The Army, Amphibious Warfare and the Engineer Special Brigades- Part III

Part I is here.

Part II is here.

Roughly concurrent with the Army’s campaign in north Africa, the Army was also facing the challenge of securing the logistical lifeline to Australia, and planning a return to the Philippines, and from there invading and defeating Japan.

In Part I we discussed the Marine Corps strategy for war in the Pacific. To wit, they saw themselves seizing a series of naval and air bases from which the Navy could drive forward to engage and destroy the Japanese fleet,  and eventually attack the Japanese homeland itself.

A quick glance at the map below shows a possible route through the Central Pacific via chains of islands from Hawaii through the Marshall and Marianas Islands leads straight to the doorstep of the Empire.

Western_Pacific_Region_map

Click to embiggen or right click and open link in new tab.

And while a Marine/Navy advance along the direct northern route made good strategic sense, it wasn’t the only available route.

The Japanese went to war to secure natural resources. In the opening weeks of the war they seized the Philippines, Indonesia, Java, and virtually all strategic positions in Southeast Asia. Further, they also occupied virtually every militarily significant island in the western Pacific. Finally, they occupied the northern coast of the strategically critical island of Papua New Guinea.

Having lost the Philippines to the Japanese, our Army’s forward base was in Australia.  The Army’s immediate goal was to secure the lines of communication between the US and Australia. After that, the Army would want to return to the Philippines, first via the Solomon Islands, then along the coast of New Guinea. After securing the Philippines, the Army would be poised for a final push on Japan itself.

This southern push had advantages of its own. Each time the Army seized territory, it would deny the natural resources of that territory to the Japanese. Also, a single thrust along the northern route invited a single counterthrust. But adopting a two pronged approach to Japan, the Japanese would be forced to counter advances on both axes. Also, the Japanese garrisons along the northern route were relatively small. Attacking along the southern route would still leave the bulk of the Japanese Army unengaged (it was in China) but would at least engage far larger numbers than an attack along the north. And every Japanese killed on the approach meant one fewer to defend the home islands.

To be sure, the Army’s main focus was on Europe. But even with operations in North Africa, Sicily, Italy and eventually Western Europe, that Army had enough manpower available to deploy far more manpower to the Pacific than the Marines ever dreamed of having.

Obviously, getting these Army formations into the fight in islands in the Solomons1 and points north would require amphibious landings.  While the Navy was sympathetic, and released what shipping they could, their primary focus was on the northern route. The available amphibious shipping would never be adequate to support both a northern approach and the Army’s path from Australia to Japan. While the Navy could divert its energies to support Army operations from time to time (and did, willingly and as best they could), the limits on resources would have left the operational tempo far too slow. And we saw in Part II  that a lack of momentum could have grave strategic consequences.  So if the Navy was vehemently opposed to the Army operating its own landing craft in the European theater, attitudes in the Pacific were somewhat more sympathetic. If the Army wanted to drive small craft, that was OK with Big Blue. An agreement was reached that the Army was free to operate all the LCVP and LCM craft it could find. LCT and LCI craft, and larger amphibious shipping would remain the province of the Navy.

And so it came to pass that the 2nd, 3rd and 4th Engineer Special Brigades were formed, trained and sent to the Pacific.

When the Army asked how many landing craft per month the Navy could arrange to ship to Australia, the Navy answered that they could only provide 60. Given that the Army wanted to build up stocks to around 2000 landing craft, that was unacceptable.  The problem wasn’t producing the landing craft. The problem was getting them to Australia. A freighter could only carry a handful of landing craft as deck cargo or in davits.

The Army solution was to put Australia to work. Higgins, the builder of the landing craft, would assemble kits for landing craft, then package them in Army designed palletized loads to be struck down in the holds of cargo shipping. Once in Australia, a new production line with minimal tooling and skilled labor would perform final assembly of the kits. Suddenly, where a freighter could previously carry only a dozen or so LCVPs, now it could carry as many as 1000 in its holds! And production spooled up quickly. Soon the Army had, if not a surplus, at least a sufficiency of small craft. A similar program provided for sufficient numbers of the 50’ LCM landing craft.

When conducting major landings  with sufficient naval support, such as landings at Leyte, the ESBs were primarily concerned with the follow up waves and management of traffic and supplies over the beach after the initial assault. Again, buildup and sustaining momentum were critical to the success of amphibious operations.

But for many of the smaller assaults on lesser islands in the Philippines, or other objectives throughout the southwest Pacific, the ESBs provided the actual assault waves of the landings. Over the course of  the last 18 months of the war in the Pacific, the ESBs and the Army made over 100 small amphibious landings of either regimental or divisional size. Virtually none of these are known to the general public, not because of any classification, but because, while important, they were secondary to other operations at the time.

The Navy did, in fact, support these operations. The 7th Fleet, informally known as MacArthur’s Navy, was small, and consisted mainly of a handful of destroyers, some support ships, and a goodly number of smaller landing craft such as LCTs, LCIs, and a very limited number of LSTs.2 Combined with the LCVPs and LCMs of the ESBs, the 7th Fleet’s VII Amphibious Command, under the firm guidance of Adm. Dan Barbey (Uncle Dan, the Amphibious Man)  became the most proficient planners and executors of amphibious operations the world has ever seen. And there has seldom been a better example of a close working relationship between two services than in that theater. Army and Navy worked together with a synergy that likely surpassed even the best Navy/Marine coordination.

And if the Navy wasn’t about to let the Army run boats in European waters, that didn’t mean the Army hadn’t learned its lesson about managing traffic over the beaches of a landing. The 1st ESB followed its operations in North Africa with landings in Sicily, Italy and finally Normandy before redeploying to the Pacific to support landings at Okinawa.

In fact, so important did the Army consider the follow up flow of logistics over the shore, it created the 5th and 6th ESBs especially to run the assault beaches at Omaha and Utah for the invasion of Normandy.

The Army got out of the amphibious assault business at the end of World War II. With that decision, the ESBs were disestablished, never to be resurrected. Today, the Army does maintain a core capability to perform Logistics-Over-The-Shore (LOTS) in conjunction with the Navy’s Military Sealift Command. But that presupposes friendly beaches to operate on.

The little known ESBs were remarkable organizations. Starting with little doctrine, almost no equipment, and very little training, they quickly became essential elements in any successful assault on hostile shores. The tens of thousands of troops who served in the Brigades received little if any public recognition, but did more than their fair share to assure victory in World War II.

 

1. Yes, I know. The landings at Guadalcanal were made by the 1st Marine Division. And other Marine formations fought in the later phases of the Solomons campaign.  I’m just focusing on Army operations right now, is all.

2. For a brief overview of different landing craft types, please see my previous post here.

2 thoughts on “The Army, Amphibious Warfare and the Engineer Special Brigades- Part III”

  1. The Army still has Fort Story on Chesapeake Bay at Cape Henry. It was established as an Amphib training station. I have no idea what the Army does with it these days, but the Amphib mission was still there when I was stationed at NORVA on Sylvania in ’74. I went onto Story a number of times out of curiosity. They had guard shacks at the gates, but they were never manned when I visited. They closed the Commissary while I was there, forcing Story’s denizens to go to Oceana.

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