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 Army Attack: Kwajalein

In accordance with the overall campaign plan for the seizure of the Marshall Islands, the Army's attack on Kwajalein Island at the south end of the atoll began in exact synchronization with the Marine assault in the north. The same softening-up process was used on D-day, 31 January, with a large force of warships and planes pouring on a blanket of high explosive. The Navy, for instance, fired 7,000 shells. Because of the location of the islets immediately surrounding its main objective, the 7th Infantry Division was able to follow a plan identical to the Marines, with the 17th Infantry Regiment clearing the way for placement of close-by supporting artillery. The 145th Field Artillery Battalion then proceeded to inundate the target with 28,000 rounds.

Then, on D plus 1, the riflemen of the 32d and 184th Infantry Regiments landed on Kwajalein Island itself. Because of previous joint rehearsals held in Hawaii the amtracs carried in the assault troops with smoothness and efficiency. In addition, Major General Charles H. Corlett, the division commander, had an assemblage of DUKWs (amphibious trucks always called "ducks") available, and it proved valuable in ferrying priority supplies ashore to the fighting men.

Using palm fronds for concealment, two Marines carefully scout out the terrain ahead of them on Roi in a firefight with the Japanese forward of their position. Department of Defense Photo (USMC) 71920

airplane hangar
A rifleman of the 23d Marines moves slowly past a Japanese airplane and a hangar destroyed on Roi by naval gunfire. The rifle slung over his shoulder and the adjacent Marine carrying supplies indicate that combat is no longer imminent. National Archives Photo 127-GW-1253-70345

Once ashore, the assault units found widespread devastation from the preinvasion bombing and shelling. Smashed seawalls, uprooted trees, demolished buildings, scarred pillboxes were everywhere. Dug in amidst all this debris, the Japanese fought resolutely. This kind of close combat usually forced the issue down to the individual level. An Army officer, Lieutenant Colonel S. L. A. Marshall, who later interviewed the troops, gave this account of how they dealt with the deadly Japanese "spider holes" they encountered:

The holes were everywhere. Each one had to be searched from close up. Every spot where a man might be hiding had to be stabbed out. So greatly was the beach littered with broken foliage that it was like looking through a haystack for a few poisoned needles . . . .

The fire which cut the men down came from the spider holes farther up the line. It was the kind of bitter going that made it necessary for the junior leaders to prod their men constantly. The leader of the 3d Squad had been trying to get his men forward against the fire. Private First Class John Treager got up, rushed forward about ten yards, hit the dirt, fired a few shots with his BAR [Browning Automatic Rifle] and crumpled with a bullet in his head.

Somewhat farther along, a bayonet was seen sticking up through a patch of fronds. The Jap crouched within it hadn't room to draw in the whole length of the weapon. Private First Class Edward Fiske fired his BAR at the hole; the dried fronds caught fire from the tracers. At that point Fiske ran out of ammunition.

Private First Class Julian Guterrez then took up the fire with his M1 [rifle]. He stood directly above the hole and fired down into it. Then the hole exploded; the Jap inside had turned a grenade on himself. A man's shattered arm came flying out of the hole and hit Guterrez on the shoulder, splattering blood all over his face and clothing. The arm bounced off and fell to the side. As Guterrez looked at it, fascinated and horror-stricken, he saw another bayonet rising out of a patch of fronds just beyond the outstretched and still-quivering fingers. He yelled to a man behind him. The man relayed a grenade and Guterrez pitched it with all of his might into the patch of fronds. It erupted in a shower of palm leaves and blood and flesh.

Guterrez reeled over toward the lagoon to cleanse himself of the blood. Before he could reach the water, in sight of all the other men, he vomited all over the beach. Minutes passed before he could gather himself together again.

As the two Army regiments began their third day of combat, it was dirty and dangerous work. One Marine historical summary of the Marshalls operation told their story:

Resistance during the day was continually stiffer as the enemy took advantage of every possible uncertainty of the terrain, and concentrated the fire of such mortars and artillery as were left to them. Despite the havoc wrought by the bombardments, there was still much cover available and positions were concealed with great adroitness. Many of the concrete installations still stood in partial ruin even though they had received direct hits from heavy naval guns, and the fire from 75mm [cannon] had little effect on them.

It was necessary to employ heavy demolition charges to breach emplacements sufficiently for the employment of flame throwers and grenades. In the utter turmoil, it was nearly impossible to maintain contact. Nothing was any longer recognizable. The situation was made doubly uncertain from the fact that fire might come from almost any direction at the flanks, frontally, or from the rear. The going was tough.

American flag
The American flag is raised on Roi on 2 February 1944 to signify the end of the fighting. In the background is the shattered hulk of a three-story concrete blockhouse. Department of Defense Photo (USMC) 70650

Weird things can and do happen in such fighting. A Japanese officer charged a U.S. tank with just his bare saber. In the dusk one evening Japanese riflemen tried to walk into the American lines carrying palm branches in front of their bodies so they would not be seen. A U.S. infantryman carrying a flamethrower approached a pillbox, and out through its door bolted a Japanese officer in counterattack. He was squirting a fire extinguisher towards the flame gun. The liquid doused the American soldier as he let the flame go. The Japanese officer dropped dead at his feet, burned to a crisp.

Dyess Field
Named "Dyess Field" in honor of the deceased battalion commander who earned the Medal of Honor, the Roi airstrip was quickly converted from Japanese use to become a new base for Marine aircraft as the Central Pacific drive moved westward. National Archives Photo 127-N-88477

And so it went for four long days until the far tip of Kwajalein had been reached and the island was declared secured.

Navy corpsmen helping wounded
Navy corpsmen (in their Marine uniforms) are there on the front lines of combat, plasma in hand, saving riflemen's lives in the critical minutes after a wound. Department of Defense Photo (USMC) 72399

The successful battle for both ends of Kwajalein Atoll had been concluded, and a series of conclusions were drawn from it. Japanese deaths reached a total of 8,122, some 27 times the number of Americans killed. The relatively small scale of U.S. casualties gave Admiral Chester W. Nimitz the ready forces he needed to push forward rapidly with plans for further action: first, one more atoll in the Marshalls, and then quickly on to the vital Mariana Islands, the linchpin of Japan's inner line of defense. Kwajalein would provide the air base from which the B-29 bombers would conduct their raids on the Marianas, and the Army 7th Infantry Division and the 4th Marine Division would play key roles in those future operations.

LtCol Aquilla J. Dyess
LtCol Aquilla J. Dyess was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for his heroic personal leadership on Namur. Known affectionately as "Big Red," he was the only person to have been awarded both the Medal of Honor and the Carnegie Medal for Heroism (in 1928). He was honored in 1945 by having a Navy destroyer named after him. Department of Defense Photo (USMC) 36034
1stLt John V. Power
1stLt John V. Power, after being seriously wounded attacking one pillbox, held his hand over his wound and went on to attack a second one. He was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor. Department of Defense Photo (USMC) 307689

Tactically, there were a variety of innovations in the twin battles at Kwajalein, and these would continue to prove valuable in the future. There was the first use of Navy underwater demolition teams; the first use of DUKWs in combat; the first use of command ships with special communications equipment to control the battle; the first use of airplanes to control naval gunfire; and the first use of armored amphibian tractors (LVTAs). In addition, the two battles saw the debut of new units designed to facilitate crucial communications during combat. These were the Joint Assault Signal Companies. The official Marine history of the Marshalls campaign described their complex responsibilities:

The primary mission of this unit was to coordinate all supporting fires available to a Marine division during an amphibious operation. In order to carry out this function, the company was divided into Shore and Beach Party Communications Teams, Air Liaison Parties, and Shore Fire Control Parties . . . . During training, the various teams were attached to the regiments and battalions of the division. Thus each assault battalion could become familiar with its shore and beach party, air liaison, and fire control teams.

Another new element was the way rockets were used. This was a centuries-old technique of bombardment, but in the Marshalls the 4th Marine Division was the first American division to use rockets mounted on jeeps, pick-up trucks, and Navy gunboats in combat.

PFC Richard B. Anderson
PFC Richard B. Anderson was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for sacrificing his life when he threw himself upon a live Japanese hand grenade, in order to protect his fellow Marines. Department of Defense Photo (USMC) 302952
Pvt Richard K. Sorenson
Pvt Richard K. Sorenson saved the lives of five Marines by throwing himself on a Japanese grenade which was thrown in to the shell crater they occupied. He was awarded the Medal of Honor and later recovered from his terrible wounds. Marine Corps Historical Collection

One other Marine resource was unique: the use of Navajo Indian "code talkers" in battle. They proved a perfect foil for the Japanese ability in previous battles to understand Marine voice-to-voice communications and Morse Code. To prevent this a group of Navajo Indians had been recruited and trained in special code words they could use in combat. When they were talking in the Navajo's exotic language, no Japanese would ever decipher the message! At Roi-Namur their walkie-talkie portable radios carried the urgent instructions back and forth between ship and shore, as well as between higher echelons and subordinate units, and did it so quickly that previous delays of up to 12 hours (intercepting, transmitting, and deciphering messages) were eliminated.

Finally, the two battles for Kwajalein Atoll proved incontestably the effectiveness of prolonged and massive preinvasion naval gunfire and aerial bombing. The U.S. planes and warships had so thoroughly scoured not only the target islands, but also the other Japanese air bases in the Marshalls, that not a single Japanese plane was able to attack the American surface forces in the campaign.

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Commemorative Series produced by the Marine Corps History and Museums Division