TOP OF THE LADDER: Marine Operations in the Northern Solomons
by Captain John C. Chapin, USMCR (Ret)
Assault landings began for the men in the blackness
of the early hours of the morning. On 1 November 1943, the troops of the
3d Marine Division were awakened before 0400, went to General Quarters
at 0500, ate a tense breakfast, and then stood by for the decisive
command, "Land the Landing Force." All around them the preinvasion
bombardment thundered, as the accompanying destroyers poured their
5-inch shells into the target areas, and spotters in aircraft helped to
adjust the fire.
As the sun rose on a bright, clear day, the word came
at 0710 for the first LCVPs (Landing Craft, Vehicle and Personnel) to
pull away from their transport ships and head for the shore, a
5,000-yard run across Empress Augusta Bay to the beaches of an island
Almost 7,500 Marines were entering their LCVPs (with
Coast Guard crew and coxswains) for an assault on 12 color-coded
beaches. Eleven of these extended west from Cape Torokina for 8,000
yards to the Koromokina Lagoon. The 12th was on Puruata Island just
offshore from the beaches. The six beaches on the right were assigned to
Colonel George W. McHenry's 3d Marines and Lieutenant Colonel Alan
Shapley's 2d Raider Regiment (less one battalion). The five on the left
and Puruata Island were the objectives of Colonel Edward A. Craig's 9th
Marines and Lieutenant Colonel Fred D. Bean's 3d Raider Battalion.
Raiders, up to their hips in water, man a machine gun
along a jungle trail. Department of Defense Photo (USMC) 70764
As the men headed for shore, 31 Marine torpedo and
scout bombers, covered by fighters, came screaming in from their base at
Munda, bombing and strafing to give the beaches a final plastering. At
0726, the first wave touched ground, four minutes ahead of the official
H-Hour. As the other waves came in, it was immediately apparent that
there was serious trouble in two ways. A high surf was tossing the LCVPs
and LCMs (Landing Craft, Medium) around, and they were landing on the
wrong beaches, broaching, and smashing into each other in the big waves.
By the middle of the morning, 64 LCVPs and 22 LCMs were hulks littering
the beaches. Three of the designated beaches had to be abandoned as
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Major Donald M. Schmuck, commanding a company in the
3d Marines, later recalled how, in the "mad confusion" of the beach
head, his company was landed in the midst of heavy gunfire in the middle
of another battalion's zone on the beach of Torokina. Running his
company on the double through the other battalion and the 2d Raiders'
zone across inlets and swamp, Major Schmuck got his men to the right
flank of his own battalion where they were to have landed originally.
His surprised battalion commander, Lieutenant Colonel Hector de Zayas,
stared at the bedraggled new arrivals exclaiming, "Where have you been?"
Major Schmuck pointed back to Cape Torokina and replied, "Ask the
Marine riflemen keep their heads down as they get closer
to the assault beach on D-Day. Department of Defense Photo (USMC)
The other trouble came from the Japanese defenders.
While the 9th Marines on the left landed unopposed, the 3d Marines on
the right met fierce opposition, a deadly crossfire of machine gun and
artillery fire. One Japanese 75mm gun, sited on Cape Torokina, was
sending heavy enfilade fire against the incoming landing waves. It
smashed 14 boats and caused many casualties. The boat group commander's
craft took a direct hit, causing the following boat waves to become
disorganized and confused. Machine gun and rifle fire, with 90mm mortar
bursts added, covered the shoreline. Companies landed in the wrong
places. Dense underbrush, coming right down to the beaches, shrouded the
defenders in their 25 bunkers and numerous rifle pits. The commanding
officer of the 1st Battalion, 3d Marines, Major Leonard M. "Spike"
Mason, was wounded and had to be evacuated, but not before he shouted to
his men, "Get the hell in there and fight!" Nearby, the executive
officer of the 2d Raider Regiment, Lieutenant Colonel Joseph J.
McCaffery, was directing an assault when he was severely wounded. He
died that night.
seen from a beached landing craft, these Marines are under fire while
wading in the last few yards to the beach. National Archives Photo
Robert A. Owens was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor.
Defense Photo (USMC)
In spite of the chaos, the intensive training of the
Marines took hold. Individuals and small groups moved in to assault the
enemy, reducing bunker after bunker, dropping grenades down their
ventilators. For an hour, the situation was in doubt.
The fierce combat led to a wry comment by one
captain, Henry Applington II, comparing "steak and eggs served on white
table cloths by stewards . . . and three and a half hours and a short
boat ride later . . . rolling in a ditch trying to kill another human
being with a knife."
The devastating fire from the 75mm cannon on Cape
Torokina was finally silenced when Sergeant Robert A. Owens, crept up to
its bunker, and although wounded, charged in and killed the gun crew and
the occupants of the bunker before he himself was killed. A posthumous
Medal of Honor was awarded to him for this heroic action which was so
crucial to the landing.
Meanwhile, on Puruata Island, just offshore of the
landing beaches, the noise was intense; a well-dug-in contingent of
Japanese offered stiff resistance to a reinforced company of the 3d
Battalion, 2d Raiders. It was midafternoon of D plus one before the
defenders in pill boxes, rifle pits, and trees were subdued, and then
some of them got away to fight another day. A two-pronged sweep and
mop-up by the raiders on D plus 2 found 29 enemy dead of the 70 Japanese
estimated to have been on that little island. The raiders lost five
killed and 32 wounded.
An hour after the landings on the main beaches a
traditional Marine signal was flashed from shore to the command and
staff still afloat, "Situation well in hand." This achievement of the
riflemen came in spite of the ineffective prelanding fire of the
destroyers. The men in front-line combat found that none of the 25 enemy
bunkers on the right-hand beaches had been hit. Some of the naval
bombardment had begun at a range of over seven miles, and the official
Marine history summarized, "The gunfire plan . . . had accomplished
beach, rifles pointing toward the enemy, Marines get ready to fight
their way inland. Department of Defense Photo (USMC) 69782
Unloading supplies and getting them in usable order
on the chaotic beaches was a major problem. Seabees, sailors, and
Marines all turned to the task, with 40 percent of the entire landing
force laboring as the shore party. They sweated 6,500 tons of supplies
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Simultaneously, the batteries of the 12th Marines
were struggling to get their artillery pieces ashore and set to fire.
One battery, in support of the 2d Raider Battalion, waded through a
lagoon to find firing positions. Amtracs (amphibian tractors),
supplemented by rubber boats, were used to ferry the men and ammunition
to the beaches. The 90mm antiaircraft guns of the 3d Defense Battalion
were also brought ashore early to defend against the anticipated air
The Japanese had been quick to respond to this
concentration of American ships. Before the first assault boats had hit
the beach, a large flight of enemy carrier planes was on its way to
attack the Marines and their supporting ships. New Zealand and Marine
fighters met them in the air and the covering destroyers put up a hail
of antiaircraft fire, while the transports and cargo ships took evasive
action. Successive Japanese flights were beaten off; 26 enemy planes
were shot down.
Major General Allen H. Turnage, USMC
Allen Hal Turnage was born in Farmville, North
Carolina, on 3 January 1891. After attending Horner Military Academy and
then the University of North Carolina, at age 22 he was appointed a
second lieutenant in the U.S. Marine Corps. Sent to Haiti, he served
with the 2d Marine Regiment from 1915 to 1918, becoming a company
commander in the Haitian Gendarmerie.
A captain in 1917, Turnage did get to France where he
commanded the 5th Marine Brigade Machine Gun Battalion. Home in 1919, he
was assigned to the 5th Marines at Quantico and became regimental
adjutant and an instructor for the first Field Officers School,
A major in 1927, Turnage had three years with the
Pacific fleet, and then he served with the U.S. Electoral Mission in
Nicaragua (1932). He came back to Washington, made lieutenant colonel in
1934 and full colonel in 1939. He was director of the Basic School at
the Philadelphia Navy Yard, and, in the spring of 1939, he was sent to
China to head Marine forces in North China.
In summer of 1941, on the eve of the Japanese attack
on Pearl Harbor, he returned to Headquarters in Washington. In 1942, as
a brigadier general, he commanded the burgeoning Marine Base and
Training Center at New River, North Carolina.
When the 3d Marine Division was formed in September
1942, he was named assistant division commander. In the summer of 1943
Turnage was promoted to major general and selected to head the division.
He then led the division on Bougainville and in the liberation of Guam,
the first American territory to be recaptured from the enemy.
After the war, he was appointed Assistant Commandant,
followed by promotion to lieutenant general and command of FMFPac (Fleet
Marine Force, Pacific). He retired 1 January 1948, and died 22 October
His awards included the Navy Cross, the Navy
Distinguished Service Medal, and the Presidential Unit Citation (which
his men received for both Guam and Iwo Jima).
The men in the rifle battalions long remembered the
sight. On one occasion, a Marine Corsair was about to pull the trigger
on an enemy Zeke ("Zero") fighter set up perfectly in the pilot's sights
when a burst of fire from Marine .50-caliber machine guns on the beach,
meant for the Zeke, shot the American down. One of the riflemen later
recalled that the Marine pilot fell into the ocean and surfaced with a
broken leg. "We waded out to get him. He was ticked off mostly
because he missed the Jap."
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In spite of all these problems, the assault
battalions had, by the end of D-Day, reached their objectives on the
Initial Beachhead Line, 600 1,000 yards inland. One enormous
unexpected obstacle, however, had now became painfully clear. Available
maps were nearly useless, and a large, almost impenetrable swamp, with
water three to six feet deep, lay right behind the beaches and made
movement inland and lateral contact among the Marine units
The night of D-Day was typical for the ground troops.
By 1800, darkness had set in and the men all knew the iron-clad rule: be
in your foxhole and stay there. Anyone moving around out there was a
Japanese soldier trying to infiltrate. John A. Monks, Jr., quoted a
Marine in his book, A Ribbon and a Star:
From seven o'clock in the evening till dawn, with
only centipedes and lizards and scorpions and mosquitoes begging to get
acquainted wet, cold, exhausted, but unable to sleep you
lay there and shivered and thought and hated and prayed. But you stayed
there. You didn't cough, you didn't snore, you changed your position
with the least amount of noise. For it was still great to be alive.
At sea, the transports and cargo ships were
withdrawn; there was intelligence that enemy naval forces were on the