From its inception, the mission assigned to the 1st Battalion, 2d Marines, in NTLF Operation Plan 3-44 was the subject of much thought and discussion. That mission, in part, follows: " . . . land on the night of D minus one-D day, on selected beaches of Magicienne Bay, move rapidly inland, seize Mt. Tapotchau before daylight, and defend same until relieved."1
To carry the 1st Battalion, 2d Marines, to Saipan for its daring assignment, six destroyer transports (APD's) were assigned. To fit this shipping, the battalion commander, Lieutenant Colonel Wood B. Kyle, reorganized his unit (normally three rifle companies and a headquarters company) into five companies and assigned numbers in place of normal lettered designations. Each company, about 125 officers and men strong, was then assigned to an APD. Three of the companies were basically rifle units, while the other two each contained an echelon of battalion headquarters, rifle and weapons units. Remaining personnel, transportation, and equipment of the battalion were attached to the 2d Marines' headquarters and transported to Saipan with the 2d Marine Division convoy. The sixth APD (five were used to carry the five companies) would transport Company A, Corps Amphibious Reconnaissance Battalion, which had been attached for the mission. (See Appendix VII for Task Organization.)
To preserve mobility, Kyle's unit would carry no weapons heavier than 60mm mortars; the heavy machine guns and 81mm mortars, plus five days of all types of supplies, were embarked aboard two escort carriers (CVE's). A portion of the Corps Air Delivery Platoon was embarked in the designated carriers to package and handle supplies and equipment for further parachute-drop to the battalion from torpedo planes.
The battalion's ship-to-shore movement would be accomplished in rubber boats, towed by landing craft to within about 50 yards of the beach, from which point they were to be paddled ashore. The amphibious reconnaissance company would precede the main landing by about one hour, find and mark the beach and hold a shallow beachhead until the remainder of the battalion had landed. From that point, the long, hard trek to Tapotchau's summit would begin.2
The desirability of having friendly troops so located on the morning of D-Day is obvious; possession of that height would to some extent limit the enemy's observation of our
RUGGED TERRAIN and a prepared enemy would have confronted the 1st Battalion, 2d Marines, in its move from the shore of Magicienne Bay to Mt. Tapotchau's heights. Fortunately, the mission was cancelled.
beachhead and would afford us a precious advantage. But would this advantage be overbalanced by prohibitive losses? Or, more specifically, was there sufficient indication that the mission would be successful despite the cost?
Gambles frequently pay off; the Guadalcanal campaign had proved that. Guadalcanal had been a tribute not only to the "ready" Fleet Marine Force but to the willingness of our higher command to accept risk. The exact point where gamble becomes foolhardy venture is sometimes difficult to determine. Looking with historical rather than planning eyes, it is easy to decide that Kyle's mission exceeded the bounds of acceptable risk; but, at the time, lacking the complete and detailed aerial photograph coverage which had been requested, it was a difficult decision.
Aside from the risk to personnel, there were several disconcerting imponderables. Would possession of the mountain's summit be sufficient to curtail the enemy's observation to any marked degree? The battalion could hope to occupy only a part of the vast hill mass, and the remainder would still be available to the Japanese. Enemy observers might even be accorded a greater degree of safety by the Marines' presence, since U. S. naval gunfire, air and artillery bombardment of that area would be somewhat limited.
A 2d Division staff estimate, prepared during the planning stage, deduced that Kyle's mission was impracticable and would be disastrous. Since the 1st Battalion, 2d Marines, was operating as an immediate subordinate unit of the Northern Troops and Landing Force,
it remained for the 2d Division to present its views to the Corps staff. Lieutenant Colonel Wallace M. Green, Jr., division operations officer (D-3), journeyed to Corps Headquarters and was referred to the G-5 (Planning) Section. There Colonel Greene presented the estimate to Colonel Joseph T. Smith and Lieutenant Colonel Joseph C. Anderson, USA, with the recommendation that the mission be cancelled. The estimate was accepted, but no action on the cancellation of the mission was taken.3
As part of the same 2d Division effort to convince Corps' planners that Kyle's mission was unfeasible, Lieutenant Colonel Thomas J. Colley, 2d Division intelligence officer, flew to Pearl Harbor and presented his section's conclusions to the Corps intelligence officer. These conclusions, based upon a comprehensive interpretation of available aerial photographs, established the fact that the enemy had strong defensive positions facing Magicienne Bay.4
The mission was finally changed on order of Lieutenant General Holland M. Smith, who had spent many sleepless nights pondering the problem. Prior to departure from Pearl Harbor for the target area, the general arrived in the office of his chief of staff, Brigadier General Graves B. Erskine, and said something to the effect: "I've decided that battalion won't execute that mission." He went on to indicate that the unit would remain under NTLF control as a ready reserve to be committed wherever a desirable situation presented itself. The battalion would still be transported in six APD's, and supply would still be accomplished by air-drop. It was too late to change these details, and indeed, circumstances might later develop which would make the arrangement desirable.5
The wheels were thus set in motion to cancel the mission. It is interesting to note that, though plans had been cancelled to land Kyle's unit before the main landings, the unit was to "be prepared after How-hour [author's italics] to land on order on selected beaches of Magicienne Bay, or on other beaches to be designated later."6 In addition to written changes to operation orders (Joint Expeditionary Force published the change on 20 May), there were a number of conferences between principal commanders and all units were informed of the alteration.
Even now we may breathe a sigh of relief. Magicienne Bay's coastline bristled with defenses, and the long nightmarish route from the bay to Mt. Tapotchau would have been a formidable challenge even had there been no enemy along the way and had it been undertaken in broad daylight.
Few schemes of maneuver or plans of action throughout the entire Pacific war were the subject for as much argument and discussion as the one assigned to the 1st Battalion, 2d Marines. That all of the opinion, even on the Corps staff, was not favorable to the scheme is indicated by the following observations of Colonel John C. McQueen, G-3, V Amphibious Corps:
The G-3 Section, V Amphibious Corps, did not subscribe to the plan of landing Kyle's battalion at Magicienne Bay. The section firmly believed that Kyle's battalion would completely fail in its mission and also believed that those of the battalion who might successfully be landed would be wiped out before getting very far toward their objective. . . . To us the idea of this battalion successfully reaching the summit of Mt. Tapotchau before daylight, even from the viewpoint of terrain alone, seemed incredible. When Kyle first reported to me for secret instructions pertaining to the type of training his battalion would undergo for the planned hazardous landing, it was easy to discern that he knew he was in for an extremely tough assignment, and he appeared to fully realize the seriousness of the undertaking. Of course we did not disclose our own feelings in the matter. Our section's reaction to the
plan was made known and discussed with G-5 and the Chief of Staff. However, those in authority decided to incorporate the scheme in the operation plans and carry it out in the event later intelligence data indicated not too strong opposition in the Magicienne Bay area. We were greatly relieved when we learned . . . that the mission had been cancelled by General Smith.7
Another observation, furnished by Lieutenant Colonel Thomas R. Yancey, USA, G-2, Northern Troops and Landing Force, further clarifies the reasons for the cancellation:
I am sure that what actually prompted General Holland Smith to . . . change the mission of the battalion was the lack of detailed information concerning enemy dispositions and defense positions in the Magicienne Bay area. There was very little information that could be obtained on this area due to lack of cloud free photographic coverage of large enough scale to determine accurately hostile defensive installations.
General Smith and his Chief of Staff, Brigadier General Graves B. Erskine, were both concerned about this situation and during the planning phase of the operation frequently visited the G-2 Section to emphasize the importance of obtaining information of the Magicienne Bay area. When this information was not forthcoming, it appears logical that the mission as initially assigned reached the stage when it was more than a calculated risk and was subsequently cancelled.8
With all that has been said of the Magicienne Bay plan, it is of particular interest to note that personnel of the 1st Battalion, 2d Marines, were in no sense pessimistic about their assigned task. In this respect, the commander of Company A (Captain Louis V. Brooks) has written:
There was probably no doubt in anyone's mind that the mission was unusually hazardous, but this very fact seems to have lent a zest to it which contributed substantially to the high morale. And morale definitely was high. Throughout the training phase there was a sense of exhiliration derived from the knowledge that the battalion had been selected for something special, and it was felt by the officers and men of the battalion that they had been so chosen because they were well led and had a good fighting record. Such appelations as "Kyle's Raiders" and "Suicide Battalion", given us by men of other units, merely served to increase our pride.
Our training took on a special character, and as it progressed, our confidence in our ability increased. Along with this was a widespread confidence in Colonel Kyle's leadership. This was particularly strong among those of us who had been with him at Guadalcanal and Tarawa. . . . The fact that we had been chosen for a special mission--alone--and that there might be many outcomes seemed merely to heighten our enthusiasm.9
Table of Contents ** Previous Chapter (Appendix IV) * Next Chapter (Appendix VI)
1. NTLF Operation Plan 3-44.
3. LtGen T. E. Watson's endorsement to LtCol W. B. Kyle's ltr, 20Nov48. The date of Col Greene's recommendation is not indicated in documents consulted, but it is assumed to have been in early May 1944.
4. Ltr from Col T. J. Colley to CMC, 14Jan50. The photographs concerned in this study, Colley writes, were "very poor in quality. The photos were taken at various angles, neither vertical nor oblique, of changing elevation (and scale) and somewhat fuzzy in detail." He felt it was likely that the plane which had taken the pictures was attempting "to evade attack by Japanese airplanes."
5. Interview with Col R. E. Hogaboom, LtCol J. L. Stewart and LtCol E. W. Durant, Jr., 3Dec48.
6. NTLF Operation Plan 3-44, Change No. 1.
7. Ltr from Col J. C. McQueen to DirPubInfo, 15Jun49.
9. Memo from Capt L. V. Brooks to author, 25Jul49.