By Capt Mark A Kiehle
This story was originally published in the Marine Corps Gazette in July 2003.
By 1944 the tide of war had turned firmly against the Japanese. The U.S. and Allied forces steadily pushed the Japanese military back at all points across the Pacific. To counter this onslaught the Japanese high command reinforced Japanese held islands to create a defensive ring around the Japanese home islands.
Late in the war the Japanese Army's 29th Division, under the command of LtGen Takeshi Takashina, was assigned to protect Guam. To command his defense of the island, LtGen Takashina located the main Japanese command post in a dugout atop Fonte Hill. Fonte Hill overlooked Asan Beach on the north coast of Guam. From this central location, LtGen Takashina commanded his troops and issued orders to all Japanese military units on the island. LtGen Takashina had roughly 18,500 men to defend the island.2
In preparation for the anticipated American assault on Guam, the Japanese constructed fortified defensive positions using large caliber artillery on the hills and mountains overlooking the most likely landing beaches. This preparation allowed preregistered artillery and mortar fire to rain down on any American attackers as they debarked their landing craft, turning the beaches into a well-prepared killing ground.
The U.S. military chose 21 July 1944 to invade Guam. Asan Beach was selected for the main landing because of its size and suitability to support a large-scale amphibious assault. The mission of establishing the initial beachhead fell to the 3d Marine Division, roughly 17,000 men strong, comprised of the 3d Marine Regiment, the 21st Marine Regiment, and the 9th Marine Regiment.3
Just beyond the beach an open area, consisting mostly of rice paddies, extended approximately 1,200 yards inland. Past the rice paddies, a ring of foothills rose steeply and formed a semicircular mountain range-thus encircling the entire Asan beachhead. The beachhead resembled a huge amphitheater with the Japanese commanding the high ground of the surrounding foothills and mountains, and the Marines occupying the low ground open on all sides to Japanese fire and possible counterattack.
The mission of the three assault regiments was to get ashore, get across the rice paddies and low ground, and establish positions in the foothills. During his preinvasion briefing to his subordinates, one Marine commander put it, "The theory is simple gentlemen. It's the old school solution-seize the high ground and hold it."4
After establishing a foothold on the island, the assault regiments held a small perimeter while subsequent waves of Marines were brought in to reinforce and expand the beachhead. Once the first Marines landed, artillery and mortar fire from the Japanese defenders accelerated. As one Marine commander recalled:
As the Marines clawed their painful way up the high ground commanding the beachhead, there was nothing to do but accept the incoming Japanese mortar and artillery fire.5
The opposition started light on the beaches but increased steadily as the troops moved inland to high ground.6
The 3d Marine Division found itself in a tenuous situation at the end of the first day. The Marines had secured a foothold on the Asan beachhead, but the Japanese still held the surrounding high ground. With excellent visibility from the mountains, the Japanese could identify virtually every Marine position and any equipment on the beach. After the battle, once this high ground had been captured, the commanding officer of the 9th Marine Regiment wrote:
Three huge telescopes of 20 power were found. Looking through these scopes one could almost make out individual features of Marines below us. Practically every part of our lines and rear areas, as well as my own Command Post, could be seen through these glasses from this high ground.7
From such an advantageous position the Japanese inflicted heavy casualties among the invaders.
Two days after the 3d Marine Division landed, LtGen Takashina gathered his staff for a meeting. Unable to dislodge the Marines from their foothold on the beachhead, LtGen Takashina solicited recommendations from his staff on various courses of action. After conferring with his staff, LtGen Takashina chose to gather all Japanese units possible and launch a general counterattack on the night of 25-26 July and drive the invaders back into the sea.8
At dawn on 25 July 1944, the battle for the Asan beachhead by the 3d Marine Division began its fifth consecutive day. During the first 4 days on the island, the 3d Marine Division encountered extremely stiff resistance on the left flank of the beachhead, directly in front of Fonte Hill. As one Marine officer described it:
The most dangerous terrain feature was Fonte Hill. . . . Fonte afforded the Jap perfect observation, and positions from which to bring enfilade fire on us just as soon as we left the line of departure, which was our own front line.9
On this morning, the 2d Battalion, 9th Marine Regiment (2/9) (commanded by then-LtCol Robert E. Cushman) moved into position "and received orders to . . . attack, and seize Fonte Hill. Time of attack was 0900, 25 July."10
LtCol Cushman began the attack on Fonte Hill with two of his three infantry companies. Capt Lyle Petersen's Company E assaulted on the right, and Capt Louis H. Wilson's Company F assaulted on the left. Maj Fraser E. West's Company G awaited orders in reserve.11 In less than an hour the battalion pushed forward and upward, achieving considerable gains.
When almost to the top of the hill, a final push to seize the crest began about 1430. The Marines made a desperate race for the top immediately behind thunderous fire from every available weapon.12 They clawed and scraped their way up the near-vertical terrain. The hill mass, serving as a formidable inanimate obstacle, proved almost insurmountable in the face of heavy Japanese fire. LtGen Takashina's forces, ready for such an assault, immediately sent in a local counterattack force to deal with the threat. The Japanese forced the left and right flanks of the Marines to withdraw from the crest, granting partial success to the Japanese counterattack.
However, the Japanese were unable to dislodge Capt Wilson's Company F in the middle. Company F gained the crest of Fonte Hill and held it despite the fierce counterattack. At this point, Capt Petersen-the commanding officer of Company E-fell mortally wounded. 13 As Capt Wilson recalled:
Petersen was killed about dusk and the remnants of his company were leaderless and very disorganized. I tried to assemble them and get them to join us, which they did.14
By dusk the Marines began digging in and established a defensive position for the night. Unknown to them, LtGen Takashina's command post on the top of Fonte Hill lay less than 200 yards away.15 Also unbeknownst to the Marines, by the night of 25 July LtGen Takashina had massed approximately six battalions in the Fonte Hill area for his planned counter offensive.16
LtGen Takashina planned on destroying 7the frontline Marine units utilizing massive frontal assaults. The Japanese believed that the Marines holding the frontline positions, already understrength due to numerous casualties sustained during the first 4 days of the assault, would crumble under the weight of a massive Japanese assault. Lack of adequate rest and supplies would surely give the Japanese commander the advantage over his American opponents. Thus, on the night of 25 July, the stage was set for the pivotal battle of Fonte Hill.
It rained and drizzled throughout the night allowing the Japanese to proceed undetected to their starting positions opposite the Marine lines. Around midnight the Japanese began probing all along the front. This served to keep the infantry Marines on edge in their foxholes as well as to identify gaps in the Marines' defensive positions. Additionally, the Japanese laid down intense artillery and mortar fires along the center and left flank of the Marine lines to cover the movement of other Japanese units. The sounds of increased activity in the form of additional rifle fire and grenade explosions from the Japanese signaled an impending attack.17
After midnight the main assault began all along the lines. Orange flares fired off by the Japanese signaled the Japanese forces to begin their attack. White illumination shells fired by U.S. Navy warships offshore helped light up the battleground in front of the Marine lines.
Directly in front of LtGen Takashina's headquarters, the 2/9 received the full force of the Fonte Hill counterattack. Throughout the night and into the following morning, the 2/9 beat off seven Japanese banzai attacks on their position. As Capt Wilson recalled, "The fighting was brutal, often hand-to-hand with no quarter asked or given."18 The Marines maintained their positions and inflicted severe casualties on the Japanese attackers, although suffering numerous casualties in the process.
As Capt Wilson stated in a later interview:
Our ammunition was about gone as morning neared. We then fixed bayonets and were prepared to withstand the onslaught, when Major Fraser (it was then about 3 o'clock) volunteered to go down the hill to try and get some tanks to come up at first light.
In the meantime, I began to try to rally the remaining Marines, and conserve the ammunition as best we could. We stacked up Japanese bodies that were in front of us to serve as a barricade against the fire that was coming in. By the light of the flares we could see them drinking (presumably sake), laughing, and preparing to charge. Then another charge would come.19
At this point, despite wounds in the shoulder and knees, Capt Wilson took command of all of the surviving Marines on the frontlines. Maj Fraser, shot in the leg on his return trip from the battalion command post, could not rejoin his men.
With ammunition running dangerously low, at 0630 on 26 July, the enemy counterattacked yet again. Just as the first faint outline of dawn showed, tank reinforcements rushed up to the lines at the most critical moment. The Japanese jumped on the tanks and started slashing them with their sabers; however, these desperate attacks posed no real threat to the tanks whose machineguns and high explosives helped stem the tide.20 Capt Wilson, in order to secure a portion of high ground to his front, then organized a small patrol to attack and seize the small hill. Starting out with 17 Marines, only 4 made it to the top. For his conspicuous gallantry throughout the battle, Capt Wilson would later be awarded the Medal of Honor.
When the Japanese attacks finally subsided around 0900 on the morning of 26 July, the surviving members of 2/9 assessed the carnage around them. In the ferocious battle 2/9 suffered 62 Marines killed and 180 wounded.21 The bodies of approximately 600 dead Japanese soldiers lay in front of the battalion's lines.22 None of the Marines knew it at the time, but they had broken the backbone of the Japanese defenses on Guam during the previous night's attack. On the Japanese side of the lines, LtGen Takashina assessed his current situation.
After a staff meeting, the general recognized that the counterattack had largely been a failure. He had thrown his best battalions against the Marines and had lost approximately 3,500 of his men.23 LtCol Hideyuki Takeda, chief of staff of the 29th Division, summed up the conclusions made by LtGen Takashina and his staff:
It was estimated that it was no longer possible to expel the American forces from the island after the results of the general counterattack of the night of 25 July were collected in the morning to about noon of the 26th. After this it was decided that the sole purpose of combat would be to inflict losses on the American forces in the interior of the island. The chief reasons for the foregoing estimate were:
1. The loss of commanders in the counterattack of 25 July, when up to 95 percent of the officers of the sector defense forces died.
2. The personnel of each counterattacking unit were greatly decreased, and companies were reduced to several men.
3. The large casualties caused a great drop in the morale of the survivors.
4. Over 90% of the weapons were destroyed and combat ability greatly decreased.
Considering the foregoing points all together, it became clear that it was impossible to counterattack and expel the enemy alone.24
Although barely mentioned in history books, the Marine victory of the Battle of Fonte Hill broke the back of organized Japanese resistance on Guam. The majority of the best Japanese troops lay dead or seriously wounded in the mountains overlooking the Asan beachhead. The stalemate was broken on the precarious hold of the critical high ground commanding the Asan beachhead.
Supplies and equipment now came ashore unmolested by Japanese artillery, mortar, or machinegun fire. This greatly sped up the resupply of ammunition, food, and water to the frontline Marines, in turn hastening American victory. Only 15 days after the battle, on 10 August, it was declared that all organized resistance had ended on the island. Because of American success in the Battle of Fonte Hill, the eventual outcome of the recapture of Guam was no longer in doubt.
'The storm broke suddenly, about four o'clock in the morning. About six battalions of the enemy launched a 'do-or-die' counterattack preceded by intense mortar fire. Approximately a battalion of this force struck the positions of the [M]arines on Fonte Hill, with other hostile units hitting the line to [the] left and right in the zones of the 3d and 21st Marines. About two hours of fierce hand-to-hand combat ensued with the enemy coming in apparently never ending waves.'1
-LtCol Robert E. Cushman
"The Fight at Fonte"
1. Cushman, LtCol Robert E., "The Fight at Fonte," Marine Corps Gazette, April 1947, p. 14.
2. Lodge, O.R., The Recapture of Guam, Historical Branch, G-3 Division, Headquarters, U.S. Marine Corps, 1954, Washington, DC, p. 197.
3. Ibid., p. 181.
4. Frances, 1stLt Anthony A., "The Battle for Banzai Ridge," Marine Corps Gazette, June 1945, p. 13.
5. Metzger, LtGen Louis, "Guam 1944," Marine Corps Gazette, July 1994, pp. 94-95.
6. Wilson, Gen Lewis H., "9th Marines on Guam," private collection, Lewis H. Wilson, Birmingham, AL, p. 2.
7. LtGen Edward A. Craig to Commandant of the Marine Corps, 30 September 1952, quoted in Henry I. Shaw, Bernard C. Nalty, and Edwin T. Turnbladh, History of U.S. Marine Corps Operations in World War II, Central Pacific Drive, Vol. III, Historical Branch, G-3 Division, Headquarters, U.S. Marine Corps, 1966, Washington, DC, p. 510.
8. Lodge, p. 79.
9. Frances, p. 16.
10. Cushman, p. 10.
11. Ibid., p. 11.
12. Ibid., p. 13.
14. Wilson, Gen Lewis H., Oral History Transcript of General Louis H. Wilson, Jr., U.S. Marine Corps(Ret), interview by BGen Edwin H. Simmons, USMC(Ret), History and Museums Division, Headquarters, U.S. Marine Corps, 1988, Washington, DC, p. 406.
15. Wilson, Gen Lewis H., Commanding Officer, Company F, Guam, 1944, interview by author, 11 February 2002, tape recording, University of Alabama at Birmingham.
16. Cushman, p. 14.
17. Frances, p. 17.
18. Wilson, "9th Marines on Guam," p. 3.
19. Wilson, Oral history transcript, p. 407.
20. Cushman, p. 15.
21. Wilson, "9th Marines on Guam," p. 4.
23. Lodge, p. 87.
24. Takeda, LtGen Hideyuki, as quoted in Lodge, p. 87.