The subject of armored warfare in World War II invariably conjures images of vast tank battles in the open country. German panzers enveloping vast numbers of Allied troops; Patton’s Third Army doing the same to the Germans in France; Soviet T-34s and KV-2s battering their way into Berlin after annihilating the Wehrmacht in the East. There’s no doubt the tank came into its own between 1939 and 1945 and the ground doctrine of every major army that fought in Europe was built around its mobility.
But what about the war against Japan?
The Pacific island chains can hardly be counted as “tank country,” yet armor played a vital role on the road to Japan’s doorstep. Indeed, it is difficult to envision how those islands could have been taken without the crucial assistance of the US M4 medium tank, more commonly called the Sherman these days, and the tough-minded individuals who crewed them.
The US Navy had been planning for war with Japan for a long time. The first recognition of the rising power across the Pacific came in the mid-1890s and the great 1905 naval victory over the Russians at Tsushima led to the development of a formal war plan by the United States. The resulting War Plan ORANGE called for a campaign across the Central Pacific leading to a cataclysmic showdown between the two battle fleets somewhere northeast of the Philippines. Navy honchos recognized that the fleet would require advance bases to support it so far from home. Japan gained the Central Pacific islands as part of the spoils of World War I. The US Marine Corps took on the task of developing the means to take those islands against a determined enemy. You can read about the beginning of that effort in my article about USMC legend Pete Ellis here.
Throughout the 1920s and 30s, the Marines worked out how to execute an amphibious assault against a defended beach. Most of the work was done after 1933 and it soon became clear that heavy fire support would be needed by the assault troops. The obvious answer to part of that need was armor operating in a direct support role. The problem was how to get the tanks to the beach in the first place. After years of experimentation, suitable landing craft were developed but the proper employment of the tanks was still only theoretical.
Armor policy was largely dictated by the Army, who set requirements for new tank models and procurement schedules. The Army also had a developed tank doctrine, taught at Fort Knox. The Marines had focused all their energy, and budget, on amphibious doctrine and essentially took what armor the Army gave them. It didn’t help that the Corps’ attempt to develop an amphibious tank to its own specs failed miserably. Still, the M3 Stuart light tank was serviceable, and the new M4 medium tank even more so.
Thanks to limited lift capacity early in the war, Marine doctrine called for the use of light tanks to support assault troops on the beach and for the push inland. There was never any illusion among Marine planners that the tanks would be anything other than an infantry support platform. The problem was that the training did not reflect the doctrine. The Marines lacked an armor officers’ course, so they sent their tankers to the Army course at Fort Knox. There they learned how to fight the Germans in Europe, including tactics like penetration, exploitation, and “cruising” the objective (a slick term for bypassing a strongpoint). These were TTPs they were unlikely to use in the Pacific.
The fact was that tanks in the Pacific were needed to reduce those strongpoints. They didn’t have the option to “cruise” on by. Armored forces in Europe took advantage of their mobility to serve as the net that created the encirclement of the enemy. Some tanks participated in reducing those pockets, but artillery and infantry took the lead. Only in places like the bocage country of Normandy or in urban combat were the tanks forced to be the hammer. The Pacific proved to be the opposite. There were occasional opportunities for maneuver, such as Tinian and Luzon, but rocks like Tarawa, Iwo Jima, and the ridges of Okinawa were more like Stalingrad than anything else. There was nowhere to cast a net and any Japanese caught in it wouldn’t surrender anyway. That environment required the tanks to be the hammer.
To make things worse, little thought had been given to how the tanks and infantry would actually cooperate once they landed. The tanks had crappy radios and often couldn’t even communicate amongst themselves, much less with the infantry. The infantry received no training in how tanks operated or how to work with them. Finally, though the Marines had pressed for the development of an amphibious tank, what little progress actually made in this area was done courtesy of the ingenuity of crew members at the unit level.
All this came to a head on 20 November 1943 when the Second Marine Division hit the beaches of Betio island in the assault on Tarawa Atoll. The lack of a true amphibious tank proved to be bad news right out of the gate. It was assumed that the tanks would have to wade ashore from their landing craft, which couldn’t cross the reef all the way to the beach. The M4A2s could ford 40 inches of water with no trouble. But Betio was only a few hundred yards wide. The planners knew that the prelanding naval bombardment, which was delivered from the opposite side, would blow unseen shell holes in the approaches to the beach when it overshot the island. Falling into a hole would flood a tank, short out the electrical system, or both.
So, the tank company assigned to the op (Charlie Co., First Corps Medium Tank Battalion, attached to the 2nd Tank Battalion, Second Marine Division) included “Recon Guides.” These dudes walked through the water ahead of the tanks with buoys to mark any shell holes they found. We’re talking hundreds of yards in the water fully exposed to Japanese fire.
Talk about stones.
To make things worse, the heavy surf carried the buoys away, forcing the guides to stand still, marking the holes themselves. Again, cast iron balls.
Unsurprisingly, most of those Marines were killed before they ever got close to the beach. But they did their jobs. Only two of the fourteen M4s failed to make the beach. Once ashore, the Recon Guides’ job wasn’t done. Because there was no communication between the tank crews and the infantry, the guides were supposed to walk ahead of the tanks. When they identified a target, the guides would point toward it with their rifles so the crew could see it. Then they had to get the hell out of the way the best they could.
Communication between the tanks themselves was practically nonexistent as well, thanks to the substandard radios and a doctrine that required the loader, already the busiest guy in the tank, to also operate those radios. Charlie Company landed in three platoon elements on three landing beaches (Red 1, Red 2, and Red 3) with a headquarters element that went in on Red 1. From the time the tanks left their transport, there was no communication between any of the platoons until D+2. Only the HQ section and 1st Platoon on Red 1 had contact with one another.
Early doctrine called for the tanks to move ahead of the infantry to destroy enemy positions so the guys on foot could move up safely. Against the Japanese, that was the proverbial nonstarter. It quickly became apparent on Tarawa that tanks could not operate without infantry. The island was a shambles thanks to the prelanding bombardment and the tanks had to pick their way slowly over the debris-strewn ground. Japanese soldiers would wait for a tank to pass, then attack it with a variety of weapons, from magnetic mines to satchel charges. They also used “lunge mines,” shaped charges attached to poles that would explode on contact, not only damaging the tank but killing the attacker.
The Japanese were also fortification wizards, and they had been working on Betio for months. The Marines faced steel pillboxes, steel and concrete bunkers covered with layers of loose sand and coconut logs. The sand absorbed shellfire, as did the springy coconut logs. All but three of the tanks were lost on D-Day, either from enemy fire or falling into unseen holes. They were sent through the infamous seawall on their own and told to cross the island and come back. Not one made it the three hundred yards to the far beaches. The aerial photos taken during the battle show how difficult it was to maneuver a tank. One M4, Cannonball, dodged behind a sand berm to avoid enemy fire and fell into a hidden fuel dump. The fuel ignited and torched the tank. Fortunately, the crew was able to bail.
Heavy losses on D-Day led to quick changes to how the tanks were used. Charlie Company commander, then 1st Lieutenant Ed Bale, said that he and the acting battalion commander at Beach Red 1 quickly worked out the basic methods for tank-infantry cooperation that were used through the rest of the Pacific War on the morning of D+1. The basic change was that armor and infantry had to work together against dug in emplacements. Communication was still a challenge, but the experience at Tarawa led to sound-powered telephones being installed on the back of each tank so the guys inside could talk to the guys outside and vice-versa. Eventually, coordinated tank-infantry-artillery teams were trained and deployed together and, by the time of Okinawa, they were critical to the success of American arms. But that was still in the future.
Back on Tarawa, Ed Bale, and one of his platoon leaders, 1st Lieutenant Lou Largey, who had commanded the ill-fated Cannonball, used the two surviving tanks to help clear the island of defenders on D+2 and D+3. By this time, a company of light M3s had landed but were soon found to be useless against the Japanese positions. Their 37mm guns were too light and their armor too thin. Bale employed them as security for the M4s. It wasn’t unusual for the tanks to be swarmed by Japanese soldiers with mines and satchel charges. Bale instructed the follow-on M3s to fire directly on his M4 to clean them off. According to one M3 crewman, Bale’s tank detected a group of Japanese attackers and drove in circles to run over them. Bale has no memory of the incident, so it’s difficult to say. Bale does note that thanks to the debris on the ground, driving in circles would have been next to impossible. In cooperation with the infantry, Bale and Largey put the M4’s 75mm guns to good use. Betio was declared secure after 76 of the most brutal hours in the history of warfare. Bale would go on to fight on Saipan and Okinawa.
An amusing incident illustrates the disconnect between the higher echelons and the guys actually driving the tanks. Bale had to report to the division logistics officer on the loss of each tank after the battle. The logistics officer, who was a former tanker trained at Fort Knox, interrupted at one point and asked, “Why didn’t you just cruise on the objective?” Bale’s response is unrecorded.
The lessons learned on Tarawa were also being learned in the Solomons Campaign. Armored divisions were not a thing in the Pacific. After 1943, Marine and Army infantry divisions were assigned dedicated tank battalions which operated in teams to coordinate with infantry and artillery. By the time of Okinawa, these teams operated efficiently, albeit slowly, against the defenses of the Shuri Line and beyond. Issues between infantry and armor did exist through the end of the war. Infantry officers could not always be adequately trained in capabilities and limitations of armor, especially the latter’s logistical and maintenance requirements, which was a source of constant friction.
But, to be fair, there was a war on and the infantry guys kinda had their own thing going on. As always, lots of on-the-job education took place.
The light tanks were mostly removed from the equation and the M4 medium tank became the workhorse. Each tank platoon was supposed to have its own “tank-dozer” to cover up enemy positions. The problem of attacks by mine-wielding Japanese soldiers never went away and tankers started attaching sturdy wooden planks to the sides of their M4s to ward against the magnetic variety. Sometimes these planks were backed by concrete to protect against “lunge mines.” All the tanks had telephones installed on the rear corner. If the tankers wanted to talk to the infantry, they would pick up their phone and a light would flash. Same if the infantry wanted to talk to the tankers. It wasn’t ideal, but it worked. Reliable dedicated communication between tankers and infantry was a problem that was never solved during the war.
Tanks were waterproofed to protect the crew and the electrical system. Stacks were installed to keep the air intakes and exhaust from taking on water. Some enterprising crewmen took this upon themselves, but by the Marianas operation, it was standard. These improvements had first been used by Allied tanks in the Mediterranean. Recon guides were still used in some instances, but never again like they were on Tarawa.
The other major development with armor in the Pacific was the emergence of dedicated flame tanks. The value of flamethrowers in cleaning out Japanese emplacements had been clearly demonstrated. But getting close enough to do the job could be a problem. By the time of Iwo Jima, in February 1945, most M4s in the Pacific had at least some flamethrowing capability. Beginning with the Marianas Campaign in late-1944, each division also received medium tanks which employed a high-powered flamethrower mounted on the tank’s main gun. It fired a mixture of napalm and gasoline to burn out targets from 100 yards away. The Marines called them “Zippos.”
The Zippos formed half of an assault technique known as “Blowtorch and Corkscrew.” “Blowtorch” referred to the burning out of Japanese positions with the flame tanks, or with handheld flamethrowers if necessary, then sealing the cave or bunker with demolitions, which was the “corkscrew.” By the time of Okinawa, this was standard procedure against a dug-in enemy who had shown a penchant for emerging from holes thought to be cleared.
The geography of the Pacific and the tactics employed by the Japanese dictated a different role for armor than what was seen in Europe. Sure, there were a few armored advances across open ground, but the primary job for the tank was to support the foot-sloggers as they dug a determined enemy out of his positions. The importance of the tank in this role cannot be overstated. Marine Corps historians Jeter Isely and Philip Crowl bluntly state that the Iwo operation would not have been successful without tank support.
The enemy knew it too. General Mitsuru Ushijima, the Japanese commander on Okinawa, wrote that “The enemy’s power lies in its tanks. It has become obvious that our general battle against the American forces is a battle against their M3 and M4 tanks.” In the wake of the bloodletting on Okinawa, General Lemuel Shepherd, ramrod of the 6th Marine Division, stated it quite clearly: “If any one supporting arm can be singled out as having contributed more than any other during the progress of the campaign, the tank would certainly have to be selected.”
There is no doubt that the individual Marine and Soldier did the heavy lifting on the Pacific Islands. There is still no substitute for the infantry taking and occupying the ground. But it’s very difficult to see how they could have done it on God-forsaken rocks like Tarawa, Peleliu, Iwo Jima, or the ridges of Okinawa without a combined-arms approach in which the tank played a key part.
Sometimes you just need a hammer.
Much of the account of the armored force on Tarawa was taken from the outstanding book Tanks in Hell, A Marine Corps Tank Company on Tarawa by Oscar E. Gilbert and Romain Cansiere. Mr. Cansiere also operates the excellent website http://www.tanksontarawa.com, which features lots of information and photos. He has graciously consented to the use of some of those photos here.
The US Marines and Amphibious War by Jeter A. Isely and Philip A. Crowl.
Pacific Blitzkrieg, World War II in the Central Pacific by Sharon Tosi Lacey.
Armored Thunderbolt, The US Army Sherman in World War II by Steven Zaloga.
My own original work on the development of US amphibious doctrine and capability.
⚠️ Some hyperlinks in this article may contain affiliate links. If you use them to make a purchase, we will receive a small commission at no additional cost to you.
It’s just one way to Back the Bang. #backthebang