America's Island Hopping Strategy Depended On The Fight At Tinian:

America's Island Hopping Strategy Depended On The Fight At Tinian:

A squabble between a general and an admiral led to “the most perfect amphibious operation of the Pacific War.”

Here's What You Need To Remember:

The island of Tinian is located in the Northern Marianas, three miles southwest of Saipan, 100 miles north of Guam, and 1,500 miles from mainland Japan. A tropical paradise of just 39 square miles, it had been ruled over the centuries by the Spanish and then the Germans. In 1914, the Japanese took it over for agricultural purposes and, in the closing stages of the war, once they realized that it had potential importance as an American air base for the long-range Boeing B-29 Superfortress bombers, they began to fortify it.

Today, Tinian is probably best known as the launching site for the American atomic aerial attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But back in July 1944, Tinian was the latest in a string of Pacific islands that formed the American stepping stones to the Japanese home islands.

With the invasion and capture of Saipan well underway, Lt. Gen. Holland M. “Howlin’ Mad” Smith, commander of the Expeditionary Force troops, turned his attention to the capture of Tinian.

Garrisoned by 9,000 Japanese troops, Tinian was destined to become, according to Smith, “the most perfect amphibious operation of the Pacific War.” However, the operation would not be without controversy. A long and fractious argument broke out among the senior American leaders concerning which landing beaches should be used.

Vice Admiral Richmond Kelly “Terrible” Turner, Joint Expeditionary Force commander, favored landing on Yellow Beach, along the northeast coast. “Howlin’ Mad” Smith, Rear Admiral Harry W. “Handsome Harry” Hill, head of the Northern Attack Force, and Maj. Gen. Harry Schmidt, commanding the Northern Troops and Landing Force, disagreed with Turner’s choice of Yellow Beach and strongly recommended instead two more lightly defended beaches (White 1 and White 2) on the northern end of the island, even though they were both less than 200 yards wide. 

Amphibious doctrine called for a beach of no less than 1,000 yards wide to accommodate a division-sized landing. Planners estimated that White Beach 1 would permit eight amphibious tractors to land simultaneously, while White Beach 2 could take 16 at once.

Admiral Hill left the meeting with Turner exasperated. He wrote that Turner “simply would not listen, and again ordered me in very positive terms to stop all White Beach planning and to issue my plan for the Tinian Town landing.”

Terrible Turner’s stance set up a showdown with Howlin’ Mad Smith, who recalled, “Our session on board the [USS] Rocky Mount [ACG-3] generated considerable unprintable language.”

At the heated meeting, Turner roared, “Holland, you are not going to land on the White Beaches. I won’t land you there.”

Smith thundered back, “Oh, yes you will! You’ll land me any goddamned place I tell you to! I’m the one who makes the tactical plans around here! All you have to do is tell me whether or not you can put my troops ashore there!” 

Turner was adamant: “I’m telling you now, it can’t be done. It’s absolutely impossible. You can’t possibly land two divisions on those beaches.”

“How do you know it’s impossible?” Smith shot back. “You’re just so goddamned scared that some of your boats will be hurt.”

The argument went on for hours, according to Smith, as each man tried to convince the other of the soundness of his views. Turner contended, “The only feasible beaches are at Tinian Town, and that’s where we are going to land.” 

Smith countered forcefully, “If we go ashore at Tinian Town, we’ll have another Tarawa. Sure as hell! The Japs will murder us.”

Smith brought up the Amphibious Reconnaissance Battalion’s forthcoming recon of the landing beaches. It was like waving a red flag in front of a maddened bull. Turner responded, “They don’t know what to look for. They’re just a bunch of Marines.… People will laugh at you if you keep talking about [the idea].  They’ll think you’re a stupid old bastard.”

Just as fired up, Smith shouted back, “You know goddamned well that it’s my business and none of yours to say where we’ll land. If you say you won’t put us ashore, I’ll fight you all the way.… I’ll take it up with [Admiral Raymond A.] Spruance [commanding the Fifth Fleet], and if necessary with [Admiral Chester] Nimitz [commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet]. Now just put that down in your goddamned book!” 

Hill later wrote, “I never saw Kelly [Turner] when he was so mean and cantankerous as on that occasion. He must have been a bit under the weather.”

The meeting finally ended when Smith extracted a promise from Turner to defer a decision on the landing beach until the results of the reconnaissance were in.

Despite the heated argument, Admiral Turner later remarked, “I consider Holland Smith a very fine tactical general and able administrator, and I consider him one of my very best friends.”

General Smith was not so magnanimous. “My plans were challenged by a naval officer who had never commanded troops ashore and failed to understand the principles of land warfare…. Kelly Turner is aggressive, a mass of energy and a relentless taskmaster. The punctilious exterior hides a terrific determination. He can be plain ornery. He wasn’t called ‘Terrible Turner’ without reason.”

Settling the argument would be the Amphibious Reconnaissance Company. It was formed at Camp Elliott, California, in January 1943 under the command of Captain James L. Jones, the father of the future 32nd Commandant of the Marine Corps, General James L. Jones, Jr. In August 1943, the company was redesignated Amphibious Reconnaissance Company, V Amphibious Corps (VAC), Pacific Fleet. At the instigation of Lt. Gen. Smith, the company was expanded into a two-company battalion on April 14, 1944, and designated VAC Amphibious Reconnaissance Battalion, Amphibious Corps, Pacific Fleet.

The VAC Amphibious Reconnaissance Battalion, under the command of recently promoted Major James L. Jones, in conjunction with Underwater Demolition Teams 5 and 7, was tasked with performing a night reconnaissance of the Tinian beaches. Their mission was multifaceted. They were to locate obstacles on the beach; determine the height and characteristics of the cliffs and the vegetation behind the beaches; determine the depth of the water and characteristics of the off-lying reef; determine the types of landing craft that could be landed on each particular beach; determine the types of vehicles that could cross the reef and move inland; and estimate whether the infantry could climb the cliffs without using ladders or cargo nets.

Captain Merwin H. “Silver” Silverthorn, Jr.’s Company A and a detachment of “frogmen” from Navy Underwater Demolition Team 7 were assigned to Yellow Beach while 1st Lt. Leo B. Shinn’s Company B and 12 swimmers from Underwater Demolition Team 5, led by the famed frogman Lt. Cmdr. Draper L. Kauffman, were assigned the two White Beaches. 

On July 8, the battalion officers and selected noncommissioned officers (NCOs) went aboard USS Gilmer (APD-11), a converted World War I four-stack destroyer transport, and cruised along the west coast of Tinian.

“The purpose of the cruise was to enable us to study the beaches through binoculars and to become familiar with the horizontal silhouette of the island,” Shinn explained, “in order to facilitate our direction during the subsequent reconnaissance.”

The following night, both recon companies, along with swimmers from UDT 7, conducted a rehearsal off the Purple Beaches on Magicienne Bay, Saipan. Shinn said, “It was jointly decided that the UDT would accomplish the hydrographic reconnaissance while the Marines would reconnoiter and secure the information pertaining to the beach proper and the terrain.” 

At midnight, the APD stood 3,000 yards offshore and launched 10 black neoprene rubber landing craft (LCRs), which were towed by the ship’s landing craft to a point 1,500 yards off the beach.

“From this point,” Shinn noted, “the LCRs were cautiously paddled to a point 500 yards from shore, at which time the swimmers went into the water.” Each swimmer was equipped with an inflatable CO2 rubber life belt, a flashlight, and a packet of aviator’s yellow emergency dye. “The rehearsal was executed as planned,” Shinn said, “and was completed at about 0500 the following morning.

 “The actual reconnaissance of Tinian beaches was ordered for the night of 10-11 July,” Shinn continued. “The entire day was spent in planning the reconnaissance, familiarizing the troops with the plan, and holding debarkation drills and rehearsals. Exhaustive studies were made … of all available aerial photographs, maps, etc., of the beaches.”

The plans called for USS Gilmer and USS Stringham (APD-6) to transport the recon Marines and frogmen to the objective area some 3,000 yards off the beach where they would launch 10-man rubber boats. Ships’ landing craft, with muffled exhausts, would tow the boats approximately 500 yards off their respective beaches. At that point, the boats would be paddled to a point just outside the surf zone.

Admiral Turner was concerned about alerting the Japanese and commented, “The first series of reconnaissances were made as secretly as possible; and, in order to avoid the disclosure of landing intention, positive orders were issued that any mines and obstacles found there were under no circumstances to be disturbed.”