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Posts Tagged ‘Gilbert Islands’

Usually, when I cover a topic, the search for related artwork or photos is relatively easy.  But when the subject is the USS Liscome Bay, such is not the case.  There are very few photos available.  And that’s because the life of Liscome Bay was short, and it was a life that ended quickly…and violently.

She was known as CVE-56 in Navy-number-speak, as was classified as a Casablanca-class escort carrier.  That means she was about half the size of a conventional carrier, and carried a smaller compliment of men, aircraft, and armor.  But its smaller size also meant it was cheaper to build and could be finished in much less time than bigger flattops.  So it’s no surprise that, in the 20 months that Casablanca-class carriers were built, a staggering 50 examples were built…more than any other carrier class ever.  The St. Lo, which we just talked about last month, was a Casablanca-class carrier.

Normally, escort carriers were fairly slow got the more mundane jobs like supporting land-based activity such as close air support and interdiction strikes.  Casablanca-class carriers were moderately fast (capable of 20 knots), but were still considered too slow for major fleet action (bigger carriers, battleships, and such could all make 30 knots or more).  Still, they got to mix it with the big boys on occasion, as Taffy 3 did in Leyte Gulf.

But St. Lo and Taffy 3 and Leyte Gulf were in October of 1944, and this was November of 1943…almost a year earlier.  At this point the Navy was thinking about the Philippine Islands (and Leyte Gulf and all that), but the work at hand involved the Gilbert Islands, specifically those around Betio…Tarawa.  Concurrent with the landings at Tarawa were the landings on Makin, a small group of islands about 100 miles south.  The small Japanese garrison on Makin (less than a 1000 men) was expected to fall quickly…a day, maybe two.

Like most Pacific operations, however, it didn’t play out that way.  Cleaning up Makin took 3 full days.  And of course, this ground operation was supported by the escort carriers…in this case, the Liscome Bay, Corregidor, and Coral Sea.  Having just been commissioned in August, our subject was brand new, carrying 28 aircraft and more than 900 men.

In the early morning (just after 5:00am) of November 24, 1943, she was preparing to launch aircraft when one of the ship’s lookouts yelled, “Here comes a torpedo!”  Indeed, the Japanese submarine I-175 had arrived the day before and selected the Liscome Bay as her target.

At 5:10am, a single torpedo struck the aft engine room and exploded.  But the real catastrophe occurred when the torpedo remnants plowed into the aircraft bomb magazine.  When ammunition cooks off, it does so in dramatic fashion, and the Liscome Bay was no exception.  Witnesses said the ship was just a massive ball of orange flame, and bits of ship hit other task force vessels nearly 3 miles away.  At 5:33am, Liscome Bay slipped beneath the waves, carrying with her nearly 650 sailors and officers.

The operation on Makin Atoll was intended to be a relatively clean one-day operation.  One explosion, however, had caused U.S. casualties to achieve near parity with the Japanese.

Recommended Reading:  Tarawa:  A Hell of a Way to Die

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On August 17, 1942, the Battle of Guadalcanal was 10 days old.  The first serious Marine patrol sent out had come to a very bad end, and the first major engagement on this largest of the Solomon Islands was just a couple days away.

But already, the U.S. Navy was looking for ways to distract the Japanese from Guadalcanal.  So they turned to the Gilbert Islands.  Located more than 1,000 miles northwest of the Solomons, the Gilberts were a series of small atolls that, at the time, were well inside the Japanese defense lines, and therefore lightly garrisoned.  The Navy figured some kind of action would divert Japanese attention and, more importantly, Japanese supplies and reinforcements from Guadalcanal.

So Companies A and B the U.S. Marine Raiders boarded a pair of submarines (the USS Nautilus and USS Argonaut) and made for Makin Island.  Arriving on the August 16th, they scouted the island from the safety of the sub periscope, and then headed ashore at 5:30am the next day.

Opposing them was a very small force of Japanese soldiers (100 or so).  Early in the encounter, the Japanese launched a Banzai charge (one of the first of its kind in the Pacific War) with almost the entire garrison, which was pretty quickly neutralized.  With little worry except from a few Japanese aircraft, they set about destroying the island’s defenses.

There was little difficulty until they tried to leave that evening.  Heavy tides made departure difficult, and then the engines on the extraction boats refused to work.  The boats capsized against the breakers, spilling men and equipment into the water.  Some of the Marines were able to reach the waiting subs, but a good number, including the leader of the operations, Lt. Col. Evans Carlson, had to remain ashore until the next day, when they were able to extract.  It wasn’t until much later that it was discovered that, in the confusion, 9 Marines had been left behind.

The raid, accomplished at the cost of 20 killed and another 16 wounded, did serve its purpose…to a point.  The Japanese did reinforce the Gilberts, which did prevent some reinforcement of the Solomons.  But it also meant that a year later, when the Marines hit the beaches at both Tarawa (also in the Gilberts) and Makin, their job was hideously difficult.

And those 9 Marines left behind?  The much larger garrison that moved in captured them and, eventually, they were executed.  Those that were killed in the raid could not be removed, and would not be returned home and buried until August 17…of 2001.

Recommended Reading:  Coral Sea, Midway, and Submarine Operations: May 1942 – August 1942

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Well, that’s not exactly true, but it might as well be.  And since we’ve been “atolling” ourselves to death the last couple days, one more should be alright.  Apamama Atoll (it’s also known by similar names like Abamama, Abemama, and maybe even Alabama) is another postage-stamp-sized chunk of coral and trees about 80 miles south of Tarawa.  As the Battle of Tarawa was winding down, the U.S. turned their attention to Apamama, as its deep-water lagoon would make an excellent naval base.

The submarine USS Nautilus packaged up 78 Marines, captained by James Jones, and headed south.  Arriving at the atoll, the Marines started working their way around the various islets, killing a couple of Japanese soldiers.  But natives told the Marines that the next island had a 25-man garrison that would need to be neutralized.  So the Nautilus surfaced offshore and proceeded to soften up the landing areas before the Marines headed in.  But this battle would be very different from the others.

It turned out that just before the Nautilus and the Marines arrived, the garrison commander assembled his troops.  While talking to them, he was waving his sword in one hand and his pistol in the other.  In the midst of his speech, he inadvertantly pulled the trigger and shot himself in the head, dying instantly.  The remaining troops, shocked and now leaderless, had no idea what to do.  So (I’m not making this up) the 25 soldiers dug their own graves, laid down in them, and committed suicide.  When the Marines arrived on November 25, 1943, their capture of Apamama involved filling in the graves and raising the Stars and Stripes.

Recommended Reading: A Hell of a Way to Die

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This evening, let’s focus on Makin Atoll, because I think it lives in Tarawa’s shadow.  Makin was targeted by U.S. war planners for a couple of reasons.  First, its proximity to the main attacks at Betio (just 100 miles straight south) meant plenty of U.S. forces were in the area.  Second, the garrison there was quite small, just 800 men, many with little or no real combat experience.  Finally, a small raid in August of the previous year had provided some useful intelligence and reconnaissance of the area.  It was to be a fairly minor operation, taking a day or less.

First, let’s talk names, since these islands chains can be confusing.  The soldiers landed on Makin Atoll the same morning as the Betio landings.  However, they didn’t land on Makin Island (the atoll’s northernmost islet).  They landed on Butaritari (the atoll’s southernmost islet).  But since it’s part of the same island chain, the names sometimes get interchanged.

The landings stood in stark contrast to those on Betio.  Other than sporadic sniper fire, U.S. soldiers walked ashore virtually unopposed, as the defenders had all moved inland.  When the 165th Infantry Regiment finally reached the enemy defenses, they stalled.  Trying really hard to minimize casualties, they took a very careful approach.  A fine idea, but there were a bunch of support ships sitting offshore, and every hour increased their exposure to air and submarine attacks.

Marine General Holland Smith fumed at the delays.  He went ashore, started knocking heads around, got in a Jeep and drove to the edge of the supposed “battle” (where he reported it was “as quiet as Wall Street on a Sunday“), drove back, and ordered them to finish the job, which they finally did on November 23, 1943 (the same day Betio was secured).  Only 7 of the 800 Japanese soldiers were taken alive.  American losses on the island were 65 killed and about 150 wounded.

But as you would guess, the delays allowed submarine I-175 a chance to join the fray, which she did in spectacular fashion early the next morning.  The sub put at least one torpedo into the carrier USS Liscome Bay, which hit the bomb storage compartment and blew the entire stern off the carrier.  The ship’s fuel tanks went next in a explosion which sunk the ship and killed 650 sailors in just over 20 minutes.

Like Betio, Makin Atoll was in U.S. hands.  But like Betio, the cost of victory was extremely high.

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When we last visited the 2nd Marine Division, their hold on the tiny island of Betio (part of Tarawa Atoll) was desperate.  Having spent the entire day wading ashore under punishing enemy fire, their gains were measured only in yards.  If ever there was a time for a banzai attack, it was now, and that first night on shore was frightening, with soldiers awaiting the inevitable screams and furious action that would push the exhausted Marines back into the Pacific waters, where so many comrades had fallen hours before.

But surprisingly, no attack came.  As it turns out, the commander of the forces on Betio, Admiral Kenji Shibazaki, was killed by naval gunfire early in the action on the 20th.  This fortunate “decapitation” robbed the garrison of its head, and without him, Japanese forces lost much of their initiative, though they were still capable of stiff resistance.  Of more immediate assistance was the destroyer USS Ringgold, which sat just offshore and pounded enemy positions all night.

November 21st saw U.S. forces land on the northwest side of the tiny island, set up a beachhead, and begin moving eastward.  By the evening of the 22nd, most of Betio was in Marine hands, and then, for some reason, the Japanese decided on suicide charges.  But the Marines (many with experiece at Guadalcanal and all aided by artillery) were ready and chopped up the attacks.  At 1pm the following afternoon, the eastern tip of Betio was taken.  The following hours featured mopping up of isolated strongpoints and, with handfuls of Japanese soldiers still fighting, General Julian Smith called Betio secure in the afternoon of November 23, 1943.

But as one of the first battles ever filmed by war correspondants, folks back home were appalled by the scenes of violence, the bodies of Marines caught on barbed wire, and decaying bodies floating on Betio’s shoreline.  Historians have debated the value of engaging the enemy on Tarawa versus just leaving it to wilt in the equatorial heat.  But the lessons of this bitter fight…the failures, the oversights, the poor communication…were well-learned by the soldiers and their leadership.  When the time came to attack the Marshalls in the spring of 1944, many lives would be saved by those who lost them at Tarawa.

Admiral Shibazaki said before the battle that “the Americans could not take Tarawa with a million men in a hundred years.”  In the end, that 100-year battle lasted just 76 hours, but nearly 1,000 U.S. soldiers would die.  And of the nearly 5,000 Japanese soldiers garrisoned on (and under) that 1 square mile, just 17 would be taken prisoner.

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The fight for Tarawa Atoll, begun on November 20, 1943, is a great example of how badly things can go in war when one or two small pieces of information are ignored.  As one of the Gilbert Islands, Tarawa was itself a group of tiny islets shaped in a sort of “reverse L”.  Betio (bay-sho) was the southwestern most islet and featured a strong Japanese garrison and a 4,000 foot runway.  And that was pretty much it, as the tiny strip of land comprised little more than a square mile.

The Gilbert Islands weren’t terribly important strategically, but the garrison at Betio stood in the way of capturing the Marshall Islands (Saipan, Tinian, Kwajalein and Eniwetok), which were vitally important.  The U.S. Navy had already tipped their hand a little when they launched a small raid against Makin (100 miles south of Tarawa) in 1942 (just a week after the landings at Guadalcanal).  And while the Japanese regular forces were tough enough, Betio had been reinforced with rikusentai, described by Derrick Wright as “elite troops, familiar with the problems of amphibious operations,…and imbued with the bushido philosophy of death before dishonour…

Timing of the attacks was critical.  The U.S. Navy wanted to land primarily on Betio’s north side, but the islet was surrounded by a shelflike reef that extended out 2,000 to 4,000 feet from the island.  At low tide, there was barely enough water over the reef to support landing craft.  But even worse, Major Frank Holland, a 15-year resident of Tarawa, knew the area also had “dodging” tides, periods when the low tide was more severe.  With less than 3′ of water on the reef, landing craft would be stuck far from shore.  November 20, 1943 was in the cycle of dodging tides.  Holland hollered and screamed, without success, to change the date of landings.  Leadership said planning was too far down the line to alter.

So when the 2nd Marine Division (with help from part of the 27th Infantry Division) rode up in the boats, they got a nasty surprise when they were forced to wade to shore.  The enemy, having hunkered down during the naval bombardment, manned their guns and poured it to the invaders.  By the end of the 20th, U.S. forces had secured a foothold on the beaches, but it was tenuous.  And behind those soldiers, the reef that bore so little significance in the planning was littered with blown-up landing craft, destroyed tanks, and the floating bodies of Marines who couldn’t find shelter before death found them.

Recommended Reading: A Hell of a Way to Die – I’m working through Wright’s book now…for the second time.

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