Island Infernos: The US Army's Pacific War Odyssey, 1944

Island Infernos: The US Army's Pacific War Odyssey, 1944

by John C. McManus
Island Infernos: The US Army's Pacific War Odyssey, 1944

Island Infernos: The US Army's Pacific War Odyssey, 1944

by John C. McManus



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In Fire and Fortitude—winner of the Gilder Lehrman Prize for Military History—John C. McManus presented a riveting account of the US Army's fledgling fight in the Pacific following Pearl Harbor. Now, in Island Infernos, he explores the Army’s dogged pursuit of Japanese forces, island by island, throughout 1944, a year that would bring America ever closer to victory or defeat.

“A feat of prodigious scholarship.”—The Wall Street Journal • “Wonderful.”—St. Louis Post-Dispatch •  “Outstanding.”—Publishers Weekly • “Rich and absorbing.”—Richard Overy, author of Blood and Ruins • “A considerable achievement, and one that, importantly, adds much to our understanding of the Pacific War.”—James Holland, author of Normandy ’44

After some two years at war, the Army in the Pacific held ground across nearly a third of the globe, from Alaska’s Aleutians to Burma and New Guinea. The challenges ahead were enormous: supplying a vast number of troops over thousands of miles of ocean; surviving in jungles ripe with dysentery, malaria, and other tropical diseases; fighting an enemy prone to ever-more desperate and dangerous assaults. Yet the Army had proven they could fight. Now, they had to prove they could win a war.

Brilliantly researched and written, Island Infernos moves seamlessly from the highest generals to the lowest foot soldiers and in between, capturing the true essence of this horrible conflict. A sprawling yet page-turning narrative, the story spans the battles for Saipan and Guam, the appalling carnage of Peleliu, General MacArthur’s dramatic return to the Philippines, and the grinding jungle combat to capture the island of Leyte. This masterful history is the second volume of John C. McManus’s trilogy on the US Army in the Pacific War, proving McManus to be one of our finest historians of World War II.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780698192775
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 11/09/2021
Sold by: Penguin Group
Format: eBook
Pages: 656
Sales rank: 21,406
File size: 36 MB
Note: This product may take a few minutes to download.

About the Author

John C. McManus is Curators’ Distinguished Professor of U.S. military history at the Missouri University of Science and Technology (Missouri S&T).  As one of the nation’s leading military historians, and a recipient of the prestigious Gilder Lehrman Prize for Military History, and the author of thirteen previous well received books on the topic, he is in frequent demand as a speaker and expert commentator. In addition to dozens of local and national radio programs, he has appeared on CNN, Fox News, C-Span, the Military Channel, the Discovery Channel, the National Geographic Channel, Netflix, the Smithsonian Network, the History Channel and PBS, among others. He also served as historical advisor for the bestselling book and documentary Salinger, the latter of which appeared nationwide in theaters and on PBS’s American Masters Series. During the 2018-2019 academic year, he was in residence at the U.S. Naval Academy as the Leo A. Shifrin Chair of Naval and Military History, a distinguished visiting professorship.

Read an Excerpt



Two years to the day after the Japanese attacked American military installations on Oahu, Admiral Chester Nimitz met with his principal subordinates and staffers at Pearl Harbor, where the decimated ruins of USS Arizona and USS Oklahoma still lay half-sunken in the shallow waters like haunted, muted monuments to the worst day in the history of the US Navy. Nimitz might have been the only American who actually benefited from the infamous attack that initiated the Pacific War, though of course he would never have thought in such terms. The disaster at Pearl Harbor had led to the appointment of Nimitz as commander in chief of the Pacific Fleet, replacing Admiral Husband Kimmel who, fairly or not, took most of the blame and was quickly and shabbily retired away to queasy oblivion. Every bit as modest and self-effacing as MacArthur was egomaniacal, Nimitz had by the end of 1943 emerged as the leading naval officer of history's leading war. Every bit the peer of the general, and actually a bemused rival in the same manner that a gentle-tempered German shepherd endures the nips of a frisky beagle, Nimitz controlled the sort of prodigious naval power that might have made Horatio Nelson salivate. After two hard years of war, the United States Pacific Fleet had grown into a powerful beast. Nimitz had at his disposal twenty aircraft carriers, including six major fleet carriers, eight battleships, nineteen cruisers, seventy-eight destroyers, forty submarines, among many hundreds of other vessels, and with plenty more warships on the way. From the west coast to Alaska, New Zealand, and many points in between, his vast theater of responsibility comprised some sixty-five million square miles of ocean and islands.

Because Army and Navy leaders could not hope to agree on a single commander for the American war against Japan, and since neither service was willing to subordinate itself to the other, they had, more by inertia than intent, agreed on an uneasy divided command compromise. MacArthur was the lord in SWPA, Stilwell in Asia, and Nimitz everywhere else. In effect, this meant a two-pronged Pacific advance to Japan, with MacArthur and Nimitz as competing, and sometimes cooperating, theater commanders. The fifty-eight-year-old admiral was a Texan who had originally intended to go to West Point before ending up at the Naval Academy, where he graduated seventh in the class of 1905. As a young officer, Nimitz had fought seasickness, leading, in his later words, to "some chilling of enthusiasm for the sea." As a rookie skipper, he had once been court-martialed and reprimanded for running his ship aground, normally a mortal maritime sin but one that did not end his career because of his sterling reputation as a sagacious military thinker and fair-minded leader. The decision quickly proved sound. Nimitz subsequently saved the life of a sailor who fell overboard, taught naval science at the University of California, became a foremost expert on navigation and propulsion, and accrued years of experience in submarines and surface ships alike.

White-haired, blue-eyed, and fair-skinned, a devotee of daily walks, tennis, sunbathing, and pistol marksmanship, Nimitz's studious, patient nature somehow meshed well with the underlying urgency of a commander who demanded and expected results. Modest, open-minded, and low-key, he detested grandstanding and cared little for military glory. "No concessions should be made towards glamorizing individuals or incidents that do not deserve it," he once wrote revealingly to E. B. Potter, his main biographer. Nimitz's sense of humor was so keen that he collected a mental inventory of amusing stories and delighted in recounting them to subordinates to ease tensions at difficult or stressful times. He kept himself in excellent physical condition. "Exercise was almost a fetish with Nimitz," war correspondent Robert Sherrod once wrote. On any given day, an observer might find Nimitz holed up in his office, working round the clock, honing his considerable marksmanship skills, taking a long walk, going for a swim at one of Oahu's spectacular beaches, or standing shirtless with a group of sailors, pitching horseshoes. One of his frequent horseshoe partners, Fifth Fleet commander Vice Admiral Raymond Spruance, years later described him as a "very great man. Regardless of how tough the situation might be, I never knew him to get worried or excited. This state of mind, plus his keen intelligence and sound judgment, made his subordinates feel that any task given them could be accomplished."

Nimitz's office at Pearl Harbor exuded an informality that reflected the personality of the man. His bare walls were ringed with canvas chairs to facilitate his frequent meetings with staffers and commanders; behind his desk, he kept a weather barometer and a radio, the latter of which he often used to listen to local symphony concerts while he quietly wrote or read dispatches. A pair of black pens holstered in a stand, along with papers and ashtrays, covered his wooden desktop. As a theater and fleet commander in chief, he had already shown himself to be an able and thoughtful strategist. On his cluttered desk, he kept a card close at hand with his three rules of thumb for any military operation: Is the proposed operation likely to succeed? What might be the consequences of failure? Is it in the realm of practicability in terms of matriel and supplies?

He bore these three questions in mind at every planning and strategy session, and his December 7 meeting was no different. He huddled with Spruance, Rear Admiral Richmond Kelly Turner, commander of Task Forces 51 and 52, and Major General Holland Smith, the Marine commander of V Amphibious Corps, to discuss Operation Flintlock, a plan to secure the Marshall Islands. Three months earlier, the Joint Chiefs in Washington had ordered Nimitz to gain hegemony over this collection of thirty-two island groups and atolls scattered over 400,000 miles of Central Pacific ocean. Since then, Nimitz and his staff had planned the operation on the assumption that they must first capture the Wotje and Maloelap Atolls at the eastern edge of the Marshalls before taking the Kwajalein Atoll, located in the heart of the islands and home to important Japanese air bases. But Nimitz's thinking had recently evolved. The November seizure of the Tarawa Atoll in the Gilbert Islands, where the 2nd Marine Division had suffered a staggering three thousand casualties in four bloody days of combat and the Army's 27th Infantry Division had fought a difficult battle for the Makin Atoll had made Nimitz leery of assaulting similar Pacific island fortresses when other options might exist. The imperative of attacking Wotje and Maloelap rested on the assumption that the Americans must negate the Japanese aerial presence in these places and build their own bomber bases before they could proceed to Kwajalein. Nimitz had come to believe that his fast carrier forces, in tandem with land-based aircraft, could pummel these two spots and clear the way for an immediate invasion of Kwajalein, a concept that would advance his timetable by many months, secure useful sea and air bases, and, for the first time, imperil the inner ring of Japanese bastions in the Caroline and Mariana Island chains. As an added benefit, the lightning-quick capture of Kwajalein would provide a new layer of northern flank protection for MacArthur's ongoing advance in New Guinea and the Solomon Islands.

The concept was so bold that all but one member of Nimitz's staff opposed it. When he proposed it to Spruance, Turner, and Smith at their December 7 meeting, the startled trio joined in the opposition. "Spruance, Smith and I all spoke against it," Turner later recalled. Normally mild-mannered and calm, almost to the point of coldness, Spruance reacted with uncharacteristic stridency and attempted to talk Nimitz out of the idea. "I argued as strongly as I could with Admiral Nimitz," he commented. "The principle reason for my objection to the capture of Kwajalein alone, was that units of the Fifth Fleet were scheduled, after its capture, to proceed to the South Pacific to support an operation there. This would have left our line of communications in to Kwajalein surrounded by Japanese bases . . . with no fleet support." After considerable discussion, the meeting ended in an impasse. Nimitz spent the following days mulling over the reservations of his subordinates but nonetheless decided to stick to his guns, even in the face of so much opposition, a rare experience of command loneliness for the consensus-building admiral. At heart, his appreciation for the growing importance of air power on naval and amphibious operations was more advanced than his colleagues'. Given what he knew of Japanese defenses in the Marshalls (mainly on the basis of photo intelligence), he was confident that his aviators could negate the Japanese threat to the Kwajalein invaders, and save both time and lives.

When he met again with Spruance, Turner, and Smith on December 14, he asked them where they wanted to strike first in the Marshalls. All three advocated the outer atolls. "Well, gentlemen," he replied quietly but firmly, "our next objective will be Kwajalein." Opinionated and self-confident, especially after more than a year of leading amphibious task forces, Turner would not back down. He referred to Nimitz's plan as "dangerous and reckless." Finally, Nimitz gazed at him steadily. "This is it. If you don't want to do it, the Department will find someone else to do it. Do you want to do it or not?" Faced with such a stark choice, Turner quickly assented. Nimitz would get his way. Kwajalein it was.

Located 540 miles northwest of Tarawa, 2,440 miles southwest of Oahu and 2,477 miles southeast of Tokyo, Kwajalein consists of over ninety coral and reef encircled islands ringed together in a rough triangle over 655 square miles of ocean and lagoon. The product of subsea volcanic activity, the coral islands tend to be small, none more than three miles in length and a few hundred yards in width, and barely above sea level, rising to an average height of just under six feet above the ocean's surface. The string of islands forms an enclosed ring that, from an aerial or map vantage point, almost assume the shape of a musket pistol. Sparsely populated by Micronesians, the place had once been loosely colonized by Spain and then Imperial Germany before the Japanese assumed control under a League of Nations mandate after World War I. By 1944, under the multiple pressures of a two-front war that was not trending their way, the Japanese had come to view Kwajalein, and the whole Marshall Islands chain, as an expendable fortified outpost. Their most important garrisons, and airfields, were located on the three largest islands. At the atoll's northern tip, the islands of Roi and Namur, connected by a narrow beach and causeway, contained an airstrip and a complex of barracks and other buildings. At the southern tip, Kwajalein Island, the largest in the atoll, was the main Japanese administrative and communications center in the Marshalls and home to a partially constructed airfield. Some forty-eight miles of lagoon and coral reef separated these key islands.

Shaped like a fishhook, Kwajalein is about two and a half miles long and eight hundred yards wide for about two-thirds of its surface before narrowing to about three hundred yards at the point of the hook. In early 1944, dense stands of palm trees, coconut trees, breadfruit trees, and thick pandanus covered much of the island. Since early 1941, defense of the Marshalls had been the responsibility of the Imperial Navy's 6th Base Force under Rear Admiral Monzo Akiyama. The Japanese had partially fortified the three key islands and scores of smaller ones around the atoll. The air base at Roi contained about ninety aircraft, three concrete blockhouses, and over a dozen antiaircraft guns of varying caliber. Between Roi and neighboring Namur, there were about 3,500 men, at least two-thirds of whom were aerial personnel ill-suited for ground combat. At most, maybe about 500 of these men had any substantial training with infantry weapons and tactics. Kwajalein and several nearby islands were defended by about 5,000 troops of varying quality, the best of whom hailed from the Imperial Army's 1st Amphibious Brigade and the Navy's Yokosuka 4th Special Naval Landing Force. By one estimate, about 1,800 of the defenders were combat effective, and another 865, mainly headquarters troops, engineers, communications specialists, and grounded submariners, partially effective. The rest were Korean and Japanese laborers working on the airfields, and Okinawan stevedores who spent their days unloading ships or hauling construction matriel. The military value of these civilians was close to nil.

Kwajalein Island bristled with six eight-centimeter dual-purpose guns, at least half a dozen antiaircraft and heavy machine guns, 160 reinforced concrete or coconut log pillboxes, a concrete seawall, a major antitank ditch, with three supporting ditches, plus a maze of rifle pits, fighting trenches, machine-guns posts, and fortified dugouts. The thickness of the concrete pillboxes ranged from fifteen inches to three feet. "In most cases, coconut logs and sand were banked around and on top of the pillboxes," wrote Colonel Syril Faine, an Army Ground Forces analyst. Around one hundred barracks, warehouses, and headquarters buildings, each of which could become a dangerous defensive position, were clustered in the northern part of the island. The American service official histories, and most all subsequent interpretations, have contended that Roi-Namur was more heavily defended than Kwajalein. But given the larger garrison of effectives and the greater number of prepared fortifications at Kwajalein, this seems to be a wrongheaded analysis. "In fact, every inch of ground was organized for defense, and because of the small size of the island, the garrison lived in its battle stations," an observer later recalled. In truth, neither the Kwajalein nor Roi-Namur garrisons were an even match for the invaders, though both were potent enough to put up a bloody fight.

For Flintlock, Nimitz amassed 297 ships, more than fifty thousand Marine and Army assault troops, and about thirty thousand garrison troops from the Army, Navy, and Marine Corps. Given the significant distance between Roi-Namur and Kwajalein, Admiral Turner split this sizable naval flotilla into a Northern Attack Force (Task Force 53) under Rear Admiral Richard Connolly and a Southern Attack Force (Task Force 52) under his own personal control. The Northern Attack Force carried the 4th Marine Division and supporting units whose mission was to seize Roi-Namur. The Southern Attack Force focused on Kwajalein and transported General Corlett's reinforced 7th Infantry Division.

Before these amphibious forces got anywhere near the Kwajalein Atoll, a steady procession of land- and carrier-based aircraft pummeled Japanese bases in the Marshalls over the course of several weeks. Nimitz had originally planned for a New Year's Day invasion. But because of the ferocity of the fighting in the Gilberts, and the necessity for more time to refit and repair ships, digest hard-learned lessons, accrue more intelligence data, and train the assault troops, he pushed the operation back a month. For nearly seven weeks, Army Air Forces B-24 Liberators, plus medium bombers and fighters, mauled the Marshalls. In December alone, they dropped 601 tons of bombs; in January they dumped another 200 tons on the Kwajalein Atoll. The raids damaged enemy installations and degraded Japanese air strength. In the final week of January, the carrier planes, flying at lower altitudes, which allowed more precision strikes, administered the coup de grace to Japanese air and sea forces. Flying thousands of sorties in a handful of late-January days, the naval aviators more than fulfilled Nimitz's strategic vision. "It was, in my opinion, a splendid decision and one characteristic of Admiral Nimitz, a man whom I admire very much," General Corlett later wrote of Nimitz's insistence on directly assaulting Kwajalein. All over the Marshalls, including Wotje and Maloelap that had so concerned Spruance, the carrier planes wrecked enemy airfields, shot down or destroyed dozens of Japanese aircraft on the ground, and sank numerous cargo ships. "The American attacks are becoming more furious," a Japanese soldier jotted in his diary. "Planes come over day after day. Can we stand up under the strain?" The troops could and did; not so for the equipment. By the end of January, the Japanese did not have even one operational aircraft left in the entire island group. Japanese strategists were already loath to risk any naval assets in the Marshalls. With the Americans now in absolute control of the air, and consequently the waters of the island group, they no longer even had the option of naval opposition to Flintlock.

Table of Contents

Author's Note xiii

Prologue 1

1 Flintlock 31

2 Acceleration 61

3 Consolidation 94

4 Informed Boldness 129

5 "From New Guinea No One Returns Alive" 162

6 Galahad and Machiavelli 237

7 Hell on Land and at Sea 295

8 Triumph and Travesty 329

9 Right Way and Wrong Way 398

10 The Ugly Midsection 464

Epilogue 542

Acknowledgments 545

Notes 551

Selected Bibliography 609

Index 617

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