1944: Marshall Islands

By 1943 the formerly invincible Japanese were being forced back from their maximum advance of 1942. Guadalcanal, in the Solomons, was captured in February 1943, the Aleutians had been retaken in August of 1943, and there was steady progress in New Guinea as General Douglas MacArthur's American and Australian troops fought the Japanese along the north coast. In the Central Pacific, the American forces took Tarawa and Makin in the Gilbert Islands in November of 1943, then moved northwest to the Marshall Islands.

Devestation on Kwajalein after the pre-invasion bombardment, February 1944
Devestation on Kwajalein after the pre-invasion bombardment, February 1944.

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Invasion of Kwajalein in the Marshall Islands

The advance of Allied forces across the Central Pacific to seize Japanese held islands started with the Gilbert Islands in November of 1943, then moved northwest to the Marshall Islands (also known as the Eastern Mandates), east of the Carolines, a large archipelago of two parallel chains of islands and atolls about mid-way between Hawaii and Australia. The Marshalls were a Japanese possession since World War I, the first Japanese territory to be assaulted in World War II. Operation Flintlock called for bypassing Jaluit and Wotje, garrisoned islands in the Marshalls of little strategic value, concentrating on Kwajalein, 66 miles long and 18 miles wide, the worlds largest atoll and the primary Japanese naval base in the Marshalls, to be followed by Eniwetok, also fortified by the Japanese.

Amtrac carries U.S. forces ashore at Kwajalein, 31 January 1944
Amtrac carries U.S. forces ashore at Kwajalein, 31 January 1944.

One of lessons of Tarawa was that the deeply dug-in Japanese could not be destroyed by a few hours of preliminary bombing. Therefore, Kwajalein (and nearby Roi and Namur, the primary Japanese air base in the Marshalls) were pounded for two months, most intensely on the three days prior to landings, a total of over 15,000 tons of naval and air delivered ordnance. The island was a mass of craters and rubble when the troops and tanks came ashore.

D-Day in the Marshalls was set for 31 January 1944 with the U.S. Marine Corps 4th Division moving onto the northern half of Kwajalein Atoll and the Army's 7th Infantry Division assaulting Kwajalein Island and the other small islands in the southern half of Kwajalein Atoll.

The Marines assaulted Roi Island and Namur Island, then the remaining smaller islands of northern Kwajalein Atoll. Once ashore, the Marines advanced rapidly. Roi was secured on 1 February and Namur the next day. In the seizure of the northern portion of Kwajalein Atoll, Marine 4th Division casualties were 313 killed and 502 wounded. An estimated 3,563 Japanese garrison forces were reduced to only about 90 prisoners.

The 1 February landing on Kwajalein was one of the best of the Pacific Theater in World War II. The 7th Infantry Division, veterans of the Aleutians Campaign, trained superbly in Hawaii for the landing which was well supported by a devestating pounding of the defenders by close-in naval vessels and Army artillery. It took four days of battle with the entrenched Japanese before Kwajalein Island was declared secure on 5 February.

Army casualties on Kwajalein Island and the surrounding islets included 173 killed and 793 wounded. An estimated 4,650 Japanese garrison troops were killed or committed suicide while only approximately 174 were taken prisoner.

Invasion of Eniwetok in the Marshall Islands

The rapid seizure of Kwajalein Atoll led Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, Commander in Chief, Pacific Ocean Areas, to advance the date for Operation Catchpole, the invasion of Eniwetok Atoll, to 17 February. Again, Army and Marine units provided the ground forces.

On the morning of 17 February 1944, the task force moved into the Eniwetok lagoon and began bombardment, coordinated with airstrikes. On 18 February 1944, the Marines landed on Engebi Island, supported by naval gunfire and by shore-based artillery placed on three adjacent islets the day before. After ferocious fighting with ill-prepared defenders, Engebi was secured the same day, including the airfield. The next day, 19 February, the 106th Infantry faced heavier resistance on Eniwetok Island, but after two days of fighting reinforced by 3rd Bn, 22nd Marines, Eniwetok was taken on 20 February. The Marines' attack on Parry Island on 22 February, followed by landings on smaller islands, eliminated the Japanese resistance and the entire Eniwetok atoll was in U.S. control by the evening of 23 February.

Operation Catchpole cost Marine casualties of 254 killed, 555 wounded and Army casualties of 94 killed and 311 wounded. About 3,400 Japanese died and 66 were taken prisoner.

Other Marshall Islands Garrisons

Four remaining Japanese bases in the Marshalls (Jaluit, Maleolap, Mille and Wotje) were bypassed, cutting off approximately 13,700 Japanese from resupply or reinforcement. Records available after the Japanese surrender in 1945 indicated that approximately 7,440 Japanese soldiers isolated at these bases died from bombing, disease or starvation.

Outcome of the Capture of the Marshall Islands

Rapid victory in the Marshall Islands added momentum to the Central Pacific drive and put Japanese positions in the Carolines and the Marianas within range of American reconnaissance and bombing aircraft. New bases were opened for the U.S. Navy. The Japanese Navy, intimidated by the approaching U.S. forces, reduced its fleet at Truk Island in the Carolines, formerly the bastion of Japanese air and naval power in the Central Pacific.

The relatively low 3,000 combined casualties for Army and Marines showed that the lessons of Tarawa were put to good use. Tactics against heavily defended islands had been changed and improved, including the use of heavy bombardment prior to landings and better transportation to the beaches.

Recommended Books about the Marshall Islands

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