In my last column I spoke of the impact of the US Navy’s visual communication style on the night fighting in the Solomons, and how it negatively impacted the “Black Shoe” surface ship officer’s ability to adapt to the radar and radio centered reality of night combat with the Imperial Japanese Navy. This column will explore how this communication style impacted the use of LVTs, or “Landing Vehicle Tracked” at Tarawa, and compare and contrast how that style interacted with how the US Army and US Marine Corps approached fighting with LVTs later in the Pacific War, and what it meant for the future.
The assault on the island of Betio, in the Tarawa atoll, was the worst 76 hours of bloodletting in the history of the USMC. In the words of Colonel Joseph H. Alexander, USMC (Ret):
The final casualty figures for the 2d Marine Division in Operation Galvanic were 997 Marines and 30 sailors (organic medical personnel) dead; 88 Marines missing and presumed dead; and 2,233 Marines and 59 sailors wounded. Total casualties: 3,407. The Guadalcanal campaign had cost a comparable amount of Marine casualties over six months; Tarawa’s losses occurred in a period of 76 hours. Moreover, the ratio of killed to wounded at Tarawa was significantly high, reflecting the savagery of the fighting. The overall proportion of casualties among those Marines engaged in the assault was about 19 percent, a steep but “acceptable” price. But some battalions suffered much higher losses. The 2d Amphibian Tractor Battalion lost over half the command. The battalion also lost all but 35 of the 125 LVT’s employed at Betio.
The Marines lost roughly 333 men killed a day, or 13.25 men killed an hour for every hour for the assault at Betio. And for every man killed, two more fell wounded.
There were a number of reasons for this. The standard narrative speaks to inadequate naval fire support and bombing by the air forces of the Army and Navy, of Betio being surrounded by reefs that cut off the LCVP Higgins boats from the island, save at high tide, and a once in several decades “super neap tide” — where the combination of a strong solar perihelion tide, weak lunar apogean tide plus the expected last-quarter moon neap tide could combine for a no-tide period — that prevented the high tide from rising enough, thus forcing troops to cover hundreds of yards of machine gun and artillery swept shallows just to get to shore.
This was why General H.M. Smith insisted that Tarawa have LVTs — despite Operation Galvanic amphibious force senior commander Admiral Turner’s objections that he could not control or coordinate the landings with LVTs — or Smith as ground force commander would cancel the operation because the invasion would fail without them. History has judged General Smith’s verdict as correct.
History, however, at least in terms of the standard institutional narratives, glosses over the fact that Admiral Turner was also correct. And the reason why was the US Navy’s interwar love-hate relationship with radio that was rocking the centuries-old visual communications traditions of the chief American naval service.
The US Navy going into World War II (WW2) was the predominant technological fighting service in America and justly proud of its radio and other communications systems. The problem was that electronic technology was rapidly outpacing its traditions, its leaders and its development bureaucracies. The TBS and TCS radios its bureaus developed were amplitude modulated Voice/Morse code equipment built for talking between ships, not for open top boats or amphibious vehicles. When soaked by sea water they failed to operate until dried out. When operated close to unshielded internal combustion engines — unlike the new US Army frequency modulate radios developed for Army vehicles and artillery — they heard the electrical noise from the spark plugs which made them extremely full of static. Besides, small open boats were the province of naval coxswains who knew the naval signal lamp and semaphore flag codes.
LVTs run by US Marines at Tarawa had neither armor, nor radios, nor any coxswain type training in the US Navy’s visual communications those three bloody days in November 1943.
When the LVTs of the 2d Amphibian Tractor Battalion left the line of departure to run over the reefs and onto Betio’s beaches, they were no more able to exercise control than a horse cavalry charge…and a lot slower. This slowness meant that the five minute gap between the stopping of the naval bombardment stretched to 15 minutes, with no way to extend covering naval gunfire, and the 3,000 Japanese Special Naval Landing Force (SNLF) Marines had time to come out of their bunkers and fox holes to man heavy weapons. During those three days the LVTs of the 2d Amphibian Tractor Battalion made run after run across the atoll’s shallows trying to bring in more Marines across the death ground…and more and more LVTs died learning the lessons of the need for radio command and control.
The next major LVT landings after “Blood Betio” were the January 1944 Operation Flintlock landings in the Marshall Islands. These landings underlined the differences between the US Marines as naval assault infantry and the US Army as the premier continental ground combat service. Assault infantry are sprinters. They do tough frontal assaults on fortifications, and other difficult terrain attack missions, quickly with the minimum of heavy weapons. They are, by their very nature, short term thinkers. Quite literally if Assault Infantry doesn’t get the short term right, there is no long term.
The US Army, as the dominant ground fighting service, works on both a larger scale and a longer term basis. Its world view makes planning, logistics, engineering, signals and the use of large numbers of heavy weapons the center of its fighting style.
When handed the same weapon, the LVT, during Operation Flintlock, these institutions organized to use it differently, reflecting their different traditions.
The Marines took the 1st Armored Amphibian Battalion, which had sent one officer and fifty men to pilot LVTs of the 2d Amphibian Tractor Battalion, and used them as cadre for raising two more amphibian tractor battalions plus a company (A total of nine companies from four original companies) for the landing at Roi-Namur. And it took those nine companies into combat 30 days later. To quote the Marine author of the definitive development history of the LVTs in WW2:
The net result was to produce an undertrained LVT organization for an operation that was tactically more complex than any previous landings attempted in the Central Pacific.
It got worse in that the radios these ill-trained LVT units tried to use were the US Navy standard TBS/TCS radios, which to quote from COMINCH P-002, AMPHIBIOUS OPERATIONS, THE MARSHALL ISLANDS, JANUARY – FEBRUARY 1944:
TCS radio equipment in LVT-2s and LVT(A)s were quickly drowned out by spray despite their having been provided with canvas covers, This type of craft is very wet and requires a watertight radio set.
These problems resulted in multiple miscues controlling the LVTs during the Roi-Namur landing operation that were only redeemed by the much better US naval gunfire preparation and the fact that Japanese defenses faced the sea and not the inside of the lagoon where the LVTs chose to land.
THE ARMY SHOWS THE WAY
The US Army’s 7th Infantry Division, commanded by Maj. Gen. Charles H. Corlett, assaulted Kwajalein during the same operation had much different results.
Admiral Samuel Eliot Morison’s histories raved about how well the US Army’s 708th Provisional Amphibian Tractor Battalion did using LVTs in comparison to the 4th Division’s LVT units. To again quote from COMINCH P-002:
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The 7th Infantry Division so organized its amphibian tractor units that it was able to retain desirable tank operational and maintenance procedure and technique and at the same time fit the organization to its new functions.
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Within each LVT Group, one LVT was employed solely for emergency maintenance and repair. This LVT carried extra gas and oil, a small supply of spare parts, a welding outfit, extra plating and a maintenance crew. It operated between the line of departure and the beach and rendered immediate assistance to any tractor in difficulty or which suffered damage which the crew itself was unable to repair.
For purposes of coordination and command, the Battalion Commander of the Amphibian Tractor Battalion was located in the flagship of the Transport Group Commander. His executive officer was located in the flagship of the LST Group Commander. By this arrangement the LVT Commander could maintain close, direct and personal contact with the troop and naval commanders with whom he had to work and, through his executive officer, issue instructions directly to his LVT groups.
During the ship to shore movements the LVT Battalion Commander moved to the line of departure and remained on or in the vicinity of the control vessel. Through the control vessel he could readily communicate with the transports, the LST’s or with the beach and from his position near the line of departure could observe and supervise the operation of his LVT groups.
By the methods and technique employed as outlined above, the 708th Provisional Amphibian Tractor Battalion operating in four LVT groups from eight LST’s was able to execute five separate landings on schedule. No LVT’s were swamped or lost in the surf. Two LVT’s were swamped as a result of attempt to tow at a speed in excess of ten knots. None were seriously damaged by hostile fire. All LVT mechanical failures or hull damages were repaired and the tractors returned to service without delay. All LVT groups operated at full strength throughout the operation.
Due to LVT shortages the 708th had the same issues training its troops as the Marines, and it had to use 7th Division cannon company troops to man many of its LVT tractors for the invasion. Yet it did so much better. Why?
To start with, this “provisional” unit was teamed with one of the best US Army amphibious commanders of the war and the 7th Infantry Division was a veteran of both the US Army’s Amphibious Training School — which trained it in the US Army’s radio based “Shore-to-Shore” landing techniques — and the invasion of Attu, Alaska.
Next, the 708th Provisional Amphibian Tractor Battalion was a converted US Army independent tank battalion built to support US Army infantry divisions. Everything it did per the passage above was standard operating procedure for US Army independent tank units, which had had “Shoot, Move and Communicate” in its organizational DNA, preventive maintenance as a secular religious catechism, and had liaison with infantry as its reason to exist. Unit for LVT unit, Army troops could drive and swim father, for longer, and more flexibly than the Marines. And it did all of that with FM Radio, a radio type not native to the US Navy. For a given vehicle equipment set, the Army was simply better organized and trained to get the most from it.
This relative level of LVT performance continued, but both Army and Marine LVT units had to be trained to conform to the Navy’s visual communications style after the Marshalls campaign. This slowed down the Army radio based “Shore-to-Shore” LVTs to Navy/Marine visual communications based “Ship-to-Shore” speeds for the balance of the Central Pacific campaign. There was however, one shining moment during the Leyte campaign where that was not true.
THE FORGOTTEN GLORY OF ORMOC
In the latter days of the Oct – Dec 1944 Leyte campaign two veteran Central Pacific US Army Divisions, the 7th and the 77th Infantry Divisions, cut loose with their LVTs in the sort of “Shore-to-Shore” operations that the US Army Amphibious Training School foresaw years earlier.
At the behest of General Douglas MacArthur’s Sixth Army commander, General Walter Krueger, the US Army’s 776th Amphibian Tank Battalion was shipped from Tarragona in Eastern Leyte by 7th Amphibious Force LSM amphibious ships to South Leyte’s Panaon Straits. Then, to preserve the amphibious ships from Kamikaze attack, it moved by sea under its own power to Ibarra and laid over a night. It then moved to Doos, laying over a 2nd night and then finally joined the 7th ID south of Balago on the West Coast. The next few days it did “Sea cavalry” raids behind Japanese positions shelling them with its 75mm howitzers in support of the 7th Infantry Division’s northern advance.
On one of the last of these raids the 776th was nearly run over by the 77th Infantry Division’s amphibious shipping south of Ormoc, where the 77th was to land. (Someone always misses the last word.)
In the days that followed, the XXIV Corps placed elements of the 776th under the 77th Division to stage a final “Shore-to-Shore” landing from Ormoc to the last Japanese port in Leyte, Palompon, and to clean Japanese hold outs from the Camotes Islands West of Leyte.
OKINAWA, THE A-BOMB, AND THE FUTURE
The last major amphibious campaign of Okinawa in April-June 1945 did not see the large scale “maneuver from the sea” by LVTs. Though there were many smaller landings as well as the large landing on Okinawa proper. The US Navy stuck to its “Ship-to-shore” visual communication style landings throughout.
This changed with the end of the Pacific War and the arrival of the A-bomb. A massive change had to occur in US Navy amphibious doctrine to be able to adopt the faster, more night time and radio based “Ship-to-shore” methods. The Navy had to scrap its visual communication style because it just wasn’t fast enough in the face of the threat that one A-bomb could kill one amphibious landing.
The US Army, on the other hand, forgot everything it had learned in the Pacific and more. General Marshall’s European commanders took over the US Army and remade it in their image. There was no room for LVT battalions in the active Army. That was the Marines’ and Navy’s job.
Actually, it wasn’t, as the US Navy budgets had run down the Marines’ LVT fleet to little more than well preserved vehicle parks in the California desert, because it hadn’t solved the A-bomb dilemma.
It took MacArthur’s victory with a Marine brigade armed with left overs at Inchon, Korea in the early 1950s to close the Tarawa era of US Navy visual amphibious communications, and open a future for the Marines based on the US Army’s Leyte past.
Notes and Sources:
Colonel Joseph H. Alexander, USMC (Ret), ACROSS THE REEF: The Marine Assault of Tarawa
The Significance of Tarawa
Colonel Joseph H. Alexander, “Utmost Savagery: The Three Days of Tarawa” Naval Institute Press, c 1995, ISBN: 1-55750-031-2 See Page 76.
Major Alfred Dunlop Bailey, USMC (Retired), “ALLIGATORS, BUFFALOES, AND BUSHMASTERS: THE HISTORY OF THE DEVELOPMENT OF THE LVT THROUGH WORLD WAR II,” HISTORY AND MUSEUMS DIVISION, HEADQUARTERS, U. S. MARINE CORPS, WASHINGTON, D.C, © 1986
MAJOR JOHN T. COLLIER, “DEVELOPMENT OF TACTICAL DOCTRINE FOR EMPLOYMENT OF AMPHIBIBIAN TANKS,” Military Review, October 1945, pages 52 – 56
COMINCH P-002, AMPHIBIOUS OPERATIONS, THE MARSHALL ISLANDS, JANUARY – FEBRUARY 1944, CARL Digital Library
Norman Friedman, “U.S. AMPHIBIOUS SHIPS AND CRAFT: AN ILLUSTRATED DESIGN HISTORY,” Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, Maryland, © 2002, ISBN 1-55750-250-1 page 217