st Panzer, Panzer Lehr, and the 12th SS Panzer Divisions.  A flanking maneuver at Villers-Bocage was frustrated by a few Tiger tanks led by the legendary Waffen SS Panzer commander Captain Michael Wittman whose tanks devastated a British Armored battalion.[li]

Wreckage of a British Battalion at Villers Bocage

A series of disastrous attacks toward Caen (EPSOM, CHARNWOOD and GOODWOOD) strongly supported by air strikes and Naval gunfire finally succeeded in taking that unfortunate city on July 18th but failed to take the heights beyond the town.[lii]

British operations like Operation Epsom met setback after setback against dug in German forces outside of Caen

Against crack well dug in German forces the British took heavy casualties in tanks and infantry seriously straining their ability to conduct high intensity combat operations in the future.[liii] The one benefit, which Montgomery would claim after the war as his original plan was that German forces were fixed before Caen and ground down so they could not be used against Bradley’s breakout in the west at St Lo.[liv]

Clearing the Bocage: The Battle of the Cotentin Plain

US M-5 Light Tank in Normandy

Other German forces arrived, and reinforced the Caumont gap which no longer “yawned invitingly in front of V Corps.” [lv] Bradley wished to push forward rapidly to achieve a breakthrough in the American sector.[lvi] Facing the most difficult terrain in France amid the Bocage and swamps that limited avenues of approach to the American divisions committed to the offensive.  The Americans now faced their old foe the 352nd division as well various elements of II Parachute Corps, the 17th SS Panzer Grenadier and Panzer Lehr Divisions.  American tanks and infantry made slow progress and incurred high losses as they dueled the Germans at close range.  In the VIII Corps sector alone the attack “consumed twelve days and 10,000 casualties to cross eleven kilometers of the Bocage…the achievements of the VII and XIX Corps were no better than comparable.[lvii]

St. Lo

US Tanks advancing with German prisoners moving back to US lines at St Lo

St. Lo was a key to Bradley’s breakout efforts.  His Army had to capture it and the roads leading out of it to launch Operation COBRA along the coast.  The task of capturing St. Lo was assigned to GEROW’S V Corps and Corlett’s XIX Corps.  They faced opposition from the tough paratroops of the German 3rd Parachute Division of II Parachute Corps.  The 2nd, 29th, 30th and 83rd Divisions fought a tough battle advancing eleven kilometers again with high numbers of casualties especially among the infantry to secure St. Lo on 18 July.[lviii] They finally had cleared the hedgerows.  St Lo epitomized the struggle that the American Army had to overcome in the Bocage.  Hard fighting but outnumbered German troops in excellent defensive country exacted a terrible price in American blood despite the Allied control of the skies.[lix]

Operation COBRA

US 155mm Howitzers in Normandy, the Germans had profound respect for American Artillery, a respect that they did not share for American Infantry or Armor forces

With the Bocage behind him Bradley desired to push the Germans hard.  COBRA was his plan to break out of Normandy.  Bradley ably assisted by Collins they realized that the better terrain, road networks favored a breakout.  American preparations included a technical advance that allowed tanks to plow through hedgerows. This was the “Rhino” device fashioned by American troops which was installed on 3 of every 5 First Army Tanks for the operation.[lx] VII Corps was to lead the attack which was to begin on July 24th. American planning was more advanced than in past operations.  Collins and Bradley planned for exploitation operations once the breakthrough had been made. A massive air bombardment would precede the attack along with an artillery barrage by Collins corps artillery which was reinforced by additional battalions.   A mistake by the heavy bombers in the 24th resulted in the American troops being hit with heavy casualties and a postponement of the attack until the 25th.[lxi] The following day the attack commenced.  Another mistake by the bombers led to more American casualties[lxii] but VII Corps units pressed forward against the determined resistance of the survivors of Panzer Lehr and the remnants of units that had fought the Americans since the invasion began.  Although it was a “slow go” on the 25th Bradley and his commanders were already planning for and beginning to execute the breakout before the Germans could move up reinforcements.  The 26th of June brought renewed attacks accompanied by massive air strikes.

The Devastated town of St Lo 

While not much progress was made on the 26th, the Americans discovered on the 27th that the German forces were retreating.  The capture of Marigny allowed VIII Corps to begin exploitation down the coastal highway to Coutances.  On the 27th General Patton was authorized to take immediate command of VIII Corps a precursor to the activation of his 3rdArmy.  COBRA ripped a hole in the German line and inflicted such heavy casualties on the German 7th Army that it could do little to stop the American push.[lxiii] As the American forces pushed forward they reinforced their left flank absorbing the local German counterattacks which were hampered by the Allied close air support.

Avranches and Beyond

US Forces advance through the ruins of St Lo

As the breakthrough was exploited the command of the forces leading it shifted to Patton and the newly activated 3rd Army. By the 28th VIII Corps led by the 4th and 6th Armored Divisions had reached Avranches and established bridgeheads over the See River with additional bridges being captured intact on the 30th.[lxiv] The capture of Avranches allowed the Americans to begin exploitation operations into Brittany and east toward the Seine. Weigley notes that for the first time in the campaign that in Patton the Americans finally had a commander who understood strategic maneuver and would use it to great effect.[lxv]

Conclusion

The American campaign in Normandy cost the U.S. Army a great deal. It revealed weaknesses in the infantry, the inferiority of the M4 Sherman tank to most German types, problems in tank-infantry cooperation and also deficiencies in leadership at senior, mid-grade and junior levels. Heavy casualties among infantry formations would lead to problems later in the campaign. Numerous officers were relieved including Division and Regimental commanders.  Nonetheless during the campaign the Americans grew in their ability to coordinate air and ground forces and adapt to the conditions imposed on them by their placement in the Cotentin.  The deficiencies would show up in later battles but the American Army learned its trade even impressing some German commanders on the ground in Normandy.[lxvi]

[i] See the alternative history of by Peter Tsouras Disaster at D-Day: The Germans Defeat the Allies, June 1944, Greenhill Books, London 1994. Tsouras describes the defeat of the Omaha landings and the effect on the course of the campaign leading to the overthrow of Hitler and a negotiated armistice in the west.  While this outcome could be rigorously debated other outcomes could have led to the fall of the Roosevelt and Churchill governments and their replacement by those not committed to unconditional surrender or a continuation of the war that brought about more German missile attacks on the U.K. and the introduction of other advanced German weapons that could have forced such a settlement. Another option could have led to the dropping of the Atomic Bomb on a German city vice Hiroshima.

Notes 

[ii] Weigley, Russell F. Eisenhower’s Lieutenants: The Campaign of France and Germany, 1944-1945, Indiana University Press, Bloomington IN, 1981 p.33

[iii] Ibid pp. 34-35

[iv] Ibid p.35

[v] General Montgomery 21st Army group and Land Forces, Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsey as Allied Naval Expeditionary Force and Air Marshall Sir Trafford Leigh-Mallory as Commander in Chief Allied Expeditionary Air Force. Weigley p.43

[vi] Max Hastings in Overlord: D-Day and the Battle for Normandy Vintage Books, New York, 1984, comments that many in Britain wondered if Eisenhower with the lack of actual battle experience could be a effective commander and that Eisenhower was disappointed in the appointment of Leigh-Mallory and Ramsey, and had preferred Alexander over Montgomery, pp. 28-29.

[vii] Ibid. Weigley p.40.  Montgomery was the first to object to the 3 division narrow front invasion rightly recognizing that seizing Caen with its road junctions could provide a springboard for the campaign into open country.

[viii] Ibid. p.37

[ix] Hastings, Max. Overlord: D-Day and the Battle for Normandy Vintage Books, New York, 1984 p.29  Hastings finds the irony in the selection of the British officers to execute the plan that reflected the American way of thinking.

[x] The Germans agreed with this in their planning leaving Brittany very lightly defended.  See  Isby, David C. Ed. “The German Army at D-Day: Fighting the Invasion.” p.27 The report of General Blumentritt, Chief of Staff OB West noted that only 3 divisions were assigned to Brittany.

[xi] Ibid. Weigley, pp. 39-40

[xii] Ibid. p.73

[xiii] See Isby p. 69.  General Max Pemsel of 7th Army noted that “During  the spring of 1944, Seventh Army received only tow good photographs of British southern ports, which showed large concentrations of landing craft.”

[xiv] Ibid. Hastings p.63.  Hastings comments also about the success of using the turned Abwehr agents.

[xv] Warlimont, Walter. “Inside Hitler’s Headquarters: 1939-1945.” Translated from theGerman by R.H. Barry. Presidio Press, Novao CA, English Edition Copyright 1964 Wiedenfeld and Nicholson Ltd. Pp.422-423

[xvi] Ibid. Weigley pp. 53-54

[xvii] Ibid. p. 67

[xviii] Ibid. pp.57-64  Weigley spends a great deal of time on the wrangling between Eisenhower, Leigh Mallory and Spaatz on the nature of the plan, the allocation of forces both strategic and tactical assigned to carry it out and its success, or in the light of postwar analysis the lack of effect that it had on German operations.

[xix] Ibid. p.67-68.

[xx] Ibid. Hastings pp. 43-44 In large part due to the long range P-51 Mustang which accompanied the American bombing raids beginning in 1943.  Another comment is that the campaign drew the German fighters home to defend Germany proper and prevented their use in any appreciable numbers over the invasion beaches.

[xxi] Ibid. Weigley p.69

[xxii] Ibid. p.89

[xxiii] Ibid. pp. 88-89

[xxiv] Ibid. p.87

[xxv] Ibid. Weigley also talks about the rejection of General Corlett’s ideas to use Amtracks used by the Marines in the Pacific to land on less desirable, but less defended beaches to lessen casualties on the beaches and the need for additional support equipment even on smooth beaches.  One of Corlett’s criticisms was that too little ammunition was allotted to supporting the landings and not enough supporting equipment was provided. pp. 46-47

[xxvi] Hastings notes that with the strength and firepower of the German forces on OMAHA that many of these vehicles had they been employed would like have ended up destroyed further cluttering the beachhead. “Overlord” p.102

[xxvii] The battle over the deployment of the Panzer Divisions is covered by numerous historians.  The source of the conflict was between Rommel who desired to place the Panzer Divisions on the Coast under his command due to the fear that Allied air superiority would prevent the traditional Panzer counterthrust, General Gyer von Schweppenburg commander of Panzer Group West (Later the 5th Panzer Army) and Field Marshal Von Rundstedt who desired to deploy the divisions order the command of Rundstedt for a counter attack once the invasion had been launched, a strategy which was standard on the Eastern Front, and Hitler who held most of the Panzer reserve including the SS Panzer Divisions under his control at OKW.  Hitler would negotiate a compromise that gave Rommel the satisfaction of having three Panzer Divisions deployed behind coast areas in the Army Group B area of responsibility.  21stPanzer had those duties in Normandy.

[xxviii] Ibid. p.74-75

[xxix] Von Luck, Hans.  “Panzer Commander“ Dell Publishing, New York, 1989 pp. 169-170.  Von Luck a regiment commander in 21st Panzer noted that General Marcks of 84th Corps had predicted a 5 June invasion at a conference May 30th.

[xxx] Almost every D-Day historian talks about the weather factor and its effect on the German high command’s reaction to the invasion.  Rommel was visiting his wife for her birthday and planned to make a call on Hitler. Others including commanders of key divisions such as the 91st Airlanding Division were off to a war game in Rennes and the 21st Panzer Division to Paris.

[xxxi] Ibid. Weigley p. 96

[xxxii] See Cornelius Ryan, “The Longest Day” Popular Library Edition, New York 1959. pp. 189-193 for a vivid description of the challenges faced by soldiers going from ship to landing craft and their ride in to the beaches.

[xxxiii] Ibid. Weigley. p.78 Weigley talks about the order for the tanks to be carried ashore on their LCTs that did not get transmitted to the 741st.

[xxxiv] Ibid.

[xxxv] Ibid. Weigley  p. 87 The weather prevented the aerial bombardment from being effective. Because the bombers could not see their targets they dropped their bomb loads further inland, depriving the infantry of support that they were expecting.  Naval gunfire support had some effect but had to be lifted as the troops hit the beach leaving much of that support to come from Destroyers and specially equipped landing craft which mounted rockets and guns.

[xxxvi] Ibid. Hastings. pp. 90-91.

[xxxvii] Ibid. p.99

[xxxviii] Ibid. Weigley p.80

[xxxix] Ibid. p.101  Also see Weigley p.80

[xl] Ibid. p.99

[xli] Ibid. Weigleyp.95

[xlii] Ibid. p.94

[xliii] Ibid. p.99 Both Weigley and Hastings make note of the failure of both the Americans and British to train their troops to fight in the bocage once they had left the beaches.

[xliv] Ibid. Hastings. pp.152-153

[xlv] Ibid. Weigley p.101

[xlvi] Isby, David C., Ed. “Fighting in Normandy: The German Army from D-Day to Villers-Bocage.” Greenhill Books, London,  2001.  p.143

[xlvii] Ibid. Hastings p.173 Allied fighter bombers exacted a fearful toll among German commanders. The Commanders of the 243rd and 77th Divisions fighting in the Cotentin were also killed by air attacks on the 17th and 18th.   Further east facing the British the commander of the 12th SS Panzer Division, Fritz Witt on the 17th.

[xlviii] Ibid. Weigley. p.108

[xlix] Ibid. p.111-112.

[l] Ibid.

[li] The efforts of the 51st Highland Division and 7th Armored Division were turned aside by the Germans in the area and were dramatized by the destruction of  a British armored battalion by SS Captain Michael Wittman and his platoon of Tiger tanks.  See Hastings pp.131-135.

[lii] The British 8th Corps under General O’Connor lost 270 tanks and 1,500 men on 18 July attempting to crack the German gun line on the ridge beyond Caen. Weigley, pp.145-146.

[liii] Hastings comments about the critical British manpower shortage and the pressures on Montgomery to not take heavy casualties that could not be replaced. Overlord. pp.241-242.

[liv] Ibid. Weigley pp.116-120

[lv] Ibid. p.122

[lvi] Ibid. p121 Bradley told Eisenhower “when we hit the enemy this time we will hit him with such power that we can keep going and cause a major disaster.”

[lvii] Ibid. 134

[lviii] Ibid. Weigley. pp. 138-143.  Weigley notes of 40,000 U.S. casualties in Normandy up to the capture of St. Lo that 90% were concentrated among the infantry.

[lix] Weigley quotes the 329th Regiment, 83rd Division historian “We won the battle of Normandy, [but] considering the high price in American lives we lost. P.143. This is actually a provocative statement that reflects America’s aversion to massive casualties in any war.

[lx] Ibid. p.149

[lxi] Ibid. p. 152

[lxii] Ibid. pp. 152-153.  Among the casualties were the command group of the 9th Division’s 3rd Battalion 47th Infantry and General Leslie McNair who had come to observe the assault.

[lxiii] Ibid. pp.161-169. Weigley notes the advances in U.S. tactical air support, the employment of massive numbers of U.S. divisions against the depleted German LXXXIV Corps, and the advantage that the “Rhino” device gave to American tanks by giving them the ability to maneuver off the roads for the first time.

[lxiv] Ibid. pp.172-173.

[lxv] Ibid. p.172

[lxvi] Ibid. Isby, David C. “Fighting in Normandy,” p.184, an officer of the 352nd Division referred to the American soldier “was to prove himself a in this terrain an agile and superior fighter.”

Bibliography

Carell, Paul. “Invasion: They’re Coming!” Translated from the German by E. Osers, Bantam, New York 1964.

Hastings, Max. Overlord: D-Day and the Battle for Normandy Vintage Books, New York, 1984

Isby, David C. Ed. “The German Army at D-Day: Fighting the Invasion.” Greenhill Books, London 2004

Isby, David C., Ed. “Fighting in Normandy: The German Army from D-Day to Villers-Bocage.” Greenhill Books, London, 2001.

Ryan, Cornelius, “The Longest Day” Popular Library Edition, New York 1959

Tsouras, Peter. “Disaster at D-Day: The Germans Defeat the Allies, June 1944,”Greenhill Books, London 1994.

Von Luck, Hans.  “Panzer Commander“ Dell Publishing, New York, 1989

Warlimont, Walter. “Inside Hitler’s Headquarters: 1939-1945.” Translated from theGerman by R.H. Barry. Presidio Press, Novao CA, English Edition Copyright 1964 Wiedenfeld and Nicholson Ltd. Warlimont, Walter. “Inside Hitler’s Headquarters: 1939-1945.” Translated from theGerman by R.H. Barry. Presidio Press, Novao CA, English Edition Copyright 1964 Wiedenfeld and Nicholson Ltd.

Weigley, Russell F. Eisenhower’s Lieutenants: The Campaign of France and Germany, 1944-1945, Indiana University Press, Bloomington IN, 1981

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Bloody Tarawa: One Square Mile of Hell

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

There are some things that should not be forgotten, unfortunately many of them are lost to history. One of these events was the American assault against the Japanese fortress on Tarawa Atoll in November 1943. The battle was one of the bloodiest encounters of the Second World War and was waged for the control of a tiny coral atoll that only occupied one square mile of the earth’s s surface. Dug in on that atoll were about 4,000 Japanese defenders.

I hope that this small attempt to detail that battle helps you understand the sacrifice of the men who fought there.

Peace

Padre Steve+

The Decision: Operation Galvanic

USMC-M-Tarawa-3The Target: Betio Island at Tarawa Atoll

Following Guadalcanal and the shift of significant naval forces from the Solomons the focus of the US shifted to the thrust across the Central Pacific.  Unlike the Solomons which were initially a Navy and Marine Corps Operation and shifted to the Army under MacArthur as the campaign shifted to Borneo, the operations here would be an almost total Navy and Marine Corps operation. Operation Galvanic, the first offensive operation in the Central Pacific, came about as a result of the Joint U.S. Strategic Committee decision in April 1943 to favor an advance in the Central Pacific while maintaining the offensive in the South Pacific.[i] The driving force behind this strategy was Admiral King who fought for the plan and “insisted that any campaign should focus on the destruction of Japan’s overseas resources, which meant an offensive directed only toward the Western Pacific sea lanes.”[ii] The Joint Chiefs believed that a simultaneous attack by Nimitz in the Central Pacific and MacArthur in the South Pacific would “keep the Japanese guessing.”[iii] The decision was presented to the British at the TRIDENT meetings in May 1943 and though the British resisted the American plans a compromise was reached allowing the Americans to “simultaneously…maintain and extend unremitting pressure against Japan….”[iv]

japanese emplacing gunJapanese Emplacing 8″ Vickers Gun

The decision to begin operations in the Central Pacific meant that MacArthur’s priority in logistics and personnel would be reduced in order to launch the Central Pacific operation.  MacArthur protested, to no avail and the Joint Chief’s stood firm in their decision that the Central Pacific operation “would make it easier to isolate Japan from her domain in the south.”[v] MacArthur was allowed to continue OPERATION CARTWHEEL while Nimitz seized the Marshall and Caroline islands.[vi] Nimitz’s staff began preparations and decided on a conservative course to capture the Gilberts first before taking the more heavily defended Marshalls.[vii] This was in part due to the “need to minimize the risks to his untried amphibious forces against such heavily fortified enemy bases out of reach of air cover.”[viii]

japanese conducting firing exerciseJapanese conducting Live Fire Range prior to the Assault

Several factors were considered by Nimitz and his planners considerations in this choice.  Nimitz did not have enough troops to capture all of the vital heavily defended locations in the Marshalls without dividing his forces.[ix] Additionally the Gilbert operation could be supported by land based bombers.[x] A final consideration was the Joint Chief’s decision to allow MacArthur to retain control of 1st Marine Division which Nimitz had hoped would be available for operations in the Central Pacific.[xi] CINCPAC did a thorough photo reconnaissance of the Gilbert’s convinced the Joint Chiefs that Tarawa and Makin needed to be taken to provide air bases for the assault on the Marshalls.  Finally the order for Galvanic was issued on 20 July 1943 with its execution planned for November 1943.[xii]

Japanese Preparations

shibasakiAdmiral Shibasaki boasted that it would take a million men a thousand years to take Betio

The Japanese did little to prepare against potential American offensive operations against the Gilbert’s until Makin Island was raided by elements of 2ndRaider Battalion in August 1942.  The Makin raid shook the Japanese and at which time they reinforced Makin and occupied Betio.[xiii] The Japanese occupied Betio with the Yokosuka 6th Special Landing Force, essentially Naval Infantry or Marines[xiv] and the 111th Construction Battalion on 15 September 1942, over nine months after they attacked Pearl Harbor.[xv] These forces were commanded by Admiral Tomanari, who at once began to fortify Betio. Recognizing his need for more troops  Tomanari asked Tokyo for reinforcements.  The reinforcements came in the form of Commander Sugai’s 7thSasebo Special Naval Landing Force, which landed on 14 March.[xvi]Commander Sugai’s troops were the Rikusentai, the best of the Japanese Navy’s land forces.

USMC-M-Tarawa-p6Japanese Conducting Gunnery Exercises

The fortification of Betio proceeded slowly until the arrival of Rear Admiral Shibasaki, who relieved Tomanari who returned to Japan.[xvii] Shibasaki, a tough veteran of service at sea and ashore including 19 months as a Rikusentai[xviii] officer in China was chosen by Admiral Koga to instill a better fighting spirit on the island.  The Imperial General Headquarters “New Operations Plan” ordered the outer defensive islands, such as Tarawa, to “hold up any American advance while an inner line of fortresses was constructed….”[xix] Shibasaki drove the garrison hard, inspiring them to “extraordinary heights of labor that resulted in Betio’s superb defenses.”[xx]Betio mounted four 8” Naval guns[xxi], four 14 cm guns, four dual mount 5.5” dual purpose guns[xxii] six 80 mm anti-boat guns, eight 75 mm dual purpose guns, ten 75 mm mountain guns, six 70 mm guns and nine 37 mm anti-tank guns, numerous machine guns and light AA guns and 14 light tanks.[xxiii] These weapons were mounted in well camouflaged armored or reinforced pillboxes.[xxiv] In accordance with the directives of the high command Shibasaki ordered his troops “to defend to the last man all vital areas and destroy the enemy at the waters’ edge.”[xxv] The Japanese records note that Shibasaki “immediately began to strengthen morale and carried out advanced training, and as a result…the garrison remarkably enhanced its fighting capability and they were full of confidence.”[xxvi] Even the service troops were thoroughly trained to fight from their superb defensive positions.[xxvii] Shibasaki reportedly told his men that it would take a million men a thousand years to take Betio.

American Preparations

lvtLVT Amphibious Tractor

Nimitz organized his forces into three major commands, the 5th Fleet, commanded by Admiral Raymond Spruance, the 5th Amphibious Force under Admiral Richmond “Kelly” Turner and the V Amphibious Corps under Major General Holland “Howlin’ Mad” Smith, USMC.[xxviii] The 2nd Marine Division which would make the assault at Tarawa was commanded by Major General Julian Smith. The force that sustained in this operation and subsequent amphibious operations was the Service Force Pacific Fleet.[xxix] This was a collection of ships whose mission it was to sustain the fleet in mobile operations,[xxx] which greatly “increased the range and power of the Navy in amphibious operations.”[xxxi] The planned assault called for the Army’s 27th Division take Makin and the veteran 2nd Marine Division which had been blooded at Guadalcanal to take Tarawa supported by the carriers and battleships of 5thFleet.

This was the first application of new amphibious tactics developed for the Pacific war.[xxxii] Air and sea bombardment would precede the actual assault. The Marines would be transported ashore in a new vehicle called an LVT (Landing Vehicle Tracked) and other amphibious ships and craft including the LSD (Landing Ship Dock), LCM (Landing Craft Mechanized) and LCVP (Landing Craft Vehicle Personnel).  The LVTs were absolutely vital, nicknamed “Amtracks” or “Amphtracks” they were essentially a tracked amphibious personnel carrier. They were developed from a commercial vehicle used by U.S. Forrest Service Rangers in the Florida Everglades and were capable of crossing coral reefs that would cause other craft to go aground.  The early LVTs had retrofitted armor and mounted a .50 cal. machine gun.  At Tarawa the Marines deployed 75 LVT-1s[xxxiii] and 50 LVT-2s. 93 LVTs would be part of the first wave of the Marine assault.[xxxiv] The LVTs were transported to Tarawa aboard LSTs (Landing Ship Tanks.)  Other innovations included the assignment of Naval Gunfire Support teams to the Marine Regiments and some battalions,[xxxv] and the first use of the M4 Sherman tank by the Marines.[xxxvi] Tarawa was a proving ground for the tactics and equipment which would be improved on and used in every subsequent amphibious operation in the Pacific.  Tarawa would also mark the last major use of rubber landing craft by the Marine Corps in an opposed landing.[xxxvii]

There were limitations to American preparations. First the size of the force meant that it could not be assembled in one place for rehearsals or to train as a team.[xxxviii] A second problem for the Americans was the assumption that high and low tides would be sufficient to get their landing craft across the reef in spite of warnings to the contrary.[xxxix] Likewise the Americans failed to completely anticipate the scope to which the Japanese had fortified the island. This was despite good intelligence that they had done so. In particular aerial photos taken by the air force and ULTRA intercepts provided good information on the Japanese units on the island and the layout of the defenses.[xl] Additionally some equipment shortages were not remedied. The Marine Bazooka’s did not arrive, and neither the 6th or 8th Marines had made an actual amphibious assault.  At Guadalcanal they made an administrative landing and few field-grade officers remained from the 2nd Marine Regiment who had landed at Tulagi.[xli] They were far from “amphibious experts” that they would become.[xlii] However, they made up for their lack of experience by their cohesiveness, high morale and esprit, being well armed and equipped, in top physical condition and knowing the basic tools of their trade: “weapons proficiency and field firing, close combat techniques, fire and maneuver, tactical leadership, fire discipline.”[xliii]

tarawa 8 inch gun8 Inch Gun Emplacement

The most critical aspect of the operation was to get across the reef onto the island.  There were few good landing sites and it was decided to make the landings from inside the atoll’s lagoon onto the Betio’s north shore.  This decision meant that transports embarking the Marines would unload outside of the lagoon and that the landing craft would have to make a 10 mile trip.[xliv]There was only one entrance into the lagoon and it was not deep enough for heavy ships to enter.[xlv]This meant that heavy ships such as battleships and cruisers would not be able to have direct fire on the Japanese positions best situated to disrupt the Marines.

The execution of the plan involved land based bomber strikes beginning on D minus 7. Carrier aircraft would begin their operations on D minus 2.  Cruisers and destroyers joined the cacophony of destruction on D minus 1 and the battleships on D Day itself.[xlvi] On D-Day itself Navy planned to bombard the island with 3,000 tons of shells in 2 ½ hours.[xlvii] The Navy was confident in the bombardment plans. Rear Admiral Kingman commanding the fire support group declared “We will not neutralize; we will not destroy; we will obliterate the defenses on Betio!”[xlviii] Four battalions of Marines would land in the first wave, the three battalions of the 2nd Marines and 2nd Battalion 8th Marines all commanded by Colonel David Shoup. Colonel Shoup who would win the Medal of Honor on Betio and later became the Commandant of the Marine Corps assumed command of 2nd Marines when its Regimental commander fell ill on the journey to Efate.[xlix] The division reserve was the remaining 8th Marine Regiment battalions. The 6th Marine Regiment served as the corps reserve.[l]The assault units would be reinforced by tanks and the 1st and 2nd Battalions 18thMarine Regiment, the division’s combat engineers.

Invasion: Day One

landing craft going to beachGoing Ashore

The naval gunfire bombardment commenced at 0542 on 20 November, and the assault waves began their trek to the beaches.  The transports were out of range of Japanese guns but ththat ensured boats would have to make a 10 mile trip.[li]At this point things began to go wrong.

lcm sinking at tarawaNavy LCT Sinking after Being Hit By Japanese Fire

The Navy had “badly miscalculated the amount of softening-up that could be done in two and a half daylight hours bombardment.” Although major coast defense guns were silenced not enough damage was done to the Japanese defenses.[lii] The Japanese helped the Marines by firing their larger guns at warships, identifying their positions to Navy gunners.[liii] The bombardment lifted to allow an attack by carrier based aircraft. However the aircraft were late to arrive and the ships did not resume fire, allowing the Japanese to emerge and re-train their weapons.[liv] Likewise the destroyers Ringgold and Dashiell inside the lagoon had to cease fire, knowing the Japanese gunners along the shore were still active.[lv] Some believe that an extra half hour of direct fire from the destroyers would have saved many lives.[lvi] The LVTs in the first three waves were delayed by heavy chop and did not make landfall until 0913 throwing off the landing schedule.[lvii] The expect and planned for rise in tides did not materialize and they remained unpredictably low for the first 48 hours. No landing boats could cross the reef and the Marines were forced to wade ashore from 600 to 1000 yards.[lviii]

marines wade ashore at tarawaMarines Wading Ashore

Shoup’s Marines landed on three beaches.  Red one and two lay to the west of a 500 yard long pier and Red three lay to the east.  3/2 landed on Red-1, 2/2 on Red-2, 2/8 on Red-3, elements of 1/18 and the scout snipers on the pier, with 1/2 in reserve to land behind the battalion making the best progress.[lix] As soon as the Amtracks hit the reef the Japanese began firing.  Every “working weapon along the north and west shorelines….blazed forth in fierce, interlocking fields of fire.”[lx] As they watched the Amtracks craw over the reef that Japanese knew they were in for a tough fight, one of Warrant Officer Ota’s men exclaimed “Heavens! The God of Death has come!”[lxi] The Marines of 3/2 on Red-1 received enfilade fire from Japanese guns emplaced in a U around the beach.  Before the Marines landed they began to take causalities, Amtracks were hit in the lagoon and most that were not sunk or destroyed were unfit for further use.[lxii] The 2000 Marines who landed in the first hour were badly disorganized, the commanding officer’s of 2/2 and the Amtracks were killed, 3/2’s commander was isolated on the reef and only 2/8’s commander was with his troops. 2/8 was the only battalion being to reach the shore relatively intact.[lxiii] 3/2 was down to 65% of its strength and K/3/2 had taken over 50% casualties.[lxiv] The Marines in the fourth to sixth waves were struggling to wade ashore from the reef. Landing craft “ran aground or milled about helplessly outside the reef, which was swept by crossfire from behind the beaches and from a grounded hulk northwest of the pier.”[lxv] Most of the tanks were put out of action either through accurate fire by Japanese guns or by sinking in deep areas of the lagoon, the Tank battalion commander was blown out of his Amtrack, wounded and survived 24 hours by clinging to a pile of dead bodies to keep from drowning.[lxvi]

Col_Shoup_on_TarawaColonel Shoup Directing Operations on Tarawa

Shoup himself landed at Red-2 and began directing operations on the beach.  He knew that he had to get more troops ashore to exploit the minimal gains his Marines had made.  The news from Red-1 and Two was bad; he decided to bring 1/2 in at Red-2 thought that 3/8 should go in at Red-3.[lxvii] At 1018 General Julian Smith ordered the 8th Marines to dispatch 3/8 to Red-3.[lxviii] 3/8 had to make their way across 700 yards through the water to get to the beach.  It was a slaughter, only 30 percent of the first wave got ashore, in the second less and the third “were practically wiped out.”[lxix]

taraw close combatClose Combat on Betio

As his Marines struggled ashore those who had gotten ashore engaged the Japanese at point blank range.  Lt. Hawkins of the 2nd Marine Scout and Sniper platoon and 5 of his men engaged the Japanese on the pier in vicious hand to hand fighting,[lxx] Sergeant Bordelon of the Engineers on Red-2 though grievously wounded knocked out four gun positions, some by lobbing dynamite charges into them and galvanizing survivors into action, finally being killed while taking on a Japanese position alone.  He would be awarded the Medal of Honor.[lxxi]

HD-SN-99-02572Wounded Marines Being Evacuated by Rubber Raft

By afternoon Julian Smith realized that he needed more troops, his last battalion, 1/8 waited to go ashore.[lxxii] Smith asked for the 6th Marines and had Admiral Hill send a message to Admiral Turner stating “Issue in doubt. I concur.” This sent a chill through the listening Naval Staff.[lxxiii] Ashore Shoup brought howitzers from 1st Battalion 10th Marines on surviving Amtracks to the eastern edge of Red-2 near the pier,[lxxiv] which landed in the early evening.[lxxv] He sent Lieutenant Colonel Carlson to make a personal report to General Smith that he would hold his beachhead no matter what happened. Shoup ordered his Catholic Chaplain to lay out a cemetery and begin burying the dead who were already decomposing in the tropical heat.[lxxvi] As this transpired 2/8 got two 37mm anti-tank guns into position to drive off Japanese tanks approaching the beachhead.[lxxvii] The Division Band assisted corpsmen in bringing back wounded Marines.[lxxviii] The rest of the day the Marines continued to eke out a beachhead; Shoup’s Marines on Red-2 and Red-3 managed to advance about halfway across the island, 3/2 and elements 1/2 and 2/2 was isolated and Major Ryan of Lima Company pulled them back to meet an expected Japanese counter-attack.[lxxix] The Marines had taken over 1500 casualties of 5000 men landed the first day.[lxxx] There is no evidence that Shoup considered withdraw that night.[lxxxi] No counterattack occurred due to Japanese command and control problems, Admiral Shibasaki and his staff were killed while shifting headquarters during the afternoon,[lxxxii] and their communications were in shambles. A counterattack would have been disastrous in their condition,[lxxxiii] yet they assembled over 1000 men to oppose the Marines on day two.[lxxxiv] Had Shibasaki lived and communications survived a counterattack might have had ramifications far beyond Tarawa.[lxxxv]

Day Two: D+1

marines advancingMarines Advancing

The second day began with 1/8 landing on Red-2 and the 6th Marines began to land on Green Beach at the far western tip of Betio.  1/8’s landing turned into a bloodbath, the tide fell even lower than the previous day and as they hit the reef and waded ashore drifted into some of the heaviest Japanese defenses. Japanese guns, including the dual 5.5” guns took direct aim at the boats, and Marines ashore watched helplessly, and correspondent Robert Sherrod noted: “This is worse, far worse than it was yesterday.”[lxxxvi] Only half of 1/8 reached the beach with none of their heavy weapons or equipment.  Shoup ordered the remnants of the battalion into line on his western flank in preparation for an advance inland.[lxxxvii] During five hours of landings on day two, the “Marine casualties reached a higher rate than that sustained on the first morning.”[lxxxviii]

Meanwhile, Shoup ordered Ryan’s “orphans” to make an attack down the right flank of the Japanese positions on Green beach and the “ultimate American victory at Betio evolved from the attack during one intense hour the second morning.”[lxxxix] Taking every available Marine, two surviving Shermans and some mortars, Ryan gathered his force and coordinated Naval Gunfire support.  The area contained a number of heavy guns including two of the 8” mounts.  A destroyer blanked the Japanese positions with 5” shells and fire from her light AA guns.[xc] Attacking behind the beach, Ryan’s Marines isolated and destroyed everyone and everything that looked hostile.[xci] Against minimal opposition Ryan’s Marines quickly seized the gun positions and the western end of the airfield.  Within an hour his Marines occupied the entire western side of Betio up to a 200 yard depth by 1200 and he radioed to let Shoup know the good news and that he intended to advance east against the airfield.[xcii] The attack allowed the Marines to be able to land intact battalions with supporting arms for the first time battle.[xciii]

To the east behind Red-2 and Red-3 The 8th Marines and survivors of 1/2 and 2/2 attacked against fierce Japanese opposition near Shibasaki’s former command bunker and two other large bunkers which were mutually supporting.  The attack by the 2nd Marine survivors eventually succeeded in getting completely across the south side of the island.[xciv] During the attack Lt. Hawkins of the Scout Snipers was mortally wounded.  He too would win the Medal of Honor.  The attack cut the island in two but the Japanese launched a counterattack on the Marine positions which was beaten back.[xcv] The 8thMarines faced a more difficult task going against what was now the heart of the Japanese defense, as its defenders had been reinforced by Lt. Minami and his third company of the 7th Special Naval Landing Force.  Vicious fighting ensued and by nightfall “the Marines had little to show for their heavy losses,[xcvi] but they did make significant inroads against the Japanese to warrant optimism for D+2.[xcvii] By evening the Marines on Red-1 and Red-2 had consolidated their beachhead so that reinforcements were landing, including jeeps, artillery and heavy equipment, and other Marines noted that Japanese defenders were beginning to commit suicide and they began to feel that Japanese morale had broken.  By late afternoon Shoup transmitted the message: “Casualties many. Percentage of dead unknown. Combat efficiency-We are winning.”[xcviii] By late afternoon Major Jones’ 1/6 landed on Green beach in their rubber boats, reinforcing Ryan’s orphans, it was the first of the 7 battalions landed to get ashore intact and the two officers coordinated their units for a night defense and an early attack the next morning.[xcix] 2/6 cleared the nearby island of Bairiki allowing 2/10 to land its howitzers on the island.  This in effect cut off any line of retreat for the defenders of Betio.[c] Colonel Edson came ashore during the evening to relieve Shoup[ci], who remained ashore to help coordinate the next day’s attack.  Again there were no coordinated Japanese counterattacks, the only senior officer, Sugai was isolated in the pocket between the Red and Green beaches and no senior officer could coordinate any attacks.[cii]

Day Three and Four: D+2 and D+3

tarawa wreckageWrecked LVY’s and Bodies on the Beach: The Marines Released Photos to Get the Public to Understand the Cost of the Battle

Day three began with attacks against Japanese strong points and the arrival of more reinforcements including 3/6 which landed on Green beach and three light tank platoons which landed on Red-2.[ciii] The Marines attacked off of Green beach sweeping east to join the 2nd Marines who had cut the island in two the day before.  The 8th Marines continued to attack the heavily fortified bunker complex eventually taking these heavily fortified and defended positions.  During the assault Lt Sandy Bonnyman of 1/18 won the Medal of Honor for leading the assault on these positions.[civ] Fighting remained fierce throughout the day and General Smith arrived to take command on shore.  The Marines attacked supported by tanks, artillery and naval gunfire.  By the evening they were established at the east end of the airfield.  The Japanese launched a series of Banzai charges which beginning about 1930 hours and ending about 0400 when the Marines annihilated the last attack with the assistance of artillery.[cv] The attack, which could have succeeded the first or early the second day, now aided the Marines by sacrificing strength that might have been used to exact a higher price for the tail of the island.[cvi] The next morning the Marines pushed forward and eliminated the last Japanese defenders and by 1200 Betio was secured.  Of about 5000 defenders only 17 Japanese and some Korean laborers were taken prisoner.[cvii] The Marines lost over 1000 killed and 2300 wounded.[cviii]

Tarawa prisonerOne of the 17 Japanese Who Survived the Battle being Interrogated by Marines, only one Chief Warrant Officer Ota was an Officer

Epilogue

The Marines paid a heavy price for Betio, but it was not to be a useless sacrifice, though it was a source of great controversy especially among politicians.[cix]Spector wonders if waiting for better tides or a full moon would have saved lives.[cx] Holland Smith later argued that Tarawa should have been bypassed, but Nimitz’s biographer Potter notes “if the lessons of the amphibious assault had not been learned at Tarawa, they would have to be learned elsewhere, probably at greater cost.”[cxi]The lessons learned alone aided all future amphibious operations in the Central Pacific and elsewhere.  Timing and coordination of naval gunfire support, air strikes and combat loading of transports were all refined in future operations. Large numbers of armored and up-gunned Amtracks would be part of every future operation.[cxii] Intelligence was emphasized and replicas of the Japanese fortifications were built and tested to determine the best way of destroying them.[cxiii] The Marines shocked the public by releasing photos and films of the carnage on Tarawa to awaken them to the challenges ahead.[cxiv]

Today the battle is remembered annually by the 2nd Marine Division at Camp LeJeune, an ever shrinking number of veterans of the battle attend the ceremonies.  Samuel Eliot Morison put it best: “All honor, then, to the fighting heart of the United States Marine. Let the battle for that small stretch of coral sand called Betio of Tarawa be remembered as terrible indeed, but glorious, and the seedbed for victory in 1945.”[cxv]

Appendix: Leaders on Tarawa

smith and smith at tarawaLieutenant General Holland Smith and Major General Julian Smith on Betio

General Holland M. “Howling Mad” Smith USMC: (1882-1967) Lieutenant General Holland M. Smith command V Amphibious Corps during the Gilberts operation.  Prior to the war he had worked extensively on amphibious warfare doctrine for both the Marine Corps and Navy. Unlike many senior officers Smith was not a Academy graduate having matriculated from the Alabama Polytechnic Institute (now Auburn University) in 1903 and law school in 1903.  Smith served as Adjutant of the 4th Marine Brigade in the First World War and served in Panama and the Dominican Republic in addition to other Marine tours afloat and ashore.  He served well and had many key assignments between the wars culminating in as the Assistant Commandant of the Marine Corps.  Subsequent to the Gilbert campaign he served as Commanding General of the Fleet Marine Force, Pacific and later commanded the Marines at Iwo Jima.  He retired in 1946.

Major General Julian Smith USMC: (1885-1975) Major General Julian Smith served as Commanding General 2nd Marine Division at Tarawa.  He graduated from the University of Delaware and was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in 1909.  He served in Haiti, Santo Domingo and the Vera Cruz expedition. During the First World War he served as an instructor in the Marine Officer training camps at Quantico. After the war he served in Cuba, Nicaragua and various command and staff posts including the Army Command and General Staff College.  He commanded 5th Marines in 1938 and in 1942 was promoted the Major General serving as director of Fleet Marine Force Schools, New River, NC.  He took command of 2nd Marine Division in May 1943 and served there until April 1944 when he became Commanding General, Expeditionary Troops, Third Fleet and in December 1944 took command of the Military Department of the Pacific.  He retired in 1946.

shoupColonel Shoup After the Battle

Colonel David Shoup USMC: (1904-1983) Colonel David Shoup commanded the 2nd Marines at Tarawa, being appointed as commander when its commander fell ill.  Shoup won the Congressional Medal of Honor for his actions on Tarawa.  A 1926 graduate of DePauw University, Shoup was commissioned a Second Lieutenant through the ROTC program that year.  He served in various assignments to include service in China, at sea on the battleship Maryland and Marine Barracks Puget Sound Navy Yard. He joined the staff of 6th Marines in October 1940 and assumed command of 2/6 in February 1942.  He was assigned as the Assistant Operations Officer for 2nd Marine Division in July 1942 and promoted the Lieutenant Colonel.   He went with the Division to New Zealand where he became the G-3 and from which he was fleeted up to command 2ndMarines at Tarawa.  After Tarawa he served as the Division Chief of Staff at Saipan and Tinian.  After the war Shoup continued to be assigned in key billets at the Pentagon and as commanding General, 1st Marine Division and then the Third Marine Division.  He became Chief of Staff, HQMC in 1958 and was appointed as the 22nd Commandant of the Marine Corps by President Eisenhower, a post that he retained until his retirement in 1963.

Admiral Tomanari Sachiro IJN: (1887-?) Commander of Tarawa garrison until relieved by Rear Admiral Shibasaki.   Graduate Naval Academy 1910, initially a communications officer he held various commands including Heavy Cruiser Haguro and Battleship Kirishima and two smaller ships.  Assigned to Tarawa in February 1943 he helped design and supervised the initial construction of Tarawa Defenses until relieved by Admiral Shibasaki on 20 July1943.  He returned to Japan and served the remainder of the war on Navy Division of Imperial General Headquarters.  Tomonari survived the war though nothing is mentioned as to his postwar fate.

Rear Admiral Shibasaki Keiji IJN: (1894-1943) Commanded Tarawa Garrison until his death during the battle.  He graduated from the Naval Academy in 1915 and he was a skilled navigator and instructor.  Prior to the war he had served afloat and ashore and ashore and had commanded a ship and naval station and served as a naval attaché to a member of the Imperial Family.  Among his assignments was 19 month combat tour with the special Naval Landing Forces in China, where he served as Chief of Staff of Shanghai Special Naval Landing Force.  Shibasaki’s leadership helped the garrison improve their defensive capabilities and combat skills as he inspired them to great heights and executed an intense training program. He was killed in the battle.

A Personal Note

I have not been to Tarawa but feel that I know it well.  I served in Second Marine Division from April 1999 through December 2001.  Due to my prior service experience I was used to fill gaps where chaplains were needed and ended up serving in four different battalions.  I served in 2nd Combat Engineer Battalion, the descendant of 1/18, the combat engineers.  We had a WWII Bulldozer outside our command post named after Sergeant Bordelon, the Medal of Honor Citations for Bordelon and Boonyman were prominently displayed.  I also served in 1/8 and 3/8.  I knew the accounts of the slaughter of these Marines as they attempted to land but as I re-read the accounts I was moved by their courage under fire.  The CPs of these battalions are also adorned with citations of their heroes lost at Tarawa.  Veterans would visit our units during Tarawa Days at Camp LeJeune, worn by the battle and the years they always made an impression. There is almost a mystical connection between the Second Marine Division and the Marines of Tarawa; it was a crucible that defined the division, whose motto is the same as the Army Infantry School. “Follow Me!”

Semper Fidelis,

Padre Steve


[i] Spector, Ronald H. Eagle Against the Sun: The American War with Japan.  The Free Press, New York, NY 1985. p.253

[ii] Murray, Williamson and Millett, Allan R. A War to Be Won: Fighting the Second World War, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA 2000. p.338

[iii] Ibid. Spector. p.253

[iv] Ibid. p.255 The conference also set a date for the invasion of France.

[v] Toland, John. The Rising Sun: The Decline and Fall of the Japanese Empire, 1936-1945. Random House, Inc. New York, NY 1970. p.468

[vi] Ibid. Spector. p.255

[vii] Costello, John. The Pacific War 1941-1945. Quill Publishing, New York, NY 1982. p.430

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] Potter, E.B. Nimitz. Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, MD, 1976, Third Printing with Revisions 1979. p.243. Nimitz’s forces would have had to seize 5 major Japanese bases and his staff was not sure that the Pacific carrier force would be strong or experienced enough to provide the necessary air cover for the operation.

[x] Ibid.

[xi] Ibid. pp.243-245

[xii] Morison, Samuel Elliott. The Two Ocean War: A Short History of the United States Navy in the Second World War. Little Brown and Company, Boston and Toronto, 1963. p.296.

[xiii] Hammell, Eric and Lane, John E. Bloody Tarawa: The 2nd Marine Division, November 20-23, 1943. The Zenith Press, St. Paul MN 2006.  Text copyright 1998 Eric Hammell and John E. Lane. p.4

[xiv] See Alexander, Joseph H. Utmost Savagery: The Three Days of Tarawa.Ivy Books, published by Ballantine Books, New York, NY. 1995. pp. 39-40.  This unit became the Third Special Base Unit on its deployment and was joined by the 111th Construction Battalion.

[xv] Ibid. Hammell. p.4

[xvi] See Alexander pp.39-40. This unit was basically a reinforced infantry battalion with 3 rifle companies, a weapons battery, anti-aircraft battery, a light tank company and support units numbering about1600 men.

[xvii] Ibid. Alexander. p.43

[xviii] Alexander p.27 The Rikusentai was the Japanese equivalent of Marines, who numbered about 50,000 men.  The officers attended Army schools and qualified enlisted men attended additional Army specialist training.

[xix] Ibid. Costello. p.431

[xx] Ibid. Hammell. p.22

[xxi] See Alexander p.77. While most writers say that these guns were brought from Singapore, Alexander notes that British writer William H Bartsch submitted proof (serial numbers) that the guns were sold by Vickers to Japan in 1905 as a legitimate business transaction.

[xxii] These are the same guns (127mm) mounted as the secondary armament of Nachi and Takao Class Heavy Cruisers and later mounted on light cruisers to replace the main battery with a more effective anti-aircraft armament.

[xxiii] Ibid. Hammell. p.22

[xxiv] Hammell notes that many of these bunkers and pillboxes were so well concealed that they could not be seen.

[xxv] Ibid. Toland. p.469.

[xxvi] Ibid. Alexander. p.43.

[xxvii] Ibid. Hammell. p.28

[xxviii] Ibid. Morison. p.297

[xxix] Ibid. Costello. p.429

[xxx] At this point the force could provide everything except major permanent repairs to warships.

[xxxi] Liddell-Hart, B.H.  History of the Second World War. G.P. Putnam’s Sons, New York, NY 1970. p.511

[xxxii] Ibid. Costello. p.431

[xxxiii] The older LVT-1s had boiler plate armor added as a field modification and were given a heavy machine gun. Prior to this they were unarmored and had two light machine guns.

[xxxiv] Ibid. Morison. p.303

[xxxv] Hammell includes a by name list of these officers in Appendix B.  Of note for today, each MEUSOC (Marine Expeditionary Unit, Special Operations Capable) has an assigned Naval Gunfire Support Team.

[xxxvi] Ibid. Alexander. pp. 61-62.  The Shermans had to be transported aboard pre-loaded LCM-3s carried in the well decks of the LSDs.

[xxxvii] Ibid. Alexander. pp.58-59

[xxxviii] Ibid. Morison. p.297.  As a sidebar discussion it should be noted that Galvanic helped provide the model for the organization of all further Marine Corps amphibious doctrine now known by the acronym PERMA; Planning, Embarkation, Rehearsal, Movement and Assault, which describes the 5 phases of a amphibious assault.

[xxxix] Ibid. Hammell details the intricacies of the particular tides seen at Tarawa and the knowledge that the Marines had from the former Resident Commissioner of the Island, Major Frank Holland who warned the division staff that he knew that there would not be enough water over the reef to get landing craft across it. (pp.18-20)

[xl] Ibid. Alexander. pp.75-77

[xli] Ibid. Alexander. pp.67-68.

[xlii] Ibid. p.70

[xliii] Ibid. p.71

[xliv] Ibid. Morison. p.302

[xlv] Ibid. Hammell. p.16

[xlvi] Johnston, Richard W. Follow Me! The Story of the Second Marine Division in world War II.  Copyright 1948 by the Second Marine Division History Board and published by Random House Publishers, New York, NY 1948. p.106

[xlvii] Ibid. Liddell-Hart. p.511  Johnson says 2,700 tons. (p.106)

[xlviii] Ibid. Johnston. p.106

[xlix] Ibid. Hammell. p.17

[l] Ibid.

[li] Ibid.. Hammell. 46-47

[lii] Ibid. Morison. p.303

[liii] Ibid. Alexander. p.113.  Alexander notes that the Japanese would have been better served by using these guns on the stalled out landing craft.

[liv] Ibid. Hammell. p.47.

[lv] Ibid. Hammell. p.58

[lvi] Ibid.

[lvii] Ibid. Morison. p.303

[lviii] Ibid. Alexander. p.79

[lix] Ibid. Hammell. p.17

[lx] Ibid. Alexander. p.121

[lxi] Wukovits, John. One Square Mile of Hell: The Battle for Tarawa. NAL Caliber, published by New American Library, a division of Penguin Group USA, New York NY, 2006. p.112

[lxii] Ibid. Johnston. p.116

[lxiii] Ibid.

[lxiv] Ibid. Wukovits. P.119  Other companies suffered as grievously, K/3/2 was not alone in its suffering.

[lxv] Ibid. Spector. pp.263-264

[lxvi] Ibid. Alexander. pp.136-138

[lxvii] Ibid. Hammell. p.90

[lxviii] Ibid. p.95

[lxix] Ibid. Spector. p.264

[lxx] Ibid. Wukovits. p.114

[lxxi] Ibid. Alexander. pp.139-140

[lxxii] 1/8 did not arrive on the beach due to botched communications until D plus 1.

[lxxiii] Ibid. p.150  The last time this signal had been sent it was by Major Devereaux at Wake Isalnd

[lxxiv] Ibid. p.151

[lxxv] Ibid. Johnston. p.132

[lxxvi] Ibid. Hammell. p.112

[lxxvii] Ibid. p.130

[lxxviii] Ibid. Johnston. p.122

[lxxix] Ibid. Johnston. p.122

[lxxx] Ibid. Costello. p.436

[lxxxi] Ibid. Alexander. p.163

[lxxxii] Ibid. Alexander. pp.157-158  Hammell notes that Shibasaski was most likely killed by fire from Ringgold or Dashiell.

[lxxxiii] Ibid. Hammell.pp.139-140

[lxxxiv] Ibid. Alexander. p.162

[lxxxv] Ibid.  Wukovits. p.176. Wukovits notes how this could have affected the planning for the Normandy invasion.

[lxxxvi] Ibid. Alexander. p.173

[lxxxvii] Ibid. Hammell. p.160

[lxxxviii] Ibid. Costello. p.437

[lxxxix] Ibid. Alexander. p.170

[xc] Ibid. Hammell. p.163

[xci] Ibid. Hammell. p.166

[xcii] Ibid. Wukovits. p.178

[xciii] Ibid. Alexander. p.170 Ryan would be awarded the Navy Cross for his efforts.

[xciv] Ibid. Hammell. p.172

[xcv] Ibid. Alexander. p.179

[xcvi] Ibid. Alexander. p.181

[xcvii] Ibid. Hammell. p.178

[xcviii] Ibid.. Wukovits. p.194

[xcix] Ibid. Hammell. p.202

[c] Ibid. Hammell. p.212

[ci] Shoup would be awarded the Medal of Honor and eventually go on to be the Commandant of the Marine Corps.

[cii] Ibid. Alexander. pp.191-192

[ciii] Ibid. Johnston. p.134  2 platoons landed on Red-2 and one on Green Beach.

[civ] Ibid. Alexander. pp.202-205

[cv] Ibid. Johnston. pp.145-146

[cvi] Ibid. Johnston. p.147

[cvii] Ibid. Toland. p.470

[cviii] Ibid. Murray and Millett. p.345

[cix] Ibid. Liddell-Hart. p.511

[cx] Ibid. Spector. p.266

[cxi] Ibid. Potter. P.264

[cxii] Ibid. Murray and Millett. p.347  The Amtrack in improved forms has been part of the Marines ever since. The current model serves in a traditional amphibious role as well as a Armored Personnel Carrier for Marines involved in ground combat operations ashore.

[cxiii] Ibid. Costello. p.439. The method found to work best was long range plunging fire by heavy guns found on battleships and heavy cruisers.

[cxiv] Ibid. Murray and Millett. p.346

[cxv] Ibid. Morison. p.306

Bibilography

Alexander, Joseph H. Utmost Savagery: The Three Days of Tarawa. Ivy Books, published by Ballantine Books, New York, NY. 1995.

Costello, John. The Pacific War 1941-1945. Quill Publishing, New York, NY 1982

Morison, Samuel Elliott. The Two Ocean War: A Short History of the United States Navy in the Second World War. Little Brown and Company, Boston and Toronto, 1963

Hammell, Eric and Lane, John E. Bloody Tarawa: The 2nd Marine Division, November 20-23, 1943. The Zenith Press, St. Paul MN 2006.

Johnston, Richard W. Follow Me! The Story of the Second Marine Division in world War II.  Copyright 1948 by the Second Marine Division History Board and published by Random House Publishers, New York, NY 1948

Murray, Williamson and Millett, Allan R. A War to Be Won: Fighting the Second World War, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA 2000

Potter, E.B. Nimitz. Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, MD, 1976, Third Printing with Revisions 1979

Spector, Ronald H. Eagle Against the Sun: The American War with Japan.  The Free Press, New York, NY 1985 Toland, John. The Rising Sun: The Decline and Fall of the Japanese Empire, 1936-1945. Random House, Inc. New York, NY 1970

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An Introduction to D-Day and the Normandy Campaign

The author with Marines at Point du Hoc, Normandy in 2004

Every year about this time I try to write about D-Day. Last year I posted several articles as I had in 2009 as well.  This year I spent more time on the Battle of Midway writing three articles. Today I have been on the road much of the day and as I drove back to my Island Hermitage I began to think about what I wanted to do this year. When I have decided to do is to re-post a short research paper that I did for one of my Master’s degree courses tonight and follow it with some articles over the week on specific aspects and personalities of the campaign.  What I hope is that people that are not familiar with the campaign as well as those that are can use this as a portal to other resources on the web and in print.

I have visited Normandy once in 2004 on a trip with the Marines of the Marine Security Force Company Europe that took me to Belleau Wood as well as Normandy.  In both places I had the good fortune to be able to explain aspects of both battles, at Normandy discussing the invasion from the German side of the fence.  The Normandy battlefields are well worth visiting.  Hopefully in the next few years I will get a chance to go back and do some serious exploring.

Introduction

General Dwight D Eisenhower Commander in Chief Allied Forces Europe

The American landings on Omaha Beach were critical to the success of the Allied invasion northwestern Europe in the overall Overlord plan.  Without success at Omaha there would have been a strong chance that the German 7th Army and Panzer Group West could have isolated the remaining beachheads, and even if unsuccessful at throwing the Allies into the sea could have produced a stalemate that would have bled the Allies white.  This quite possibly could have led to a political and military debacle for the western allies which would have certainly changed the course of World War II and maybe the course of history.[i] This is not to say the Germans would have won the war, but merely to state that a defeat on Omaha could have changed the outcomes of the war significantly.   Subsequent to the successful landing there were opportunities both for the Allies and the Germans to change the way that the campaign unfolded, thus the battles leading up to the breakout at Avranches are critical to its development and the subsequent campaign in France.

OVERLORD: The Preparations

Eisenhower’s Key Lieutenants: Patton, Bradley and Montgomery

The planning for the Normandy invasion began in earnest after the QUADRANT conference in Quebec in August 1943.  The timetable for the operation was established at the Tehran conference where Stalin sided with the Americans on the need for an invasion of France in the spring of 1944.[ii] Prior to this there had been some planning by both the British and Americans for the eventual invasion initially named ROUNDUP.  These preparations and plans included a large scale raid at Dieppe in 1942 which ended in disaster but which provided needed experience in what not to do in an amphibious assault on a heavily defended beach.        The failure at Dieppe also darkened the mood of the Allies, the British in particular to the success of such operations, bringing to mind the failed Gallipoli campaign of 1915 as well as the opposed landings at Salerno and the USMC experience at Tarawa.[iii] Despite this the Americans led by General Marshall pushed for an early invasion of northwest Europe. Churchill and the British due to their weakness in land power pushed for land operations in the Mediterranean, and even in Norway as an option to the assault in France. The conflicted mindset of the Allies left them in the position of planning almost exclusively for the success of the initial landings and build up to the near exclusion of planning for the subsequent campaign once they landed. This especially included what one writer described as “the maze of troubles awaiting behind the French shore.”[iv]

Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, Commander of Army Group B

Despite conflicts between the Americans and British political and military leadership the planning for the Normandy landings detailed in NEPTUNE and OVERLORD moved ahead.  General Dwight Eisenhower was appointed as the commander of SHAEF with his major subordinates for Land, Air and Sea which caused consternation on both sides of the Atlantic.[v] [vi] The planned operation was expanded from the initial 3 division assault on a narrow front to a minimum 5 division assault on a broad front across Normandy[vii]supplemented by a strong airborne force.[viii] Overall the plan as it developed reflected a distinctly “American willingness to confront the enemy head-on in a collision which Britain’s leaders had sought for so long to defer.”[ix] It is ironic in a sense that the British avoidance of the head on attack was based on their known lack of manpower.  Britain had few infantry reserves to sustain the war effort and the Americans only late recognized their own deficiency in both quantity and quality of infantry forces on which their strategy depended.  That the western allies, so rich in material and natural resources would be so deficient in infantry manpower was a key constraint on the subsequent campaign in France and Germany.  The shortage of infantry forces would cause great consternation among the Allies as the campaign in France wore on.

German Beach Obstacles

The Germans too faced manpower shortages due to the immense losses sustained on the Eastern front, those lost in Africa and those tied down in Italy, the Balkans and Norway as well as the drain caused by Luftwaffe Field Divisions and troops diverted into the Waffen-SS.   The German Army resorted to smaller divisions and the created many “static” divisions manned by elderly or invalid Germans to plug the gaps along the Atlantic wall. The Germans were also forced to recruit “Volksdeutsch” and foreign “volunteers” to fill out both Wehrmacht and Waffen-SS formations.

German fortifications at the Pas de Calais

Prior to the final decision to mount an invasion the Allied planners had contended with the location of the assault in northwestern France.  The Pas de Calais provided a direct route was rejected because it was where the Germans would expect the strike to occur and because it was where the German defenses were strongest.  The fiasco at Dieppe had provided ample proof of what could happen when making an assault into a heavily fortified port.  Likewise the mouth of the Seine near Le Harve was rejected because of the few beaches suitable for landing and because the forces would be split on both sides of the river.  Brittany was excluded due to its distance from the campaigns objectives in Germany.[x]This left Normandy which offered access to a sufficient number of ports and offered some protection from the weather. Normandy offered options to advance the campaign toward the “Breton ports or Le Harve as might be convenient.”[xi] Omaha beach, situated on the center right of the strike would be crucial to the success of the assault situated to the left of UTAH and the right of the British beaches.

Rommel inspecting beach obstacles

Once Normandy was selected as the location for the strike by the Allies, the planning sessions remained contentious.  This was especially true when the Allies debated the amount and type of amphibious lift that could be provided for the landings, particularly the larger types of landing ships and craft to support the Normandy invasion and the planned invasion of southern France, Operation ANVIL.  The increase in OVERLORD requirements for landing craft had an impact in the Mediterranean and resulted in ANVIL being postponed until later in the summer.

“Dummy” Sherman Tank: The Allies created a fictional Army Group to deceive German planners

As part of their preparations the Allies launched a massive deception campaign, Operation FORTITUDE.  This operation utilized the fictitious First Army Group under the “command” of General George Patton. Patton was still smarting from his relief of command of 7th Army following slapping commanded an “Army Group” which incorporated the use of dummy camp sites, dummy tanks, aircraft and vehicles, falsified orders of battle and communications to deceive German intelligence.[xii] The success of this effort was heightened by the fact that all German intelligence agents in the U.K. had been neutralized or turned by the British secret service.  Additionally the Luftwaffe’s limited air reconnaissance could only confirm the pre-invasion build ups throughout England without determining the target of the invasion.[xiii] The German intelligence chief in the west, Colonel Baron von Roenne “was deceived by FORTITUDE’s fantasy invasion force for the Pas de Calais.”[xiv] Despite this Commander of the 7thArmy recognized by 1943 that Normandy was a likely Allied target and efforts were made to shift 7th Army’s center of gravity from Brittany to Normandy.  The one potential German success in getting wind of when the Allied landings would occur was lost when German intelligence discovered two lines of Verlaine’s “Chason d’ Automme” in June 1944 which were to alert the French Resistance of the invasion.  The security section of 15th Army heard them transmitted on the afternoon of 5 June and notified General Jodl at OKW, but no action was taken to alert forces on the coast.[xv] Allied intelligence was aided by ULTRA intercepts of coded German wireless transmissions. However this was less of a factor than during the African and Italian campaigns as more German communications were sent via secure telephone and telegraph lines vice wireless.[xvi] Allied deception efforts were for the most part successful in identifying German forces deployed in Normandy. However they were uncertain about the location of the 352nd Infantry Division which had been deployed along OMAHA and taken units of the 709th Infantry Division under its command when it moved to the coast.[xvii]

 

US Army Air Corps B-17s were part of the strategic air campaign to isolate the German beach defenses

The Allied air campaign leading up to the invasion was based on attempting to isolate the invasion site from German reinforcements. Leigh-Mallory the Air Chief developed the “TRANSPORTATION PLAN” which focused efforts on destroying the French railroad infrastructure.[xviii] A more effective effort was led by General Brereton and his Ninth Air Force which was composed of medium bombers and fighters.  Brereton’s aircraft attacked bridges and rapidly achieved success in crippling German efforts to reinforce Normandy.[xix] Max Hastings gives more credit to the American bombing campaign in Germany to crippling the German defense in the west. General Spaatz and the 8th Air Force destroyed German production capacity in oil and petroleum as well as the degraded the German fighter force.  The American daylight raids so seriously degraded the German fighter force that it could not mount effective resistance to the invasion.[xx] Russell Weigley also notes that Albert Speer the Reich Armaments Minister said that “it was the oil raids of 1944 that decided the war.”[xxi]

 

US Navy LST’s being loaded for the invasion

Planning and preparations for OMAHA were based around getting the 1st and 29th Infantry Divisions ashore and them securing a beachhead “twenty-five kilometers wide and eight or nine kilometers deep.”[xxii] American preparations were thorough and ambitious, but the American assault would go through the most heavily defended sector of German defenses in Normandy.  The landing beaches were wide and bordered by dunes which were nearly impassable to vehicles and “scrub covered bluffs thirty to fifty meters high…rough and impassable to vehicles even to tracked vehicles except at a few places.  The exits were unimproved roads running through four or five draws that cut the bluffs.”[xxiii] Dug in along those bluffs was the better part of the 352nd Division. The Americans compounded their selection of a difficult and heavily defended landing zone the Americans failed to take advantage of many of the “gadgets” that were offered by the British which in hindsight could have aided the Americans greatly.  The Americans made use of two battalions of DD (Dual Drive) tanks but turned down the offer of flail tanks, flamethrower tanks, and engineer tanks, the “funnies” developed by General Hobart and the British 79th Armored Division.[xxiv]

Dual Drive amphibious tanks were included as part of the US invasion package

Weigley believes that the American view of “tanks as instruments of mobility rather than of breakthrough power.” Likewise the Americans victories in the First World War were won by infantry with little tank support.[xxv] In this aspect the Americans were less receptive to utilizing all available technology to support their landings, something that when considering the fact that Americans were great lovers of gadgets and technology. The British use of the Armor, including the “Funnies” on the beaches to provide direct fire into German strong points lessened their infantry casualties on D-Day. Due to this lack of armor support on the beach American forces on OMAHA had little opportunity to exercise true combined arms operations during the initial landings.[xxvi]

 

Rommel with Artillerymen of the 21st Panzer Division in Normandy

German preparations for an Allied landing in Normandy were less advanced than the Pas de Calais.  However they had made great strides since late 1943. Field Marshal Rommel greatly increased defensive preparations along the front, including the Normandy beaches.  One of Rommel’s initiatives was to deploy Panzer Divisions near the coast where they could rapidly respond to an invasion.  However Rommel did not get everything that he wanted.  The OKW only allotted him two Panzer Divisions to be deployed near the Normandy beaches.  Only one of these the 21st Panzer Division was deployed near Caen in the British sector.  One wonders the result had the 12th SS Panzer Division been deployed behind OMAHA. [xxvii]

OMAHA: The Landings

The venerable USS Nevada, resurrected from the mud of Pearl Harbor bombarding German positions at Utah Beach

Like the rest of the Allied invasion forces the 1st and 29th U.S. Infantry Divisions set sail from their embarkation ports with the intent of landing on June 5th.  General Bradley, commanding the First Army until the American XII Army Group would be activated accompanied the invasion force.  The OMAHA landing was under the command of General Gerow and his V Corps while VII Corps led by the 4th Infantry Division landed at Utah supported by airdrops of the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions inland.  American command and control during the invasion was exercised from sea as in the Pacific, although General Officers were to go ashore with each of the American divisions.  A severe channel storm disrupted the plan to land on the 5th and Eisenhower delayed the invasion one day catching a break in the weather and electing to go on the 6th.[xxviii] This delay while uncomfortable for the embarked troops caused the Germans to believe that no invasion would take place until the next favorable tide and moon cycle later in the month.[xxix] The assumption that no invasion was possible ensured that a number of key senior German leaders, including Rommel were absent from the invasion front when the Allies landed.[xxx]

US Troops ride a LCVP toward Omaha 

The landing beaches at OMAHA stretched about 6500 meters from Colleville-Sur-Mer to Vierville-Sur-Mere in the west.  The beaches are wide with bluffs overlooking them and a seawall between the beaches and the bluffs.  Additionally several small towns dot the beach. To the west of the town of Vierville, a prominent height overlooked the entire beachhead.  Named Pont du Hoc, it was believed to house a 150mm battery sighted where it could enfilade the OMAHA landing zones.  The Americans assigned to the 2nd Ranger Battalion to make a seaborne assault to land, scale the cliffs and take the battery.  Companies from this battalion made a heroic landing and scaled the cliffs to capture the strongpoint only to discover that the guns had not been emplaced.  The Rangers took heavy casualties and held their isolated beachhead against German counterattacks until relieved by the 29th Division on the morning of June 8th.[xxxi]

Landing craft passing the USS Augusta in heavy seas heading toward Omaha Beach

H-Hour for OMAHA was 0630.  Unfortunately the assault troops were transferred to their LCVP landing craft 16-20 kilometers from the beach.  The result was a long and dangerous ride in the small craft for the infantry.  Most of the infantry were completely soaked in sea spay and seasick before going ashore and they carried loads far above what they normally would carry into battle.[xxxii] The Armor support was one battalion of DD tanks, the 741stArmored Battalion, supporting the 16th Infantry Regiment of 1st Infantry Division. These were also launched too far out and nearly all of the tanks were swamped and lost before firing a shot in anger.[xxxiii] Other American support units needed to provide firepower on the beach were equally unfortunate. Weigley notes that at OMAHA “at least 10 of the LCVPs sank” as did “the craft carrying almost all of the 105mm howitzers that were to be the first artillery ashore after the tanks.”[xxxiv] The losses would cripple the assault on OMAHA and nearly cause its abandonment.

Bloody Omaha

As the soldiers of the American divisions on OMAHA came ashore they faced German defenders of the 352nd, 716th and a regiment of the 709th Infantry Division, the latter under the tactical command of the 352nd.   Without the bulk of their tanks artillery and lacking close air support the Americans struggled across the beaches and were cut down in large numbers before being pinned down behind the sea wall.[xxxv] With the Americans pinned down on the beach unable to advance, the time tables for the reinforcing waves became snarled amid the German beach obstacles which had not been cleared.  This was in large part due to 40% casualties among the Combat Engineers and the loss of all but five bulldozers.[xxxvi] Naval officers were frustrated in their attempts to provide naval gunfire support by the lack of identifiable targets on the beaches.  Yet German strongpoint’s were “knocked out by either by superbly directed vigorous gunfire from destroyers steaming as close as 800 yards offshore, or by determined action from Rangers or infantry.[xxxvii]

 

US Infantry struggles ashore at Omaha

Soldiers ashore discovered that they were not facing the static 716th Division but the veteran 352nd Division as well.[xxxviii] Only the leadership and actions of Brigadier General Norman Cota the 29th Division’s Deputy Commander and Colonel Charles Canham of the 116th Infantry kept the situation from complete collapse.  They were able to rally their troops. Under their leadership small units from the 116th which had its linage back to the “Stonewall Brigade” as well as elements of the 16th and 18th Infantry Regiments began to move forward.  Surviving junior leaders began to lead survivors through the dunes and up the bluffs to attack German defenders of the roads leading up from the beach from the flank and rear.  A mid-day break in the weather allowed some close tactical air support giving the troops badly needed support.

US 1st Infantry Division Troops at the Omaha sea wall

With the situation desperate General Bradley considered the evacuation of OMAHA.  At sea events were as confused as Bradley and his staff attempted to make sense of what was going on.  Even later in the evening there was discussion of diverting all further reinforcements from OMAHA to the British beaches.[xxxix]At 1330 hours “Gerow signaled Bradley: “Troops formerly pinned down on beaches…advancing up heights behind beaches.”[xl] By the end of the day Bradley’s aid Major Hansen noted Bradley’s comments to Collins: “They are digging in on Omaha beach with their fingernails. I hope they can push in and get some stuff ashore.”  And Montgomery: “Someday I’ll tell Gen[eral] Eisenhower just how close it was for a few hours.”[xli]

German Fallschirmjaeger Trüppen in Normandy, the German Parachute forces fighting in an infantry role were very effective in the Normandy campaign

The landings at OMAHA succeeded at a cost of over 2000 casualties.  Critical to the success of the landings were the German inability to reinforce their defending troops on the beach.  Likewise the weakness of the units available to mount the standard counterattack that was critical to German defensive plans on D-Day itself kept the Germans from driving the Americans back into the Channel. The 352nd Division fought superbly under the full weight of V Corps and the British XXX Corps on its right suffering heavy casualties as they contested every inch of ground.  The 716th Division composed of second rate troops melted under the onslaught.  Allied air supremacy played a key role as sorties by the 8th and 9th Air Forces helped keep German reinforcements from arriving and interdicted counter attacks inland.  Weigley credits the Allied air superiority with the success of the landings and with limiting casualties.[xlii]Von Rundstedt and other German commanders in France were limited by the delay and refusal of Hitler and OKW to release Panzer reserves when needed most early on June 6th.  By the close of D-Day allied forces had secured the five invasion beaches but not achieved their objectives of taking Caen and Bayuex.  Since the forces on the various beachheads had not linked up the beaches would have been extremely vulnerable had the Germans been able to mount a rapid counterattack by Panzers and strong infantry formations as they had at Salerno.

Major Battles to the Breakout at Avranches

Securing the Beachheads

P-47 firing rockets at a ground target. Close air support was vital to Allied forces in Normandy

It took the V and VII Corps nearly a week to secure the beachheads. German forces including the stalwart 352nd Division resisted stubbornly and mounted sharp local counterattacks which kept the Americans off balance.  Elements of the 29th Division and the 90th Division began to push inland and to expand the beachhead toward UTAH. Opposed by the 352nd Division and elements of the 91st Airlanding Division and other non-divisional units the fighting revealed the inexperience of the American infantry formations and the uneven quality of their leadership.  As the Americans tackled the Germans in the labyrinth of the Bocage country the defensive skill of the Germans cost many American lives and delayed the joining of the beachheads. On the 13th the link up was solid enough to enabling the Americans to conduct the follow up operations needed to expand the beachhead, secure Cherbourg and clear the Cotentin.

A Panther tank of the Panzer Lehr Division in Normandy

In some American divisions the hard fighting triggered a leadership crisis.  The lack of success of the 90th Division led General “Lightening Joe” Collins of VII Corps relieve the division commander and two regimental commanders of command, a portent of things to come with other American units.[xliii] As the V and VII corps pushed into the “Bocage” they were followed by a massive build up of troops and equipment delivered to the beaches and to the artificial “Mulberry” harbors.  Despite their numeric superiority, air supremacy and massive Naval gunfire support and facing the weakened 352nd, 91st and the 6thParachute Regiment and other less than quality formations, survivors of the static divisions, the Americans made painfully slow progress as they moved off the beachhead and into the Bocage.[xliv]

The Capture of Cherbourg

US Soldiers of the 29th Division surrender to German Fallschirmjaeger in Normandy

Once the beachheads had been consolidated the Americans turned their attention toward Cherbourg. Cherbourg was the major naval port at the far northwest tip of the Cotentin.  D-Day planners counted on its swift capture and rehabilitation to serve as a supply port for the Allied forces. The 9th Division drove south to the coast near Barneville on the 18th of June cutting off the German forces covering the approaches to Cherbourg.[xlv] This put the Germans in a bind as the 7th Army “had to split its forces in the peninsula in order to hold the fortress a little longer and thus to gain time for the establishment of the southern front on the Cotentin peninsula.[xlvi] The German forces arrayed before Cherbourg waged a desperate defense centered around the 243rd Infantry Division and other assorted battle groups of LXXXIV Corps, whose commander General Marcks one of the best German Generals was killed in action on 12 June.[xlvii] The U.S. VII Corps under Collins with the 9th, 4th and 79th Divisions pushed up the peninsula capturing Cherbourg on June 29th.  Bradley pushed hard for the capture of the port as the Mulberries had been ravaged by a severe Channel storm the week prior. The port of Cherbourg was thoroughly demolished by German engineers and would not be fully operational for months. The loss of the Mulberries and delay in Cherbourg’s availability meant that few supplies were landed on the beaches would “hinder the escape from the constricting land of the hedgerows into which the Americans had come in search of a port.[xlviii]

The Battle of Caumont Gap

Panzer IV Tank in Normandy

V Corps under Gerow made a cautious advance by phase lines toward Caumont, St Lo and Carentan.  The deliberate advance by the Corps toward a line weakly held by the Reconnaissance battalion of the 17th SS Panzer Grenadier Division was directed by Bradley who did not want to divert attention from the effort against Cherbourg.   After capturing Caumont V Corps halted and continued aggressive patrolling to deceive the Germans while digging in.[xlix] The possibility existed that a strong push against the weak German line could have led to an opportunity to envelope the German line west of Caen. This was a missed opportunity that in part led to the bloody and controversial campaign to capture Caen.[l]

British efforts around Caen

German Panzer Ace Waffen SS Captain Michale Wittman single handedly destroyed a British Battalion at Villers Bocage in his Tiger Tank

Montgomery had ambitious plans to break out of Normandy by capturing Caen on D-Day and driving toward Falaise and Argentan.  The British plans for this were frustrated by the rapid reinforcement of the sector by the Germans and the activities of 21st Panzer, Panzer Lehr, and the 12th SS Panzer Divisions.  A flanking maneuver at Villers-Bocage was frustrated by a few Tiger tanks led by the legendary Waffen SS Panzer commander Captain Michael Wittman whose tanks devastated a British Armored battalion.[li]

Wreckage of a British Battalion at Villers Bocage

A series of disastrous attacks toward Caen (EPSOM, CHARNWOOD and GOODWOOD) strongly supported by air strikes and Naval gunfire finally succeeded in taking that unfortunate city on July 18th but failed to take the heights beyond the town.[lii]

British operations like Operation Epsom met setback after setback against dug in German forces outside of Caen

Against crack well dug in German forces the British took heavy casualties in tanks and infantry seriously straining their ability to conduct high intensity combat operations in the future.[liii] The one benefit, which Montgomery would claim after the war as his original plan was that German forces were fixed before Caen and ground down so they could not be used against Bradley’s breakout in the west at St Lo.[liv]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Clearing the Bocage: The Battle of the Cotentin Plain

US M-5 Light Tank in Normandy

Other German forces arrived, and reinforced the Caumont gap which no longer “yawned invitingly in front of V Corps.” [lv] Bradley wished to push forward rapidly to achieve a breakthrough in the American sector.[lvi] Facing the most difficult terrain in France amid the Bocage and swamps that limited avenues of approach to the American divisions committed to the offensive.  The Americans now faced their old foe the 352nd division as well various elements of II Parachute Corps, the 17th SS Panzer Grenadier and Panzer Lehr Divisions.  American tanks and infantry made slow progress and incurred high losses as they dueled the Germans at close range.  In the VIII Corps sector alone the attack “consumed twelve days and 10,000 casualties to cross eleven kilometers of the Bocage…the achievements of the VII and XIX Corps were no better than comparable.[lvii]

St. Lo

US Tanks advancing with German prisoners moving back to US lines at St Lo

St. Lo was a key to Bradley’s breakout efforts.  His Army had to capture it and the roads leading out of it to launch Operation COBRA along the coast.  The task of capturing St. Lo was assigned to GEROW’S V Corps and Corlett’s XIX Corps.  They faced opposition from the tough paratroops of the German 3rd Parachute Division of II Parachute Corps.  The 2nd, 29th, 30th and 83rd Divisions fought a tough battle advancing eleven kilometers again with high numbers of casualties especially among the infantry to secure St. Lo on 18 July.[lviii] They finally had cleared the hedgerows.  St Lo epitomized the struggle that the American Army had to overcome in the Bocage.  Hard fighting but outnumbered German troops in excellent defensive country exacted a terrible price in American blood despite the Allied control of the skies.[lix]

Operation COBRA

US 155mm Howitzers in Normandy, the Germans had profound respect for American Artillery, a respect that they did not share for American Infantry or Armor forces

With the Bocage behind him Bradley desired to push the Germans hard.  COBRA was his plan to break out of Normandy.  Bradley ably assisted by Collins they realized that the better terrain, road networks favored a breakout.  American preparations included a technical advance that allowed tanks to plow through hedgerows. This was the “Rhino” device fashioned by American troops which was installed on 3 of every 5 First Army Tanks for the operation.[lx] VII Corps was to lead the attack which was to begin on July 24th. American planning was more advanced than in past operations.  Collins and Bradley planned for exploitation operations once the breakthrough had been made. A massive air bombardment would precede the attack along with an artillery barrage by Collins corps artillery which was reinforced by additional battalions.   A mistake by the heavy bombers in the 24th resulted in the American troops being hit with heavy casualties and a postponement of the attack until the 25th.[lxi] The following day the attack commenced.  Another mistake by the bombers led to more American casualties[lxii] but VII Corps units pressed forward against the determined resistance of the survivors of Panzer Lehr and the remnants of units that had fought the Americans since the invasion began.  Although it was a “slow go” on the 25th Bradley and his commanders were already planning for and beginning to execute the breakout before the Germans could move up reinforcements.  The 26th of June brought renewed attacks accompanied by massive air strikes.

St Lo 

While not much progress was made on the 26th, the Americans discovered on the 27th that the German forces were retreating.  The capture of Marigny allowed VIII Corps to begin exploitation down the coastal highway to Coutances.  On the 27th General Patton was authorized to take immediate command of VIII Corps a precursor to the activation of his 3rdArmy.  COBRA ripped a hole in the German line and inflicted such heavy casualties on the German 7th Army that it could do little to stop the American push.[lxiii] As the American forces pushed forward they reinforced their left flank absorbing the local German counterattacks which were hampered by the Allied close air support.

Avranches and Beyond

US Forces advance through the ruins of St Lo

As the breakthrough was exploited the command of the forces leading it shifted to Patton and the newly activated 3rd Army. By the 28th VIII Corps led by the 4th and 6th Armored Divisions had reached Avranches and established bridgeheads over the See River with additional bridges being captured intact on the 30th.[lxiv] The capture of Avranches allowed the Americans to begin exploitation operations into Brittany and east toward the Seine. Weigley notes that for the first time in the campaign that in Patton the Americans finally had a commander who understood strategic maneuver and would use it to great effect.[lxv]

Conclusion

The American campaign in Normandy cost the U.S. Army a great deal. It revealed weaknesses in the infantry, the inferiority of the M4 Sherman tank to most German types, problems in tank-infantry cooperation and also deficiencies in leadership at senior, mid-grade and junior levels. Heavy casualties among infantry formations would lead to problems later in the campaign. Numerous officers were relieved including Division and Regimental commanders.  Nonetheless during the campaign the Americans grew in their ability to coordinate air and ground forces and adapt to the conditions imposed on them by their placement in the Cotentin.  The deficiencies would show up in later battles but the American Army learned its trade even impressing some German commanders on the ground in Normandy.[lxvi]

[i] See the alternative history of by Peter Tsouras Disaster at D-Day: The Germans Defeat the Allies, June 1944, Greenhill Books, London 1994. Tsouras describes the defeat of the Omaha landings and the effect on the course of the campaign leading to the overthrow of Hitler and a negotiated armistice in the west.  While this outcome could be rigorously debated other outcomes could have led to the fall of the Roosevelt and Churchill governments and their replacement by those not committed to unconditional surrender or a continuation of the war that brought about more German missile attacks on the U.K. and the introduction of other advanced German weapons that could have forced such a settlement. Another option could have led to the dropping of the Atomic Bomb on a German city vice Hiroshima.

[ii] Weigley, Russell F. Eisenhower’s Lieutenants: The Campaign of France and Germany, 1944-1945, Indiana University Press, Bloomington IN, 1981 p.33

[iii] Ibid pp. 34-35

[iv] Ibid p.35

[v] General Montgomery 21st Army group and Land Forces, Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsey as Allied Naval Expeditionary Force and Air Marshall Sir Trafford Leigh-Mallory as Commander in Chief Allied Expeditionary Air Force. Weigley p.43

[vi] Max Hastings in Overlord: D-Day and the Battle for Normandy Vintage Books, New York, 1984, comments that many in Britain wondered if Eisenhower with the lack of actual battle experience could be a effective commander and that Eisenhower was disappointed in the appointment of Leigh-Mallory and Ramsey, and had preferred Alexander over Montgomery, pp. 28-29.

[vii] Ibid. Weigley p.40.  Montgomery was the first to object to the 3 division narrow front invasion rightly recognizing that seizing Caen with its road junctions could provide a springboard for the campaign into open country.

[viii] Ibid. p.37

[ix] Hastings, Max. Overlord: D-Day and the Battle for Normandy Vintage Books, New York, 1984 p.29  Hastings finds the irony in the selection of the British officers to execute the plan that reflected the American way of thinking.

[x] The Germans agreed with this in their planning leaving Brittany very lightly defended.  See  Isby, David C. Ed. “The German Army at D-Day: Fighting the Invasion.” p.27 The report of General Blumentritt, Chief of Staff OB West noted that only 3 divisions were assigned to Brittany.

[xi] Ibid. Weigley, pp. 39-40

[xii] Ibid. p.73

[xiii] See Isby p. 69.  General Max Pemsel of 7th Army noted that “During  the spring of 1944, Seventh Army received only tow good photographs of British southern ports, which showed large concentrations of landing craft.”

[xiv] Ibid. Hastings p.63.  Hastings comments also about the success of using the turned Abwehr agents.

[xv] Warlimont, Walter. “Inside Hitler’s Headquarters: 1939-1945.” Translated from theGerman by R.H. Barry. Presidio Press, Novao CA, English Edition Copyright 1964 Wiedenfeld and Nicholson Ltd. Pp.422-423

[xvi] Ibid. Weigley pp. 53-54

[xvii] Ibid. p. 67

[xviii] Ibid. pp.57-64  Weigley spends a great deal of time on the wrangling between Eisenhower, Leigh Mallory and Spaatz on the nature of the plan, the allocation of forces both strategic and tactical assigned to carry it out and its success, or in the light of postwar analysis the lack of effect that it had on German operations.

[xix] Ibid. p.67-68.

[xx] Ibid. Hastings pp. 43-44 In large part due to the long range P-51 Mustang which accompanied the American bombing raids beginning in 1943.  Another comment is that the campaign drew the German fighters home to defend Germany proper and prevented their use in any appreciable numbers over the invasion beaches.

[xxi] Ibid. Weigley p.69

[xxii] Ibid. p.89

[xxiii] Ibid. pp. 88-89

[xxiv] Ibid. p.87

[xxv] Ibid. Weigley also talks about the rejection of General Corlett’s ideas to use Amtracks used by the Marines in the Pacific to land on less desirable, but less defended beaches to lessen casualties on the beaches and the need for additional support equipment even on smooth beaches.  One of Corlett’s criticisms was that too little ammunition was allotted to supporting the landings and not enough supporting equipment was provided. pp. 46-47

[xxvi] Hastings notes that with the strength and firepower of the German forces on OMAHA that many of these vehicles had they been employed would like have ended up destroyed further cluttering the beachhead. “Overlord” p.102

[xxvii] The battle over the deployment of the Panzer Divisions is covered by numerous historians.  The source of the conflict was between Rommel who desired to place the Panzer Divisions on the Coast under his command due to the fear that Allied air superiority would prevent the traditional Panzer counterthrust, General Gyer von Schweppenburg commander of Panzer Group West (Later the 5th Panzer Army) and Field Marshal Von Rundstedt who desired to deploy the divisions order the command of Rundstedt for a counter attack once the invasion had been launched, a strategy which was standard on the Eastern Front, and Hitler who held most of the Panzer reserve including the SS Panzer Divisions under his control at OKW.  Hitler would negotiate a compromise that gave Rommel the satisfaction of having three Panzer Divisions deployed behind coast areas in the Army Group B area of responsibility.  21stPanzer had those duties in Normandy.

[xxviii] Ibid. p.74-75

[xxix] Von Luck, Hans.  “Panzer Commander“ Dell Publishing, New York, 1989 pp. 169-170.  Von Luck a regiment commander in 21st Panzer noted that General Marcks of 84th Corps had predicted a 5 June invasion at a conference May 30th.

[xxx] Almost every D-Day historian talks about the weather factor and its effect on the German high command’s reaction to the invasion.  Rommel was visiting his wife for her birthday and planned to make a call on Hitler. Others including commanders of key divisions such as the 91st Airlanding Division were off to a war game in Rennes and the 21st Panzer Division to Paris.

[xxxi] Ibid. Weigley p. 96

[xxxii] See Cornelius Ryan, “The Longest Day” Popular Library Edition, New York 1959. pp. 189-193 for a vivid description of the challenges faced by soldiers going from ship to landing craft and their ride in to the beaches.

[xxxiii] Ibid. Weigley. p.78 Weigley talks about the order for the tanks to be carried ashore on their LCTs that did not get transmitted to the 741st.

[xxxiv] Ibid.

[xxxv] Ibid. Weigley  p. 87 The weather prevented the aerial bombardment from being effective. Because the bombers could not see their targets they dropped their bomb loads further inland, depriving the infantry of support that they were expecting.  Naval gunfire support had some effect but had to be lifted as the troops hit the beach leaving much of that support to come from Destroyers and specially equipped landing craft which mounted rockets and guns.

[xxxvi] Ibid. Hastings. pp. 90-91.

[xxxvii] Ibid. p.99

[xxxviii] Ibid. Weigley p.80

[xxxix] Ibid. p.101  Also see Weigley p.80

[xl] Ibid. p.99

[xli] Ibid. Weigleyp.95

[xlii] Ibid. p.94

[xliii] Ibid. p.99 Both Weigley and Hastings make note of the failure of both the Americans and British to train their troops to fight in the bocage once they had left the beaches.

[xliv] Ibid. Hastings. pp.152-153

[xlv] Ibid. Weigley p.101

[xlvi] Isby, David C., Ed. “Fighting in Normandy: The German Army from D-Day to Villers-Bocage.” Greenhill Books, London,  2001.  p.143

[xlvii] Ibid. Hastings p.173 Allied fighter bombers exacted a fearful toll among German commanders. The Commanders of the 243rd and 77th Divisions fighting in the Cotentin were also killed by air attacks on the 17th and 18th.   Further east facing the British the commander of the 12th SS Panzer Division, Fritz Witt on the 17th.

[xlviii] Ibid. Weigley. p.108

[xlix] Ibid. p.111-112.

[l] Ibid.

[li] The efforts of the 51st Highland Division and 7th Armored Division were turned aside by the Germans in the area and were dramatized by the destruction of  a British armored battalion by SS Captain Michael Wittman and his platoon of Tiger tanks.  See Hastings pp.131-135.

[lii] The British 8th Corps under General O’Connor lost 270 tanks and 1,500 men on 18 July attempting to crack the German gun line on the ridge beyond Caen. Weigley, pp.145-146.

[liii] Hastings comments about the critical British manpower shortage and the pressures on Montgomery to not take heavy casualties that could not be replaced. Overlord. pp.241-242.

[liv] Ibid. Weigley pp.116-120

[lv] Ibid. p.122

[lvi] Ibid. p121 Bradley told Eisenhower “when we hit the enemy this time we will hit him with such power that we can keep going and cause a major disaster.”

[lvii] Ibid. 134

[lviii] Ibid. Weigley. pp. 138-143.  Weigley notes of 40,000 U.S. casualties in Normandy up to the capture of St. Lo that 90% were concentrated among the infantry.

[lix] Weigley quotes the 329th Regiment, 83rd Division historian “We won the battle of Normandy, [but] considering the high price in American lives we lost. P.143. This is actually a provocative statement that reflects America’s aversion to massive casualties in any war.

[lx] Ibid. p.149

[lxi] Ibid. p. 152

[lxii] Ibid. pp. 152-153.  Among the casualties were the command group of the 9th Division’s 3rd Battalion 47th Infantry and General Leslie McNair who had come to observe the assault.

[lxiii] Ibid. pp.161-169. Weigley notes the advances in U.S. tactical air support, the employment of massive numbers of U.S. divisions against the depleted German LXXXIV Corps, and the advantage that the “Rhino” device gave to American tanks by giving them the ability to maneuver off the roads for the first time.

[lxiv] Ibid. pp.172-173.

[lxv] Ibid. p.172

[lxvi] Ibid. Isby, David C. “Fighting in Normandy,” p.184, an officer of the 352nd Division referred to the American soldier “was to prove himself a in this terrain an agile and superior fighter.”

Bibliography

Carell, Paul. “Invasion: They’re Coming!” Translated from the German by E. Osers, Bantam, New York 1964.

Hastings, Max. Overlord: D-Day and the Battle for Normandy Vintage Books, New York, 1984

Isby, David C. Ed. “The German Army at D-Day: Fighting the Invasion.” Greenhill Books, London 2004

Isby, David C., Ed. “Fighting in Normandy: The German Army from D-Day to Villers-Bocage.” Greenhill Books, London, 2001.

Ryan, Cornelius, “The Longest Day” Popular Library Edition, New York 1959

Tsouras, Peter. “Disaster at D-Day: The Germans Defeat the Allies, June 1944,”Greenhill Books, London 1994.

Von Luck, Hans.  “Panzer Commander“ Dell Publishing, New York, 1989

Warlimont, Walter. “Inside Hitler’s Headquarters: 1939-1945.” Translated from theGerman by R.H. Barry. Presidio Press, Novao CA, English Edition Copyright 1964 Wiedenfeld and Nicholson Ltd. Warlimont, Walter. “Inside Hitler’s Headquarters: 1939-1945.” Translated from theGerman by R.H. Barry. Presidio Press, Novao CA, English Edition Copyright 1964 Wiedenfeld and Nicholson Ltd.

Weigley, Russell F. Eisenhower’s Lieutenants: The Campaign of France and Germany, 1944-1945, Indiana University Press, Bloomington IN, 1981

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D-Day: Omaha Beach

LCVP’s pass USS Augusta

Like the rest of the Allied invasion forces the 1st and 29th Divisions set sail from their embarkation ports with the intent of landing on June 5th.  General Bradley, commanding the First Army until the American Army Group would be activated accompanied the invasion force.  The OMAHA landing was placed under General Gerow and his V Corps while VII Corps landed the 4th Infantry Division landed at Utah supported by airdrops of the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions inland.  American command and control was exercised from sea although General Officers went ashore with each of the American divisions.  A severe channel storm disrupted the plan to land on the 5th and Eisenhower delayed the invasion one day catching a break in the weather and electing to go on the 6th.[i] This delay while uncomfortable for the embarked troops caused the Germans to believe that no invasion would take place until the next favorable tide and moon cycle later in the month[ii] a break which caused a number of senior German leaders, including Rommel to be absent from the invasion front when the Allies landed.[iii]

US Soldier struggling in surf at Omaha Beach

The landing beaches at OMAHA stretched about 6500 meters from Colleville-Sur-Mer to Vierville-Sur-Mere in the west.  A further objective to the west of Vierville; Pont du Hoc, was believed to house a 150mm battery sighted where it could enfilade OMAHA and was assigned to the 2nd Ranger Battalion.  Companies from this battalion made a heroic landing and scaled the cliffs to capture the strongpoint only to discover that the guns had not been emplaced and held their isolated beachhead until relieved by the 29th Division on the morning of June 8th.[iv]

H-Hour for OMAHA was 0630.  Unfortunately the assault troops were transferred to their LCVPs 16-20 kilometers from the beach resulting in a long and dangerous ride in the small craft for the infantry.  Most of the infantry were completely soaked in sea spay and seasick before going ashore carrying loads far above what they normally would carry into battle.[v] One battalion of DD tanks, the 741st Armored Battalion, supporting the 16th Infantry of 1st Infantry Division was launched too far out and nearly all of its tanks were swamped and lost before firing a shot in anger.[vi] Weigley notes that at OMAHA “at least 10 of the LCVPs sank” as did “the craft carrying almost all of the 105mm howitzers that were to be the first artillery ashore after the tanks.”[vii] The losses would cripple the assault on OMAHA and nearly cause its abandonment.

As the soldiers of the American divisions on OMAHA came ashore they faced German defenders of the 352nd, 716th and a regiment of the 709th Infantry Division, the latter under the tactical command of the 352nd.   Without the bulk of their tanks artillery and lacking close air support the Americans struggled across the beaches and were cut down in large numbers before being pinned down behind the sea wall.[viii] As the Americans pinned down on the beach failed to advance the time tables for the reinforcing waves became snarled amid the German beach obstacles which had not been cleared due to 40% casualties among the Combat Engineers and the loss of all but five bulldozers.[ix] Naval officers were frustrated in their attempts to provide support by the lack of identifiable targets on the beaches but strongpoints were “knocked out by either by superbly directed vigorous gunfire from destroyers steaming as close as 800 yards offshore, or by determined action from Rangers or infantry.[x]

Grenadiers of 352nd Infantry Division move to counter-attack

Soldiers ashore discovered the truth that they were not facing the static 716th Division but the 352nd Division as well.[xi] But for the leadership of Brigadier General Norman Cota, assistant division commander of 29th Infantry Division and Colonel Charles Canham of the 116th Infantry who were able to rally their troops and just enough leaders and small units from the 116th which had its linage back to the “Stonewall Brigade” as well as units of the 1st Divisions’ 16th and 18th Regiments  who kept their heads and began to lead survivors through the dunes and up the bluffs to attack German defenders of the roads leading up from the beach from the flank and rear as well as a mid-day break in the weather which allowed some close tactical air support General Bradley may have ordered the evacuation of OMAHA.

Omaha Beach rescue of wounded from surf

At sea events were as confused as Bradley and his staff attempted to make sense of what was going on.  Even later in the evening there was discussion of diverting all further reinforcements from OMAHA to the British beaches.[xii]At 1330 hours “Gerow signaled Bradley: “Troops formerly pinned down on beaches…advancing up heights behind beaches.”[xiii] By the end of the day Bradley’s aid Major Hansen noted Bradley’s comments to Collins: “They are digging in on Omaha beach with their fingernails. I hope they can push in and get some stuff ashore.”  And Montgomery: “Someday I’ll tell Gen[eral] Eisenhower just how close it was for a few hours.”[xiv]

Omaha Beach Wreckage

The landings at OMAHA did succeed at a cost of over 2000 casualties, critical to their success were the German inability to reinforce their defending troops on the beach and the weakness of the units available to mount the standard counterattack that was critical to German defensive plans on D-Day itself. The 352nd Division fought superbly under the full weight of V Corps and the British XXX Corps on its right suffering heavy casualties as they contested every inch of ground.  The 716th Division units melted under the onslaught.  Allied air supremacy played a key role as sorties by the 8th and 9th Air Forces helped keep German reinforcements from arriving and interdicted counter attacks inland.  Weigley credits the Allied air superiority with the success of the landings and with limiting the cost of allied lives.[xv] Von Rundstedt and other German commanders in France were limited by the delay and refusal of Hitler and OKW to release Panzer reserves when needed most early on June 6th.  By the close of D-Day allied forces had secured the five invasion beaches but not achieved their objectives of taking Caen and Bayuex and forces had not linked up leaving the beaches extremely vulnerable had the Germans been able to mount a rapid counterattack by Panzers and strong infantry formations.

The author lecturing at Pont du Hoc Omaha Beach 2004


[i] Ibid. p.74-75

[ii] Von Luck, Hans.  “Panzer Commander“ Dell Publishing, New York, 1989 pp. 169-170.  Von Luck a regiment commander in 21st Panzer noted that General Marcks of 84th Corps had predicted a 5 June invasion at a conference May 30th.

[iii] Almost every D-Day historian talks about the weather factor and its effect on the German high command’s reaction to the invasion.  Rommel was visiting his wife for her birthday and planned to make a call on Hitler. Others including commanders of key divisions such as the 91st Airlanding Division were off to a war game in Rennes and the 21st Panzer Division to Paris.

[iv] Ibid. Weigley p. 96

[v] See Cornelius Ryan, “The Longest Day” Popular Library Edition, New York 1959. pp. 189-193 for a vivid description of the challenges faced by soldiers going from ship to landing craft and their ride in to the beaches.

[vi] Ibid. Weigley. p.78 Weigley talks about the order for the tanks to be carried ashore on their LCTs that did not get transmitted to the 741st.

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Ibid. Weigley  p. 87 The weather prevented the aerial bombardment from being effective. Because the bombers could not see their targets they dropped their bomb loads further inland, depriving the infantry of support that they were expecting.  Naval gunfire support had some effect but had to be lifted as the troops hit the beach leaving much of that support to come from Destroyers and specially equipped landing craft which mounted rockets and guns.

[ix] Ibid. Hastings. pp. 90-91.

[x] Ibid. p.99

[xi] Ibid. Weigley p.80

[xii] Ibid. p.101  Also see Weigley p.80

[xiii] Ibid. p.99

[xiv] Ibid. Weigley. p.95

[xv] Ibid. p.94

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The Pacific Part Three: Tarawa Paving the Way to Peleliu, Iwo Jima and Okinawa

Introduction to Part Three

While the First Marine Division slogged its way through the hell of the New Britain campaign the battle for the Pacific’s primary focus became the Central Pacific which was a far different sort of war than had been fought in  the South Pacific including the Guadalcanal and New Britain campaigns.  Instead of the steaming nearly impenetrable jungles and muck of the Solomons battles shifted to small heavily fortified and defended atolls and islands garrisoned by elite Imperial Naval infantry or veteran Imperial Army units.  The battle of Tarawa in the Gilbert islands was the first step in pushing across the Central Pacific and eventually on to the Japanese home islands.

Tarawa was the combat test bed of many of the weapons and tactics that would be featured in the key battles of the drive across the Central Pacific.  Weapons and tactics that would be applied by the First Marine Division at Peleliu and Okinawa.  Tarawa was a battle that shocked the American public. On this island which was  barely one square mile of coral and sand the Marines of the Second Marine Division suffered over 1000 dead and 2300 wounded while annihilating the Japanese garrison of over 4000 troops.  The carnage of Tarawa would be seen again at Peleliu where the First Marine Division as depicted in the series “The Pacific” fought a no-quarter battle against a determined and well prepared enemy.

This is the story of that battle.

The Decision: Operation Galvanic

The Target: Betio Island at Tarawa Atoll

Following Guadalcanal and the shift of significant naval forces from the Solomons the focus of the US shifted to the thrust across the Central Pacific.  Unlike the Solomons which were initially a Navy and Marine Corps Operation and shifted to the Army under MacArthur as the campaign shifted to Borneo, despite the participation of the 1st Marine Division in the New Britain campaign the operations here would be an almost total Navy and Marine Corps operation.Operation Galvanic, the first offensive operation in the Central Pacific, came about as a result of the Joint U.S. Strategic Committee decision in April 1943 to favor an advance in the Central Pacific while maintaining the offensive in the South Pacific.[i] The driving force behind this strategy was Admiral King who fought for the plan and “insisted that any campaign should focus on the destruction of Japan’s overseas resources, which meant an offensive directed only toward the Western Pacific sea lanes.”[ii] The Joint Chiefs believed that a simultaneous attack by Nimitz in the Central Pacific and MacArthur in the South Pacific would “keep the Japanese guessing.”[iii] The decision was presented to the British at the TRIDENT meetings in May 1943 and though the British resisted the American plans a compromise was reached allowing the Americans to “simultaneously…maintain and extend unremitting pressure against Japan….”[iv]

The decision to begin operations in the Central Pacific meant that MacArthur’s priority in logistics and personnel would be reduced in order to launch the Central Pacific operation.  MacArthur protested, to no avail and the Joint Chief’s stood firm in their decision that the Central Pacific operation “would make it easier to isolate Japan from her domain in the south.”[v] MacArthur was allowed to continue OPERATION CARTWHEEL while Nimitz seized the Marshall and Caroline islands.[vi] Nimitz’s staff began preparations and decided on a conservative course to capture the Gilberts first before taking the more heavily defended Marshalls.[vii] This was in part due to the “need to minimize the risks to his untried amphibious forces against such heavily fortified enemy bases out of reach of air cover.”[viii]

Several factors were considered by Nimitz and his planners considerations in this choice.  Nimitz did not have enough troops to capture all of the vital heavily defended locations in the Marshalls without dividing his forces.[ix] Additionally the Gilbert operation could be supported by land based bombers.[x] A final consideration was the Joint Chief’s decision to allow MacArthur to retain control of 1st Marine Division which Nimitz had hoped would be available for operations in the Central Pacific.[xi] CINCPAC did a thorough photo reconnaissance of the Gilbert’s convinced the Joint Chiefs that Tarawa and Makin needed to be taken to provide air bases for the assault on the Marshalls.  Finally the order forGalvanic was issued on 20 July 1943 with its execution planned for November 1943.[xii]

Japanese Preparations

Japanese emplacing 8″ Naval Gun on Tarawa

The Japanese did little to prepare against potential American offensive operations against the Gilbert’s until Makin Island was raided by elements of 2ndRaider Battalion in August 1942.  The Makin raid shook the Japanese and at which time they reinforced Makin and occupied Betio.[xiii] The Japanese occupied Betio with the Yokosuka 6th Special Landing Force, essentially Naval Infantry or Marines[xiv] and the 111th Construction Battalion on 15 September 1942, over nine months after they attacked Pearl Harbor.[xv] These forces were commanded by Admiral Tomanari, who at once began to fortify Betio. Recognizing his need for more troops  Tomanari asked Tokyo for reinforcements.  The reinforcements came in the form of Commander Sugai’s 7th Sasebo Special Naval Landing Force, which landed on 14 March.[xvi]Commander Sugai’s troops were the Rikusentai, the best of the Japanese Navy’s land forces.

Japanese Naval Infantry conducting live fire exercise on Tarawa

The fortification of Betio proceeded slowly until the arrival of Rear Admiral Shibasaki, who relieved Tomanari who returned to Japan.[xvii] Shibasaki, a tough veteran of service at sea and ashore including 19 months as aRikusentai[xviii] officer in China was chosen by Admiral Koga to instill a better fighting spirit on the island.  The Imperial General Headquarters “New Operations Plan” ordered the outer defensive islands, such as Tarawa, to “hold up any American advance while an inner line of fortresses was constructed….”[xix]

Fortified 8″ gun position on Tarawa

Shibasaki drove the garrison hard, inspiring them to “extraordinary heights of labor that resulted in Betio’s superb defenses.”[xx]Betio mounted four 8” Naval guns[xxi], four 14 cm guns, four dual mount 5.5” dual purpose guns[xxii] six 80 mm anti-boat guns, eight 75 mm dual purpose guns, ten 75 mm mountain guns, six 70 mm guns and nine 37 mm anti-tank guns, numerous machine guns and light AA guns and 14 light tanks.[xxiii] These weapons were mounted in well camouflaged armored or reinforced pillboxes.[xxiv] In accordance with the directives of the high command Shibasaki ordered his troops “to defend to the last man all vital areas and destroy the enemy at the waters’ edge.”[xxv]

Admiral Shibasaki boasted that it would take a million men a thousand years to take Betio

The Japanese records note that Shibasaki “immediately began to strengthen morale and carried out advanced training, and as a result…the garrison remarkably enhanced its fighting capability and they were full of confidence.”[xxvi] Even the service troops were thoroughly trained to fight from their superb defensive positions.[xxvii]Shibasaki reportedly told his men that it would take a million men a thousand years to take Betio.

Japanese conducting gunnery exercise prior to the invasion

American Preparations

The LVT- Landing Vehicle Tracked or the Amtrack

Nimitz organized his forces into three major commands, the 5th Fleet, commanded by Admiral Raymond Spruance, the 5th Amphibious Force under Admiral Richmond “Kelly” Turner and the V Amphibious Corps under Major General Holland “Howlin’ Mad” Smith, USMC.[xxviii] The 2nd Marine Division which would make the assault at Tarawa was commanded by Major General Julian Smith. The force that sustained in this operation and subsequent amphibious operations was the Service Force Pacific Fleet.[xxix] This was a collection of ships whose mission it was to sustain the fleet in mobile operations,[xxx] which greatly “increased the range and power of the Navy in amphibious operations.”[xxxi] The planned assault called for the Army’s 27thDivision take Makin and the veteran 2nd Marine Division which had been blooded at Guadalcanal to take Tarawa supported by the carriers and battleships of 5th Fleet.

Tarawa marked the first use of dedicated amphibious ships such as theUSS Ashland LSD-1

This was the first application of new amphibious tactics developed for the Pacific war.[xxxii] Air and sea bombardment would precede the actual assault. The Marines would be transported ashore in a new vehicle called an LVT (Landing Vehicle Tracked) and other amphibious ships and craft including the LSD (Landing Ship Dock), LCM (Landing Craft Mechanized) and LCVP (Landing Craft Vehicle Personnel).  The LVTs were absolutely vital, nicknamed “Amtracks” or “Amphtracks” they were essentially a tracked amphibious personnel carrier. They were developed from a commercial vehicle used by U.S. Forrest Service Rangers in the Florida Everglades and were capable of crossing coral reefs that would cause other craft to go aground.  The early LVTs had retrofitted armor and mounted a .50 cal. machine gun.  At Tarawa the Marines deployed 75 LVT-1s[xxxiii] and 50 LVT-2s. 93 LVTs would be part of the first wave of the Marine assault.[xxxiv] The LVTs were transported to Tarawa aboard LSTs (Landing Ship Tanks.)  Other innovations included the assignment of Naval Gunfire Support teams to the Marine Regiments and some battalions,[xxxv] and the first use of the M4 Sherman tank by the Marines.[xxxvi] Tarawa was a proving ground for the tactics and equipment which would be improved on and used in every subsequent amphibious operation in the Pacific.  Tarawa would also mark the last major use of rubber landing craft by the Marine Corps in an opposed landing.[xxxvii]

Shipboard Briefing

There were limitations to American preparations. First the size of the force meant that it could not be assembled in one place for rehearsals or to train as a team.[xxxviii] A second problem for the Americans was the assumption that high and low tides would be sufficient to get their landing craft across the reef in spite of warnings to the contrary.[xxxix] Likewise the Americans failed to completely anticipate the scope to which the Japanese had fortified the island. This was despite good intelligence that they had done so. In particular aerial photos taken by the air force and ULTRA intercepts provided good information on the Japanese units on the island and the layout of the defenses.[xl]Additionally some equipment shortages were not remedied. The Marine Bazooka’s did not arrive, and neither the 6th or 8th Marines had made an actual amphibious assault.  At Guadalcanal they made an administrative landing and few field-grade officers remained from the 2nd Marine Regiment who had landed at Tulagi.[xli] They were far from “amphibious experts” that they would become.[xlii] However, they made up for their lack of experience by their cohesiveness, high morale and esprit, being well armed and equipped, in top physical condition and knowing the basic tools of their trade: “weapons proficiency and field firing, close combat techniques, fire and maneuver, tactical leadership, fire discipline.”[xliii]

The most critical aspect of the operation was to get across the reef onto the island.  There were few good landing sites and it was decided to make the landings from inside the atoll’s lagoon onto the Betio’s north shore.  This decision meant that transports embarking the Marines would unload outside of the lagoon and that the landing craft would have to make a 10 mile trip.[xliv]There was only one entrance into the lagoon and it was not deep enough for heavy ships to enter.[xlv]This meant that heavy ships such as battleships and cruisers would not be able to have direct fire on the Japanese positions best situated to disrupt the Marines.

The execution of the plan involved land based bomber strikes beginning on D minus 7. Carrier aircraft would begin their operations on D minus 2.  Cruisers and destroyers joined the cacophony of destruction on D minus 1 and the battleships on D Day itself.[xlvi] On D-Day itself Navy planned to bombard the island with 3,000 tons of shells in 2 ½ hours.[xlvii] The Navy was confident in the bombardment plans. Rear Admiral Kingman commanding the fire support group declared “We will not neutralize; we will not destroy; we will obliterate the defenses on Betio!”[xlviii] Four battalions of Marines would land in the first wave, the three battalions of the 2nd Marines and 2nd Battalion 8th Marines all commanded by Colonel David Shoup. Colonel Shoup who would win the Medal of Honor on Betio and later became the Commandant of the Marine Corps assumed command of 2nd Marines when its Regimental commander fell ill on the journey to Efate.[xlix] The division reserve was the remaining 8th Marine Regiment battalions. The 6th Marine Regiment served as the corps reserve.[l]The assault units would be reinforced by tanks and the 1st and 2nd Battalions 18th Marine Regiment, the division’s combat engineers.

Invasion: Day One

Landing craft going ashore at Tarawa

The naval gunfire bombardment commenced at 0542 on 20 November, and the assault waves began their trek to the beaches.  The transports were out of range of Japanese guns but ththat ensured boats would have to make a 10 mile trip.[li]At this point things began to go wrong.

USS Colorado at Tarawa

The Navy had “badly miscalculated the amount of softening-up that could be done in two and a half daylight hours bombardment.” Although major coast defense guns were silenced not enough damage was done to the Japanese defenses.[lii] The Japanese helped the Marines by firing their larger guns at warships, identifying their positions to Navy gunners.[liii] The bombardment lifted to allow an attack by carrier based aircraft. However the aircraft were late to arrive and the ships did not resume fire, allowing the Japanese to emerge and re-train their weapons.[liv] Likewise the destroyers Ringgold and Dashiell inside the lagoon had to cease fire, knowing the Japanese gunners along the shore were still active.[lv] Some believe that an extra half hour of direct fire from the destroyers would have saved many lives.[lvi] The LVTs in the first three waves were delayed by heavy chop and did not make landfall until 0913 throwing off the landing schedule.[lvii] The expect and planned for rise in tides did not materialize and they remained unpredictably low for the first 48 hours. No landing boats could cross the reef and the Marines were forced to wade ashore from 600 to 1000 yards.[lviii]

LCM sinking at Tarawa

Shoup’s Marines landed on three beaches.  Red one and two lay to the west of a 500 yard long pier and Red three lay to the east.  3/2 landed on Red-1, 2/2 on Red-2, 2/8 on Red-3, elements of 1/18 and the scout snipers on the pier, with 1/2 in reserve to land behind the battalion making the best progress.[lix] As soon as the Amtracks hit the reef the Japanese began firing.  Every “working weapon along the north and west shorelines….blazed forth in fierce, interlocking fields of fire.”[lx] As they watched the Amtracks craw over the reef that Japanese knew they were in for a tough fight, one of Warrant Officer Ota’s men exclaimed “Heavens! The God of Death has come!”[lxi] The Marines of 3/2 on Red-1 received enfilade fire from Japanese guns emplaced in a U around the beach.  Before the Marines landed they began to take causalities, Amtracks were hit in the lagoon and most that were not sunk or destroyed were unfit for further use.[lxii] The 2000 Marines who landed in the first hour were badly disorganized, the commanding officer’s of 2/2 and the Amtracks were killed, 3/2’s commander was isolated on the reef and only 2/8’s commander was with his troops. 2/8 was the only battalion being to reach the shore relatively intact.[lxiii] 3/2 was down to 65% of its strength and K/3/2 had taken over 50% casualties.[lxiv] The Marines in the fourth to sixth waves were struggling to wade ashore from the reef. Landing craft “ran aground or milled about helplessly outside the reef, which was swept by crossfire from behind the beaches and from a grounded hulk northwest of the pier.”[lxv] Most of the tanks were put out of action either through accurate fire by Japanese guns or by sinking in deep areas of the lagoon, the Tank battalion commander was blown out of his Amtrack, wounded and survived 24 hours by clinging to a pile of dead bodies to keep from drowning.[lxvi]

Marines wading ashore at Tarawa, since many landing craft could not cross the reef many waded hundreds of yards under constant Japanese fire

Shoup himself landed at Red-2 and began directing operations on the beach.  He knew that he had to get more troops ashore to exploit the minimal gains his Marines had made.  The news from Red-1 and Two was bad; he decided to bring 1/2 in at Red-2 thought that 3/8 should go in at Red-3.[lxvii]

Marines attempting to advance from behind sea wall

At 1018 General Julian Smith ordered the 8th Marines to dispatch 3/8 to Red-3.[lxviii] 3/8 had to make their way across 700 yards through the water to get to the beach.  It was a slaughter, only 30 percent of the first wave got ashore, in the second less and the third “were practically wiped out.”[lxix]

Aerial view of Tarawa on D-Day

As his Marines struggled ashore those who had gotten ashore engaged the Japanese at point blank range.  Lt. Hawkins of the 2nd Marine Scout and Sniper platoon and 5 of his men engaged the Japanese on the pier in vicious hand to hand fighting,[lxx] Sergeant Bordelon of the Engineers on Red-2 though grievously wounded knocked out four gun positions, some by lobbing dynamite charges into them and galvanizing survivors into action, finally being killed while taking on a Japanese position alone.  He would be awarded the Medal of Honor.[lxxi]

SSGT William Bordelon a Combat Engineer won the Medal of honor posthumously at Tarawa

By afternoon Julian Smith realized that he needed more troops, his last battalion, 1/8 waited to go ashore.[lxxii] Smith asked for the 6th Marines and had Admiral Hill send a message to Admiral Turner stating “Issue in doubt. I concur.” This sent a chill through the listening Naval Staff.[lxxiii] Ashore Shoup brought howitzers from 1st Battalion 10th Marines on surviving Amtracks to the eastern edge of Red-2 near the pier,[lxxiv] which landed in the early evening.[lxxv] He sent Lieutenant Colonel Carlson to make a personal report to General Smith that he would hold his beachhead no matter what happened. Shoup ordered his Catholic Chaplain to lay out a cemetery and begin burying the dead who were already decomposing in the tropical heat.[lxxvi] As this transpired 2/8 got two 37mm anti-tank guns into position to drive off Japanese tanks approaching the beachhead.[lxxvii] The Division Band assisted corpsmen in bringing back wounded Marines.[lxxviii]

Close Combat on Tarawa

The rest of the day the Marines continued to eke out a beachhead; Shoup’s Marines on Red-2 and Red-3 managed to advance about halfway across the island, 3/2 and elements 1/2 and 2/2 was isolated and Major Ryan of Lima Company pulled them back to meet an expected Japanese counter-attack.[lxxix] The Marines had taken over 1500 casualties of 5000 men landed the first day.[lxxx] There is no evidence that Shoup considered withdraw that night.[lxxxi] No counterattack occurred due to Japanese command and control problems, Admiral Shibasaki and his staff were killed while shifting headquarters during the afternoon,[lxxxii] and their communications were in shambles.

Admiral Shibasaki’s HQ and a knocked out light tank

A counterattack would have been disastrous in their condition,[lxxxiii] yet they assembled over 1000 men to oppose the Marines on day two.[lxxxiv] Had Shibasaki lived and communications survived a counterattack might have had ramifications far beyond Tarawa.[lxxxv]

Day Two: D+1

Wounded Marines at Tarawa being moved on rubber raft

The second day began with 1/8 landing on Red-2 and the 6th Marines began to land on Green Beach at the far western tip of Betio.  1/8’s landing turned into a bloodbath, the tide fell even lower than the previous day and as they hit the reef and waded ashore drifted into some of the heaviest Japanese defenses. Japanese guns, including the dual 5.5” guns took direct aim at the boats, and Marines ashore watched helplessly, and correspondent Robert Sherrod noted: “This is worse, far worse than it was yesterday.”[lxxxvi] Only half of 1/8 reached the beach with none of their heavy weapons or equipment.  Shoup ordered the remnants of the battalion into line on his western flank in preparation for an advance inland.[lxxxvii] During five hours of landings on day two, the “Marine casualties reached a higher rate than that sustained on the first morning.”[lxxxviii]

Marines advancing

Meanwhile, Shoup ordered Ryan’s “orphans” to make an attack down the right flank of the Japanese positions on Green beach and the “ultimate American victory at Betio evolved from the attack during one intense hour the second morning.”[lxxxix] Taking every available Marine, two surviving Shermans and some mortars, Ryan gathered his force and coordinated Naval Gunfire support.  The area contained a number of heavy guns including two of the 8” mounts.  A destroyer blanked the Japanese positions with 5” shells and fire from her light AA guns.[xc] Attacking behind the beach, Ryan’s Marines isolated and destroyed everyone and everything that looked hostile.[xci] Against minimal opposition Ryan’s Marines quickly seized the gun positions and the western end of the airfield.  Within an hour his Marines occupied the entire western side of Betio up to a 200 yard depth by 1200 and he radioed to let Shoup know the good news and that he intended to advance east against the airfield.[xcii] The attack allowed the Marines to be able to land intact battalions with supporting arms for the first time battle.[xciii]

Marines in action at Tarawa

To the east behind Red-2 and Red-3 The 8th Marines and survivors of 1/2 and 2/2 attacked against fierce Japanese opposition near Shibasaki’s former command bunker and two other large bunkers which were mutually supporting.  The attack by the 2nd Marine survivors eventually succeeded in getting completely across the south side of the island.[xciv] During the attack Lt. Hawkins of the Scout Snipers was mortally wounded.  He too would win the Medal of Honor.  The attack cut the island in two but the Japanese launched a counterattack on the Marine positions which was beaten back.[xcv]

Marines moving inland against tough resistance

The 8thMarines faced a more difficult task going against what was now the heart of the Japanese defense, as its defenders had been reinforced by Lt. Minami and his third company of the 7th Special Naval Landing Force.  Vicious fighting ensued and by nightfall “the Marines had little to show for their heavy losses,[xcvi] but they did make significant inroads against the Japanese to warrant optimism for D+2.[xcvii] By evening the Marines on Red-1 and Red-2 had consolidated their beachhead so that reinforcements were landing, including jeeps, artillery and heavy equipment, and other Marines noted that Japanese defenders were beginning to commit suicide and they began to feel that Japanese morale had broken.  By late afternoon Shoup transmitted the message: “Casualties many. Percentage of dead unknown. Combat efficiency-We are winning.”[xcviii] By late afternoon Major Jones’ 1/6 landed on Green beach in their rubber boats, reinforcing Ryan’s orphans, it was the first of the 7 battalions landed to get ashore intact and the two officers coordinated their units for a night defense and an early attack the next morning.[xcix] 2/6 cleared the nearby island of Bairiki allowing 2/10 to land its howitzers on the island.  This in effect cut off any line of retreat for the defenders of Betio.[c] Colonel Edson came ashore during the evening to relieve Shoup[ci], who remained ashore to help coordinate the next day’s attack.  Again there were no coordinated Japanese counterattacks, the only senior officer, Sugai was isolated in the pocket between the Red and Green beaches and no senior officer could coordinate any attacks.[cii]

Day Three and Four: D+2 and D+3

Wrecked LVTs and dead bodies

Day three began with attacks against Japanese strong points and the arrival of more reinforcements including 3/6 which landed on Green beach and three light tank platoons which landed on Red-2.[ciii] The Marines attacked off of Green beach sweeping east to join the 2nd Marines who had cut the island in two the day before.  The 8th Marines continued to attack the heavily fortified bunker complex eventually taking these heavily fortified and defended positions.  During the assault Lt Sandy Bonnyman of 1/18 won the Medal of Honor for leading the assault on these positions.[civ] Fighting remained fierce throughout the day and General Smith arrived to take command on shore.  The Marines attacked supported by tanks, artillery and naval gunfire.

Tarawa beach after the fight

By the evening they were established at the east end of the airfield.  The Japanese launched a series of Banzai charges which beginning about 1930 hours and ending about 0400 when the Marines annihilated the last attack with the assistance of artillery.[cv]The attack, which could have succeeded the first or early the second day, now aided the Marines by sacrificing strength that might have been used to exact a higher price for the tail of the island.[cvi] The next morning the Marines pushed forward and eliminated the last Japanese defenders and by 1200 Betio was secured.  Of about 5000 defenders only 17 Japanese and some Korean laborers were taken prisoner.[cvii] The Marines lost over 1000 killed and 2300 wounded.[cviii]

One of the few Japanese prisoners being interrogated

Epilogue

The Marines paid a heavy price for Betio, but it was not to be a useless sacrifice, though it was a source of great controversy especially among politicians.[cix]Spector wonders if waiting for better tides or a full moon would have saved lives.[cx] Holland Smith later argued that Tarawa should have been bypassed, but Nimitz’s biographer Potter notes “if the lessons of the amphibious assault had not been learned at Tarawa, they would have to be learned elsewhere, probably at greater cost.”[cxi]The lessons learned alone aided all future amphibious operations in the Central Pacific and elsewhere.  Timing and coordination of naval gunfire support, air strikes and combat loading of transports were all refined in future operations. Large numbers of armored and up-gunned Amtracks would be part of every future operation.[cxii] Intelligence was emphasized and replicas of the Japanese fortifications were built and tested to determine the best way of destroying them.[cxiii] The Marines shocked the public by releasing photos and films of the carnage on Tarawa to awaken them to the challenges ahead.[cxiv]

Today the battle is remembered annually by the 2nd Marine Division at Camp LeJeune, an ever shrinking number of veterans of the battle attend the ceremonies.  Samuel Eliot Morison put it best: “All honor, then, to the fighting heart of the United States Marine. Let the battle for that small stretch of coral sand called Betio of Tarawa be remembered as terrible indeed, but glorious, and the seedbed for victory in 1945.”[cxv]

Appendix: Leaders on Tarawa

General H.M. Smith and General Julian Smith at Tarawa

General Holland M. “Howling Mad” Smith USMC: (1882-1967) Lieutenant General Holland M. Smith command V Amphibious Corps during the Gilberts operation.  Prior to the war he had worked extensively on amphibious warfare doctrine for both the Marine Corps and Navy. Unlike many senior officers Smith was not a Academy graduate having matriculated from the Alabama Polytechnic Institute (now Auburn University) in 1903 and law school in 1903.  Smith served as Adjutant of the 4th Marine Brigade in the First World War and served in Panama and the Dominican Republic in addition to other Marine tours afloat and ashore.  He served well and had many key assignments between the wars culminating in as the Assistant Commandant of the Marine Corps.  Subsequent to the Gilbert campaign he served as Commanding General of the Fleet Marine Force, Pacific and later commanded the Marines at Iwo Jima.  He retired in 1946.

Major General Julian Smith USMC: (1885-1975) Major General Julian Smith served as Commanding General 2nd Marine Division at Tarawa.  He graduated from the University of Delaware and was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in 1909.  He served in Haiti, Santo Domingo and the Vera Cruz expedition. During the First World War he served as an instructor in the Marine Officer training camps at Quantico. After the war he served in Cuba, Nicaragua and various command and staff posts including the Army Command and General Staff College.  He commanded 5th Marines in 1938 and in 1942 was promoted the Major General serving as director of Fleet Marine Force Schools, New River, NC.  He took command of 2nd Marine Division in May 1943 and served there until April 1944 when he became Commanding General, Expeditionary Troops, Third Fleet and in December 1944 took command of the Military Department of the Pacific.  He retired in 1946.

Colonel David Shoup of the 6th Marines won the Medal of Honor at Tarawa and would rise to become the Commandant of the Marine Corps

Colonel David Shoup USMC: (1904-1983) Colonel David Shoup commanded the 2nd Marines at Tarawa, being appointed as commander when its commander fell ill.  Shoup won the Congressional Medal of Honor for his actions on Tarawa.  A 1926 graduate of DePauw University, Shoup was commissioned a Second Lieutenant through the ROTC program that year.  He served in various assignments to include service in China, at sea on the battleship Maryland and Marine Barracks Puget Sound Navy Yard. He joined the staff of 6th Marines in October 1940 and assumed command of 2/6 in February 1942.  He was assigned as the Assistant Operations Officer for 2nd Marine Division in July 1942 and promoted the Lieutenant Colonel.   He went with the Division to New Zealand where he became the G-3 and from which he was fleeted up to command 2ndMarines at Tarawa.  After Tarawa he served as the Division Chief of Staff at Saipan and Tinian.  After the war Shoup continued to be assigned in key billets at the Pentagon and as commanding General, 1st Marine Division and then the Third Marine Division.  He became Chief of Staff, HQMC in 1958 and was appointed as the 22nd Commandant of the Marine Corps by President Eisenhower, a post that he retained until his retirement in 1963.

Admiral Tomanari Sachiro IJN: (1887-?) Commander of Tarawa garrison until relieved by Rear Admiral Shibasaki.   Graduate Naval Academy 1910, initially a communications officer he held various commands including Heavy Cruiser Haguro and Battleship Kirishima and two smaller ships.  Assigned to Tarawa in February 1943 he helped design and supervised the initial construction of Tarawa Defenses until relieved by Admiral Shibasaki on 20 July1943.  He returned to Japan and served the remainder of the war on Navy Division of Imperial General Headquarters.  Tomonari survived the war though nothing is mentioned as to his postwar fate.

Rear Admiral Shibasaki Keiji IJN: (1894-1943) Commanded Tarawa Garrison until his death during the battle.  He graduated from the Naval Academy in 1915 and he was a skilled navigator and instructor.  Prior to the war he had served afloat and ashore and ashore and had commanded a ship and naval station and served as a naval attaché to a member of the Imperial Family.  Among his assignments was 19 month combat tour with the special Naval Landing Forces in China, where he served as Chief of Staff of Shanghai Special Naval Landing Force.  Shibasaki’s leadership helped the garrison improve their defensive capabilities and combat skills as he inspired them to great heights and executed an intense training program. He was killed in the battle.

A Personal Note

I have not been to Tarawa but feel that I know it well.  I served in Second Marine Division from April 1999 through December 2001.  Due to my prior service experience I was used to fill gaps where chaplains were needed and ended up serving in four different battalions.  I served in 2nd Combat Engineer Battalion, the descendant of 1/18, the combat engineers.  We had a WWII Bulldozer outside our command post named after Sergeant Bordelon, the Medal of Honor Citations for Bordelon and Boonyman were prominently displayed.  I also served in 1/8 and 3/8.  I knew the accounts of the slaughter of these Marines as they attempted to land but as I re-read the accounts I was moved by their courage under fire.  The CPs of these battalions are also adorned with citations of their heroes lost at Tarawa.  Veterans would visit our units during Tarawa Days at Camp LeJeune, worn by the battle and the years they always made an impression. There is almost a mystical connection between the Second Marine Division and the Marines of Tarawa; it was a crucible that defined the division, whose motto is the same as the Army Infantry School. “Follow Me!”

Semper Fidelis,

Padre Steve

[i] Spector, Ronald H. Eagle Against the Sun: The American War with Japan.  The Free Press, New York, NY 1985. p.253

[ii] Murray, Williamson and Millett, Allan R. A War to Be Won: Fighting the Second World War, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA 2000. p.338

[iii] Ibid. Spector. p.253

[iv] Ibid. p.255 The conference also set a date for the invasion of France.

[v] Toland, John. The Rising Sun: The Decline and Fall of the Japanese Empire, 1936-1945. Random House, Inc. New York, NY 1970. p.468

[vi] Ibid. Spector. p.255

[vii] Costello, John. The Pacific War 1941-1945. Quill Publishing, New York, NY 1982. p.430

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] Potter, E.B. Nimitz. Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, MD, 1976, Third Printing with Revisions 1979. p.243. Nimitz’s forces would have had to seize 5 major Japanese bases and his staff was not sure that the Pacific carrier force would be strong or experienced enough to provide the necessary air cover for the operation.

[x] Ibid.

[xi] Ibid. pp.243-245

[xii] Morison, Samuel Elliott. The Two Ocean War: A Short History of the United States Navy in the Second World War. Little Brown and Company, Boston and Toronto, 1963. p.296.

[xiii] Hammell, Eric and Lane, John E. Bloody Tarawa: The 2nd Marine Division, November 20-23, 1943. The Zenith Press, St. Paul MN 2006.  Text copyright 1998 Eric Hammell and John E. Lane. p.4

[xiv] See Alexander, Joseph H. Utmost Savagery: The Three Days of Tarawa.Ivy Books, published by Ballantine Books, New York, NY. 1995. pp. 39-40.  This unit became the Third Special Base Unit on its deployment and was joined by the 111th Construction Battalion.

[xv] Ibid. Hammell. p.4

[xvi] See Alexander pp.39-40. This unit was basically a reinforced infantry battalion with 3 rifle companies, a weapons battery, anti-aircraft battery, a light tank company and support units numbering about1600 men.

[xvii] Ibid. Alexander. p.43

[xviii] Alexander p.27 The Rikusentai was the Japanese equivalent of Marines, who numbered about 50,000 men.  The officers attended Army schools and qualified enlisted men attended additional Army specialist training.

[xix] Ibid. Costello. p.431

[xx] Ibid. Hammell. p.22

[xxi] See Alexander p.77. While most writers say that these guns were brought from Singapore, Alexander notes that British writer William H Bartsch submitted proof (serial numbers) that the guns were sold by Vickers to Japan in 1905 as a legitimate business transaction.

[xxii] These are the same guns (127mm) mounted as the secondary armament of Nachi and Takao Class Heavy Cruisers and later mounted on light cruisers to replace the main battery with a more effective anti-aircraft armament.

[xxiii] Ibid. Hammell. p.22

[xxiv] Hammell notes that many of these bunkers and pillboxes were so well concealed that they could not be seen.

[xxv] Ibid. Toland. p.469.

[xxvi] Ibid. Alexander. p.43.

[xxvii] Ibid. Hammell. p.28

[xxviii] Ibid. Morison. p.297

[xxix] Ibid. Costello. p.429

[xxx] At this point the force could provide everything except major permanent repairs to warships.

[xxxi] Liddell-Hart, B.H.  History of the Second World War. G.P. Putnam’s Sons, New York, NY 1970. p.511

[xxxii] Ibid. Costello. p.431

[xxxiii] The older LVT-1s had boiler plate armor added as a field modification and were given a heavy machine gun. Prior to this they were unarmored and had two light machine guns.

[xxxiv] Ibid. Morison. p.303

[xxxv] Hammell includes a by name list of these officers in Appendix B.  Of note for today, each MEUSOC (Marine Expeditionary Unit, Special Operations Capable) has an assigned Naval Gunfire Support Team.

[xxxvi] Ibid. Alexander. pp. 61-62.  The Shermans had to be transported aboard pre-loaded LCM-3s carried in the well decks of the LSDs.

[xxxvii] Ibid. Alexander. pp.58-59

[xxxviii] Ibid. Morison. p.297.  As a sidebar discussion it should be noted that Galvanic helped provide the model for the organization of all further Marine Corps amphibious doctrine now known by the acronym PERMA; Planning, Embarkation, Rehearsal, Movement and Assault, which describes the 5 phases of a amphibious assault.

[xxxix] Ibid. Hammell details the intricacies of the particular tides seen at Tarawa and the knowledge that the Marines had from the former Resident Commissioner of the Island, Major Frank Holland who warned the division staff that he knew that there would not be enough water over the reef to get landing craft across it. (pp.18-20)

[xl] Ibid. Alexander. pp.75-77

[xli] Ibid. Alexander. pp.67-68.

[xlii] Ibid. p.70

[xliii] Ibid. p.71

[xliv] Ibid. Morison. p.302

[xlv] Ibid. Hammell. p.16

[xlvi] Johnston, Richard W. Follow Me! The Story of the Second Marine Division in world War II.  Copyright 1948 by the Second Marine Division History Board and published by Random House Publishers, New York, NY 1948. p.106

[xlvii] Ibid. Liddell-Hart. p.511  Johnson says 2,700 tons. (p.106)

[xlviii] Ibid. Johnston. p.106

[xlix] Ibid. Hammell. p.17

[l] Ibid.

[li] Ibid.. Hammell. 46-47

[lii] Ibid. Morison. p.303

[liii] Ibid. Alexander. p.113.  Alexander notes that the Japanese would have been better served by using these guns on the stalled out landing craft.

[liv] Ibid. Hammell. p.47.

[lv] Ibid. Hammell. p.58

[lvi] Ibid.

[lvii] Ibid. Morison. p.303

[lviii] Ibid. Alexander. p.79

[lix] Ibid. Hammell. p.17

[lx] Ibid. Alexander. p.121

[lxi] Wukovits, John. One Square Mile of Hell: The Battle for Tarawa. NAL Caliber, published by New American Library, a division of Penguin Group USA, New York NY, 2006. p.112

[lxii] Ibid. Johnston. p.116

[lxiii] Ibid.

[lxiv] Ibid. Wukovits. P.119  Other companies suffered as grievously, K/3/2 was not alone in its suffering.

[lxv] Ibid. Spector. pp.263-264

[lxvi] Ibid. Alexander. pp.136-138

[lxvii] Ibid. Hammell. p.90

[lxviii] Ibid. p.95

[lxix] Ibid. Spector. p.264

[lxx] Ibid. Wukovits. p.114

[lxxi] Ibid. Alexander. pp.139-140

[lxxii] 1/8 did not arrive on the beach due to botched communications until D plus 1.

[lxxiii] Ibid. p.150  The last time this signal had been sent it was by Major Devereaux at Wake Isalnd

[lxxiv] Ibid. p.151

[lxxv] Ibid. Johnston. p.132

[lxxvi] Ibid. Hammell. p.112

[lxxvii] Ibid. p.130

[lxxviii] Ibid. Johnston. p.122

[lxxix] Ibid. Johnston. p.122

[lxxx] Ibid. Costello. p.436

[lxxxi] Ibid. Alexander. p.163

[lxxxii] Ibid. Alexander. pp.157-158  Hammell notes that Shibasaski was most likely killed by fire from Ringgold or Dashiell.

[lxxxiii] Ibid. Hammell.pp.139-140

[lxxxiv] Ibid. Alexander. p.162

[lxxxv] Ibid.  Wukovits. p.176. Wukovits notes how this could have affected the planning for the Normandy invasion.

[lxxxvi] Ibid. Alexander. p.173

[lxxxvii] Ibid. Hammell. p.160

[lxxxviii] Ibid. Costello. p.437

[lxxxix] Ibid. Alexander. p.170

[xc] Ibid. Hammell. p.163

[xci] Ibid. Hammell. p.166

[xcii] Ibid. Wukovits. p.178

[xciii] Ibid. Alexander. p.170 Ryan would be awarded the Navy Cross for his efforts.

[xciv] Ibid. Hammell. p.172

[xcv] Ibid. Alexander. p.179

[xcvi] Ibid. Alexander. p.181

[xcvii] Ibid. Hammell. p.178

[xcviii] Ibid.. Wukovits. p.194

[xcix] Ibid. Hammell. p.202

[c] Ibid. Hammell. p.212

[ci] Shoup would be awarded the Medal of Honor and eventually go on to be the Commandant of the Marine Corps.

[cii] Ibid. Alexander. pp.191-192

[ciii] Ibid. Johnston. p.134  2 platoons landed on Red-2 and one on Green Beach.

[civ] Ibid. Alexander. pp.202-205

[cv] Ibid. Johnston. pp.145-146

[cvi] Ibid. Johnston. p.147

[cvii] Ibid. Toland. p.470

[cviii] Ibid. Murray and Millett. p.345

[cix] Ibid. Liddell-Hart. p.511

[cx] Ibid. Spector. p.266

[cxi] Ibid. Potter. P.264

[cxii] Ibid. Murray and Millett. p.347  The Amtrack in improved forms has been part of the Marines ever since. The current model serves in a traditional amphibious role as well as a Armored Personnel Carrier for Marines involved in ground combat operations ashore.

[cxiii] Ibid. Costello. p.439. The method found to work best was long range plunging fire by heavy guns found on battleships and heavy cruisers.

[cxiv] Ibid. Murray and Millett. p.346

[cxv] Ibid. Morison. p.306

Bibilography

Alexander, Joseph H. Utmost Savagery: The Three Days of Tarawa. Ivy Books, published by Ballantine Books, New York, NY. 1995.

Costello, John. The Pacific War 1941-1945. Quill Publishing, New York, NY 1982

Morison, Samuel Elliott. The Two Ocean War: A Short History of the United States Navy in the Second World War. Little Brown and Company, Boston and Toronto, 1963

Hammell, Eric and Lane, John E. Bloody Tarawa: The 2nd Marine Division, November 20-23, 1943. The Zenith Press, St. Paul MN 2006.

Johnston, Richard W. Follow Me! The Story of the Second Marine Division in world War II.  Copyright 1948 by the Second Marine Division History Board and published by Random House Publishers, New York, NY 1948

Murray, Williamson and Millett, Allan R. A War to Be Won: Fighting the Second World War, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA 2000

Potter, E.B. Nimitz. Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, MD, 1976, Third Printing with Revisions 1979

Spector, Ronald H. Eagle Against the Sun: The American War with Japan.  The Free Press, New York, NY 1985 Toland, John. The Rising Sun: The Decline and Fall of the Japanese Empire, 1936-1945. Random House, Inc. New York, NY 1970

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One Square Mile of Hell: The Invasion of Tarawa

On November 20th 2009 the Marine Corps and especially the 2nd Marine Division will mark the 66th anniversary of the amphibious assault on the Tarawa Atoll and the island of Betio.  It was fought at a great cost but would yield lessons that would be invaluable in future amphibious operations. The veterans of the landing are fewer every day. Please take time to remember their sacrifice that they made and Marines continue to make in Afghanistan and Iraq. I have served with the 1st and 3rd Battalions, 8th Marine Regiment the 2nd Combat Engineer Battalion and HQ Battalion 2nd Marine Division.  I have had the honor to meet some of the surviving Tarawa Veterans so this is not only history for me, but a way to pay tribute to the Marines who served at Tarawa and all Marines since. Especially those Marines that I served with at 2nd Marine Division, Marine Security Forces and the Marine Advisers to the Iraqi 7th and 1st Divisions, 2nd Border Brigade, Port of Entry Police, Police and Highway Patrol in Al Anbar Province. Semper Fidelis, Padre Steve+

The Decision: Operation Galvanic

USMC-M-Tarawa-3The Target: Betio Island at Tarawa Atoll

Following Guadalcanal and the shift of significant naval forces from the Solomons the focus of the US shifted to the thrust across the Central Pacific.  Unlike the Solomons which were initially a Navy and Marine Corps Operation and shifted to the Army under MacArthur as the campaign shifted to Borneo, the operations here would be an almost total Navy and Marine Corps operation. Operation Galvanic, the first offensive operation in the Central Pacific, came about as a result of the Joint U.S. Strategic Committee decision in April 1943 to favor an advance in the Central Pacific while maintaining the offensive in the South Pacific.[i] The driving force behind this strategy was Admiral King who fought for the plan and “insisted that any campaign should focus on the destruction of Japan’s overseas resources, which meant an offensive directed only toward the Western Pacific sea lanes.”[ii] The Joint Chiefs believed that a simultaneous attack by Nimitz in the Central Pacific and MacArthur in the South Pacific would “keep the Japanese guessing.”[iii] The decision was presented to the British at the TRIDENT meetings in May 1943 and though the British resisted the American plans a compromise was reached allowing the Americans to “simultaneously…maintain and extend unremitting pressure against Japan….”[iv]

japanese emplacing gunJapanese Emplacing 8″ Vickers Gun

The decision to begin operations in the Central Pacific meant that MacArthur’s priority in logistics and personnel would be reduced in order to launch the Central Pacific operation.  MacArthur protested, to no avail and the Joint Chief’s stood firm in their decision that the Central Pacific operation “would make it easier to isolate Japan from her domain in the south.”[v] MacArthur was allowed to continue OPERATION CARTWHEEL while Nimitz seized the Marshall and Caroline islands.[vi] Nimitz’s staff began preparations and decided on a conservative course to capture the Gilberts first before taking the more heavily defended Marshalls.[vii] This was in part due to the “need to minimize the risks to his untried amphibious forces against such heavily fortified enemy bases out of reach of air cover.”[viii]

japanese conducting firing exerciseJapanese conducting Live Fire Range prior to the Assault

Several factors were considered by Nimitz and his planners considerations in this choice.  Nimitz did not have enough troops to capture all of the vital heavily defended locations in the Marshalls without dividing his forces.[ix] Additionally the Gilbert operation could be supported by land based bombers.[x] A final consideration was the Joint Chief’s decision to allow MacArthur to retain control of 1st Marine Division which Nimitz had hoped would be available for operations in the Central Pacific.[xi] CINCPAC did a thorough photo reconnaissance of the Gilbert’s convinced the Joint Chiefs that Tarawa and Makin needed to be taken to provide air bases for the assault on the Marshalls.  Finally the order for Galvanic was issued on 20 July 1943 with its execution planned for November 1943.[xii]

Japanese Preparations

shibasakiAdmiral Shibasaki boasted that it would take a million men a thousand years to take Betio

The Japanese did little to prepare against potential American offensive operations against the Gilbert’s until Makin Island was raided by elements of 2nd Raider Battalion in August 1942.  The Makin raid shook the Japanese and at which time they reinforced Makin and occupied Betio.[xiii] The Japanese occupied Betio with the Yokosuka 6th Special Landing Force, essentially Naval Infantry or Marines[xiv] and the 111th Construction Battalion on 15 September 1942, over nine months after they attacked Pearl Harbor.[xv] These forces were commanded by Admiral Tomanari, who at once began to fortify Betio. Recognizing his need for more troops  Tomanari asked Tokyo for reinforcements.  The reinforcements came in the form of Commander Sugai’s 7th Sasebo Special Naval Landing Force, which landed on 14 March.[xvi] Commander Sugai’s troops were the Rikusentai, the best of the Japanese Navy’s land forces.

USMC-M-Tarawa-p6Japanese Conducting Gunnery Exercises

The fortification of Betio proceeded slowly until the arrival of Rear Admiral Shibasaki, who relieved Tomanari who returned to Japan.[xvii] Shibasaki, a tough veteran of service at sea and ashore including 19 months as a Rikusentai[xviii] officer in China was chosen by Admiral Koga to instill a better fighting spirit on the island.  The Imperial General Headquarters “New Operations Plan” ordered the outer defensive islands, such as Tarawa, to “hold up any American advance while an inner line of fortresses was constructed….”[xix] Shibasaki drove the garrison hard, inspiring them to “extraordinary heights of labor that resulted in Betio’s superb defenses.”[xx] Betio mounted four 8” Naval guns[xxi], four 14 cm guns, four dual mount 5.5” dual purpose guns[xxii] six 80 mm anti-boat guns, eight 75 mm dual purpose guns, ten 75 mm mountain guns, six 70 mm guns and nine 37 mm anti-tank guns, numerous machine guns and light AA guns and 14 light tanks.[xxiii] These weapons were mounted in well camouflaged armored or reinforced pillboxes.[xxiv] In accordance with the directives of the high command Shibasaki ordered his troops “to defend to the last man all vital areas and destroy the enemy at the waters’ edge.”[xxv] The Japanese records note that Shibasaki “immediately began to strengthen morale and carried out advanced training, and as a result…the garrison remarkably enhanced its fighting capability and they were full of confidence.”[xxvi] Even the service troops were thoroughly trained to fight from their superb defensive positions.[xxvii] Shibasaki reportedly told his men that it would take a million men a thousand years to take Betio.

American Preparations

lvtLVT

Nimitz organized his forces into three major commands, the 5th Fleet, commanded by Admiral Raymond Spruance, the 5th Amphibious Force under Admiral Richmond “Kelly” Turner and the V Amphibious Corps under Major General Holland “Howlin’ Mad” Smith, USMC.[xxviii] The 2nd Marine Division which would make the assault at Tarawa was commanded by Major General Julian Smith. The force that sustained in this operation and subsequent amphibious operations was the Service Force Pacific Fleet.[xxix] This was a collection of ships whose mission it was to sustain the fleet in mobile operations,[xxx] which greatly “increased the range and power of the Navy in amphibious operations.”[xxxi] The planned assault called for the Army’s 27th Division take Makin and the veteran 2nd Marine Division which had been blooded at Guadalcanal to take Tarawa supported by the carriers and battleships of 5th Fleet.

This was the first application of new amphibious tactics developed for the Pacific war.[xxxii] Air and sea bombardment would precede the actual assault. The Marines would be transported ashore in a new vehicle called an LVT (Landing Vehicle Tracked) and other amphibious ships and craft including the LSD (Landing Ship Dock), LCM (Landing Craft Mechanized) and LCVP (Landing Craft Vehicle Personnel).  The LVTs were absolutely vital, nicknamed “Amtracks” or “Amphtracks” they were essentially a tracked amphibious personnel carrier. They were developed from a commercial vehicle used by U.S. Forrest Service Rangers in the Florida Everglades and were capable of crossing coral reefs that would cause other craft to go aground.  The early LVTs had retrofitted armor and mounted a .50 cal. machine gun.  At Tarawa the Marines deployed 75 LVT-1s[xxxiii] and 50 LVT-2s. 93 LVTs would be part of the first wave of the Marine assault.[xxxiv] The LVTs were transported to Tarawa aboard LSTs (Landing Ship Tanks.)  Other innovations included the assignment of Naval Gunfire Support teams to the Marine Regiments and some battalions,[xxxv] and the first use of the M4 Sherman tank by the Marines.[xxxvi] Tarawa was a proving ground for the tactics and equipment which would be improved on and used in every subsequent amphibious operation in the Pacific.  Tarawa would also mark the last major use of rubber landing craft by the Marine Corps in an opposed landing.[xxxvii]

There were limitations to American preparations. First the size of the force meant that it could not be assembled in one place for rehearsals or to train as a team.[xxxviii] A second problem for the Americans was the assumption that high and low tides would be sufficient to get their landing craft across the reef in spite of warnings to the contrary.[xxxix] Likewise the Americans failed to completely anticipate the scope to which the Japanese had fortified the island. This was despite good intelligence that they had done so. In particular aerial photos taken by the air force and ULTRA intercepts provided good information on the Japanese units on the island and the layout of the defenses.[xl] Additionally some equipment shortages were not remedied. The Marine Bazooka’s did not arrive, and neither the 6th or 8th Marines had made an actual amphibious assault.  At Guadalcanal they made an administrative landing and few field-grade officers remained from the 2nd Marine Regiment who had landed at Tulagi.[xli] They were far from “amphibious experts” that they would become.[xlii] However, they made up for their lack of experience by their cohesiveness, high morale and esprit, being well armed and equipped, in top physical condition and knowing the basic tools of their trade: “weapons proficiency and field firing, close combat techniques, fire and maneuver, tactical leadership, fire discipline.”[xliii]

tarawa 8 inch gun8 Inch Gun Emplacement

The most critical aspect of the operation was to get across the reef onto the island.  There were few good landing sites and it was decided to make the landings from inside the atoll’s lagoon onto the Betio’s north shore.  This decision meant that transports embarking the Marines would unload outside of the lagoon and that the landing craft would have to make a 10 mile trip.[xliv] There was only one entrance into the lagoon and it was not deep enough for heavy ships to enter.[xlv]This meant that heavy ships such as battleships and cruisers would not be able to have direct fire on the Japanese positions best situated to disrupt the Marines.

The execution of the plan involved land based bomber strikes beginning on D minus 7. Carrier aircraft would begin their operations on D minus 2.  Cruisers and destroyers joined the cacophony of destruction on D minus 1 and the battleships on D Day itself.[xlvi] On D-Day itself Navy planned to bombard the island with 3,000 tons of shells in 2 ½ hours.[xlvii] The Navy was confident in the bombardment plans. Rear Admiral Kingman commanding the fire support group declared “We will not neutralize; we will not destroy; we will obliterate the defenses on Betio!”[xlviii] Four battalions of Marines would land in the first wave, the three battalions of the 2nd Marines and 2nd Battalion 8th Marines all commanded by Colonel David Shoup. Colonel Shoup who would win the Medal of Honor on Betio and later became the Commandant of the Marine Corps assumed command of 2nd Marines when its Regimental commander fell ill on the journey to Efate.[xlix] The division reserve was the remaining 8th Marine Regiment battalions. The 6th Marine Regiment served as the corps reserve.[l] The assault units would be reinforced by tanks and the 1st and 2nd Battalions 18th Marine Regiment, the division’s combat engineers.

Invasion: Day One

landing craft going to beachGoing Ashore

The naval gunfire bombardment commenced at 0542 on 20 November, and the assault waves began their trek to the beaches.  The transports were out of range of Japanese guns but ththat ensured boats would have to make a 10 mile trip.[li] At this point things began to go wrong.

lcm sinking at tarawaNavy LCT Sinking after Being Hit By Japanese Fire

The Navy had “badly miscalculated the amount of softening-up that could be done in two and a half daylight hours bombardment.” Although major coast defense guns were silenced not enough damage was done to the Japanese defenses.[lii] The Japanese helped the Marines by firing their larger guns at warships, identifying their positions to Navy gunners.[liii] The bombardment lifted to allow an attack by carrier based aircraft. However the aircraft were late to arrive and the ships did not resume fire, allowing the Japanese to emerge and re-train their weapons.[liv] Likewise the destroyers Ringgold and Dashiell inside the lagoon had to cease fire, knowing the Japanese gunners along the shore were still active.[lv] Some believe that an extra half hour of direct fire from the destroyers would have saved many lives.[lvi] The LVTs in the first three waves were delayed by heavy chop and did not make landfall until 0913 throwing off the landing schedule.[lvii] The expect and planned for rise in tides did not materialize and they remained unpredictably low for the first 48 hours. No landing boats could cross the reef and the Marines were forced to wade ashore from 600 to 1000 yards.[lviii]

marines wade ashore at tarawaMarines Wading Ashore

Shoup’s Marines landed on three beaches.  Red one and two lay to the west of a 500 yard long pier and Red three lay to the east.  3/2 landed on Red-1, 2/2 on Red-2, 2/8 on Red-3, elements of 1/18 and the scout snipers on the pier, with 1/2 in reserve to land behind the battalion making the best progress.[lix] As soon as the Amtracks hit the reef the Japanese began firing.  Every “working weapon along the north and west shorelines….blazed forth in fierce, interlocking fields of fire.”[lx] As they watched the Amtracks craw over the reef that Japanese knew they were in for a tough fight, one of Warrant Officer Ota’s men exclaimed “Heavens! The God of Death has come!”[lxi] The Marines of 3/2 on Red-1 received enfilade fire from Japanese guns emplaced in a U around the beach.  Before the Marines landed they began to take causalities, Amtracks were hit in the lagoon and most that were not sunk or destroyed were unfit for further use.[lxii] The 2000 Marines who landed in the first hour were badly disorganized, the commanding officer’s of 2/2 and the Amtracks were killed, 3/2’s commander was isolated on the reef and only 2/8’s commander was with his troops. 2/8 was the only battalion being to reach the shore relatively intact.[lxiii] 3/2 was down to 65% of its strength and K/3/2 had taken over 50% casualties.[lxiv] The Marines in the fourth to sixth waves were struggling to wade ashore from the reef. Landing craft “ran aground or milled about helplessly outside the reef, which was swept by crossfire from behind the beaches and from a grounded hulk northwest of the pier.”[lxv] Most of the tanks were put out of action either through accurate fire by Japanese guns or by sinking in deep areas of the lagoon, the Tank battalion commander was blown out of his Amtrack, wounded and survived 24 hours by clinging to a pile of dead bodies to keep from drowning.[lxvi]

Col_Shoup_on_TarawaColonel Shoup Directing Operations on Tarawa

Shoup himself landed at Red-2 and began directing operations on the beach.  He knew that he had to get more troops ashore to exploit the minimal gains his Marines had made.  The news from Red-1 and Two was bad; he decided to bring 1/2 in at Red-2 thought that 3/8 should go in at Red-3.[lxvii] At 1018 General Julian Smith ordered the 8th Marines to dispatch 3/8 to Red-3.[lxviii] 3/8 had to make their way across 700 yards through the water to get to the beach.  It was a slaughter, only 30 percent of the first wave got ashore, in the second less and the third “were practically wiped out.”[lxix]

taraw close combatClose Combat on Betio

As his Marines struggled ashore those who had gotten ashore engaged the Japanese at point blank range.  Lt. Hawkins of the 2nd Marine Scout and Sniper platoon and 5 of his men engaged the Japanese on the pier in vicious hand to hand fighting,[lxx] Sergeant Bordelon of the Engineers on Red-2 though grievously wounded knocked out four gun positions, some by lobbing dynamite charges into them and galvanizing survivors into action, finally being killed while taking on a Japanese position alone.  He would be awarded the Medal of Honor.[lxxi]

HD-SN-99-02572Wounded Marines Being Evacuated by Rubber Raft

By afternoon Julian Smith realized that he needed more troops, his last battalion, 1/8 waited to go ashore.[lxxii] Smith asked for the 6th Marines and had Admiral Hill send a message to Admiral Turner stating “Issue in doubt. I concur.” This sent a chill through the listening Naval Staff.[lxxiii] Ashore Shoup brought howitzers from 1st Battalion 10th Marines on surviving Amtracks to the eastern edge of Red-2 near the pier,[lxxiv] which landed in the early evening.[lxxv] He sent Lieutenant Colonel Carlson to make a personal report to General Smith that he would hold his beachhead no matter what happened. Shoup ordered his Catholic Chaplain to lay out a cemetery and begin burying the dead who were already decomposing in the tropical heat.[lxxvi] As this transpired 2/8 got two 37mm anti-tank guns into position to drive off Japanese tanks approaching the beachhead.[lxxvii] The Division Band assisted corpsmen in bringing back wounded Marines.[lxxviii] The rest of the day the Marines continued to eke out a beachhead; Shoup’s Marines on Red-2 and Red-3 managed to advance about halfway across the island, 3/2 and elements 1/2 and 2/2 was isolated and Major Ryan of Lima Company pulled them back to meet an expected Japanese counter-attack.[lxxix] The Marines had taken over 1500 casualties of 5000 men landed the first day.[lxxx] There is no evidence that Shoup considered withdraw that night.[lxxxi] No counterattack occurred due to Japanese command and control problems, Admiral Shibasaki and his staff were killed while shifting headquarters during the afternoon,[lxxxii] and their communications were in shambles. A counterattack would have been disastrous in their condition,[lxxxiii] yet they assembled over 1000 men to oppose the Marines on day two.[lxxxiv] Had Shibasaki lived and communications survived a counterattack might have had ramifications far beyond Tarawa.[lxxxv]

Day Two: D+1

marines advancingMarines Advancing

The second day began with 1/8 landing on Red-2 and the 6th Marines began to land on Green Beach at the far western tip of Betio.  1/8’s landing turned into a bloodbath, the tide fell even lower than the previous day and as they hit the reef and waded ashore drifted into some of the heaviest Japanese defenses. Japanese guns, including the dual 5.5” guns took direct aim at the boats, and Marines ashore watched helplessly, and correspondent Robert Sherrod noted: “This is worse, far worse than it was yesterday.”[lxxxvi] Only half of 1/8 reached the beach with none of their heavy weapons or equipment.  Shoup ordered the remnants of the battalion into line on his western flank in preparation for an advance inland.[lxxxvii] During five hours of landings on day two, the “Marine casualties reached a higher rate than that sustained on the first morning.”[lxxxviii]

Meanwhile, Shoup ordered Ryan’s “orphans” to make an attack down the right flank of the Japanese positions on Green beach and the “ultimate American victory at Betio evolved from the attack during one intense hour the second morning.”[lxxxix] Taking every available Marine, two surviving Shermans and some mortars, Ryan gathered his force and coordinated Naval Gunfire support.  The area contained a number of heavy guns including two of the 8” mounts.  A destroyer blanked the Japanese positions with 5” shells and fire from her light AA guns.[xc] Attacking behind the beach, Ryan’s Marines isolated and destroyed everyone and everything that looked hostile.[xci] Against minimal opposition Ryan’s Marines quickly seized the gun positions and the western end of the airfield.  Within an hour his Marines occupied the entire western side of Betio up to a 200 yard depth by 1200 and he radioed to let Shoup know the good news and that he intended to advance east against the airfield.[xcii] The attack allowed the Marines to be able to land intact battalions with supporting arms for the first time battle.[xciii]

To the east behind Red-2 and Red-3 The 8th Marines and survivors of 1/2 and 2/2 attacked against fierce Japanese opposition near Shibasaki’s former command bunker and two other large bunkers which were mutually supporting.  The attack by the 2nd Marine survivors eventually succeeded in getting completely across the south side of the island.[xciv] During the attack Lt. Hawkins of the Scout Snipers was mortally wounded.  He too would win the Medal of Honor.  The attack cut the island in two but the Japanese launched a counterattack on the Marine positions which was beaten back.[xcv] The 8th Marines faced a more difficult task going against what was now the heart of the Japanese defense, as its defenders had been reinforced by Lt. Minami and his third company of the 7th Special Naval Landing Force.  Vicious fighting ensued and by nightfall “the Marines had little to show for their heavy losses,[xcvi] but they did make significant inroads against the Japanese to warrant optimism for D+2.[xcvii] By evening the Marines on Red-1 and Red-2 had consolidated their beachhead so that reinforcements were landing, including jeeps, artillery and heavy equipment, and other Marines noted that Japanese defenders were beginning to commit suicide and they began to feel that Japanese morale had broken.  By late afternoon Shoup transmitted the message: “Casualties many. Percentage of dead unknown. Combat efficiency-We are winning.”[xcviii] By late afternoon Major Jones’ 1/6 landed on Green beach in their rubber boats, reinforcing Ryan’s orphans, it was the first of the 7 battalions landed to get ashore intact and the two officers coordinated their units for a night defense and an early attack the next morning.[xcix] 2/6 cleared the nearby island of Bairiki allowing 2/10 to land its howitzers on the island.  This in effect cut off any line of retreat for the defenders of Betio.[c] Colonel Edson came ashore during the evening to relieve Shoup[ci], who remained ashore to help coordinate the next day’s attack.  Again there were no coordinated Japanese counterattacks, the only senior officer, Sugai was isolated in the pocket between the Red and Green beaches and no senior officer could coordinate any attacks.[cii]

Day Three and Four: D+2 and D+3

tarawa wreckageWrecked LVY’s and Bodies on the Beach: The Marines Released Photos to Get the Public to Understand the Cost of the Battle

Day three began with attacks against Japanese strong points and the arrival of more reinforcements including 3/6 which landed on Green beach and three light tank platoons which landed on Red-2.[ciii] The Marines attacked off of Green beach sweeping east to join the 2nd Marines who had cut the island in two the day before.  The 8th Marines continued to attack the heavily fortified bunker complex eventually taking these heavily fortified and defended positions.  During the assault Lt Sandy Bonnyman of 1/18 won the Medal of Honor for leading the assault on these positions.[civ] Fighting remained fierce throughout the day and General Smith arrived to take command on shore.  The Marines attacked supported by tanks, artillery and naval gunfire.  By the evening they were established at the east end of the airfield.  The Japanese launched a series of Banzai charges which beginning about 1930 hours and ending about 0400 when the Marines annihilated the last attack with the assistance of artillery.[cv] The attack, which could have succeeded the first or early the second day, now aided the Marines by sacrificing strength that might have been used to exact a higher price for the tail of the island.[cvi] The next morning the Marines pushed forward and eliminated the last Japanese defenders and by 1200 Betio was secured.  Of about 5000 defenders only 17 Japanese and some Korean laborers were taken prisoner.[cvii] The Marines lost over 1000 killed and 2300 wounded.[cviii]

Tarawa prisonerOne of the 17 Japanese Who Survived the Battle being Interrogated by Marines, only one Chief Warrant Officer Ota was an Officer

Epilogue

The Marines paid a heavy price for Betio, but it was not to be a useless sacrifice, though it was a source of great controversy especially among politicians.[cix] Spector wonders if waiting for better tides or a full moon would have saved lives.[cx] Holland Smith later argued that Tarawa should have been bypassed, but Nimitz’s biographer Potter notes “if the lessons of the amphibious assault had not been learned at Tarawa, they would have to be learned elsewhere, probably at greater cost.”[cxi]The lessons learned alone aided all future amphibious operations in the Central Pacific and elsewhere.  Timing and coordination of naval gunfire support, air strikes and combat loading of transports were all refined in future operations. Large numbers of armored and up-gunned Amtracks would be part of every future operation.[cxii] Intelligence was emphasized and replicas of the Japanese fortifications were built and tested to determine the best way of destroying them.[cxiii] The Marines shocked the public by releasing photos and films of the carnage on Tarawa to awaken them to the challenges ahead.[cxiv]

Today the battle is remembered annually by the 2nd Marine Division at Camp LeJeune, an ever shrinking number of veterans of the battle attend the ceremonies.  Samuel Eliot Morison put it best: “All honor, then, to the fighting heart of the United States Marine. Let the battle for that small stretch of coral sand called Betio of Tarawa be remembered as terrible indeed, but glorious, and the seedbed for victory in 1945.”[cxv]

Appendix: Leaders on Tarawa

smith and smith at tarawaLieutenant General Holland Smith and Major General Julian Smith on Betio

General Holland M. “Howling Mad” Smith USMC: (1882-1967) Lieutenant General Holland M. Smith command V Amphibious Corps during the Gilberts operation.  Prior to the war he had worked extensively on amphibious warfare doctrine for both the Marine Corps and Navy. Unlike many senior officers Smith was not a Academy graduate having matriculated from the Alabama Polytechnic Institute (now Auburn University) in 1903 and law school in 1903.  Smith served as Adjutant of the 4th Marine Brigade in the First World War and served in Panama and the Dominican Republic in addition to other Marine tours afloat and ashore.  He served well and had many key assignments between the wars culminating in as the Assistant Commandant of the Marine Corps.  Subsequent to the Gilbert campaign he served as Commanding General of the Fleet Marine Force, Pacific and later commanded the Marines at Iwo Jima.  He retired in 1946.

Major General Julian Smith USMC: (1885-1975) Major General Julian Smith served as Commanding General 2nd Marine Division at Tarawa.  He graduated from the University of Delaware and was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in 1909.  He served in Haiti, Santo Domingo and the Vera Cruz expedition. During the First World War he served as an instructor in the Marine Officer training camps at Quantico. After the war he served in Cuba, Nicaragua and various command and staff posts including the Army Command and General Staff College.  He commanded 5th Marines in 1938 and in 1942 was promoted the Major General serving as director of Fleet Marine Force Schools, New River, NC.  He took command of 2nd Marine Division in May 1943 and served there until April 1944 when he became Commanding General, Expeditionary Troops, Third Fleet and in December 1944 took command of the Military Department of the Pacific.  He retired in 1946.

shoupColonel Shoup After the Battle

Colonel David Shoup USMC: (1904-1983) Colonel David Shoup commanded the 2nd Marines at Tarawa, being appointed as commander when its commander fell ill.  Shoup won the Congressional Medal of Honor for his actions on Tarawa.  A 1926 graduate of DePauw University, Shoup was commissioned a Second Lieutenant through the ROTC program that year.  He served in various assignments to include service in China, at sea on the battleship Maryland and Marine Barracks Puget Sound Navy Yard. He joined the staff of 6th Marines in October 1940 and assumed command of 2/6 in February 1942.  He was assigned as the Assistant Operations Officer for 2nd Marine Division in July 1942 and promoted the Lieutenant Colonel.   He went with the Division to New Zealand where he became the G-3 and from which he was fleeted up to command 2nd Marines at Tarawa.  After Tarawa he served as the Division Chief of Staff at Saipan and Tinian.  After the war Shoup continued to be assigned in key billets at the Pentagon and as commanding General, 1st Marine Division and then the Third Marine Division.  He became Chief of Staff, HQMC in 1958 and was appointed as the 22nd Commandant of the Marine Corps by President Eisenhower, a post that he retained until his retirement in 1963.

Admiral Tomanari Sachiro IJN: (1887-?) Commander of Tarawa garrison until relieved by Rear Admiral Shibasaki.   Graduate Naval Academy 1910, initially a communications officer he held various commands including Heavy Cruiser Haguro and Battleship Kirishima and two smaller ships.  Assigned to Tarawa in February 1943 he helped design and supervised the initial construction of Tarawa Defenses until relieved by Admiral Shibasaki on 20 July1943.  He returned to Japan and served the remainder of the war on Navy Division of Imperial General Headquarters.  Tomonari survived the war though nothing is mentioned as to his postwar fate.

Rear Admiral Shibasaki Keiji IJN: (1894-1943) Commanded Tarawa Garrison until his death during the battle.  He graduated from the Naval Academy in 1915 and he was a skilled navigator and instructor.  Prior to the war he had served afloat and ashore and ashore and had commanded a ship and naval station and served as a naval attaché to a member of the Imperial Family.  Among his assignments was 19 month combat tour with the special Naval Landing Forces in China, where he served as Chief of Staff of Shanghai Special Naval Landing Force.  Shibasaki’s leadership helped the garrison improve their defensive capabilities and combat skills as he inspired them to great heights and executed an intense training program. He was killed in the battle.

A Personal Note

I have not been to Tarawa but feel that I know it well.  I served in Second Marine Division from April 1999 through December 2001.  Due to my prior service experience I was used to fill gaps where chaplains were needed and ended up serving in four different battalions.  I served in 2nd Combat Engineer Battalion, the descendant of 1/18, the combat engineers.  We had a WWII Bulldozer outside our command post named after Sergeant Bordelon, the Medal of Honor Citations for Bordelon and Boonyman were prominently displayed.  I also served in 1/8 and 3/8.  I knew the accounts of the slaughter of these Marines as they attempted to land but as I re-read the accounts I was moved by their courage under fire.  The CPs of these battalions are also adorned with citations of their heroes lost at Tarawa.  Veterans would visit our units during Tarawa Days at Camp LeJeune, worn by the battle and the years they always made an impression. There is almost a mystical connection between the Second Marine Division and the Marines of Tarawa; it was a crucible that defined the division, whose motto is the same as the Army Infantry School. “Follow Me!”

Semper Fidelis,

Padre Steve


[i] Spector, Ronald H. Eagle Against the Sun: The American War with Japan.  The Free Press, New York, NY 1985. p.253

 

[ii] Murray, Williamson and Millett, Allan R. A War to Be Won: Fighting the Second World War, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA 2000. p.338

[iii] Ibid. Spector. p.253

[iv] Ibid. p.255 The conference also set a date for the invasion of France.

[v] Toland, John. The Rising Sun: The Decline and Fall of the Japanese Empire, 1936-1945. Random House, Inc. New York, NY 1970. p.468

[vi] Ibid. Spector. p.255

[vii] Costello, John. The Pacific War 1941-1945. Quill Publishing, New York, NY 1982. p.430

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] Potter, E.B. Nimitz. Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, MD, 1976, Third Printing with Revisions 1979. p.243. Nimitz’s forces would have had to seize 5 major Japanese bases and his staff was not sure that the Pacific carrier force would be strong or experienced enough to provide the necessary air cover for the operation.

[x] Ibid.

[xi] Ibid. pp.243-245

[xii] Morison, Samuel Elliott. The Two Ocean War: A Short History of the United States Navy in the Second World War. Little Brown and Company, Boston and Toronto, 1963. p.296.

[xiii] Hammell, Eric and Lane, John E. Bloody Tarawa: The 2nd Marine Division, November 20-23, 1943. The Zenith Press, St. Paul MN 2006.  Text copyright 1998 Eric Hammell and John E. Lane. p.4

[xiv] See Alexander, Joseph H. Utmost Savagery: The Three Days of Tarawa. Ivy Books, published by Ballantine Books, New York, NY. 1995. pp. 39-40.  This unit became the Third Special Base Unit on its deployment and was joined by the 111th Construction Battalion.

[xv] Ibid. Hammell. p.4

[xvi] See Alexander pp.39-40. This unit was basically a reinforced infantry battalion with 3 rifle companies, a weapons battery, anti-aircraft battery, a light tank company and support units numbering about1600 men.

[xvii] Ibid. Alexander. p.43

[xviii] Alexander p.27 The Rikusentai was the Japanese equivalent of Marines, who numbered about 50,000 men.  The officers attended Army schools and qualified enlisted men attended additional Army specialist training.

[xix] Ibid. Costello. p.431

[xx] Ibid. Hammell. p.22

[xxi] See Alexander p.77. While most writers say that these guns were brought from Singapore, Alexander notes that British writer William H Bartsch submitted proof (serial numbers) that the guns were sold by Vickers to Japan in 1905 as a legitimate business transaction.

[xxii] These are the same guns (127mm) mounted as the secondary armament of Nachi and Takao Class Heavy Cruisers and later mounted on light cruisers to replace the main battery with a more effective anti-aircraft armament.

[xxiii] Ibid. Hammell. p.22

[xxiv] Hammell notes that many of these bunkers and pillboxes were so well concealed that they could not be seen.

[xxv] Ibid. Toland. p.469.

[xxvi] Ibid. Alexander. p.43.

[xxvii] Ibid. Hammell. p.28

[xxviii] Ibid. Morison. p.297

[xxix] Ibid. Costello. p.429

[xxx] At this point the force could provide everything except major permanent repairs to warships.

[xxxi] Liddell-Hart, B.H.  History of the Second World War. G.P. Putnam’s Sons, New York, NY 1970. p.511

[xxxii] Ibid. Costello. p.431

[xxxiii] The older LVT-1s had boiler plate armor added as a field modification and were given a heavy machine gun. Prior to this they were unarmored and had two light machine guns.

[xxxiv] Ibid. Morison. p.303

[xxxv] Hammell includes a by name list of these officers in Appendix B.  Of note for today, each MEUSOC (Marine Expeditionary Unit, Special Operations Capable) has an assigned Naval Gunfire Support Team.

[xxxvi] Ibid. Alexander. pp. 61-62.  The Shermans had to be transported aboard pre-loaded LCM-3s carried in the well decks of the LSDs.

[xxxvii] Ibid. Alexander. pp.58-59

[xxxviii] Ibid. Morison. p.297.  As a sidebar discussion it should be noted that Galvanic helped provide the model for the organization of all further Marine Corps amphibious doctrine now known by the acronym PERMA; Planning, Embarkation, Rehearsal, Movement and Assault, which describes the 5 phases of a amphibious assault.

[xxxix] Ibid. Hammell details the intricacies of the particular tides seen at Tarawa and the knowledge that the Marines had from the former Resident Commissioner of the Island, Major Frank Holland who warned the division staff that he knew that there would not be enough water over the reef to get landing craft across it. (pp.18-20)

[xl] Ibid. Alexander. pp.75-77

[xli] Ibid. Alexander. pp.67-68.

[xlii] Ibid. p.70

[xliii] Ibid. p.71

[xliv] Ibid. Morison. p.302

[xlv] Ibid. Hammell. p.16

[xlvi] Johnston, Richard W. Follow Me! The Story of the Second Marine Division in world War II.  Copyright 1948 by the Second Marine Division History Board and published by Random House Publishers, New York, NY 1948. p.106

[xlvii] Ibid. Liddell-Hart. p.511  Johnson says 2,700 tons. (p.106)

[xlviii] Ibid. Johnston. p.106

[xlix] Ibid. Hammell. p.17

[l] Ibid.

[li] Ibid.. Hammell. 46-47

[lii] Ibid. Morison. p.303

[liii] Ibid. Alexander. p.113.  Alexander notes that the Japanese would have been better served by using these guns on the stalled out landing craft.

[liv] Ibid. Hammell. p.47.

[lv] Ibid. Hammell. p.58

[lvi] Ibid.

[lvii] Ibid. Morison. p.303

[lviii] Ibid. Alexander. p.79

[lix] Ibid. Hammell. p.17

[lx] Ibid. Alexander. p.121

[lxi] Wukovits, John. One Square Mile of Hell: The Battle for Tarawa. NAL Caliber, published by New American Library, a division of Penguin Group USA, New York NY, 2006. p.112

[lxii] Ibid. Johnston. p.116

[lxiii] Ibid.

[lxiv] Ibid. Wukovits. P.119  Other companies suffered as grievously, K/3/2 was not alone in its suffering.

[lxv] Ibid. Spector. pp.263-264

[lxvi] Ibid. Alexander. pp.136-138

[lxvii] Ibid. Hammell. p.90

[lxviii] Ibid. p.95

[lxix] Ibid. Spector. p.264

[lxx] Ibid. Wukovits. p.114

[lxxi] Ibid. Alexander. pp.139-140

[lxxii] 1/8 did not arrive on the beach due to botched communications until D plus 1.

[lxxiii] Ibid. p.150  The last time this signal had been sent it was by Major Devereaux at Wake Isalnd

[lxxiv] Ibid. p.151

[lxxv] Ibid. Johnston. p.132

[lxxvi] Ibid. Hammell. p.112

[lxxvii] Ibid. p.130

[lxxviii] Ibid. Johnston. p.122

[lxxix] Ibid. Johnston. p.122

[lxxx] Ibid. Costello. p.436

[lxxxi] Ibid. Alexander. p.163

[lxxxii] Ibid. Alexander. pp.157-158  Hammell notes that Shibasaski was most likely killed by fire from Ringgold or Dashiell.

[lxxxiii] Ibid. Hammell.pp.139-140

[lxxxiv] Ibid. Alexander. p.162

[lxxxv] Ibid.  Wukovits. p.176. Wukovits notes how this could have affected the planning for the Normandy invasion.

[lxxxvi] Ibid. Alexander. p.173

[lxxxvii] Ibid. Hammell. p.160

[lxxxviii] Ibid. Costello. p.437

[lxxxix] Ibid. Alexander. p.170

[xc] Ibid. Hammell. p.163

[xci] Ibid. Hammell. p.166

[xcii] Ibid. Wukovits. p.178

[xciii] Ibid. Alexander. p.170 Ryan would be awarded the Navy Cross for his efforts.

[xciv] Ibid. Hammell. p.172

[xcv] Ibid. Alexander. p.179

[xcvi] Ibid. Alexander. p.181

[xcvii] Ibid. Hammell. p.178

[xcviii] Ibid.. Wukovits. p.194

[xcix] Ibid. Hammell. p.202

[c] Ibid. Hammell. p.212

[ci] Shoup would be awarded the Medal of Honor and eventually go on to be the Commandant of the Marine Corps.

[cii] Ibid. Alexander. pp.191-192

[ciii] Ibid. Johnston. p.134  2 platoons landed on Red-2 and one on Green Beach.

[civ] Ibid. Alexander. pp.202-205

[cv] Ibid. Johnston. pp.145-146

[cvi] Ibid. Johnston. p.147

[cvii] Ibid. Toland. p.470

[cviii] Ibid. Murray and Millett. p.345

[cix] Ibid. Liddell-Hart. p.511

[cx] Ibid. Spector. p.266

[cxi] Ibid. Potter. P.264

[cxii] Ibid. Murray and Millett. p.347  The Amtrack in improved forms has been part of the Marines ever since. The current model serves in a traditional amphibious role as well as a Armored Personnel Carrier for Marines involved in ground combat operations ashore.

[cxiii] Ibid. Costello. p.439. The method found to work best was long range plunging fire by heavy guns found on battleships and heavy cruisers.

[cxiv] Ibid. Murray and Millett. p.346

[cxv] Ibid. Morison. p.306

Bibilography

Alexander, Joseph H. Utmost Savagery: The Three Days of Tarawa. Ivy Books, published by Ballantine Books, New York, NY. 1995.

Costello, John. The Pacific War 1941-1945. Quill Publishing, New York, NY 1982

Morison, Samuel Elliott. The Two Ocean War: A Short History of the United States Navy in the Second World War. Little Brown and Company, Boston and Toronto, 1963

Hammell, Eric and Lane, John E. Bloody Tarawa: The 2nd Marine Division, November 20-23, 1943. The Zenith Press, St. Paul MN 2006.

Johnston, Richard W. Follow Me! The Story of the Second Marine Division in world War II.  Copyright 1948 by the Second Marine Division History Board and published by Random House Publishers, New York, NY 1948

Murray, Williamson and Millett, Allan R. A War to Be Won: Fighting the Second World War, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA 2000

Potter, E.B. Nimitz. Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, MD, 1976, Third Printing with Revisions 1979

Spector, Ronald H. Eagle Against the Sun: The American War with Japan.  The Free Press, New York, NY 1985 Toland, John. The Rising Sun: The Decline and Fall of the Japanese Empire, 1936-1945. Random House, Inc. New York, NY 1970

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