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Part I: The next big campaign of the war in the Pacific: Guam

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By Ron Van Stockum

 

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        For the 1st Battalion, 21st Marines, the attack on “Hellzapoppin Ridge” on Dec. 18, 1943, was the final battle of the Bougainville Campaign.  Having established a beachhead to accommodate an airstrip for the support of further advances in the Pacific, the Third Marine Division, of which we were part, was replaced by U. S. Army units.

       In January 1944, the 21st Marines, including D Company of the 1st Battalion, my heavy weapons company, marched back to the beach.  Replacing the trail we had taken to the front lines was a paved roadway, named for Major Glenn Fissel, my Basic School classmate who had been killed in the campaign.

On the way, we passed a sign put up by the Third Marine Division in tribute to members of the Naval Construction Battalions (Seabees):

       “So when we reach the ‘Isle of Japan’

       With our caps at a jaunty tilt

       We’ll enter the city of Tokyo

       On the roads the Seabees Built.”

Marines were most appreciative of the Navy’s “Seabees,” older men possessing experience and skill, recruited from the civilian construction trades.  Their mission was to land soon after the Marines in order to build airstrips, bridges, roads, gasoline storage tanks, hospitals, and housing.

Once a campaign had been concluded and they had constructed their own accommodations, they were most cooperative in helping us improve our living facilities.

  A brand new plan

Upon reaching the beach, we embarked aboard ship for return to our base in Guadalcanal.  Here, after rest and recuperation (R and R), we were reorganized, with casualties being replaced by new arrivals from the States.

We also implemented a significant change in the organization of Marine Infantry Battalions.

This included the elimination of with my Battalion Heavy Weapons Company. All nine officers and 281 enlisted men were transferred to the other companies of the battalion.

Each of my three machine-gun platoons became a part of one of the three rifle companies, and my mortar and anti-tank platoons were transferred to the Battalion Headquarters Company.

I was then moved up to become the Battalion Executive Officer, second in command of a 1,000-man infantry unit.

We began intense training for our next campaign, planned initially as an invasion of Kavieng, New Ireland, in Papua, New Guinea, 300 miles north of Bougainville.

However, in February 1944, the outer screen of Japanese island defenses had been penetrated by the seizure of bases in the Marshall Islands, including Kwajalein and Eniwetok.  In March and April, landings in the Admiralty Islands and Hollandia [now called Jayapura. the capital of Papua province, Indonesia] established additional shore bases.

Now, bypassed enemy strongholds, including Kavieng, could be neutralized by aircraft flying from these bases, thus, rendering a costly invasion unnecessary.

This was an example of “island hopping,” which proved so successful in the Pacific Theater. In fact, we had actually embarked aboard ship for a Kavieng invasion, only to be disembarked when this operation was cancelled.

  Off to Guam

The way was now cleared for assaulting the inner ring of Japanese defenses by invasion of the Mariana Islands.

The Second and Fourth Marine Divisions were to invade Saipan and Tinian, commencing June 15, 1944. The Third Division was assigned the mission of invading Guam, on W-Day (designated day for the invasion), tentatively planned for June 18.

Guam, a peanut-shaped island with an area of 225 square miles, lies about 1,950 statute miles north of Guadalcanal and about 1,568 miles south of Tokyo.  It had become a possession of the United States with the Treaty of Paris in 1899, which ended the Spanish-American War.

On Dec. 10, 1942, shortly after the outbreak of war with the United States, the Japanese landed in overwhelming strength, and the small garrison on the island had been forced to surrender.

On June 7, 1944, the Third Marine Division, including the unit of which I was second in command, the 1st Battalion, 21st Marines, embarked aboard naval transports at Guadalcanal and sailed for the Mariana Islands. I had been promoted from major to lieutenant colonel, effective 4 May, but continued to serve in this major’s billet.

We were augmented to a strength of about 1,500 by an artillery battery, tanks, engineers, etc., to form what the Marine Corps called a Battalion Landing Team, tasked for storming a beach.

We were combat-loaded, so that our equipment and supplies could be unloaded in the order needed on the beach, following the principle of  “last in, first out.”

Our original assignment was to wait in reserve, to meet a possible need to reinforce the Marines invading Saipan and Tinian, but we were scheduled for an amphibious assault on the beaches of Guam on June 18.

Next: “The Marianas Turkey Shoot”