Marine Raiders

The expansion of Marine Raider and Parachute units in the Pacific had ‘spearheading’ largely in mind, although there would be occasions when they did raid. 3rd and 4th Marine Raider Battalions had been formed, respectively, in September 1942 – the former in Samoa, the latter in the US. Opposition from the Commandant of the Marine Corps was now quelled because he was in no position to stand up to the combined weight of the President, some among his own senior officers, including General Vandegrift, commander of the 1st Marine Division, Rear Admiral Turner (who successfully promoted Raider battalions as being far more effective tactical ‘bricks’ in island warfare than larger formations) and popular support in the press, whipped up by Carlson. The creation of 1st Raider Regiment in March 1943 appears, however, to have been an administrative and training concept in support of the four existing battalions. For although the regiment would soon assume an operational role, it never operationally commanded all its Raider battalions together since, usually, they were detached to separate tasks.

The Marine Parachute Battalion underwent a similar experience, 1st Marine Parachute Regiment being formed on 1 April 1943 to take charge of the existing 1st Battalion (formed 1941), 2nd Battalion (also formed 1941) and 3rd Battalion (formed September 1942), with 4th Battalion joining later after its formation in the US on 2 April 1943.

Never would a Marine parachute unit make an operational jump. Infrequently would they, or the Raiders, raid in the British manner. Preference for concentrated blows no doubt had a bearing upon it, along with branch of Service rivalries – quite apart from the problems of fighting an island war over a vast expanse of ocean. Yet it remains a misconception in the writing of popular American history that hit-and-run raiding came to an abrupt end after Makin in 1942. For the nature of island topography and deficiencies of information alone made it essential that these techniques should be used for survey, for pilotage and obstacle clearing, slow as Turner was to recognize it.

In the aftermath of Watchtower, as preparations were being made to reconquer the Solomons, the Gilberts and the Marshall Islands, an intensive study was made of the known amphibious shortcomings. High on the list was the need for pre-attack survey of the invasion area to fill gaps left by inferior maps and the inability of aerial photography to penetrate the jungle canopy. Through the intermingled staff communication systems linking London and Washington to Theatre Headquarters, similar lessons were already being disseminated as a result of Jubilee and Torch. Thus knowledge of British reconnaissance parties in Europe was available to Nimitz and Turner in the Pacific. In addition, the Americans held in high respect the Australian Coast-Watchers Organization which had been raised prior to the war by the Director of Naval Intelligence (DNI). This consisted of unpaid volunteers drawn from the native islanders, led by Administrative Officers, traders and others with the task of reporting by radio the movements of hostile craft. In due course they were joined by men of the Australian Independent Companies – recruited in 1940 as the equivalent of British Commandos – and by several New Zealanders and Americans. Engaged initially for a passive role, and were told officially to disband once the enemy had arrived and been reported; many, using their knowledge of jungle survival, withdrew inland to continue reporting. Gradually they assumed military status and, despite heavy losses, fought on as guerrillas, joined in April 1942, by the New Zealand ‘Southern Independent Commando Company’. Towards the end of Watchtower what became known as the South Pacific Scouts, comprised mostly of Fijians, began to arrive on Guadalcanal and shortly after this the Americans started to employ them to work with their amphibious Reconnaissance Patrols.

Guadalcanal became the home of a Combat Reconnaissance School at which experienced Marine Raiders and coast watchers instructed small elite teams, recruited initially from the Raider units, to probe ahead of every subsequent Allied landing. Carried to their destination in MTBs, submarines or PBY flying boats, they would travel either in rubber boats or in native war canoes. Theirs were the tactics of caution in arrival, stealth in investigation, commonsense use of local knowledge and diplomacy for survival, and shrewd, timely withdrawal with the requisite information before detection. They were similar in many respects to the COPP which, raised in December 1942 from survivors of the Party Inhuman, were starting their examination of Sicily’s beaches in January. Like their opposite numbers in Europe they could not count on a friendly welcome from the natives. Many islanders were pro-Japanese.

In the train of the capture of Guadalcanal, Allied offensive activity gradually expanded in the Pacific and was spearheaded by the nearest thing to raiding the Theatre Commanders felt essential. Due to crippling losses inflicted on their Imperial Navy, the Japanese were pinned to the static defence of a sprawling perimeter of possessions and thus vulnerable to Operation Elkton, a twin-pronged amphibious drive aimed at the harbour of Rabaul, which could pick and choose its specific objectives. For American amphibious assault methods had been modified since Marine and navy representatives had voiced their views to Keyes in the summer of 1941. General Vandegrift stated on 21 February 1943, that landings should avoid organized resistance if possible; and in the Mediterranean the navy had adopted the British practice of night arrivals, changes with which Admiral Turner, for the time being, fell in line.

Vandegrift’s preferences dominated operations Elkton, Cartwheel and Toenails (the invasion of New Georgia) and coincided with Turner’s conception of using Marine small-unit ‘bricks’ in the raiding role. Infiltration instead of head-on assault became the watchword. For example, when the Japanese lost patience with a particularly effective party of coast watchers under a New Zealander, Captain D. G. Kennedy, at Segi, and took steps to destroy it, Turner at once responded to Kennedy’s call for help by sending in a rescue party of 4th Marine Raiders, led by Lieutenant-Colonel M. S. Currin, on 21 June, nine days ahead of the planned invasion. Once the Marines were established ashore, Kennedy took this as a signal, as any respectable pioneer would when the frontier got over-crowded, to push ahead, seeking ways round enemy opposition to ease the way ahead for the Marines who would follow towards the first principal objective, Viru Harbour. This was the model for all successful operations to follow, the failures frequently being those occasions when finesse was ignored or overlooked. Extensive information gleaned by coast watchers and Marine Amphibious Patrols during the previous month convinced Currin that the published plan was faulty. On his recommendation the main landing was made wide of Viru, at Regi, on 27 June. And it is a Marine’s account of this stealthy landing which perfectly describes so many of similar pattern:

It was a weird moonless night with black rubber boats on black water slipping silently through the many islands of Panga Bay. The trip was uneventful except for one scare. It came just before reaching Regi, while lying offshore waiting for word from native scouts who had gone ahead to make certain no Japanese were in the village. Due to the sudden appearance of a half moon which began to cast a sickly reflection, a small island appeared to be an enemy destroyer.

The unopposed landing at Regi was the first step towards the establishment in November 1943 of a large beachhead at Empress Augusta Bay on Bougainville Island and prompted what were to be the final two hit-and-run amphibious raids of any consequence in the Pacific Theatre of Operations. The first was a landing on Choiseul Island – Operation Blissful – on 27/28 October, timed simultaneously with seizure of the Treasury Islands as a diversion to the major invasion of Bougainville. Under orders to ‘get ashore and make as big a demonstration as possible to convince the Japanese that a major landing was in progress’, Lieutenant-Colonel V. H. Krulak, commanding 2nd Marine Parachute Battalion, landed his 650 men at Voza by night, piloted by a native scout under the command of Coast Watcher C. W. Seton. Thrusting towards Sangigai on the 30th, the Paramarines bumped into several enemy outposts – which might have been avoided if only they had been able to understand the pidgin English spoken by Seton’s scouts – and took the village without difficulty for the loss of only four killed against 72 enemy, destroyed enemy equipment and stores and then withdrew to their beachhead.

Likewise, on the 31st, a large patrol of 87 men under Major W. T. Bigger struck out westward by sea from Vosa to land at the village at Nukiki and hit Japanese positions along the nearby Warrior River and at Choiseul Bay. Splitting his small force, Bigger plunged amidst a nest of enemy and only gradually discovered on 1 November that it was he who was the hunted and by superior enemy units which, unlike Bigger’s, knew precisely their own location and way about. Having failed to hit the enemy hard on the mainland, Bigger mortared their dumps on Guppy Island and withdrew to await pick-up by LCPs on the 2nd. Again he was late, caught this time at the water’s edge by a strong forewarned enemy force. After suffering losses, he was saved by the determined work of the LCPs and the strong intervention of two MTBs (one commanded by a future president of the United States, Lieutenant J. F. Kennedy) which came close inshore, guns blazing.

At Voza Krulak concluded that it was time to go, even though a stay of 12 days was originally intended. Seton’s scouts reported nearly 1,000 Japanese who, satisfied that Krulak’s force was small, were on their way from Sangigai. On the night of the 3rd embarkation of all men and stores was calmly completed just as explosions ashore announced that the enemy were stepping on mines thoughtfully left behind by the raiders.

Try to convince themselves, as the Marines did, that Blissful had been worthwhile, no real diversion was achieved. For the Japanese themselves were convinced that the Americans would land on Choiseul and assumed, too, that the real objective on Bougainville would be the east coast instead of Empress Augusta Bay. Like Archery, the British diversionary raid in Norway in December 1941, Blissful produced disaffection among natives who, unlike many in other areas, were aggressively hostile to the Japanese. Seton reported a devastating decline in native morale and E. Feldt remarks that ‘natives do not understand broad strategy; they only know what they see before them. They had seen a large body of troops land and had assumed that the days of the Japs were over; now the troops had gone and the Japs remained.’

Blissful further concentrated the minds of those at the top who, since August, had been evaluating raiding in Pacific conditions and particularly the landing at Cape Torokina in Empress Augusta Bay. There amphibious reconnaissance was the sole hit-and-run contribution and it was recognized that meticulous amphibious reconnaissance was decisive in selecting the exact landing-place and shaping the entire Bougainville campaign. Two months prior to the assault by 3rd Marine Division, Recon Patrols from submarines, PBYs and MTBs searched the coastline and probed inshore by night while the submarines used their periscopes by day to verify the accuracy of the charts. Negative and positive information combined to indicate that the vicinity of Cape Torokina was not only a suitable place hydrographically but also thinly defended. It also revealed reefs where none were charted, and proved that Cape Torokina itself was 7 miles displaced on the chart. Opposed though the main assault would be on 1 November, it was completely successful and at low cost. Part of the price, however, was paid by Private First Class H. Gurke of 3rd Raider Battalion who, on 9 November, found himself and another Marine in a foxhole under heavy shell and grenade fire from a Japanese counter-attack. When a grenade dropped into the hole, Gurke ‘mindful that his companion manned an automatic weapon of superior fire power … thrust him roughly aside and flung his own body over the missile to smother the explosion’. For this he won the Congressional Medal of Honor. But bravery alone did not influence calculations of cost-effectiveness when manpower was at a premium and prejudices intruded. The Marine Raiders were under threat.

Perhaps the protagonists of the Raiders’ cause hoped for a miraculous reprieve when, on 29 November, it was decided to raid an enemy supply base at Koiari, 10 miles along the coast from Cape Torokina. 1st Parachute Battalion under Major R. Fagan, reinforced by M Company 3rd Raider Battalion, was to land on an unguarded beach to a flank, seize the base from the rear and cause maximum destruction while searching for intelligence about enemy plans. It was reasonable for Major-General R. S. Geiger to order the expedition at less than a week’s notice. But to neglect careful reconnaissance and depend excessively on fire support from three destroyers and a single battery of army 155mm guns firing at long range was risky, and potentially disastrous when the destroyers were diverted at the last moment. The raid might just have succeeded if the two reconnaissance patrols had been more careful, but there is reason to believe that they reported all clear after visiting the wrong beach. In consequence those Marines who hit the wrong beach were surprised to be greeted by an astonished Japanese officer standing there in the expectation of welcoming his own boats to the base.

Nothing went right for the Paramarines that night. Four companies, penned into a small beachhead, were rudely made aware of lively enemy interest and found too that their HQ Company and the company of Raiders had landed 100 yards away. Then, as enemy fire began to fall, and they dug frantically for safety, a sense of isolation settled upon them. Major Fagan’s radio was broken and with it the means to call for help.

Good news came later with the arrival of the Raider Company and the remnants of the Paramarines, who fought their way along the beach to join the main beachhead, and then the establishment of external communications through the artillery radio which enabled defensive fire to be brought down and planning to commence.

The next bad news was the repulse by Japanese artillery of two attempts to send in landing craft and the storm of fire falling among Marines with their backs to the sea, signs that the enemy were forming up for a major attack, and a dire shortage of ammunition. Nightfall saw an end to it. As the Japanese formed up to charge, the guns of three destroyers, rushed to the scene, from a few light support craft and from the army dropped a curtain of shell fire round the perimeter as the landing craft went in for the third time. This time the Marines retired in good order, though abandoning much heavy equipment, and embarked without interruption. They had lost 15 killed, seven missing and suffered 91 wounded. The raid, to quote their own history, had been ‘a dismal failure’.

Already the naval and Marine hierarchy had got to work undermining the Raiders and Paramarines. They had experimented at Makin and tried diversions at Choiseul and on Koiari. It could be pointed out that four raids in 21 months of existence was poor justification and that each operation was stained with defeat, no matter what the propagandists said. In a paper submitted to the Chief of Naval Operations on 3 December HQ Marine Corps concluded:

The Marine Corps has always felt that its infantry elements are essentially raiders and that Pacific conditions are different from the European which resulted in the establishment of commandos. It would like to end its raider program so as to make all infantry organizations uniform and to avoid setting up some organizations as elite or selected troops. It feels that any operation so far carried out by raiders could have been performed equally well by a standard organization specially trained for that specific operation.

Old, familiar debating points, in fact, to which a list of serious deficiencies could be appended as the real reason for change. As the nation’s war effort drained the manpower pool of the best leaders, those who were available had to be spread around evenly to obtain the best results. And in battle it had been found that Raiders and Paramarines had been at a disadvantage in firepower (as had commandos) from lack of heavy weapons. Incidentally, so far as the parachute units were concerned, not one had yet been called upon to make an operational drop.

At root, alongside absence of incentive and need, lay unwillingness to raid among the American commanders at sea and in the field. This led, maybe, to forgetfulness, into making raiding a spare-time occupation unrelated to essentials. Arguably there was no requirement and certainly there was far less chance of its creation in the absence of a strong belligerent central co-ordinating defence organization or an equivalent of COHQ. Essentially the Americans lacked a dedicated personality in the right seat of power, such as Keyes or Mountbatten.

Be these things as they may, the Joint Chiefs of Staff now had a firmer hold on the President and his advisors than early in 1942. Within 24 hours of receiving the Marine Corps’ request the Chief of Naval Operations had granted it. The ground had been well prepared! At once the existing units began conversion, either into normal marine battalions or were dispersed to other units, including those committed to reconnaissance and guerrilla raiding. Objections were silenced. Susceptibilities among the traditionalists had been assuaged.

Amphibious hit-and-run raiding by regular forces was virtually snuffed out in the Pacific theatre except on rare occasions when some enterprising commander might take advantage to patrol aggressively, but locally, round an exposed enemy island flank. Which meant also that raiding by irregular forces was almost entirely stifled since, despite repeated requests by Colonel Donovan in 1943 and 1944, Nimitz and MacArthur steadfastly refused to allow OSS to operate within their boundaries, still on the pretext of avoiding a clash with the Marines, despite their renouncement of the practice. Brute force by massed men and material would in future dictate American operations.

If pin-prick attacks were to be inflicted upon the Japanese, they were to come from the British, the Australians and the New Zealanders whose military attitudes tended rather more in the direction of guile.


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