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)


On 1 November 1943, the 3d and 9th Marines, assisted by the 2d Raider Battalion, seized a swath of Bougainville's coast from Cape Torokina to the northwest. At the same time, elements of the 3d Raider Battalion assaulted Puruata Island just off the cape. The single Japanese company and one 75mm gun defending the area gave a good account of themselves until overwhelmed by the invasion force. Over the next several days the Marines advanced inland to extend their perimeter. There were occasional engagements with small enemy patrols, but the greatest resistance during this period came from the terrain, which consisted largely of swampland and dense jungle beginning just behind the beach. The thing most Marines remembered about Bougainville was the deep, sucking mud that seemed to cover everything not already underwater.

Japanese resistance stiffened as they moved troops to the area on foot and by barge. The Marines fought several tough battles in mid November and suffered significant casualties trying to move forward through the thick vegetation, which concealed Japanese defensive positions until the Marines were just a few feet away. Heavy rains and the ever-present mud made logistics a nightmare and quickly exhausted the troops. Nevertheless, the perimeter continued to expand as I MAC sought an area large enough to protect the future airfields from enemy interference. By 20 November, I MAC had all of the 3d Marine Division and the 37th Infantry Division, plus the 2d Raider Regiment, on the island. In accordance with the original plan, corps headquarters arranged for the parachute regiment to come forward in echelon from Vella Lavella and assume its role as the reserve force. The 1st Parachute Battalion embarked on hoard ships on 22 November and arrived at Bougainville the next day, where it joined the raider regiment in reserve.

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The corps planners wanted to make aggressive use of the reserve force. In addition to assigning it the normal roles of reinforcing or counterattacking, I MAC ordered its reserve to be prepared "to engage in land or water-borne raider type operations." By 26 November, the corps had established a defensible beachhead and enemy activity was at a low ebb. However, the Japanese 23d Infantry Regiment occupied high ground to the northeast of the U.S. perimeter and remained a threat. Enemy medium artillery also periodically shelled rear areas. To prevent the Japanese from gathering strength with impunity, I MAC decided to establish a force in the enemy rear from whence it could "conduct raids along coast and inland to main east-west trail; destroy Japs, installations, supplies, with particular attention to disrupting Jap communications and artillery." The plan called for Major Richard Fagan's 1st Parachute Battalion, Company M of the raiders, and artillery forward observers to land 10 miles to the east, neart of Koiari, prior to dawn on 28 November. The raiders would secure the patrol base while the parachutists conducted offensive operations. They would remain there until corps ordered them to withdraw.

A Japanese air attack and problems with the boat pool delayed the operation for 24 hours. Just after midnight on 28 November, the 739 men of the reinforced battalion embarked on landing craft near Cape Torokina and headed down the coast. The main body of the parachute battalion went ashore at their assigned objective, but Company M and the parachute headquarters company landed nearly 1,000 yards farther to the east. Much to the surprise of the first parachutists coming off the boats, a Japanese officer walked onto the beach and attempted to engage them in conversation. That bizarre incident made some sense when the Marines discovered that they had landed in the midst of a large enemy supply dump. The Japanese leader must have thought that these were his own craft delivering or picking up supplies. In any case, the equally surprised enemy initially put up little opposition to the Marine incursion. Major Fagan, located with the main body, was concerned about the separation of his unit and felt that the Japanese force in the vicinity of the dump was probably much bigger than his own. Given those factors, he quickly established a tight perimeter defense about 350 yards in width and just 180 yards inland.

Marine landing
Marines hug the sand during the Koiari raid on Bougainville. The man nearest the camera has a Model 55 folding wire-stock Reising submachine gun, reviled by many Marines due to its propensity to jam. Department of Defense Photo (USMC) 127-GR-84-69793

By daylight, the Japanese had recovered from their shock and begun to respond aggressively to the threat in their rear area. They brought to bear continuous fire from 90mm mortars, knee-mortars, machine guns, and rifles; the volume of fire increased as the day wore on. Periodically infantry rushed the Marine lines. The picture improved somewhat by 0930 when the body of raiders and headquarters personnel moved down the beach and fought their way into the battalion perimeter. The battalion's radio set malfunctioned about this time, however, and Fagan could not receive messages from I MAC. For the moment he could still send them, but was unsure if the corps headquarters heard them. The artillery spotters could talk to the batteries, though, and they fed a steady diet of 155mm shells to the Japanese. Unbeknownst to Fagan, the raider company had its own radio and maintained independent contact with the corps. These communication snafus would lead to great confusion.

By late morning, I MAC already was thinking in terms of pulling out the beleaguered force. At 1128, it arranged to boat 3d Marine Division half-tracks (mounting 75mm guns) to assist in covering a withdrawal. Staffers also called in planes to provide close air support. Around noon Fagan sent a message requesting evacuation and corps decided to abort the mission. It radioed the battalion at 1318 with information concerning the planned withdrawal, but the parachutists did not get the word. As a consequence, Fagan sent more messages asking for boats and a resupply of ammunition, which was running low. For some reason, neither Fagan nor corps headquarters used the artillery net for messages other than calls for fire support. While sending other traffic would have been a violation of standard procedures, it certainly was justified under the circumstances. (After the operation was over, Fagan would express dismay that Company M radio operators, without his knowledge or approval, had sent their own pleas for boats and ammunition throughout the afternoon.)

Tables of Organization

When the Plans and Policies Division at Headquarters made its initial request in May 1940 for input on a Marine parachute program, it suggested that planners work with a notional organization of one infantry battalion reinforced by a platoon of pack howitzers and some light antiaircraft and anti-tank weapons. In late October 1940, the Commandant determined that each infantry regiment would train one of its battalions as air infantry, with one company of each such battalion prepared to conduct parachute operations. He estimated that would require 750 parachutists, about the number originally envisioned for a separate battalion. However, those men would now double as regular infantry and help fill spaces in the chronically undermanned line units. That idea did not last long and the Corps soon began talking about multiple battalions specializing in parachute operations.

The first official parachute table of organization, issued in March of 1941, authorized a battalion of three line companies and a headquarters unit. The line companies consisted of a weapons platoon (three 60mm mortars and three light machine guns) and three rifle platoons of three 10-man squads (armed with six rifles, two Browning Automatic Rifles [BARs], and two Thompson submachine guns). The standard squad for regular infantry at the time was nine men, with eight rifles and a single BAR. The 34 officers and 832 enlisted men of an infantry battalion dwarfed the 24 officers and 508 enlisted men of a parachute battalion, with the main difference coming from the former's company of heavy weapons. The parachutists lacked the large-caliber mortars, water-cooled machine guns, and antitank guns possessed by the infantry, but made up for it in part with a much greater preponderance of individual automatic weapons.

Once the United States entered the war, the parachute units went through the same process of experimentation in structure as the rest of the Corps. A 1942 revision to the tables did away with the weapons platoons, distributing one 60mm mortar to each rifle platoon and getting rid of the machine guns. The latter change was not as drastic as it might appear, since each rifle squad was to have three Johnson light machine guns. The remaining "riflemen" were supposed to carry Reising submachine guns. This mix of automatic weapons theoretically gave the parachute squad an immense amount of firepower. As things turned out, the Johnson took a long time to get to the forces in the field and the Reising proved to be an unreliable weapon.

The 1943 tables created a regimental structure consisting of a headquarters company and a weapons company. The latter unit of seven officers and 172 men served as a pool of extra firepower for the lightly armed battalions. The company was supposed to field four 81mm mortars, one dozen each of the air-cooled and water-cooled .30-caliber machine guns, two .50-caliber machine guns, two bazookas, and eight grenade launchers. Headquarters also authorized a change in the size of the battalions from 24 officers and 508 enlisted Marines to 23 officers and 568 enlisted. The additional personnel were all in the headquarters company, though 33 of them formed a demolitions platoon that did add directly to the battalion's combat power. Beyond that, I MAC allowed the line companies to reestablish weapons platoons exactly like those deleted in 1942. That move increased the authorized strength of each battalion by another three officers and 87 enlisted men (though manpower for these units was often taken out of hide). The new rifle squad of 11 men was supposed to have three Johnson machine guns, three Johnson rifles, and five Reisings, but by this time the parachute regiment informally had adopted the fire team concept of three three-man teams and a squad leader.

At 1600, the landing craft arrived off the beach and made a run in to pick up the raid force. The Japanese focused their mortar fire on the boats and the sailors backed off. They tried again almost immediately, but again drew back due to the intense bombardment from the beach. Things looked bleak as the onset of night reduced visibility to zero in the dense jungle and increased the likelihood of a strong enemy counterattack. Ammunition stocks were dwindling rapidly and weapons failed due to heavy firing and the accumulation of gritty sand. Marines resorted to employing Japanese weapons, to include a small field piece. The destroyers Fullam, Lansdowne, and Lardner and two LCI gunboats came on the scene after 1800 and turned the tide. The heavy fires at short range of the Lansdowne and the LCIs soon silenced most of the Japanese mortars and boats were able to reach the shore unmolested about 1920. American artillery also continued to rain down around the perimeter. The parachutists and raiders exhibited a cool discipline, slowly collapsing their perimeter into the beach and conducting an orderly backload. After a thorough search to ensure that no one remained behind, the final few Marines stepped onto the last wave of landing craft and pulled out to sea at 2100.

The raid might he counted a failure since it did not go according to plan, but it did achieve some positive things. The day of fighting in the midst of the enemy supply dump destroyed considerable stocks of ammunition, food, and medical supplies. Rough estimates placed Japanese casualties at nearly 300 dead and wounded, though there was no way to confirm whether this figure was high or low. Undoubtedly the aggressive operation behind the lines caused the enemy to worry that the Americans might repeat the tactic elsewhere with better luck. The Marine force attained these ends at considerable cost. Total casualties were 17 dead, 7 missing, and 97 wounded (two-thirds of them requiring evacuation). In one day of fighting the parachute battalion lost nearly 20 percent of its strength, as well as many weapons and individual items of equipment. The unit was not shaken, hut it was severely bruised.

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