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The Coast Guard's Participation in the Invasion of the Gilbert Islands

By Dr. Robert M. Browning, Jr.

The vast Pacific Ocean stretched before the gathering invasion forces. Nearly 200 vessels, some traveling from as far as Hawaii, assembled in two groups to attack the small Japanese-held atolls of Tarawa and Makin in the Central Pacific. One of the many transports present was the large Coast Guard manned transport Leonard Wood. The men on board exhibited signs of tense anticipation as they awoke and ate their last cooked meal for many days. The general quarters alarm sounds and the men take one last gulp of their juice or coffee before heading to their battle stations. Everything now seems to be in motion on the ship. As the men reach their stations they peer through the darkness. All around are the silhouetted shapes of warships, transports and auxiliary vessels. This is a familiar site for the crewmen of the Leonard Wood who participated in the North African and the Sicilian campaigns. These veterans would now lend their experience in amphibious operations against the Japanese.

The assault on Tarawa and Makin were just two of many landings that the Coast Guard participated in within a five month period in the summer and fall of 1943. The battle for Guadalcanal and the subsequent naval battles for control of the entire area lasted from August 1942 until late 1943. For several months the Americans consolidated their positions in the southern Solomons and the Japanese bitterly contested each move. During the summer and fall of 1943, a series of decisive naval battles around this island chain and in adjacent waters gave the Allies important strategic control of the area.

These sea battles occurred almost simultaneously with the European amphibious campaigns that captured North Africa, Sicily, and landed troops on the Italian peninsula. Once the Allies secured the key Pacific island of Guadalcanal in February 1943, they began to look for another place to strike the Japanese.  Allied Pacific strategy called for an "island hopping" campaign whereby strongly held but widely separated Japanese positions were bypassed in favor of more weakly guarded ones. This allowed the armed forces to keep momentum, to cut off communications and logistical connections of Japanese strongholds, and to eventually reduce them.

In the southwest Pacific, the first step had required a base to operate from. The capture of Guadalcanal allowed the Allies the use of this island as a staging area, to advance further west. The Japanese realized the importance of Guadalcanal but too late to prevent the American conquest of it.

In May 1943, at the Trident Conference, the Allies hammered out European strategy but also decided to begin a central Pacific campaign. Boldly the Allies chose to mount two simultaneous advances in the Pacific. One operation in the southwest Pacific would move northwest from Guadalcanal up the Solomon Island chain thrusting toward the Japanese bastion of Rabaul. Termed Operation "Cartwheel", this particular operation was the responsibility of the Army and General Douglas MacArthur. The other operation in the central Pacific under the command of ADM Chester Nimitz targeted the capture of the Gilbert Islands. This two-division invasion of the Gilbert Islands was nicknamed Operation "Galvanic."

The initial strategic control of the Guadalcanal area gave the Allies the immediate opportunity to continue pushing the Japanese northwest up the Solomon Island's chain. Looking northwest from Guadalcanal, the next island group up the chain was New Georgia. Here the Japanese built an airfield that threatened American positions. Continued American air raids and ship bombardments failed to put the airfield out of action permanently. The building of a second airfield nearby prodded the Americans into action. The Army and Marines made landings in June at several points on Rendova, New Georgia, and Vangunu islands. Five transports with partial Coast Guard crews participated. A four week campaign ended with the capture of the airfield ending this particular threat.

Vella Lavella was the next link in the chain to be considered. Just forty miles from New Georgia it lay on the other side of the fortified and well-garrisoned island of Kolombangara. The Americans decided to bypass Kolombangara and make a landing on Vella Lavella. On August 15th, the partially Coast Guard-manned LST-334 and the fully-manned LST-167 participated in the landings. For weeks both assisted with the supply of the troops ashore.

On 24 September, LST-167 departed Guadalcanal and beached at Ruravai, Vella Lavella. Three dive bombers appeared as the last equipment for the 77th Marine Combat Battalion rolled off the ship. Twenty anti-aircraft guns on the LST blazed away at the three planes as they rolled into their attack. The planes all released their bombs as they pulled out of their dive as one burst into flame and another began trailing smoke.

The Japanese aircraft, however, had been on the mark with their bombs. One struck and penetrated the main deck, exploded and blew out through the side of the ship. A second also went through the main deck and exploded on the tank deck setting fire to 1000 gallons of gasoline, and 250 drums of oil that had yet to be unloaded. The fire was intense. Casualties were removed and when live ammunition began exploding the fire fighting crews also left the ship. Two officers and eight men died in the attack. An additional five men were listed as missing. This constituted the largest loss of life on a Coast Guard landing ship or craft during the war.

It took a week for American and New Zealand troops to secure Vella Lavella. Meanwhile General Douglas MacArthur began to attack New Guinea, about 500 miles west of the Soloman Islands. Amphibious landings during a three day period put ashore 14,000 troops without a casualty. Four Coast Guard LSTs took part in the landings at Finschafen on 22 September. The Coast Guard manned LSTs beached, Australian troops on board stormed ashore, and the LSTs retracted without serious incident. 41 Japanese aircraft attacked the retiring convoy which caused the ships to break convoy formation and weave at high speed to avoid the attacking enemy aircraft. American fighters drove off the Japanese and the ships luckily escaped damage. Finschafen fell into Allied hands in only ten days.

Bouganville Island, 75 miles northwest of Vella Lavella, was the Allies' next objective. The island is the most northwestern of the Solomon Island chain. The major goal was to secure a portion of the island and build a base to strike at the Japanese stronghold of Rabaul.

For the Bouganville operation eight attack transports, four attack cargo ships, eleven destroyers, and 17 other destroyer-minesweepers, minelayers and fleet tugs assembled off Guadalcanal on 31 October. The initial landing force consisted of the reinforced 3rd Marine Division--over 14,000 men.

The Coast Guard manned Hunter Liggett served as the flagship of the amphibious forces. Nine other transports had Coast Guardsmen on board. On November 1st, the invasion force arrived off the island, the boats of the transports went into the water with astonishing smoothness. The boats went ashore with virtually no confusion and the first wave hit the beach about forty minutes after the transports arrived.

The Allies landed in the middle of the western side of the island at Empress Augusta Bay. The Japanese had about 60,000 Army and Navy personnel in the Bouganville area but few where the Allies landed. Between seven and eight thousand marines went ashore in the first wave. The men landed on twelve predetermined beaches that stretched for over four miles. The steep beaches combined with moderate surf caused nearly 90 landing craft to broach or swamp.

Over a period of a couple of weeks more than 33,000 men landed and 23,000 tons of supplies went ashore. Coast Guard manned LSTs helped to move supplies ashore and evacuate the wounded. On one trip two Coast Guard manned LSTs each shot down a Japanese plane. By the end of the year the island was virtually in Allied hands. The capture of Bouganville and the islands in the immediate vicinity helped to accomplish the destruction of Japanese air strength in the area.

While the landings at Vella Lavella and Bouganville took place, the planned thrust into the Central Pacific was being staged. The Central Pacific Campaign was to begin with the capture of the Gilbert Islands. The operations in the Pacific normally required a higher degree of coordination due to the great distances between the staging areas and the landings. Coordination helped insure that all the units of the assault would arrive at the same time. Training and rehearsal for these enterprises gave the Allies the experience to make the operations go smoothly. While the Allies consolidated their positions and continued air strikes on the enemy, Coast Guard and Naval forces rehearsed for future landings. The Coast Guard contributed significantly to the amphibious part of the training.

The Gilbert Island chain is about 1300 miles northeast of the Solomon Island chain. Here the Japanese had augmented their forces, had strengthened positions and had developed a centralized and efficient base force command which would make them all the more difficult to conquer. The attack on the Gilbert Islands would be the first offensive amphibious operation in the Central Pacific. The initial assault was planned for the Tarawa and Makin atolls.

About 200 vessels assembled to carry 27,600 assault troops, 7,600 garrison troops, 6,000 vehicles, and 117,000 tons of cargo. The large number of ships were organized into three main groups, the Assault Force, the Carrier Force, and the Defense Force. The Assault Force contained many Coast Guard ships, and was further divided into a Northern Attack Force to assault Makin and a Southern Attack Force to attack Tarawa.

The Coast Guard manned Assault Transport Leonard Wood, a veteran of both the North African and Sicilian campaign operated with the Northern Attack Force against Makin. The Arthur Middleton sailed with the Southern Attack group to Tarawa. Five Coast Guard manned LSTs also participated in the landings.

The landings in the Gilberts marked the first time that the Pacific landing forces faced a strongly defended beach. On the small atolls there was no undefended place to land due to the narrowness of the beaches. This made the capture difficult and costly in terms of casualties. At Makin for example the average width of the beach was less than a mile.

At the triangular shaped Makin Atoll, the Japanese had fortified only one island, the largest island of Butaritari. The island hosted a seaplane base, but the defenses were incomplete and the garrison small. Only about 300 combat troops and 500 Korean construction workers defended the island.

On 20 November, the invasion force arrived. The transports approached and hove to about 6,000 yards off shore. Since a surprise landing was not possible the beaches were subjected to a heavy bombardment. Carrier planes and battleships blasted Japanese positions before the landing craft reached the two beaches selected for landings: Red beach on the western side and Yellow beach in the lagoon.

The Leonard Wood, commanded by Captain Merlin O'Neil, operated off Red Beach and had on board over 1,700 officers and men of the 165th Combat Team of the 27th Division, US Army. They began lowering fully-loaded boats at 0603. The boats waited for some time while the bombardment proceeded. The bombardment stopped at 0824 and Leonard Wood's boats touched shore at 0840. The landings here went according to plan and the assault troops moved rapidly inland. The landing craft later evacuated casualties on their return trips.

The coral reef surrounding the island complicated the landings on Yellow beach where a mere 12-18 inches of water lay over the coral heads at low tide. A miscalculation of the lagoon's depth required the landing forces to come ashore entirely in the diminutive LVTs(Landing Vehicle, Tracked). Eight waves of larger landing craft unable to get over the coral caused confusion, delay, and the abandonment of landing craft at the coral heads. Many of the troops had to wade the 250 yards to the beach in waist-deep water. Fortunately for the Americans the Japanese inflicted few casualties on those wading ashore because they had decided to defend the interior of the island rather than the beachead.

The Coast Guard boat crews had grueling and often dangerous jobs. They worked unloading their craft on the beaches while under fire from Japanese snipers. The coxswains and their crews worked at Makin for several days, never leaving their boats even to eat or sleep. Coffee and food were lowered to them on a line from the transports and they slept on their cargo while anchored in the lagoon--all the while being awakened by random fire from shore.

The operation at Makin took four days. The great numerical superiority of American troops did not diminish the difficulty of taking the island. While the mopping up actions took place on Makin, the Marines at Tarawa, were locked in some of the most intense fighting of the war.

At Tarawa, 100 miles to the south of Makin, the Japanese prepared strong defenses. The atoll is roughly triangular in shape and consisted of about 20 small islands and coral reefs that extended between 500 and 1,000 yards offshore. An airfield on Betio, the only defended island, endangered allied ships and remained a threat as a base for further attacks on American positions. Betio lay on the southern side of the coral formation and comprised a mere 291 acres which allowed the Japanese to contest every inch. Only the Pacific island of Iwo Jima was more strongly defended. About 4,800 men, more than half combat troops, manned the fortifications.

Just before 0400 on 20 November, Navy Rear Admiral Harry W. Hill's Southern Attack force reached its destination off Betio. The transports arrived in their areas and immediately began lowering their boats. The transport Arthur Middleton commanded by Captain Severt A. Olsen, USCG, arrived at the transport area off Makin at 0355. Coast Guardsmen also served on board three other transports. Five Coast Guard manned LSTs carrying garrison troops also participated. The shore bombardment vessels shelled the beaches for only a short time prior to the landing of the Marines.

The Arthur Middleton carried the Second Marine Division Battalion Landing Team in command of Major John E. Schoettel, and an aggregate of over 1400 officers and men. These men disembarked into LVTs that had been brought to the atoll by the large LSTs. The shallow-draft LVTs preceded the LCVPs and LCMs and made up the first three waves going to the beach.

Problems began when the LTVs arrived late at the line of departure, being delayed by tide, wind, the sea, and overloading. After departing toward the island, these small tracked amphibians had no difficulty crossing the reefs: 95% reached the reef and 85% reached the beach.

The assault called for a landing inside the lagoon on the north side of the island. Real trouble developed when the successive three waves of the deeper-drafted LCVPs and LCMs attempted to run to the beaches. These craft could not get over the shallow reefs and the troops had to be unloaded into rafts, a pier that ran out beyond the reef, or the LVTs on their return trips. That afternoon about 200 craft bobbed outside the coral reef with troops or supplies waiting to land. Complicating matters further, by nightfall, the marines had failed to establish a completely secure beachead and only nominally controlled three.

By the morning of the 21st the beach parties established better control. The fighting continued and proved to be some of the fiercest of the war. The Arthur Middleton put ashore a beach party of three officers and 43 men. LTJG Robert Hoyle, USCG, and his men stayed ashore for five days supervising the landing of boats and the unloading of equipment.

From the 21st until the 23rd, air and naval gunfire, and artillery brought ashore, assisted the Marines as they pushed the Japanese to the eastern end of the island. The Japanese did not surrender and had to be virtually annihilated--all but 17 Japanese and 129 Korean laborers were killed.

The capture of these two atolls, the victories in the Solomon Islands, and the landings on New Guinea, marked a turning point for the Allies. A successful strategy combined with a series of hard fought battles changed the momentum in the Pacific. The Allies were now on the offensive and in each successive battle they drove the Japanese further west towards their home islands. The Coast Guard too would be intimately involved in this drive as a participant in every major amphibious assault during the rest of the war.

Last Modified 1/12/2016