The Island—The Enemy that wasn’t There

Feature photo: 169th U. S. Infantry Regiment (the Regiment of Hartford County, the 1st Connecticut Regiment)

The Island—The Enemy that wasn’t There

Tom Rozman (With Lieutenant  Colonel Robert W. Rozman)

It was mid 1943 in the South Pacific.  A critical island airfield had been seized after bitter combat in the march back to the Philippines.   The airfield was so critical to maintaining the northward momentum of allied attack that it was placed in almost immediate operation after its seizure from the Japanese forces holding it.  There were several small islands offshore at the end of the air strip that aircraft climbing to altitude had to fly over shortly after lifting off the runway.

Intelligence reports indicated that the enemy had withdrawn his forces from the area.  Nevertheless, aircraft taking off from the airstrip were encountering fire from one of the islands just off shore.  Based on the latest intelligence assessment the division level command responsible for the area’s security affirmed that major enemy forces had withdrawn and that the fire was likely coming from stragglers left behind.

However, the fire was such that a decision was made to clear out any forces remaining on the island.  A rifle platoon from one of the battalions that had been engaged in the almost 30 days of heavy fighting to seize the airstrip was designated and assigned the mission to move to the island in an assigned landing craft infantry (LCI), land and neutralize any enemy remaining on the island.  The mission being considered a good opportunity for a story, a correspondent with the command obtained authority to accompany the platoon.

The platoon embarked in its assigned LCI and within less than an hour had landed on the island.  Some fire was heard from the island some time after the platoon had landed but radio communication ceased shortly afterward.  Aircraft taking off from the airstrip continued to receive fire—even more heavily than before.  As time lengthened from the platoon’s deployment with no further contact and hostile fires still being directed at aircraft lifting off from the airstrip, further action was considered necessary.

The command ordered the assault platoon’s battalion to conduct an assault landing of the island and destroy or capture any Japanese forces found to still be operating there.  The battalion hastily planned the assault and moved against the island in the assigned LCIs.

There was no beach.  The infantrymen entered the water from their LCIs on those vessels coming to rest on the submerged shore.  It was shallow up to their waist and remained so as they moved to the what was a line of mangrove trees edging the low lying island.  The trees were the shoreline of the island. These large mangrove trees had trunks that gradually flared out in ridges from the core of the trunk. They transitioned into roots anchoring the tree into the island.  These “ridges” at the base of the tree trunks formed pockets a man might hide and find shelter in if under fire.

The first hundred meters or so in these roots systems continued in waist deep water.  The situation at the shoreline did not bode well if resistance was encountered.

The island’s terrain was of a flat atoll type covered with lush jungle vegetation.  Once into the trees, visibility reduced into a green haze.  The highest elevation on the island was barely 20-30 feet above sea level.

As the infantrymen struggled ashore and their LCI’s withdrew the mission was seeming to be a cake walk.  True, the situation regarding the missing platoon was unresolved but intelligence continued to assert that there were no major forces on the island.

Then as the men of the rifle battalion neared and entered the tree line, all hell broke loose.  Heavy sustained volumes of fire greeted the struggling line of infantry as it pushed through the water over the uneven surface under their feet.  There was no cover or concealment from the grazing fire coming from within the tree line, except the flared tree roots.  The lines of infantry began to waver and turn back into the water.

Fortunately, key leaders understood that there was no place to go except forward.  By example and leader shouted orders to their fellow soldiers to reach the root systems and use them as cover and concealment to start working their way inland by individual rushes with covering fire, the veterans responded forming a ragged persistent firing line.  The leaders led the way demonstrating how to use the tree roots. These leaders restored the momentum of the assault.

As the assault gained force and started to push inland, the opposing force’s fires slackened and then ceased.  The enemy broke contact allowing the battalion to move more rapidly, though cautiously across the island.  No evidence had yet been encountered of the lost platoon.

Then, about midway across the island, the remains of the platoon were located.  By now several days had passed since the platoon had come ashore.  In the climate, the condition of the remains had rapidly deteriorated.  Only one survivor remained alive.  It appeared from the situation and condition of the remains that the platoon’s end had been a hopeless fight to the end and any who had been unable to fight suffered the same fate as there comrades.  But the enemy left the correspondent alive—to share a chilling story.  But, the correspondent, given what he had witnessed, had snapped.  He was incoherent.  He was unable to tell the story—at least at the time.

The battalion left a party to address the remains and continued to move across and secure the island.  The opposing force had begun to withdraw by boat from the opposite side of the island.  These forces were attacked as they withdrew.

The rifle battalion completed its occupation and secured the island.  No more hostile fire was experienced by the aircraft lifting off from the air strip.  The enemy had finally been cleared from the area.  It was estimated that a battalion sized force had remained on the island after withdrawal from the airfield location—a force far superior to the doomed platoon initially sent against it.

Clearly, the fog of war and perhaps some “wishful” thinking led to a situation where a small infantry force was virtually ordered to conduct a suicide mission.  Whatever the justification, soldiers lost their lives, perhaps unnecessarily, due to a failure to fully assess the situation. The force imbalance was corrected but until the loss of a rifle platoon.

At the cutting edge, the effect of a sudden unexpected development, even on veteran troops, can cause a reaction that may prove disastrous.  In this case the unexpected heavy grazing fire from the tree line caused a reaction among the advancing troops .   The value of “engaged lead by example leadership” clearly demonstrated its importance at the critical moment as the struggling line of infantry, waist deep in water, wavered under the heavy grazing fire coming from the island’s interior.  Key leaders quickly realized that there was only one way to go and they did what leaders need to do to reverse a bad trend quickly.

The battalion’s leaders accomplished the mission.  The much greater mission was now able to proceed.  The right leadership at the right time made the difference.