Guam 1944

Category: 
By LtGen Louis Metzger

Originally published in the Marine Corps Gazette in July 1994.

After 4 months on Guadalcanal to recover from the Kwajalein operation, we were once again committed to combat. This time it was to be Guam in the Marianas. The war had moved forward with successful attacks in both the Central and Southwest Pacific theaters. Now came time to crack the next layer of protection of Dai Nipponthe Japanese homeland.

Our unit, the 1st Armored Amphibian Battalion, was the first of its kind. Basically our vehicles were landing vehicles, tracked (LVTs) modified to mount a light tank turret whose main armament was a 37mm gun; reinforcing the firepower were fine .30 caliber machineguns. They were crude, slow-moving vehicles on both land and water, but they filled the urgent need for firepower on the beach from the time naval gunfire and airstrikes lifted until the Marines "touched down," and provided support for the infantry until the heavier and more capable land tanks could get ashore.

It was a large battalion, over 1,000 officers and men manning 75 combat vehicles and with a large logistics and maintenance support capability. In only 4 months it had been formed from a cadre, equipped and trained, and then sailed for combat. Now, a year later, it was a well-trained and combat-experienced unit.

With planning behind us the battalion carried out dress rehearsals with both the 3d Marine Division and the 1st Provisional Marine Brigade. On 21 May 1944 we loaded onto six tank landing ships (LSTs), with administrative and support personnel on an attack transport (APA). Each of the LST's tank decks was loaded with ammunition, then dunnage was placed on top, and finally the LVT(A)1s went aboard. The dangerous under cargo did not impress me at the time. With hindsight, if the ship was hit by enemy action, we were riding on a potential major explosion.

The rehearsals, conducted over a 10-day period in the Cape Esperance area of Guadalcanal, went well. Our LSTs then sailed to Purvis Bay on Florida Island to an installation named Carter City. The occupant unit was the U.S. Navy's Landing Craft Repair Unit Number One. It was an impressive installation with semi-permanent buildings, sidewalks, and all the amenities of the good life. However, the war was passing this unit by and morale was low. While not always the case, this Navy unit treated us well and was most supportive. (After the Guam operation I took a lot of Japanese equipment, memorabilia, and the bell from the Piti Navy Yard and presented it to them in appreciation of the support they had provided.)

The night we departed for Guam, I woke up with severe back spasms. I crawled (or rolled) out of my bunk and somehow got to a dispensary ashore. After examining me, the duty corpsman told me that he could fix my back, however, I could not tell anyone how he had done it. In civilian life he had been a chiropractor, and evidently he was not allowed to practice this medical discipline in the Navy. He fixed my back, and I got back aboard ship and sailed.

One of the Marines of the battalion who had been assigned to remain with the rear echelon had stowed away aboard ship. He wanted to be with his unit in combat. That caused a dilemma for me. One had to admire Marines determined to get into combat, but discipline must be preserved. My solution was to assign him to the galley for the voyage. The night before the landing I sent for him, shook his hand, and sent him back to his unit. There was no disciplinary entry in his service record.

Our battalion was aboard ship, primarily LSTs, from the end of May until our landing on Guam on 21 July-about 60 days. There were brief periods we could get ashore at Florida Island and Eniwetok, but only in limited numbers. Even for those men it was not wonderful; nothing but a bleak, hot expanse of sand. The LSTs were built to accommodate 125 troops; we had over 250 Marines aboard each of these ships. As a result, the weather deck was crowded with trucks and equipment-tarpaulins and truck covers were used to protect the Marines' equipment from the elements. Machineguns were attached to the truck pedestals and other machineguns were rigged to the deck to increase antiaircraft protection. Food and water were limited. Bathing was to grab a bit of soap when it rained and try to get clean in a tropical downpour. Invariably, the rain stopped when one was all soaped up which required a washdown from a bucket of sea water. We had rashes and were constantly sticky from the salt water. Our laundry was done by tying our rather ragged uniforms to a line and towing them alongside of the ship for a while, which at least removed the smell of sweat. The crowded conditions in the tropics were uncomfortable. Fresh water was very limited and the food got worse as the voyage continued. The smell of rotting potatoes in the "spud locker" permeated the ship.

Since the 3d Marine Division and the 1st Provisional Marine Brigade were the floating reserve for the Saipan operation, which had turned into a protracted battle, our ships kept "cutting holes in the sea" within easy sailing distance of Saipan. Each night we waited to see which way the convoy would turn to find out whether we were going to be committed to Saipan or were still going to Guam. Almost every night at sunset we had alerts of an enemy air attack that didn't materialize, until one night, as I moved slowly to "general quarters," the real thing happened. I saw five or six Japanese torpedo bombers broad on our starboard beam coming right at us. Machineguns on the LSTs commenced firing; I remember thinking we were more likely to be killed or wounded by our own fire than the enemy's. One aircraft flew over our ship and dropped his torpedo hitting an escorting LCI (landing craft, infantry) just forward of its bridge, blowing off its bow. I was astounded, as I had been told our landing craft, including LSTs, were too shallow a draft for a torpedo to hit. The LCI was so badly damaged that after the surviving crew was removed, it was sunk. While it was a tragedy that any ship was hit and Americans were killed, far better an LCI than an LST packed with troops and all that ammunition loaded under our vehicles on the tank deck. It was reported that three of the Japanese planes were shot down.

Finally, the orders arrived: We were to commence the Guam operation. Wday was 21 July 1944. As Kwajalein had been a relatively easy operation, I was hopeful Guam would not cause us heavy casualties. I was falsely optimistic.

Although Guam had been a U.S. possession for many years, with a Marine Barracks located there, there was no reliable information on the condition and types of reefs that were off the landing beaches. An officer who had served in that barracks and was presumed knowledgeable on such matters provided information on the reefs; he proved to be all wrong. The result was that the planners for the operation were uncertain and concerned about how the land tanks would be able to disembark from the LCMs (landing craft, mechanized) which were to carry them to the beaches. This resulted in an additional and new mission for the 1st Armored Amphibian Battalion. After leading the assault to the beaches and supporting the initial operations ashore with direct fire, some of our vehicles were designated to return to the beach in order to meet the landing craft carrying tanks, which were scheduled to hit the beach some 30 minutes after the initial landing. We were to take cables from the LCMs, holding them secure on the reef until the tanks disembarked, then lead the land tanks across the reef (full of coral heads and pitted with bomb and shell holes) to dry land.

To further complicate the landing, the Japanese defenders had built beach obstacles in the water approaches to the landing beaches, consisting of wire mesh filled with rocks and timbers. A rear admiral, the commander of the Southern Attack Group landing the 1st Provisional Marine Brigade, suggested that as the armored amphibian units approached these obstacles crew members would move to the bow of the vehicles, throw harpoon-type devices into the obstacles, followed by the LVT(A)1s backing down and pulling the obstacles out of the way. This idea was negated when the risk to the exposed crewmen was pointed out, along with the stopped vehicles in the assault waves and the confusion which would ensue in the following landing waves.

The initial assault on Guam was to be carried out with the 3d Marine Division landing at Asan and the 1st Provisional Marine Brigade, separated by Apra Harbor and Orote Peninsula, at Agat. My battalion was to lead both landings; the battalion minus two companies with the division and two companies with the brigade. The U.S. Army's 77th Division was in reserve.

At H-hour (0800), right on schedule, following a signal from the control vessels, the armored amphibians, guided by the Navy wave guides, commenced moving down the "boat lanes." The attack on Guam had commenced. During the run to the beach the intensity of naval gunfire and aerial bombardment increased. The smoke and dust of battle drifted offshore. Visibility was very poor from the low riding LVT(A)1s. As we churned to the beach, I could just see the armored amphibians close to me from the turret of my command vehicle. Finally, through the dust and smoke, we could see the beach and Asan Point. At that time there was minimal enemy fire falling on the beach, but an automatic weapon (probably a Nambu machinegun) opened fire on us from Asan Point. We fired back and the enemy fire ceased.

In order to provide assistance to any LVT(A)1 hit by enemy fire (or incapacitated for any reason), our 12 battalion LVT(2)s were loaded with mechanics, spare parts, and medical personnel and followed, out of the landing lanes, to the flank and rear of the attacking armored amphibians.

Our vehicles supported the attacking infantry as they jumped from their troop-carrying LVT(2)s and moved inland. At the designated time, the LVT(A)1s moved back to the edge of the reef, met the incoming landing craft with their cargo of land tanks, and with cables thrown from the LCMs, the LVT(A)1s provided anchors which held the landing craft firmly on the reef. As the land tanks (M-4 medium tanks) moved onto the reef, the armored amphibians led them around coral heads and potholes to the beach. By this time, Japanese artillery and mortar fire was falling on the beach and reef. I was convinced that although the shells were exploding, the water would hold the fragments in; not so. When several Marines in the water near me were hit, I realized that the fire was, in fact, deadly, and I was happy to climb back into my LVT(A)1 as soon as our task was completed. In the official Marine Corps history of the operation, Col (later LtGen) Edward A. Craig, then commanding officer of the 9th Marines, stated:

The tanks did a wonderful and dangerous job of getting ashore. Transferring those 45-ton tanks from Navy landing craft to a sheer reef edge in choppy seas and then driving them through rough coral spotted with deep potholes to the beach was an accomplishment which I believe deserves special note. The method devised of holding the Navy landing craft by using LVTs and cables is also worthy of special note. The tanks would probably have never made it if someone had not worked out this method.

With our initial assigned missions completed, we dug in as enemy fire was falling on the beach area. That night we continued to dig in as deeply as possible, took cover under our vehicles, and "hunkered down" as sporadic enemy artillery and mortar fire fell onto our positions.

As the 3d, 21st, and 9th 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. On 22 July, accompanied by the battalion operations officer and the battalion communications officer, I went to the 3d Division command post, located in a dry river bed several thousand yards inland from the beach. Just as we arrived, mortar fire hit the command post, killing the division G-1 (personnel) and wounding several Marines. After arranging the movement of the battalion from the beach area to a more suitable location, we started back across an open field, only to be pinned down by artillery and mortar fire. As there was no cover it made one feel quite exposed, lying there with shells hitting all around. I remember trying to decide what part of me would be best exposed to the incoming fire.

I thought perhaps the left side, but when considering my heart was on that side, I remained still. When the "incoming" ceased, I was surprised that the communications officer did not move. I thought he had been hit but could find no wound. He was evacuated and later the medical report came back-in simple terms it was "shell shock."

While on the beach I put my hand on a "sandbag" which turned out to be a very dead and decomposed Japanese soldier. He had so deteriorated that my hand sank into his body. It was disgusting and I washed my hands in the ocean for hours afterwards. We went so long without a chance to bath the ocean looked good, even with dead Japanese floating in the area. On occasion, to get the sweat and mold off our bodies, we swam in the ocean with Japanese snipers shooting at us. One became a fatalist during times such as these.

On 23 July a company of LVT(A)1s and a company of the 3d Tank Battalion supported the 9th Marines shore-toshore attack on Cabras Island. Resistance was negligible, but the area was heavily mined. The official Marine Corps history of the operation stated:

Shortly after 1400, the armored amphibians crawled out across the reef and began shelling the beaches on the eastern end of Cabras. The tractor-borne assault platoons followed, avoiding the mined causeway and moving across the reef and water. At 1425 they clattered ashore on the elongated islet. There was no defending fire, but there was a defense. Marines soon found that the ground was liberally strewn with mines... one LVT (cargo carrier) was blown up by a mine, while it was returning....

The next day we moved down Cabras Island to Piti Navy Yard where I secured the yard bell. There was no resistance, but the island had been heavily fortified. Our battalion, minus the units with the 1st Provisional Brigade, set up camp near Cabras Island and used old Japanese trenches for our initial cover. On 25 July we were alerted for a Japanese counterattack, and got ready to defend our area. The attack was stopped before it reached us.

The U.S. forces which had landed at Agat and Asan finally linked up and I was able to get to the two companies and small headquarters which had made the landing with the 1st Provisional Brigade. I (found they had taken heavy casualties, including the commanding officer of Company A, who was killed in the initial landing. More casualties were taken when a waterbome platoon of LVT(A)1s supporting the attack on Oroete Peninsula was hit. The Japanese defenders had taken them under fire with a gun hidden in a cave. A naval gunfire destroyer quickly steamed into position and opened fire on the Japanese which prevented greater losses.

As always the Marine Corps was "on the short end of the stick" when it came to supplies and equipment. We were astonished when the 77th Army Division came ashore on Guam at how they were logistically supported. For the first time we saw "5-in-1 rations" (a quantum leap forward from the C-rations we were issued), fancy field desks, and a flood of other luxuries. It was not long before my Marines were "liberating" this flood of sheer luxury. We found that if we sent our trucks down to the beach, where the unloading occurred, they would be loaded with Army gear. From there it was simple to proceed to our area rather than an Army supply dump. Our men even found an Army bulldozer which had broken down and apparently been abandoned. A bulldozer was a highly desirable piece of equipment-we had long tried to secure one with zero results. With alacrity, our mechanics "turned to" repairing it, and after some time had it running. At that point a soldier rose from the shade of a palm tree, said thanks, and drove it off. We lost that one, but gathered other "spoils of war" which served us well for months.

From then on we performed routine missions. We moved our camp to the Agana area and found a lot of Japanese materiel, including gas masks for horses and winter clothing and equipment. (A significant part of the Japanese force defending Guam had recently been transferred from North China.)

The battle had moved to northern Guam and we were left behind. A platoon from Company C was sent south on a waterborne patrol, but made no enemy contact. Another platoon provided security for the island headquarters command. Our activities were minimal. It was a good thing because most of the battalion came down with dengue (bonebreak) fever. We had been told that there was no malaria, so we paid little heed to the mosquitoes: thus the fever. The cure was simple-drink a lot of water, and time. There were no known medicines to cure dengue.

The island was declared secured on 10 August, except for some mopping up. According to the Marine Corps history of the operation, 1,214 Americans were killed in action, 5,704 were wounded, and 329 were missing in action. Of the estimated 18,500 Japanese troops on the island, 10,971 enemy bodies were counted. Many bodies had been sealed in caves or were lost in the jungle. Some Japanese were able to survive in the dense jungle; only a few prisoners were taken.

On 12 August, 2 days after the island was declared secure, we embarked on LSTs and APAs and headed back to Guadalcanal to get ready for our next operation.