Liberation 72nd Anniversary

Two U.S. Marines (on the left is Captain Paul S. O'Neal of Brighton Mass., and on the right is Captain Milton F. Thompson of Upper Montclair N.J.) plant the American flag on Guam eight minutes after U.S. Marines and Army assault troops landed.
Two U.S. Marines (on the left is Captain Paul S. O'Neal of Brighton Mass., and on the right is Captain Milton F. Thompson of Upper Montclair N.J.) plant the American flag on Guam eight minutes after U.S. Marines and Army assault troops landed.

Liberation 72nd Anniversary

by: James S. Santelli, Historical Branch G-3 Div. HQ | .
U.S. Marine Corps | .
published: March 10, 1969

Editor's Note: Liberation Day. Many countries and territories have them, but few celebrate them like Guam. There is, after all, much to celebrate. There is also much to remember. This year, July 21 marks the 72nd anniversary of when U.S. troops liberated Guam from Imperial Japanese occupation. This is also the 72nd year Guam has celebrated it and honored those who made the ultimate sacrifice. We dug into the archives to highlight this historic event and what it means to the U.S. military as well as Guam.

A historical account of the Battle of Guam

By mid-July 1944, the American campaign to seize the Marianas was one-third completed; Saipan had just fallen and the invasion of neighboring Tinian was imminent. In the meantime, plans for the recapture of Guam were well under way. The island was the largest and most important in the Marianas and the only American possession in the group. Guam had been captured by the Japanese on 10 December 1941. But more important was the fact that the recapture of Guam would provide the United States with airfields from which it could raid Japan and with good anchorages for the establishment of an advance naval base.

The mission of retaking Guam was assigned to Major General Roy S. Geiger’s III Amphibious Corps, consisting of the 3rd marine Division under Major General Allen H. Turnage, the 1st Provisional Marine Brigade under Brigadier General Lemuel C. Shepherd, Jr., III Amphibious Corps Artillery under Brigadier General Pedro A. del Valle, and the Army’s 77th Infantry Division under Major General Andrew D. Bruce. Naval Task Force 53 commanded by Rear Admiral Richard L. Conolly was given the task of landing and protecting the troops.

The Japanese garrison on Guam, approximately 18,500 men, was commanded by Lieutenant General Takeshi Takashina. About two-thirds of the defenders were members of General Takashina’s 29th Infantry Division. The remainder were naval ground and air personnel, chiefly stationed at the airfield on Orote Peninsula and near Agana, the island’s capital.

Because of the initial heavy casualties on Saipan, Guam was subjected to the heaviest preparatory bombardment yet delivered by the Navy in the Pacific. Beginning in June the frequency of aerial bombardment of the island was increased. Then in July Admiral Conolly’s ships moved to attack Japanese positions. For 13 days prior to the 21 July landings, Guam was pounded regularly from the air by carrier-based aircraft and from the sea by battleships, cruisers, and destroyers. As a result of this prolonged softening-up phase of the operation, the enemy’s defense installations were considerably weakened. All of the coast defense guns in the open and half of those that were concealed were destroyed. Fortunately for the assault troops this bombardment greatly lessened the Japanese ability to strike back at the Marines as they hit the beaches.

At 0830 on 21 July, the first waves of the invasion force were moving towards their assigned sectors on the beaches. The 3d Division went ashore on the west coast between Adelup Point and Asan Point. At the same time, the 1st Brigade landed further south between Point Bangi and the town of Agat.

At both points the enemy reacted with sporadic shelling of the landing zones. Two anti-boat guns on the brigade’s beaches cut a wide swath of destruction among the incoming landing craft, clearly demonstrating what would have happened if the pre-landing bombardment had been less effective. Both landing s were completely successful, but the intensity of enemy resistance increased steadily as the troops moved inland. By nightfall, the two beachheads had been secured and the Marines set about preparing for the inevitable Japanese counterattack. That nigh both sectors were hit by the enemy. Although one breakthrough occurred in the southern zone, both attacks were repulsed after hard fighting.

For the next few days both assault forces struggled to link up and to annihilate the enemy by driving to capture Apra Harbor and Orote Peninsula which lay between the two beachheads. Japanese defenses had been well organized, but the enemy commander failed on a number of occasions to take advantage of the thinly-stretched positions of the Marines. On the night of 25/26 July, when the Japanese did launch a full-scale counterattack, the Marines were ready. On Orote, 500 screaming sailors smashed fruitlessly against the brigade’s lines; most of them died in a massive deluge of artillery fire. After this abortive attack, the brigade continued the advance against heavy resistance while the 77th Division, which now was completely ashore, mopped up all of southern Guam.

On the same night the wild charge was made against the brigade’s lines, the Japanese launched an attack on the 3d Marine Division’s positions by moving forward thousands of men behind a heavy mortar and artillery barrage. The Japanese found their way through several gaps in the lines, but they were finally stopped by division reserves which had hastily set up a secondary defense. The 1st Battalion, 21st Marines and the 2d Battalion, 9th Marines were particularly hard hit but managed to hold their lines until reinforcements arrived. The attacks continued throughout the night with the fighting marked at times by desperate hand-to-hand fighting because of the repeated suicide charges of the enemy.

By daylight the worst of the counterthrust was over, although fighting persisted for some hours afterwards. The big Japanese counterattack had failed completely. The enemy in a matter of hours had lost 3,500 men killed in action.

Two days after the 3d Division repulsed the Japanese counterattack, the Marines came into contact with units of the 77th Division which were pushing north. Until the 30th the Marines in this sector spent their time consolidating their lines and mopping up small pockets of resistance.

By 1 August, the 3d Division and the 77th Division had linked up across the island and had begun a drive northward with the Marines pushing up the west coast and the soldiers moving up the east coast. The 1st Brigade, after a series of sharp clashes which resulted in the complete annihilation of the Japanese garrison on Orote Peninsula, took over the job of patrolling southern Guam from the 77th Division. The American advance to the north proceeded rapidly against only slight resistance for several days, then the 3d Division ran into a hornet’s nest of Japanese defenders at the road junction near Finegayan. To the east, the 77th Division successively overcame Japanese blocking positions at Barrigada and Yigo. On 7 August, the brigade was committed to avoid overextension of the lines of the two divisions. The entire corps then continued the advance against relatively light opposition.

Three days later the Marines reached Ritidian Point, the northernmost point on Guam. The battle for Guam thus ended with the declaration on the 10th that the island was secure. All effective enemy resistance had ended; however, mopping-up operations continued for many long months. The remaining Japanese melted into caves and jungle from which they resisted sporadically until 10 December 1945, when the final engagement occurred. But this was not entirely the end for the Japanese on Guam. For years former enemy soldiers would come forth from their hiding places to surrender or be captured by American authorities. The last two Japanese soldiers surrendered in May 1960.

The cost of the battle to the American side was moderate when compared to other Pacific battles and to pre-invasion estimates of American planners. American casualties were 1,350 killed and 6,450 wounded – a total of 7,800 of which 6,964 were Marines. The relatively light casualties and the rapid seizure of Guam cam be attributed to a number of factors: First, the unprecedented effectiveness of pre-invasion bombardment by the Navy. Secondly, the inability of the Japanese to effect a systematized plan of opposition. Despite the advantages of terrain and intensive fortifications, the Japanese countermeasures were for the most part disorganized and ill-planned. Thirdly, the high degree of inter-service cooperation that was demonstrated by all participants.

10 March 1969

Recognizing their service

Four U.S. marines were awarded the Medal of Honor for their heroism during the liberation of Guam. Two of the awards were posthumous.

The four were Captain Louis H. Wilson, Jr., a native of Brandon, Miss; Private First Class Luther Skaggs, Jr., of Henderson, Ky.; Private First Class Leonard F. Mason of Middleborough, Ky.; Private First Class Frank P. Witek of Derby, Conn.

Privates First Class Mason and Witek died in the actions for which their medals were presented.

Captain Wilson – later a brigadier general who served at Fleet Marine Force Pacific headquarters in Honolulu, Hawaii – was cited for his actions as a company commander in the 2d Battalion, 9th Marines, on July 25-26, 1944.

The captain led a successful attack during the afternoon of July 25, defended his gains against a series of fierce night counterattacks, and personally led a patrol which seized additional important ground during the morning of July 26.

His citation credits him with “contributing essentially” to the success of the 9th Marines in the two-day action. He was wounded three times during the two days of fighting.

Private First Class Skaggs, a squad leader in a rifle company mortar section of the 3d Battalion, 3d marines, also played a key role in an attack and the defense against counterattack.

He assumed command of the mortar section when its leader became a casualty on July 21, 1944, and led the section in the attack and the night counterattacks.

During the counterattacks, he was critically wounded by a grenade which exploded in his position. He applied a tourniquet to his shattered leg, then propped himself up and continued to fight for eight hours.

Skaggs later became an official of the Veterans Administration in Washington, D.C.

Private First Class Mason, an automatic rifleman in the 2d Battalion, 3d marines, single-handedly destroyed an enemy machinegun position on July 22, 1944.

Private First Class Witek, an automatic rifleman in the 1st Battalion, 9th Marines, single-handedly covered the withdrawal of his platoon when the unit was hit by surprise fire from entrenched enemy soldiers on August 3, 1944.

In the subsequent platoon attack, he also single-handedly destroyed an enemy machinegun position.

The Medals of Honor are credited to the states from which the Marines entered service. Those states are: Captain Wilson, Mississippi; Private First Class Skaggs, Kentucky; Private First Class Mason, Ohio; and Private First Class Witek, Illinois.

Awards won by units in Battle of Guam

  • Presidential Unit Citation
  • 3d Marines, Reinforced, 3d Marine Division
  • Navy Unit Commendation
  • 12th Marines, 3d Marine Division (for Bougainville and Guam)
  • 21st Marines, Reinforced, 3d Marine Division
  • Amphibious Reconnaissance Battalion, Fleet Marine Force, Pacific (for Gilbert Islands, Marshall Islands, Marianas Islands, and Ryukyu Islands)
  • 1st Separate Engineer Battalion (for Guam, Tinian and Okinawa)
  • IIIAmphibious Corps Signal Battalion (for Bougainville, Guam, Peleliu and Okinawa)
  • 9th Marine Defense Battalion (for Guadalcanal, Rendova – New Georgia and Guam)

–  James S. Santelli

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