WEAPONS OF THE WORLD WAR II GYRENE
The 2.36 rocket launcher (Bazooka)
The bazooka was a marvel of science and engineering—the world's first shoulder fired antitank rocket. Using a shaped charge rocket, it was a powerful weapon that enabled Marines and Soldiers to defeat enemy armor and field fortifications. Of vital importance was the bazooka's simplicity of operation and maintenance in the most rugged combat conditions.
In common with many famous weapon systems, the bazooka had a father. He was Robert Goddard, the father of American rocketry and genius inventor. Dr. Goddard developed the basic idea for the infantry rocket launcher during the First World War. With the armistice in 1918, work on this weapon project was shelved, but not before Goddard demonstrated it at Aberdeen Proving Grounds two days before the end of the war.
In the interwar years, tank-killing capability for the infantryman came from large caliber antitank rifles. As tanks became more heavily armored, these rifles were less and less effective. With the coming of war in 1939, the US Army Ordnance Department began a top secret development program to give the infantryman a self-contained tank-killing weapon. The bazooka took advantage of a revolutionary principle called the Munroe effect. A shaped charge warhead focused the explosive energy to shoot a plasma jet through the armor plate of an enemy tank.
In June 1942, the US Army officially adopted the Launcher, Rocket, Antitank, M1. General Electric built the first 5,000 weapons in a crash program to equip Army troops for the North African campaign. When Soldiers first got their first look at the rocket launcher, they dubbed it "the bazooka" after a musical instrument developed by entertainer Bob Burns.
In June 1943, the 1st Corps Experimental Rocket Platoon was formed with the mission of testing and evaluating the new bazooka. A detachment from the platoon participated in the Choiseuel diversion with the 2nd Parachute Battalion from 28 October–3 November 1943. This was the first time Marines used the bazooka in combat. A detachment for the experimental rocket platoon went in with the Marine forces during the Bougainville operation in October 1943. The official history made note of this deployment— "The 2.36 inch antitank bazooka was used on enemy emplacements on Hellzapoppin Ridge, but the crews were unable to get close enough for effective work."(1)
In the South Pacific, Marines encountered many problems with the new bazookas. The battery-operated firing circuit was delicate and the rocket motors often failed because of high temperatures and humidity. But the weapon showed promise as a bunker buster for the infantry Marine. Lessons learned both in the Pacific and in North Africa were used to develop and field an improved version—the M1A1 bazooka. New rockets were also fielded. These had improved motors that were less prone to failure due to environmental factors.
By mid-1944, the bazooka was in general service in the Fleet Marine Force. The F-series Table of Organization, effective from 5 May 1944, authorized 172 bazookas in the Marine division. Each of the division's three infantry regiments was equipped with 43 bazookas; 16 in the regimental weapons company, and nine in each of the infantry battalions. The rifle company had three bazookas under the F-10 Table of Organization. These weapons were assigned to the headquarters section and under the TO, did not have assigned bazooka men. Instead, the weapons could be issued as the company commander saw fit based on the tactical situation.(2)
The first widespread use of the bazooka in combat was during the Marianas campaigns in the summer of 1944. They proved extremely effective against Japanese field fortifications and tanks. For example, early in the morning of 17 June 1944, the enemy launched a tank attack with infantry support against the 2nd Marine Division on Saipan. About thirty tanks crashed into the Sixth Marine Regiment's defensive positions.
Bazooka teams hunted Japanese tanks in this intense, close quarter fight. Pfc Lauren Kahn and his loader, Pfc Lewis Nalder, were infantry Marines in K 3/6. During the battle, Kahn knocked out two tanks at point blank range with his bazooka. When his rockets were expended, Kahn knocked out a moving tank by climbing onto it and throwing two hand grenades into the turret hatch. For his heroism, Pfc Kahn later received the Navy Cross. Pfc Nalder was decorated with the Silver Star for gallantry in action.
In the brutal fighting on Peleliu in the autumn of 1944, bazookas again proved to be an important weapon. For example, on 26 September 1944, 1/5 was given the mission of attacking to the northern tip of Peleliu from their positions near the radio station on the West Road. The assault kicked off early in the morning, but immediately ran into intense and accurate Japanese fire from the Amiangol Ridge complex, dominating terrain on northern Peleliu. This position was held in strength by the enemy, and had been prepared with interlocking cave positions.
The Marines of 1/5 only gained a few yards. All forward movement was halted by heavy fire from Japanese artillery pieces employed in direct fire-mode from Hill 1 of the Amiangol Ridges. Meanwhile, enemy positions on Ngesebus Island poured heavy automatic weapons fire into the stalled Marines. During this desperate fight, Pfc Robert Montgomery, a bazooka man in HQ Co 1/5, was cut-off from his unit.
Pfc Montgomery observed a Japanese 75mm field piece being positioned to open fire on his exposed comrades. He closed to within 50 yards and began loading and firing his bazooka at the gun. He engaged with nine rounds, destroying the gun and crew. For his heroic actions that day, Montgomery was later awarded the Bronze Star with "V" device.
In October 1943, the Army Ordnance Department adopted a new model of the bazooka—the M9/M9A1. This weapon incorporated many improvements over earlier models. A trigger operated magneto replaced the battery ignition system and a safety switch made the new model much safer. The tube could be broken down for easier carrying, an important consideration for the infantry Marine. New, more reliable rockets were also introduced.
In a global war with competing demands and priorities, it was many months before the M9 bazookas reached the Fleet Marine Force. These weapons were used in combat in the final campaigns of the Pacific war on Iwo Jima and Okinawa. Once again, bazookas were frequently employed to knock out reinforced defensive positions.
The bazooka's main ammunition was a high explosive antitank round. The M6A3 HEAT rocket was standardized as the primary round in 1944. An earlier version—the M6A2 HEAT rocket—remained in service throughout the war. A practice rocket was also available. Late in the war, the M10 white phosphorous smoke rocket was fielded, but this round did not see widespread combat use.
On Iwo Jima, 1st Battalion, 27th Marines was committed to the attack northeast of Hill 362B on D+18 (9 March). In a column of companies, Charlie Company took the lead, followed by Baker. The enemy had every yard zeroed in with heavy weapons and seemed to have a plentiful supply of knee mortar rounds.
PltSgt Joseph Julian, from Sturbridge, Mass., was a platoon sergeant in Charlie Company. In a desperate attempt to stop the attack, Japanese troops laid down a terrific machine gun and mortar barrage against the exposed Marines. Eight Marines died and fourteen were wounded in this withering blast of fire. PltSgt Julian quickly deployed his platoon in support and moved forward. With white phosphorous grenades and satchel charges, he destroyed the closest pillbox. As enemy troops ran from the ruined position, Julian killed five before they could escape.
Returning back to Charlie’s lines, Julian found more satchel charges. With another Marine, he destroyed two cave positions by sealing them with explosives. One pillbox remained from the cluster. Julian got a bazooka from another Marine and, acting alone, fired four rounds into the pillbox, destroying it. Mortally wounded by enemy small arms fire, Julian fell on the battlefield. For his heroic actions that saved the lives of many Marines, PltSgt Julian was later awarded a posthumous Medal of Honor.
During World War II, almost 500,000 bazookas were produced to meet the demands of American and Allied forces. Although the 2.36 inch bazooka was a capable tank killer against Japanese armor, the same was not true in Europe. German tanks proved much harder to kill with bazookas. In late 1944, the Army Ordnance Department began work on a new, larger rocket launcher based on the M9A1. This weapon, the M20 "Super Bazooka" did not enter service until after the war was over. The M20 would see combat service with Marines in Korea and other wars.
The bazooka was well suited to the sort of war Marines fought in the Pacific. Versatile and easy to operate, it gave the infantry a powerful tool to destroy enemy fortifications and tanks. Considering how quickly it was developed and tested, the bazooka performed amazingly well in combat. It was an important weapon in the arsenal of the World War II Gyrene.
(1) Volume II, History of USMC Operations in World War II, by Henry Shaw, Jr., pg 290
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