SPOTLIGHT ON MARINE HEROES #11

THE STRIKING SIXTH MARINE DIVISION IN WORLD WAR II
And when he gets to Heaven, Saint Peter he will tell: "Another Marine reporting, sir — I've served my time in Hell!"

The last Marine division to be formed in the Second World War, the Sixth Marine Division embodied the combat lessons and the spirit of all Marines who served during the war. This proud outfit was the only Marine division never to serve within the continental United States and was the only division not reactivated for service following victory. The Striking Sixth served in one campaign during the war — the shockingly brutal capture of Okinawa, the single largest land battle of the Pacific war.

MajGen Lemuel Shepherd during the campaign for Okinawa USMC Photo

The Sixth Marine Division was activated at Camp Tassafaronga, Guadalcanal, on 7 September 1944. Formed around a nucleus of the combat-tested 1st Provisional Marine Brigade, the division was commanded by MajGen Lemuel Shepherd. Within the division's ranks stood thousands of Marines from the deactivated 1st Raider Regiment.

First organized under the late war F-series Table of Organization, the division later incorporated numerous components of the G-series TO prior to embarking for Okinawa. The Sixth had three assigned infantry regiments. These were the 4th, 22nd and 29th Marines. As subordinate units of the 1st Provisional Marine Brigade, the 4th and 22nd Marines had both fought in the liberation of Guam during the summer of 1944. 1st Battalion, 29th Marines had served with the 4th Marine Division during the capture of Saipan. Artillery support for the Striking Sixth was provided by the 15th Marine Regiment.

During the train-up period on Guadalcanal, a divisional insignia was designed. It reflected the heritage of the division's various elements. The word "Orient" referred to the Fourth Marines' pre-war service in China and future campaigns in that part of the Pacific. "Melanesia" referred to the South Pacific theater where the Raiders had played such a key role. Finally, "Micronesia" recalled the recent combat service of the 1st Provisional Marine Brigade and 1st Battalion, 29th Marines in the Marianas and in other areas of the central Pacific.

The divisional insignia of the Sixth Marine Division. In the center is a raised crusader sword, which was symbolic of the Allied struggle against the Axis. Col Victor Bleasdale, CO of the 29th Marines, did the basic design work. 1stLt George Thompson of the 29th Marines drew the final design.

On Guadalcanal, the Marines of the Sixth trained hard in individual and collective tasks. Great stress was laid on attacking fortified positions with flamethrowers and demolition charges. All hands qualified with their weapons and went through the combat infiltration course. As in every outfit in the Marine Corps, long forced marches were a staple of the training on the 'canal. Tankers, artillerymen, engineers, and Marines in every unit in the division went through their own specialized training in preparation for combat.

Tent camp of the Fourth Marines on Guadalcanal. The entire division lived under canvas on Guadalcanal. Many of the Marines would not set foot into an intact building until the occupation of Japan in the autumn of 1945.

Courtesy of Randy Ellis

During the campaign for Okinawa (Operation ICEBERG) the Sixth Marine Division was assigned to the III Amphibious Corps. L-Day took place on 1 April 1945 and the division had a total strength of 24,356 Marines and sailors for the landing. (2) Landing on the northern flank of the Tenth Army sector, Sixth Marine Division elements assaulted beaches Green 1, Green 2 and Red 1, 2, and 3. For the Marines of the Striking Sixth, this was the start of an 82 day record seldom achieved in the annals of American military history. The division accomplished the following during the campaign:

1. Captured part of Naha, once a city of 60,000 and the largest city occupied by Marines during the war.
2. Captured Naha Airfield on Oroku, a prize in the Ryukus, and an important ferrying stop for Jap[anese] flying south toward the Indies, Formosa, Malaya, the Philippines, and China.
3. Captured Yontan Airfield, the second major airbase on Okinawa, the Unten Ko midget submarine base, and vast stores of equipment and supplies.
4. Seized more than two-thirds of the physical land area of Okinawa.
5. Killed more than 20,000 Jap[anese] troops and captured more than 2,800.
6. Broke the Naha-Shuri-Yonabaru Line, won the vital battle of Sugar Loaf Hill, and smashed the last line of defense at Mezado Ridge. (3)

Amtanks of of Company A, 1st Armored Amphibious Battalion, precede the assault wave of the 4th Marines onto Red Beach. DOD Photo

For the valorous deeds of its men, the Sixth Marine Division earned a hard-won Presidential Unit Citation in the campaign. In the fighting, 27 Marines in the division earned Navy Crosses, 10 of them posthumous. Additionally, hundreds of Marines and Navy medical personnel earned other medals for bravery. But thousands of heroic deeds were never recorded in the heat of combat. The division endured 8,226 casualties, including 1,637 dead.(3) Six members of the division received the Nation's highest award, the Medal of Honor, for heroism on Okinawa. They were:

Cpl Richard E. Bush, USMC, 1st Battalion, 4th Marines
Maj Henry A. Courtney, Jr., USMC, 2nd Battalion, 22nd Marines (posthumous)
Cpl James L. Day, USMC, 2nd Battalion, 22nd Marines
PFC Harold Gonsalves, USMC, 4th Battalion, 15th Marines (posthumous)
HA 1/c Fred F. Lester, USN, 1st Battalion, 22nd Marines (posthumous)
Pvt Robert M. McTureous, Jr., USMC, 3rd Battalion, 29th Marines (posthumous)

An M4A3 Sherman of the 6th Tank Battalion evacuates a casualty from the 29th Marines during the rugged fighting near Sugar Loaf. On Okinawa tanks were pressed into service in numerous non-traditional roles. These workhorses were used as ambulances, ammunition supply vehicles, and to carry infantry. DOD Photo

In the foreword to the Sixth Marine Division history MajGen Shepherd wrote, "The bloody, hard-fought battle for Okinawa may be recorded as the decisive campaign of the Pacific War." (4) When the campaign ended on 21 June 1945, every Marine expected that the next battle would be for Japan itself. The enemy defenders had resisted with tenacity seldom matched in warfare. And the elements had conspired with the Japanese. Torrential rains turned the battlefield into a sea of glutinous mud. Marines clawed their way forward under rain and a torrent of artillery and machine gun fire.

Recommending the division for the Presidential Unit Citation, LtGen Roy Geiger wrote, "The conduct of the Sixth Marine Division throughout this grueling campaign was at all times heroic and outstanding. It accepted its hazardous missions without question and performed them in spite of staggering losses among its personnel. The relentless and continuous advance demanded uncommon devotion to duty from its men, who were in action against the enemy for a period of three months." (5)

A Marine patrol dashes forward under fire on Okinawa. The enemy defended from a series of interlocked positions that had to be reduced at a high cost in men and equipment. DOD Photo

Infantrymen of the 4th Marines move forward into battle on the Oroku Peninsula. In front is a flame gunner with a rifleman behind for security. In a techniques known as "processing" flame and demolitions were used on Okinawa to seal enemy positions. Thousands of fortifications had to be reduced by processing. DOD Photo

101 days after landing on Easter Sunday of 1945, the battered and weary remnants of Sixth boarded transports at Naha. They shoved off for their next home on the island of Guam. There the Marines began the daunting task of preparing for the next invasion. There was only one target left in that summer of 1945 — Japan itself. But then the unthinkable happened in August and the enemy surrendered. The division learned of the event at 1:00 in the morning, but it didn't take long for news to spread through the camps like wildfire. But the mission wasn't yet over and soon, divisional elements were alerted for their next assignment. Instead of invading the enemy homeland, the Sixth would help occupy it.

The Fourth Marines went ashore with other divisional elements on August 30th and assumed responsibility for the Yokosuka Naval Base. In September 1945 the rest of the division boarded transports at Guam and sailed for occupation duty in China. Tasked with securing Tsingtao and the surrounding areas, the Sixth was responsible for military government, repatriating Japanese nationals, and a laundry list of other tasks. On 1 April 1946, two years to the day after the assault on Okinawa began, the Sixth Marine Division was redesignated the Third Marine Brigade.

Infantrymen of the 22nd Marines hiking along a dusty trail late in the campaign for Okinawa. A shortage of motor transport meant that Marines often had to walk for long distances to reach their sectors on the island. DOD Photo

Entrance to the Sixth Marine Division Cemetery on Okinawa. In his eulogy at the cemetery's dedication, Navy Chaplain Paul Redmond said, "This is not a bivouac of the dead. It is a colony of heaven. And some part of us all is buried here." (6) USMC Photo

Click HERE to read the text of Sixth Marine Division's Presidential Unit Citation.

Click HERE to view color images of the Sixth Marine Division's unforgettable struggles in the campaign.

 

To learn more, follow this link to the THE FINAL CAMPAIGN: Marines in the Victory on Okinawa.

To learn more about the Sixth Marine Division, visit the Striking Sixth web site.

1. Strength figure extracted from US Marine Corps World War II Order of Battle by Gordon Rottman, pg 364, Greenwood Press, 2002
2. 6th MarDiv accomplishments were found in Uncommon Valor—Marine Divisions in Action, pg 235-236, Infantry Journal Press, 1946
3.Casualty figures from The Marine Corps Book of Lists by Albert Nofi, pg 118, Combined Publishing, 1997
4. Gen Shepherd's words are from History of the Sixth Marine Division edited by Bevin Cass, pg ix, Infantry Journal Press, 1948
5. LtGen Geiger's words are from History of the Sixth Marine Division edited by Bevin Cass, pg 178, Infantry Journal Press, 1948
6. Chaplain Redmond's words are from History of the Sixth Marine Division edited by Bevin Cass, pg 178, Infantry Journal Press, 1948

 

 

 

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