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Posted on Jun 14, 2006 in Front Page Features, War College

War in the East – Part Two

By Wild Bill Wilder

The Threat to Japan draws Ever Closer – 1944

The Allied war in the Far East continued to gain momentum during the year of 1944. A new air weapon, the B-29 "Superfortress" bomber, was being developed. With a range of 2,000 miles, it could strike Japan from the air if bases could be taken from which they could be flown. Initial B-29 flights were made from China, but it was determined that they would be much more effective if flown from positions in the Pacific that were nearer to the Home Islands.

This plan coincided with the next island chain to be assaulted, which was the Marianas. This would also involve conquering the neighboring Marshall Islands, including Roi-Namur, and Kwajalein. Other atolls, such as Maloelap, Mili and Wotje would be bypassed. After tremendous air attacks and fire from surface ships, Kwajalein fell to the Allies on the 4th of February. Again a huge cost in American lives had been paid for this real estate.


Now as MacArthur continued to push toward the Philippines, the Japanese saw a new danger. Nimitz was quickly moving to the northwest and approaching the Japanese home islands. Reinforcements were rushed into the area. Many fell victim to American torpedoes while enroute, but by June 1944, some 60,000 Japanese troops occupied the Marianas.

The United States chose the three major islands in this group, Saipan, Tinian, and Guam to be the principal targets of invasion. Each one of these was large enough to prepare bases for the B-29 bombers, which in turn would bring the war to the Empire of Japan itself. Task Force 58, driving to the area, was the largest naval armada to date ever formed in the Pacific.

With 15 carriers, almost 1,000 aircraft, seven battleships, and over 100 ships of smaller size, it appeared unstoppable. Saipan was the first target. Landings were made on June 15th, with over 600 LVTs bringing to the shores 8,000 Marines. Within two days, 20,000 troops were on land and in the battle.

In a desperate attempt to salvage the situation, the remaining naval air arm of Japan sortied to the area. As the fleets approached one another, the Americans struck the first blow. The newest and largest Japanese carrier, the Taiho, was hit by torpedoes from the US submarine Albacore and blew up and never even got into action. The Japanese airwave sent to strike the US fleet totaled 326 aircraft. They were expected and attacked mercilessly by American fighters. It became known as the "Marianas Turkey Shoot." They had only one hit on a capital ship at the cost of 240 aircraft.

In the American counterattack, the Japanese carrier Shokaku was torpedoed and sunk, as well as smaller carrier Hiyo, and the Zuikaku was badly damaged. The Japanese from this point onward had no effective naval air arm with which to combat the US forces.

On July 9th, Saipan was secured. Tinian and Guam also fell, but again the cost was heavy for the Allies. It was during the fighting for Tinian that another new Allied weapon, called Napalm (a type of jellied gasoline) was used against the dug in enemy. By August 1st, most of the Mariana Islands were securely in American hands. Casualties for both sides had been enormous. The United States had over 25,000 in this campaign alone.

The remainder of 1944 was marked by further invasions. On September 15th, the 1st Marine Division landed at Peleliu midway between New Guinea and the Philippines. The Japanese had begun to adapt a new strategy at this point in the war.

Instead of attempting to stop the invading enemy at the beaches, which was now proving impossible due to the massive pre-invasion air attacks and naval bombardments of the landing areas, they moved their defenses further inland. It would be there that the fiercest fighting would ensue. Well dug in and hidden, the Japanese soldier would fight to the death, either of himself or his enemy. The fanaticism of these troops seemed to grow greater with each battle.

Which Way to Go?

A heated debate about the advisability of the invasion of the Philippines went on for some time. Some leaders felt that they could be bypassed, and would offer no major problem in the effort to reach the Japanese home islands. MacArthur was outraged, and gave some of his most moving discourses on the importance of their capture.

His word, equivalent to America’s word (or so he thought), had been given to the Filipino people. They must be liberated. It would be he, MacArthur, who would bring this to pass. Tragically, it proved to be some of the hardest and costliest fighting of the war for both the combatants and the civilian populations.

Leyte would be the first island to be assaulted. It was during this period that the "last hurrah" of the Japanese Navy was executed. Striking from three directions, the fleet consisted of battleships, cruisers, and destroyers. There was no longer any Japanese carrier force available. As the American turned one way and then another to drive off the enemy, the landing forces were suddenly left exposed.

As Japanese battleships approached the transports, a small force of escort carriers with their destroyers fought a delaying action to hold off the enemy. One by one, a number of these valiant defenders were picked off by long range Japanese naval cannons. Strangely, just when victory was within their grasp, the enemy ships turned away from the battle. It was a close call, but a major disaster had been averted.

The fighting in the Philippines would continue for almost a year. General Yamashita, the one who had taken Percival’s surrender at Singapore, continued to fight on tenaciously until August 15th, when he finally surrendered with 10,000 men under his command.

Iwo Jima – A Costly Advantage

As the struggle to re-conquer the Philippines continued, American strategy still aimed for the heart of Japan. In 1945, a new island chain, the Bonin Islands became the target of US forces. An island called Iwo Jima was a perfect place for airbases and a supply area for further attacks toward the Japanese home islands. There were already three airfields on the island.

Mount Suribachi, focus of much heavy fighting on Iwo Jima

Up until this point the B-29s were forced to fly almost 2,000 miles (14 hours flight time) to get to Japan from the Marianas, make their runs, and return. In between it was all ocean. Any bombers who were shot up, damaged, or suffered mechanical failure, were doomed to ditch in the sea with little hope of rescue. Iwo Jima, halfway between these points would be an ideal landing place for wounded birds to make emergency landings.

Further, these airfields were only 600 miles from Japan. In this way, escort fighters could be provided for the heavy bombers, offering them a much better chance at survival. By the end of the war, over 2,000 Superfortresses had made emergency landings on Iwo with over 20,000 crewmen saved!

The fight for Iwo Jima began on February 19th, after some of the heaviest preliminary bombardment from the air and sea ever executed. Three Marine divisions would join in the battle against over 20,000 men and 600 gun emplacements and pillboxes on Mount Suribachi and strung out along the island. It was the most severe fighting of the war to date and the US had over 25,000 casualties. It took 26 days to secure the island. The American leaders began to become more anxious as to what the final assault against Japan would cost in men’s lives on both sides.

[continued on next page]

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