Wednesday, November 18, 2020

Operation Stalemate II: The Invasion of Peleliu

First Division Marines head for the beach as their LVTs churn past the offshore line of LCI gunboats on September 15, 1944. USS LCIG-452 can be seen in the center and USS Mississippi (BB 41) is likely bombarding in the left distance. (80-G-59498, Naval History and Heritage Command)
By Zachary Smyers
HRNM Educator 
“As more than one Marine historian has said, it's unfortunate to the memory of the men who fought and died on Peleliu that it remains one of the lesser-known and poorly understood battles of World War II.” -Eugene B. Sledge, With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa 
Map of Peleliu with invasion beaches

This year marks the 76th anniversary of Operation Stalemate II, the invasion of Peleliu. Part of the Palau Islands in the Pacific Ocean, the island Peleliu is only 6 miles long, 2 miles wide. Military strategists deemed it a target in hopes that it could be used to support a future invasion of the Philippines. Located approximately 600 miles east of the Philippine Islands, the island has an extremely hot climate as well as high humidity, creating less than ideal conditions for the invading Marines. 
USS Maryland (BB 46) provided gunfire support with its 16-inch/45-caliber guns (80-G-455340, Naval History and Heritage Command)

The 1st Marine Division had the task of taking Peleliu, and would later be supported by soldiers from the Army’s 81st Infantry Division. Naval gunfire support centered around five battleships, including three built at Newport News Shipbuilding: USS Pennsylvania (BB 38), USS Maryland (BB 46), and USS Mississippi (BB 41). Prior to the Marines' landing on Peleliu, these battleships fired 519 rounds of 16-inch ammunition and 1,845 rounds of 14-inch ammunition, as well as shells from smaller caliber guns. Seven cruisers also lent their firepower to the three days of pre-invasion bombardment, and Navy aircraft from 19 aircraft carriers hit targets around the island, dropping 1,793 500-pound bombs.

 5-inch gun mounts aboard USS Pennsylvania (BB 38) fire at targets on Peleliu (Navsource)

Smoke billows from the pre-invasion bombardment (80-G-59497, Naval History and Heritage Command)

Despite the tremendous amount of firepower poured onto the island, the Japanese defenders remained safe in the various caves on Peleliu, having spent months preparing their defenses. The 10,000 Japanese troops under Lt. Col. Kunio Nakagawa had adjusted their tactics based on previous battles. Instead of immediately opposing the landing force, they developed a series of defenses inland, utilizing the terrain to their advantage.

Major General William Rupertus was in command of the invasion force. The 1st Marine Division would land at beaches divided into three landing areas with the three regiments (1st, 5th, and 7th Marines) of the division assigned different objectives. The invasion force had various support units, including three platoons of Marine War Dogs.
A Marine war dog and handler take a break (US Marine Corps Archives)

The initial landings took place at 8:32am on September 15, 1944. As the Marines made their way toward the beach, the Japanese held their fire and waited until the amphibious vehicles were in range. Then, the Japanese opened up with deadly accuracy, firing from concealed positions. The first wave suffered heavy casualties. The Marines managed to make it to their assigned beach sectors, and from there, attempted to carry out their objectives while facing heavy resistance.
Marines move forward slowly under heavy fire (US Marine Corps Archives)
On day 2 of the invasion, the 5th Marines captured the airfield despite heavy casualties. On day 3, Navy Seabees had the airfield ready for flight operations and F-4 Corsair fighter bombers from VMF-114 started to arrive at the airfield on the 11th day of the operation. They would provide much-needed close air support for the rest of the campaign. 

The island’s high ground, referred to as “The Point,” the Umurbrogol Pocket, would eventually earn a new name, “Bloody Nose Ridge.” The fight for the ridge was extremely costly for the 1st Marines. The Japanese not only held the high ground, but they also had well-concealed machine gun and mortar positions. The enemy maintained fire discipline, firing only when the Marines were in the kill zone. The 1st Marines suffered 70 percent casualties trying to capture the fortified position. The 81st Infantry Division was sent in after the Marines were bloodied from repeated attempts to take the ridge. With the Army's assistance, and using siege tactics, the high ground was taken. The island was declared secured on November 27, 1944.
Marines move through the rough terrain on the island toward the front lines (US Marine Corps Archives)

This operation was expected to take 3 to 5 days, but ended up taking 2 months, 1 week, and 5 days. The price to capture the island and the airfield was extremely costly. The 1st Marine Division suffered over 6,000 casualties, making them unable to fight again until the invasion of Okinawa in April 1945. The Army’s 81st Infantry Division took over 3,000 casualties. Ultimately, Peleliu would never be used as a staging area for future operations in the Pacific theater. 

A Navy corpsman gives water to a wounded Marine on Peleliu (US Marine Corps Archives)

Despite the heavy losses, the military learned valuable lessons about how to assault heavily-fortified positions. These lessons proved to be extremely helpful during the invasion of Okinawa in 1945. The lessons learned from “Bloody Nose Ridge” and how to assault a fortified position have been incorporated into Marine officer training at Quantico. The tactics used by the 5th Marines incorporating combined arms, concentrated fire, and movement during their assault on the airfield are taught at the Marine Corps’ School of Infantry.

Dedicated to Dot O. Headrick, who landed on Peleliu with the 5th Marines.

Wednesday, November 4, 2020

Recent Reads: From Sail to Steam: Recollections of Naval Life by Alfred Thayer Mahan


Alfred Thayer Mahan shown late in his career (Naval History and Heritage Command)

By Dr. Ira Hanna
HRNM Docent

If any group of naval officers from any nation were asked what the name Mahan would bring to their minds, “Sea Power Wins Wars” would be their first choice. But Mahan’s life tells a lot more. From his first ship, the Congress, he learned what it felt like to be under “full sail.” Built in 1840, it represented the culmination of the era of sail. And from his last ship, the USS Wachusett, he became fully knowledgeable about being under “full steam.” This book is his story of how the U. S. Navy went from sail to steam power.

Mahan was born September 27, 1840, at West Point, New York, where his father was a professor at the Military Academy. Even so, he visited Norfolk often and became interested in the Navy and its ships. He always thought of himself as a Virginian. Although Mahan remained true to the Union during the “War of Secession,” he forever was influenced by the Chesapeake Bay. His father told him, “your mother is northern and very few can approach her, but still none compare for me the southern woman.” His father met Lafayette when he toured America in 1825-26 and spent time in France visiting him. His mother had a strong strain of French blood. Alfred said of himself that he was one half Irish, one quarter English, and “a good deal more than a trace of French.”

As a young boy, Mahan was fascinated by books written by the “old salts.” So it was not unusual that he chose to go to the Naval Academy rather than the Military Academy which his father preferred. In 1870, Mahan obtained command rank but was concerned with the “apathy” of the American people toward the navy. He called it a time of naval stagnation. That was when he began to read every book that told how sea power influenced the success of a nation, commercially as well as militarily.

By 1884, he had published a number of articles in popular magazines and become a regular lecturer at the Naval War College. He collected those articles and lectures into a book and in 1889 published The Influence of Sea Power upon History, 1660 – 1783. He continued to publish books that changed the way Americans, especially Congress and the President, felt about the need to build “a navy second to none.” Some of them were: The Influence of Sea Power upon the French Revolution and Empire, 1793 -1812 (published in 1892); The Life of Nelson (1897); The Interest of America in Sea Power, Present, and Future (1897); and The Major Operations of the Navies in the War of American Independence (1914). During his lifetime, Mahan authored over 40 books and before his death in 1914, predicted the defeat of the Central Powers and German Navy in World War I.

Although written in Victorian Era English with its hidden meanings, some revealing tales, and insights into the navy’s leadership, there is no doubt that Alfred T. Mahan influenced that leadership. The present navy reflects his belief that technological advances will influence what kind of ships will be built now and in the future in order for America to maintain its place as a world leader.

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Operation Urgent Fury

A map showing the invasion plan for Grenada (Wikimedia Commons)

By Zachary Smyers
HRNM Educator

The small island nation of Grenada, also referred to as the “island of spice,” is located 100 miles north of Venezuela. In 1983, Grenada became a legitimate concern for President Ronald Reagan, who feared that the island was becoming a communist client state. Starting in 1979, Grenadian leadership had started developing close ties with the Soviet Union and Cuba. These ties continued to grow over time, as the leadership of Grenada had communist values. With both Soviet and Cuban support, Grenada was in the process of constructing a modern airport with a sizeable runway.

Aerial reconnaissance photo showing the runway and other key areas of the airport. (

The size of the airstrip under construction was much larger than what was usually required for commercial aircraft use. President Reagan was alarmed by the airport construction as he was concerned that the runway would be used in a military capacity, allowing for the possibility of Soviet military aircraft operating 1,500 miles from Florida. Compounding Reagan’s concerns was the fact that 600 American students were attending medical school on the island. The U.S. State Department had serious concerns about the lives of the Americans on Grenada. Reagan did not want another scenario playing out similar to the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, and more importantly, he did not want another situation like the Iran hostage crisis a few years prior. After the bombing of the Marine barracks and the death of 241 US service members on October 23, 1983, the majority of American citizens thought that the US might invade Lebanon. Instead, Reagan chose to invade Grenada on October 25, 1983.
President Reagan meeting with Congress on October 25, 1983. (Wikimedia Commons)

USS Guam (LPH 9) seen off of Grenada in October 1983 (Navsource)
The majority of U.S. Naval support for the operation came from Hampton Roads. USS Guam (LPH 9), served as the flagship for Vice Admiral Joseph Metcalf III, who was commander of the American forces designated Joint Task Force 120.  Aboard Guam with Admiral Metcalf was then Major General Norman Schwarzkopf who was initially the Army liaison, but later during the operation became Admiral Metcalf’s Deputy Commander. The aircraft carrier USS Independence (CV 62) provided the bulk of the close air support. In addition to the Navy ships from the 2nd Fleet were SEAL Teams 4 and 6. Joint Task Force 120 also included US Army Rangers, the 82nd Airborne Division, the 160th SOAR, Delta Force, various Air Force units, and the 22nd Marine Amphibious Unit. 
A CH-46 prepares for a flight  off of USS Guam (LPH 9) (Navsource)
Operation Urgent Fury was the first time that US military forces had operated together since the Vietnam War. This interservice mission led to several problems. One was the multiple communication issues between the various units operating in the field. There were interservice rivalries that delayed key decisions from being made. The intelligence for planning purposes was limited at best and also outdated.  The Marine Corps was using maps of the island that had been produced in 1936. They excluded the time zone of Grenada, which would prove to be a fatal error as the mission progressed. The operation as a whole was also planned on very short notice.  
Rangers advancing in Grenada (

Despite the flaws, Urgent Fury commenced on the morning of October 25. The mission objectives were to restore order, neutralize Grenadian and Cuban Forces, and protect American civilians. Army Rangers secured the Point Salines International Airport on the first day, while Navy SEALs and Delta Force carried out missions to acquire better intelligence and secure additional objectives like the island’s radio station. The Marines landed on the northeastern side of Grenada and captured Pearls Airport. The goal of the second day of the operation was to secure the perimeter around Point Salines and rescue American medical students. By the third day of the operation, all of the American medical students had been rescued, and organized resistance on Grenada ended.

American medical students being evacuated from Grenada (

International response to Urgent Fury was not favorable. The United Nations considered it to be a violation of international law, while privately England’s Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was upset about the short notice she received of the operation taking place. However, she supported the operation in a public capacity.  In the United States, public support was favorable, and in Grenada itself, the date of the invasion is now recognized as a national holiday.  
The branches of the American armed forces involved in the operation conducted a careful analysis of what went right and what went wrong with Urgent Fury. This led to a restructuring of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, an increase of power for the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the creation of the Joint Special Operations Command. Changes this thorough had not been made since the Department of Defense was established in 1947. Operation Urgent Fury proved to be a much-needed confidence boost for the American military after the long war in Vietnam.   

Wednesday, October 7, 2020

First in Peace: USS George Washington (SSBN 598) and the Polaris Missile

USS George Washington (SSBN 598) crest, with the ship's motto "First in Peace" reinforced by the Polaris missile for nuclear deterrence. (Naval History and Heritage Command)

Thomas Grubbs
Guest Contributor

As the nation’s first president, George Washington has long been remembered through the practice of naming various places, from high schools to the forty second state, after him. This fact, combined with President Washington’s early and vocal support for the establishment and maintenance of the United States Navy, led to no fewer than sixteen American ships being named after him.  Four, including a pair of battleships, have been named for the state named for him. Of all of these ships, perhaps the most powerful, and least well known, is the ballistic missile submarine with the pennant number SSBN 598. 
USS George Washington on the surface while on patrol (Wikimedia Commons)

The first use of sea-based missiles came immediately after the end of the Second World War, utilizing captured German technology. Such weapons were not confined to the surface fleet. Beginning in the early 1950s, advances in missile technology gave submarines the capability to launch surface to surface missiles.  At first simply armed with conventional high explosive warheads, these missiles were soon paired with a far more terrifying weapon: the atomic bomb.  
A Regulus missile fired from USS Tunny (SSG 282) (Wikimedia Commons)

Given the submarine’s inherent ability to remain both mobile and hidden, both the United States and the  Soviet Union began to base a proportion of their nuclear arsenals aboard submarines.  It took less than fifteen years for science and technology to realize their full potential, and by the 1950s, missile boat technology had reached a point where a single nuclear armed missile submarine could launch up to five nuclear warheads from more than five hundred miles away. Beginning in 1957, the United States Navy conducted nuclear deterrence patrols using a pair of World War II-era diesel submarines modified to carry a pair of Regulus nuclear-capable cruise missiles.  They were soon supplemented by a pair of purpose-built Greyback-class vessels and the nuclear-powered USS Halibut (SSGN 587). These five boats provided valuable real-world experience in operating a seaborne nuclear deterrent.  However, the effectiveness of the subsonic Regulus missile, with its limited range, a host of guidance limitations, and vulnerabilities to enemy defenses and countermeasures (both the missile in flight and the submarine having to surface to fire), was soon outpaced by technology.  To overcome these drawbacks, the Navy turned to a new and more advanced weapon, the ballistic missile.    
Polaris missile launch in July 1960 (Naval History and Heritage Command)

The first workable submarine-launched ballistic missile used by the United States Navy was introduced in 1960. Named Polaris, after the North Star, the missile grew from experiments by noted physicist Edward Teller that allowed for miniature hydrogen bombs to be fitted on missiles for anti-submarine warfare as part of Project Nobska in 1956. Drawing on experimental experience with the Army’s liquid-fueled Jupiter missiles, the two-stage solid fueled Polaris made its operational debut for the United States Navy in February 1960 after just four years of testing and development.  Found in thirty-one of the forty-one ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) that were in commission for the United States Navy between 1960 and 1990, it proved both a long lasting and valuable component of the United States nuclear triad during the Cold War. Larger (32ft 4in) and heavier (35,700lb) than the previous cruise missiles, Polaris could deliver three W58 thermonuclear warheads with a total yield of 600kt out to a distance of 2,500 nautical miles. Surprisingly accurate, each 200kt W58 warhead could land within 3,000 feet of its intended target, impressive for 1960s technology. Launched from a mobile and submerged platform and possessing a top speed of 8,000 miles an hour, Polaris was all but utterly immune to interception prior to launch and impossible to hit afterwards with the technology available at the time. The more powerful and longer ranged Trident and Trident II missiles eventually replaced the Polaris missile, and are currently carried by the Ohio-class SSBNs.
A view of the missile compartment "Sherwood Forest" aboard USS George Washington (Naval History and Heritage Command) 

Polaris first went to sea aboard the world’s first purpose-built SSBN, the USS George Washington, which was built at the Electric Boat Corporation of Groton, Connecticut. On the morning of November 1, 1958, workers laid down the keel of a new attack submarine to be named USS Scorpion (SSN 589). Modified while under construction by the addition of a 130-foot-long missile compartment and renamed USS George Washington (SSBN 598), the former Scorpion, now the world’s first ballistic missile submarine, slid into the water on June 9, 1959. It formally joined the fleet on December 30 of that year. A true underwater leviathan, Washington, affectionately nicknamed “Georgefish,” displaced 6,800 tons, measured 381 feet long, with a beam of 33 feet, and required a crew of 112 officers and men. Armed with sixteen Polaris missiles and six  torpedo tubes, George Washington would be the first of a planned five Washington-class ballistic missile submarines.  
Loading a Polaris missile aboard George Washington for testing in July 1960. Pictured is the outer fiberglass "sleeve" around the missile. (Naval History and Heritage Command)

After sea trials and under the command of Commander James Osborn, the boat set course for Cape Canaveral, Florida in June 1960, where the crew took on a pair of Polaris missiles for testing purposes. On July 20, 1960, USS George Washington became the first submarine to launch a ballistic missile while submerged on the Atlantic Test Range. At 12:39 PM, Osborn sent the message “POLARIS - FROM OUT OF THE DEEP TO TARGET. PERFECT” to President Eisenhower. Less than two hours later, the missiles hit their target some 1,300 miles away. The successful test, carried out under the personal supervision of Polaris project director Rear Admiral William Raborn, marked a new, and more terrifying, world order.
(Wikimedia Commons)
Rear Admiral Raborn (center) aboard the submarine after the successful Polaris test launch in July 1960 (Naval History and Heritage Command)

After this brief flirtation with fame, USS George Washington settled into the repetitive duty of deterrence patrols near the coastline of the Soviet Union.  In 1970, the submarine reported for a refueling at Charleston, South Carolina in 1970 after having traveled some 100,000 nautical miles the previous decade. Next, George Washington reported to Pearl Harbor, Hawaii for service with the Pacific Fleet. The submarine concluded its final deterrence patrol in 1982 prior to disarmament as a SSBN the next year in compliance with the terms of the SALT I Treaty.  It briefly served as an attack submarine after the removal of its Polaris missiles. 
Sail from SSBN 598 at U.S. Navy Submarine Force Museum (Wikimedia Commons)
USS George Washington was decommissioned on January 24, 1985, and later scrapped at Puget Sound Naval Yard.  The submarine’s sail, or conning tower, is on display in Groton, Connecticut, at the Submarine Force Museum, where it can be seen today.  Preserving peace, yet constantly prepared for war, USS George Washington carried some of the deadliest weapons ever devised by man. Similarly, the current submarine fleet, as well as future Columbia-class SSBNs being built will be charged with maintaining the sea-based nuclear deterrent for the United States of America and with it, the balance of terror that has kept the peace for the last seventy-five years.