Defense Media Network

Expeditionary Warfare Comes of Age in World War II

Supported by America’s stupendous productivity, the war to reclaim Europe and the Pacific proceeded, after the middle of 1943, at an accelerated pace. On the night of July 9-10, 1943, Eisenhower landed troops on Sicily’s southern beaches. “There can be no drawn battle, no half-success, in an amphibious landing,” Morison wrote, “it is win all splendidly or lose all miserably.” The combined American-British force, unlike the confused earlier landings in North Africa, got ashore with little difficulty, utilizing the new seagoing landing craft: LSTs – LCTs, LCIs, and DUKWs – to good effect. In the first 48 hours, 80,000 men were ashore and more than 8,000 assorted tanks and vehicles. By Aug. 16, Sicily was liberated.

Subsequent landings on the Italian mainland at Salerno in September 1943, and at Anzio in January 1944, were more difficult. Under Gen. Albert Kesselring, the Germans fought hard to prevent American Gen. Mark Clark’s four divisions from acquiring a foothold at Salerno, but the dogged G.I.s, supported by naval gunfire, naval air, and ground-based air, succeeded within a week in establishing a beachhead. Kesselring retreated, and Clark took Naples on Oct. 1.

Making a large commitment of men to force the Nazis out of Italy, however, was questionable, since tying down a substantial number of German units could have been accomplished just as well by a low-casualty holding operation south of Rome.

Sicily Landings

Landing, Ships, Tank (LSTs) at the French naval base of La Pecherie in Tunisia take M-4 Sherman tanks aboard two days before the invasion of Sicily in July 1943. Landing Craft, Vehicle and Personnel (LCVPs) wait in the harbor just beyond the tanks, which are equipped with wading gear. National Archives photo

In the Pacific, a dual road to Tokyo was planned, whereby Gen. Douglas MacArthur and Adm. William F. Halsey would move simultaneously up the coast of New Guinea and the Solomons, with a view to crushing the main Japanese base at Rabaul on New Britain and then re-taking the Philippines as a prelude to striking Japan itself. The second track, supported by Adm. Ernest King, chief of Naval Operations, and led by Adm. Chester W. Nimitz, would conduct amphibious attacks on Japanese bases in the Gilbert, Marshall, Caroline, and Mariana Islands, preparatory to joining in the attack on the Philippines and then Japan. Bases at Guam, Tinian, Saipan, and Okinawa were to be used for the strategic bombing of the Japanese homeland.

Although there were enormous difficulties along the way, this two-pronged strategy worked well, and in a remarkably short time. Things were speeded up when Nimitz began the practice of leapfrogging, starting with Tarawa and Makin in the Gilbert Islands. The battle for Tarawa was four days of bloody hell, Nov. 19-23, 1943. One thousand Marines and sailors lost their lives and double that number were wounded. All the Japanese defenders were killed. Weakly defended Makin was taken easily on Nov. 24, but the Japanese deployed nine submarines against the attack force, and they exacted a heavy toll.

Next on Nimitz’s agenda were the Marshall Islands. On Jan. 31, 1944, U.S. forces landed on the northern islands of Kwajalein Atoll, and the next day on the much larger Kwajalein Island itself. All told, Americans landed on 30 of the atoll’s various islets, and by Feb. 7, 1944, were in full control. The hard lessons learned at Tarawa were put to good use. Three hundred seventy-two American Marines and soldiers died, and nearly 8,000 Japanese.

Nimitz kept up the momentum. On Feb. 14, American forces attacked Eniwetok Atoll, and simultaneously hit Truk Island, a major Japanese base. Eniwetok was taken by Feb. 22 at a cost of 339 Americans and almost 2,700 Japanese − nearly their entire force. No amphibious landing was needed to neutralize Truk.

Saipan Landing

The first wave of Marines hit the beach at Saipan from their Landing Vehicles, Tracked (LVTs), and take cover behind a sand dune while waiting for the following three waves to come in. National Archives photo

Guam, Tinian, and Saipan in the Mariana Islands were next. Japan considered Saipan part of her home islands. Three thousand five hundred miles from Pearl Harbor and 1,000 from Eniwetok, the Marianas required an unprecedented sea effort against fanatical Japanese resistance. From June 15 to Aug. 12, the battle raged.

In the midst of the fight for the Marianas, the Battle of the Philippine Sea took place from June 19 to 21. It was the greatest of the carrier battles of the war and destroyed Japanese naval air power. After this great victory, the Marianas were secured, but at a mind-numbing price. Three thousand four hundred and twenty-six American soldiers and Marines died on Saipan alone, while the Japanese − fighting till the last man again − lost 24,000.

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