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Homer Hirt

Homer Hirt

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Guam and its Battles

Headlines in today’s news tells of the threat by North Korea’s Premier to fire missiles onto Guam, one of The United States territories.  The threat may be very real, or it may not be anything but sabre-rattling by a despot who is allowing his people to starve while he maintains a 400,000-man (and woman) army and has his scientists and engineers constructing missiles.

But the shores of Guam are no stranger to combat.  

Guam came to the United States as part of the settlement with Spain after the Spanish-American War.  It seemed strategically placed for a coaling and supply station as our fleet reached out into the broad Pacific, offering protection to our merchant ships as they ventured to the riches of the East.

The island itself is mountainous as Pacific islands go.  Thirty miles long and ten miles wide, it has Apra Harbor, an airport at Agana and a large airfield at the northernmost tip. The beaches are beautiful and it rains a lot, almost every day.

The first battle of Guam occurred in mid-December 1941.  The Japanese had planned to take the island and they began their successful invasion on 8 December. Subjugating the native Chamoros, they began construction of the underground caves and tunnels that seemed to be part of their global strategy.  

By 1944 the fleets of the United States had taken back Guadalcanal, Tarawa and many islands that had once been the defense boundaries of Imperial Japan. In July of that year American forces retook Guam, but only after a fierce defense by the Japanese.  American Marines had over 7,000 casualties and the Japanese lost just over 18,000.

American military forces were led by Marine General Roy Geiger, Admiral Richmond K. Turner and Marine General Holland M. Smith.  The Japanese defenders were under General Takeshi Takasina, who died in combat, and Hideyoshi Obata.

Landings were difficult.  Reefs across beaches on the Orote Peninsula stopped landing craft and Marines had to swim and wade in.  Gun emplacements, interconnected with each other, were sighted in on the beach and they fired until silenced by warships. There were four Medals of Honor given to Marines, two posthumously. 

For months after the cessation of the battle, pockets of Japanese soldiers would strike at Americans.  When this writer was stationed at Agana Naval Air Station in 1952 a ragged, weathered Japanese officer surrendered at the main gate.  In 1974 another surrendered, finally convinced that the war was over and he would not be ostracized in modern Japan for not dying for his Emperor.

Today a visitor can land at the airport and visit the plush hotels and enjoy the culture of the island.  If he or she wishes, a hike through the mountainous area of Orote Peninsula will allow the visitor to see caves and gun emplacements bordering the beautiful beach at Tumon Bay.

Today, the visitor can learn a part of American history that is sometimes forgotten amid the prosperity of our country and its lands.  

Will there be a third Battle of Guam?

“The Divine Wind” could not save Imperial Japan!

Okinawa is one of the Ryuku islands, a possession of Imperial Japan, and a crucial one in General Douglas McArthur’s and Admiral Chester Nimitz’ march up the Pacific Ocean and into the home waters of Japan.  

The northward island-hopping campaigns had begun on Guadalcanal, skipped up to Tarawa and the Marshalls and the Mariannas.  The U. S. forces finally converged on the Philippines and General McArthur had the opportunity to proclaim “I have returned,” as he waded ashore (at least twice), from a landing craft with his “Missouri Meerscham,” a corncob pipe, firmly clinched between his teeth.

But the fight was not over.  Both McArthur and Nimitz knew that the war had to be laid on the front door steps of Japan, itself.  The Emperor, and the people, had to understand what war was like, so forces went closer and closer to the homeland.

One of the places that was selected as ideally suited for the coming air raids against the capital, Tokyo, and the industrial centers of Nagasaki and Hiroshima and the shipyards that dotted the coastal inlets was Okinawa.

The American forces loaded into landing ships and headed seaward.  Ahead of them went the small ships, destroyers and destroyer escorts, guarding the massive attack aircraft carriers whose weapons were the bombers laden with TNT and fire bombs. 

But the battle was not easy.  In fact, it was the bloodiest of all of the Pacific actions.  Fortified by civilian and military workers, the mountains were honeycombed with tunnels and gun emplacements.  The beaches were covered by artillery already sited in on landing sites.  The Japanese soldiers were ready, ready to fight to the end for the Emperor and the Bushido code that demanded death before surrender.

And the Japanese had the “Divine Wind,” the kamikaze.  The air arm had lost almost all of its effective combat pilots, so it trained rookies on how to take off and how to fly into enemy ships, their planes laden with explosives that could, and did, damage or sink enemy destroyers, cruisers and aircraft carriers.  Already tried in other areas, the concentration of the attacks came when the massive U. S. fleet neared the shoreline of Okinawa.

The operation was named “Operation Iceberg,” and the name was almost prophetic.  Beneath the surface of the island were the miles of tunnels awaiting troop landings. Support for the invasion came from Admiral Raymond Spruance’s Fifth Fleet, including Admiral Marc Mitscher’s Fast Carrier Task Force.

General Simon Buckner, Jr. commanded nearly 200,000 men, part of Major General Roy Geiger’s III Amphibious Corps of Marines.

The Navy was largely unopposed at sea.  Earlier battles had taken out most of the Japanese ships; engagements like the Philippine Sea and Leyte Gulf.  Troops were landed, and the surface ships bombarded known enemy positions and then stood out to wait.

The wait was short.  Kamikazes had already shown up, though few in numbers, in earlier engagements.  The carrier St. Lo was one of the first major losses.  But here at Okinawa, an island that would put Allied bombers within easy striking distance of the homeland of Japan, they showed up by the droves.

The planes, each flying the Rising Sun emblem, took off from airfields nearby, and set their courses for their enemy, ships that seemed to reach from horizon to horizon: carriers and cruisers and the ever-present destroyers.  Each pilot selected a target, each pilot flew toward the ship, some diving, some coming in low and skimming the waves, darting and evading, fixed on death but determined to take into that death with him an enemy ship.

The destroyers were first, guarding the large carriers.  Ships named LAFFEY and EDWARDS and SAUFLEY, and hundreds of others caught the brunt of the first waves, and stood their ground, taking hit after hit, sometimes as many as four kamikazes crashing into the bridges and the guns and the engine spaces. Regardless, many ships made it through.  

Today, if one wishes, he can visit Patriot’s Point in Charleston, and board the LAFFEY, and live again that day when the valiant little ship took her hits and survived. But, the Divine Wind, the Kamikazes, manned by brave young men from another culture, did not.

The Final Run of the Tokyo Express

The Battle of Cape St. George proved the United States Navy’s strength on the vast Pacific Ocean, but it was a long time coming. 7 December, 1941 truly is a date that remains with our country as one of infamy, but it also signified the beginning of a long climb back for our Pacific fleet.  Before Pearl Harbor the Navy depended on giant battleships, and afterwards on aircraft carriers.  But the battle off Cape St. George on 25 November 1943, less than two years after this transition, was fought entirely by surface ships and it, as much as any larger engagement, was a significant turning point.

Japan had sent ships and troops out to island after island: invading, conquering natives and defeating the British, the French, the Dutch.  The tentacles of the Imperial Japanese Army and Navy reached almost to Australia before America’s military was able to react, with battles at Guadalcanal, in the Solomons, on Bouganville, on little spits of land like Tarawa.  The Japanese kept their remaining forces supplied by a string of warships known as the Tokyo Express.  Light ships, fast and well-armed, they brought in troops and supplies, and turned back to their homeland to prepare for another voyage.

But down near Buka in the Solomons the Japanese destroyers met the Little Beaver Squadron in a well-balanced surface action, with near-perfect destroyer weather, and they lost. Destroyer Squadron 23 was known as “The Little Beavers” when their charismatic leader, Captain Arleigh Burke, had his ships paint onto their stacks an image of a little Indian, a comic book character known as “Little Beaver”.  At sea he was naked, as the ships entered port the men would add a breech cloth.

Burke had come out of Colorado, a farm boy looking for an education, and he got one at the U. S. Naval Academy.  He graduated and went to battleships, but soon found his first love on the sleek greyhounds of the fleet:  the destroyers.  He commanded the USS MUGFORD and soon he had his captaincy and his own squadron, composed mostly of the newest and best destroyers:  the FLETCHER class.

And it was the Little Beaver Squadron, with ships, armed for surface fighting as well as for air protection and antisubmarine action, that finally stopped the Tokyo Express runs, in the waters off Cape St. George in the Solomon island chain.

The two forces were well balanced.  The Japanese commander was Captain Katsumori Yamashiro.  He had the destroyers AMAGIRI, YUGIRI, and UZUKI, all modern ships, as well as several other destroyers, well-armed and battle worthy.

Burke commanded the CHARLES AUSBURNE, the CLAXTON, and the DYSON, fleshed out by the SPENCE and the CONVERSE, all FLETCHERs constructed in 1942. Both Japanese and American ships were armed well with similar weapons, including torpedoes. The Japanese had a big edge with their “Long Lance” torpedoes, dependable and effective.

The weather conditions were, “Weather/visibility/sea state:  Night, dark, no moon, low clouds, occasional rain.  Sea smooth, wind force two from the East South East.  Visibility 3,000 yards without binoculars.” It was truly “destroyer weather for an almost perfect destroyer action”.

The Tokyo Express offloaded soldiers and supplies, and took aboard and took aboard pilots who no longer had airplanes in the area, and were re-assigned to Japan. Setting their course northward, they ventured into the strait between Buka and New Ireland.

The American forces rushed northward also, in order to be in position to intercept.  Once again, American intelligence played a big part in the operation, just as it had at Midway. They ended up in a direct line between Buka and Rabaul, and they were ready. It was a perfect night for a force relying on electronics, not visual, contacts. The Japanese screening destroyers began their run, leading the way up the strait toward their homeland.  The transports, all fast destroyers in their own right, followed. 

Within a short time, the American destroyers closed the range to the point where they could open fire, with each ship’s forward guns, zigzagging to bring their rear batteries to bear in turn.  The Japanese returned fire and managed some near misses, drenching one ship with near misses. The American position was dangerous.  The enemy only had to make a ninety degree turn to cap Burke’s destroyers, but the FLETCHERS, in turn, fired their torpedoes, fifteen each, and immediately sunk one enemy and damaged another.  The YUGIRI was also sunk in later action.  Soon the American destroyers damaged others and the final tally was three enemy destroyers with no losses or hits on Burke’s Little Beaver Squadron.

There was criticism after the battle by officers who thought that the fight could have been better, but only results count, and this action was an outstanding American victory.

Tarawa - The little pacific island that ran red with blood

The wide Pacific Ocean is dotted with islands, big ones like Guadalcanal, small ones like Johnston and Wake.  As World War II moved on past the tragedy at Pearl Harbor into full-fledged war for possession of these bits of land that had been stepping stones for Japan’s territorial expansion.  Now in 1943, they became stepping stones for the United States Fleet under Chester Nimitz, and the United States Army under Douglas McArthur to go northward to the homeland of the Rising Sun

Approximately 2500 miles southwest of Hawaii lies the atoll of Tarawa, a scattered group of islets that take on the appearance of a hook when viewed from the air. It was the entre’ for U. S. forces moving toward the central Pacific and the Philippines, the place to which General Douglas McArthur said that he would, one day, return.

The largest of the islets there is Betio, and it is not very large. It is less than three miles in length and about a half mile wide, but it held on its coral surface an airstrip and within its rocks underneath that surface were gun emplacements and bunkers connected by tunnels and in them and on the surface of the islet were 4,700 Japanese soldiers ready and able to defend the tiny scrap of land from anything that could be thrown at them.

The landings began early on 20 November, and immediately, because of the low tide, the landing craft, boats designed and built (many of them) by Higgins in New Orleans had to drop their ramps and send the Marines, heavy laden with packs and guns and ammunition, in through deep water, into the very jaws of Hell, the fire of enemy soldiers on the shore.

Those Marines who made it in the first day were pinned down all night by the sea on one side and the enemy soldiers in their dugouts on the other. The next morning more troops, supported by tanks and artillery, made the same perilous journey in, dodging the broken boats and the sharp coral.  

The Battle of Tarawa, there on that slip of land labelled “Betio” on the charts of the Navy, lasted two more days, and the cost was high.  The Marines suffered nearly 3,000 casualties (killed, wounded, missing). 

The Japanese, ready to die to keep the Americans out of their homeland, suffered even worse losses. Of the 4,700 defenders of the small islet, only seventeen survived.  After Tarawa, there was no doubt of the fierceness of the battles that would come on the way to the Japanese home islands.

In the days of World War II it was not unusual for war correspondents to attach themselves to combat units.  Ernie Pyle followed his dogface soldiers through Europe and into the Pacific, finally being killed on Ie Shima.  Bill Mauldin drew cartoons of Willie and Joe as they waded through the muck and mire of Normandy.  

On Tarawa, the correspondent was Robert Sherwood, who had covered the Army campaign in the Aleutians and the Navy’s raid on Wake Island.  Sherwood, however, was not prepared for the blood that he saw on Betio. He went in on an amphibious boat, an amtrack, with a detachment of Marines.  They made it almost to the shore.  Here is how he tells it:

“No sooner had we hit the water than the Jap machine guns opened up on us.  There must have been five or six of these machine guns concentrating their fire on us, I was scared, as I had never been scared before.  After we waded through several centuries and some two hundred yards of shallowing water and deepening machinegun fire.  I knew that we could not do any worse.”

And so after three days ended the bloody Battle of Tarawa, a step toward Tokyo and the eventual end of the battles of the Pacific.

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