Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Where Uncommon Valor was a Common Virtue

This latest post is a work in process:

Where Uncommon Valor was a Common Virtue…
…..Admiral Nimitz
Location & Date:
Suribachi Yama
Island of Iwo Jima February 24nd, 1945

Friday was the day to take Suribachi. The extinct volcano rose from the tiny
atoll as a symbol of defiance. By the end of D plus 3 the power that was once
invested by the Japanese in Suribachi Yama had been broken. However, there was
plenty of fight left in the remnants of the Japanese garrison entrenched in it’s caves
and pillboxes. Elements of the 28th Marine Regiment were tasked with taking
and holding this desolate piece of real estate.

In early 1945 Nazi Germany was in it’s death throes. The war in the Pacific was entering it’s 4th bloody year. The Japanese were retreating on all fronts. The Allied armed forces were pushing the Japanese hard. The US Navies submarines had all but cut off Japan from it’s conquest’s. Huge B-29 armada’s struck at will against the Japanese home islands. MacArthur had returned to the Philippines and the once mighty Imperial Japanese Navy had been all but destroyed at Leyte Gulf.
It was now time for the allies to move closer to Japan and take control of an island that was part of the Japanese inner defences. Iwo Jima was a small pork chop shaped atoll that was only 5 miles long and 2 miles wide. On 30 June 1944 the defence of this island was entrusted to Lt. General Tadamichi Kuribayashi. He set about with great vigor turning the whole island into a maze of tunnels and fortifications. The entire shore line was covered with artillery, mortar, and machine gun fire. There was no danger of the defenders being caught by surprise as there were only 2 beaches that onto which a landing could be made.
The Americans had been subjecting Iwo to air and surface bombardment for seven months before the Marines went ashore on February 19, 1945. Covering the invasion force was the ships of the mighty Task Force 58, which contained no less than 18 carriers and 8 battleships. Task Force 58 had just returned from it’s 2 day aerial assault on Tokyo. At about 9:00 am on February 19th the battleships New York, Texas, Nevada, Arkansas, Idaho, and Tennessee led a host of cruisers and destroyers around the island pummeling it with their fire as the Marines loaded into their LCI’s went ashore.
Establishing the beachhead was the only easy part of the invasion. Kuribayashi had ordered the defenders to let the Marines come on shore and pentetrate upto 200 yards before him soldiers were to open fire. However, even this was done under the murderous fire from Mt. Suribachi’s guns and mortars. The only cover provided on this barren, sandy island was the holes that the shells from the pre-invasion bombardment had created.
The 4th Marine division was tasked with cutting across the island and dividing the defenders. The garrison, originally estimated to be 15,000, was discovered to be more than 20,000. As the Marines pushed further ashore they found some of the most intricate defences any attacking forces had ever seen. The United States Marine Corps was in for the toughest fight of it’s long career.

The capture of Mt. Suribachi while not the end of the fight for Iwo Jima was a pivotal point in the battle. The first flag planted on it was too small to be seen from the ships at see. The raising of the 2nd flad was done several hours after the first. Joe Rosenthal captured the raising on film and provided us with one of the most famous pictures of the war.

I just took the picture. The marines took the island…
Joe Rosenthal

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Tarawa, Bloody Tarawa

With the close of the campaign in the Solomon Islands, Admiral Nimitz’s Central Pacific Campaign is launched. The Gilbert Islands are the first objectives of this campaign. They
are the stepping stones that need to be taken so that the U. S. Pacific fleet can then take
the Marshall Islands, which contain the largest atoll in the world, Kwajalein, with it’s massive anchorage and wonderful airfields.

Before the U. S. forces could consider a move on the Marshall Islands, located five hundred miles to the north of the Gilberts, the tiny Tarawa atoll had to be taken. What made Tarawa so strategically important was that is was in the middle of the shipping route between Hawaii and Australia. The Tarawa atoll consisted of 38 very small islands formed in a loose triangle. The coming amphibious invasion of Tarawa would consist of mainly the assault of 2 of her larger isles Betio, (pronounced BAY-she-oh) and Makin, (pronounced MUG-rin). Betio contained a priceless airstrip and was the primary target.

Betio was almost 3 miles long and narrow. It is at it’s highest only 9 feet above sea level and at any time you are only about 300 yards from the sea. The Japanese had taken Betio from the British about 2 days before the attack on Pearl Harbor. The British Administrator
Colonel Vivien Fox-Strangeways fled in a launch at the approach of the small Japanese detachment.

The Allies had no contact with the Gilbert Islands until Carlson’s Raiders led a small
raid on Makin. The raiders encountered little resistance and soon left the isle. The Japanese were now thoroughly alerted to Allied interest and set about fortifying every
square inch of Betio. Rear Admiral Keji Shibasaki was in command of the defenses of Tarawa. He had with him three thousand troops of Japan’s Special Naval Landing Force and about two thousand Korean laborers of little combat value. Shibasaki and his
forces turned Tarawa into one of the toughest fortified positions in the world. The isle was dotted from one end to another with machine gun nests and pillboxes so that each one provided cover fire for the other. The island was linked with an interconnecting series of underground bunkers covered by concrete, coconut logs, dirt, and sand. Strung along the outlying reef away from shore were barbwire, mines, and concrete obstacles. At the waters edge a log barricade ringed the beach. Backing up the man made defenses were numerous machine guns, mortars, artillery pieces, and eight-inch coastal guns imported from Singapore. Rear Admiral Shibasaki was so confident of these defenses that he proclaimed, “A million men cannot take Tarawa in a thousand years.” He didn’t take into consideration United States Marines.

The Tarawa defenses held a weapon that was almost the undoing of the invasion force.
The combination of reef and tide, as well as the American planners disregard for them, would greatly increase the death toll of the invaders. The reef surrounding the invasion
beach was roughly 500 to 1,000 yards from shore and was supposed to be covered by
5 feet of water at H-hour (based upon maps from 1841 maps). Amphibious tractors “amphtracs” could cross the reef at anytime but were in short supply. Most of the troops would be coming ashore using Higgins boats, which only drew 3-4 feet fully loaded with 20 marines and their equipment. The problem arose that Tarawa suffered from dodging tides and their depth would only be about 3 feet. Former residents of Tarawa, including the former British administrator, warned American planners of this possibility. However, Admiral Turner and his staff were not concerned with the dodging tide and believed that the tide would be deep enough. That was a comfortable decision decided by people not in the assault waves.

The forces the Americans had gathered to take Tarawa consisted of Task Force 53, part of the U.S. Fifth fleet, led by Admiral Harry Hill, escorting 18,600 men of the 2nd U.S. Marine division. In overall command of the amphibious forces was Rear Admiral
Richmond Kelly “Terrible” Turner. Turner had earned his reputation as a competent and tenacious commander during the Guadalcanal and Central Solomon’s campaigns. For a ground force commander, Major General Holland “Howlin Mad” Smith, who also had a reputation for being a tenacious commander, was chosen. Leading the invasion of Betio
and commander of the 2nd Marine division was Major General Julian Smith. Leading the
invasion of Makin was Major General Ralph Smith and his 27th Infantry Division.

On the morning of November 20th, 1943 the invasion forces of Operation Galvanic (invasion of Tarawa) were arrayed around Betio and Makin. The big guns of the battleships and cruisers opened up on the isles, covering them in a blanket of smoke.
In all over 3,000 tons of shells were fired wiping out the big artillery pieces on Betio.
The old battleships Maryland and Tennessee had been refloated and modernized and were doing their best to repay the Japanese for Pearl Harbor. The Maryland managed to drop one of her 16-inch shells into the ammunition bunker for the 8-inch guns on the western tip of the isle. The resulting explosion killed hundreds of Japanese and blew up thousands of tons of shells. The ships stopped the naval bombardment to allow the smoke to clear so the ensuing carrier plane strike could see their targets. However the air strike was delayed and the ships resumed firing until the carrier planes came roaring in, strafing and bombing.

Into this manmade hell came the Marines in the amphtracs. As they ploughed through the surf they began to draw fire. First long range machine gun bullets bounced off their steel hides but as they drew closer and the fire became more intense, the amphtracs began to suffer casualties and sink. Here and there marines jumped into the water and made for the sea wall. Several of the amphtracs made it to shore but most sank on the reef or when they got back to deeper water. The second through sixth waves were stopped at the reef by the lower than anticipated tides as they were in Higgins boats that could not traverse the reef. They disgorged their marines and the marines had to struggle one half mile with no cover taking casualties every step of the way. The tidewater around the beach turned red as the casualties mounted brought down by the hidden machine gunners, mortars, and snipers.

Here and there marines made their way on shore and started climbing over the sea wall led by surviving officers and NCOs. They made their way inshore using whatever weapon they had - guns, knives, grenades, and satchel charges, to assault the pillboxes and the snipers who had tied themselves to the trees. On they came, even as more and more of them fell wounded or dead.
Of the 5,000 troops who came ashore the first day over 1,500 of them were casualties. The shouts of “Corpsman! Corpsman!” were heard from one end of the beach to the other. Unused rifles stuck into the ground with plasma bottles taped to their stocks, literally fed life’s blood to the wounded awaiting evacuation. Due to the large number of casualties blood plasma, bandages, and morphine became in short supply. The corpsmen and the doctors on board the hospital ships grumbled and complained about sewing up the guts of marines full of steak and eggs from their last shipboard meal.

As night closed in the marines on shore expected a nocturnal attack, but it never came. Rear Admiral Shibasaki had indeed planned to strike, but the shelling from the big guns had taken out his communications to all parts of the island. On through the night casualties were taken off the beaches and fresh troops were brought in. The battle continued in earnest through out the second day and Colonel Shoup, the commander on shore, sent in his official report: “Casualties many; percentage dead unknown; combat efficiency; we are winning”.

By the end of the 3rd day the isle of Betio was taken. The 2nd Marine Division had 986 comrades KIA and over 2,000 wounded. Upon touring the isle and seeing the dead marines entwined with dead Japanese and upon looking out over the 300 bodies still floating in the surf, General Howlin’ Mad Smith exclaimed to General Julian Smith,
“How can such men be defeated?”

There Will Be No Dunkirk Here

“There will be no Dunkirk here”… General Leslie J. Morshead, Commanding Officer Tobruk

The siege of Tobruk represented the first time in World War II that the seemingly invincible Germans, led by Erwin Rommel, came up against a foe they could not overcome. The successful defense of this old Libyan seaport represented not only a stunning blow to the myth of the invincible blitzkrieg, but more importantly it tied up forces that could have been used in the attack on Egypt. In the barren landscape of the desert the success of the Allies meant the Axis were now forced to ship much needed supplies an additional 600 miles to the front lines.

Tobruk is strategically located between Tripoli and Alexandria. The Italians held the port at the beginning of the war. They built extensive fortifications around the port flanked by the sea on both ends. The British began their counter-offensive in December 1940 and took the port from the Italians on 22 January 1941.

Hitler was highly disappointed in the setbacks of the Italian army in North Africa and in January 1941 sent Erwin Rommel and the newly formed Afrika Korps to reverse the string of defeats. Rommel and the Afrika Korps pushed the British to within 70 miles of Alexandria. In Rommel’s drive to the Nile he bypassed the fortified port of Tobruk. It was to prove a costly mistake for the future field marshal.

As the Afrika Korps bypassed Tobruk, the British High Command was faced with the decision of holding the port or abandoning it in order to move the defenders to Egypt to stop Rommel’s drive on the Suez Canal. Winston Churchill argued for the defense of the city and coined the phrase of calling Tobruk a “sally port”. Churchill’s hope was to make Tobruk a thorn in Rommel’s side by tying up a significant number of German-Italian Army, a goal easily achieved by tying up almost ½ of Rommel’s troops.

The siege of Tobruk began 10 April 1941 with an attack by Rommel’s troops, which was beaten off by the garrison defenders. Holed up in the fortified city were the famed “Rats of Tobruk”, the defenders having received this nickname from Lord Haw Haw who used this derisive moniker in his broadcasts. The besieged troops even went so far as to make a medal with the likeness of a rat from the scrap of a shot down German plane. The “Rats” consisted of the Australian troops of the 9th Division and the 18th Brigade of the 7th Division, as well as the British 3rd Armored Brigade, the 18th Indian Cavalry Regiment, and four artillery regiments, all under the command of Lieutenant General Leslie Morshead. Since the British controlled the seas, the garrison was reinforced in August with the Polish Independent Carpathian Brigade.

The fortress of Tobruk had two defensive lines. The main line, being the red line, was 50 km long, while the second line of defense was the blue line and was 3-4 km behind the red. These lines came complete with mines, barbed wire, machine-gun nests, anti-guns and concrete shelters. There were four forts between the 2 lines: Pilastrino, Solaro, Arienti, Parrone.

The Axis forces may have had the Allies holed up in Tobruk but once the defenders proved they could hold off their attackers, they started launching patrols of their own. Due to the constant aerial bombardment these patrols were almost exclusively launched at night. These patrols were of 2 types: fighting and information gathering. Information gathering patrols were designed to capture and interrogate the prisoners. The fighting patrols were designed to do as much damage as possible and retreat to the safety behind the lines with minimal loss. There are many cases of these patrols destroying tanks, anti-tank guns, and machine guns while suffering no losses. Many patrols returned successfully without a single bullet being fired.

The courageous and tenacious defenders managed to hang on through the siege with the help of the valiant Royal Navy who were able to keep the defenders supplied with the “Tobruk Ferry”. The Royal Navy not only ferried in supplies and fresh troops, but also provided fire support and evacuated the wounded.

On December 10th the last of the “Rats” left Tobruk, leaving behind a reputation for doggedness and determination. Their casualties were 3,009 killed or wounded and 941 taken prisoner. General Archibald Wavell had ordered General Morshead to hold out for 8 weeks; however, they ultimately held out for 8 months until their relief arrived. Tobruk was the longest siege in the history of the British Army.

When Rommel launched his 2nd offensive in 1942, he was able to capture Tobruk within two days by easily overtaking the South African 2nd Division. The taking of Tobruk and the large amount of supplies captured was a career highlight for Rommel. His victory was short lived, as the battle of El Alamein four months later was the turning point of the war in North Africa.