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World War II: Battle of Kwajalein

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World War II: Battle of Kwajalein

The 7th Infantry Division fighting on Kwajalein

Photograph Courtesy of the US Army

Conflict:

The Battle of Kwajalein occurred in the Pacific Theater of World War II.

Armies & Commanders:

Allies

  • Rear Admiral Richmond K. Turner
  • Major General Holland M. Smith
  • approx. 42,000 men (2 divisions)

Japanese

  • Rear Admiral Monzo Akiyama
  • approx. 8,100 men

Date:

The fighting around Kwajalein began on January 31, 1944 and concluded February 3, 1944.

Battle of Kwajalein Overview:

In the wake of the US victory at Tarawa in November 1943, Allied forces continued their "island-hopping" campaign by moving against Japanese positions in Marshall Islands. Part of the "Eastern Mandates," the Marshalls were originally a German possession and were awarded to Japan after World War I. Considered part of the outer ring of Japanese territory, planners in Tokyo decided after the loss of the Solomons and New Guinea that the islands were expendable. With this in mind, what troops were available were shifted to the area to make the islands' capture as costly as possible.

Led by Rear Admiral Monzo Akiyama, Japanese forces in the Marshalls consisted of the 6th Base Force which initially numbered approximately 8,100 men and 110 aircraft. While a sizable force, Akiyama's strength was diluted by the need to spread his command over the entirety of the Marshalls. In addition, many of Akiyama's troops were labor/construction details or naval forces with little ground combat training. As a result, Akiyama could muster around 4,000 effectives. Believing the assault would strike one of the outlying islands first, he positioned the bulk of his men on Jaluit, Mille, Maloelap, and Wotje.

In November 1943, American airstrikes began whittling down Akiyama's air power, destroying 71 aircraft. These were partially replaced over the next several weeks by reinforcements flown in from Truk. On the Allied side, Admiral Chester Nimitz originally planned a series of assaults on the outer islands of the Marshalls, but upon learning of Japanese troop dispositions through ULTRA radio intercepts altered his approach. Rather than strike where Akiyama's defenses were strongest, Nimitz directed his forces to move against Kwajalein Atoll in the central Marshalls.

Designated Operation Flintlock, the Allied plan called for Rear Admiral Richmond K. Turner's 5th Amphibious Force to deliver Major General Holland M. Smith's V Amphibious Corps to the atoll where Major General Harry Schmidt's 4th Marine Division would assault the linked islands of Roi-Namur while Major General Charles Corlett's 7th Infantry Division attacked Kwajalein Island. To prepare for the operation, Allied aircraft repeatedly struck Japanese airbases in the Marshalls through December. Moving into position, US carriers began a concerted air offensive against Kwajalein on January 29, 1944.

Two days later, US troops captured the small island of Majuro, 220 miles to the southeast, without a fight. That same day, members of the 7th Infantry Division landed on small islands, dubbed Carlos, Carter, Cecil, and Carlson, near Kwajalein to establish artillery positions for the assault on the island. The next day, the artillery, with additional fire from US warships, opened fire on Kwajalein Island. Pummeling the narrow island, the bombardment allowed the 7th Infantry to land and easily overcome the Japanese resistance. The attack was also aided by the weak nature of the Japanese defenses.

At the north end of the atoll, elements of the 4th Marines followed a similar strategy and established fire bases on islands dubbed Ivan, Jacob, Albert, Allen, and Abraham. Attacking Roi-Namur on February 1, they succeeded in securing the airfield on Roi that day and eliminated Japanese resistance on Namur the next day. The largest single loss of life in the battle occurred when a Marine threw a satchel charge into a bunker containing torpedo warheads. The resulting blast killed 20 Marines and wounded several others.

Aftermath:

The victory at Kwajalein broke a hole through the Japanese outer defenses and was a key step in the Allies' island-hopping campaign. Allied losses in the battle numbered 372 killed and 1,592 wounded. Japanese casualties are estimated at 7,870 killed/wounded and 105 captured. In assessing the outcome at Kwajalein, Allied planners were pleased to find that the tactical changes made after the bloody assault on Tarawa had bore fruit and plans were made to attack Eniwetok Atoll on February 17. For the Japanese, the battle demonstrated that beachline defenses were too vulnerable to attack and that defense in-depth was necessary if they hoped to stop Allied assaults.

Selected Sources

  1. About.com
  2. Education
  3. Military History
  4. Conflicts & Battles
  5. Battles & Wars: 1900s
  6. World War II
  7. World War II Battles - Pacific
  8. Battle of Kwajalein - World War II History

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