To the Marianas
Edwin P. Hoyt continues his military history of the Pacific War in this sequel to his Storm over the Gilberts, which described the invasion of Tarawa and Betio. His present study can be divided into three sections: the invasions of Kwajalein, Eniwetok, and the other islands of the Marshalls which provided an advanced base for invasion of the Marianas group; the carrier battles during the Marianas invasion; and the struggle to capture Saipan, Tinian and Guam. This secured the Marianas as a base for long-range B-29 attacks on the Japanese homeland.
The struggle to capture what sometimes amounted to only a few square miles of coral atoll was essential to a grand strategy that had evolved by 1943. Because most American resources were being stockpiled in Europe in anticipation of D-Day, the Pacific had secondary priority. General MacArthur wanted to push from the south through Indonesia to the Philippines, but his campaigns of 1942 in New Guinea and the Solomons were slow. Therefore, it was decided that the major American offensive would strike directly across the Pacific to the Marshall Islands and then to the Marianas, to penetrate the Japanese “Inner Empire.”
Since Micronesia had hundreds of islands in a three million square mile area, Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, Commander in Chief of the Pacific Fleet, decided to take only essential islands and ports which could serve as unsinkable carriers and protect the advancing American naval forces from the air. The costly Marine invasion of Tarawa showed the campaign would be difficult, and it made clear the need for better training and tactics for amphibious landings in the Marshalls. Kwajalein was to be the first target.
By 1943, the Japanese navy had already lost seven hundred planes in the Solomons. The Navy had to protect the far-flung empire in the Pacific, but the Japanese army insisted on keeping half of all aircraft production. The Navy was thus forced to redefine a defensive line from New Guinea to Truk and up to the Marianas. This meant the Marshalls would not be seriously defended. The local garrisons were expected to fight to the death without hope of further help.
On January 29, 1943, Rear Admiral Mitscher sent four carrier task groups to destroy Japanese air bases in the Marshalls. The new F6F Hellcat fighter was heavily armored, and proved to be superior to the unarmored zeros that rose to meet them. Japanese air power was quickly destroyed. The first major objective was the island of Roi-Namur to the north of Kwajalein. Using new vessels for amphibious landings, the Landing Ship Tank (LST) with a bow which could be lowered to disgorge Landing Vehicles Tank (LVT), marines took the island with few casualties. Their landing was preceded by point-blank naval bombardment and aerial attack. Most of the 3,700 Japanese troops were killed or shell-shocked by the bombardment. Hoyt concludes that the relative ease of the operation was due to effective bombardment.
The next objective was several small islands near Kwajalein. They were to provide a supply and artillery base for assault on Kwajalein itself. This too was successful and artillery was landed. Although it was only three miles long, Kwajalein received seven thousand naval shells and twenty-nine thousand rounds of artillery before invasion on February 1. The surviving Japanese still put up a stiff resistance, retreating into networks of tunnels. Every foot of ground was contested before the atoll was finally won on February 6. Of the five thousand Japanese defenders, only seventy-nine survived.
The next target was Eniwetok atoll, with the second largest lagoon in the Marshalls. As a preliminary, a carrier-based attack was mounted against Japanese ships and planes on Truk, 670 miles to the southwest. Although the main Japanese fleet had already abandoned Truk for the Palaus one thousand miles west, carrier bombers dropped four hundred tons of bombs on ships and ninety-four tons on airfields, sinking 200,000 tons of Japanese shipping.
Meanwhile the three thousand Japanese on Eniwetok prepared for the attack they knew was coming. As before, heavy bombardment preceded the landings of marines on February 19, but once ashore the opposition on the beach was fierce. The Japanese established fields of fire from concealed positions on high grounds. Spiderwebs (elaborate connected tunnels) allowed Japanese snipers to appear behind advancing American troops, and these had to be eliminated one by one with tanks, demolition, and flamethrowers.
By early 1944, the new B-29 Superfortress was operational and its range made Saipan in the Marianas the next logical invasion point in the Central Pacific campaign. It would also provide an advance submarine base. MacArthur argued once again for a southern approach, but success in the Marshalls caused the Joint Chiefs of Staff, on March 12, to decide on an attack on the Marianas. Meanwhile, the Japanese Navy High Command decided that their one hope was to engage the Pacific Fleet and try for a great victory. Remaining Japanese naval forces were reorganized and fuel conserved for the coming showdown. Unfortunately for Japan, attrition had decimated the ranks of skilled pilots, and the replacements of 1944 had only a few hours solo flying time and almost no combat training. In May, 1944, the fuel crisis was so acute that all training...
(The entire section is 2191 words.)