MARSHALL ISLANDS INVASION
by Robert M. Browning, Jr.
Coast Guard Coxswain, seaman 1st class Clyde T. Brien could see black puffs of smoke from his exposed position behind the wheel on his LCVP. Standing above all cover and braving Japanese gunfire, he guided his craft through smoke, rough water and tricky beaches to land his load of Marines. Brien, as did all Coast Guard boat crews, faced this particular danger repeatedly while the Marine passengers faced it only once. During all the major landings in the Pacific, Coast Guardsmen steered their boats onto the rugged coral beaches, unloaded their cargoes, backed off, steered back through the gunfire, and reloaded their craft time and time again. Having done this for months against enemy fire, tough beaches, and heavy seas, the Coast Guard coxswains had won almost legendary reputations within the fleet.
Throughout the fall of 1943 the Coast Guard played a significant role in the Allied drives through the Southwest and Central Pacific. The latest victories at Tarawa and Makin in the Gilbert Islands initiated the Central Pacific Campaign that was designed to negate the Japanese threat to Allied operations in the Solomon Islands and New Britain Island. With these islands secure the next threat came from the Japanese island base at Truk, in the Caroline Islands. The Allies eyed the Marshall Islands as a staging area to neutralize this threat, and at the same time put them a step closer to Japan.
Extending northwest from the Gilbert Island chain are the Marshall Islands. These islands lay only 500 miles south of Wake Island, 2,500 due west of the Philippines, and about 700 miles from Truk. The planned assault on the Marshall's was code named Operation "Flintlock".
The Allies focused their attention on Kwajalein, Eniwetok, and Majuro atolls within the Marshall Archipelago. The plan accepted by Admiral Chester Nimitz provided that Majuro Atoll be taken first to provide an anchorage for the fleet. Kwajalein would be assaulted from both ends the following day. Plans called for Eniwetok Atoll to be attacked about three months later to allow the Allies to consolidate their positions.
Assembled to capture these atolls was a "Joint Expeditionary Force" comprising nearly 300 vessels and over 84,000 men. This force split into three groups: a northern group for an attack on Roi and Namur islands in the Kwajalein Atoll, a southern group for an assault on Kwajalein Island forty-five miles to the south, and a third group for landings on Majuro Atoll, about 250 miles southeast of Kwajalein Atoll.
The flagship for the task force attacking Majuro was the Coast Guard-manned transport Cambria (APA-36). The Majuro force steamed into position to land troops on 31 January. Intelligence information predicted that the assault forces might find as many as four hundred Japanese on the islands in the atoll. Unknown to the Americans, the Japanese left Majuro Atoll in November 1943, and only four Japanese inhabited the islands. On 1 February the task force entered the lagoon uncontested. This atoll would serve as the staging area for Central Pacific fleet operations for the next several months.
The Northern Attack Force meanwhile gathered to strike at Roi and Namur islands within the Kwajalein Atoll. Six transports in the assault force had full or partial Coast Guard crews. Kwajalein Atoll is the largest atoll in the world. Ninety-seven islands lay around a lagoon 65 miles long and 20 miles across at the widest point. The total area of all the islands made up just over six square miles and was dwarfed by the nearly 840 square mile lagoon.
The Northern Attack Force arrived in the Kwajalein area on 30 January. The next day the fire support vessels and aircraft began subjecting the Japanese defenders on Roi and Namur and other nearby islands to an intense bombardment. This bombardment killed a large number of the islands' 3,700 defenders. The American combat troops landed on 1 February with almost no opposition. All organized resistance from these two islands ceased just shortly after noon on 2 February. With some mopping-up actions by 7 February, this attack force secured about 55 islands that lay within 13 miles of Roi and Namur islands.
The Southern Attack Force arrived off Kwajalein on 30 January. Battleships and cruisers began immediately laying down a devastating bombardment on the enemy defenses. It terrorized the defenders, reduced their effectiveness, and destroyed all defensive positions within 300 yards of the beach. The Coast Guard had four manned or partially-manned transports active in the assault. There were virtually no problems associated with the landings except a small number of landing craft damaged during the operations. The problems were so few that the Reserve Group, including five other transports with entire and partial Coast Guard crews, did not even participate in the assaults. The amphibious forces secured Kwajalein and the nearby islands by the afternoon of the 4th. Casualties for the Americans was light. The Japanese suffered casualties of about 94% during the fighting.
The quick capture of Kwajalein and Majuro atolls allowed the American leaders to advance the date for the capture of Eniwetok Atoll from 10 May to 17 February. They could now utilize the Reserve Group and the men that had not been put ashore.
Eniwetok Atoll lies 330 miles northwest of Kwajalein and is the most western island in the Marshall group. The atoll consisted of 30 small islands in a roughly a circular shape, 21 miles long and 17 miles across. The three principle islands defended by the Japanese were Entiwetok, Parry, and Engebi.
A task group of 89 vessels assembled, including the Coast Guard manned transport Cambria which served as the flagship. The Coast Guard manned transports Leonard Wood (APA-12), Centaurus (AKA-17) and Arthur Middleton (APA-25) also participated along with the partially manned ships President Monroe (AP-104), Heywood (AP-12) and Electra (AKA-4). In all, the transports carried nearly 8,000 assault troops, mainly the 2nd Marines and the 106th Infantry. The transports assembled on 15 February for the trip to Eniwetok.
At Eniwetok Atoll the barrier islands were attacked one at a time. Each in turn was subjected to a heavy and continuous bombardment in preparation for the landings. The first island selected for capture was Engebi. Shortly before 0900 on 18 February the first assault waves landed. The Coast Guard transports Heywood and Arthur Middleton participated in these landings. The first wave to the beach was led by one of the Middleton's boats.
After the first waves of landing craft reached the beach, the transports moved closer to shore to facilitate the unloading of ammunition and water to the troops. As in the earlier assaults the heavy bombardment killed many of the defenders and the assaulting waves met only light resistance. A Silver Star and two Bronze Stars were awarded to Coast Guardsmen on Engebi.
While the Engebi landings proceeded, preparations were started to land on Eniwetok on the 19th. The landing craft went ashore at 0922 and within an hour after landing the Americans had cut a path across the island isolating the Japanese into two groups. By the 21st of February they had secured the island.
Parry Island was more strongly held than anticipated, therefore the landings were postponed until D-day plus 5--22 February. The naval forces subjected the island to gunfire for 4 days until the landings began at 0900. Nevertheless some defenders survived and the first wave met enemy rifle and mortar fire.
During the landings the Navy LCI 442 was hit by a shell. LTJG John M. Johnson, USCGR, took his LCVP alongside the burning vessel. With the LCI's magazine on fire, and the ship in danger of blowing up, the Coast Guardsmen worked desperately to get a fire hose to the flaming magazine. While quenching the fire the men threw red hot shells and rockets overboard. After getting the fire under control, Johnson and his men removed the wounded to the LCVP and transferred them to the hospital ship Solace. For this action Johnson and his crew all received the Navy and Marine Corps Medal.
Parry island was declared secure twelve hours after the initial landings. American casualties for the three landings amounted to under 200 killed and over 550 wounded while the Japanese suffered over 2500 dead.
After the capture of Parry Island the amphibious forces systematically occupied 28 more islands in the Marshall chain over the next 14 months. Four of the remaining defended islands were bypassed and their small garrisons slowly decimated by repeated bombings and by air and sea blockade.
The capture and neutralization of Japanese positions in the Marshall Islands put the Allies a step closer to the Philippine Islands and nearer to victory in the Pacific. The Coast Guard played an important role in this effort and would continue to be a valuable component to the amphibious forces in the march across the Pacific.