Marine Aviation in the Western Pacific
The movement of Marine aviation into the Central Pacific followed the general pattern of operations that earmarked the turning of the tide as the Guadalcanal campaign neared a successful conclusion. In late February 1943, U.S. Army troops, supported by Army Air Forces and Marine squadrons based at Henderson Field, landed in the Russell Islands. By May, an airstrip had been completed on Banika from which Marine dive bombers, as well as Army and Navy aircraft, stepped up the air war against enemy fields along the chain of islands extending up to Bougainvillea.
Mounting the Offensive1
Invasion of the New Georgia Group in the Central Solomons on 30 June by a joint Marine-Army force was supported by squadrons of MAG-21. In addition to providing close air support to the ground troops, it became a prime mission of Marine aviation to reduce Japanese air strength in the Solomons and at the same time neutralize and isolate Japanese strongpoints that had been bypassed in favor of seizing more weakly defended islands farther to the enemy's rear. This strategy was successfully applied to recently established enemy airfields on New Georgia that had been designed to support the five major air bases ringing Rabaul, which were neutralized from the air for more than a year. Similarly, the capture of Vella Lavella Island effectively isolated an enemy garrison of 10,000 on Kolombangara Island 20 miles to the southeast. (See Map 22).
Once the success of such island-hopping tactics had been established, it was a foregone conclusion that they would be applied in the Central Pacific which was the logical next step in the American drive towards the Japanese
Map 22: Area of Responsibility, Commander Aircraft Northern Solomons
home islands. United States strategy for operations in the Central Pacific called for the seizure of the Gilbert Islands, to be used as a stepping-stone towards the Marshall Islands, the Marianas, and in time, the Carolines. The offensive in the Central Pacific was to begin on 20 November 1943 with an attack against the Gilberts. Operations in the Central Pacific were to be conducted under the command of Admiral Chester W. Nimitz. In emphasizing Navy sentiment towards the employment of Marines for assault missions of this type, Admiral Ernest J. King, Commander in Chief of the United States Fleet, expressed his conviction "that they were singularly appropriate for assaults on atolls, where no extended ground operations would follow the landings. In this kind of warfare you either take an island or you do not take it."2
Marine aviators took part in preliminary movements towards the Gilberts as early as 25 August 1943, when the 2d Marine Airdrome Battalion ( Reinforced) moved into Nukufetau, a small atoll in the Ellice Islands. With the help of naval construction battalions, Marines constructed a fighter strip in Nukufetau, where VMF-111 landed on 20 October. Following this, the Seabees cut down 50,000 coconut trees to make room for a bomber strip. On 7 November, Navy Bomber Squadron 108 (VB-108) arrived on the strip, followed a week later by VMSB-331. Subsequently, a U.S. Army Air Force B-24 squadron also was based on this field.3
On 31 August, the 16th Naval Construction Battalion, together with a detachment of the 7th Marine Defense Battalion (Reinforced) had gone ashore on Nanomea, the northernmost of the Ellice Islands, situated about 400 miles southeast of Tarawa. A Marine fighter squadron, VMF-441, arrived on the island in late September. After an uneventful stay, the Marine squadron relinquished Nanomea in December to two Army Air Forces heavy bomber squadrons.
In connection with the Gilberts operation, it should be noted that the primary purpose for the expenditure of lives and matériel was not the elimination of Japanese garrisons on Tarawa and other islands in the group, but the further use to which the islands could be put in pursuit of the overall American strategy in the Pacific. To this end, initial possession of the Gilbert Islands, and subsequent seizure of the Marshalls would provide the United States with a base for an attack against the Marianas. In effect, the island groups and atolls in the Central Pacific represented unsinkable aircraft carriers. It was hoped that the airplane--capable of spanning ever-greater distances and of carrying an increasing bomb load--would be the medium that could isolate the enemy on the ground, knock him out of the sky, and when within launching distance of the Japanese homeland, could curtail and in time eliminate his capacity to wage war.
The epic assault by the 2d Marine Division on Tarawa in the Gilberts was
destined to write an indelible page in the history of the Marine Corps. Heavy resistance and unusual beach and tidal conditions resulted in 20 percent casualties among the 15,000 Marines in the assault force.4 Nevertheless, after three days of ferocious fighting, the 2d Marine Division was in firm control of Betio Island.
Marine aviators were not directly involved in air operations at Tarawa and at Makin Island either prior to or during the amphibious assault. Such aerial support was the task assigned to Army Air Forces pilots and carrier-based Navy aviators. Bombers of the Seventh Air Force, flying from recently occupied Nanomea and from Funafuti in the Ellice Islands, 660 miles east of Tarawa, were charged with denying the enemy the use of his airfields on Tarawa, Makin, Mine, Jaluit, Maloelap, and Nauru. Between 13 and 19 November 1943, they dropped 63.3 tons of bombs on Tarawa, in addition to flying missions against the other islands in the Gilberts and the Marshalls. On 18 November, naval planes dropped more than a hundred tons of bombs on Tarawa; nearly 70 additional tons were dropped on the following day. Altogether, approximately 900 carrier-based naval aircraft supported the operation in the Gilberts. The pilots flew 2,284 sorties in missions designed to neutralize Japanese air bases, provide direct support of ground operations, oppose enemy air efforts, and create diversions on adjacent islands.
Japanese efforts to assist their hard-pressed garrisons in the Gilberts consisted of air and submarine activity. Neither arm proved capable of seriously interfering with the American assault, though on 20 November one Japanese aircraft scored a torpedo hit on the light carrier Independence, which had to withdraw for repairs. Four days later, the enemy submarine I-175 torpedoed and sank the escort carrier Liscome Bay, but even this serious loss failed to stem or even delay the tide of events in the Gilberts.
For Marine aviators, hampered by the short range of their aircraft, the Gilberts operation consisted of executing search and patrol missions and generally fulfilling a base defense mission. When, on 23 November, the smoke of battle lifted over newly captured Betio, the time had come to bury the dead, clear up the debris of battle, and take stock of what had been accomplished. Of the valor of the Marines, who had seized the island, little remained to be said; long rows of casualties awaiting burial spoke for themselves. The enemy's fanaticism in holding the atoll to the last also required little comment. In view of the 3,000 tons of naval shells hurled at Betio, an island less than half a square mile in size, and the relative ineffectiveness of this bombardment, Admiral Nimitz expressed the view that "heavier support of this kind is not to be expected in the Central Pacific Campaign, but increased efficiency in that support is to be expected."5
Following the Tarawa operation in
late 1943, General Holland Smith recommended that Marine aviators be assigned to escort carriers, where they would play a part in furnishing direct air support in any future amphibious operation involving a Marine division. In the event such an assignment was not feasible, the Navy aviators given this mission would have to receive special indoctrination and training in close support tactics.
At the time, the climate was not yet ripe for the changes recommended, partly because the Navy already had its carriers earmarked for other employment and partly because not all of the Marine officers grappling with this important issue were pushing in unison for the same objective. In this connection, criticism may be directed against those both within the Navy and within the Corps who simply failed to see a need for putting Marine aviation on carriers. In the words of at least one authority on this subject:
High-ranking Marine officers--aviators and non-aviators alike--showed a remarkable Iack of foresight in failing to insist that their flyers be put on escort carriers at this time. It is easy b say that "Ernie King would never have stood for it," or "Admiral Whoosis doesn't believe in Marine aviation." But it was the job of the Marine Corps to find the right "persuaders."
The truth is that the top Marine aviators didn't pay enough attention to (1) close support, (2) amphibious landings, (3) a combination of the two. They were too deeply interested in shooting enemy planes out of the wild blue yonder, so they lost sight of their primary mission.6
The story of how, following lengthy negotiations in 1944, Marines finally did get carriers assigned to them, has been well told elsewhere in this series.7 In any case, during operations in the Central and Western Pacific in 1944 and early 1945, the absence of such close air support by Marines as had been envisioned was bound to have a profound and long-lasting effect on the role that Marine aviation could be expected to play during this phase of the war. One authoritative account of the campaign summed up the situation in the following words:
The decision, however, prevented Marine pilots from supporting their comrades and army troops ashore in the Marshalls and the Marianas. Marine pilots in the Central Pacific before Tarawa served important defensive missions, but after that battle, since their craft were of short range, they watched the war leave them far behind. Their principal function in that section of the globe was bombing by-passed atolls.8
On 26 November, while the last enemy defenders were being hunted down on the northern islands of Tarawa Atoll, a Marine transport plane piloted by Major Edmund L. Zonne, executive officer of VMJ-353, landed on the newly reconditioned Japanese airstrip on Betio. This was the first Marine aircraft to touch down on the freshly captured island. At the same time, naval
construction battalions and Army engineers began work on airfields on Makin and Apamama Islands. Scheduled flights to the latter two islands got under way in mid-December, when both airstrips became the terminals of regular passenger flights.
Christmas Day of 1943 witnessed the forward displacement of the 4th MBDAW, commanded by Brigadier General Lewie G. Merritt, who on 5 October had succeeded General Campbell as wing commander. The forward echelon of the wing moved from Funafuti in the Ellice Islands to Tarawa; a week later, on 2 January 1944, the rear echelon displaced from Tutuila in Samoa to Funafuti. In August 1943, when General Campbell had first brought the wing to Tutuila, he had under his command the forward echelons of VMJ-353 and VMF-224, as well as MAG-13, consisting of Headquarters Squadron 13 and Service Squadron 13, VMF-111, -151, -241, and -441. Five squadrons of Fleet Air Wing 2 were attached to his command for operational control.
Increasing Marine aviation strength in the Central Pacific was reflected in the organization of the 4th MBDAW at the beginning of 1944. General Merritt had under his command MAG-13, headed by Colonel Lawrence Norman; MAG-31, commanded by Colonel Calvin R. Freeman; and units of Fleet Air Wing 2, which was headed by Rear Admiral John Dale Price, with headquarters at Kaneohe, Hawaii. MAG-13, based on Funafuti, consisted of its headquarters and service squadrons and VMSB-151 and -331. In addition to headquarters and service squadrons, MAG-31, based on Wallis Island on the western fringes of Samoa, was comprised of VMF-111, -224, -311, -422, and -441. Units of Fleet Air Wing 2 in the Samoa-Gilberts-Ellice area consisted of three scouting squadrons, two patrol squadrons, four bombing squadrons, and a photographic squadron.
Marine aviators arriving in the South and Central Pacific often found the accommodations awaiting them little to their liking, as indicated by the history of one bombing squadron, whose author had this pungent comment to make:
Wallis Island in French Samoa is by no stretch of the imagination the Pearl of the Pacific. It has gained the reputation--at least among the personnel of this squadron--as about the best spot on God's earth to keep away from. The health conditions were far from favorable and the quarters were not very satisfactory, being in part tents and in part huts constructed by the natives without floors or similar improvements. The recreational facilities--such as they were--consisted of a movie theater at a distance which invited only the most ambitious, and half a dozen books and a dart game which our predecessors had left behind. There were no electric lights, the water supply lasted for about half an hour a day, and the food was made up almost entirely of C rations. And to top matters off it was either so dusty you couldn't breathe or so muddy you couldn't walk, and always present was the tropical mosquito responsible for giving at least half the complement Dengue fever at one time or another. But despite the personal difficulties that everybody had to contend, our planes were kept in the air and the patrols went out on schedule and an intensive training program was undertaken.9
After only about three weeks on Wallis Island, the first ground echelon departed on 13 November for Nukufetau
in the Ellice Islands. By 28 November, all of VMSB-331 had settled down on Nukufetau. The island was described as "a coral atoll about the size of a ten cent piece and when the tide was in gave us around 9 cents change. The health conditions were as good as those at Wallis had been bad. There were no mosquitoes and no diseases and the worst we had to contend with were tribes of rats."10
Two days following its arrival on Nukufetau, VMSB-331, commanded by Major Paul R. Byrum, Jr., dispatched a detachment of six SBDs and maintenance personnel to Tarawa to lend a hand in air patrols and possible air strikes. One such strike materialized on 21 December, when 5 SBDs, together with a dozen Army B-24 bombers and 15 of the new Navy F6F Grumman fighters as escorts, attacked enemy shipping at Jaluit in the Marshalls. In the course of this strike, the squadron claimed credit for sinking a 6,000- or 7,000-ton cargo ship in the Jaluit lagoon. Postwar accounts have made it appear more likely that the enemy ship sunk on this occasion was a 1,912-ton converted water tender already immobilized in a previous raid by naval aircraft from the Yorktown. In any case, the men of VMSB-331 considered the sinking of an enemy vessel during their first combat mission a promising omen. This air strike turned out to be the only offensive mission executed by any unit under the 4th MBDAW until March 1944.
The attack inflicted little damage on the Japanese in the Marshalls, Possibly, the greatest significance can be found in the presence of the F6F Grumman fighters. This new Grumman fighter, otherwise known as "Hellcat," made its debut during the Gilberts Operation. Like the Corsair, the F6F was powered by a Pratt & Whitney 2,000-horsepower air-cooled radial engine. This airplane quickly won the grudging admiration of Japanese aviators, one of whom expressed this opinion of the Hellcats' capabilities:
There is no doubt that the new Hellcat was superior in every respect to the Zero except in the factors of maneuverability and range. It carried heavier armament, could outclimb and outdive the Zero, could fly at higher altitudes, and was well protected with self-sealing fuel tanks and armor plate. Like the Wildcat and Corsair, the new Grumman was armed with six 12.7mm machine guns, but it carried a much greater load of ammunition than the other fighters. Of the many American fighter planes we encountered in the Pacific, the Hellcat was the only aircraft which could acquit itself with distinction in a fighter-vs.-fighter dogfight.11
Following their capture by the Americans, Tarawa, Makin, and Apamama Islands immediately were converted into a springboard for the aerial offensive against the Marshall Islands. By late December, no less than four airfields in the Gilberts had become operational, and B-24s had begun staging missions through Tarawa. As 1943 drew to a close, bombers of TF 57 dropped 550 tons of bombs on the Marshalls and 28 tons on Nauru, an island 525 miles west of the Gilberts. Japanese
antiaircraft fire was frequently intense and hostile fighters also took a toll of American bombers. Enemy land-based aviation in the Marshalls, however, was unable to cope with the development and operation of American bases only 300 miles to the south; during the latter part of December 1943, and throughout January 1944, the Japanese raided the new American bases in the Gilberts on more than 30 occasions. With only one exception, the Japanese air attacks occurred at night. Total damage inflicted at the four airfields consisted of 33 aircraft destroyed, 9 planes damaged, 5 men killed, and a number of men wounded. In early December 1943, the arrival on Tarawa of VMF(N)-532, commanded by Major Everette H. Vaughan, severely hampered the after-dark raids of the enemy air marauders. Major Vaughan's night fighters were the first planes of this type to reach the Central Pacific, though a sister squadron, VMF(N)-531, had already begun to fly night patrols from Banika in the Russell Islands in September 1943.
Throughout January 1944, preparations for the imminent invasion of the Marshall Islands continued at a brisk pace. By the 13th, the 4th Marine Division had arrived in Hawaii en route to the Marshalls from the west coast of the United States. The Marine division, as well as the Army's 7th Infantry Division, departed Hawaii on 22 January en route to Kwajalein. A total of 297 ships, not including fast carrier task groups or submarines, transported about 54,000 troops to their objectives. A force of three cruisers, four destroyers, and two minelayers stood by to neutralize enemy bases at Wotje and Taroa. Landings were scheduled for 31 January.
As in the case of Tarawa, Marine aviation was not scheduled to play an active part in the amphibious phase of the assault. Once again, the Marine squadrons based in the Gilbert and Ellice Islands were assigned patrol and logistic missions. After the initial objectives in the Marshalls had been seized, Marine air squadrons were to relocate rapidly to them. In line with this forward movement, MAG-13 was to displace to Majuro. The destination of MAG-31 was Roi Island, at the northern tip of Kwajalein Atoll. During the first two weeks of January, VMF-111 under Major J. Frank Cole, VMF-224, commanded by Major Darrell D. Irwin, VMF-441, headed by Major James B. Moore, and VMF-113 under Major Loren D. Everton joined MAG-31, as did VMF(N)-532.12
Six planes of the latter squadron, comprising its forward echelon, were the first aircraft to land on the newly activated field at Roi, led by the squadron commander, Major Vaughan. The latter was to comment later:
I was the first American pilot to land on Roi as I led the unit there via Makin Island. The story was carried by United Press and appeared in the San Diego Union saying that I was the first American pilot in the Central Pacific to land an
aircraft on pre-war-held Japanese territory. I had been instructed to let Colonel Calvin Freeman make the first landing but when I arrived in the vicinity of Roi with my group of aircraft low on fuel, the Colonel was not in the area so,1 proceeded to land. (I heard much about it later when he did arrive!)13
In order to further strengthen Marine aviation in the Central Pacific, MAG-22, under the command of Lieutenant Colonel James M. Daly, was scheduled to come under General Merritt's 4th MBDAW in early February 1944. The air group had been stationed on Midway Island ever since 1 March 1942, and following the epic defense of that island, had led a relatively peaceful and isolated existence there, engaged in routine patrols and occasional search and rescue missions.
Into the period preceding the invasion of the Marshall Islands falls the saga of VMF-422, destined to become the "(Lost Squadron." VMF-422, commanded by Major John S. McLaughlin, Jr., had been part of MAG-22 until 15 December, when it was detached from the air group and flown to Hawaii in transport aircraft. Upon arrival there, the ground echelon was attached to the task force staging for the invasion of the Marshalls. On 17 January 1944, the flight echelon consisting of 27 pilots and 3 enlisted men together with 24 newly issued Corsairs, boarded the escort carrier USS Kalinin Bay and departed for the Gilbert Islands on the following day. Once the escort carrier arrived within 50 miles of Tarawa, the squadron was to launch its aircraft and fly to Hawkins Field on Betio Island for further orders from Admiral Hoover, who had assumed direct operational command of garrison aircraft effective 11 January.
On the morning of 24 January, the aircraft were catapulted as planned practically within sight of Tarawa and shortly thereafter landed on Hawkins Field. The three spare pilots, as well as the three enlisted men who were to service the planes, went ashore by boat. Upon its arrival on Betio, the squadron received orders from Admiral Hoover to proceed to Funafuti, pending further assignment within the scope of Operation FLINTLOCK, the invasion of the Marshalls.
At 0945 on 25 January, 23 of the Corsairs left for Funafuti on a two-leg trip of a 700-mile flight; a stopover was scheduled at Nanomea, the northernmost of the Ellice Islands, about 463 miles south-southeast of Tarawa. One aircraft remained behind at Hawkins Field because of starter trouble. The flight departed Betio Island under good weather conditions without any navigational escort. Major MacLaughlin, the squadron commander, led the fighter formation of three flights. Estimated time of arrival at Nanomea was 1225.
Flying at an altitude of 2,000 feet, the squadron encountered the first of two severe weather fronts only 15 minutes before reaching Nanomea. The front rapidly developed into a violent tropical storm, reaching from sea level to over 13,000 feet. Because the torrential downpour greatly restricted visibility, the squadron commander ordered the planes to descend to a water-level
course and to follow it through the disturbance. When the flight emerged from this front, it discovered that three Corsairs had lost formation and had disappeared from sight. Radio contact was maintained with these pilots, but they had been hopelessly separated from the formation and were on their own. Of the three, Captain John F. Rogers disappeared without a trace. The second, Lieutenant John E. Hansen, was able to get bearings towards Funafuti from one of the other pilots and actually reached his destination. The third, Lieutenant Walter A. Wilson, landed on an island, where natives looked after him until he was taken off by a destroyer, the USS Hobby.
The remaining 20 pilots established their position as being over Nui Island, about halfway between Nanomea and Funafuti. At this point, one of the Corsairs piloted by Lieutenant Christian F. Lauesen developed engine trouble and made a water landing. The flight circled over him and observed that he was afloat by means of his "Mae West" life preserver; the pilot's life raft, however, was not to be seen. While the remainder of the pilots continued the flight, one of the group, Lieutenant Robert C. Lehnert, circled the castaway pilot until his own plane ran out of gas and Lehnert was himself forced to bail out. After hitting the water, Lehnert conducted a futile search for Lauesen with whom he intended to share his life raft. Lauesen was never seen again and Lehnert himself remained adrift for two days before he was rescued.
At 1245 Major MacLaughlin informed the remainder of the flight that he had made contact with the Funafuti beam14 and that they would proceed there. At this time, the squadron encountered a second squall which, if anything, was worse than the first. As the storm increased in violence, the flight again reported navigational difficulty, Simultaneously, something went haywire with the squadron commander's radio receiver. Failing to contact Major MacLaughlin by radio, Captain Cloyd R. Jeans flew across the squadron commander's bow and attracted his attention. Aware of the malfunctioning of his receiver, Major MacLaughlin turned over command of the flight to Captain Jeans and ordered the latter to lead the flight back to Nui Island. Shortly thereafter, Major MacLaughlin was observed to fly a course tangent to the rest of the flight. He disappeared in the thick overcast and was not sighted again, despite the efforts of his wingmen to keep him in view.
Led by Captain Jeans, the flight made a 45 degree turn off its original heading of 180 degrees and reversed course towards Nui. In an effort to avoid the squall, some of the pilots broke formation and quickly became confused as to their positions. Lieutenant Earl C. Thompson disappeared into the tropical storm and was not seen thereafter. At 1500, Lieutenant Robert P. Moran, one of the 16 remaining participants in the flight informed Captain Jeans that contact with Nanomea had been established. This link lasted for only five
minutes, for Lieutenant Moran's plane ran out of fuel. The pilot parachuted but became entangled in his shroud lines and drowned in the heavy surf off Nui Island.
For the 15 remaining pilots, the confusion was compounded by the fact that the aircraft were not flying at identical speeds. In summing up the disastrous flight, the squadron history was to describe the plight of VMF-422 in this manner:
Some elements of the formation were compelled to fly full throttle to maintain contact with the flight leaders, as the latter maintained normal cruising speed. However, the density and violence of the storm prevented flying a standard formation, resulting in maneuvers at full throttle one instant and retarded throttle the next. Several pilots soon reported being low on fuel. Those who maintained good formation had sufficient gas to have possibly reached Funafuti.15
At 1530 two of the remaining pilots informed Captain Jeans that they were running short of fuel and had to land. One of them, Lieutenant William A. Aycrigg, set his plane down in the water and was seen to be riding in his life raft. The other pilot ditched seven miles away. At this point, Captain Jeans decided that the remaining aircraft should hit the water together, because it appeared that most of the planes would shortly run out of fuel, though several pilots reported having sufficient gasoline to remain airborne for another hour. The flight then formed a traffic circle and made water landings. Of the two pilots that had run out of fuel at 1530, Lieutenant Aycrigg vanished in the vastness of the Pacific and was never found. The pilot of the second aircraft, Lieutenant Theodore Thurnau, was rescued by the USS Welles on 28 January.
The remainder of the flight landed and, with one exception, each pilot got his life raft and survival equipment out of the plane before it sank. One pilot lost all of his clothing and equipment extricating himself from his plane and had to take refuge on board one of the other rafts. By this time, the other 12 pilots had joined and had started t,o pool their equipment for equal sharing among the survivors. The rafts were secured together by the cord hand holds but in the extremely heavy seas some of these holds were torn off. Eventually, the rafts had to be held together by hand.
The drifting aviators quickly noticed that their new environment was hardly more secure than the turbulent air had been. In fact, there appeared a new kind of hazard:
A number of sharks were observed, some making passes at the sea anchor or scraping against the boats--which added nothing to the peace of mind of the occupants. Facetious names were given to the most persistent of these animals, one being readily identifiable by a notched dorsal fin. Their persistence in scraping against the boats grew to such an extent that one of them was finally shot, whereupon all dispersed. To the now familiar statement, "There are no atheists in foxholes," may it also be added that there are no atheists in rubber boats ! Frequent "prayer meetings" and songfests helped to bolster morale.16
The odyssey of VMF-422 ended during the afternoon of 27 January, when
a search plane sighted the group. The pilot, eager to be of assistance, landed in the heavy sea and damaged his plane while taxiing to pick up the survivors. The rescuer, himself now marooned, radioed for help. About two hours later, the USS Hobby arrived and picked up the 12 pilots of VMF-422 as well as the rescue pilot and eight members of his crew. Upon coming on board, the survivors of VMF-422 were pleasantly surprised to find Lieutenant Wilson, one of the first three pilots that had become separated from the squadron during the first squall, waiting for them. The destroyer had picked him up from his island refuge, which "he left rather reluctantly because of his royal treatment by the natives."17 A thorough search of the area by the USS Hobby and other ships failed to yield any sign of Lieutenant Thurnau. The defunct rescue plane was sunk by naval gunfire. All of the rescued pilots were suffering from immersion, sunburn, and general weakness, though only the pilot that had lost his clothing had to be hospitalized.
On 29 January the 14 castaways were placed ashore at Funafuti, where they were met by Lieutenant Hansen. The latter was the only one to have flown his aircraft to Funafuti. Of 23 Corsairs and pilots that had left Tarawa, only one plane had reached its destination. In addition to the loss of 22 aircraft, the episode cost the lives of 6 pilots.
A board of investigation, subsequently convened to probe the disaster, determined that faulty communications and human error were largely responsible for the mishap.18 Radio aids data were incomplete in that voice calls for the bases were not listed and range bearings for the Funafuti range were not given. Operations towers on various fields in the Gilbert and Ellice Islands were monitoring a radio frequency different from that used by the squadron. It was further brought out that no one at Hawkins Field had cleared the flight in the first place. Nothing was sent to Nanomea telling of the flight until that base requested information. The final touch of irony was added when it became known that Nanomea had been plotting the planes by radar since 1225 of 25 January at a distance of between 10 and 70 miles. Inasmuch as Nanomea had not been advised of the flight, the control tower personnel assumed that bombers were passing through the area.
In connection with the VMF-422 disaster, it may be of interest that the Japanese suffered an almost identical mishap earlier in the war, with even more serious consequences. After the war, a leading enemy air ace was to make the following comment on flying conditions and long-distance fighter hops:
In the vast reaches of the Pacific the distance between each small outcropping of land can assume terrifying proportions. Without radar, indeed, without even radios in our Zero fighters, we dared not risk the loss of most of our planes. Our experience in such matters had been tragic. Early in 1943, several squadrons of Army fighter planes, manned by pilots
who had absolutely no experience in long-distance flying over the ocean, left Japan for a base to the south. En route, they encountered severe weather conditions, but refused to turn back. Almost every plane disappeared in the endless reaches of the Pacific.19
Meanwhile, the invasion date for the Marshalls was drawing near. Fast carrier task groups of Task Force 58, commanded by Rear Admiral Marc A. Mitscher, began preinvasion attacks against the Marshalls on 29 January 1944. Launched from 12 carriers, 700 aircraft began to carry out simultaneous attacks against enemy airfields on Roi, Kwajalein, Wotje, and Taroa (also known as Maloelap). (See Map 23). In the words of an official report, "simultaneous attacks by this force were so successful in achieving surprise and destroying their targets that by evening on 29 January there was not an operational Japanese aircraft east of Eniwetok."20
The American landings on 31 January were executed on schedule. Japanese planners had expected an invasion of Jaluit, Mine, or Wotje and had reinforced those garrisons, as well as the one at Maloelap. That the Americans would strike at Kwajalein, in the heart of the Marshalls, came as a complete surprise to the enemy, whose reinforcement of the atolls under attack was not quick enough to stem the tide. Roi-Namur was secured by noon of 2 February. Two days later, all Japanese resistance on Kwajalein Island came to an end. Majuro Atoll fell into American hands without opposition, having been abandoned by the Japanese before the invasion force reached the objective.21
Elimination of Japanese air power in the Marshalls was of crucial importance for the continuation of the American drive in the Central Pacific. The widely held view that the Japanese had fortified the Marshalls long before the outbreak of World War II proved to be erroneous. The Japanese had built an airstrip on Roi during the 1930s, but had undertaken little else to fortify the Marshalls until 1941. By the end of that year, the enemy had constructed airstrips on Maloelap and Wotje; the latter island also served as a seaplane base. On Mine, the Japanese completed an airstrip towards the end of 1942, but for the remainder of that year, the total number of aircraft stationed on the four atolls did not exceed 65. As the end of 1943 approached and the invasion of the Marshalls became imminent, the Japanese built LIp their air strength to about 130 aircraft, which Admiral Mitscher's preinvasion bombing and strafing promptly destroyed.
The first Marine aviation personnel to go ashore in the Marshalls were members of the forward echelon of VMSB-231, which reached Majuro on 3 February 1944. The airstrip on the island became operational on 19 February and two days later the flight echelon, led by the squadron commander, Major Elmer G. Glidden, Jr., took off from the escort aircraft carrier Gambier Bay and landed on the island. On 26 February, VMSB-331
Map 23: Marshall Islands, MAG-22 Operations, 1944
arrived on Majuro. Both of the MAG-13 squadrons were given the mission of neutralizing the enemy on those Marshall islands that had been bypassed.
On 7 February, Colonel Calvin B. Freeman's MAG-31 moved to Roi right on the heels of the ground action. Only five days had elapsed since the 4th Marine Division had completed the conquest of Roi and Namur Islands and barely 48 hours had gone by since the 7th Infantry Division had eliminated the last enemy resistance on Kwajalein Island, 50 miles to the south. The daring advance into the heart of the Marshalls and Gilberts had brought an area one thousand miles long and including at least seven Japanese strongpoints under the control of the United States. Accruing to the American forces as a result of the Gilbert-Marshalls operations were additional benefits, summed up in an official postwar analysis:
Continuous operation of United states carrier task forces in the area, unchecked by Japanese land-based aircraft, forced the Japanese Fleet to abandon Truk as a major base. Between 3 and 10 February 1944 all units of that fleet except a few cruisers and destroyers of the Area Defense Forces withdrew to Palau and the Empire leaving United States forces in the Central Pacific unopposed except by garrison troops and a decimated Japanese air force.22
Even though the Japanese no longer considered Truk as a safe anchorage for large segments of the Combined Fleet, they nevertheless were determined to hold it to the last. A buildup of enemy strength on Truk began in early 1944 and continued throughout the year. The Japanese Army sent troops to the island, which soon bristled with pillboxes, mine. fields, and coast defense and antiaircraft artillery. Navy torpedo boats and rocket launchers supplemented the Japanese defenses on the island. In line with the policy of avoiding, if possible, a direct assault on enemy islands known to be strongly fortified, the JCS decided on 12 March 1944 to bypass and neutralize Truk. Keeping the Japanese on Truk off balance was a job delegated to long-range Army Air Forces and Navy bombers in the Marshall and Admiralty Islands. Cancellation of a direct assault on Truk left Marine aviation without an important part, which, according to initial plans, Marine fighters and dive bombers were to have played in the conquest of the Japanese stronghold. It appeared as if Marine pilots, eager to participate in the advance into the Carolines, would instead be relegated to riding herd on a large number of Japanese marooned on various islands in the Gilberts and MarshalIs. This was hardly the type of mission that would appeal to young aviators eager to test their skill in aerial combat with the enemy.
The fledgling Marine fliers should not have been disenchanted with their assignment, for bypassed Japanese had shown themselves to be cunning and dangerous opponents. This fact was brought home to the ground echelon of MAG-31 only five days after its arrival on Roi-Namur. Shortly before 0300 on 12 February, about a dozen enemy bombers, based on Ponape Island in the Carolines, hit Roi in a devastating surprise raid. Immediately preceding the bombing, Japanese scattered large quantities of narrow tinfoil strips in the air,
which rendered the American radar equipment practically useless. These metallic pieces, known as window or chaff, had first been successfully used by the British Royal Air Force over Germany earlier in the war. The enemy raiders, believed to be seaplanes, came over in four flights of three planes each with about five-minute intervals between flights. The bombs dropped were 500 pounders, antipersonnel bombs, and magnesium incendiaries. One of the first bombs dropped by the enemy scored a direct hit on the biggest bomb dump on the island. In the words of a 4th Marine Division historian, ". . . a moment later the whole island was an exploding inferno. To elements of the Twentieth Engineers and Seabees, who were still on Roi, the holocaust was more terrible than anything they had gone through in capturing the island."23
Even more graphic in his description of the resulting inferno was a combat correspondent who commented:
Tracer ammunition lit up the sky as far as we could see and for a full half hour red-hot fragments rained from the sky like so many hail-stones, burning and piercing the flesh when they hit. A jeep exploded in our faces a few yards away. Yet half an hour after the first bomb hit, several hospitals and first aid stations were functioning with all the efficiency of urban medical centers.24
The bombardment from the ammunition dump continued for four hours. When it was all over, nearly half of the air group equipment, which had just been unloaded, lay destroyed about the area. Individual equipment, personal effects, and the clothing of approximately 1,000 officers and men were also lost. There were casualties as well. Five enlisted personnel of MAG-31 were killed in the course of the attack. Six officers and 67 enlisted men were wounded; they were evacuated to Hawaii, ironically enough on the same ships that had brought them to the Marshalls. An additional 10 officers and 67 enlisted men were wounded, but not seriously enough to require evacuation.25
After 14 February, MAG-31 took positive action to prevent similar attacks. On that date, the air group commander, Colonel Freeman, reached Roi with 10 F4U-1s of VMF-224 and 6 F4U-2s of VMF(N)-532 from Tarawa via a refueling stop at Makin Island. Day and night combat air patrols were instituted at once. Seven additional night fighters of VMF(N)-532 arrived on Roi on 23 February. Two Douglas Skytrain aircraft (R4Ds) brought radar equipment and crews to the island to improve the defense against surprise air attacks.
The drive into the Marshall Islands continued to gain momentum. On 18 February, coinciding with a devastating attack of TF 58 against Truk, two battalions of the 22d Marines seized Engebi Island, in the northern portion of Eniwetok Atoll. On the following day, a combined force of soldiers and Marines went ashore on Eniwetok. Three days later, the 22d Marines seized Parry Island after a stiff fight.
Shortly after the assault troops had landed, Marine aviation personnel came ashore. Among those to land on Eniwetok was the ground echelon of the ill-fated
VMF-422. Between 17 and 27 January, this echelon had left Hawaii en route to the Marshalls with elements on board the escort carrier Kalinin Bay, and the transports President Monroe, Island Mail, and Cape Isabel. On February 6, six days after the invasion of the Marshalls, the ground personnel of VMF-422 on board the Island Mail were ordered ashore on Kwajalein. There, they were detailed to stevedore duties; some of the men worked continuously for 48 hours at this task. Others actually participated in the occupation of the island when scattered resistance flared up in some shattered blockhouses and some of the working parties came under small arms fire. Several members of VMF-422, ordered to collect and bury the enemy dead, discovered that not all of those slated for burial had been rendered harmless. Booby traps attached to some of the bodies made the Marines' task not only unenviable and odious, but dangerous as well. In this connection, the official account of the activities briefly states that "officers in charge were quick to recognize dangers to enlisted personnel and the unit was quickly reorganized into small groups with NCO's enforcing rigid discipline."26
The remaining personnel of the fighter squadron's ground echelon on board the Kalinin Bay, the President Monroe, and the Cape Isabel stayed on their ships which were peacefully anchored off Kwajalein Island. On 7 February, this interlude came to an end when the squadron was advised that it would proceed with a new task force in attacking and garrisoning Engebi Island on Eniwetok Atoll. Squadron gear was transferred from the Island Mail and the Cape Isabel in two days. While this work was in progress, Army troops boarded the President Monroe, adding greatly to the congestion already prevailing on that ship.
On 18 February, after an uneventful two-day journey, the ground echelon of VMF-422 approached Eniwetok Atoll. The arrival of the convoy at the objective led an observer to note:
Mine sweepers led a mighty column through Deep Passage, assault troops little dreaming that Parry and Japtan Islands, flanking the entrance into the lagoon, would soon be the scene of the most bitter fighting. The Tennessee and Colorado led the attack columns into the lagoon, proceeding directly to the site of the airfield, Engebi Island, fifteen miles away. The normally khaki colored decks appeared deserted as all hands were ordered below. Troops decorating the rails of transports would be easy prey for hidden Jap marksmen. Despite protestations, officers being in the majority, all recalcitrants were summarily ordered from the weather decks. The importance of guarding against fire from beach positions was forceably demonstrated when a squadron mechanic was seriously wounded by sniper fire as the ship lay at anchor off Engebi Island.27
The preinvasion bombardment of Engebi continued throughout 17 February. Early on the following morning, assault units landed on the island and after a six-hour battle, brought all organized resistance to an end, though enemy pockets of resistance were to remain active for several days. On the evening of 19 February, one month to the day since embarking at Pearl Harbor, the VMF-422 echelon on board the
President Monroe went ashore. The joy these men felt at having dry land under their feet once again was somewhat diminished as, in the gathering dusk, they bedded down in shell holes and craters on the nearly flat island. Less than a quarter of a mile away, the enemy was still giving battle from remaining pockets of resistance. On several occasions during that long night, small arms fire swept the bivouac of the newly arrived aviation personnel, and a mortar lobbed several rounds into the area.
Throughout the night, the men of VMF-422 on Engebi saw, or at least thought they saw, silhouetted enemy remnants moving from one place of shelter to the next. A squadron security detail fired at fast-appearing and -disappearing shadows without being able to determine who or what was actually transpiring all around them. Some of the doubts as to whether there were still any Japanese around were dispelled on the morning of 20 February, when a Japanese was found occupying a foxhole within the squadron bivouac area. This enemy soldier did not offer any resistance, and after capture, assisted in the apprehension of another 15 troops and laborers.
In the bright light of day, the men of VMF-422 had an opportunity to assess the newly won real estate. The appearance presented by Engebi "on the morning after" made many of them wish that they were back on board ship, as expressed by one of those present:
The unsuspecting initiates were confronted with a disturbing scene as they looked over the newly won island. Enemy dead were grotesquely strewn over the landscape. Duds varying from fourteen inch shells to grenades littered the battle- ground. All types of enemy ordnance and material, as well as Marine, were scattered over the scarred surface of Engebi. Souvenir seeking was held down to a minimum with repeated warnings of the attendant dangers proving an effective measure. All hands immediately set to work and before the sun reached its high point on the 20th of February, temporary shelters had been erected with many a bomb crater serving as an expedient foxhole.
In the ensuing twelve days, the bivouac area came to be familiarly known as "Jungle Town." It compared favorably with the ramshackle abodes ineptly constructed by wayward citizens in city disposal areas. The procedure included the digging of a three foot deep foxhole, large enough to fence in a necessary cot, and then elaborately camouflaged with Jap corrugated tin. A plentiful supply was on hand. Lightweight Jap lumber, ponchos and remnants of enemy tents were often added to embellish temporary shelters. All these precautions were but slight protection against the hot sun and irritating dust. The well tanned individual fared best as the white skinned Marine suffered from heat blisters which were aggravated by the salt water, the only medium, if temporary, of keeping clean. Guadalcanal veterans readily admitted that this was the roughest going yet.28
In addition to being exposed to the unfavorable climate and poor living conditions on Engebi, enlisted personnel were detailed to working parties, which en occasion manhandled supplies for 36 consecutive hours. Some of the men assigned to such details considered themselves fortunate, for they were on occasion able to obtain a hot meal on board ship, a welcome change from the K rations dispensed ashore. Other work details were engaged in the construction of a squadron living area. There was
an ever-present possibility of evening air raids. To at least one observer it appeared that "the likelihood of evening air raids spurred the men on and as the moon became larger on the horizon the tempo increased. Fortunately, no attacks were launched until our unit was squared away in its new area. It was a gesture for which all hands were thankful."29
While the ground echelon of VMF- 422 worked to make Engebi habitable, additional Marine aviation units began to arrive on the island. Among the first to reach Engebi was the headquarters of MAG-22 under Colonel Daly, who reached the island on 20 February. The same day witnessed the arrival of AWS-1 (Air Warning Squadron 1), with 9 officers and 218 men. The air warning squadron had moved to Engebi directly from the West Coast. Ten days after setting up its radar equipment on the island, the squadron began to function as a fighter-director unit. On 27 February, VMF-113, coming from Kwajalein, took up station on Engebi. On the same day, eight night fighters of VMF(N)-532 were transferred from Roi to Engebi. Two days later, on the last day of the month, the flight echelon of VMSB-151, commanded by Major Gordon H. Knott, arrived on Engebi following a five-day flight from Wallis Island, roughly 2,000 miles to the southeast. The other half of the squadron remained on Roi Island to fly patrols and cover landings on some of the smaller Marshall islands. That part of the squadron stationed on Engebi was assigned to reef and submarine patrols.
The rapid buildup of Marine air strength on Engebi did not fail to escape enemy attention, and on the night of 8-9 March the Japanese struck. AWS-1 detected the approaching enemy bombers on the radar scope and alerted the night fighter on patrol. A second night fighter was launched, but neither aircraft succeeded in intercepting the enemy. The enemy flight, skillfully using cloud cover and jamming the radar instruments with tin foil, was aided by a stroke of luck, for the first string of bombs, dropped shortly after 0400, rendered the radar equipment inoperative. The VHF equipment, essential for ground-air communication, was destroyed next. As if sensing that they were immune from interception, the Japanese carried out the raid in a leisurely fashion and remained overhead for two hours. During this time, the enemy hit a squadron bomb storage area; the resulting blast was to cause the most damage. Next, a small fuel dump less than 50 yards from the squadron area was hit and burst into flames. The illumination produced by this fire provided the enemy with the light necessary to pinpoint other targets. Antiaircraft fire was meager and ineffectual. As a parting gesture, one of the bombers strafed the north end of the bivouac area.
An assessment of the damage from this air attack showed that, in addition to the bombs detonated and the fuel destroyed, four tents had burned down and many others had been perforated by bomb fragments. For some unaccountable reason, several aircraft parked off the recently completed runway remained undamaged, The raid destroyed
large supplies of machine gun ammunition and quartermaster items. Casualties to Marine aviation personnel included 3 killed and 21 wounded.30
On 4 March, the 10 fighter and 4 bomber squadrons under the 4th MBDAW began the first of a long series of attacks against Wotje, Maloelap, Mine, and Jaluit Atolls, which were still garrisoned by the Japanese. The enemy, who no longer had any aircraft left, nevertheless, put up a curtain of antiaircraft fire and scored hits on nearly half of the attacking planes of Majuro-based VMSB-331, the squadron carrying out the first bombing mission. Since most of this surprisingly accurate antiaircraft fire had come from Jaluit, VMSB-231, on the following day, made the enemy antiaircraft defenses on that island its special objective.
Continued enemy resistance on the bypassed atolls was particularly surprising in view of the severe pounding inflicted on them over a four-month period by Army, Navy, and Marine aircraft. During the spring and early summer of 1944, the bombing of the four bypassed islands in the Marshalls became a joint enterprise, for in addition to the squadrons of the 4th MBDAW, land-based Navy aircraft and bombers of the Seventh Air Force flew strikes against the islands. Even before Marine aviation became involved in flying missions against Wotje, Maloelap, Mine, and Jaluit, carrier aircraft alone had flown more than 1,650 sorties against the same objectives.
During March 1944, planes from 4th MBDAW squadrons flew a total of 830 sorties against enemy bases in the Marshalls and eastern Carolines. These 830 sorties were flown in 87 missions; during March enemy antiaircraft fire downed three aircraft. On 18 March, eight Corsairs of VMF-111, based on Makin Island, bombed antiaircraft gun emplacements on Mine Island. This raid marked the first time that the F4U was used as a fighter-bomber in the Marshalls. Together with an attached Navy F6F squadron, 4th Wing aircraft, including F4Us equipped with improvised bomb racks, dropped 419,000 pounds of bombs on enemy installations. Of this total, 75,000 pounds were 1,000 pound bombs carried by Corsairs. The F4Us carried out 11 bombing raids during March and the results obtained in these raids indicated that the Corsair could be used safely and efficiently as a dive bomber.31
All of the strafing and bombing missions flown against the Marshall Islands during March were marked by the complete absence of the enemy in the air. No Japanese fighters were in evidence to intercept air attacks against those bypassed islands. The situation changed temporarily on 26 March, when six Corsairs of VMF-113, led by Major Loren D. Everton, were escorting four B-25s of the Army Air Forces' 48th Bomber Squadron for a strike against Ponape, in the eastern Carolines, 37o miles southwest of Eniwetok. This was the island from which the devastating enemy air attack of 8 March against Engebi had originated. During the later attack, the Marine aviators encountered 12 Zero fighters over Ponape. In the ensuing
melee, eight of the enemy fighters were destroyed in the air; three were listed as probably destroyed, and a fighter was destroyed on the ground. None of the Corsairs sustained any damage. This aerial encounter marked the last time for the remainder of 1944 that the enemy dispatched fighters to intercept Marine aviators. For the remainder of 1944, except for occasional night heckling raids, enemy air activity in the Marshalls and Carolines remained completely passive.
Unable to put up any effective resistance in the air against American fighters and bombers, the Japanese decided to strike back against American airfields in the Marshalls during the night of 14 April, possibly for a repeat performance of the damaging raid previously executed against Engebi in March. Once again, Engebi was to be the target of the Japanese attack. As a flight of 12 enemy bombers approached their objective, night fighters of VMF(N)-532 were waiting for them. This is how the squadron history recorded the air action that took place:
During this night operation, Lieutenant Edward A. Sevik was able to reach 20,000 feet in ten minutes. He was vectored on to a bogey, made visual contact, identified the aircraft as enemy, and at fourteen minutes after takeoff, had fired at it and seen it explode. Captain Howard W. Bellman also successfully intercepted and shot down one of the enemy bombers. Lieutenant Joel E. Bonner, Jr. was not so fortunate. Although the bomber he intercepted was probably destroyed it was able to damage Lieutenant Bonner's plane to the extent that it became necessary for him to jump.32
Lieutenant Bonner was subsequently rescued by the destroyer-escort USS Steele. Another night fighter flown by Lieutenant Frank C. Lang completed several interceptions, but all of his targets turned out to be cleverly designed decoys, which the enemy bombers had ejected over the target. Made of tin foil or other thin metallic material, the "Gismos," as they were called by Marine pilots, caused the radar gear on the ground as well as that used in the F4U night fighters, to pick up images.
One night fighter pilot, Lieutenant Donald Spatz, received incorrect directions from a fighter control unit on Eniwetok and instead of heading back to his field, went out to sea and did not return. In addition to the downing of two enemy bombers and the probable destruction of a third, the successful night-fighter operation resulted in all of the enemy bombs being dropped into the water. On this occasion, personnel on Engebi did not suffer any casualties and there was no damage to matériel.
The 4th MBDAW was further augmented when on 1 April, MAG-15, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Ben Z. Redfield, reached Apamama Island, where VMJ-252 and -353 were attached to the air group. This brought the total strength of 4th MBDAW to 4 air groups with 15 flying squadrons and an attached naval squadron. During the month of May, Marine aviators stepped up their attacks against the remaining bases in the Marshall Islands. Once again, Wotje, Mine, Jaluit, and Maloelap Atolls were subjected to attack as continuously as weather conditions permitted. In addition to daily dive-bombing and strafing attacks by aircraft of
the 4th Air Wing, Jaluit and Wotje Atolls were subjected for one day each to mass attack by the concentrated strength of all available squadrons of the Wing. Army and Navy aviation units carried out additional attacks against these islands, Night harassment of the enemy-held atolls also got under way. The primary purpose of these missions was to keep planes over the target at all hours of the night to drop bombs singly. In this way, the enemy was compelled to remain on the alert and prevented from sleeping.
Use of the F4U-1 fighter as a bomber, begun in March by squadrons of the 4th wing for the first time in the Central Pacific, increased during May. Results obtained were gratifying; the elimination of a concrete power plant, three reinforced magazines, and a radio station on Wotje Island, and the destruction of a radio station on Aineman Island could be directly attributed to low-level bombing by the F4U. Altogether, during the month of May 1944, General Merritt's wing dropped 949,805 pounds of explosives on enemy positions. The F4Us alone dropped 514,765 pounds of this total and fired approximately 722,000 rounds of .50 caliber ammunition in strafing runs. During the same period, the SBDs dropped a total of 435,040 pounds of bombs on enemy installations.33
In mid-May Brigadier General Thomas J. Cushman succeeded General Merritt as wing commander. The numbers of missions flown by units of the 4th MBDAW hit a peak in July and August 1944 both in sorties flown and in the tonnage of bombs dropped. By July all Marine squadrons using Corsairs were equipped with the necessary bomb racks and were taking part in dive-bombing and low level bombing attacks. Total tonnage of bombs dropped during the month by 4th MBDAW aircraft amounted to more than 700 tons. The F4Us dropped over 300 tons of this total and fired approximately 448,250 rounds of .50 caliber ammunition in strafing attacks; SBDs dropped a total of nearly 400 tons.34 In August 1944, the bombing reached a peak of 1,200 tons of explosives dropped on the bypassed atolls in the Marshalls; of the total, 650 tons were released by F4Us and 546 tons by SBDs.35
In September the neutralization missions against the remaining enemy-held islands in the Marshalls continued but on a reduced scale. In accordance with an order from the Commander of Shore- Based Aircraft, Forward Area, Major General Willis H. Hale, USA, who in turn was subordinate to the Commander, Forward Area, Central Pacific, Vice Admiral Hoover, the number of squadrons sent on strikes was limited to four per day. As a result of this ceiling on the number of squadrons that could be employed each day and numerous cancellations of strikes due to inclement weather, the total number of sorties flown during the month dropped to about 61 percent of the August total. Tonnage of bombs dropped similarly decreased by about 38 percent.
Compared to what it might have cost
in human lives had a direct attack been launched to seize the bypassed islands, the cost in pilots and planes expended in keeping these islands neutralized to the end of the war was relatively small. Between the beginning of the employment of Marine aviation against the Marshalls and the end of 1944, the squadrons of the 4th MBDAW lost 29 pilots, 2 gunners, and 57 aircraft due to enemy action. As the summer of 1944 turned into autumn, the observation, harassment, and neutralization of the bypassed islands were extended beyond the Marshalls to Kusaie, Ocean, Nauru, and Wake Island.
As far as much-bombed Wotje, Maloelap, Mine, and Jaluit in the Marshalls were concerned, visual observation and official photographs indicated that the garrison forces there were capable of repairing the airfields. This capability might enable the enemy to fly in aircraft for supply, evacuation, and reconnaissance. Even though such a possibility was remote, it nevertheless could not be overlooked. At the same time, Marine aviators had to be on a continuous lookout for enemy submarines, which might attempt to supply or evacuate the bypassed bases.
To the north, Wake remained a threat. Even though no shipping or land plane activity had been noted there for some time, reconnaissance had revealed the use of seaplanes, probably for supply or evacuation. The possibility that the Japanese might use Wake Island as a base from which to stage an attack against American bases in the Marshalls could not be excluded. Ponape and Nauru, while largely neutralized, also remained potential threats, especially as staging points for reconnaissance aircraft.
For many of the Marine aviators, the daily bomb runs over the bypassed enemy garrisons gradually became a monotonous undertaking. On the other hand, the effectiveness of the air strikes in keeping the enemy neutralized in this area was also obvious. A report by the 4th MBDAW stated:
The constant hammering is obviously wearing the Japanese down, for their antiaircraft fire is steadily getting lighter. There has been no fire from heavy guns for some time, so these obviously have been destroyed. The Japanese now defend themselves with 20, 40 millimeter, and .50 caliber fire. Just what the conditions are on the Japanese Islands, where probably no supplies from home are obtained, is not known for certain; but there can be no doubt that supplies are running low, and the time will come when they will be left without ammunition, weapons, and the necessities of life.
All this, however, isn't a harmless game. The besieged Jap garrisons still have their light anti-aircraft weapons and sufficient ammunition left to make it hot for the Marine birdmen each time they come. Indeed, the Japanese have been getting so much practice in anti-aircraft fire that the Japs remaining in the Marshalls and Gilberts are probably the most proficient anti-aircraft gunners in the world today. Many of the Marines' planes have been shot down, and many pilots have been killed. Again and again planes have returned to their bases after being struck, and the pattern of Japanese bullet holes has been in the dead center of the airplane. Such remarkable hits have been made so many times that it is obviously not a matter of luck.36
Aside from providing the Japanese antiaircraft crews with gunnery practice, Marine aviators relieved some of the monotony of their missions by trying out new methods of attack, experimenting with new types of bombs, and by improvising new uses for their aircraft. On 22 April 1944, Major Everton, commanding VMF-113, led three F4Us in a long distance flight to cover landing operations on Ujelang Atoll. Nine hours and 40 minutes after takeoff, the Corsairs returned to their home base. Another long-distance bomber mission flown in October was to set a new record for the fighter-bombers of the 4th MBDAW. For the record, this occasion was noted in the following words:
A notable event of the month was the bombing of Ponape Island on the 5th by Corsair fighter-bombers of the Fourth Marine Base Defense Aircraft Wing--an attack which set a new distance record for Pacific fighter-bomber operations. When this strike was made and the planes completed the long over-water round trip of 750 miles without loss or damage of any kind or injuries to personnel, the event was heralded as the longest fighter-bomber mission ever carried out by such planes with normal bomb loads. By the end of the month such attacks had become routine.37
Another important event during the month of October was the first employment of napalm by aviators of the 4th MBDAW; it was used on the 28th in an attack against Emidj Island in Jaluit Atoll. This was the first of a series of attacks to determine the effectiveness of napalm against enemy installations in the bypassed Marshall Islands. The first raid, carried out by 17 Corsairs of VMF-224 and 21 Corsairs of VMF- 441, was considered promising; jettisonable gas tanks loaded with napalm, dropped on enemy automatic weapons positions, found their mark; as the raiders departed from the area, four large fires, started by the napalm bombs, were still burning brightly.
Before the year 1944 came to an end, several changes in personnel took place within the headquarters of the 4th MBDAW. General Cushman, who on 15 May 1944 had relieved General Merritt as Commanding General, 4th MBDAW, was succeeded on 20 August by Major General Louis E. Woods. Shortly before the end of 1944, there had also been a change in the designation of the air wing, long overdue in the opinion of many Marine aviators. In keeping with the more offensive mission of the air wing during the latter part of 1944, the 4th MBDAW on 10 November 1944 was redesignated as the 4th Marine Aircraft Wing.
The neutralization of the bypassed Marshalls continued for the remainder of 1944. Momentous events had taken place elsewhere in the Central Pacific, where the Marianas and some of the islands in the Palaus had been seized. In early 1945, the invasion of Iwo Jima was imminent. In the southwestern Pacific, the campaign in the Philippines was well underway. On land, on sea, and in the air, the Japanese had sustained major reverses. The general course of the war affected the operations of the 4th Marine Aircraft Wing. Effective 23 January 1945, bombing attacks against the enemy-held islands in the Marshalls and adjacent areas
were virtually terminated by a change of policy ordered by the Commander in Chief, Pacific Ocean Areas. Pursuant to this order, such attacks were no longer to be made except where expected results would justify the expenditure of personnel, fuel, and explosives.
Beyond any doubt, this order was issued in the knowledge that by the beginning of 1945, the isolated enemy bases, which had been under almost constant attack since the invasion of the area by American forces a year ago, had been battered into virtual impotence. Most of the enemy installations had been knocked out by air power alone. Fixed antiaircraft positions for the most part had been destroyed, and shore defense positions blasted to rubble. Bivouac areas had been gutted and the hapless surviving Japanese were virtually forced underground.
Following the implementation of the new policy, Marine aviators were able to devote considerable attention to the destruction of enemy submarines, which became active in the vicinity of the Marshalls during the first week of February, when six verified enemy submarine sightings were made. Countermeasures promptly instituted by air and naval units presumably prevented the enemy from attacking any of the numerous convoys that were passing through the area at the time. Four of the submarines were declared sunk, though ultimately the Marine aviators failed to receive credit for these sinkings. Nor was Marine aviation employed solely against enemy submarines during the turn of the year, for Marine aviators continued their attacks against enemy shipping in the bypassed atolls. In February 1945, 23 small boats were destroyed by Marine aircraft; the following month, search planes attacked and sank 17 small boats of various categories, damaged three more, and attacked six with unobserved results.
The month of February also saw the inauguration of a new phase of warfare in the Marshalls--a war of psychology, an experimental but well-organized campaign in which exhortations to give up and showers of propaganda leaflets replaced the bombs that had reduced the bypassed Japanese bases to a shambles. This campaign was directed initially against the remaining enemy forces on Wotje Atoll. In a novel. series of flights, a psychological warfare plane cruised over the islands of this atoll, broadcasting music, news, and messages to the Japanese holdouts. After every flight of this aircraft, planes of VMF-155, commanded by Major John E. Reynolds and subsequently Major Wayne M. Cargill, dropped propaganda leaflets by the thousands, Initial results of the propaganda campaign were meager, though the leaflets may have served to undermine flagging enemy morale.
On 27 February, a transport plane carrying its crew and a number of passengers, including Lieutenant General Millard H. Harmon, Commander, Strategic Air Forces, Central Pacific Area, was lost en route from Kwajalein to Oahu, Hawaii. The disappearance of this plane, for which no explanation was ever found, set in motion an air and sea rescue effort in which all available aircraft participated around the clock. The extended search failed to turn up any wreckage of the plane.
During the month of March, Marine
aviators based in the Marshalls devoted increased attention to interdiction of inter-island traffic between the bypassed islands. To this end, search and patrol craft blasted all forms of surface craft encountered, attacking a total of 39 boats of various categories ranging from small skiffs and rowboats to sizeable power launches. Of this number, 22 were destroyed, 13 were damaged, and 4 were attacked with unobserved results. At the time, American commanders in the Marshalls could only estimate the results of the prolonged isolation on the Japanese marooned on the bypassed islands, though the toll taken by disease and starvation was estimated to be high. That death and hunger were stalking these islands is shown in the diary of a Korean, who was a member of the Japanese force garrisoning Aur Atoll. The diary shows the progressive reduction in strength from 367 men on 1 January to 308 by the end of the month; nearly all of them died of malnutrition. Representative of the diet to which the Japanese were reduced by this time are the following entries:
18 January-- Breakfast: Rice and bush leaves. Dinner: Rice and bush leaves, and canned fish. Supper: Fried rice, canned fish and salt. Every two men must catch a rat for food. This kind of food is not good for our health. Another new kind of food is added to our diet: earthworm, We began eating earthworm in supper last night. 19 January-- Breakfast: Rice and bush leaves. Dinner: Too bad, nothing to eat. Supper: Rice, salt, and rats.38
March of 1945 saw the first concrete evidence of a deterioration of morale on the part of enemy holdout garrisons in the MarshalIs. On 24 March, several Japanese on Wotje Atoll surrendered after verbal exhortations from a plane manned by psychological warfare personnel. The Japanese on Wotje were clearly undernourished and otherwise in poor physical shape. Four days later, 5 Koreans, 1 Japanese, and 2 natives from Mille Atoll surrendered to the crew of LCI-392 after persuasion over a megaphone. Upon interrogation, these gaunt, emaciated, and almost dazed men asserted that hunger was the factor which had led them to turn themselves in. Even the enemy personnel appeared happy to have been taken prisoner.
The month of April saw the use of rockets by 12 Hell divers (Curtiss SB2C scout-bombers) of VMSB-331 against Wotje Island. Of 89 rockets fired against two enemy gun positions, 67 landed in the target area and scored six possible direct hits. Seven rockets failed to function properly and had to be brought back to base. On the 27th, a significant development occurred when three Japanese chief petty officers were taken into custody on Mine Atoll. Following their capture, the prisoners contended that many others would have capitulated if high seas had not prevented them from doing so. As in the
MARINE DIVE BOMBERS based in the Marshalls en route to target in the bypassed islands. (USMC 118399)
U.S. PERSONNEL tour Mille Island after 18 months of continuous bombing by 4th Marine Aircraft Wing. (USMC 134062)
preceding month, Marine aviators devoted particular attention to interdicting enemy inter-island food supply traffic. Nineteen small craft of various categories ranging from 10-foot rowboats to 30-by-50 foot barges were hunted and strafed. Four of these craft were sunk or completely demolished, 3 were left inoperable, and 12 were damaged in varying degrees.
From the spring of 1945 to the end of the war in the Pacific Theater, the Japanese hold on the islands they still occupied in the Marshalls grew progressively weaker. On 6 May, the destroyer-escort USS Wintle, a minesweeper, and YMS-354, infantry landing craft LCIs -392, -394, -479, -491, and -484 together with appropriate air cover evacuated 494 natives from Jaluit Atoll. The Japanese attempted to prevent the evacuation, but were unable to do so. In the course of the operation, the enemy killed a Navy lieutenant, inflicted a bad arm wound on a native scout, and sprayed one of the landing craft with .50 caliber bullets, injuring an enlisted man. On the following day, an additional 84 natives were evacuated from the atoll.
On 11 May 1945, Brigadier General Lawson H.M. Sanderson succeeded General Woods in command of the 4th Aircraft Wing. During the summer of 1945, the neutralization of the bypassed Marshall islands entered a new phase when, in response to the combined strike and psychological warfare campaign, 42 Japanese and Koreans surrendered. On 2 July, search planes located a Japanese hospital ship, the Takasago Mum, on an eastward course and tracked it. At the same time, the destroyer Murray departed from Eniwetok with two Japanese language interpreters to investigate the ship. On the following day, the Murray stopped the enemy vessel, which was bound for Wake Island to evacuate sick personnel. After boarding the ship, the Americans conducted a search which failed to uncover any violations of international law; as a result, the enemy ship was permitted to proceed to Wake Island. On 5 July, when the hospital ship was on its return voyage, a renewed search indicated that the vessel had picked up 974 patients at Wake, nearly all suffering from serious malnutrition. Medical personnel on board the Murray estimated that 15 percent of the Japanese would not survive the return trip to Japan.39 The ship was permitted to proceed on its voyage by order of Admiral Nimitz over Admiral Halsey's objections.
In his memoirs, Admiral Halsey made this comment on the incident:
That made me mad. Although Japan had never signed the Geneva Convention, she professed to observe it; yet I had suspected throughout the war that she was using her hospital ships for unauthorized purposes. This was an instance. Battle casualties are legitimate evacuees; malnutrition cases are not. For three years we had been blockading the bypassed Jap islands in an attempt to force their surrender. The starving men on the Takasago Maru had constituted a large part of the Wake garrison; their evacuation meant that Wake's scanty provisions would last that much longer. I sent a destroyer to intercept the ship and escort
her to Saipan, and I intended recommending either that all but her battle casualties be returned to Wake, or that an equal number of Japs be sent there from our Saipan prison camps as replacements. CINCPAC directed me to let her proceed, and I had to comply.40
When, on 15 August, Japan accepted the Allied demand for an unconditional surrender, CinCPOA issued an order calling for the cessation of all offensive operations against the Japanese except for the continuance of searches and patrols. On 22 August, the Japanese commander of Mine Atoll surrendered his forces unconditionally. The remaining Japanese strongholds in the Marshalls capitulated following the signing of the formal surrender documents in Tokyo Bay on 2 September.41
Table of Contents ** Previous Chapter (IV-4) * Next Chapter (V-2)
1. Unless otherwise noted, the material in this chapter is derived from: DivAvn, HQMC, Pers and Loc Status Sheets, Mar43-Dec46, hereafter DivAvn, Status Sheets, with date; 4th MBDAW WarDs, Dec42-Mar46; MAG-13 WarDs, Jan43-Sep44; MAG-15 WarDs, Jan-43-Dec45; MAG-22 WarDs, Apr43-Dec44; MAG-22 Hist, Mar42-Apr47; MAG-31 WarDs, Feb43-Jul46; VMF-111 WarDs, Jun43-Nov45; VMF-113 WarDs, Jan43-Jul45; VMF-151 WarDs, Apr43-May45; VMF-224 WarDs, May 42-Jun44; VMSB-231 WarDs, Jun43-Jul45; VMF-241 WarDs, Apr42-Dec44; VMF-241 Hist, Mar-Dec43; VMF-311 WarDs, Sep43-Aug45; VMSB-331 Hist, Feb43-Dec44; VMJ-353 WarDs, Jun43-Jun44; VMF-422 WarDs, Jun43-Dec44; VMF-422 Hist, Jan43-Apr47; VMF (N)-532 Hist, Apr43-May47; Richard W. Johnston, Follow Me!--The Story of the Second Marine Division in World War II (New York: Random House, 1948), hereafter, Johnston, 2d MarDiv Hist; Masatake Okumiya, Jiro Horikoshi, and Martin Caidin, Zero! (New York: E. P. Dutton & Co., Inc., 1956), hereafter, Okumiya, Horikoshi, and Caidin, Zero!, quoted with permission; Capt. Carl W. Proehl, The Fourth Marine Division in World War II (Washington: Infantry Journal Press, 1946), hereafter Proehl, The Fourth Marine Division; DeChant, Devilbirds; Sherrod, Marine Corps Aviation in World War II.
2. King and Whitehill, A Naval Record, p. 481.
3. Col J. Frank Cole ltr to Head HistBr, G-3 Div, HQMC, dtd 1Sep67, in Marine Aviation Comment File, hereafter Cole ltr.
4. Shaw, Nalty, and Turnbladh, Central Pacific Drive, Pt II, pp. 23-114.
5. CinCPac forwarding Itr of 15Dec43 on ComCenPacFor rpt dtd 10Dec43, cited in Isely and Crowl, U.S. Marines and Amphibious War, p. 230.
6. Sherrod, Marine Corps Aviation in World War II, p. 235,
7. For a detailed account of Marine air on carriers, see Benis M. Frank and Henry I. Shaw, Jr., in Victory and Occupation--History of U.S. Marine Corps Operations in World War II, v. V (Washington: HistBr, G-3 Div, HQMC, 1969) pt. III, Chap. 2, section entitled "Marines on Carriers;" pp. 410-429, hereafter Frank and Shaw, "Marines on Carriers."
8. Isely and Crowl, U.S. Marines and Amphibious War, p. 231.
9. VMSB-331 Hist, op. cit., p. 3.
10. Ibid., pp. 4-5.
11. Okumiya, Horikoshi, and Caidin, Zero!, p. 222.
12. "After Roi was bombed and supplies and space were limited, the ground echelon of VMF-111 was returned to Makin Island to join the air echelon waiting there. VMF-111 remained on Makin bombing bypassed islands in the MarshalIs. A typical day would see planes take off from Makin, bomb Mine, rearm and refuel at Majuro, and strike again on the return to Makin." Cole ltr.
13. Col Everette H. Vaughan ltr to Head, HistBr, G-3 Div, HQMC, dtd 28Sep67, in Marine Aviation Comment File.
14. Beam--a directional radio signal transmitted in quadrants from a radio range station audible as a continuous tone or whine as long as an aircraft proceeds directly on the proper course, but audible as dot-dash or dash-dot as it veers to the left or right.
15. VMF-422 Hist, op. cit., Anx B, Flight Echelon, p. 3.
16. Ibid., pp. 6-7.
18. "At least two senior officers in the 4th Defense Wing received letters of reprimand because of this disaster." LtGen Louis E. Woods ltr to Head, HistBr, G-3 Div, HQMC, dtd 2Nov67, in Marine Aviation Comment File, hereafter Woods ltr.
19. Sakai, Caidin, and Saito, Samurai!, pp. 199-200, quoted with permission.
20. USSBS, Pacific Campaign, p. 193.
21. For a detailed account of Marine operations in the MarshalIs, see Shaw, Nalty, and Turnbladh, Central Pacific Drive, Pt 3, v. III, pp. 117-227.
22. USSBS, Pacific Campaigns, p. 194.
23. Proehl, The Fourth Marine Division, p. 34.
24. Marine combat correspondent Bernard Redmond, cited in Ibid.
25. MAG-31 WarD, Feb44.
26. VMF-422 Hist, op. cit., Anx A, Ground Echelon, p. 6.
27. Ibid., p. 8.
28. Ibid., pp. 10-11.
29. Ibid., p. 12.
30. 4th MBDAW WarD, Mar44.
32. VMF-532 Hist, op. cit., p. 11.
33. 4th MBDAW WarD, May44.
34. 4th MBDAW WarD, Jul44. Ibid., Aug-44.
36. Capt C.C. Reach memo to LtCol Brayton, 4th MAW, dtd 2Jan45, Encl to 4th MAW WarD, Nov44.
37. 4th MBDAW WarD, 0ct44.
38. Anx D to CTG 96.1 Shore Based Air Force WarD for period 1-30Apr45, 4th MAW WarD, Apr45.
39. 4th MAW WarD, Jul45.
40. Bryan and Halsey, Admiral Halsey's Story, p. 258.
41. For information concerning Marine surrender and occupation duties in the Pacific islands following the war, see Frank and Shaw, Victory and Occupation, pp. 449-463.