The Coast Guard's Role in the Invasion of the
Southwest Pacific and the Caroline Islands
by Dr. Robert M. Browning.
The Coast Guard manned Cargo ship Etamin (AK-93), steamed toward Aitape Harbor on the night of April 21, 1944. The Etamin sailed as part of a 161 vessel task force, including twenty other Coast Guard vessels, organized to make landings at Hollandia, Tanahmerah Bay, and Aitape. During the approach to the invasion beach, the ship's commanding officer, LCDR George Stedman USCGR, spoke to his men and told them of their mission and its hazards. On board were 6,000 tons of high explosives and gasoline in drums destined to be unloaded on the invasion beach. A mistake with this cargo would be fatal. At 0545 the cargo vessel entered the harbor with the rest of the Eastern Attack Group. With minesweepers ahead, Etamin had on each beam other amphibious ships approaching the beach in the dark.
In the predawn mist a destroyer shattered the stillness with the opening shots of the preliminary bombardment. The Etamin's three-inch gun opened up shortly thereafter pummeling enemy targets that included enemy pillboxes and a Japanese barge. The bombardment ended at 0630 and the combat team from the ship landed at 0800. Forty minutes later the cargo hatches were off and the winches whined as the heavy LCMs, and the cargo began going over the side.
Japanese aircraft attacked the beachhead on the second night. Bombs fell on the congested beach area and started a fire among gasoline storage and an ammunition dump. The fire lasted five days. On the night of 27 April, Japanese torpedo planes attacked the anchorage. At 2300 one swung in low off the starboard side of the Etamin and released a torpedo. It struck the starboard side about ten feet above the keel in the number five hold and ruptured the shell plating and the shaft alley. The blast sprayed gasoline over the after part of the ship, but the gas did not immediately catch fire. As the number five hold and the engine room flooded, gas fumes came in contact with the boilers and ignited. The engine room exploded in flames and severely burned three men. All hands fought the fire as the stern rapidly settled. LCDR Stedman decided to beach the ship but with no power he had to ask for assistance from an LCT. The LCT, however, could not budge the large cargo ship and Stedman gave the order to abandon ship. Only two of the ship's complement of 200 Coast Guard and 150 Army personnel died. Fortunately this was the only serious damage suffered by any of the Naval vessels during the Hollandia operation.
In the two years since the first landings on Guadalcanal in August 1942, the Allies had hopped across the Pacific Ocean from island to island and now stood on the door of the Philippine Islands. The amphibious operations in the Pacific had taken the form of a two-pronged advance. General Douglas MacArthur led the Allied advance in the south Pacific. Marching up the island of New Guinea in "leap-frog" moves his men had progressed 1,000 miles. Admiral Chester Nimitz headed the Central Pacific campaign that hopped westward from island chain to island chain. Starting in the Solomon Islands his naval amphibious forces had driven the Japanese about 2,000 miles west of Guadalcanal. Closing like a pincer both advances were aimed straight towards the Philippines. One more series of conquests and Douglas MacArther would be able to fulfill his promise to return to and liberate the Philippines.
In April 1942, MacArthur decided to push to the Northwest of New Guinea and seize the coastal area at Hollandia and Aitape. By doing so he would bypass and cut off as many as 60,000 Japanese. At dawn on 22 April, amphibious forces landed on the shores of Humbolt Bay and Tanahmerah Bay with little or no opposition. The Coast Guard had twenty-one manned or partially manned LSTs, transports and frigates take part in the operation. These landings completely surprised the Japanese who fled into the interior and lost towns and airfields with little or no fight.
In May, naval units approached Wakde Island, 115 miles west of Hollandia. The main objective was the capture an airfield that might threaten Allied efforts to develop Hollandia into a naval and air base. Naval and Coast Guard LSTs under the command of Captain Frank D. Higbee, USCG, landed men at Wakde Island. On 17 May, US and Australian cruisers and American destroyers bombarded the island before the amphibious units landed their men. There was no opposition to the landing and by evening an eight mile beachhead was established. The Americans had to kill the Japanese to the man before finally securing the island and its airfield on the evening of May 19th.
On 2 July, several weeks after the Normandy invasion and with a great amphibious force striking the Marianas, the Coast Guard participated in the landings at the island of Noemfoor which lays between Biak Island and New Guinea. Here eight Coast Guard-manned LSTs landed contingents of the 158th United States Infantry Regimental Combat Team. At the edge of the reef that lay around the island, cargoes had to be transferred from the LSTs into smaller and more shallow-draft LCIs. The Coast Guard-manned frigates El Paso, Orange, and San Pedro also served to screen the landing operations from enemy submarines and aircraft. On 2 July, the landings went off as planned and the island and its three airfields were in Allied hands within four days. Mopping up actions lasted until the end of August.
At the end of July, General MacArthur sent an amphibious expeditionary force to Cape Sansapor, New Guinea. By doing so he made a 200 mile jump from his previous most advanced position. The advances up the New Guinea coast had succeeded in cutting off and isolating several Japanese strongholds. For all purposes this would finish his amphibious operations in New Guinea and MacArthur would be ready to strike the Philippines in several months. Ten Coast Guard-manned LSTs 18, 22, 26, 66, 67, 68, 170, 202, 204, and 206, all took part in the landings and the follow-up activity. The Coast Guard-manned frigates Bisbee, Coronado, Eugene, Gallup, Glendale, Long Beach, San Pedro, and performed offshore patrols during the landings.
The conquest of the Marianas, and New Guinea cleared the approaches to the Philippines except for two groups of islands. The Allies would have to capture the Caroline group that included Peleliu, Angaur, Ngesbus, Ulithi, and Ngulu, and the islands of Morotai and Halmahera in the Moluccas.
The attacks on the Palaus and Molluccas was a coordinated effort. The island of Morotai in the Molluccas, lays 500 miles southwest of the Palaus islands. Captain Higbee led his Task Unit of LSTs and cargo vessels, veterans of many Pacific campaigns, toward the island. On 15 September, at 0830, his ships landed the first men on Pitoe Beach on the east side of the island. Preceding the landing craft were the cruisers, destroyers and aircraft that bombarded Japanese positions to secure the beaches for the nearly 17,000 Army troops poised to land. Nineteen Coast Guard vessels including eleven LSTs and eight frigates participated in the landings. Coral heads and uncharted beaches hampered some of the operations. The Japanese did not contest the landings and most of the small enemy force fled the island. One of the main objectives was the capture of an airfield on the island and this was done quickly. Within weeks 45,000 troops were on the island and Army planes flew from the newly built airfield, ready to support future Allied advances.
Landings on Peleliu in the Palau Islands the westernmost islands in the Caroline chain, on the same day, were a different story. The immense amphibious forces attacking the Carolines comprised about 800 vessels, carrying nearly 20,000 soldiers and over 28,000 marines. The Coast Guard manned vessels at Peleliu were Aquarius, Centaurus, LST-19, and LST-23. The transports Crescent City, Fuller, Stringham, also participated with partial Coast Guard crews. The transports of Task force 32.3 arrived off the beachhead at 0500 on 15 September. The landings took place on the southwest shore of the island. With determination, the Japanese contested the landing and inflicted about 200 casualties at the beachhead.
Peleliu did not differ from many of the other Pacific Islands-- reefs surrounded the island making the landings and the support of the operations difficult. Coral heads and boulders obstructed the landings for even the smallest landing craft. Only small boats and the tracked LTVs could be used to get directly to the beach.
The large LSTs approached the beach as close as they could and then the smaller craft travelled back and forth to land troops and supplies. The Coast Guard-manned LSTs were as efficient as usual. LST-19 lowered its ramp at 0718 and all the LTVs were out and heading for the beach in ten minutes.
On the 15th, high winds ripped through the area and disrupted the landing of supplies. The wind increased the swells so that the smaller craft could not get to the beach. Crucial supplies needed to be landed and the LSTs were the only vessels that could work through this pounding surf and the huge swells.
Six LSTs attempted to run supplies from the transports onto the beach during this blow. They only had to traverse about 100 yards of shallow water. Three of these vessels went aground and the reefs tore their bottoms out. During the first two days of the operation the Japanese kept the beach under mortar and light artillery fire. This, however did not halt the steady flow of supplies to the beach.
The Japanese defenses did slow the soldiers and Marines. A ridge with a cluster of pillboxes nicknamed "Bloody Nose Ridge" took six days to capture. By the 26th the Americans had surrounded the enemy but the assault did not end until mid-October.
Just two days after the landings on Peleliu the Coast Guard manned transports disembarked troops of the 81st Infantry Division on Angaur Island. Anguar, the southenmost of the Palaus, lies only six miles south of Peleliu and was covered with heavy underbrush and caves. After being subjected to an intense bombardment from sea and air, the Callaway and Leonard Wood landed the men on the northeast and eastern side of the island against light opposition.
The Leonard Wood served as the flagship of Commander Transport Division 20 for the landings. Carrying over 1800 officers and men of eight different Army units, the Wood's task group made a feint thirty miles northeast on the eastern shore of Babelthaup Island before steaming to the northeast and northern corner of Anguar to disembark the troops. Callaway served as the flagship for Commander Task Unit 32.4.3. Assault troops went ashore at 0830 using almost every type of amphibious craft. The troops on the Wood loaded into their landing craft and cleared the ship in nineteen minutes.
The troops established two beachheads within thirty minutes of landing and pushed into the interior. The Japanese garrison, probably numbering about 1600, fled inland to better defensive positions. The cost of rooting the Japanese out of caves and heavy brush was heavy and the medical staffs on board the two Coast Guard transports treated nearly 400 casualties during the operation. The island was secured to the extent that two 6000 foot runways were in operation within a month of the landings. Even though the Japanese were completely overwhelmed, the Army did not secure this island until ten months later and remarkably some Japanese held out in caves for over a year after the Allies stormed ashore.
Landings in the other islands in the Carolines had little or no enemy opposition and likewise little Coast Guard participation. The Japanese abandoned Ulithi and this atoll became a major anchorage for fleet operations and a recreation area for the troops. The capture of the Caroline Islands cleared the last obstacle for the advance on the Philippine Islands. The landings in the Philippines in October 1944, would fulfill General Douglas MacArthur's promise to liberate the Philippine people from Japanese rule. The Coast Guard's involvement in the landings at Leyte and the operations around the islands would be greater than in any other previous Pacific amphibious operation.