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 (continued)

The exact timing of an amphibious assault is a crucial decision based on a delicate balancing of a host of factors, such as the condition of the troops and their equipment, provision of fire support, etc. General Watson decided to hold off the landing on Parry until D plus 5 (22 February). An official report explained the reasons for the delay:

(a) To rehabilitate and reorganize [the battalion of the 22d Marines] which had been in action for three successive days.

(b) To reembark, repair, and service medium tanks and rest their crews.

(c) To make light tanks, which were still engaged on Eniwetok, available for the assault on Parry Island if required.

(d) To provide one [battalion] of the 106th Infantry as support reserve in the event it was required.

(e) To allow additional time for the air and surface bombardment of Parry.

The capture of this atoll followed a carefully planned sequence, using a variety of geographic points; (1) entrance of U.S. ships into the lagoon through Wide Passage in the south and Deep Entrance in the southeast; (2) artillery set up on "Camellia" and "Canna" in the northeast; (3) landing on Engebi in the north; (4) landing on Eniwetok in the south; and, finally (5) landing on Parry in the southeast. RF STIBIL

Cpl Anthony P. Damato
Cpl Anthony P. Damato, V Amphibious Corps, was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for having saved the lives of his fellow Marines by throwing himself on a Japanese hand grenade. Department of Defense Photo (USMC) 303037

Awaiting the amtracs of the 22d Marines, the Japanese commander on the island issued a very succinct order to his troops:

At the edge of the water scatter and divide the enemy infantry in their boats—attack and annihilate each one. Launch cleverly prepared powerful quick thrusts and vivid sudden attacks, and after having attacked and having destroyed the enemy landing forces, first of all, then scatter and break up their groups of boats and ships. In the event that the enemy succeeds in making a landing annihilate him by means of night attacks.

The enemy plans to "annihilate" failed. For two days before the Marine assault, the Navy had moved its big guns in as close as 850 yards off shore and pounded the defenders with 944 tons of shells. This was supplemented by artillery fire from the neighboring islands and rocket fire from the gunboats as the Marines went in. This rain of shells crept ahead of the tanks and infantrymen as they tenaciously slogged their way across the island.

As always, there was the unexpected. When a shell from a U.S. warship hit directly on top of an underground bunker, all the Japanese inside poured out and ran—of all places—into the sea. Another shell hurled a coconut tree aloft and catapulted the body of an enemy sniper from its branches through the air to his death.

For the assault troops, it was a continuing story of "spider holes," tunnels, underground strong points, and enemy resistance to the death. Another young Marine, Second Lieutenant Cord Meyer, Jr., in his first combat fought on both Eniwetok and Parry. The grueling experiences he had were typical of everyone who took part in these battles. He was landed with his machine gun platoon in the second wave of assault troops, three minutes after the first men to hit the beach on Eniwetok. Moving quickly inland, the platoon came to the edge of a blasted coconut grove. Then, as the lieutenant later wrote home:

We were hard hit there, and with terrible clarity the reality of the event came home to me. I had crawled forward to ask a Marine where the Japs were—pretty excited really and enjoying it almost like a game. I crawled up beside him but he wouldn't answer. Then I saw the ever widening pool of dark blood by his head and knew that he was dying or dead. So it came over me what this war was, and after that it wasn't fun or exciting, but something that had to be done.

Fortune smiled on me that day, or the hand of a Divine Providence was over me, or I was just plain lucky. We killed many of them in fighting that lasted to nightfall. We cornered fifty or so Imperial [Japanese] Marines on the end of the island, where they attempted a banzai charge, but we cut them down like overripe wheat, and they lay like tired children with their faces in the sand.

That night was unbelievably terrible. There were many of them left and they all had one fanatical notion, and that was to take one of us with them. We dug in with orders to kill anything that moved. I kept watch in a foxhole with my sergeant, and we both stayed awake all night with a knife in one hand and a grenade in the other. They crept in among us, and every bush or rock took on sinister proportions. They got some of us, but in the morning they all lay about, some with their riddled bodies actually inside our foxholes. With daylight it was easy for us and we finished them off. Never have I been so glad to see the blessed sun.

Poised in a shallow trench, riflemen of the 22d Marines await the order to attack an enemy coconut-log strongpoint on Eniwetok. While the most of the men are carrying M-1 rifles, the flamethrower in their midst may well prove crucial. Department of Defense (USMC) 72434

With that battle over, the lieutenant and his men were hustled back on ship. For a day and a night they were "desperately trying" to get their gear into proper shape to go right back into combat. The following morning, they went in on the attack on Parry.

They found the beach was swept with machine-gun and mortar fire, but they surged inland over ruined, shell-blasted soil rocked by the continual mortar bursts. Then their captain suddenly pointed, and above the brush line they saw 150 or so men bending forward, moving on a parallel course about 50 yards away. The Marines, however, waved, thinking that they must be fellow Marines. The men paid little attention to the Marines and seemed to be setting up machine guns. The realization struck home: they were Japanese.

The lieutenant by now had just half a platoon of men and two machine guns. They set the guns up and started firing at the enemy. One gun jammed, so they buried the parts in the sand, because they thought that the Japanese would charge and they couldn't possibly stop it or prevent the capture of the gun. When they didn't attack, the Marines moved in against them. The two sides threw grenades back and forth for what seemed like hours. Many were killed on both sides. Finally the lieutenant and his men threw a whole volley of grenades and charged in and got to the beach. Down it they could see a whole group of Japanese, so all 12 of the Marines, standing, kneeling, or lying prone, fired their rifles and carbines. The enemy fell like ducks in a shooting gallery, but still they closed in on the little group of Marines who then had to back away.

The Deadly Spider Holes

Later accounts explained what the Marines ran into at Engebi—and what they did to keep their advance moving forward.

Those defenses were of the "spider web" type to which there were many entrances. They were constructed by knocking out the heads of empty gasoline drums and making an impromptu pipeline of them, sunk into the ground and covered with earth and palm fronds. The tunnels thus constructed branched off in several directions from a central pit and the whole emplacement was usually concealed with great skill and ingenuity. If the main position was spotted and attacked the riflemen within could crawl off fifty feet or so down one of the corridors and emerge at an entirely different and unexpected spot from which they could get off a shot and dive down to concealment before it was possible to determine whence the fire proceeded. Every foot of ground had to be gone over with the greatest precaution and alertness before these honeycombs of death could be silenced by the literal process of elimination.

The attacking Marines soon hit upon a method of destroying completely these underground defenses. When the bunker at the center of the web had been located, a member of the assault team would hurl a smoke grenade inside. Although this type of missile did no harm to the Japanese within, it released a cloud of vapor which rolled through the tunnels and escaped around the loosefitting covers of the foxholes.

Once the outline of the web was known, the bunker and all its satellite positions could be shattered with demolitions.

aircraft on carrier deck
F6F "Hellcat" fighters from carrier decks played an important part in the U.S. Navy's elimination of Japanese airpower on a number of islands in the Marshalls, as well as in the devastating air strikes supporting the assault landings. Department of Defense Photo (Navy) 80-K-100

In one of the classic photographs of the Pacific War, dog-tired and battle-grime-coated Marines, thankful to be off the island and still alive, relax with a hot cup of coffee on board ship after victoriously ending the bruising fight for Eniwetok. Department Of Defense Photo (USMC) 149144

Now the lieutenant continued his story:

But we got some tanks and reinforcements some half hour later and moved through them in skirmish line, which brings this tale to the most extraordinary incident of all. I was following some ten yards behind the tanks, when a Jap officer came out of a hole pointing his pistol at me; so instinctively I shot my carbine from the hip and hit him full in the face. I walked forward and looked into the trench and saw another with his arm cocked to throw a grenade. He didn't see me. I was only six feet away. I pulled the trigger but the weapon was jammed with sand. I had to do something, so I took my carbine by the barrel and hit him with all my might at the base of the neck. It broke his neck and my carbine.

Finally we killed them all. They never surrender. Again the night was a bad one, but with the dawn came complete victory, and those of us who still walked without a wound looked in amazement at our whole bodies. There was not much jubilation. We just sat and stared at the sand, and most of us thought of those who were gone—those whom I shall remember as always young, smiling, and graceful, and I shall try to forget how they looked at the end, beyond all recognition. . . .

The lieutenant's letter went on to praise his men:

They obeyed with an unquestioning courage. One of my section leaders was hit by a bullet in his arm. It spun him clear around and set him down on his behind. A little dazed, he sat there for a second and then jumped up with the remark, "The little bastards will have to hit me with more than that." I had to order him back to the dressing station an hour later. He was weak with loss of blood but actually pleaded to stay.

My runner was knocked down right beside me with three bullet holes in him and blood all over his face. Stupidly I said, "Are you hit, boy?" He was crying a little, being just a kid of eighteen, and said, "I'm sorry, sir. I guess I'm just a sissy." I damn near cried myself at that.

And so it went all through the day, but by evening it was nearly all over. Early the next morning (D plus 6, 23 February) Parry was completely in American hands, and the conquest of Eniwetok Atoll's vital objectives was complete. Some 3,400 Japanese had been eliminated there at a cost of 348 American dead and 866 wounded.

Mopping up operations on many of the tiny islets in the Marshalls continued until 24 April. The troops encountered a few scattered Japanese soldiers—quickly dispatched—and an oddity. On one atoll they found a German who had married a native woman and had lived there since he had originally been shipwrecked in 1891. One of the obscure atolls was later to become famous as a U.S. nuclear testing ground, and as a name given to a sensational new woman's bathing suit: Bikini.

The 22d Marines had performed superbly. Recognition of their achievements came in the form of a Navy Unit Commendation, which praised its "sustained endurance, fortitude, and fighting spirit throughout this operation."

Thus the Marshall Islands operations were successfully concluded. With relatively light American casualties, a big step had been taken in the Central Pacific campaign. U.S. forces were now within 1,100 miles of their next objective, the Mariana Islands. The timetable for that leap was moved up by at least 20 weeks. The 2d Marine Division and the remainder of the Army's 27th Division were now free for that operation, since they were not needed in the Marshalls. The basic techniques for victorious amphibious assaults were now clearly proven. Another large contingent of American troops had received its baptism of fire, and the Americans had broken the outer ring of Japan's Central Pacific defenses with impressive skill and courage.

The Secretary of the Navy

The Secretary of the Navy takes pleasure in commending the

Twenty-Second Marines, Reinforced, Tactical Group One, Fifth Amphibious Corps

consisting of

Twenty-second Marines; Second Separate Pack Howitzer Company; Second Separate Tank Company; Second Separate Engineer Company; Second Separate Medical Company; Second Separate Motor Transport Company; Fifth Amphibious Corps Reconnaissance Company; Company D, Fourth Tank Battalion, Fourth Marine Division; 104th Field Artillery Battalion, U.S. Army; Company C, 766th Tank Battalion, U.S. Army; Company A, 708th Amphibian Tank Battalion, U.S. Army; Company D, 708th Provisional Amphibian Tractor Battalion, U.S. Army; and the Provisional DUKW Battery, Seventh Infantry Division, U.S. Army.

for service as follows:

"For outstanding heroism in action against enemy Japanese forces during the assault and capture of Eniwetok Atoll, Marshall Islands, from February 17 to 22, 1944. As a unit of a Task Force, assembled only two days prior to departure for Eniwetok Atoll, the Twenty-second Marines, Reinforced, landed in whole or in part on Engebi, Eniwetok and Parry Islands in rapid succession and launched aggressive attacks in the face of heavy machine-gun and mortar fire from well camouflaged enemy dugouts and foxholes. With simultaneous landings and reconnaissance missions on numerous other small islands, they overcame all resistance within six days, destroying a known 2,665 of the Japanese and capturing 66 prisoners. By their courage and determination, despite the difficulties and hardships involved in repeated reembarkations and landing from day to day, these gallant officers and men made available to our forces in the Pacific Area an advanced base with large anchorage facilities and an established airfield, thereby contributing materially to the successful conduct of the war. Their sustained endurance, fortitude and fighting spirit throughout this operation reflect the highest credit on the Twenty-second Marines, Reinforced, and on the United States Naval Service."

All personnel attached to and serving with any of the above units during the period February 17 to 22, 1994, are authorized to wear the Navy Unit Commendation Ribbon.

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Commemorative Series produced by the Marine Corps History and Museums Division