A CLOSE ENCOUNTER: The Marine Landing on Tinian
by Richard Harwood
The Landing Force: Who, Where, When
The task of seizing Tinian was assigned to the two
Marine divisions on Saipanthe 2d and the 4th. The third division
on the islandthe Army's 27th Infantrywould remain on Saipan
in reserve. All three had been severely battered during the Saipan
campaign, suffering more than 14,000 casualties, including nearly 3,200
For the 2d Marine Division, the Tinian battle would
be the fourth time around in a span of little more than 18 months. The
division left Guadalcanal in February 1943, having suffered 1,000 battle
casualties. Another 12,500 men had diagnosed cases of malaria. Nine
months lateron 20 November 1943the division had gone through
one of the most intense 72 hours of combat in the history of island
warfare at Tarawa. It sustained 3,200 casualties, including nearly a
thousand dead. Ten weeks before Tarawa, the division was still
malaria-ridden, with troops being hospitalized for the disease at the
rate of 40 a day. The ranks were filled with gaunt men whose skins were
yellowed by daily doses of Atabrine pills. The Saipan operation seven
months later, led by division commander Major General Thomas E. Watson,
took a heavy toll of these men5,000 wounded, 1,300 dead.
Watson had earned a reputation at Saipan as a
hard-charging leader. When the division stalled fighting its way up
Mount Topatchau, he was unimpressed. The historian Ronald Spector wrote,
in the midst of that effort, "he was heard shouting over a field
telephone, 'There's not a god damn thing up on that hill but some Japs
with machine guns and mortars. Now get the hell up there and get them!'"
His assistant division commander was Brigadier General Merritt A. "Red
Mike" Edson, who was awarded a Medal of Honor for his heroism on
The 4th Division had had a busy, if slightly less
demanding, year as well. It went directly into combat after its
formation at Camp Pendleton, California, landing on 31 January 1944 in
the Marshall Islands where it suffered moderate casualtiesfewer
than 800 menin the capture of Roi-Namur. At Saipan its losses
reached 6,000, including about 1,000 dead. The Tinian landing would be
its third in a little over six months and would be the first under a new
divisional commanderMajor General Clifton B. Cates, a
well-decorated World War I veteran, who would be come the 19th
Commandant of the Marine Corps in 1948.
Selection of White Beach
The selection of the northwestern beaches was
universally regarded as the key to the quick success of the Tinian
operation. The credit for this choice, however, has been debated for
years. Carl Hoffman, in his history of the battle, quoted Major General
Harry Schmidt on the issue: "Many high ranking officers have asked how
originated the plan . . . While the 4th Division was under my command
and prior to the Marianas campaign, my planning officer, Lieutenant
Colonel Evans F. Carlson, made such a plan and probably such a plan was
turned in to the V Amphibious Corps."
The division's intelligence officer, Lieutenant
Colonel Gooderham L. McCormick, a Reservist who later became mayor of
Philadelphia, agreed. So did Lieutenant Victor Maghakian of the
division's reconnaissance unit: "The man who definitely planned the
landing . . . was Evans F. Carlson . . . . He told me all about that
Tinian plan before he was wounded [22 June] on Saipan."
Others minimized Carlson's role, including Marine
Major General Graves B. Erskine, who was then the V Amphibious Corps
chief of staff, and Marine Colonel Robert E. Hogaboom, the operations
officer for the landing forces at Saipan and Tinian. Admiral Harry W.
Hill, commander of the Northern Attack Force, told Hoffman that "if
there were plans and I presume there were tentative ones, none of them
were available to me or my staff."
Hoffman discovered that before the war, students at
the Marine Corps Schools at Quantico had come up with the northern
beaches solution to the "then-theoretical Tinian solution."
But historian Ronald Spector, in his Pacific war
history, Eagle Against the Sun, left no doubt who had forced the
issue. It was Marine Lieutenant General Holland M. Smith. When he and
Admiral Hill proposed the use of White Beaches 1 and 2, Admiral Turner
firmly vetoed [the] proposal and told [Hill] to work on planning for a
landing near Tinian Town. Hill reluctantly complied, but he ordered
part of his staff to keep working on the White Beaches plan . . . .
[After reconnaissance reports] Hill and Smith tried once again to change
Admiral Turner's mind, but he remained obstinate.
In a characteristic exchange, the admiral told
General Smith: "You are not going to land on the White Beaches. I won't
land you there." "Oh yes you will," replied the general. "You'll land
me any goddamned place I tell you to." Turner was adamant: "I'm telling
you now it can't be done. It's absolutely impossible." "How do you know
its impossible?" asked Smith. "You're just so goddamned scared that
some of your boats will be hurt."
Neither this exchange nor the more subtle efforts of
Admiral Hill served to convince Turner, so Hill reluctantly took the
matter to Admiral Spruance [Turner's superior]. Spruance liked the
White Beaches idea, but he was reluctant to overrule Turner, his expert
on amphibious warfare. A conference with Turner and his subordinate
commanders was arranged on board the flagship. All spoke in favor of
the White Beaches, Spruance turned to Turner. The latter calmly
announced that he favored the White Beaches also.
In a letter written to Hoffman in 1950, Turner said:
". . . before the reconnaissances of July 10 and 11 were made, I had
(without announcement) tentatively decided to accept the White Beaches
unless the reconnaissance reports were decidedly unfavorable."
This was one of those cases, as John F. Kennedy once
said, in which "victory has many fathers but defeat is an orphan."
Still, "the morale of the troops committed to the
Tinian operation was generally high," then-Major Carl W Hoffman wrote in
the official history of the battle. "This fact takes on significance
only when it is recalled that the Marines involved had just survived a
bitter 25-day struggle and that, with only a fortnight lapse (as
distinguished from a fortnight rest), they were again to assault
enemy-held shores . . . . [Their] spirit . . . was revealed more in a
philosophical shrug, accompanied with a 'here-we go-again' remark, than
in a resentful complaint [at] being called upon again so soon."
(click on image for an enlargement in a new window)
The morale of the troops was sustained by the
preinvasion fires directed at Tinian. For Jig minus 1 and Jig Day (Jig
being the name given to D Day at Tinian), Rear Admiral Harry W. Hill,
commander of the Northern Landing Force, had divided the island into
five fire support sectors, assigning specific ships to each. His purpose
was two-fold: destruction and deception to confuse and deceive the
Japanese as to the landing intentions of the Marines.
Tinian Town, under this scheme, got the heaviest
pounding the day before the landingalmost 3,000 rounds of 5- to
16-inch shells from the battleships Colorado, Tennessee, and
California, the cruiser Cleveland, and seven destroyers:
Ramey, Wadleigh, Norman Scott, Monssen, Waller, Pringle and
Philip. Colorado had the best day, knocking out with 60 rounds of
16-inch shells the two 6-inch coastal defense guns the Japanese had
emplaced on the west coast near Faibus San Hilo Point, guns that easily
could have covered the White Beaches.
Firing on the White Beach area itself was minimal for
purposes of deception and for lack of suitable targets. The cruiser
Louisville fired 390 rounds into the area before calling it a
There was a lot of air activity on the 23d. At three
periods during the day, naval gunfire and artillery barrages were halted
to allow massive air strikes on railroad junctions, pillboxes, villages,
gun emplacements, cane fields, and the beaches at Tinian Town. More than
350 Navy and Army planes took part, dropping 500 bombs, 200 rockets, 42
incendiary clusters, and 34 napalm bombs. This was only the second use
of napalm during the Pacific War; napalm bombs were first used on Tinian
the day before.
White Beach 2 accommodated two battalions landing in
file, with a single rifle company in the assault. The 25th Marines
crossed this 160-yard beach on Jig Day, literally unopposed followed by
two light artillery battalions and the 23d Marines. Department of Defense
Photo (USMC) 150633
That evening, 37 LSTs at anchor off Saipan were
loaded with 4th Marine Division troops. Rations for three days, water
and medical supplies, ammunition, vehicles, and other equipment had been
pre-loaded, beginning on 15 July. The troops were going to travel light:
a spoon, a pair of socks, insect repellant, and emergency supplies in
their pockets, and no pack on their backs.
"Close at hand," the historians Jeter Isely and
Philip Crowl wrote in their classic The U.S. Marines and Amphibious
War, "rode the ships of the two transport divisions that would carry
two regiments of the 2d Marine Division on a diversionary feint against
Tinian Town and would later disembark them along with the third regiment
across the northwestern beaches." (A similar feint was made by 2d
Division Marines less than a year later off the southeast beaches of
Okinawa, and by the same division lying off Kuwait City nearly 50 years
later in the Desert Storm operation).
The 4th was designated the assault division for
Tinian. The beaches were not wide enough to accommodate battalions
landing abreast, much less divisions. Instead, the assault troops would
land by columnssquads, platoons, and companies.
The 2d Division would follow on after taking part in
the massive feint off the beaches of Tinian Town, hoping to tie down the
main Japanese defense forces and spring the surprise of a landing over
the lightly defended northern beaches.
General Clifton B. Cates, USMC
Clifton B. Cates, a native Tennessean, was
commissioned in 1917, and was sent to France with the 6th Marines in
World War I. He had outstanding service in five major engagements of the
war, and returned to the United States a well-decorated young officer
after his tour in the occupation of Germany. One of his early
assignments following the war was as aide to Major General Commandant
George Barnett. During his more than 37 years as a Marine, Cates was one
of the few officers who held commands of a platoon, a company, a
battalion, a regiment, and a division in combat. He was the 19th
Commandant of the Marine Corps at the outset of the Korean War.
His assignments during the interwar years consisted
of a combination of schooling, staff assignments, and command, such as
his tour as battalion commander in the 4th Marines, then in Shanghai. In
1940, he took command of the Basic School, then in the Philadelphia Navy
Yard. He took command of the 1st Marines in May 1942.
In World War II, Cates commanded the 1st Marines in
the landing on Guadalcanal. After returning to the States, he was
promoted to brigadier general. He went back to the Pacific war in
mid-1944 to take command of the 4th Marine Division in time for the
Tinian operation. He also led it in the Iwo Jima assault, and was
decorated at the end of the fighting with his second Distinguished
Service Medal. Part of the citation accompanying the medal reads:
"Repeatedly disregarding his own personal safety, Major General Cates
traversed his own front lines daily to rally his tired, depleted units
and by his undaunted valor, tenacious perseverance, and staunch
leadership in the face of overwhelming odds, constantly inspired his
stout-hearted Marines to heroic effort during critical phases of the
On 1 January 1948, General Cates took over as
Commandant of the Marine Corps, remaining until 31 December 1951, when
he reverted to the three stars of a lieutenant general and began his
second tour as Commandant of the Marine Corps Schools at Quantico,
Virginia. General Cates retired on 30 June 1954. He died on 4 June
To give the 4th more punch immediately after landing,
the 2d was stripped of some of its firepower, such as tank and artillery
units. It would, accordingly, be at the lowest strength at Tinian of any
Marine division involved in an amphibious operation in World War II.
Despite these additions, the 4th, too, would be
understrength"skinny" was the descriptive word used by Lieutenant
Colonel Justice M. "Jumping Joe" Chambers, commander of the 3d
Battalion, 25th Marines, who was to earn a Medal of Honor in the Iwo
Jima operation little more than six months later. The division's
infantry battalions had received only one replacement draft after the
Saipan fighting. At full strength they averaged 880 men; at Tinian the
average strength was down by more than 35 percent to 565.
For all these reasonscombat fatigue, heavy
losses during previous weeks and months, and under-strength
unitsthe Marines on Tinian would play a cautious game. Admiral
Turner had said he would give them two weeks to seize the island. Major
General Harry Schmidt, who relieved Lieutenant General Holland M. Smith
as VAC commander, promised to get it done in 10 days. In the event, the
island was secured after nine days. In retrospect, analysts say the
operation could have been finished off sooner by more aggressive
tactics. Time, however, was no great factor; the relatively slow pace of
the operation probably kept casualties at a minimum and reduced the
probabilities of troop fatigue. Tinian was easy on the eyes, but the
heat and humidity were brutal, the cane fields were hard going, and it
was the season of monsoons.