All posts tagged infantry

[The assault on Sakura-jima began, and Tuttle had a stadium seating view of the action.]

Before dawn I moved up to be with the forward observers for the 8th Cavalry Regiment, which stood ready to move in beside or through the 5th. The weather was clear, and in the dim morning light I could see gunpowder flashes from the mountain as Japanese guns on the dark sides of each sharp ridge took aim on the landing Marines.

Marine close air support planes were up early though, and rockets were soon let loose against any gun that dared light itself up in the shadows. The Marines had slipped a few radio-equipped spotters onto the island overnight, ready to guide in our planes using pre-arranged terrain marks. The part of the bay I can see does not have any Navy ships in it. The wreck of the USS Hazard can still be seen at low tide, where she tried to beach on the south shore of Sakura-jima to save her crew .

The sun rose over the few hills that push into the area occupied by 5th Cav, and Japanese spotters began to find plentiful artillery targets. Whichever guns could fire without inviting immediate response from attack planes made life miserable for the cavalry men. The 5th Cavalry didn’t have far to go to reach the base of Minami proper, where they could find some shelter, but very little heavy equipment made it up with them.

I watched as small groups of men dashed over open lava flats to seek cover in small ravines and depressions. Japanese machine guns had been sighted down most long low spots. Squads pulled back out of them under cover of smoke screens.

The smoke made things difficult for other units. Smoke works well when pulling back or moving sideways, but it blinds men trying to advance. Eventually they must emerge from the smoke, in an uncertain location, and likely in the sights of enemy rifles.

Japanese mortar fire from deep pits was distributed liberally from the mountain down to the shore. Navy fire support could not get down into such positions, and aircraft took risks flying low enough to find them. Attack planes dove against the mountain, playing chicken with the unblinking rock. A few were damaged by ground fire on the way down and didn’t or couldn’t pull up in time.

By last light two battalions of the Army regiment were pressed up tight against the base of Minami-dake. They waited for darkness to move casualties back and bring up more equipment.

Marines on the west plain had made better progress. They landed through a pair of deserted fishing villages and moved over a mile up hill across a lumpy lava plain. The lava field makes an easy approach to the mountain, mechanically, but it offers little cover from enemy fire. They were exposed, though in the morning the dark side of the mountain dared not fire its larger guns into the lingering night that clung to the western face.

By mid morning the Marines had found cover at the base of many bluffs and ridges well inland. They took only ‘ordinary’ casualties for an amphibious assault, but that was better than would be expected for running across a hard surface into the face of a jagged mountain loaded with defenders. By early afternoon progress was halted. Enemy fire made it impossible to move anything across the lava field to the covered positions up front.

The entire afternoon on both sides turned into a machine gun duel. Marine and Army positions were then in small arms range of Japanese positions on the mountain. The front lines were still very thin, so to get other teams up they sprayed the anonymous rocks ahead with rifle and machine gun fire. The Japanese who were not forced into cover by all that shot into the open areas that they knew the Americans had to move through. The entire world as can be seen from here is divided up into many unsavory pie slices, each of them the field of fire of a traversing machine gun. The team who can serve up more slices wins.


[Tuttle was keen to include textbook details of tactics from the better small infantry units he saw.]

Charlie Company, 3rd Battalion, 188th Glider Infantry Regiment, 11th Airborne Division, welcomed me in to their un-named hilltop HQ. The artillery behind them had rated hill “number 260.” This unit would not have a named home until they took a taller hill across the valley, hill “number 367.”

Company CO Captain Arthur Leonard told me a bit about the trip forward. “We practically hiked straight in. We took up old positions the 162nd [Infantry Regiment] held and then another couple hills past that.” He pointed back up to the mortar squad behind them that I passed on the way. “The Japs had pulled out. All we saw were two snipers, and we’re still looking for booby traps here.” He drew a wide circle around the camp which had been a Japanese infantry camp facing the other direction. Captain Leonard said the land here isn’t too different from where he used to hunt in the Alleghenys east of Pittsburgh.

Platoon Sergeant Walter Strauss, also of Pennsylvania but more accustomed to the flat Erie lake shore, was standing next to us and pointed out the sandbag berms his men were set behind. “We even got to reuse the Jap sand bags. Except they left grenades jammed under some of them.” That drew a couple chuckles from some shovel-hefting enlisted men, even though the first grenade caused two casualties. “I’ve sent back three medical cases so far,” the captain explained. “One of them was a bit of grenade shrapnel in a guy’s butt, but another was a twisted ankle his buddy got diving from the grenade. He tumbled straight down the steep end of the hill, arms swinging like he was swatting off bees.”

The unit was digging in for the night. Some gentle encouragement from the sergeants was required to get the holes textbook deep, as they had yet seen no enemy soldiers nor any artillery rounds. I had drawn a bedroll and extra blanket to camp under as winter weather was finally being felt on the temperate island. With clear skies the temperature would get below 50 and stay there until the sun made its brief appearance the next short day.

Artillery was heard that night, to either side of us, less than two miles away. They were short barrages, but of heavy caliber from far away. We never heard the sound of the launch, which would have followed some seconds after the report of the exploding shells in the passes east and west of us. Some small villages sat in the river valleys that made up each pass, but all were deserted save for a few American sentries.

Before dawn the third watch roused everyone and men fumbled to gather their gear under a moonless sky. At the pre-appointed time, artillery and mortars from several distances behind us began their almost daily ritual. Flashes of light walked up the hillside opposite us, and on many other faces up and down the American line. When we couldn’t see the flashes any more, the explosions were on the back sides of the objective hills, and it was time to move out.

The company advanced in two waves of squad columns, in a chevron formation. At least that’s what the captain told me it was. I went out behind the second wave in any case. The next peak was about three-quarters of a mile away, but we had to go down about two hundred feet and up three hundred to get to it. Our side was a single slope, but the opposite side was broken and wavy.

We had some light by then. Groups of men moved in and out of the remaining clusters of trees. Previous artillery fire had roughly cleared deliberate sight lines, which were good for us to spot the moving enemy, but of course they work both ways. Half charred felled trees were a nuisance everywhere.

A half hour passed before the first shots were fired. A few rifle shots went up into trees that could hide a lurking sniper, but a submachine gun was preferred to rake the tree tops. Forty minutes of careful hiking, two or three stumbling steps down, followed by a rifle-ready scan of the opposing hill, had the front wave at the bottom of our hill. Runners reported adjacent companies all on track and no trouble to the sides. The lead squads advanced again, up the next hill.

Columns drifted apart some in the twisted terrain, and lieutenants made adjustments to keep us lined up and to cover blind spots. The point of the advance was moving directly toward the crest of “hill 367,” groups of men trailing it left and right in a vee. They paused at the last trees before a clearing at the top, letting the line come up more even. Then the whole line moved forward over the top.