World War Two: Gilberts & Marshalls (15B); Kwajalein: Second Day’s Action

The second day’s action on Kwajalein Island required more co-operation between the two regimental combat teams than had been necessary on the previous day. General Corlett had ordered the two assault regiments to launch a co-ordinated attack at 0715. The 32nd Regiment on the right, with Company A, 767th Tank Battalion, attached, was to drive rapidly to the northern tip of the island. The 184th Regiment, with Company B, 767th Tank Battalion, attached, was to push hard on the left, breach fortified positions, assist the advance of the 32nd Infantry across the tank trap and push rapidly to the end of the island. Division artillery was ordered to support the attack by a fifteen-minute preparation commencing at 0700 and thereafter by successive concentrations. Artillery was to cease fire during a scheduled twenty-minute air strike by naval planes to commence at 0800.

Following the preparatory fire, in which the battleship Idaho, the cruiser Minneapolis, four destroyers, and five field artillery battalions on Carlson participated, the attack opened. The 2nd Battalion, 184th Infantry, passed through the 3rd Battalion of the same regiment during the hour after 0715, Company E on the left and Company F on the right. Company G followed about 150 yards behind as a mopping-up force, while the 1st Battalion came on in close support. Each company of the leading battalion was strengthened by one section of heavy machine guns, one 37-mm. antitank gun, five medium tanks, and two light tanks. On the other side of the island, as the 2nd Battalion, 32nd Infantry, began to advance, enemy dual-purpose gun and mortar fire struck the leading elements, killing two men and wounding one. At 0800 fifteen dive bombers commenced their scheduled strike against the area in which the dual-purpose guns had been observed from the air, and the battalion pushed forward with its tanks according to plan. Company G was in front, with Company E in close support and Company F in reserve.

Occupation of the Airfield Is Completed The first stage of the second day’s action would bring the leading battalions to the eastern end of the airfield. Carl Road crossed the island there, approximately 800 yards east of the 32nd Regiment’s starting line and 1,000 yards east of the 184th’s. The zone to be covered by the 2nd Battalion, 32nd, contained the westerly portion of Canary Strong Point, just short of which the battalion had spent the night, and all of Cat Strong Point, some 500 yards farther along the ocean shore. The dense vegetation between the shore and Wallace Road and the taller coconut palms between the road and the southern edge of the airfield had been badly blasted and burned by the bombardment, but they were less thoroughly flattened than those at the western end of the island. The tank trap given such prominence in the division’s field orders cut left diagonally across Carl Road in front of the 32nd Infantry, but most of its length was in the area beyond the road.

Because of the northward curve of the island, the area between the airfield and the ocean narrowed quite sharply at the end of the airfield nearest Carl Road, and the regimental boundary down the middle of the island cut diagonally across the airfield’s eastern end. Near Carl Road the wider portion of the 32nd’s zone was thus open ground, consisting of the end of the landing strip and part of the dispersal space just north of it. The 184th Infantry’s zone of advance for several hundred yards ranged from the northern edge of the landing strip to the lagoon. The central, wooded panel between airstrips was at the right; next was the dispersal strip, which curved southward at the far end; to its north was the wooded area between the airfield and Will Road; and between the road and the lagoon beach was a curving belt about seventy-five to a hundred yards wide in which, commencing in the area of Center Pier, there was a continuous series of buildings. Although bombardment and air strikes had wrecked the docks and destroyed most of the buildings and a direct hit during the naval bombardment of 30 January had sent an ammunition dump skyward with devastating results in a wide area near the base of the docks, a number of active gun positions had been spotted along the lagoon. Also, in the area near Carl Road, where the thickly wooded strip between the dispersal strip and Will Road greatly widened, some enemy resistance might be expected.

It was thought, as the battalions jumped off toward Carl Road for the first phase of the second day’s attack, that the 184th could expect more difficulty than the 32nd, unless Cat Strong Point proved to be formidable. Enemy riflemen who had taken positions behind the advanced perimeters of the 3rd Battalion, 184th, fired on the 2nd Battalion as it passed through the 3rd. Return fire carried past them and some of it fell among the 3rd Battalion, causing four casualties. By 0816 the entire 2nd Battalion had passed the 3rd’s advanced positions. At first the advance of the 2nd Battalion was cautious as the men felt their way forward, but after they began to familiarize themselves with the terrain ahead they pushed forward rapidly. Scattered enemy points of resistance were encountered, mostly small pillboxes, sometimes with interconnecting trenches but with no shelters.

The positions on the lagoon shore had been mostly knocked out by the artillery. The assault waves advanced about two hundred yards before they came into a perimeter of heavy sniper fire from an area that was still studded with trees and underbrush in spite of the preparatory bombardment. Snipers worked from behind rubble heaps and from the ruins of old buildings, but the effect was more harassing than deadly.

By 0900 the advance of the leading companies had passed the H Docks and was continuing. The 1st Battalion was closely following the assault, mopping up rear areas and eliminating snipers. In the assault waves the medium tanks and infantry advanced abreast. Tanks sprayed the treetops with their .30-caliber machine gun fire, coming to a stop when it was necessary to turn their 75-mm. guns against pillboxes. The standard procedure when one of these positions was encountered was for the tank to advance up to the pillbox with two or three infantrymen covering it and one tankman on the ground guiding his vehicle. The tank ordinarily then took its position so that its machine gun could cover the entrance to the pillbox while the 75-mm. gun fired at the wall. Frequently while this action was taking place the infantry wave bypassed the structure and continued beating the ground ahead. By 1040 these maneuvers had succeeded so well that Companies E and F were across Carl Road. As of 1030 the advance had cost twenty-five casualties. On the opposite shore of the island, the 2nd Battalion, 32nd Infantry, met greater difficulties, although it did reach Carl Road at the same time as the 184th. Shortly after the strafing attack carried out by naval planes from 0800 to 0820, Company G came across an unexpected tank ditch running from the landing strip to Wallace Road. To avoid this obstruction, the accompanying tanks swung wide left to go along the airstrip, thus exposing the infantrymen to fire from a pillbox on the left.

Two of the tanks attempted to silence this position, but failed to do so and moved on toward the airstrip. Three more tanks came along and joined the fusillade, which continued for fifteen minutes. Finally, Captain Albert W. Pence of Company G succeeded in establishing contact with his supporting tanks and in a few minutes the infantrymen had the position under control.

That part of Company G that was moving along the ocean shore had relatively little trouble, but the platoon on the left ran into considerable organized resistance in the form of riflemen working from trees and shallow fire trenches and of automatic fire from strongly revetted pillboxes. The positions backed up those along the ocean front, and while the latter were the more conspicuous, the former were the more deadly. It took two hours of fighting for Company G to advance two hundred yards through this belt of works with the aid of tanks and engineer demolition crews. By 0926 they had reached the end of Canary Strong Point.

The 2nd Battalion then moved on rapidly until it reached the perimeter of fire from Cat Strong Point where its earlier experience was repeated. Once more it became evident that the beach positions were the outer crust and not the core of resistance. They yielded readily and the right platoon advanced well ahead of the left. But inland from the road were well-concealed tiers of defensive works which, in spite of the artillery fire, were still capable of action. Not until 1020 was Cat Strong Point finally cleared on the right, and not until 1040 did the left platoon finally reach Carl Road abreast of the 184th Infantry.

The Area of the Main Tank Trap Upon crossing Carl Road, the two regiments began the second stage of their attack of 2 February. A section between Carl Road and Nora Road, some three hundred yards farther along the island, was to be traversed. Will Road continued to parallel the lagoon beach. Wallace Road, at a point a hundred yards beyond Carl Road, swung left away from the ocean for a hundred yards to join Nora Road, thus narrowing the distance between Will and Wallace Roads.

A deep tank trap lay immediately before the 32nd Infantry. The longer section of this trap ran for two hundred yards straight east from Carl Road to the bend in Wallace Road; and, from the other side of the highway at that point, a shorter section extended for ninety yards south to the ocean beach. Just beyond the angle of the trap, between the long bend in Wallace Road and the ocean shore and short of the Nora Road line, lay one of the most extensive and elaborately organized sets of defensive positions on the island. Designated as Corn Strong Point, it extended inland to a depth of about a hundred yards and was believed to contain three pillboxes and an open artillery position, both near the beach, and up to seven machine gun emplacements inland. These positions were interspersed with storage pits and antitank trenches.

North of the main tank trap a long rifle trench ran in an irregular line across the island diagonally from Corn Strong Point to a point near the junction of Carl Road with Will Road. The 184th Infantry had come upon its northern extremity just before reaching the Carl Road line. The trench, with a connected loop in the middle of the island, extended through most of the ground to be covered by the 184th’s right elements. It was clear that the long rifle trench, the tank trap, and the associated gun emplacements of Corn Strong Point were intended to be the main defense system obstructing movement from the western part of Kwajalein Island, containing the airfield, into the northeastern portion, containing most of the installations.

Along this line the Japanese were expected to make their most determined stand. For the initial assault on the tank trap and Corn Strong Point, the 32nd Infantry’s 3rd Battalion was ordered to pass through its 2nd Battalion at Carl Road and to lead the attack. These fresh troops were to be supported by the tanks of Companies A and D, 767th Tank Battalion and, from the left flank, by the tanks of Company B, which would be temporarily detached from the 184th. Preparatory and supporting fire from the artillery on Carlson Island and from the 32nd’s Cannon Company in Wart Area was to be co-ordinated with the tank and infantry movements. While the new assault units were moving up, the enemy in Corn Strong Point was kept under heavy artillery bombardment and was isolated from possible reinforcement by naval gunfire. Enemy guns that were still active in the northeastern end of the island were struck by dive bombers. The jump-off was ordered for 1245.

A series of delays deferred this crucial attack over an hour. To assemble the staff and co-ordinate the plans for employing tanks, artillery, and infantry while the 3rd Battalion made its approach march, proved difficult to arrange. The time for the assault had passed before the planning difficulties were resolved. Then came notice of an air strike to be made at 1315—later postponed, on Admiral Turner’s order, to 1330—thus necessitating the suspension of all artillery fire.68 Since the attack on Corn Strong Point was to be immediately preceded by a heavy artillery barrage, the whole operation was postponed to 1400.

The tanks of Company A, 767th Tank Battalion, lined up along Carl Road to fire against the strong point, while those from Company B took positions almost at right angles to that road and prepared to strike the enemy from the left flank during the first stage of the attack. One of the batteries on Carlson continued to fire during the air strike, and the Cannon Company’s howitzers also laid a preparation on the target area before the advance commenced at 1400. Then, while the artillery lifted fire to ground northeast of the target, the tanks and infantry approached the tank trap in a 225-yard advance across open ground. The tanks poured machine gun fire into the area. Thirty yards behind them the troops came forward to the shelter of the tank ditch without receiving an enemy shot. The Japanese were pinned down.

While the left wing of infantry troops started to push across the wide tank barrier, the tanks on their left momentarily broke off fire from the flank. A few tanks from Company A, 767th Tank Battalion, moved toward the ocean to bypass the deep ditch, and the others after a brief hesitation laid a base of fire to cover the infantry’s advance. The tanks hesitated to poke out along the flimsy wooden bridge by which Wallace Road cut through the angle of the tank trap.

At this stage, a concentration of white phosphorus shells commenced to fall into the area in which Company I, 32nd Infantry, was moving, and some two score of the men were burned. After hesitating briefly the infantry moved steadily to the tank ditch.

There the troops remained for some time because the medium tanks pulled back claiming they could not get over the ditch. This impasse was finally broken when two light and two medium tanks made their way along the ocean beach around the right end of the ditch and took the pillboxes in Corn Strong Point under fire. The infantry wave then pushed forward and with the aid of engineers proceeded to destroy that strong point in detail. There were no American casualties.

An estimated hundred Japanese were killed in the area, the majority by demolition charges carried forward by engineer details while rifle and BAR men covered them. Little or no defense was put up against these tactics. The Japanese remained huddled in their shelters in spite of efforts made to coax them out to surrender. Only one prisoner was taken in the whole area. Grenades were thrown into the shelters, and those who survived were then destroyed by demolition charges. Altogether, it took about thirty-five minutes to reduce Corn Strong Point once the American infantry got beyond the tank trap.

Contact between the forward battalion of the 32nd Infantry and that of the 184th was temporarily lost during this fray, and Company K, 32nd Infantry, moved through the left platoon of Company I to establish the contact firmly as soon as Corn Strong Point was taken. Advance to the Nora Road line seemed practicable within the time remaining before taking defensive positions for the night. To escape spending the night in an area too heavily wooded for security, the 3rd Battalion, 32nd Infantry, planned to advance northeast of the junction of Nora Road and Wallace Road, even though that would place its perimeter slightly forward of the 184th’s front-line elements, which were resting just short of Nora Road itself.

Meanwhile, the 2nd Battalion, 184th, had crossed Carl Road before 1040 but was held up until 1245 in order to advance evenly with the 32nd. At that time it moved out with Company F on the right and Company E on the left along the lagoon.

For the first forty-five minutes no serious resistance was met. There was no tank obstacle in the area and the enemy’s positions along the lagoon shore were less formidable than had been expected. At 1330, however, the 184th had to lend its medium tanks to the 32nd Infantry as the latter moved against Corn Strong Point. This left the infantry unprotected at a time when they began to meet their first serious resistance. The tanks returned about an hour later but were so low on ammunition and fuel that they had to be sent back to Wolf Strong Point for resupply. Without this tank support the infantry advance was stalled. Altogether, the 184th suffered over sixty casualties by the end of the day, including the loss of Company F’s commanding officer. At 1630 Company G was sent forward to relieve Company F.

When the time arrived to organize night defenses, the forward perimeter of the 184th, instead of being located on Nora Road as planned, was withdrawn to a line only seventy-five to a hundred yards northeast of Carl Road. This necessitated an even greater withdrawal on the part of the 32nd Regiment. From a line well beyond Nora Road the 3rd Battalion, 32nd, fell back to another somewhat short of the road and took positions in the abandoned trenches and shell craters of Corn Strong Point. The line bent westerly from Wallace Road to reach the regimental boundary at a point about a hundred yards beyond the main portion held by the 2nd Battalion, 184th Infantry.

Situation at the End of the Second Day

As night closed in the naval planes retired to their carriers, having made seventy sorties over Kwajalein Island dropping 40 tons of bombs and expending 20,800 rounds of .30-caliber ammunition in special missions and general ground support. The close support carriers and battleships, with their screens, cruised a few miles south of Kwajalein Island. No enemy aircraft had been discovered operating in the entire Marshall Islands area.

During 2 February the transports had continued unloading the supply and ammunition for dumps on Carlson, Carlos, and Kwajalein Islands. A forward ammunition dump and maintenance point was set up between Wilma Road and the airfield and maintained by DUKW’s until their withdrawal during the late afternoon for service in the next day’s assault on Burton Island. By the end of 2 February the unloading of materiel for Carlos and Carlson had reached a point where it could be estimated that it would be completed by noon of the 3rd. The shore parties on Kwajalein Island were reinforced during the day by elements of the defense force. Green Beach 4, facing the lagoon at the western corner of the island, was put into use during the afternoon.

American casualties recorded on 2 February included 11 killed in action and 241 wounded, of whom 34 were returned to duty. Evacuation of the wounded on 2 February had been rapid, especially after the arrival of the ambulances during the afternoon. Litter squads took the wounded to the battalion aid stations for treatment, after which they were brought along the main highways in ambulances to the two collecting stations. At the beach, the shore party medical section evacuated them to the transports in LVT’s. Late in the afternoon, the collecting station of Company B, 7th Medical Battalion, which served the 32nd Regimental Combat Team, moved along Wallace Road to a position some seven hundred yards east of Red Beach 2. No clearing station had yet been established.

The enemy was believed to be near the end of his strength. His casualties were thought to be from 1,000 to 1,200 dead. One of the few captured prisoners declared the remaining defenses in ruins, communications broken, and only 200 to 300 of the remaining soldiers able to resist. In such circumstances, the stage was set for the characteristic “banzai” attack. General Corlett’s headquarters warned, “Be alert for counterattack at anytime day or night, it’s bound to come. The Jap makes his suicide counterattack at dawn on the day after his cause becomes hopeless. Watch out tomorrow morning.

The night’s operations nevertheless proved to be relatively quiet. Enemy artillery fired some white phosphorus in front of both regiments, dropped a mortar shell near the tanks bivouacked at the western end of the airfield, and after midnight sent over a substantial volume of grenades and small arms, automatic, and mortar fire, such as might be preliminary to a counterattack. Yelling and the throwing of grenades continued in front of Company G, 184th Infantry, but no major counterattack developed, and after 0320 the front line quieted down. From the 32nd Infantry’s side of the island, firing and star shells on the lagoon side could be observed, but no corresponding action, not even active evening patrols, disturbed the waiting men in their own zone.

The night did not pass without some casualties, however. At approximately 2300 an enemy shell burst above the position of the 2nd Platoon, 91st Chemical Company, causing a conflagration that wounded seven men. Soon thereafter one of the 155-mm. howitzers in Battery B, 145th Field Artillery Battalion, suffered a premature burst that split the tube, sent one large piece four hundred yards through the air, and set the nearest powder cases ablaze. One man was killed at once, three later died of wounds, and thirteen others were wounded, of whom five had to be immediately evacuated. Live ammunition was hastily removed to safety, the fire gotten under control, and the position saved.

The situation at the end of the second day’s fighting on Kwajalein Island encouraged expectations of a speedy victory on the following day. For the next day’s operations, General Corlett ordered the two assault regiments: “Organize vigorous attack 0715 tomorrow. . . . Finish the job not later than 1500 3 February. The Northern Force [at Roi-Namur] has finished the job. . . .”

SOURCE: Seizure of the Gilberts and Marshalls: BY; Philip A. Crowl, & Edmund G. Love (United States Army Center of Military History)

World War Two: Gilberts & Marshalls(16); Kwajalein: The Third Day

World War Two: Gilberts & Marshalls(15A); Kwajalein: Push Inland: First Day

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