Thunder at Dawn
During the early hours of 26 December, Christmas Day back home across the International Date Line, the main convoy1 turned to starboard from Vitiaz Strait, passed around Rooke (Umboi) and Sakar Islands, and bore in toward Cape Gloucester from the northwest. First dawn paled the sky to show the brooding bulk of Mount Talawe looming off to the southward, but darkness still lay upon the water at 0600 when the cruisers and destroyers opened fire on their predetermined targets. For the next hour and a half distant thunder beat upon the eardrums, and concussion shook the air. Only one Japanese gun replied--with a single round.2
Two LCI's mounting multiple rocket launchers, a new device at this stage of the war, moved first3 through the wide opening in the barrier reef, conveniently marked by a piled-up Japanese destroyer, and took post off the flanks of the designated beaches, with the dual function of serving as guideposts and firing in support of the assault. The APD's came next and disembarked the leading waves into landing craft which began their seemingly aimless circling prior to forming into waves at the line of departure. The troop-carrying LCI's followed, and farther out the first echelon of clumsy LST's loafed into position under bare steerageway.
First air support appeared at about 0700:4 big B-24's of the Fifth Air Force from Dobadura, barely discernible against the clear sky that presaged a bright tropical day, the sound of their motors a remote, intermittant humming. The heavy bombers broke into several formations in order to cover the wide target assigned them, reaching all the way from Target Hill to Cape Gloucester itself, while escorting fighters hovered above to cope with any enemy attempts at air interception. Near the airdrome a fuel dump exploded suddenly in a great burst of flame,5
LANDING AREA viewed from northwest. This photo, made in 1946, shows Silimati Point jutting out into the sea at an exaggerated angle. Beach YELLOW 2 is at the juncture of the point and the mainland and Beach YELLOW 1 on the near side of the short jut of land that separates the two beaches. Target Hill rises to the right.
and the smoke of bursting bombs began to spot the lush green of the jungle, but the keenest eyes aboard the convoy searched the shore line in vain for anything resembling a beach.
B-25 medium bombers followed the heavies, flying lower, laying their eggs more accurately, ranging back and forth across the entire area. Then came the swift, graceful A-20's: very low, strafing suspected enemy positions and targets of opportunity. A single Japanese AA gun opened on them in the foothills behind the airfield, spitting sparks of tracer bullets, only to be silenced in what appeared a matter of seconds.
As H-Hour (0730) drew near, the B-25's began dropping white phosphorous smoke bombs on Target Hill to screen observation from that key elevation. The A-20's turned their attention to the immediate landing area, continuing their strafing runs on the beaches until the first wave was within 500 yards. Naval gunfire, meanwhile, shifted inland and to the flanks.
That not a shot of any sort greeted the onrushing assault waves testifies to the
Landing Beaches and Scheme of Maneuver
success of this support, and probably accounts for certain odd delusions suffered by the Japanese then and later. But at the moment all the effects were not on the credit side. For a vagrant breeze carried the smoke screen seaward across the entire area, blotting out the shore line6 and the few landmarks the coxswains had to guide on, with the result that many craft lost direction in the murk and put their troops ashore on the wrong beach. Indeed, one group carrying elements of the 3d Battalion, 7th Marines missed the beaches altogether and hit the shore some 300 yards to the west, where the troops shortly became involved in a brisk fire fight, the only opposition of this kind encountered during the initial landing phase.7
It might be argued with considerable conviction that no higher degree of tactical surprise was achieved by U.S. forces in any Pacific landing. Yet his failure to be prepared to defend this sector should not necessarily imply stupidity on General Matsuda's part. Considering foreseeable contingencies and the limited resources at his disposal, he had made his dispositions with no little shrewdness. That he was taken by surprise and his force cut in two at a single stroke is better attributed to the fortunes of war: a daring invasion plan abetted, ironically, by a shortcoming in U.S. advance intelligence. For, had the planners of the invasion known as much about the terrain as did Matsuda,
LCI'S MOVING IN as smoke screens Target Hill and spreads along the beaches.
there is a good possibility that the landing would not have been made where it was; hence, that the whole operation would have followed a very different course.
The "Damp Flat"
The beaches themselves were excellent--what there was of them: a firm underfooting of black sand, almost entirely free of coral and shelving just sharply enough to permit even a large LST to ground within a dozen yards of dry land in many places.8 But they were so shallow as to warrant the title "beach" mainly by courtesy. As one commentator put it: "A tall man could lie with his head under the cover of the vegetation line and his feet out in the water.9
Beach YELLOW 1, the westernmost, was about 500 yards long, bounded on the east by a 1,000-yard stretch of rocky shore line where jungle grew out over the water to provide a secondary barge hideout that serviced what aerial observers had spotted as a small supply dump and bivouac area immediately inland. Beyond this tangle lay Beach YELLOW 2: approximately 700 yards long and terminating some 1,200 yards west of the tip of Silimati Point.
The 7th Marines (Colonel Julian N. Frisbie), in initial assault, had the mission of setting up a beachhead perimeter as quickly
THE MARINES kept their weapons dry as they waded ashore.
and firmly as possible. The first wave of the 3d Battalion (Lieutenant Colonel William R. Williams) landed on YELLOW 1 at 0746, the 1st Battalion (Lieutenant Colonel John E. Weber) on YELLOW 2 two minutes later, both in landing craft from the APD's. Charging down the lowered ramps of their LCVP's, the Marines found themselves brought up short by a wall of clotted jungle so dense as to be impenetrable even to the eye for more than a few feet. This they attacked with machetes and came presently upon a system of shallow rifle trenches and log-and-earth bunkers, all unmanned, and two dual-purpose 75mm guns standing abandoned. Beyond these, at varying distances, lay the motor transport road connecting the airdrome with Borgen Bay. The only live Japanese encountered were a handful of scared shipping engineers personnel cowering in dugouts, too stunned by bombing and gunfire either to fight or to flee. The assault troops gave these only cursory treatment, leaving mopping-up to support elements.
Pressing on beyond the road, they soon crossed the narrow shelf of dry ground and
ASSAULTING MARINES found a solid wall of jungle extending along the water's edge.
entered the region which U.S. map makers, with a degree of optimism seldom exceeded in military annals, had labeled "Damp Flat."10
"It was 'damp' up to your neck," one disgusted participant declared later. Said another: "Time and again members of our column would fall into waist-high sink holes and have to be pulled out. A slip meant a broken or wrenched leg."11
This was, as Matsuda well knew, swamp forest, some of the most treacherous terrain that exists. Forward momentum petered out as the men floundered through the mud, tore loose from the vines that gripped their bodies. In places water lay hip-deep above the earth; in other places, what appeared to be solid ground would give way under a man's weight, dropping him up to his thighs in the muck and holding him there helpless until his companions could extricate him.
THIS IS what a mapmaker calls "damp flat."
And the trees began to fall: great forest giants, rotten to the core and further weakened by bombing and shell fire, crashed at the slightest provocation.12 The first fatality suffered by the troops ashore was caused by a falling tree.
The 1st Battalion, 7th Marines, with Company A and two platoons of Company C in the first wave, landed on the eastern beach (YELLOW 2) and drove immediately toward Target Hill and Silimati Point. The men brushed aside some minor opposition,13 and Company B seized the key elevation by noon, held back more by the terrain than by the Japanese. The 2d Battalion (Lieutenant Colonel Odell M. Conoley) came in behind the 1st from beached LCI's and drove straight inland, 900 yards through mud and water, to set up the center of the beachhead perimeter on dry ground beyond.
To the 3d Battalion fell responsibility for securing the right flank. As previously noted, some elements landed out of position, to the west of YELLOW 1, and did not rejoin their parent unit until the second phase of the operation was under way.
This second phase consisted of a drive on the airdrome by the 1st Marines (less 2d Battalion). Forward elements of the 3d Battalion of that regiment came in on LCI's behind 3/7 on YELLOW 1 at 0815, passed through that unit, and not long thereafter ran up against one of Colonel Sumiya's road blocks: four strong bunkers armed with as many machine guns, together with a system of rifle trenches.
The action that ensued was brisk--and deadly. Company K, in assault, lost its commander and executive officer14 in a matter of minutes. For a while everything seemed to go wrong. Bazooka rockets refused to detonate in the soft earth that covered the bunkers. Flame throwers failed through mechanical malfunction.15 An LVT carrying ammunition appeared and attempted to double as a tank, only to become wedged between two trees. At this juncture, excitement got the better of the Japanese and they rushed from the shelter of their bunkers to swarm over the hapless amtrack. They killed the two men manning the machine guns. But the driver refused to lose his head. He skillfully extricated his vehicle and caved in the nearest bunker by driving over it, whereupon the infantry closed with small arms and grenades to wipe out the position.
A participant relates an interesting sidelight to the road block clash:
A German shepherd dog serving as a sentry for the Japanese died with his master in this encounter. I noticed our own scout dog smelling his dead contemporary as we passed through "K" Company. These scout dogs had been loaned to the Marines from the Sixth Army. The dog handlers were Army personnel.16
This vicious little fight marked the strongest Japanese resistance on D-Day. But more significant to the over-all picture was the expedition with which the entire landing was handled. So well scheduled was this movement that the big LST's began dropping their ramps on the beaches 40 minutes after the first assault waves landed; had unloaded and cleared the area to make way for the second echelon17 by 1300. In anticipation of jungle difficulties, several of the leading LST's carried bulldozers forward on their tank decks, plus LVT's to tow them in immediately through the shallow water. Once ashore, they began cutting traffic lanes from beach to road, subsequently moving on to widen the road and clear dispersal areas for the wheeled vehicles which poured in under their own power.
However, close encroachment of the "damp flat" greatly curtailed the area available for dump dispersal and necessitated some
A COMBAT-LOADED LST moves toward YELLOW Beaches. Target Hill looms in the background.
hurried improvising by the Shore Party. The official Army observer had some unkind comments to make regarding the resultant congestion,18 apparently without having grasped the major contributing factor. The peculiar reasons which caused an excellently conceived unloading plan to go awry are described as follows by an officer of the 1st Motor Transport Battalion:
The true cause of the traffic congestion can be attributed directly to Army personnel who manned 150 odd 6x6 trucks with preloaded cargo. These drivers had been scraped up from an artillery regiment in New Guinea and supplied with salvaged trucks into which had been loaded practically all the LANFOR supplies. The trucks theoretically were to discharge their cargo at the dumps, return to the LST they had debarked from and return to New Guinea for the second load. The trucks were considered expendable if they only completed one trip. The plan failed in one respect, as there were no immediate dump areas to unload the trucks in due to the "Damp Flat." It was decided to leave the cargo in the trucks until dump areas were established. This caused consternation in the ranks of the Army drivers, who consequently abandoned their trucks in an effort to get back on the LST. The drivers did not
THE LVT was the only answer to Cape Gloucester's mud.
THE 1st BATTALION, 7TH MARINES seized Target Hill and dug in.
have sufficient officers or NCO's to control them and what few they did have joined the mass exodus. This naturally left 150 trucks stranded on the beach exits for quite a time. Eventually the trucks were unloaded by Marines and proved to be a big aid to transportation starved organizations. Finally most of them were recovered some 35 days later by the Army. Even as late as Pavuvu those derelict trucks which the Army couldn't find, continued to appear, jealously hoarded by Marines.19
The commanding general, having made the trip in Admiral Barbey's flagship, destroyer USS Conyngham, had landed by 1015,20 and the division command post was in operation ashore within the hour.21
The scheme of maneuver committed two battalions of the 1st Marines to seizure of the airdrome, anticipating that these would move abreast across a wide front with the 3d Battalion, 7th Marines extending the perimeter behind them. This did not work out as planned, however. The 1st Battalion, 1st Marines landed at 1400 and attempted to go into position on the left of 3/1, only to sprawl
into that same "damp flat" which bogged down everybody who ventured any distance south of the coastal road.
However, the swamp also afforded flank protection of a sort. In view of this, the plan was quickly changed to move the 3d Battalion in column along the narrow shelf of firm ground, with the 1st Battalion echeloned to the left rear, thus greatly speeding forward progress. But no sooner did the 3d Battalion, 7th Marines move out to extend the perimeter westward in pace with the advance than a small group of Japanese infiltrated the gap thus created. Thereupon the commanding general ordered 3/7 back to the main beachhead line, and took advantage of the incident to send an urgent dispatch to Sixth Army requesting immediate use of the long wanted division reserve: 5th Marines, reinforced, which, in process of displacing from Milne Bay to Cape Sudest, could not arrive for several days. So the two battalions of the 1st Marines, continuing their advance, set up their own perimeter for the night with both flanks on the beach, a technique they repeated each evening until the airdrome was taken.
Meanwhile, as previously noted, the strong eastward surge of 1/7 had secured Target Hill against minor opposition. The Japanese had used this elevation mainly as an observation post rather than a defensive position, and the observers had moved off to escape the intensive bombing and shelling,22 attempting to reoccupy it only after the Marines were in full possession. This capture anchored the line firmly on the left. In the center the 2d Battalion passed through an enemy supply dump and by late afternoon had struggled through the entire width of the swamp, against stiffening opposition, to firm ground beyond. There the men dug in and prepared to meet the counterattacks which experience had taught them could be expected once the Japanese had time to react. Although this battalion was not tied in with the elements on either flank, and could be supplied only by amphibian tractor, the perimeter could be deemed reasonably secure, with several batteries of the 11th Marines in position and registered to the front. (See Map 9.)
The Gunners Had Their Problems
While the "damp flat" required certain changes in the infantry's tactical plans, it posed special problems for the artillery, which had to move through the swamp with its heavy equipment. Faced with the necessity of improvisation, the howitzer crews fell back on amphibian tractors and used the LVT's for the first time as prime movers in negotiating dense forest and deep swamps on a compass course.23
The 1st and 4th Battalions, 11th Marines, assigned to close support of the 7th and 1st Marines respectively, began landing from LST's on YELLOW Beaches 1 and 2 at 0900. In pre-D-Day planning a large kunai patch had been optimistically picked from aerial photographs as a likely spot for 4/11 to set up its 105mm howitzers. Now ashore and moving toward the proposed area, the battalion was jarred suddenly to find that a 400-yard swamp lay between it and its objective. Since Lieutenant Colonel T. B. Hughes' artillerymen had to clear the beach and get into position to support the drive toward the airdrome, the only course was to plunge in and get across by any means possible.24
Truck tires and wheels had been mounted beside the howitzer wheels to provide a dual surface in anticipation of some such contingency.25 LVT's were used to clear the way and tow some of the weapons, while TD-9 tractors equipped with bulldozer blades towed others in the wake of the powerful LVT's. In some cases it was necessary to team tractors in tandem to drag the artillery pieces and their trailers through the worst areas. The battalion Record of Events describes it:
The battalion moved into position through almost impassable jungle and mud thigh deep. Battalion hacked road through jungle aided very ably by amphibs.
The first battery was in position and ready to fire at 1330 D-Day and the remainder of the unit completed the move prior to darkness.26 The 4th Battalion remained in this kunai patch until its departure from New Britain.
Meanwhile, the 1st Battalion, 11th Marines was experiencing a similar surprise in its assigned area. The LVT's transporting the dismantled 75mm pack howitzers had difficulty on the coast trail from trees felled by naval gunfire and bombing. This necessitated a beach line route to Silimati
THE 1ST BATTALION, 11TH MARINES, fires in support of the 7th Marines.
AS THE LANDING PROGRESSED, the wounded began filtering back to the aid stations.
Point where the pieces were to be set up. Here the battalion found what had been identified on aerial photographs as "scattered trees" in reality was a swamp. Lieutenant Colonel Lewis J. Fields, battalion commander, ordered the howitzers set up on the beach edge of the swamp and by H-plus 4 they were ready for assigned missions.
But an afternoon of misfortune lay before these artillerymen, when friendly aircraft mistakenly strafed and bombed the 1st Battalion positions, killing one officer and wounding 14 enlisted (see sub-chapter following). This was followed by an attack on the unit by a small group of enemy troops that had been by-passed or overlooked in the infantry's advance. One Marine officer and five enlisted were killed during the ensuing fight.27 These incidents did not hamper the battalion's fire delivery, however, and it remained in the area for the duration of the campaign.
At 1325 the 2d Battalion, 11th Marines landed in support of the 1st Marines' drive to the airdrome. While experiencing some difficulty with the terrain, as did everyone landing on New Britain, the battalion had no such "damp flat" difficulties as had faced the two other units. It was able to displace forward twice in direct support of the infantry regiment.28
Never a Dull Moment
The Japanese air arm, still a factor to be reckoned with at this stage of the war, contributed a few fireworks to enliven D-Day. First alert came at about 0900, reporting 80-odd assorted fighters and bombers from Rabaul headed in the general direction of the landing area. FATF fighter cover squared away to intercept, and was somewhat puzzled when the flight failed to materialize.
As it turned out, an enemy coastwatcher on New Guinea had spotted the convoy the previous day, and snooper planes had trailed it just far enough to deceive themselves regarding its destination. A Japanese writer describes the result:
Before receiving news of this development [Cape Gloucester landing], however, our air force, having reached the tentative conclusion that the enemy movement was an operation to reinforce MERKUS [Arawe], had sent 63 Zero fighters and 25 carrier bombers to the Merkus area. . . . The air force commander had issued orders changing the attack target to the enemy landing force at Tuluvu [Gloucester] but because of a delay in transmission the change was not accomplished.29
These 88 aircraft comprised the bulk of the Japanese effective striking force, and they had to return to base to refuel and
rearm before Rabaul could do much to dispute operations at Cape Gloucester. This they did, appearing over the landing area at about 1430, almost simultaneously with the arrival of the second echelon of LST's. Although radar picked them up 60 miles out, most U.S. fighter cover was escorting the retiring convoy of the first echelon and thus was unable to intercept over the shore target.
There are almost as many versions of what happened next as there were eyewitnesses.30 The Japanese came in low and fast to bomb and strafe the beaches and shipping. Spitting machine guns, blending with the roar of diving motors, showered branches, bark and miscellaneous pieces of tree on the Marines crouching below. Bombs exploded all over the area, and air bursts and tracers stippled the sky as the LST's and a few hurriedly emplaced pieces of the 12th Defense Battalion let go with everything they had. Considering the volume of fire by both sides, Marine casualties were amazingly light and material damage negligible,31 while the Japanese suffered no confirmed loss at all.
All this shooting brought about what one correspondent describes as "the most inexcusable small scale blunder of the war."32 A formation of FATF B-25's, coming in at treetop level, suddenly found themselves snarled up with the Japanese flight almost directly over the beach. In the excitement, two were shot down by friendly fire and two seriously damaged before the gunners aboard the LST's could cool their trigger fingers.33 Possibly because they wanted to jettison their explosives, or possibly because they mistook their target, the B-25's then proceeded to bomb and strafe the Silimati point position occupied by 1st Battalion, 11th Marines, killing one officer and wounding 14 enlisted Marines.
All of these events took place in a matter of a few swift minutes.34 The enemy pilots then turned seaward to attack the convoy of the first echelon, returning empty to New Guinea. There they tangled with the U.S. fighter cover and the AA guns of their intended victims, but succeeded in sinking one destroyer and damaging three others and two LST's before being driven off.
In recounting the results of this action, both sides resorted to those astronomical figures for which combat flyers the world over seem to have a prediliction. Fifth Air Force claimed 22 of the 25 Japanese dive bombers ("VALS") destroyed and "probably more than twenty-four of their fighters," against a loss of only seven U.S. aircraft, three of these to friendly fire, in addition to the shipping loss and damage listed above.35
The previously cited Japanese source listed a bit more modestly two U.S. cruisers and two transports sunk, three transports damaged, and 20 fighter planes shot down, while reporting their own losses as 13 bombers and four ZEROES.
However, even that admitted loss must have loomed large in their steadily weakening position, for never again during the entire operation did the Japanese attempt a daylight attack on a comparable scale, though sneak raiders stole in occasionally through a low overcast to drop a random bomb or two.
But nights were a different matter.
"In the early morning hours of December 27," records the Division Special Action
Report,36 "a terrific storm struck the Cape Gloucester area."
This seemingly strong observation is by way of being an understatement. No one who has not endured it can have more than the faintest comprehension of what the northwest monsoon was like at Cape Gloucester. The first of the expected rains arrived on the afternoon of D-Day: what appeared a solid wall of water such as, seen rarely and briefly in the U.S., is called a cloudburst. Only there was nothing brief or rare about this: It lasted for hours and recurred at least once nearly every day for the next three months. The division had landed light, without tentage. Men in front line fox holes were soon up to their necks in water, those in jungle hammocks farther back not much better off.37
This sort of thing became routine soon enough, but the storm previously mentioned was something of a special feature, though by no means unique. The wind roared in from the Bismarck Sea at hurricane velocity, bringing down giant trees with rending, splintering crashes. Lightning, striking close by, blinded men, and deafening thunder drowned out the noise of gunfire: where the Japanese were counterattacking the center perimeter (see below) and Marine artillery fired over the defensive positions. In the midst of the elemental confusion, a Japanese plane dropped two flares into the area. Marines, recalling the Japanese signal for naval gunfire at Guadalcanal, promptly dove for their flooded fox holes. But no fire came from the sea, and the foul weather precluded further aerial activity, so the meaning of this futile gesture remains a mystery.
All in all, it was quite a night. The only thing lacking to make pandemonium complete was to have volcanic Mt. Langla burst into eruption, with accompanying earthquake--and an earthquake actually occurred a few days later.
That the sheer volume of rainfall proved a limiting factor on ground operations puts the case mildly. Marines had been disgruntled no end to discover the true meaning of that term, "damp flat," but from this point on dry ground of any sort became a mere nostalgic memory. The Japanese had built their coastal road for the use of light vehicles under favorable weather conditions, not to accommodate Sherman tanks, prime movers, big trucks and all the equipment necessary to handle logistics for a unit the size of a reinforced division during the monsoon season. Concentrated efforts of the engineers38 were necessary to keep it operative at all, and sometimes even these failed.
As the division report put it:
Rains continued for the next five days causing the ground to become a sea of mud. Water backed up in the swamps in the rear of the shore-line making them impassible for wheeled and track vehicles. Amphibian tractors were the only vehicles able to transport ammunition and food to troops in the forward areas. The many streams that emptied into the sea in the beachhead area and along the route of the advance toward the airfield, became raging torrents and increased the difficulties of transportation. Troops were soaked to the skin and their clothes never dried out during the entire operation.39
The Japanese, of course, suffered from the same elements that hampered the Marines; to a lesser degree, perhaps, in that they were more familiar with the terrain and less dependent on mechanical transport; to a greater degree in that they had been on short rations for a long time with consequent impairment of their general health. But regardless of difficulties and discomforts, they counterattacked on D-Day night, as expected: savagely and tenaciously, if not very cleverly.
The Misconceptions of Matsuda
Major General Iwao Matsuda, IJA, safe in his snug quarters some miles from the scene
of action, must have found the first few hours following the landing highly confusing. Certainly he acted confused. From a study of captured Japanese documents and prisoner of war interrogations, he emerges as an officer capable of making sound plans, then bungling them egregiously in the execution.
Once satisfied that a major assault was in the making, he immediately dispatched orders to Colonel Katayama of the 141st Infantry, to the southward, to call in all his patrols, leave only token garrisons at his strong points (Aisega, Nigol and Cape Bushing) and march at once with all available troops to Magairapua. But, having thus arranged to concentrate more distant forces, he proceeded to dispose his own on the immediate scene in a manner which could accomplish nothing except their defeat in detail.40
For Matsuda was guilty of one of the worst errors possible to a military man: underestimating his enemy's strength and capabilities. In the dispatch above cited, he informed Colonel Katayama that the attacking force numbered only approximately 2,500 men.
How the 65th Brigade staff managed to arrive at this extraordinary figure remains a matter for speculation. Perhaps willful deception, wishful self-deception, or plain stupid intelligence methods;41 the Japanese had already proved adept at all three. Yet an apologist for the general might plead extenuating circumstances on several counts.
The smoke screen placed early on Target Hill had deprived the Japanese of first-hand observation of the initial landing, and the subsequent U.S. capture of that key elevation had limited their later estimates of the situation to the fragmentary reports of jungle-bound patrols. True, the Marines had achieved tactical surprise by landing on undefended beaches; but Matsuda knew that very shortly thereafter they had also landed in swamps so dense and deep as to deny maneuver to a force of any formidable size, even bog down seriously a mere 2,500. In short, it was not unreasonable to assume that the invaders had outsmarted themselves into a neat trap where they must remain immobilized awaiting the kill, which should not be too difficult once the arrival of Katayama with the 141st Infantry brought Japanese numbers to nearly three times what he supposed his enemy's to be.
And events of D-Day appeared to bear out this supposition. Aside from inconveniently seizing Target Hill and pushing a perimeter of sorts across the swamps inland of the beach, the Marines had accomplished little that was visible to such eyes as Matsuda still possessed. The only fight of note had been the brief affair at the road block where the invaders, instead of throwing infantry frontally against powerful bunkers in the glorious banzai manner, had awaited supporting weapons to knock out the position. To the Japanese mind, this spelled weakness or timidity, or both.
Whatever his reasoning, Matsuda made no move to reinforce Colonel Sumiya at the airdrome, even though his own basic defense concept envisaged mutual support between their two forces; something he could have done in ample time via the inland trails behind Mt. Talawe, despite the invaders having cut the more direct coastal route. Nor did he attempt withdrawal of the airdrome troops for a concerted stand in the less valuable but more defensible Borgen Bay area. He did not even wait for Katayama to bring up the 141st from the south. Instead, either oblivious to or contemptuous of Marine beachhead defense principles, and obsessed by the then-current Japanese doctrine of "annihilate-at-the-water's-edge," he ordered his own major assault unit, 2d Battalion, 53d
TRUCKS, LIKE EVERYTHING ELSE, bogged down in the mire.
Infantry, hurled in an all-out attack against the center of the invaders' perimeter.
This proved a fruitless and bloody business. The attack struck the sector held by the 2d Battalion, 7th Marines and lasted, with intermittent lulls, from about 0300 until after 0700. Thanks, perhaps, to the fury of the storm, together with the confusing nature of the jungle terrain in pitch darkness, the Japanese failed to find the gaps existing on each side of the battalion's flanks. Three separate times the firing rose to a new crescendo as howling fanatics hurled themselves frontally against positions well dug in and partially wired, though under monsoon conditions "dug in" does not necessarily imply security. As the battalion commander describes the situation:
Rain filled up the foxholes and the men were forced to get on top of the ground. It was a choice of drowning or getting shot, the choice being a personal one. Rifles refused to work on account of the water and mud, as did numerous other weapons. 81 and 60mm mortar fire through the tree tops layed "by guess and by God" was invaluable in these attacks.42
The gap on the right,43 between 2/7 and 3/7, was partially plugged at about 0700 by Battery D, 1st Special Weapons Battalion,
fighting as infantry. This unit had been ordered forward at 2000 but became lost in the same stormy darkness that confused the Japanese. It arrived just in time to play an important part in repulsing the final enemy attack, as a result of which it sustained several casualties, and its personnel received five individual decorations.44
When the surviving Japanese finally slunk away, they carried their wounded with them. But they left more than 200 dead on the scene. Although the 7th Marines would be aware of pressure for several days to come, the enemy 2d Battalion, 53d Infantry would need plenty of replacements from other branches before it could constitute a major assault threat again.
In estimating enemy capabilities, U.S. pre-invasion intelligence shrewdly gave precedence to these two lines of action:
To attempt holding the airdrome, using prepared positions built into a defense in depth.
To counterattack strongly from the Borgen Bay area.45
As has been noted, General Matsuda attempted to do both these things, while concentrating his full strength on neither. But we know this partially through hindsight; it was not entirely clear to those on the scene at the end of D-Day.
What the Marines did know was that they had effected a remarkably efficient landing on terrain described by their commanding general as "the most difficult that I have ever encountered in landing operations."46
Establishment of the beachhead perimeter and commencement of the drive on the airdrome had cost the division 21 killed in action and 23 wounded. The next day enemy counteraction added eight killed and 45 wounded to the D-Day figures.47 Estimated Japanese casualties approached the 300 mark.48
Although the terrain had proved worse than the planners had anticipated, and the weather worse than the uninitiated could have imagined, Japanese ground resistance had been less severe than expected, their air resistance impotent. All troops were ashore safely, together with their equipment, including rolling stock, tanks and artillery. Dump dispersal had failed to measure up to optimistic advance plans owing to proximity of the island swamps; yet in addition to assault landing craft, 14 LST's had been completely unloaded of their vehicles and 55% of their combined bulk cargo,49 and the difficult shore party problem momentarily solved. The main perimeter stood firm, and a substantial start had been made on the airdrome drive, even if not exactly in the manner planned.
Altogether, the division had reason to be pleased with itself. Only one aspect caused the command post real uneasiness: the impossibility of establishing direct communication with the group (LT 21)50 which had made the secondary landing to the west and south in an area that turned out to be a "dead spot"51 for radio communication with division. And even this concern was relaxed during the evening when the landing team commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel James M. Masters, Sr., succeeded in getting through to Sixth Army headquarters, which relayed the word that his landing had been unopposed and that his force was in position to carry out its mission.
1. The secondary landing on opposite side of the cape is treated under heading GREEN Beach in Chap VI.
2. 1st MarDiv SAR. II, 3.
3. Two destroyers and two motor mine sweepers had preceded the convoy through the reef opening under cover of darkness, located shoals by means of sound gear, and marked these with buoys improvised from powder cans. Morison, op. cit.
4. Reports vary as to exact time. 1st MarDiv SAR, II, 3, states "approximately one hour after dawn." In notes made on the scene, this writer records sighting the B-24's at 0656, only a few minutes before their bombs began to fall.
5. The plume of grayish volcanic smoke rising continuously from the crater of Mt. Langla was mistaken at first for another exploded dump, though that seemed an odd location for one.
6. CG, 1st MarDiv had foreseen this possibility and wished to dispense with smoke screen altogether, believing that smoke and dust from naval gunfire would be sufficient to cover the approach. CG, Fifth AF disagreed and proposed originally to smoke the beaches themselves. They compromised on Target Hill. (MajGen E. A. Pollock, comments on prelim script, hereinafter cited as Pollock.)
7. 1st MarDiv SAR, II, 4, 5. 7th Mar SAR and WD gives the distance as 650 yards. Opposition came from the same road block that gave K/1 a rough time a little later. See below.
8. Owing to reluctance of Navy commanders to beach their LST's forcefully, personnel and vehicles often had to debark in shoulder-deep water. As early as possible the Shore Party constructed sandbag piers out to the individual vessels to facilitate unloading. (LtCol Nathaniel Morgenthal, comments on prelim script, hereinafter cited as Morgenthal.)
9. Pratt, op. cit.
10. "There was ample evidence of [the terrain's] true nature of aerial photographs taken before the landing. . . . Oblique photographs taken during prelanding bombing strikes . . . showed hundreds of bomb craters full of water. Since these craters showed virtually no rim shadow, it indicated a water table almost at ground level. During a number of briefing sessions with various officers I personally pointed out these facts." Burcham. Australian Major Mather also predicted swamps during the planning phase, apparently two voices crying in the wilderness.
11. McMillan, op. cit., 173.
12. Of course, many trees had fallen previously, adding complications to the already almost impassable tangle. Numbers of unexploded aerial bombs did not help matters, either. (LtCol O. M. Conoley, comments on prelim script, hereinafter cited as Conoley.)
13. Notably two fortified positions on Silimati Point. One of these contained a 75mm gun pointing seaward, but so emplaced that its crew was unable to traverse it sufficiently to the left to fire on the invading boats. Both were knocked out by the 1st Platoon of Company A. (LtCol M. W. Moore, comments on prelim script, hereinafter cited as Moore.)
14. Capts Joseph A. Terzi and Phillip A. Wilheit. Command devolved temporarily on Lieut Hoyt C. Duncan, Jr., as it would once more. See Chap VI.
15. History of First Marine Regiment, hereinafter cited as 1st Mar His.; pp. 6-7. This source gives Marine losses as five killed, five wounded, evidently not including the two LVT men killed. Twenty-five Japanese died in this action.
16. Ltr Maj W. W. Wright to CMC, 15Feb52, hereinafter cited Wright.
17. Each "flight" consisted of 7 LST's: 3 on YELLOW 1, 4 on YELLOW 2. So tight was the movement schedule that they were obliged to retract before complete unloading of bulk cargo stowed farthest aft. As a result, several carried the same cargo back and forth on successive trips. Morgenthal.
18. AGF Rpt by Army Liaison Officer, 8.
19. Maj G. J. DeBell, comments on prelim script.
20. General Rupertus was ashore at the time Company K, 1st Marines, became embroiled with the road block. He ordered tanks landed immediately and moved forward in support. The position had been reduced by the time they arrived, but they remained with the assault elements and played an important, often crucial, part throughout the drive on the airdrome.
21. Reliable wire communications did not become a reality for 48 hours, owing to terrain difficulties encountered by the wire crews and their uncertainty regarding CP locations. Radio was barely adequate, though communications with Sixth Army were generally excellent. Wismer. Throughout the assault phase, crews were kept busy splicing ground-laid wire to forward positions because it was constantly being chewed up by the treads of the ubiquitous amtracks.
22. It had been standard procedure for Japanese observers to quit their exposed positions on Target Hill when brought under heavy attack, leaving their equipment there against their early return. On 26 December, however, when it became clear that a major landing was in the making, Matsuda issued orders instructing the men posted there to remain in their positions at all costs. (POW No. 1,000.) Whether they did not receive the word, or simply chose to ignore it, is not clear. In any event, the Marines captured the best observation point in the area, together with some fine optical equipment, without a struggle worthy of the name, and thenceforth the Japanese command fought mainly in darkness.
23. Ltr LtCol Dale H. Heely to CMC, 1Mar52, hereinafter cited as Heely.
24. "One of the guns and its TD-9 tractor bogged down while crossing the swamp and all that remained above the mud was five inches of the gun shield and the driver's seat, exhaust pipe and a few levers of the prime mover." Ltr LtCol Hoyt U. Bookhart, Jr., to CMC, 25Feb52, hereinafter cited as Bookhart.
25. Ltr LtCol Joe B. Russell to CMC, 14Mar52, hereinafter cited as Russell.
28. 2/11 set up at the airdrome where it remained until 23Feb44 when it joined the 5th Marines in the eastward advance to Iboki and Talasea.
5/11 landed with the 5th Marines 30Dec43, set up halfway between YELLOW Beach 1 and the airdrome and later moved to the airdrome where it remained.
3/11, except for Battery H, remained in New Guinea, joining the Division 19Feb44 and going into position at the airdrome. H/11 landed at Tauali with 2/1 and after conclusion of the GREEN Beach operation came under control of 2/11 until the arrival of its parent battalion.
29. Southeast Area Naval Operations, Part 3; Document No. 40429; Microfilm 851-102 at Division of Naval Records and History (Op 29), Office of CNO. Japanese side of the story herein derives from this source.
30. Accounts covering various phases were submitted to Historical Branch, G-3 by the following officers: Cols F. H. Cooper and Robert McGlashan; Lt Cols H. F. Noyes, Jr., A. D. Swift, Jr., Elliott Wilson and W. W. Worden; Maj P. S. Parish, and CWO S. J. Fishel. Many Marines, including the author, were in the jungle at the time and witnessed virtually nothing.
31. 1st MarDiv SAR, II, 5.
32. Ltr LtCol H. F. Noyes, Jr., to CMC, 19Feb52.
33. "The other ships recognized our planes & stopped shooting but trees obscured the planes from No. 26 & they continued shooting getting the two." Lt Col A. D. Swift, Jr., comments on prelim script.
34. As an indication of how confusing those few minutes were, many Marines saw no Japanese planes at all and believed the bombing and strafing done entirely by the B-25's.
35. AAF in WWII, Vol IV. 341.
36. 1stMarDiv SAR, II, 6.
37. "On at least one occasion I had six to eight inches of water collected in the lowest portion of my hammock while I was attempting to sleep in it." Wismer.
38. 3/17 (Seabees) which would later take over principal responsibility for maintaining the coastal road and bridging the streams, did not arrive until late on D-plus 1. Since 2/17 was mostly engaged with shore party activities, the bulk of the burden fell on the 1st Bn on D-Day.
39. 1st MarDiv SAR, II, 6.
40. ATIS 754, 7. Further details regarding subsequent actions of Matsuda and Katayama occur in Chap VII.
41. A characteristic sample of Japanese intelligence ineptness appears in a diary entry of an officer engaged at Arawe on the southern coast about this time. After fighting for two weeks in complete ignorance of their opponents' strength and intentions--or even identity--his unit finally captured a prisoner. Instead of making even an attempt at extracting valuable information: "He was killed right away by 1stLt Kaji." ATIS No. 789, 1.
43. The 500-yard gap on the left, between 2/7 and 1/7, was closed during the afternoon of D-plus 1 by extending 1/7 thinly over a front of 2700 yards. Regimental Wpns Co was placed under 1st Bn command at this time with mission of protecting coastal road and perimeter left flank. (Col J. E. Weber, comments on prelim draft, hereinafter cited as Weber.)
44. 1st MarDiv SAR, II, 6; LtCol W. J. Dickinson, comments on prelim script.
45. Annex "A" to Operation Order No. 43, 3-4.
46. Ltr MajGen W. H. Rupertus to Gen Walter Krueger, USA, 6Jan44, hereinafter cited as Rupertus.
47. 1st MarDiv SAR, II, 5.
48. An estimated 50 Japanese were killed during the day and two taken prisoner; no wounded were found. (1st MarDiv SAR, II, 5.) Estimates of those killed in the attack on 2/7 range from 200 to 235. Continued enemy activity after daylight made an accurate count impossible, and it was believed that the Japanese succeeded in carrying off many of their dead subsequently. 7th Mar WD.
49. 1st MarDiv SAR, II, 5.
50. See Chap VI.
51. LtCol Robert Hall, comments on prelim script, hereinafter cited as Hall.
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