Marines in World War II Commemorative Series
Planning the Attack
The Marine Attack: Roi-Namur
The Army Attack: Kwajalein
The Final Attack: Eniwetok
Maj. Gen. Holland M. Smith
Maj. Gen. Harry Schmidt
Brig. Gen. Thomas E. Watson
Special Subjects
The 4th Marine Division
Naval Support
The Deadly Spider Holes

BREAKING THE OUTER RING: Marine Landings in the Marshall Islands
by Captain John C. Chapin, USMCR (Ret)

The Marine Attack: Roi-Namur

As the amphibian tractors sought to form up in organized attack waves, a series of problems arose. There was a continuation of the rough weather and radio communications difficulties of the day before; the amtrac crews had not previously practiced with the assault units; the control ship turned out to have been assigned firing missions as well as wave control and left its control station (followed by some stray amtracs); the attack commander was reduced to racing around in a small ship and shouting instructions through a megaphone. As a result, W-hour, the hour for attack, had to be postponed from 1000 to 1100.

Meanwhile the men in the amtracs (and some in hastily scrounged up LCVPs [landing craft, vehicle or personnel]) were watching the awe-inspiring sight of the furious bombardment. Overhead, for the first time in the Pacific War, two Marines were in airplanes to act as naval gunfire controllers who would cut off the shelling when the troops approached the beach. Brigadier General William W. Buchanan later recalled how one of them "on one of his passes found one of the trenches on the north side of Namur filled with a number of troops crouching down in the trench. So he asked the pilot to go in on a strafing attack, and then as they came over he was going to continue raking them with the machine guns. He did this to such a point that, after they got back to the ship, it was determined that in his [the spotter's] enthusiasm he practically shot off the tail end!"

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Down in the lagoon the signal finally came to the assault waves, "Go on in!" The two lead battalions of the 23d Marines headed for Roi, with the two lead battalions of the 24th Marines churning towards Namur. The memories of this run-in were burned forever into the mind of young Second Lieutenant John C. Chapin, leading his platoon in the first wave:

By now everything was all mixed up, with our assault wave all entangled with the armored tractors ahead of us. I ordered my driver to maneuver around them. Slowly we inched past, as their 37mm guns and .50-cal. machine guns flamed. The beach lay right before us. However, it was shrouded in such a pall of dust and smoke from our bombardment that we could see very little of it. As a result, we were unable to tell which section we were approaching (after all our hours of careful planning, based on hitting the beach at one exact spot!) I turned to talk to my platoon sergeant, who was manning the machine gun right beside me. He was slumped over—the whole right side of his head disintegrated into a mass of gore. Up to now, the entire operation had seemed almost like a movie, or like one of the innumerable practice landings we'd made.

Now one of my men lay in a welter of blood beside me, and the reality of it smashed into my consciousness.

Hart, Litzenberg
Col Franklin A. Hart, commander of the 24th Marines, briefs his staff on the operation plan for the invasion of Roi-Namur. To his left is his regimental executive officer, LtCol Homer L. Litzenberg, Jr. Both would retire as general officers. Department of Defense Photo (USMC 70490)

The landing then became a chaotic jumble of rapid events for that officer and his men. There was a grinding crash to their right, and looking over they saw an LVT collide at the water's edge with an armored tractor, climb on its side and hang there, crazily atilt. Simultaneously, there was a grating sound under their tractor as they hit the beach. Keeping low, the men slid over the side of the tractor and dove for cover, for their LVT was a perfect target sitting there on the sand. The lieutenant was the last one to drop to the deck, and as he sprawled on the sand, the amtrac ground its way backwards into the ocean.

Now the lieutenant faced his first combat in a situation that characterized all the landing beaches. His intensive training stood him in good stead as he took stock of the situation. Being in the first scattered group of tractors ashore, his men had no contact yet with any other unit, so the Japanese were on both sides of them—as well as in front. One glance told him that they had landed on the west side of Namur, 300 yards to the right of the spit of land that their company had for its objective. The long hours of studying maps and aerial photographs had proved their worth. The lieutenant's account continued:

My immediate task was to reorganize my platoon, for it was scattered along the beach. The noise, smoke, and choking pall of burnt powder further complicated things. I turned to my sergeant guide, as we lay there in the sand, and asked him where his men were. He started to point and right before my eyes his hand dissolved into a bloody stump. He rolled over, screaming "Sailor! Sailor!" (This was our code name for a corpsman. Bitter past experiences of the Marines had shown that the Japs delighted in calling "corpsman" themselves, and then shooting anyone who showed himself.) Soon our corpsman crawled over, and started to give the sergeant first aid, so I turned my attention to more pressing matters.

As yet the officer hadn't seen a single Japanese, even though he was in the midst of them. But now one of the men next to him gasped, "They're in there!," pointing to a slit trench four feet away; the Marine raised himself up to a crouching position and hurled his bayonetted rifle like a javelin into the slit trench. There was heavy enemy fire coming at the platoon, but it was almost impossible to determine its source. Ten feet in front of the Marines, however, the Japanese had dug a series of trenches running the length of the beach. Tied in with these trenches were scores of machine gun positions and foxholes, mutually supporting each other, all camouflaged so that they were invisible until a Marine was right on top of them. Accordingly, as soon as the men of the platoon would locate an emplacement, they would deluge it with hand grenades, and then work on the next one. The lieutenant's next experience was almost his last:

At one point in this swirling maelstrom of action I was kneeling behind a palm tree stump with my carbine on the deck, as I fished for a fresh clip of bullets in my belt. Something made me look up and there, not ten feet away, was a Jap charging me with his bayonet. My hands were empty. I was helpless. The thought that "this is it" flashed through my brain! Then shots chattered from all sides of me. My men hit the running Jap in a dozen places. He fell dead three feet from me.

Shortly after this, the squad with the Marine officer was working on another Japanese emplacement. He pulled the pin from one of his grenades, let the handle fly off, and started counting to three. (The grenade's fuse was timed to give a man about five seconds before it exploded.) In the middle of his count, a Japanese started shooting at him from the flank. Instinctively he turned to look for the enemy. Then something in his mind clicked, "And what about that live grenade in your hand?" Without looking, he threw it and dove for the deck. It went off in mid-air and the fragments spattered all around him . . . .

Naval Support

The infantry assault units in the Marshalls operations were carried by an incredible array of ships designed to perform very specialized functions. Also included were converted destroyers. The amphibian tractors carried the invading Marines in to the beaches, supplemented by the older ramped landing craft. Added to these were a jumble of acronyms: LCT, LST, LSM, etc., for infantry, rockets, tanks, and trucks.

No landings would have been successful, however, without the crucial support of naval gunfire and aerial bombardment. The fast task force that roamed the Pacific and the support groups which stood off the island objectives were visual proof of the deadly striking power that had been reborn in the U.S. Navy in the two years since the debacle at Pearl Harbor. Nearly all the old, slow battleships which had lain shattered in the mud were back in action, and now were joined by brand new, fast counterparts, and the familiar old peacetime carriers were now supplemented by a steady flow of new fleet carriers and the innovation of smaller escort carriers.

This is the roll call of the ships which poured in their fire before and during the landings:

Battleships: Tennessee (BB 13), Colorado (BB 45), Maryland (BB 46), Pennsylvania (BB 38), Idaho (BB 42), New Mexico (BB 40), and Mississippi (BB 41).

Heavy Cruisers: Louisville (CA 28), Indianapolis (CA 35), Portland (CA 33), Minneapolis (CA 36), San Francisco (CA 38), and New Orleans (CA 32).

Light Cruisers: Santa Fe (CL 60), Mobile (CL 63), AND Biloxi (CL 80).

Carriers: Saratoga (CV 3), Princeton (CVL 23), Langley (CVL 28), Enterprise (CV 6), Yorktown (CV 10), Belleau Wood (CVL 24), Intrepid (CV 11), Essex (CV 9), Cabot (CVL 27), Cowpens (CVL 25), Monterey (CVL 26), and Bunker Hill (CV 17), plus six escort carriers.

Destroyers: The Kwajalein Atoll landings had 40 in direct support.

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Groups of Marines were forming now under their own initiative, and beginning to work their way slowly inland. It was nearly impossible to keep tight control of the platoon under these conditions, but the lieutenant was moving with them, trying to get them coordinated as best he could, when suddenly he dropped to the ground, stunned. He recalled:

My first reaction was that someone had hit my right cheek with a baseball bat. With the shock, instinct made me cover my right eye with my hand. Then I realized I'd been hit. Searing my mind came the question, "When I take my hand away, will I be able to see?" Slowly I lowered my arm and opened my eye. I could see! Relief flooded through me. The wound was on my cheek bone, just below the eye, and it was bleeding profusely, so I lay there and broke out my first aid packet. After shaking sulfa powder into the wound rather awkwardly, I bandaged my right eye and cheekbone as best I could. The bullet had gone completely through my helmet just above my right ear, and left a jagged, gaping hole in the steel. My left eye was still functioning all right, however, so after a drink from my canteen, I started forward again.

A little later I encountered another lieutenant from our company, Jack Powers. He had been hit in the stomach, but was still fighting. Crouching behind a concrete wall, he showed me a pillbox about 25 feet away that was full of Japs who were still very much alive and full of fight. This strong point commanded the whole area around us and was holding up our advance very effectively. It was about 50 feet long and 15 feet wide, constructed of double rows of sand-filled oil drums. Grabbing the nearest men, we explained our plan of attack and went to work. With a couple of automatic riflemen, Jack covered the rear entrance with fire. Taking another man and a high-explosive bangalore torpedo, I crawled around to the front and observed for a few minutes. Then we inched our way up to the slit that served as a front entrance, and I threw a grenade in to keep down any Jap who might be inclined to poke a rifle out in our faces.

Next we lighted the fuse on the bangalore, jammed it inside the pillbox, and scrambled for shelter. The fuse was very short, we knew, and we barely had tumbled into a nearby shell hole when we were overwhelmed by the blast of the bangalore. Dirt sprayed all over us, billowing acrid smoke blinded us, and the numbing concussion deafened us. In a few moments we felt all right once more, and a glance told us that we had closed that entrance permanently. We worked our way back to where we'd left Jack Powers, and found that he'd managed to locate a shaped charge of high explosive in the meantime. Taking this, we repeated our job—this time blowing the rear entrance shut.

That took care of that pillbox! Jack looked like he was in pretty bad shape, and I urged him to go get some medical attention, but he refused and moved on alone to the next Jap pillbox (where, I later learned, he was killed in a single-handed heroic attack for which he was awarded the Medal of Honor).

unloading ordnance
Artillerymen unload ordnance on D-Day for the preparatory bombardment from the neighboring islets to pound targets before the infantry attacks on Roi-Namur. Department of Defense Photo (Army) 324729

All over Namur there were similar examples of individual initiative. They were needed, for the island was covered with dense jungle, concrete fortifications, administrative buildings, and barracks. It was difficult to mount an armored attack under these conditions. Meanwhile, the Japanese used them to their fullest extent for cover and concealment. Enemy resistance and problems of maintaining unit contact slowed the Marines' advance.

Amidst all of this, a Marine demolition team threw a satchel charge of high explosive into a Japanese bunker which turned out to be crammed with torpedo warheads. An enormous blast occurred. From off shore, an officer watched as "the whole of Namur Island disappeared from sight in a tremendous brown cloud of dust and sand raised by the explosion." Overhead, a Marine artillery spotter felt his plane catapult up 1,000 feet and exclaimed, "Great God Almighty! The whole damn island has blown up!" On the beach another officer recalled that "trunks of palm trees and chunks of concrete as large as packing crates were flying through the air like match sticks . . . . The hole left where the blockhouse stood was as large as a fair-sized swimming pool." The column of smoke rose to over 1,000 feet in the air, and the explosion caused the deaths of 20 Marines and wounded 100 others in the area.

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Finally, at 1930, Colonel Franklin A. Hart, commander of the 24th Marines ordered his men to dig in for the night. The troops had come across a good portion of the island. Now they would hold the ground gained and get ready for the morrow. One rifleman, Robert F. Graf, later wrote about that time:

Throughout the night the fleet sent flares skyward, lighting the islands as the flares drifted with the prevailing wind. Ghostly flickering light was cast from the flares as they drifted along on their parachutes. Laying in our fox hole, my buddy and I were watching, waiting, and straining our ears trying to filter out the known sounds.

Our foxhole in that sand was about six feet long by two feet in depth and just about wide enough to hold the two of us. Since I had eaten only my "D" ration since leaving the ship, I was hungry. "D" rations were bitter-sweet chocolate bars about an inch and a half square and were supposed to be full of energy. I removed a "K" ration from my pack and opened it. "K" rations came in a box about the size of a Cracker Jack box and had a waterproof coating. These rations contained a small tin of powdered coffee or lemonade, some round hard candies, a package of three cigarettes, and a tin about the size of a tuna-fish can containing either cheese, hash, or eggs with a little bacon. We dined on our rations, drank water from our canteens, and prepared to settle in for the night . . . .

After finishing chow we elected to take two-hour watches, one on guard while the other slept. Also we made sure we knew where our buddies' foxholes were, both on the left and right of us. Thus we were set up so that anyone to our front would be an enemy. Our first night in combat had started.

Landing Vehicles, Tracked (LVTs) equipped with rocket launchers new to the 4th Marine Division, churn towards the assault beaches of Roi-Namur on D-Plus One. Department of Defense Photo (USMC) 70694

Before dawn the Japanese mounted a determined counterattack which was finally repulsed. Nevertheless, it was a tragic night for one particular family. A 19-year-old Marine private first class and his 44-year-old father, a corporal, had been together in the same company back in California, but the son was hospitalized with a minor illness and then transferred to another outfit. The father boarded his ship prepared to sail for combat alone, but then his son was found stowed away on it in order to be with his father. The young man was taken off and was placed under arrest. His mother, however, telephoned the Commandant's office in Washington and told the story of her son's effort to be together with her husband. The charges were dropped and the two were reunited for the trip to the Marshalls. The son was killed that first night on Namur. The father went on fighting—alone.

Early on the afternoon of the next day, 2 February, D plus 2, the 24th Marines finished its conquest of Namur, and the island was declared "secured!" In the final moments of combat, however, Lieutenant Colonel Aquilla J. Dyess, commander of the 1st Battalion, was standing to direct the last attack of his men. A burst of machine gun fire riddled his body, and he became the most senior officer to die in the battle. For his superb leadership under fire he was awarded a posthumous Medal of Honor.

Troops of the 24th Marines near the beach on Namur, thankful for having made it safely ashore, are now awaiting the inevitable word to resume the attack. Department of Defense Photo (USMC) 70209

sketch of Marines
A watercolor by combat artist LtCol Donald L. Dickson depicts members of a Marine fire team in a close-in attack on a Japanese defensive position on Namur. Marine Corps Art Collection

Across the sand spit, on Roi, it had been a different story. This island was nearly bare, for it was mostly covered by the airfield runways. When the 23d Marines hit the beaches on D plus 1, the fierceness of the pre-landing bombardment prevented the Japanese defenders from mounting a coordinated defense. Small groups of Marine riflemen joined their regiment's attached tanks in a race across to the far side of the island. This charging style caused considerable confusion as to who was where. Reorganized into more coherent units, the men made a final orderly drive to finish the job.

In spite of the rapid progress on Roi, there were still some major enemy strongpoints which had to be dealt with. An after-action report of the 2d Battalion described one example of this perilous work in matter of fact terms:

[There] was a blockhouse constructed of reinforced concrete approximately three feet thick. It had three gunports, one each facing north, east, and west, another indication of the enemy's mistaken assumption that the Americans would attack from the sea rather than the lagoon shore. Two heavy hits had been made on the blockhouse, one apparently by 14-inch or 16-inch shells and the other by an aerial bomb. Nevertheless, the position had not been demolished . . . .

[The battalion commander, Lieutenant Colonel Edward J. Dillon] then ordered Company G to take the blockhouse. The company commander first sent forward a 75mm half track, which fired five rounds against the steel door. At this point a demolition squad came up, and its commander volunteered to knock out the position with explosives. While the halftrack continued to fire, infantry platoons moved up on each flank of the installation. The demolition squad placed charges at the ports and pushed bangalore torpedoes through a shell hole in the roof. . . .

"Cease fire" was then ordered, and after hand-grenades were thrown inside the door, half a squad of infantry went into investigate. Unfortunately, the engineers of the demolition squad had not got the word to cease fire, and had placed a shaped charge at one of the ports while the infantry was still inside. Luckily, no one was hurt, but as the company commander reported, "a very undignified and hurried exit was made by all concerned." Inside were three heavy machine guns, a quantity of ammunition, and the bodies of three Japanese.

black plume from giant explosion
Members of the 23d Marines on Roi turn to look in astonishment at the black plume of the giant explosion which took many lives in the 24th Marines on Namur. Department of Defense Photo (USMC) 71921

Japanese soldier
One of the very few Japanese finally persuaded to surrender in the Roi-Namur operation, this stripped-down soldier is well covered by suspicious Marine riflemen as he leaves his hiding place in a massive but shell-shattered blockhouse. Department of Defense Photo (USMC) 70241

Many Japanese had to be flushed out of or blown up in the airfield's drainage ditches and culverts, but by 1800 that day, D plus 1, Roi had been secured. ("Secured" seemed a somewhat flexible term when the first service of Mass, held the next day, was interrupted by Japanese shots.) By 6 February, however, the ground elements of a Marine aircraft wing were ensconced at the airfield, preparing for the arrival of their planes in five more days. For the entire remainder of the war these planes pounded the by-passed atolls with such power that the Japanese on them were eliminated from any further role in the war. (There was one surprise Japanese air raid on Roi, staged from the Mariana Islands, on 12 February. This caused a number of casualties and major damage to material.)

The repair of the airfield and its quick return to action was a tribute to the skills of both the 20th Marines, an engineer regiment, and the 109th Naval Construction Battalion (Seabees). This achievement was one more illustration of the vital role played by a dizzying list of units that supported the assault rifle battalions. Besides the vast armada of naval planes, ships, and landing craft, there were Navy chaplains and corpsmen (two specialties which are always Navy). In addition to the Marine air, artillery, and engineer units, there were the tanks, heavy weapons, motor transport, quartermaster, signals, and headquarters supporting units. An amphibious operation, to be successful, must be a finely tuned, highly trained juggernaut that depends on all its parts working smoothly together and this was clearly demonstrated in the Marshalls.

Marine tanks and infantry worked effectively together when the terrain permitted. Department of Defense Photo (USMC) 70203

The conquest of Roi-Namur had been a relatively easy operation when compared to some of the other Marine campaigns in the Pacific. (At Tarawa, for example, more than 3,300 men had been killed or wounded in 76 hours.) The 4th Division's victory came at a cost of 313 Marines and corpsmen killed and 502 wounded. By contrast, the defeated Japanese garrison numbered an estimated 3,563—with all but a handful of them now dead.

Two more tasks remained for the 4th Division; the first was mopping up the rest of the islets in the northern two-thirds of the atoll. The 25th Marines, which had supported the attacks of the 23d and 24th, took off on a series of island-hopping trips on board their LVTs. The regiment checked out more of the exotically named islets such as Boggerlapp, Marsugalt, Gegibu, Oniotto, and Eru. The 25th found no resistance and by D plus 7 it had covered all 50 of the islets that were its objectives. This assignment was a total change from what the regiment had experienced around Roi-Namur. One writer, Carl W. Proehl, described the expedition this way:

sketch of Marines near blockhouse
This watercolor by LtCol Donald L. Dickson, USMCR, portrays Marines reviving themselves and taking it easy after the fighting near blockhouse skeleton.

denuded landscape
The once heavily overgrown terrain of Namur was almost completely denuded at the end of the battle by the combination of naval gunfire and bombing. National Archives Photo 127-N-72407

It was on this junket that the men of the 25th got to know the Marshall Island natives, for it was these Marines who freed them from Japanese domination. On many islets, bivouacking overnight, the natives and Marines got together and sang hymns; the Marshall Islanders had been Christianized many years before, and missionaries had taught them such songs as "Onward Christian Soldiers." K rations and cigarettes also made a big hit with them. And more than one Marine sentry, walking post in front of a native camp, took up the islander's dress and wore only a loin cloth—usually a towel from a Los Angeles hotel.

The final task that remained for the division was a miserable one. Roi and Namur were littered with dead Japanese; the stench was overpowering as their bodies putrefied in the blazing tropical sun. All hands, officers and enlisted, were put to work day and night on burial details. "Hey, I just finished two days of brutal combat! We don't have any gloves or equipment for this!"—"Too bad, just start doing it anyway!" Health conditions were so bad that 1,500 men in the division were suffering from dysentery when the troops finally reboarded transports for the journey back to their rear base at Maui in the Hawaiian Islands.

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Commemorative Series produced by the Marine Corps History and Museums Division