Marines in World War II
The Jump into Parachuting
Rendezvous at Gavutu
Edson's Ridge
Recuperation and Reevaluation
The Closing Shock
Special Subjects
Overseas Models
Marine Parachute Pioneers
Marine Corps Airborne Doctrine
Air Transport
Training Centers
Tables of Organization
Parachute Accidents

SILK CHUTES AND HARD FIGHTING: US. Marine Corps Parachute Units in World War II
by Lieutenant Colonel Jon T. Hoffman (USMCR)


As August progressed it became clear that the Japanese were focusing their effort in the Solomons on regaining the vital airfield on Guadalcanal. The enemy poured fresh troops onto the island via the "Tokyo Express," a shuttle of ships and barges coming down the "the Slot" each night. The 1st Marines destroyed the newly landed Ichiki Detachment along the Tenaru River on 21 August, but the understrength Marine division had too few troops to secure the entire perimeter. To bolster his force, General Vandegrift brought the raiders over from Tulagi at the end of August and switched the parachutists a few days later. The two battalions went into reserve in a coconut grove near Lunga Point. During this period Major Miller took ill and went into the field hospital, as did other parachutists. The shrinking battalion, temporarily commanded by a captain and down to less than 300 effectives, was so depleted in numbers and senior leadership that Vandegrift decided to attach them to Edson's 1st Raider Battalion. The combined unit roughly equalled the size of a standard infantry battalion, though it still lacked the heavy firepower.

Following the arrival of the first aviation reinforcements on 20 August, the division made use of its daytime control of the skies to launch a number of seaborne operations. Near the end of the month, a battalion of the 5th Marines conducted an amphibious spoiling attack on Japanese forces to the west of the perimeter, but inflicted little damage due to a lack of aggressive leadership. Two companies of raiders found no enemy after scouring Savo Island on 4 September, while a mixup in communications scrubbed a similar foray scheduled the next day for Cape Esperance. By 6 September, Japanese naval activity and native scouting reports indicated that the enemy was concentrating fresh troops near the village of Tasimboko, located on the coast several miles east of the Marine lines.

Marine Corps Airborne Doctrine

On 15 May 1940 the Commandant, Major General Thomas Holcomb, wrote the Chief of Naval Operations to seek the help of his naval attaches in gathering information on foreign parachute programs. He noted that he was "intensely interested" in the subject. The Berlin attache responded the following month with a lead on how to obtain newsreels and an educational film on the German paratroopers. The London attache eventually provided additional information on the Germans and on Britain's fledgling parachute program launched in June 1940.

The Commandant's own intelligence section had already compiled available material on the German and Soviet forces. The report noted the distinction between parachutists and air infantry, the latter consisting of specially organized units trained and equipped to move by transport aircraft. The paratroopers acted as the advance guard for the air infantry by seizing the airfields upon which the transports would land. The report also detailed the different methods that the Germans and Soviets used to train their respective forces. German paratrooper recruits went through an intensive ground school prior to making the six jumps required to achieve membership in a unit. The Soviet program featured the use of towers for practice jumps prior to actual training with a plane. When staff officers at Headquarters first looked at parachute forces in the aftermath of Eben Emael, they specifically considered the functions such a unit would perform. Their ideas were generally similar: paratroopers would be valuable for raids, reconnaissance, the seizure of airfields, aerial envelopment of the enemy's rear area, and the occupation of key terrain in advance of the main force. Several officers specifically tied the latter two missions to the conduct of amphibious operations.

Although the Corps' amphibious doctrine had existed on paper for several years, the Fleet Marine Force was having a difficult time turning those ideas into reality. During annual exercises, a lack of decent landing craft and transports had prevented the rapid buildup ashore of combat power, something the amphibious force had to do if it hoped to defeat counterattacks against its beachhead. Brigadier General Holland M. Smith, commander of the 1st Marine Brigade, first tried to solve this problem during Fleet Exercise 6 in February 1940. A key part of his plan was the night landing of one company three hours prior to the main amphibious assault. This company, embarked in a fast destroyer transport, would go ashore by rubber boat, seize key terrain overlooking the proposed beachhead, and then protect the rest of the force as it landed and got itself organized. This idea eventually gave birth to the 1st Marine Raider Battalion. In the spring of 1940, it was obvious to a number of Marine officers, at Headquarters and in the PMF, that parachutists now constituted an ideal alternative for speedily seizing a surprise lodgement on an enemy coast. Smith explicitly would advocate that new wrinkle to doctrine the following year.

The Marine Corps did not develop formal airborne doctrine until late 1942. It came in the form of a 12-page manual titled Parachute and Air Troops. Its authors believed that airborne forces could constitute "a paralyzing application of power in the initial phase of a landing attack." Secondarily, parachute troops could seize "critical points," such as airfields or bridges, or they could operate behind enemy lines in small groups to gather intelligence or conduct sabotage operations. The doctrine noted the limitations of airborne assault and emphasized that these forces could only seize small objectives and hold them for a short time pending linkup with seaborne or overland echelons. The manual envisioned the formation of an air brigade composed of one regiment each of paratroops and air infantry, the type of force originally sought by Holland Smith.

The doctrinal publication did not provide much detail on tactics, but the parachutists worked out techniques in combination with Marine transport pilots. The standard of operations called for a terrain-hugging approach flight at altitudes as low as 50 feet, with a last-minute ascent to several hundred feet, at which point the jumpers exited the aircraft. All leaders were thoroughly briefed beforehand with maps, aerial photos, and a sandtable mockup of the objective, so that they could quickly get organized and oriented once they hit the ground. When they jumped, the paratroopers carried the collapsible Johnson weapons or Reisings, along with basic individual items such as a belt, knife, canteens, and ammunition. Cargo parachutes delivered heavier weapons and supplies.

From early in the life of the program, planners realized that a lack of training facilities and planes hampered the ability of the Corps to field an adequate airborne force. They thus began looking at using parachutists for secondary missions. In April 1941 the Commandant directed that parachute units conduct training in rubber boat operations, reconnaissance, demolitions, and other subjects to enable them to conduct special missions requiring only small forces or not necessarily involving airborne insertion. On New Caledonia in 1943, the 1st Parachute Regiment devoted much of its training time to such skills. In many respects the Marine Corps had molded the parachutists and raiders into carbon copies of each other, with the parachutists' unique ability to enter battle being the only significant difference between the two special units.

Edson and Lieutenant Colonel Gerald C. Thomas, the division operations officer, hatched a plan to raid this eastern terminus of the Tokyo Express on 8 September. Intelligence initially placed two or three hundred Japanese at Tasimboko with their defenses located west of the village and facing toward Henderson Field. Edson planned to land to the east of the village and attack them from the rear. The available shipping consisted of two destroyer transports (APDs) and two small, converted tuna boats, so the raider commander divided his force into two waves. The raider rifle companies would embark on the evening of 7 September and land just prior to dawn, then the tiny fleet would shuttle back to the perimeter to pick up the weapons company and the parachutists. Since the APDs were needed for other missions, the Marine force would have to complete its work and reembark the same day. (The Navy had already lost three of the original six APDs in the Guadalcanal campaign.)

On the evening of 7 September, native scouts brought news that the enemy force at Tasimboko had swelled to several thousand. Division planners discounted these reports, believing that they were greatly exaggerated or referred to remnants of previously defeated formations. When the raiders landed at 0520 on the 8th, they immediately realized that the natives had provided accurate information. Not far from the beach, Marines discovered endless rows of neatly placed life preservers, a large number of foxholes, and several unattended 37mm antitank guns. Luckily for Edson's outfit, Major General Kiyotake Kawaguchi and his brigade of more than 3,000 men already had departed into the interior. Only a rear guard of 300 soldiers remained behind to secure the Japanese base at Tasimboko, but even that small force was nearly as large as the first wave of raiders.

Company D of the raiders (little more than a platoon in strength) remained at the landing beach as rear security while the other companies moved west toward Tasimboko. The raiders soon ran into stubborn resistance, with the Japanese firing artillery over open sights directly at the advancing Marines. Edson sent one company wide to the left to flank the defenders. As the action developed, the APDs Manley and McKean returned to Kukum Beach at 0755 and the Parachute Battalion (less Company C) debarked within 25 minutes. The 208 parachutists joined Company D ashore by 1130 and went into defensive positions adjacent to them. Edson, fearing that he might be moving into a Japanese trap, already had radioed division twice and asked for reinforcements, to include another landing to the west of Tasimboko in what was now the enemy rear. In reply, division ordered the raiders and parachutists to withdraw. Edson persisted, however, and Japanese resistance melted away about noon. The raider assault echelon entered the village and discovered a stockpile of food, ammunition, and weapons ranging up to 75mm artillery pieces. The raider and parachute rear guard closed up on the main force and the Marines set about destroying the enemy supply base. Three hours later the combined unit began to reembark and all were back in the division perimeter by nightfall.

The raid was a minor tactical victory with major operational impact on the Guadalcanal campaign. At a cost of two killed and six wounded, the Marines had killed 27 Japanese. The enemy suffered more grievously in terms of lost firepower. logistics, and communication. Intelligence gathered at the scene also revealed some details about the coming Japanese offensive. These latter facts would allow the 1st Marine Division to fight off one of the most serious challenges to its tenuous hold on Henderson Field.

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