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 Final Attack: Eniwetok

With Kwajalein Atoll now in American hands, a review of the next operation immediately took place. Admiral Nimitz flew there from Pearl Harbor and met with his top commanders. The 2d Marine Division, tempered in the fires of Tarawa, had earlier been alerted to prepare for a May attack on Eniwetok Atoll, 330 miles northwest of Kwajalein. The planners decided to use instead the 22d Marines (under the command of Colonel John T. Walker) and two battalions of the Army's 106th Infantry Regiment, since they had not been needed in the quick conquest of Roi-Namur and Kwajalein. In addition, the date for the attack was jumped forward to mid-February.

dead Japanese soldiers
Resolute and fanatic Japanese defenders who were not previously killed by the Marines very often committed hara-kiri, as did the two soldiers in the foreground. Department of Defense Photo (USMC) 70200

The softening-up process had begun at the end of January, and the carrier air strikes increased the following month. Japanese soldiers caught in this deluge were dismayed. One wrote in his diary, "The American attacks are becoming more furious. Planes come over day after day. Can we stand up under the strain?" Another noted that "some soldiers have gone out of their minds."

On D-Day, 17 February, the Navy's heavy guns joined in with a thunderous shelling. Then, using secret Japanese navigation charts captured at Kwajalein, the task force moved into the huge lagoon, 17 by 21 miles in size. Brigadier General Thomas E. Watson, the Marine in overall command of some 10,000 assault troops, had the responsibility for conducting a complex series of successive maneuvers. As at Kwajalein Atoll, the artillery was sent ashore on D-Day on two tiny islets adjacent to the first key target, Engebi Island. The Marines' 2d Separate [75mm] Pack Howitzer Battalion went to one islet, and the Army's 104th Field Artillery Battalion went to the other. There they set up to provide supporting fire for the forthcoming infantry assault.

The landing on Engebi came the next morning, D plus 1, 18 February, as the 1st and 2d Battalions of the 22d Marines headed for the beach in their amtracs. At this time there occurred "one of those pathetic episodes incident to the horrible waste of war." As one Marine report described it:

Men of the 17th Infantry Regiment go in by amtrac to occupy one of the islets adjacent to Kwajalein itself in preparation for the main landing the next day. Department of Defense Photo (Army) 187435

amphibious tractor
Troops of the Army's 7th Infantry Division make the tricky transfer from their landing craft to the amphibian tractors which will now carry them in across the reef fringing Kwajalein, for the final leg of their assault of the island. Department of Defense Photo (Army) 324729

One tank was lost in the landings. It was boated in an LCM [Landing Craft, Medium] on which, unfortunately, only one engine was functioning. By some mischance the lever depressing the ramp was operated with the result that the craft began to flood rapidly while still 500 yards offshore. The tank crew had "buttoned up" and could gain but [a] small idea of the accident. Despite the frantic efforts of the LCM's crew to warn the occupants, the desperate urgency of the situation was not appreciated. The LCM gradually filled, listed, and finally spilled her load into the lagoon, turning completely over. At the last possible moment, one of the crew of the tank managed to escape as the tank actually hit bottom forty feet down.

Map of the attack on Kwajalein Island, with the landings at the west end, 184th Regiment on the left and 32d on the right. Demarkation lines show daily progress.

Once the two battalions hit the beach, they found the core of the enemy defenses to be a palm grove in the middle of the island. This area was riddled with "spider holes," and the American shelling had added fallen trees to the cover provided to the Japanese by the dense underbrush. Thus their positions were extremely difficult to locate. It was dangerous work for the individuals and small groups who had to take the initiative, but they did and the assault ground ahead against enemy defenses.

37mm gun
The 37mm gun provided invaluable direct fire support guns takes on a stubborn Japanese position on Kwajalein, throughout the campaigns of the Pacific War. Here, one of the reinforcing the ability of riflemen to deal with the enemy. Department of Defense Photo (Army) 212590

Army soldiers
Army soldiers lie warily on the ground as their flamethrower pours a sheet of fire on a Japanese pillbox. Since there were often multiple exits from the strongpoints, these soldiers are on the alert for any of the enemy who may try to escape. Department of Defense Photo (Army) 212770

Army soldiers
Victorious Army soldiers relax by the ruins of a Japanese plane, smashed by the preinvasion bombardment of one of the islets adjacent to Kwajalein. One enterprising man still has the energy and the curiosity to climb on board for a look. Department of Defense Photo (Army) 233727

With these advances and some direct fire from self-propelled 105mm guns against concrete pillboxes, the whole of Engebi had been overrun by the Marines by the afternoon of D plus 1. On the following morning the American flag was raised to the sound of a Marine playing "To the Colors" on a captured Japanese bugle. An engineer company, however, spent a busy day using flamethrowers and demolitions to mop up bypassed enemy soldiers. More than 1,200 Japanese, Koreans, and Okinawans were on Engebi, and only 19 surrendered.

The main action now shifted quickly on D plus 2 to the attack on Eniwetok Island. This mission was assigned to the 1st and 3d Battalions of the Army's 106th Infantry Regiment. When they landed, their advance was slow. Only 204 tons of naval gunfire rounds (compared to the 1,179 tons which had plastered Engebi) hit Eniwetok. "Spider hole" defenses held up their advance. A steep bluff blocked the planned inland advance of their LVTAs, resulting in a traffic jam on the beaches. Less than an hour after the initial landing, General Watson felt obliged to radio Colonel Russell G. Ayers, commanding the 106th, "Push your attack."

Things were clearly not going as planned, for General Watson had hoped to secure Eniwetok quickly, and then have the battalions of the 106th immediately ready for an attack on the final objective, Parry Island. To speed the progress on Eniwetok, the reserve troops, the 3d Battalion of the 22d Marines, were ordered to land early in the afternoon. Moving forward, they were soon in heavy combat. Japanese soldiers who had been by-passed kept up their harassing fire; permission to bring the battalion's half-track 75mm cannon ashore was flatly denied Colonel Ayers. The Marines had to take responsibility for clearing two-thirds of the southern zone on the island. Tanks were ashore but "not available," and coconut log emplacements provided the Japanese with strong defensive positions.

Nevertheless, the attack inched forward with the repeated use of flamethrowers and satchel charges. Halting for the night several hundred yards from the tip of the island, the Marines were greeted the following morning (D plus 3) by an astonishing sight. The Army battalion supposed to be on their right flank had, without notifying the Marines, pulled back 300 yards to the rear during the night and left a large gap in the American lines. The Marines then had to stem a small but furious Japanese night counterattack. When the soldiers returned in the morning, the American attack began again, and by mid-afternoon the Marines and the Army battalion had secured the southern part of the island.

Progress was still very slow in the northern sector, so Marine tanks and engineers moved in to assist the other Army battalion there. Finally, in the afternoon of D plus 4, 21 February, the northern area was also declared secure.

With the elapse of all this time (96 hours instead of the 24 hours expected), General Watson was forced to alter his plans for the final phase of the operation: the assault on Parry. He brought down from Engebi the 1st and 2d Battalions of the 22d Marines, pulled that regiment's other (3d) battalion off Eniwetok, and designated them for the landing on Parry.

Amidst all of this purposeful activity, the ludicrous side of war emerged in one episode. A U.S. float plane moored in the lagoon, and a boat was sent to take off the crew. Coming alongside, the boat cleverly managed to capsize the plane.

palm trees
A crater from U.S. Navy gunfire marks the left end of a series of Japanese trenches designed to provide mutually supporting enfillade fire against attackers. The shattered trunks of the palm trees show the effects of the Navy's bomdardment. Department of Defense Photo (Navy) 218615

Brigadier General Thomas E. Watson

Commander of Tactical Group-1 built on the 22d Marines, he led the conquest of Eniwetok. For this he was awarded a Distinguished Service Medal. Promoted to major general, he received a second DSM for his service while commanding the 2d Marine Division at Saipan and Tinian. He retired in 1950.

With a birth date of 1892, and an enlistment date of 1912, he fully qualified as a member of "the Old Corps!" After being commissioned in 1916, he served in a variety of Marine assignments in the Caribbean, China, and the United States.

Given the nickname "Terrible Tommy," Watson's proverbial impatience was later characterized by General Wallace M. Greene, Jr., as follows: "He would not tolerate for one minute stupidity, laziness, professional incompetence, or failure in leadership. . . . His temper in correcting these failings could be fiery and monumental." And so, both Marine and Army officers found out at Eniwetok and later Saipan!

BGen Thomas E. Watson
BGen Thomas E. Watson, USMC, commanded Tactical Group-1, built around the 22d Marines, as he led his Marines in the capture of Eniwetok. He later commanded the 2d Marine Division in the ensuing Saipan-Tinian operation. Department of Defense Photo (USMC) 11986

Waves of amtracs, each one crammed with Marines uncertain of what they will find when they hit the beach, churn in for the assault of Engebi on 18 February 1944. They are hoping to find an enemy dazed by the preparatory artillery fire. Department of Defense Photo (Navy) 217679

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Commemorative Series produced by the Marine Corps History and Museums Division