Digital relief map of Marshall Islands

Aerial photograph of Eniwetok in 1944

U.S. Army. Via Wikimedia Commons

Eniwetok (162.331E 11.330N) is a large atoll (20 miles or 30 km across) in the western Marshall Islands. Its enormous lagoon (388 square miles or 1005 square km) had room for 2000 ships, and its two passes afforded access to the largest ships while providing considerable submarine protection. Wide Passage is located on the south while Deep Passage, which is 12 fathoms deep, is located just north of Parry. There were 40 islets with a total area of just a little over two square miles (five square kilometers). The most important islets were Engebi to the north and Eniwetok and Parry to the southeast. The reef is wide on the ocean side of the islands but is narrow to nonexistent on the lagoon side, where each of the three main islands had short piers and boat landings.

There were less than one hundred native inhabitants in 1944.

The Japanese initially did little to fortify the atoll. However, 800 construction workers arrived at the atoll in November 1942, and a detachment of 61 Guard Force arrived in January 1943. By November 1943 the construction troops had built an airfield with two runways, including a bomber strip 4025 feet (1226 m) long, on the islet of Engebi. This was used to ferry aircraft into the eastern Marshalls from the Carolines. Because the airfield was  intended only for staging aircraft, the facilities were rudimentary and the island was not heavily fortified, though two 120mm guns were positioned on Engebi. However,  there were radar stations and coastal defense guns on Eniwetok and Parry by 1944. The atoll was garrisoned by 2600 troops of 1 Amphibious Brigade (Nishida) on 4  January 1944, bringing the total Japanese on the atoll up to about 3500. Three heavy and 28 light antiaircraft guns  arrived just days before the atoll was assaulted by the U.S. Pacific Fleet.

CATCHPOLE: The Eniwetok Campaign

Because it had never become necessary to land the floating reserve during the assault on Kwajalein, and because of (erroneous) intelligence suggesting Eniwetok was lightly garrisoned, Nimitz authorized his commanders to advance the timetable for landings on Eniwetok using the floating reserve (nine transports with 8000 troops of 106 Regiment and 22 Marine Regiment under Brigadier General T.E. Watson.) Carrier strikes had already been directed against the airfield at Engebi during the Kwajalein campaign, and these continued to 17 February, when the two passes were swept for mines and artillery batteries were landed on small islets near Engebi. There was considerable confusion in these first landings, due to the convoy guide, SC-1066, taking station off the wrong island. Her commander was summarily relieved.  So was the artillery commander, who had not gotten his guns and ammunition ashore as speedily as expected. The reconnaissance company of V Amphibious Corps scouted the beaches of Engebi that night.

Engebi itself was assaulted on 18 February. After a preliminary bombardment lasting about an hour and a half, two Marine battalions made their landings. The eastern beach was quickly secured, but the western beach was closer to the airstrip and more heavily defended, with a berm 10 feet (3 meters) high just inland. The reserve battalion was landed here and by 1030 the western beachhead was secured. The bombardment had been effective (killing or wounding about 400 of the 1300 defenders) and, while there was spotty local opposition, this was not well organized and the islet was declared secure at 1640. The Japanese garrison was wiped out, while the Marines suffered 85 dead and 166 wounded.

While the intial landings took place, the American fast carriers smashed the Japanese bases at Truk and Saipan to prevent these from being used to strike back at the American forces at Eniwetok.

Captured documents at Engebi revealed that there were considerably more troops on the islets of Parry and Eniwetok proper than the Americans had believed, about 808 on Eniwetok and 1347 on Parry. The invasion commander, Admiral Hill, wisely decided to call off the planned simultaneous landings on Parry and Eniwetok islet and commit all his forces to the assault on Eniwetok. The ammunition allotment for the preliminary bombardment was also doubled. The islet was assaulted at 0918 on 19 February and, although resistance was little more than light sniper fire, the assault force quickly jammed up in front of a berm twenty feet (7 meters) high that prevented the American tanks from moving inland. A distressing number of Army troops started digging in, against orders. Watson sent a blistering message to the landing force commander ordering him to get his troops off the beach, and by 1045 the beachhead had been cleared.  Japanese resistance stiffened further inland, and the Marine reserve battalion ran into a stiff pocket of resistance almost as soon as it landed. That night, there were a number of friendly fire incidents due to lack of fire discipline among the Army troops, fortunately none fatal. The Japanese staged a suicide charge on the morning of 20 February that nearly overran the Marine command post. The island was  secured on 22 February, at the cost of 37 killed and 94 wounded.

Artillery was landed on Japtan Islet, north of Parry, on the evening of 20 February. Parry itself was assaulted on the 22nd and secured on the 23rd with the aid of heavy fire support from three battleships, two cruisers, and aircraft from three escort carriers. The Japanese were well dug in and their resistance was well organized, and it cost 73 dead and 261 wounded for the Americans to secure the islet.

On 24 February the assault force reembarked and the garrison, from 10 Marine Defense Battalion, took over. A fighter strip was made operational on Engebi by 27 February 1944 and an 8200 foot (2500 m) bomber strip was completed in March, the two being named Wigley Field. An airstrip on Eniwetok islet was dubbed Stickell Field. Parry Island hosted a small seaplane base. The garrison on 11,200 men by 1 April 1944.

The capture of the atoll severed the Japanese air bridge to the Marshalls, and the Japanese airfields on the eastern Marshalls were left to wither on the vine.


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