ISLAND HOPPING IN THE PACIFIC: TARAWA, THE MARIANAS AND TRUK LAGOON

ISLAND HOPPING IN THE PACIFIC


The American strategy of "island hopping" was simple: to attack and capture Japanese-held islands in the Pacific between Hawaii and Japan and hop scotch from island to island until Allied forces were close enough to make an attack on Japan. Once an island was captured, it was used a staging area for the attack on the next one. The strategy was devised by Admiral Chester Nimitz, Commander in Chief of American naval forces in the Pacific.

With the exception of a few major sea battles such as Coral Sea and Midway and the Solomon Island campaign, there was relatively little action in the two years that followed the attack on Pearl Harbor. During that time Japan dug itself in and the U.S. poured its resources into arming itself and preparing for a major offensive against the Japanese. Islands that weren’t necessary were skipped. MacArthur said “let them wither on the vine.”

Fighting in the islands followed a similar patter. American landed on the beaches with landing crafts similar to those used during the D-Day invasion of Normandy. The Japanese defenses at the landing points were relatively weak. Instead they hid in caves and bunkers on the islands and made the advancing American soldiers pay for every yard they gained.

The Americans took relatively few Japanese prisoners because the majority of Japanese soldiers chose to fight to the death or committed suicide rather than surrender. Many Japanese civilians on some islands were also killed. The goal of the Japanese was not to win but prolong the defeat.

Fighting in the Gilbert Islands and Marshall Islands

The Americans launched a major offensive across the Pacific towards the Philippines and Japan in November 1943. Makin and Tarawa in the Gilbert Islands were taken first, followed by Kwajalein and Entiwetok atolls in the Marshall Islands. Undefended Majuro atoll was taken next.

The Americans used the bases at Majuro and Kwajalein to launch attacks on Micronesian islands to the west as they island hopped across the Pacific. The other Japanese bases in the Marshall Islands were skipped over.

Tarawa


One of the bloodiest battles in the Pacific took place on Tarawa, a seemingly insignificant 18-mile-long, two-mile-wide coral island in the Gilbert Islands in the middle of the Pacific, hundreds of miles from anywhere. The objective was a 700-yard-long pier and a new airfield that could be used to island hop to Kwajalein, the world's largest atoll and an important airbase. [Source: Michael Kernan, Smithsonian, November 1993]

The Japanese were determined to die to the last man at Tarawa (1943). At the end of the battle only eight members of 5000-man Japanese garrison were found alive. A total of 1,027 Marines were killed, 2,292 were wounded and 88 missing. The Japanese and Korean casualties were 4,690 dead and 146 captured.

Guarding Tarawa were 3,000 Japanese troops, 1,800 other Japanese and 2,200 Korean forced laborers. The Japanese forces were hidden in fortified, coral-block machine gun nests, 17-foot-high concrete blockhouses, 500 pillboxes, sunken mini-forts and interlocking trenches. They were armed with four eight-inch guns, ten 75-millimeter mountain guns, six 70-millimeter cannon, nine 37-millimeter field pieces, for pairs of five-inch coastal guns, 14 light tanks, anti-aircraft guns and mortars.

Three Marine battalions, with a total of about 5,500 men, landed at Tarawa on November 12, 1943 after the island was bombed by planes, three battleships, four cruisers and nine destroyers. Because water depths and tides had been miscalculated, Marines had to wade between 500 and 900 yards from their boats and the reefs to the beachhead. During the hike they were exposed much of the time to enemy fire and directed by offshore wire traps that funneled landing crafts and soldiers to "prearranged fire lanes."

Hundreds died needlessly as they struggled to reach the beach; 90 out of 125 landing crafts were lost; and some units recorded 70 percent casualties. One Tarawa survivor said, "if you even raised a head, you were immediately shot at by the Japanese."

Book: Tarawa: The Story of a Battle by Robert Sherrod

Fighting in Tarawa

The Marines established their first beachhead on a peer using grenades and flamethrowers to put the machine gun nests out of operations but stalled at the seawall because their crafts could not get over the four-meter sea wall. The crucial moment in the battle was when Sgt William Bordelon, a combat engineer, leaped from his position, zigzagged across the sand and threw an explosive in a Japanese pillbox and blew it to smithereens. The Marines were then able to steadily advance after that and take a key point the second day with a mass assault over the seawall, taking the island in 76 hours of fighting

Describing the fighting at Tarawa, Time-Life correspondent Robert Sherrod wrote: "one marine picked a half-dozen pieces of shrapnel from his lap, stared at them. Another said, 'Oh God, I'm scared. I've never been so scared in all my life'...The wide-eyed small-boat boss [said]: 'It's hell in here. They're already knocked out a lot of boats and there are a lot of wounded men lying on the beach." [Source: Eyewitness to History , edited by John Carey, Avon Books, 1987]


Majuro


"Another young Marine walked briskly along the beach. He grinned at his pal who was sitting next to me. Again there was a shot. The marine spun all the way around and fell to the ground, dead. From where he lay, a few feet away, he looked up at us. because he had been shot squarely through the temple his eyes bulged out wide, as in horrible surprise at what had happened to him." [Ibid]

"Two more Marines scaled the sea wall, one of them carrying a twin-cylindered tank strapped to his shoulders, the other holding the nozzle of the flame thrower. As another charge of TNT boomed inside the pillbox, causing smoke and dust to billow out, a khaki-clad figure ran out of the side entrance. The flame thrower, waiting for him, caught him in its withering stream of intense fire. As soon as it touched him, the Jap flared up like a piece of celluloid. He was dead instantly but the bullets in his cartridge belt exploded for a full sixty seconds after he had been charred almost to nothingness." [Ibid]

The American public was outraged by the slaughter, calling it a modern Charge of the Light Brigade. After Tarawa, tides were carefully studied and frogmen were sent in first to clear beach approaches and measure water depths.

Battles for the Marshall Islands, Guam and the Marianas

On February 1, 1944 U.S. Marines attacked Kwajalein Atoll, a major Japanese naval and air base in the Marshall islands. Over the course of the nearly three weeks they captured Kwajalein. Majuro, Namur, Roi and Eniwetok atolls were captured on February 4. From here they began launching attacks on islands between the Marshall islands and the Philippines. In June 1944, an American fleet with 600 battleships, aircrafts carriers, cruisers, destroyers and 250,000 American troops began moving westward toward the Philippines and Japan.

The Battle of the Marianas began on June 15, 1944 with invasion of Saipan. The Japanese put up a tough fight with machine guns, small arms, and light mortars fired from caves and concrete bunkers. The last organized resistance was a banzai charge. Bloody clashes on Guam and Tinian followed. By the beginning of August all three islands were captured.


Gilbert islands


In a reference to the fighting that took place in the Marianas many residents say, "not a lot of people live but a lot of people died." On Saipan in July 1944, Japanese women and children hurled themselves off Suicide Cliff and Banzai Cliff, shouting “Tenn Helka Banzai!” (“Long Live the Emperor”!) to avoid capture by American troops.

Most Japanese soldiers on the island either died in action or committed suicide. By one count 43,000 Japanese soldiers and 12,000 civilians lived on Saipan and another 15,000 died on neighboring Tinian. Many of the dead were 50,000 Okinawans that moved to Saipan, then under Japanese control, before World War II. Many U.S. servicemen, Koreans and native Chamorros and Carolinian also died. When the fighting was over 27,040 people were dead.

About 20,000 Japanese, Americans and Guam islanders died in the Battle fo Guam in 1944. American forces arrived by sea at the villages of Agat and Asan on the western coasts of the island on July 21. The Japanese took the island---owned since 1898 by the United States “in December 1941.

The battles for Guam, Saipan and the Marianas had great significance because they brought main islands Japan into the range of American bombers, On November 24, 1944, the first American B-29 Superfortresses took of from bases on Guam and Tinian for what became regular bombing missions over Japan. The planes that delivered the atom bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki took off from Tinian. Guam became home of one of the world's largest airports. It boasted four parallel 8,500-foot-long runways designed for B-29 Superfortresses.

The United States invasion of Saipan prompted the Japanese navy to counterattack. In the ensuring "Great Marianas Turkey Shoot" in the Battle of the Philippine Sea on June 19 and 20, 1944, U.S. forces destroyed 402 Japanese aircraft and sunk two aircraft carriers, two destroyers in one day and downed 330 Japanese planes the next. This two-day battle destroyed two-thirds of Japan's attacking aircraft. The American lost 106 planes (33 were shot down and 73 couldn't locate their carriers in the dark).

Fighting in the Marianas


Saipan

Describing a close call in the Marianas in June 1944, George J. Parness wrote in Memoirs of War.com: “It seemed that we were at general quarters forever. We had just been through the Makin Island campaign in the Gilbert Islands. With little rest we soon found ourselves in Kwajalein with another invasion and shortly, after still another at Eniwetok in the Marshall Islands. Now we found ourselves in the Marianas and at Saipan for still another invasion. [Source: MemoirsofWar.com]

The invasion was in the process when it was learned that a large Japanese fleet was on its way to support its forces in the Marianas and at Saipan, in particular. With the troops already on the beach a decision was made by the American naval high command to intercept the Japanese fleet somewhere in the Philippine Sea. Most of the American fleet left and a small American force was left behind to support our forces who had already landed on Saipan. The Phelps was one of the ships that stayed behind and we spent days lobbing our shells onto the beach in support of our invading troops.


Guam

One morning about daybreak we received a call for help from our troops on the beach. They were being overrun and the Phelps moved in as close to the beach as possible and fired our many batteries over the heads of our troops and on to the enemy positions on Saipan. I was on the bridge when we were suddenly found ourselves under fire. We took two hits, one below the bridge and one on the starboard side near the No. 2 stack. We lost one man and had 16 casualties. I recall Captain Martineau standing on a small bench (he was a short man and was standing on a bench built by the shipfitters) so he could see over the bulkhead of the bridge. With shrapnel coming down all around us, I was crouched below the bulkhead next to the flag bag trying to avoid getting hit, and tugging at his pants to get down, fearing he would be hit with shrapnel, when he looked down at me, and exclaimed, “You can’t see anything from down there.” Shortly after the ship was hit, I was told to put up a flag hoist and as the flags came out of the flag bag, they were in shreds. And there we were, right next to that flag bag using it as a shield.

Capt. Martineau was a helluva good skipper and many years later when he was retired and I was elected mayor of my town, I invited him to speak at our flag day ceremonies. I repeated the story of that morning 46 years before and he laughed and admitted he was too excited to worry about being hit. (He did give a stirring speech that day---a day I will always remember). We had invited a contingent of Tin Can Sailors, the American Legion, VFW and the glee club from Sacred Heart Church. The band and the people assembled made you proud of our country and pride in our community. It was a beautiful sunny day and one I will long remember.

Attack on Truk Lagoon


The Japanese built their equivalent of Pearl Harbor in Truk (Chuuk) Lagoon in the middle of the Pacific. Nicknamed the "Gibaralter of the Pacific" because of its was so heavily fortified, the base housed 330-foot trans-Pacific submarines, a sea plane base and a dock for the super battleship, Musashi. Six air fields were built for fighters, torpedo bombers and multi-engine long-range bombers. The island itself was fortified with shore cannons, pill boxes, bunkers and a network of tunnels.

Construction of the base at Truk began shortly after the Japanese took over Dublin island in 1914. The huge sheltered lagoon at Chuuk was easy to defend because there were so few passageways into the lagoon. By the same token, the same conditions made it difficult for the Japanese fleet to escape into the open sea during a surprise attack.

On February 17, 1944 the U.S. launched a surprise attack named "Operation Hailstone" on a fleet of Japanese warships and cargo ships at Truk Lagoon. Planes launched from U.S. Task Force 58---a group of nine aircraft carriers supported by battleships, cruisers, destroyers and submarines---conducted continuous bombing air raids for two days and one night and dropped over 400 tons of bombs and aerial torpedoes . Because the Japanese ships were packed so closely together and they had no means of escape, they were sitting ducks for American aircraft.

Almost the entire Japanese fleet was sunk. Fifty ships and 200,000 tons was deposited on the floor of the shallow lagoon and 400 planes were destroyed on the ground. The ships that survived the attack fled to open sea. Bombing raids later that year sunk additional ships. Some 30,000 Japanese troops were stranded on Chuuk and neutralized for the rest of the war.

The islands of Chuuk were never invaded. The 30,000 Japanese who survived the air raids were stranded on the islands until the end of the war. For more than two years after the Battle at Truk, oil from ships and planes covered the beaches. The wrecks at the bottom of Chuuk Lagoon have been declared an underwater museum. Divers can see the skeletons of dead Japanese sailors and the utensil they used to eat with. The cargo areas of the ships still contain jeeps, tanks and planes tied into place.

Image Sources: National Archives of the United States; Wikimedia Commons; Gensuikan;

Text Sources: National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, The Guardian, Yomiuri Shimbun, The New Yorker, Lonely Planet Guides, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wikipedia, BBC, Eyewitness to History , edited by John Carey ( Avon Books, 1987), Compton’s Encyclopedia, History of Warfare by John Keegan, Vintage Books, Eyewitness to History.com, The Good War An Oral History of World War II by Studs Terkel, Hamish Hamilton, 1985, BBC’s People’s War website and various books and other publications.

Last updated November 2016

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