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Delivering Destruction: American Firepower and Amphibious Assault from Tarawa to Iwo Jima

05 Mar 24

228 pages

Prof Geoffrey Till

Delivering Destruction is a specialist book on a detailed aspect of the conduct of amphibious operations in the Pacific campaign of the Second World War by the US Marines. Written by an ex-Marine it smacks of professional engagement with the subject in a way that few ordinary academics can manage. It is, however, based on a PhD thesis so has all the usual academic appurtenances; indeed, the approach is a bit too laboured, as though written in the expectation of having to defend the argument against sceptics.

In brief, the argument is that the much-vaunted thinking done by such USMC luminaries as John A Lejeune and Pete Ellis, which eventually resulted as The Tentative Manual for Landing Operations in 1934 was grand as a coherent statement of what needed to be done but limited in the exact details of how it was to be done. The topic chosen, as the title suggests, is the question of how the firepower delivered by naval gunnery and airpower should be provided in any putative campaign across the Pacific. Far-sighted US Marines had always assumed, just as did the US Navy, that any war with Japan would likely involve initial loss and retreat for the Americans and then a long slog back across the world’s biggest ocean, island by island. Further, since many of these islands were small with few landing places and would be the more heavily defended the closer they were to the Japanese home islands, frontal assault in the form of ‘storm landings’ would be required. Their processing of British experience at Gallipoli showed that such landings could be prohibitively costly – hence the importance of as much bombardment support as could be provided both before and during the landing. It was accepted that this would much reduce the prospects of surprise. Later, when the extent of Japanese resistance was realised, the value of such support well after the landing became clearer as well.

So, if that was the basic requirement, how was all this firepower best coordinated with tactical movement, initially in the landing and then in subsequent attempts to break out of the consolidated bridgehead? Hemler shows that initially bitter experience at Tarawa underlined the need for the closest of coordination and communication between those who provided the firepower and those who needed it. As a ‘learning organisation’ the USMC carefully and quickly analysed each successive operation, absorbed its lessons and sought to apply them next time. By such means was the old World War I army tactic of the rolling barrage applied to the much more fluid and complicated situations faced by the Marines.

War is a dynamic process; the Japanese were learning lessons too and by the time of Iwo Jima and Okinawa had transformed their tactics, pivoting away from meeting the Marines on the beaches (which, if successful, might defeat the landing) to resisting their subsequent advance and to killing as many of them as possible (so making  subsequent US landings elsewhere, and especially against the home islands, much more difficult). This in turn required adaptive tactics from the Marines.

Hemler’s analysis of the detailed procedures by which the USMC, the US Navy and the US Army’s Air Force improved coordination might make the non-specialist’s eyes glaze over a little because he shows it was a very repetitive indeed iterative process. However, it was crucial in limiting US Marine casualties, either at the water’s edge or inland when assaulting General Kuribayashi’s incredibly strong and resolute defences at Iwo Jima. For that reason, this is clearly a very significant issue which Hemler believes has been insufficiently studied.

Its importance even today, is clearly recognised in a US Marine Corps which is trying to prepare itself for a possible campaign along the first, or maybe second, island chains in the Western Pacific. The previous Commandant, General Berger, has provided the broad vision of how this is to be done – essentially by small, highly mobile, low visibility but offensive units whose activities are intended to get inside China’s OODA loop and so help the US Navy smash its way into the East and South China Seas (or at least stop the Chinese getting out). But now the USMC is wrestling with the required practical details of how these units are to be communicated with, commanded and supplied and, since this will be a joint campaign, coordinated not just with the Navy but with the Army and Air Force too – not to mention the odd ally, partner or by-stander. The challenges are legion and campaign planners will need all the help they can get. Well processed experience of the sort that Hemler provides should provide them with many pointers for the way ahead. He also shows that this kind tactical innovation was conducted by the nameless middlemen in the hierarchy, by process, rather than handed down by the bright stars at the top. He is convincing in arguing that this deserves more attention than it has so far received.

As far as general readers not engaged in planning or studying such operations, this is an important read but not a light one. For people particularly interested in the conduct of amphibious operations, this well analysed account is an essential read. Recommended.