The Marshalls: 30 Years Later

By Capt John J. Connor, USA - Originally Published February 1974

This month marks the thirtieth anniversary of the capture of the Marshall Islands by United States Armed Forces-the first territory to be captured that was Japanese before the outbreak of World War II.

The atolls of that group were a key link in Japan's outer defenses and were described by one of her admirals as "natural aircraft carriers." Airfields were located on Kwajalein (two), Eniwetok, Wotje, Maloelap, and Mili; seaplane bases at Kwajalein and Jaluit; and naval anchorages at Kwajalein, Eniwetok, and Jaluit. More than 8,600 Japanese troops were garrisoned on Kwajalein alone. Planning for an operation against these islands began in May 1943. An initial plan, given the code name FLINTLOCK with D-day set for 1 January 1944, was issued in October 1943 calling for the simultaneous capture of three atolls-Kwajalein, Maloelap; and Wotje-which contained sixtyfive percent of the aircraft facilities in the area. However, in December, Adm Nimitz dropped Maloelap and Wotje in favor of Majuro, a small atoll believed to be undefended. D-day was postponed until 31 January.

Although the major battleground of this operation was Kwajalein Atoll where 41,000 American soldiers and Marines killed 7,870 defenders in a week-long struggle, this article will concentrate on the secondary target, Majuro, which was occupied without resistance by an assault force of 1,595 men under the command of LtCol Frederick B. Sheldon, USA. Elements of the landing force included the 2nd Battalion, 106th Infantry (Reinforced), 27th Infantry Division (USA) and V Amphibious Corps Reconnaissance Company (USMC). Designated Task Force 51.2, they embarked from Pearl Harbor along with the Kwajalein landing force on 23 January 1944. However, in the early hours of 30 January (D-1) RAdm Harry W. Hill's TF51.2 (3 transports, 1 heavy cruiser, 3 escort carriers, 4 destroyers, and 3 mine sweepers) broke off from the convoy. The Marine Recon Company, aboard destroyer transport Kane, headed for Calalin Channel which is located on the northern side of Majuro Atoll and affords the only entrance into the lagoon. That night, about an hour before D-day officially began, Marine Lt Harvey C. Weeks led two platoons ashore on Calalin Island to become the first Americans to set foot on territory that was in Japanese hands before the war.

A few hours later (now 31 January), the remainder of the Marines landed on Dalap Island on the eastern side of the atoll and made their way northward crossing the reef to Uliga and Darrit. Not a single Japanese defender was encountered on any of these islands. An English-speaking native reported that a garrison of 300-400 men had left the atoll in November 1943. (A sweep of Majuro Island on the western side of the atoll later that afternoon and evening resulted in the capture of the sole Japanese left on the atoll.) However, because of poor communications, the landing party could not contact the Task Group in time to stop the naval gunfire scheduled for 0600. When communications were restored, the bombardment (which had lasted only 15 minutes) ceased. Little damage had been done to the abandoned Japanese facilities which included 35 buildings, an observation tower, a seaplane ramp and hanger, plus construction equipment and materials.

At 0950 RAdm Hill relayed to his superiors the message that Majuro was secured, and five minutes later the American flag was raised over the atoll. Even while this ceremony was going on, Calalin Channel was being swept and marked in anticipation of the arrival of ships of the Fifth Fleet. Al this time the 2nd Battalion had remained on board attack transport Cambria anchored off Majuro. After learning that they were not going to be diverted to Kwajalein, they landed on 1 February (D+1) with the garrison troops which now totaled more than 7,000 soldiers, sailors, and Marines. The next day, ships of the fleet began arriving, including battleships Washington and Indiana, and by D+3 thirty ships were at anchor in Majuro Lagoon and fifty more were on the way. (On 15 April, the number reached 150.)

On 19 February, the Seabees completed construction of an airstrip on Dalap Island, and Marine and Army planes arrived throughout the next week, to be used to bomb those atolls that had been bypassed and left in Japanese control.

Meanwhile, at Kwajalein, 285 miles to the northwest, things were not so simple. Although nine small islands of that atoll were taken by Army and Marine units on D-day, it would be another week before the entire atoll was secured. On the twin islands of Roi-Namur, less than a square mile in size, the Japanese had a force of 3,500 men and an airfield. They fell to the 4th Marine Division on 2 February. On Kwajalein Island, only 35 men of the 5,000-man garrison were alive to surrender after four days of inch-by-inch fighting by the 7th Division (USA). (Total Army-Marine casualties for the entire atoll were 372 killed.)

When the battle for Kwajalein was over, the victorious troops had to live among the rubble and the smell of death, but on Majuro they found a tropical paradise of tall palm trees and sparkling blue water. Those two diverse images linger in the minds of the men who participated in this campaign; but what are these islands like today, thirty years later?

When the Stars and Stripes were raised over Majuro in 1944, it became the fourth foreign flag to fly over the Marshalls in less than sixty years. Discovered by a Spaniard in 1529 and annexed in 1686, the Marshalls were in turn annexed by Germany in 1885 (formally sold to her in 1899), occupied by Japan in 1914 (later Mandated to her by the League of Nations), and finally captured by the United States (and given Trusteeship by the United Nations in 1947). Since then they have been administered by the Department of the Interior as part of the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands (TTPI) comprised of the Marshall, Marianas, and Caroline Islands, 700 square miles of land dotting 3 million square miles of ocean.

Probably the most famous of the Marshalls are Bikini and Eniwetok because of their use in nuclear testing. Next perhaps is Kwajalein, site of the Army's Kwajalein Missile Range (KMR), where it requires official orders to enter the island and a clearance form to leave! Today, "Kwaj" is a sterile, regimented island where everything is painted white (perhaps to match the coral landscape). Majuro is altogether different. It is a once indolent tropic village entering the twentieth century with giant strides, with all of the good and bad effects such a move entails.

Perhaps the most striking example of Majuro's bold thrust into the technological age is the new airfield opened this past year, and a companion $500,000 terminal currently under construction. Kwajalein is only 40 minutes away by jetliner and Honolulu five hours. In addition, causeways now connect all of the islands on the southern side of the atoll from Darrit (also called Rita) to Majuro (Laura), and paving of this 30-mile roadway is nearing completion. Other major civil works projects undertaken in the past three years include a police and fire station, a high school, three 8-unit apartment buildings, a courthouse, and a water catchment, storage, treatment and distribution system.

But the "blessings" of technology have also been accompanied by its "scourges." A prime example is the automobile, which is no match for the salt air and hot, moist climate. Many rusted hulks are abandoned among the coconut palms, and many of those still running are in little better condition. A second example are the beer and soda cans that dot the side of the road and mark the high water line along the beach.

Having looked at the past and the present, let's briefly turn our attention to the future. What lies ahead for Majuro, the Marshalls, indeed all of Micronesia? One official called the area "the next major visitor destination area of the world," and in fact a conference was held in early September to map a coordinated approach to the tourist question. But a more significant question in the minds of many Micronesians these days is the future political status of the area.

Many Americans, including retired former Pacific commander, Adm John S. McCain, maintain that Micronesia is an important part of our defensive network, while others argue that all of the area is not needed and that a few islands such as Tinian and Kwajalein would suffice. The Marshallese (and other Micronesians) for the most part favor neither of these positions; while some show no concern at all, many others are vocal advocates of total United States' abandonment of its military facilities in and political control of Micronesia. Although nothing approaching unanimity exists on the question of the future political status of the area, a joint U.S.-Micronesian commission is soliciting public opinion on proposals ranging all the way from total independence to maintenance of the status quo.

Whatever the outcome of these efforts, one thing is certain, things have changed greatly since American troops occupied the area 30 years ago. No plaques or monuments commemorate Majuro's place in American military history; however, there is a sign at the edge of the Majuro Lagood that reads: "Lagoon water is contaminated. Not fit for swimming."

"Paradise" has indeed changed in thirty years!