Friday, August 6, 2010

Turning Back the Empire, Pt. II: Guadalcanal

Henderson Field to Tenaru River

As we saw in our last entry, the beach landings on Guadalcanal went well, without a hitch. But it was not before long after the landing crafts reached the shore than Japanese air attacks swarmed down on the transport ships landing troops and supplies onto Guadalcanal. As a result, it became increasingly difficult for supplies to be landed. While casualties resulting from the air attacks were low, the greatest problem on the beaches was the chaos that resulted from inexperienced boat captains unloading gear, ammo, and food on the beach in an extreme hurry to get out of the area and back to safety--leaving the beaches littered in a disarray of vehicles, troops, and supplies. Needless to say, this provided a tempting target for Japanese bomber pilots.
When the 1st U.S. Marine Division landed on Guadalcanal virtually un-opposed by enemy land forces, they were dumbfounded. "Where are the Japanese?" was the question on every body's minds. Other than the air attacks, there was virtually no sign of the enemy's presence. As the Marines moved inland, however, they did meet slight pockets of resistance as we saw in the entry below. The Japanese airfield on Guadalcanal was captured without opposition only 36 hours after the landings. The airstrip was renamed "Henderson Field", after an American pilot who died in the battle of Midway the previous June. Before long several American aircraft were arriving from aircraft carriers. These were mostly Grumman F4F-4 Wildcat fighters and Dauntless Dive-bombers.

A Dauntless Dive-bomber warms up on Henderson Field before take-off. A Dauntless Dive-bomber flies over the jungle of Guadalcanal. Two American Soldiers move along a jungle trail on their way inland. Trees are felled to make the rural paths wider....
...until roads are formed, wide enough for vehicles.
In reality, the Japanese were completely caught unaware of the U.S. Invasion. When the severely understrength and outnumbered Japanese garrison on Guadalcanal came under attack, the troops guarding the coast fled inland to put up a fight elsewhere on the island. When the Japanese High Command learned that Guadalcanal was under attack, it was decided that all efforts would be taken by the Imperial Army and Navy both the push the Americans off of Guadalcanal. Things for the Americans soon got tough; as Japanese planes attacked the Marines and their supply ships from the air, Japanese ships brought fresh troops from other islands to fight on Guadalcanal. And in the early hours of August 9th, four ships from the American Navy were sunk in a night battle by a Japanese naval force with superior night-fighting skills and experience.
But the Marines were not easily removed; rather, despite attacks from fresh Japanese infantry on Henderson Field a few days after it's capture, the Americans held onto their 3x6 mile toehold they had gained on the island and stubbornly resisted all the Japanese could throw at them.
More and more Japanese troops poured into Guadalcanal's Japanese-held territory. Japanese supply and troop ships came and went so frequently on a regular schedule that the Marines dubbed the endless back-and-fourth movements of boats "The Tokyo Express".

Reports pour into the U.S. Headquarters. Communication was vital for the Americans for decision-making. A Dauntless Dive-bomber takes off from Henderson Field to bomb Japanese infantry positions facing the Marines front. On August 21st, the Japanese Army took up position on the Tenaru River, very close to Henderson Field. A fight ensued between the Marines and the Japanese, and each side contested for full control of both river banks.
Two U.S. Marines advance in high grass towards the Tenaru River.
Orders are given to send four American Tanks to the Tenaru river fight, to assist in flushing out the Japanese from the riverbanks. Japanese Soldiers rush in to the front on the Tenaru river. The battle lasted for several hours. A Japanese Marine keeps a wary eye on the enemy as he reaches into his ammo pouch for more ammunition to re-load his rifle. Fighting conditions were difficult; grass and trees higher than a man's head covered the island, and only a small patch of open ground ran along each river bank between the sandy waterline and the treeline.

A U.S. Marine breaks out into the open to let loose with his M1 Thompson Sub-Machine gun. The firing is kept up.... Anyone who steps into the open risks being shot. Here a U.S. Marine reloads his M3 Sub machine gun (nicknamed a "grease gun" because of it's appearance). The Americans won the battle, partially in thanks to the use of Tanks to help flush the Japanese out of concealed riverside positions. The fight for the Tenaru took place very near the delta, close to where the river met the open sea. Soldiers took cover behind sand bars, curves in the riverbank, and tall river grass or anything that offered the slightest bit of cover.

The battle for Guadalcanal was tough, but the Marines were doing well. Japanese losses were very high, and the Marines garrison was holding out despite the hardships. Jungle Heat: a Marine offers a drink from his canteen to a buddy during a break on a patrol through the jungle. Patrols were conducted throughout day and night to detect all enemy movement possible. Here a Marine refills his canteen. In the blistering heat of the South Pacific, water was more essential than bullets in jungle campaigns. When water was found, it didn't always have to be crystal-clear to be accepted as "drinkable"... Despite the hardships, the Marines were doing well--so far. But they braced themselves for something else that they knew was inevitable: a major, all-out attack on Henderson Field in an attempt to break the Marines line of defense and push them off Guadalcanal once and for all. Only 1,000 Japanese troops had been sent to take Tenaru, and were defeated; but thousands more were being massed for another attack somewhere else on the American lines.
More is to follow in the next upcoming post.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

TURNING BACK THE EMPIRE: The Allies First Pacific Land Victories

For five years, from 1937 to 1942, the Japanese Army barely knew defeat. From their Conquest of Eastern China in 1937 to their takeover of the Philippine Islands from the United States in early 1942, it seemed that the Japanese Army and Navy could not be stopped. In their conquest of the Philippine Islands, the Japanese Army defeated and captured a large combined force of American and Filipino soldiers on the Bataan peninsula. After being forced to surrender to the Japanese, the Allied prisoners numbering 76,000 were formed into columns and marched 65 miles North to prison camps. The prisoners were very ill treated, and any stragglers who fell behind or were too slow were executed by the Japanese guards. Of all those who surrendered, over 10,000 of the already starved and exhausted prisoners died on what became known as the "Bataan Death March". With the Philippine Islands in Japanese hands, along with French Indo-China, Hong Kong, Singapore, and the oil-and mineral-rich nations of Burma and Thailand, the Allied Powers of Great Britain, Australia, China and the United States were well on their way to losing the war in the Pacific. By mid-1942, the Japanese Army had already advanced as far South as the Solomon Islands, just North-East of Australia. After the loss of the Philippine Islands to the Japanese, the Allied Forces decided that the key to preventing Australia's capture was to take over the Japanese-held Island of Guadalcanal, located in the Solomon Islands. Not only was the Island a key location for amphibious operations in the South Pacific, but the Japanese garrison in control of Guadalcanal were near to completing the construction of an airfield on the island. The airfield could then be used for launching air attacks on Australia prior to a military invasion. But if the United States took control of Guadalcanal, the airfield could be a base for further Island operations. Already, fierce fighting was taking place in Papau and New Guinea, where an Allied Force of United States and Australian soldiers were fighting desperately to keep the Japanese from overrunning the Island.
A United States soldier takes cover at the base of a rock formation during the intense struggle to keep New Guinea out of Japanese control.
The conditions were horrible for both sides. Along with the enemy soldiers, the men stationed in the South Pacific also battled overwhelming humidity, soaring temperatures, and scores of jungle diseases.
Here a Japanese soldier, soaking wet from tropical rains in the New Guinea jungle, keeps a keen eye out for enemy movements.
The battles for New Guinea only doubled the importance of the urgent need to wrest Guadalcanal from Japanese hands. And so, the United States attacked the Island on August 7th, 1942 with two divisions of Marines. Totalling 40,000 men, the invasion force consisted of soldiers, tankers, and lots of supplies.
The first U.S. Marines to land on Guadalcanal were surprised when they met no enemy resistance when they landed on the beach from their landing crafts. Instead, what they knew to be a fiercely defended Japanese beachhead was apparently empty. After the first wave of U.S. Marines hit the shore, the larger transports with jeeps and supplies came ashore. Here, a driver works his jeep up the sandy strip of beach as the soldiers come ashore in force. As the Marines moved inland, they kept a wary eye out for the enemy. And then, a discovery is made: The Japanese camp! It had been abandoned when the lookouts on the beach saw the U.S. Ships coming in. Almost all the Japanese soldiers fled the camp, running inland to put up a fight deeper in the jungle rather than near the open beach. At the tables, the U.S. soldiers found that the Japanese left half-eaten breakfast, gear, and weaponry. The weather on Guadalcanal that day was hot, humid, and the sky was mostly sunny but with a few scattered clouds. As the Marines established a beachhead, patrols began to move inland. So far, the only casualty was from a soldier who cut his hand while trying to open a coconut with his bayonet. The Marines were on high alert, since they now knew that the Japanese were preparing to fight to the death farther in the jungle. "No sign of the enemy yet. Keep a good look out". Sure enough, not far ahead were a few Japanese who decided to halt where they were and wait for the attackers to come close before opening fire. When fighting in the jungle, a Japanese would hide as well as he could and wait for the enemy to approach to within 15 feet before opening fire to increase his chances of hitting his target. "Crack, Bang, Crack!" Two Japanese soldiers, isolated from the rest of the army, fire on an approaching U.S. Patrol. One man hit, another is wounded; and a third marine returns fire with his Thompson Sub-Machine gun. After emptying his first magazine, he re-loads his weapon. Both of the Japanese soldiers have been killed in action. He then helps his wounded comrade back to the field hospital that was set up on the beach at the end of the Jungle. The battle of Guadalcanal was the first land victory that the Allies scored against the Japanese Army. And as the Marines battled the Japanese on Guadalcanal, the United States Navy was busy keeping the Japanese Navy from assisting in the quest of the Solomon Islands. Naval fighting even reached near Guadalcanal's coast, but the United States had the upper hand when they learned to fight battles at night, using newly-invented radar to locate Japanese ships in the dark. And the tide turned when the U.S. finally defeated the Japanese Imperial Navy at the battle of Midway.
It was the Beginning of the End for the Japanese Empire.
We will cover the rest of the battle of Guadalcanal in our next Pacific Theatre installment.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Counter-Guerrilla Patrol In Action During the Vietnam War.

The Vietnam War was different than any other war America has fought in the way that both sides used guerrilla warfare tactics more than conventional fighting methods. Unlike conventional warfare, where two opposing armies attack each other using infantry, artillery, tanks and planes, guerrilla warfare involves "hit and run" tactics where combat patrols penetrate deep into enemy territory to cause as much damage and havoc behind enemy lines as possible.
To counter the threat of Viet Cong (or "VC") guerrillas--civilians in arms aiding the North Vietnamese Army to expand Communism throughout all of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos--the U.S. Army sent out counter-guerrilla combat teams to seek out and destroy small but fierce bands of Viet Cong as they conducted sabotage raids deep in U.S./South Vietnamese territory.

There were many contributing factors to why guerrilla warfare was so prevalent; for instance, the geography. Vietnam is made up of jungle-covered mountains, with very little roads connecting the scattered villages throughout the countryside. The staple food crop was rice, grown in water-filled paddies, rather than dry solid farm fields like Europe or North America. Because of the extremely rough terrain, moving large armies on massive campaigns was unthinkable; instead, we would send small units to venture out from an established base camp to slowly gain ground or collect information on enemy troop movements. Because of this, Viet Cong patrols were sent out to ambush and clear the area of our patrols to keep the way open to conduct raids of their own, and the American and South Vietnamese armies sent out counter-patrols to counter these, which turned Vietnam into a constant back-and-forth battlefield of hundreds of small but fierce firefights day and night.

Let's now take a look at a U.S. Combat patrol conducting a mission.

A U.S. Combat patrol usually consisted of of 10-15 men; a 9-man squad plus one medic was the most common arrangement. Being a long-range strike force, all the soldiers were heavily armed and only carried the bare necessities or less to reduce weight and to make room for as much ammunition as possible.

The Mission: local villagers have reported a patrol of Viet Cong moving South through the jungle at around 3:30-4:00 a.m. Note that the Viet Cong wear black uniforms and the soldier in front carries a M1 Springfield leftover from World War II.

Later that morning, a U.S. patrol undertakes a final weapon's check before moving out.
Hours later, a U.S. soldier finds fresh footprints. "They can't be more than half an hour old" he says, and the squad leader is notified immediately.

Two men are sent forward to scout out the location of the Vietcong, but not to engage in combat. Before long, the scouts return with news that the VC patrol is heading their way. The squad leader immediately orders everybody to prepare to ambush the oncoming enemy.

Here we see a heavy machine gunner taking position with his M-60 machine gun.

The VC patrol is wary of U.S. or South Vietnamese movements; they are in enemy territory, and take extra precaution to spread out on their return trip in case they were detected. Silently they move through the jungle, keeping their eyes and ears open for signs of the enemy.
The squad commander takes a look for himself at the surrounding area. "We should ambush them here; if a medivac is needed, the clearing to our rear will be perfect for an airlift."
All the soldiers are ready with guns loaded, waiting for the commander's order to fire.
"Corporal, take position behind that bamboo grove. Fire on sight."
The soldiers open fire on the VC patrol with all their firepower; light and heavy machine guns, grenades, and as pictured here a U.S. Soldier fires his grenade launcher, nicked-named "Blooper" by American soldiers for the noise it made when discharging the grenade.
The M-16 automatic rifle was the most commonly used rifle by U.S. forces in the Vietnam War. It is used by the soldier pictured below.

Three hits are scored on the enemy....
...But one U.S. Soldier is wounded in the fighting.
"Man hit! We need a medic over here!"
The medic rushes over, but has only bad news: the injured soldier is in critical condition, and a medivac (medical evacuation helicopter, the ancestor of today's life-flight) is needed.

A medivac is requested by radio, and soon the sound of whirling rotors beating the air comes close. As the fight draws to a close, all the enemy soldiers having been killed, captured, or escaped, the helicopter hovers over the clearing where the medic is signaling for it to land.

The fight is over, and everybody re-loads before returning to the base camp, or "fire base" as they were called.

The patrol returns to the fire base the following night. A patrol could be out in the jungle for days or even sometimes weeks on end, depending on troop strength, supplies, and proximity to friendly bases and villages.