by Dr. Robert M. Browning, Jr.
While working as an insurance broker in Maspeth, Long Island, LTJG Clifford L. Benson never imagined that his life would be in peril on the small island of Saipan in the Pacific. He had come across the World and now crouched in his 38 foot landing craft with Japanese mortar shells bursting all around. These explosions threw geysers of water 50 feet into the air and showered him and his crew with coral rock and sea water.
The 27 year old Benson and LTJG Truman C. Hardin had the task of finding a channel to one of the beacheads on Saipan. The Marines already on the beach had arrived by climbing over the reefs surrounding the island in the shallow-draft amphibious tracked landing craft (LVTs). But no landing craft with a deeper draft had been able to reach the beach.
The Coast Guard mission became critical that morning when the main assault at the port town of Charan Kanoa bogged down due to Japanese mortar, artillery and machinegun fire. Marines on the beachead clung there with limited ammunition, medical supplies and support. Searching over a wide area of the lagoon, Benson and Hardin probed until they found a four foot deep, 150 foot wide channel. The first boat through the channel carried 30,000 rounds of desperately needed ammunition, followed by LCMs with tanks and medical supplies. Benson and Hardin's successful mission earned them each a Bronze Star. Their actions, however, were just a small part of the overall contribution that the Service played in the capture of the Marianas Islands.
Since the capture of Guadalcanal the Allies had made a continuous march across the Pacific. The island hopping strategy had made it possible for the Allies to secure dozens of islands and atolls, each time putting them closer to Japan. Amphibious landings had secured the most important islands in the Marshall Islands chain just a few months before. The next move westward for the Allies was the proposed capture of the Marianas Islands called Operation "Forager".
The Marianas Islands lay 1300 miles east of the Philippines and about 1300 miles due south of Tokyo. The group comprised of about 15 islands that stretched 450 miles north to south. These islands also lay 1200 miles west of the most forward American base at Eniwetok in the Marshall Islands. The invasion would be a supreme test of Allied amphibious capability.
The assault force for the operation came under the overall command of Admiral Chester Nimitz. The planners assembled two attack forces and one reserve force for the operation. The Northern Attack Force consisted of 37 transports including the Coast Guard manned Cambria (APA-36), Arthur Middleton (APA-25), Callaway (APA-35), Leonard Wood (APA-12) and LSTs 19,23,166,and 169. Seven others transports had partial Coast Guard crews.
The Southern Attack Force included the Coast Guard manned transports Aquarius (AKA-16), Centaurus (AKA-17), cargo ships Cor Caroli (AK-91) and Sterope (AK-96), the LSTs 24, 70, 71, and 207, as well as seven other vessels with partial Coast Guard crews. The reserve force included the Coast Guard manned ship Cavalier (APA-37).
Operation "Forager" comprised 535 ships carrying an aggregate of over 127,000 troops in four and a half reinforced divisions. The operation called for the capture of the most important islands on the southern end of the Marianas chain: Guam, Saipan, and Tinian. The islands north of these had little strategic value and few or no Japanese on them. The Navy began the campaign by subjecting the islands of Saipan and Tinian to heavy bombardments beginning two days before the landings.
At dawn on 15 June the transports assembled off Saipan while the fire support vessels and aircraft began an intense prelanding bombardment at 0800. At 0840, 8,000 marines streamed toward the beach along a four mile front in 600 diminutive tracked amphibious landing craft (LVTs), supported by 150 armored LVT(A)s that operated as light tanks.
The larger landing craft such as LCIs and even the LCVPs could not be used to land the initial waves of the Marines. Their deep draft prevented them from crossing over the reefs that surrounded the island. Landing craft brought Marines to the seaward edge of the reefs. Here the men transfered into the LVTs that crossed over top of the reefs. The LVTs returned for load after load but there was a limit to what these small craft could bring to the beach.
The Japanese made the trips to the beach difficult. As the battle raged it became imperative that larger craft be brought to the beachead. Lieutenants (JG) Benson and Hardin made this possible by finding a channel to the beach at Charan Kanoa. This act proved to be crucial in the battle for the beachead. After marking a passage, a steady stream of larger craft brought supplies to the beach. The Japanese maintained such an intense fire on the vessels coming in that the troops gave the channel the nickname "Hari Kari Pass".
The amphibious campaign against Saipan was considered a model operation in every respect. By 1800 almost 20,000 Marines had landed on Saipan. The marines completely overwhelmed the enemy and spent a great deal more time fighting isolated Japanese units. Twenty five days after the landings the island was in American hands.
BATTLE OF THE PHILIPPINE SEA
After the Allies landed on Saipan, the Japanese attempted to change the Allies' momentum in the Pacific and to interrupt the Marianas Campaign. To do this they sent their battle fleet toward the Marianas. The task force slated to attack Guam, retired east of Saipan and then to Eniwetok for safety and more preparation for the assault. On 20 and 21 June the Battle of the Philippine Sea was fought. The famous Marianas "Turkey Shoot" decimated the Japanese naval air wing and the Japanese fleet also lost three carriers. This victory for the United States ended the Japanese threat to Allied operations in the Marianas and the campaign for the Marianas proceeded within several weeks.
The Allies wanted to capture Guam in order to develop an advanced base and an airfield to bomb Japanese positions farther west. Guam is the largest and was the most important island in the Marianas group. Guam is about 35 miles long and 5 to 9 miles wide and lays on the southern end of the chain. The island is almost entirely surrounded by a coral reef. The original date for the landing on Guam was scheduled for the 18th of June. Unexpected resistance at Saipan and the decisive Battle of the Philippine Sea, delayed the assault until 21 July. Carrier planes and cruisers bombarded Guam for three weeks prior to the landings. Naval demolition teams also cleared nearly 1000 obstacles four days prior to the landing .
The assault ships sailed from Eniwetok to Guam and began arriving on the afternoon of 20 July. The transports steamed to the southern side of the island and took their positions off the landing beaches. The Coast Guard transports Cor Caroli (AK-91), Aquarius (AK-16), Centaurus (AKA-17), Sterope (AK-96), the 180 foot buoy tender Tupelo (WAGL-303), LSTs 24, 70, 71, and 207, and 7 other navy ships with partial Coast Guard crews all took part in the campaign.
The transport Arthur Middleton made a diversionary landing north of the main landings. Hoping to draw Japanese away from the southern beaches, several waves of boats without troops went to the beach and then retracted. At the main landings farther south, the LSTs began launching the LVTs at 0730, an hour later the first wave landed on the beach. As at Saipan, the LVTs shuttled back and forth from the beach to the edge of the reefs to be loaded again. Within three hours the entire 3rd Marine Division was ashore. On the southern beaches the 1st Provisional Marine Brigade, the 305th Combat Team and the 77th Infantry landed with light opposition. Most of the organized opposition ended by mid-August but isolated resistance was encountered for over a year and prolonged the final conquest of the island.
The amphibious forces' next target was the island of Tinian. This island lays less than three miles southwest of Saipan. The task force that formed to attack Tinian consisted of 214 vessels most of which were in the amphibious groups. The assault on this island would be somewhat different than the other landings because it lay so close to Saipan. The principle movement, therefore, was from shore to shore.
Naval forces subjected the Japanese on the island to air and naval bombardment beginning June 11th. The bombardment had nearly destroyed the extensive defenses the Japanese had prepared. By mid-July the air strikes increased and long-range artillery from Saipan also added to the problems of the Japanese. J-Day was scheduled for 24 July and the movement of vessels and craft from Saipan to Tinian went smoothly. At 0600 the Cambria and Cavalier arrived off the beach to land troops. Cavalier served as the Flagship for Commander Reserve Transport Group and Commander Transport Division Seven. The 4th Marine Division went ashore beginning at 0740. That afternoon this division was fully ashore and the 2nd Marine Division had also begun to land.
Later in the afternoon the Cambria moved closer to the beach to evacuate wounded Marines. The transport received casualties by breeches buoy due to unfavorable sea conditions. During the afternoon a total of 293 casualties were received on board.
With the capture of Tinian the Allies completed the conquest of all the important islands in the Marianas group. Guam in particular would be important. Before the Japanese had been subdued Seabees and Army engineers were constructing air fields, installations and making harbor improvements to convert the island into an advanced base to capture the Philippine Islands.
The Japanese had gambled that the various island groups in the Pacific would serve as a defensive perimeter. The Allies breached this perimeter, defeated the Japanese Navy in several important sea battles and destroyed its naval air wing. The conquest of these islands had occurred much sooner than had been expected by the Allied planners. Given the size of the Service the Coast Guard proportionately played an important role in making this possible.