, Research Paper
The Battle for the Marshall Islands byPete Godbey Military History SS-305Professor BraimApril 9, 1999 The Marshall Islands consist of 32 coral atolls, which span 800 square miles of the Pacific Ocean. They are separated into two chains, the Ratak on the east, and Ralik on the west. Each atoll is an enclosed or semi-enclosed reef on which islands and islets of coral, sand and rock have been built naturally. They range in size from pinpoint islets, like Kili, to Kwajalein, the largest atoll in the world. The first know white man to sight the Marshall Islands was a Spaniard, Garcia de Loyassa, in 1526. Spain assumed nominal possession of the islands at the same time she annexed the Carolines and Marianas, in 1686, but they were virtually forgotten until 1788 when two Englishmen, Captains Marshall and Gilbert, explored the Marshall atolls and those of a neighboring group which were, logically, named the Gilberts (Crown and Heinl 6-8). In 1878, Germany, in a belated quest for an empire, became interested in Spain’s Pacific possessions, and encouraged her energetic traders to establish themselves in the Marshalls. Twenty-one years later, Spain sold the Carolines, Marianas (except for Guam), and Marshalls to Germany for 4 million dollars. German colonization was interrupted in 1914 when Japan, acting as an ally of Great Britain, moved in occupation forces. The League of Nations in 1920 recognized Japan’s control by giving that nation a class C mandate over the Marshalls, a mandate which specifically forbids military and naval installations. When Japan left the League in 1935 they declared absolute sovereignty over them and forbid visit from foreigners (Crown and Heinl 9-12). The importance of the Marshalls was long recognized by both American and Japanese planners. To Japan these atolls were a geographical shield, unsinkable aircraft carriers to serve as a line of departure for attack, or an outpost line of resistance in defense. America saw them as a menacing extension of Japanese power toward the eastern Pacific and a standing hazard to lines of communication into the South and Southwest Pacific. It was known that any Japanese offensive in the Middle Pacific would be supported from there. The American military prewar plan for a war with Japan, code named ORANGE, conceded the initial loss of the Philippines. It called for the fleet to drive westward through the Marshalls and Carolines and on to recapture the Philippines (Crowl and Love 4). However, with the beginning of hostilities in 1941, the United States was forced onto a strategically defensive which continued until mid-1943. Victories at Midway, in the South and Southwest Pacific, and a drive on the Aleutians finally put the United States on an offensive footing. On the other hand, the original Japanese plan for defensive, the “Z” plan, called for a lengthy defensive front across the Aleutians, Wake, Marshalls, Gliberts, and Nauru. This front was later pulled in tighter as Japanese experienced troubles in Southeast Asia. However, the Marshalls were not forgotten, the Japanese chose them to be the first line of defense in the middle Pacific. Their function was to impede, if not stop, any westward attack which might threaten the inner defensives (Crowl and Love 65). The decision to attack the Marshalls formally came in 1943. It was decided that the attack in the Central Pacific was needed. It would serve to secure the lines of communication to the Southwest Pacific, protect the flank of Southwest Pacific forces, and make the Japanese further split their reserves by adding another front (Crowl and Love 210). This would also allow for an advance along the most direct avenue to the Japanese mainland. “Thus,” Admiral Nimiz, who was commander in charge of the Pacific, said “We get on with the war.” Before the Marshalls were to be attacked, the Gilbert Islands were to be taken. This included the invasion of Tarawa, the first real amphibious operation taken by the U.S. A lot of lessons were learned at Tarawa, and those lessons changed many of the plans for the attack on the Marshalls. With these teachings, it was decided that Majuro atoll was to be taken first to provide communication support and protected anchorage. Next, there was to be a bombardment of Wotje, Maloelp, and Mille to neutralize them, then the capture of Kwajalein atoll, then the assault on Eniwetok atoll, and finally a cleanup and continued bombing operation of the leftovers (Crown and Heinl 25). Majuro, which was though to be very lightly defended, was to be first major atoll taken. It is about 24 miles long and generally extends east to west. A small force consisting of a reconnaissance platoon and a mortar platoon were sent to search Calalin and Eroj at night on the 30th of January. Soon after landing on Calalin the scout group found a native that reported 300-400 Japanese on Darrit Island. They preceded across Calalin and reached the main native settlement. There it was corrected that all Japanese had left some months before except for a Japanese naval warrant officer and a handful of civilians on Majuro Island. A detachment of the mortar platoon then went to Eroj Island to find it unoccupied (Crown and Heinl 41-43). However, bad news travels faster than good, and the correct of the amount of Japanese was not relayed quickly to the attack force commander. So, early in the next morning, aerial and naval bombardment began at 0637 and lasted until 0645 before the mistake was corrected. No Japanese or natives were found on Darrit, but abandoned Japanese buildings and building supplies were located. A quick search of Majuro Island located the Japanese warrant officer, who was in the midst of dinner, and finished the resistance in the atoll (Crown and Heinl 43-45). Now that the American forces had a secure staging area in the Majuro atoll, the attacks on the major islands of the Marshalls were imminent. Roi-Namur is a double island at the top of the Kwajalein atoll. Both upper islands, and Kwajalein Island in the south, were attacked at the same time as part of Operation Flintlock. The seizure of Roi Island and its airfield was assigned to the 23rd Marines. On February 1st at 1100, two infantry waves landed easily on the beach. The following two waves of tanks had trouble because they were supposed to proceed through a channel west of Tokyo Pier, but since the pier had been demolished some of the first wave grounded about two hundred meters off shore. Resistance was light and scattered as the Marines started crossing the island only coming into contact with one working pillbox (Crowl and Love 316-217). Despite the weakness of opposition, the troops moved forward cautiously. This was their first experience under fire and they had expected much heavier fighting. By nightfall the island was captured except for a small pocket in the center of the airfield to be mopped up (Crowl and Love 320-321).
Namur was a different story, it held the concrete shelters and buildings for the aviation personnel who flew off of Roi and was much more heavily vegetated. The 24th Marines were assigned to take it and launched their attack on it at 1145 on February 1st. Initial enemy resistance was light and mostly came from ruined structures. This fortune remained with the assaulting force until an American demolition team set off a torpedo magazine, which subsequent explosions and debris killed twenty marines (over half the casualties to 2nd Battalion). This delayed the arrival of forces and allowed Japanese survivors to start organizing defenses against the landing now that the naval shelling had ceased. Little progress was made off the rest of the day and with these delays the regimental commander ordered the troops to dig in for the night. The next day, with support from tanks moved from the 23rd Marines easy conquest of Roi, the end of formal resistance was announced at 1418 (Crowl and Love 323-331). The relative ease of the capture of these islands was due mostly to the naval and aerial bombardment, the attack from the inside of the atoll, and that the Japanese did not expect such a deep penetration into the Central Pacific. The seizing of Kwajalein Island, in the south, came to the Army’s 7th Infantry division. After a rain of naval artillery, with nearly 7000 shells, and air bombardment, with 60 fighters and bombers making 96 sorties, the landing started at 900 on February 1st (Morison 255-256). Only a futile gesture of small arms and mortar fire welcomed the landing craft, and within 2 hours they decisively held the beachhead. Encountering stronger resistance while moving inland, they did not go far from that established beachhead for the rest of the day. The next day encountered the same fanatical, but largely ineffective, resistance. The third and fourth days continued with troops only a few times running into surviving emplacements, the majority of the fighting due small groups of Japanese that dug in during the day and either waited for ambush or attacked unorganized at night. Finally at 1620, on February 4th, it was declared that all organized resistance had ceased and cleanup operations commenced (Crowl and Love 241-295). Again it was the huge amount of preassult bombardment that had eased the landings and subsequent capture of the island. Also the avenue of attack, from the west, surprised the occupying forces. With the capture of Kwajalein Island, the main objective of the campaign had been completed, but many smaller objectives remained. Cleanup operation of the captured islands and seizure of all islands close to the main objectives took time. Also, organizing a defense force and the reorganization of the assault forces were problems in the aftermath of the combat. Seabees, who are naval engineers, took over repairing the captured airfields on Roi for American use, and on February 5th planes started landing there. However, a devastating raid by Japanese seaplanes on the 14th caused many casualties as an ammo/fuel dump was destroyed (Crown and Heinl 74). Eniwetok Atoll, Operation Catchpole, consisted of four main islands, Engebi, which held the only airstrip, Japtan, Parry, and Eniwetok. Initially the Japanese only used this atoll as a staging point for planes coming and going to Truk. But with the bombardment of Roi, Mille, Wotje, and other islands, air forces were moved to it. However, after the loss of Kwajalein atoll, all air personnel were being moved off of it back to Truk by seaplane. The atoll was further fortified as American troops came closer. Learning from Kwajalein, the Japanese general particularly wanted emplacements facing in towards the lagoon (Crown and Heil 79). The American naval fleet steamed into the center of the atoll, only slowing to send mine sweepers out to clear ahead of the fleet, with no resistance. They then took to making each of the islands a crater filled moonscape. Each of the islands were subsequently assaulted with first Engebi, then Eniwetok, Japtan, and Parry being taken. The little resistance there was included rifle, machine gun, and mortar positions most effectively positioned behind coconut log emplacements or small uncoordinated attacks at night by small groups of 5 to 10 (Crowl and Heil 80-127). Again the main problems in these landings were breaks in communication, lack of infantry/tank co-support, and interservice problems as army tank, marine infantry, and naval gunnery commanders were confused. Parry was different in that it was the first time continuous illumination was used, through star shells and searchlights, causing the Japanese to loose one of their more feared and effective tactics, the nighttime infiltration (Crowl and Love 365). Different smaller operations developed to firm American grasp on the lesser Marshalls, including assaults against smaller islands, many of which were uninhabited. Also there were continuing bombing raids against the other Japanese bases in the Marshalls that were “hopped” in operations, including Kusaie, Wotje, Maleolap, and Jaluit. The naval and air support lessons learned in the Gilberts and reaffirmed in the Marshalls went on to help in the invasions of Iwo Jima, Guam, and finally Okinawa. The arming and armoring of the different landing craft was justified, as the techniques of the amphibious assault was turned into bible (Crowl and Love 371). The first use of underwater demolition teams, who would eventually spawn the SEAL teams of today, was in the Marshalls (Crown and Heil 139). Also, the first use of star shells to illuminate the battlefield at night was used (Crowl and Love 365). The tactical consequences of the Marshalls seizure were huge. It confirmed that the Central Pacific route was the best way to Japan and allowed a continuos bombing of Truk, taking it off the list of invasion points. The victory allowed for a much sooner move towards the Marianas, from which launch planes could be launched to attack the mainland. However, the greatest asset of the campaign might be that it was the first time that Americans held a Japanese post. Our forces were no longer just making up for losses, the fight was being taken to our enemies. Bibliography Crown, Lt. Col. John A. USMC, and Lt. Col. Robert D. Heinl, Jr., USMC The Marshalls: Increasing the Tempo Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1954. Crowl, Philip A., and Edmund G. Love Seizure of the Gilberts and the Marshalls Washington, D.C.: Office of the Chief of Military History, Department of the Army, 1955. Morison, Cpt. Samuel Eliot, USNR, Aleutians, Gilberts, and Marshalls Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1961.