A CLOSE ENCOUNTER: The Marine Landing on Tinian
by Richard Harwood
The Drive South
Lieutenant Colonel William W. "Bucky" Buchanan was
the assistant naval gunfire officer for the 4th Division at Tinian. His
career later took him to Vietnam. After his retirement as a brigadier
general he recalled the Tinian campaign:
We used the same tactics on Tinian that we did on
Saipan: that is, a hand-holding, linear operation, like a bunch of
brush-beaters, people shooting grouse or something, the idea being to
flush out every man consistently as we go down, rather than driving down
the main road with a fork and cutting this off and cutting this off in
what I call creative tactics, you see. But this was the easiest thing
and the safest thing to do. And who can criticize it? It was successful
. Here, again, what little resistance was left was pushed into the end
of the island . . . and quickly collapsed.
The grouse-shooting metaphor is simplistic but even
the 4th Division commander, Major General Clifton B. Cates, thought the
campaign had its sporting aspects: "The fighting was different from most
any that we had experienced because it was good terrain . . . . It was a
good clean operation and I think the men really enjoyed it."
(click on image for an enlargement in a new window)
Aerial Reconnaissance and Photography
In the months leading up to the invasion, intensive
reconnaissance was undertaken. The first aerial photos of 1944 had been
acquired back in February when U.S. carrier planes attacked Saipan.
Others were obtained in April and May by photo planes based at Eniwetok.
These early photographs were of little use to invasion planners. Their
quality was poor and many were taken at angles that distorted the
These inadequacies hampered the Saipan planners but
Tinian was another story. "Perhaps no other Pacific island ...," Marine
Corps analysts later concluded, "became so familiar to the assault
forces because of thorough and accurate [photography and] mapping prior
to the landings."
A lot of the familiarization came from first-hand
observation by division, regimental, and battalion commanders who used
observation planes to conduct their own reconnaissance of the Tinian
beaches and inland terrain. Lieutenant Colonel Justice M. Chambers,
commander of the 3d Battalion, 25th Marines, described his preinvasion
visit to the island:
There was a lieutenant commander Muller, a naval
aviator, who apparently had a set of roving orders. He had brought his
flight of three Liberators to Saipan . . . . I thought it would be a
good idea to take my company commanders and overfly the beaches that
we're going to use . . . . So the 3rd Battalion group took the flight
and practically all the battalions did the same.
We took off from Saipan and of course the minute you
were airborne you were over Tinian. I had talked it over with Muller and
told him that the last beach we would overfly would be the one we were
going to hit. I said, "Let's take a look at a lot of other beaches first
and fly over the interior." We made passes at several beaches. I was
standing up in a blister where I could see and my officers had the bomb
bays open and were looking down. We flew around maybe 20 or 30 minutes,
and then we made a big loop and came back over the beaches we were going
to land on. I'm glad we did because we spotted . . . mines in the water
which the Navy got out.
We zoomed in on Mount Lasso, which was the only
mountain on Tinian. The island was just one big cane field, and Mount
Lasso was directly ahead of our beaches. Muller started pulling out and
I began to see white things zipping by outside the plane . . . . I was
fighting to keep my stomach down because a fast elevator is too much for
me. I asked: "What's that?" He replied, "Twenty millimeter. Where do you
want to go now ?" I said, "Saipan. There are no foxholes up here."
The photographic coverage of Tinian, along with
prisoners and documents captured at Saipan, and other intelligence
available to U.S. commanders, made them, according to the official
history, "almost as familiar with the Japanese strength at Tinian as was
Colonel Ogata [the Japanese commander]."
Before the "brush beating" could begin in proper
order, three things needed to be achieved. First, the 2d Marine Division
had to be put ashore. This task was completed on the morning of 26
JulyJig plus 2.
Second, Japanese stragglers and pockets of resistance
in the island's northern sector had to be squashed. That job, for all
practical purposes, was pretty well completed on the 26th as the 2d
Division swept across the Ushi Point airfields, reached the east coast,
and made a turn to the south. (Two days later, Seabees had the Ushi
Point fields in operation for Army P-47 Thunderbolt fighters). Also on
the 26th, the 4th Division had seized Mount Maga in the center of the
island and had forced Colonel Ogata and his staff to abandon their
command post on Mount Lasso which fell to the Marines without a
The third objectiveto create for the drive
south a skirmish line of infantry and tanks stretching all the way
across the islandwas also accomplished on the 26th. The 4th
Division lined up in the western half of the island with the 23d Marines
on the coast, the 24th in the center, and the 25th on the left flank.
The 2d Division lined up with the 2d Marines on the east coast and the
6th Marines in the center, tied in to the 25th. The 8th Marines remained
in the north to mop up.
All this was accomplished with only minor casualties.
For 26 July, for example, the 2nd Division reported two killed and 14
wounded. The heaviest losses since the first day and night of fighting
had been sustained by the 14th Marines, the 4th Division's artillery
regiment, in the hours following the Japanese counterattack. An enemy
shell hit the 1st Battalion's fire direction center killing the
battalion commander (Lieutenant Colonel Harry J. Zimmer), the
intelligence officer, the operations officer, and seven other staff
members; 14 other Marines at the battalion headquarters were wounded.
Virtually all of the casualties sustained by that regiment during the
Tinian campaign were taken on this single day, 25 July: 13 of the 14
killed, and 22 of the 29 wounded.
Tramping the cane was a tiring work, especially when the
direction of the advance did not parallel the rows of the fields. Each
stalk was strong enough to trip a man careless about where he stepped.
Advancing through such a field was fraught with danger, also, from
hidden trip wires attached to demolitions, and from dug-in Japanese. In
addition, the dry cane fields could easily catch fire and trap the
Marines. Marine Corps Historical Collection
Marines of the 2d Division find some of the most
difficult terrain on Tinian as they move up towards the top of Mount
Lasso, one of the highest points on the island. Tinian, for the most
part, was flat and level, and was under cultivation. Department of the
Defense Photo (USMC) 87900
On the morning of 27 July, the "brush beating" drive
to the south began in earnest. General Schmidt's plan for the first two
days of the drive alternated the main thrust between the two divisions.
In the official history of the operation, the tactic was likened to "a
man elbowing his way through the crowd," swinging one arm and then the
The 2d Division got the heavier work on the 27th.
XXIV Corps Artillery, firing from southern Saipan, softened up suspected
enemy positions early in the morning and the division jumped off at
0730. It advanced rapidly, harassed by sporadic small arms fire. By 1345
it had reached its objective, gaining about 4,000 yards in just over six
hours. The 4th Division moved out late in the morning against
"negligible opposition," reached its objective by noon and then called
it a day. A Japanese prisoner complained to his captors, "You couldn't
drop a stick without bringing down artillery."
The next morning, 28 July, the 4th got the "swinging
elbow" job. It was now evident that the remaining Japanese defenders
were rapidly retiring to the hills and caves along the southern coast.
So opposition to the Marine advance was virtually nil. The 4th moved
more than two miles in less than four hours with troops riding on
half-tracks and tanks. Jumping off again early in the afternoon in
"blitz fashion," they overran the airfield at Gurguan Point, led by
Major Richard K. Schmidt's 4th Tank Battalion, and quit for the day at
1730 after gaining 7,300 yardsa little more than four miles. The
2d Division, given light duty under the Schmidt plan, moved ahead a few
hundred yards, reached its objective in a couple of hours and dug in to
await another morning.
General Cates later recalled how he spurred on his
4th Division troops: "I said, 'Now, look here men, the [Hawaiian] island
of Maui is waiting for us. See those ships out there? The quicker you
get this over with, the quicker we'll be back there.' They almost ran
over that island."
On the 29th General Schmidt dropped the "elbowing"
tactic and ordered both divisions to move as far and as fast as
"practical." Opposition had been so light that preparatory fires were
canceled to save unneeded withdrawals from the diminishing supplies of
artillery shells left on Saipan and to prevent "waste of naval gunfire
on areas largely deserted by the enemy."
The 2d Marines on the eastern terrain ran into
pockets of resistance on a hill at Masalog Point; the 6th Marines
encountered a 20-man Japanese patrol that attempted to penetrate the
regiment's lines after dark. The 25th took sniper fire as it moved
through cane fields and later in the day engaged in a heavy firefight
with Japanese troops fighting from dug in positions. The Marines
suffered several casualties and one of their tanks was disabled in this
fight. But the resistance was overcome. The 24th Marines, operating near
the west coast, ran into Japanese positions that included a series of
mutually supporting bunkers. The 4th Tank Battalion reported that the
area "had to be overrun twice by tanks" before resistance ended.
By nightfall, more than half of Tinian island was in
Marine hands. Troops of the 4th Division could see Tinian Town from
their foxholes. This was good for morale but the night was marred by the
weather and enemy activity. A soaking rain fell through the night. Enemy
mortar tubes and artillery pieces fired incessantly, drawing
counterbattery fire from Marine gunners. There were probes in front of
the 3d Battalion, 25th Marines, silenced by mortar and small arms fire;
41 Japanese bodies were found in the area at daylight.
On 30 JulyJig plus 6Tinian Town became
the principal objective of the 4th Division and, specifically, Colonel
Franklin A. Hart's 24th Marines. At 0735 all of the division's artillery
battalions laid down preparatory fires in front of the Marine lines.
After 10 minutes, the firing stopped and the troops moved out. At the
same time, two destroyers and cruisers lying in Sunharon Harbor off the
Tinian Town beaches began an hour-long bombardment of slopes around the
town in support of the Marines. The regiment's 1st Battalion had
advanced 600 yards when it came under heavy fire from caves along the
coast north of the town. With the help of tanks and armored amphibians
operating offshore this problem was overcome. Flamethrowing tanks worked
over the caves, allowing engineers to seal them up with demolition
charges. In one cave, a 75mm gun was destroyed.
The regiment entered the ruins of Tinian Town at
1420. Except for one Japanese soldier who was eliminated on the spot,
the town was deserted. After searching through the rubble for snipers
and documents, the Marines drove on to the O-7 line objective south of
town. Their greatest peril was from mines and booby traps planted in
beach areas and roads.
As the 24th moved south, the 25th Marines were
seizing Airfield Number 4 on the eastern outskirts of Tinian Town. The
unfinished facility, a prisoner revealed, was being rushed to completion
to accommodate relief planes promised by Tokyo. Only one aircraft was
parked on the crushed coral air stripa small, Zero-type fighter.
Flying suits, goggles, and other equipment were found in a supply
Merritt A. Edson, (with binoculars) assistant division commander of the
2d Marine Division, follows the progress of his troops not far from the
scene of action. Gen Edson was awarded the Medal of Honor for his
heroism on Guadalcanal. Department of Defense Photo (USMC) 87824
Enroute to the airfield, the 25th had taken light
small arms fire and while crossing the airstrip was mortared from
positions to the south. This was the 25th's last action of the Tinian
campaign. It went into reserve and was relieved that night by units of
the 23d Marines and the 1st Battalion, 8th Marines.
The 2d Division, operating to the east of the 4th,
ran into occasional opposition from machine gun positions and a 70mm
howitzer. The 3d Battalion, 2d Marines, had the roughest time. After
silencing the howitzer, it attacked across an open field and chased a
Japanese force into a large cave where, with the help of a
flame-throwing tank, 89 Japanese were killed and four machine guns were
destroyed. Soon afterward the battalion came under mortar fire. "It is
beyond my memory as to the number of casualties the 3d Battalion
suffered at that time," the unit's commander, Lieutenant Colonel Walter
F. Layer, later reported. "I personally rendered first aid to two
wounded Marines and remember seeing six or seven Marines who were either
wounded or killed by that enemy mortar fire. Tanks and half-tracks . . .
took the enemy under fire, destroying the enemy mortars."
These were minor delays. The division reached its
objective on time and was dug in by 1830. About 80 percent of the island
was now in American hands.