World War Two: Gilberts and Marshalls (5); Landings on Makin

Red Beaches: On 20 November sunrise at Makin came at 0612. Weather was fair. Wind was east-southeast at thirteen knots, which meant there was relatively little surf either at the main landing beaches on the west coast or inside on the protected lagoon. At 0603 the first of the troop-carrying transports, Leonard Wood, arrived on station in the transport area off Red Beaches on the western coast of Butaritari and commenced to lower her boats. Within four minutes the three other transports and the cargo ship carrying the 165th Regimental Combat Team had followed suit. Admiral Turner sent the signal that H Hour would be at 0830 as planned and that William Hour for the landing on Yellow Beach on the north shore of the island would tentatively be 1030, a time subsequently confirmed.

From 0610 to 0640 carrier-based planes, as scheduled, bombed, dive-bombed, and strafed the western beaches and inland. As they drew away, naval guns of the accompanying battleships, cruisers, and destroyers opened fire and kept up a steady rain of shells until 0825, just five minutes before the first troops hit the shore. While this was taking place a half-hour rain squall almost hid the island from the anxious watchers aboard ship. Happily, by 0800 the rain lifted and landmarks, though still obscured slightly by smoke and dust raised by naval fire, came into fairly clear relief. As the ships ceased fire, aircraft again flew in low to strafe the beaches in a five-minute attack. Twenty minutes later naval guns again took up the chorus, keeping their bombardment well to the front of the advancing troops.

The damage wrought during this first day by naval and aerial bombardment was considerable. In the immediate region of the main beaches and eastward little real damage was done—the destruction was generally confined to coconut trees, native huts, and a few dummy gun positions. In the area of the West Tank Barrier, neither the ditch nor the log barricade of the trap was seriously damaged except for one direct hit from a heavy bomb near the northern terminus of the trench system.

Just to the east of the main tank trap lay a well-defined trench system running at right angles to the beach. These trenches were comparatively shallow and were revetted at ends and intervals with coconut logs. The area was reported to be badly shot up. One trench received a direct hit from a 2,000-pound bomb which, in the words of Admiral Turner, “considerably scrambled the trench, Japs and trees for some distance.” Sixty-two enemy dead were later counted in this one area, most of whom were the victims of a combination of concussion and air bursts. In the area south of Yellow Beach and east to the East Tank Barrier all buildings were reported destroyed. Three 80-mm. antiaircraft positions at the base of King’s Wharf and two light tanks revetted to act as pillboxes were severely damaged. Forty-one enemy dead were counted, of whom twenty-five were apparently killed by concussion from heavy bombs.

Although the covered shelters in this area were not destroyed, a careful examination made by the 27th Division’s artillery commander after the landing showed that there was little in the area around Yellow Beach that was not covered either by a direct hit or by fragmentation. In his opinion, “a high degree of neutralization was obtained.” Admiral Turner’s final conclusion was that “the effect of naval and air bombardment was highly satisfactory; and contributed materially in the reduction of hostile resistance.” “However,” he added, “there was not enough of it.”

While the ships of the naval gunfire support group pounded away at Butaritari, troops of the 165th Infantry continued to debark. In the early morning light they clambered down rope cargo nets into the waiting LCVP’s. As soon as each craft had received its allotted quota of men (about thirty-six each), it moved off for a short distance and joined other small boats circling in the assembly area.

At 0643 two LCVP’s left the side of Neville. Carrying a special detachment of the reinforced 2nd Platoon of Company G, 165th Infantry, and nineteen marines of the 4th Platoon of the V Amphibious Corps Reconnaissance Company, they were headed for Kotabu Island about a mile and a half north of Flink Point. Naval bombardment preceded them as they plunged into the ground swell for a ride of almost an hour’s duration.

Shortly thereafter the three tractor-laden LST’s that had moved in separate convoy to Butaritari hove into view through the morning mist and took station in the transport area at about 0700. Within an hour all the amphibian tractors bound for Red Beaches were in the water, circling and waiting the signal to approach the beaches.

At 0750 the order was given to move to the line of departure. The amphibian tractors formed two inverted V’s, each pointed toward a beach, and one by one the other landing craft pulled off from their circles and formed a series of triangular formations constituting the subsequent landing waves. Two destroyers, Phelps and MacDonough, had taken station approximately 2,800 yards west of Red Beaches. When the first landing wave was between them, the two ships began to move slowly toward the island firing their 5-inch guns. At 0815 the first wave of amphibian tractors passed through the escorting destroyers and headed for the beach. They were followed by two waves of LCVP’s carrying the main body of the 1st and 3rd Battalion Landing Teams at approximately five-minute intervals.

The first wave of the 1st Battalion headed for Red Beach on the left and contained 233 men in seven boats; the following waves consisted of only six boats each. In the first wave, at the rear center, was Lieutenant Colonel Gerard W. Kelley, the battalion commander, together with the commander of Company D, the air-ground and Navy liaison parties, and some battalion communications personnel. To the right was the first wave of the 3rd Battalion, heading for Red Beach 2. It had a similar boat schedule, with Lieutenant Colonel Joseph T. Hart, the battalion commander, and the commanding officer of Company M riding in the same boat. Each battalion was accompanied by two LCM’s carrying light tanks with their crews, one light machine gun squad, two rifle squads, and other personnel.

As the leading wave of LVT’s approached the beaches they commenced to fire their rockets, but with less than even moderate success. Many fell short into the water; others would not fire at all because of defects in their firing mechanisms caused by salt water. At 1,000 yards the amphtracks’ (amphibian tractors’) .50-caliber machine guns opened fire, joined 200 yards farther in by their .30-Caliber machine guns. No sustained fire from the beaches was encountered. Off Red Beach 2 enemy rifle fire wounded one seaman and killed another, but these were the only casualties recorded during the ship-to-shore movement. About forty yards offshore the amphibians came over the coral reef. No barbed wire, mines, or other obstacles impeded them. At approximately 0831 the tractors touched the rocks and lumbered up the beaches. The men of the special landing groups scrambled over the sides. Some sought cover, but many stood still, waiting first for enemy fire before taking precautions. Major Edward T. Bradt, commanding the 3rd Battalion, 105th Infantry, and in charge of the special landing groups, later described his action. “I jumped down from my boat [sic] and stood straight up for two or three minutes, waiting for somebody to shoot me. Nobody shot! I saw many other soldiers doing the same thing.”

Following the LVT’s came the first three waves of landing craft at about five minute intervals. The first wave was scheduled to put a total of 460 men and eight tanks ashore in an area removed by approximately 3,000 yards from the main defenses on the island. Although intelligence had revealed the presence of rocks and coral pinnacles along the approaches to the shore, Admiral Turner’s staff was satisfied that landing boats could get ashore there at any time.

They were wrong. The reef was studded with coral boulders about forty yards off shore. Coming in on a rising tide, some of the landing craft were able to slip past the boulders and were held less than a boat’s length (thirty-six feet) from the water’s edge, but many were broached, stranded, or forced to put to sea again. The tanks, waterproofed for the landing, rolled off the ramps into water which did not quite drown them out. Ahead of them, the men struggled in swells sometimes over their heads, stumbled over rocks and slipped on boulders, or sought cover at the edge of the beach.

Red Beach, on the left, was a rubble of coral boulders and proved usable for only fifteen yards of its width. The seven landing craft of the first wave encountered great difficulties getting ashore. Some did not make it. The amphibian tractors that preceded the first wave had to abandon their original objectives to assist the boats stranded on the reef. Those few landing craft that did reach shore, moreover, found it difficult to withdraw and allow later assault waves to land. As the tide receded, landing operations were further complicated. Only the absence of enemy opposition in this area made possible a landing without heavy casualties. Under any kind of enemy fire the natural obstacles to a landing here would have probably proved catastrophic to the attacking troops.

The carefully prepared sequence for the arrival of various elements of the assault and shore parties on Red Beach was thrown into confusion by these conditions. At best, only three boats could be landed at one time, and the fifth wave was not able to get ashore until shortly after 1000, over an hour behind schedule.

The landing on Red Beach 2, despite better conditions, was also delayed. The 3rd Battalion Landing Team, composed of 1,250 men, was scheduled to land there in seven waves at five-minute intervals. Beginning at 0840 the first three waves landed, but the remaining boats landed singly, and it was 1022 before the seventh wave arrived off the beach. During D Day, in addition to these troops, Leonard Wood sent ashore 4 tanks, 1 bulldozer, 5 jeeps, 4 antitank guns, and other portable equipment. For the same period the transport Calvert disembarked 913 troops (of the 1st Battalion Landing Team) and eighty-two tons of equipment, but at nightfall much of the cargo was still afloat in landing craft.

Establishing the Beachhead

General Ralph Smith’s plan called for the rapid capture of Flink Point and Ukiangong Point and the occupation of all of the area east of Red Beaches to the first beachhead line about 1,300 yards inland. The 1st Battalion Landing Team on the left was to take Flink Point and the left half of the beachhead line. The 3rd Battalion Team on the right was to capture Ukiangong Village and Point and was responsible for the right half of the beachhead line. On the completion of this phase of the action, the 1st Battalion Landing Team would relieve the 3rd and the latter was to go into division reserve in the area north of Ukiangong Village.

The main force of the 1st Battalion moved directly forward toward the beachhead line, meeting only insignificant rifle fire but retarded somewhat by the thick vegetation and by debris and water-filled craters resulting from the air and naval bombardment. Their supporting light tanks were of no assistance to the infantry until late in the day. Bad communications between tanks and infantry and terrain difficulties slowed up the former’s advance. Except by staying on the road, they could make no headway against the combined obstacles of debris, shell holes, and marsh, and on the main road inland they were held up by large craters left by naval shells.

The 1st Battalion advanced with two companies abreast. On the right, Company B and part of the 1st Platoon of Company D, a heavy machine gun platoon, covered the widest zone; their first action was the seizure of an undefended observation tower that was protected by barbed wire and log barricades. On the left, Company C moved straight ahead without waiting for its heavy weapons platoon to land. Company A remained in dispersed formation in battalion reserve.

At the end of the first phase, at approximately 1030, Companies B and C held the left half of the beachhead line just east of Rita Lake, the largest of several shallow ponds. The eastern edge of this pond stretched almost the entire length of the beachhead line south of the point at which it was crossed by the island highway. There, Company B had established contact with Company K of the 3rd Battalion just across the highway on its right flank. Meanwhile, Company A had been dispatched northward to occupy Flink Point and had progressed about halfway out that peninsula.

While the 1st Battalion was pushing forward against practically no opposition in its sector, the 3rd Battalion on the right was making almost equally rapid progress against an area that it had been believed would be more vigorously defended. The special landing group of Detachment X had swung to the right after landing in amphtracks and established a defensive position on the southern flank. Company K moved almost straight eastward; Company I fanned out in a triangular area between the main highway and the ocean south of Company K’s sector; and Company L, assisted by a part of the special landing group, turned south to take Ukiangong Village and to clear the whole point beyond it.

Contrary to expectation, no enemy fire came out of the huts of Ukiangong Village, and the native residents had all deserted. By 1040 Company L could report practically all of Ukiangong Point secured without opposition. What had been thought to be defense installations proved instead to be a stone-crushing plant, two large dummy guns, some square piles of coral rock, and a few bomb shelters. Sixty natives were discovered on Ukiangong Point, but thus far no enemy had shown himself.

Meanwhile, Company K was pressing its advance on toward and beyond Rita Lake. Finally, almost two hours after the landing, one unit of this company met the first Japanese to be encountered. Five of the enemy were killed. At 1055 Company K reached the first beachhead line on the east shore of Rita Lake and shortly thereafter was relieved by elements of the 1st Battalion and went into reserve.

Thus within less than two and a half hours after the initial landing, the beachhead had been secured to a line 1,300 yards inland. Ukiangong Point had been occupied and preparations were already under way for making that area suitable for the establishment of artillery positions from which the main attack eastward to the tank barrier could be supported. Part of Flink Point had been secured and nothing stood in the way of securing the whole of that peninsula, which was completed, in fact, by 1240. No opposition of any consequence had yet developed. Except for the initial difficulties in getting the troops ashore against natural rather than manmade obstacles, the landing had been a pushover.

Yellow Beach

Early in the morning of D Day, Admiral Turner had confirmed that William Hour for the landing on Yellow Beach would be 1030. According to the plan this beach, which lay between On Chong’s Wharf and King’s Wharf on the northern (lagoon) shore of Butaritari, would be assaulted by the 2nd Battalion Landing Team of the 165th Infantry reinforced by tanks of the 193rd Tank Battalion. This force was to move the short distance across the island to the ocean shore, then branch to right and left (west and east). The group on the right would move toward the West Tank Barrier in conjunction with a simultaneous push from the other side of that barrier by the 1st Battalion Landing Team.

The group on the left would establish positions west of the East Tank Barrier and hold there pending the reduction of the West Tank Barrier and the capture of the entire “Citadel” area including the village of Butaritari.

The troops charged with assaulting Yellow Beach were carried aboard the transport Neville, the LSD Belle Grove, and the LST 779. Aboard Neville were the 2nd Battalion of the 165th Regiment, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel John F. McDonough, and the reconnaissance platoon that was scheduled for tiny Kotabu Island just north of Flink Point. Belle Grove carried the tanks of Company A, 193rd Tank Battalion, boated in LCM’s. Embarked on LST 779 was Detachment Z of the 105th Infantry loaded in the sixteen LVT’s that would make up the initial assault wave.

After receiving the word at 0800 that the Kotabu detail had taken that island without opposition, this naval task unit moved into its assigned transport area just west of the lagoon and commenced debarking its landing craft. The LST proceeded through the channel and into the lagoon before launching its amphtracks with the special landing groups aboard. As the tractors circled, the landing craft behind them slowly formed assault waves.

By 0915 they were ready to move toward the beach. In the first wave were the sixteen amphibian tractors. Following it at an interval of about one minute came the second wave, eight LCM’s carrying medium tanks, followed about two minutes later by the third wave, seven LCM’s carrying medium tanks. In the fourth wave, which came two minutes later, were two troop-carrying LCVP’s accompanied by four LCM’s with light tanks aboard. The next four waves were made up of LCVP’s carrying the bulk of the assault troops with one bulldozer embarked in the seventh wave.

As the landing forces moved toward Yellow Beach the destroyers MacDonough and Phelps opened fire with their 5-inch guns, commencing at 1005. The sun by now was bright, and the lagoon calm. The beach, in flames, was covered by billowing smoke. About 1,100 yards from the beach the LVT’s discharged their rockets—six from each boat—laying down an area barrage along the beach’s edge. In contrast to what had happened earlier in the morning during the approach to Red Beaches, the rockets worked. At 1025, with the first wave still about 600 yards off the beach, the two destroyers ceased firing to allow a last-minute strafing run by the carrier planes. As the planes neared the beach, the first waves of amphtracks slowed down for fear of coming under their fire. The later waves slowed down too, and kept their proper intervals, except for those carrying medium tanks, which bunched up slightly. These delays caused the landing schedule to be set back about ten minutes, but at least there was no piling up of waves as there had been during the approach to Red Beach.

As the troops renewed their progress toward shore, they came under enemy fire for the first time about 500 yards from the beach. This may have come from two steel hulks that lay sunk in the shallow water of the lagoon, or from On Chong’s Wharf, or from a small green and white patrol boat moored to the wharf, or from the shore itself. Also, from King’s Wharf on their left, the amphtracks were hit by bullets. Under this cross fire the men crouched low in their tractors as they made the last three hundred yard run into the beach. The first touchdown was at 1041.

One of the amphtracks ran up the seaplane ramp on King’s Wharf. The men disembarked and worked their way inland by crawling along the western slope of the causeway, which masked them from enemy fire. Unable to bring their weapons to bear, the Japanese quickly fled and the pier was taken by the attackers without further contest. On the far right of the first landing wave one of the tractors developed a defective steering device and landed too far to the west in the On Chong’s Wharf area. All of the others landed properly on Yellow Beach and began to move inland, swerving to the right or left before disembarking the men of the special landing group. Enemy shellfire struck two of these vehicles, and among the dismounting men five were reported killed and twelve wounded. One lone tractor went completely out of control and drove straight across the island toward the ocean shore through the main Japanese defenses. It finally hung up in a shell crater and two of its crew were killed by enemy machine gun fire while the others escaped to take cover in the brush.

The first mission of the two halves of the special landing group was to clear the enemy from the two wharves and construct defensive beach blocks from the base of each wharf to points about 150 yards inland. King’s Wharf fell without a contest, once the first troops had landed. On Chong’s Wharf, although beaten to kindling wood, still offered some cover to the enemy and a force moved in to seize it at once.

Deploying by squads, the right half of the special landing group swung forward against light opposition, pivoting on the base of the wharf. It continued to move westward in a line stretching about 150 yards from the base of the wharf. Little except light rifle fire was encountered. Two machine gun positions were found at the base of the wharf, but they were manned by dead Japanese, evidently killed by naval fire. While a squad worked out along the pier, the inland end of the group’s line came up against a series of dugouts or bombproof shelters. Grenades were thrown inside, killing some of the enemy immediately. Others were taken prisoner as they emerged and still others stayed within and temporarily avoided capture. Now and then the Americans received a random shot, but no one was injured. All the shelters inland from On Chong’s Wharf were cleaned out before noon. About thirty-five prisoners, mostly Koreans, were taken and an estimated twenty of the occupants were killed.

Only 100 yards behind the first wave of amphibian tractors came the LCM’s with their medium tanks. They hit the reef lying from 150 to 200 yards offshore and could proceed no farther since there was only about 2.5 to 3 feet of water over the reef. Ramps were lowered and the medium tanks lumbered forward through the shallow water. All but two of the fifteen tanks reached the shore safely. These two foundered in shell holes in the reef. In one of them was Captain Robert S. Brown, who commanded the medium tanks and who was thus left out of the action during the critical phase when his presence ashore was most needed. The difficulties of the other foundered tank were later described by the sergeant in command: We . . . went forward about 25 yards and hit a shell hole. We got out of that and went about 15 yards more and hit another. The water was about 7 feet deep and our tank drowned out. The tank immediately filled with smoke after hitting the second shell hole.

My driver said the tank was on fire. The crew dismounted right there with great speed through the right sponson door. I remained inside the tank. As soon as the crew got out of the tank they were machine gunned from the shore and with more speed they came back inside the tank. Something like an hour and a half later we were picked up by an alligator.

Two of the mediums to land were hung up in taro pits, although one eventually freed itself and succeeded in getting into the action before being hung up again. The remaining eleven made their way to the ocean shore of the island, then split up and moved east and west against the two tank barriers. There was no effective coordination between tanks and infantry, the tanks operating independently. One ran over a shelter while the infantry stood by and killed about a dozen Japanese who came out. Another wiped out a machine gun nest at the base of the sandpit before proceeding across the island to join the other tanks going east. One tank moved directly into Butaritari Village but encountered no opposition. Machine gun nests and pillboxes were found in fair abundance, but no difficulty was reported in wiping them out. No personnel casualties were reported by any of the tank crews.

Behind the tanks in the fourth and fifth waves came the troops of the 2nd Battalion, 165th Infantry, boated in LCVP’s. Like the tank-carrying craft ahead of them, these too grounded on the reef. After a short hesitation the men debarked into knee-deep water and began their slow passage into shore. The intensity of fire from the enemy increased. Radios, flame throwers, bazookas, and other equipment were soaked or lost. Yet, in spite of the fact that the troops were fairly closely bunched in the water, they escaped with few casualties. Most of the fire was low in the water and generally inaccurate. Only two were killed; none wounded.

At the beach the men of Companies E and F, constituting the fourth and fifth waves, divided. Up to this time the landing troops had had little or no opportunity to locate definitely the almost incessant fire that was being poured upon them from the right flank as they approached the beaches. At the outset it was believed that at least a portion of this fire originated from the two battered and scuttled hulks that rested on the bottom just off the end of On Chong’s Wharf. The first effort to eliminate this source of fire was made by an LCVP from Neville. Under command of Boatswain Joseph V. Kasper, this boat mounted three of its guns on the starboard side and ran for the hulks at an angle permitting all guns to fire at once. Until one gun jammed and the cross fire from the beach compelled it to withdraw, the boat poured a rain of lead against the supposed enemy position. The fact that Boatswain Kasper was fatally wounded during the run added weight to the belief that these derelicts constituted a serious menace to the attacking troops.

For the next two hours naval attention centered around the two wrecked ships, somewhat to the detriment of the troops already ashore. All landing operations were held up for over an hour, from 1125 to 1250, while carrier planes bombed and strafed the hulks. Five bombers missed by wide margins and when an attempt was made to skip-bomb the targets, the bombs merely bounced over the hulks. Then at 1219 the destroyer Dewey opened fire on the same targets and kept it up until 1257. In such close quarters, firing on the hulks endangered American forces approaching the beach. Some of the destroyer’s shells hit the old ships and inflicted observable damage, but others passed over the heads of the special landing groups and hit inland. As a result Captain William Ferns, who commanded the special landing group, pulled his men back 100 yards east onto On Chong’s Wharf and immediately requested the cessation of all naval and aerial bombardment Soon the bombardment ceased.

[NOTE GM446: Interv, Captain Ferns, Marshall Intervs, p. 56. Captain Ferns states that there were two destroyers participating in this shelling. Admiral Turner’s narrative of the action, however, indicates that only one, Dewey, was firing at this time. Fifth Amph Force Rpt, Capture of Gilbert Islands, Incl A, p. 17.]

Meanwhile, landings of later waves on Yellow Beach had been interrupted. Medical aid men, who were needed ashore, and Major Dennis D. Claire, who was supposed to command the forces moving to the left from Yellow Beach against the East Tank Barrier, were still afloat in landing craft waiting to go in. In spite of the distraction caused by the hulks, the assaulting troops had penetrated the Citadel area, the most strongly fortified on the island, lying between the two tank barriers. In spite of adverse hydrographic conditions and in spite of moderate fire from the shore, the first phase of the assault on Yellow Beach had been successfully completed with only minor casualties.

SOURCE: Seizure of the Gilberts and Marshalls: BY; Philip A. Crowl, & Edmund G. Love

World War Two: Gilberts and Marshalls(6) Makin; Reduction of the West Tank Barrier

World war Two: Gilberts and Marshalls(4); Japanese Fortify


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