What Went Wrong at Koro?

By William H. Bartsch

According to Turner's secret Rehearsal Operation Plan AR-42, which he issued on 22 July, landings on beaches simulating those on Guadalcanal and Tulagi would be mounted on the first day of the exercise and repeated on the third day. The troops would be recovered from the beaches on the second and fourth days. Just prior to the third day's landings, supporting gunfire from cruisers and destroyers would be laid down on the beaches, while earlier in the morning fighters and dive bombers from the three carriers would strafe and bomb the shoreline and inland areas in the northern part of the island. The natives from villages on the north and west coasts of Koro had already been evacuated to settlements in the southeast and southwest. To maintain secrecy, absolute radio silence would be in effect through the entire rehearsal period. 3

A total of 475 landing craft had been embarked on Task Force 62's 13 transports, 5 cargo ships, and 4 destroyer transports. These included 303 36-foot LCP(L)s (landing craft, personnel, large-previously designated T-boats and still informally called Higgins boats-each of which could transport a platoon of Marines. Also on board were 116 LCVs (landing craft, vehicle) or LCP(R)s (landing craft, personnel, ramped), 36-foot "ramp boats" for carrying a light vehicle as well as troops; 48 45-foot LCMs (landing craft, mechanized), which were also ramped; and 8 "X-boats," 30-foot craft for personnel only. 4  

The Danger Below

For A-day, the exercise's first day, H-hour on each of three northern Koro invasion beaches was set for 1230. Leathernecks of the 1st and 3d Battalions, 5th Marines, were to come ashore on Beach Red, which represented the Guadalcanal landing area. A follow-up force, three battalions of the 1st Marines, would arrive 50 minutes later. Some 2,400 yards farther west, at Beach Blue, which simulated Tulagi's shore, men of the 2d Battalion, 5th Marines and the 1st Raider Battalion were to land at H-hour, followed two hours later by troops of the 1st Battalion, 2d Marines. Finally, the 1st Parachute Battalion was scheduled to storm ashore on Beach Green, at the northwest corner of Koro, Nola Point, which represented Gavutu-Tanambogo's landing area. 5

At 0900 the rehearsal operation got under way. Some 8,000 yards off northern Koro, the wooden Higgins boats, X-boats, and ramp boats were swung out on their transports' davits and, with their three-man Navy crews on board, lowered to the sea. Then the Marines, loaded down with 70-pound field packs, rifles, and ammunition, clambered down cargo nets and jumped into the bobbing craft. Once the boats were loaded, a Navy control officer in his own craft led them some 500 yards south from their transports to an assembly point, where they circled until the last straggler arrived.

On a signal from the control officer, the Navy commanders of each of the five waves of boats were supposed to direct their craft to the lines of departure, some 3,500 yards farther south and about halfway between the transports and the beaches. From there, each wave's boats, lined up abreast of each other, were to speed to their designated beach. 6

Off Beach Red, however, the ship-to-shore operation was running far behind schedule. The Higgins boats from the American Legion (AP-35) and Fuller (AP-14) carrying the 5th Marines' 1st and 3d Battalions did not reach the line of departure until 1400-90 minutes past the time they should have reached the beach-and another 20 minutes or so would be required to cover the 4,000 yards from the departure line to the shore. 7

Adhering to the landing timetable, however, was not the most serious problem. Admiral Turner and his staff had unknowingly selected an H-hour that coincided with low tide off Koro. 8 As the landing craft approached the three beaches after passing over the reef that circled the island, they began encountering an unforeseen danger: large coral heads, some from 2 to 3 feet in diameter, clearly visible just below the surface. The boats, each loaded down with as many as 30 Marines, had a draft of two feet at the stern; hulls and propellers quickly started hitting against the coral with disastrous results. 9

Whether because of damage or coxswains' decisions not to risk their craft, many of the boats ground to a halt some 100 to 200 yards short of the beaches, and the Marines disembarked over the sides in water that in some cases was over their heads. In those instances, though, they managed to stay afloat by retaining grips on gunwales. 10 Meanwhile, the more fortunate Leathernecks who could stand up stumbled ashore over the coral outcrops and lava rocks. Some more-skilled boat drivers managed to snake their way between the coral heads and bring their landing craft onto the beach. 11

The men of the 3d Battalion, 5th Marines, disembarked from the Fuller, faced yet another problem. The inexperienced Navy officer leading in the first wave guided the boats to the wrong beach, some 1,800 yards to the right of their target, Beach Red. 12

Navy beachmasters led by Lieutenant Jack Clark filled one of the third-wave boats from the Fuller. The repair officer for the 14 transports and cargo ships in the Guadalcanal landing group, Clark was shocked by the conditions off Beach Red. He feared that the huge coral knobs would seriously damage the propellers of the boats on which the fate of the Solomons landings hung. Immediately after the coxswain of his craft succeeded in dodging the coral heads and reaching the shore, Clark ordered his beach party to disembark and, while still on board, had the coxswain back off. He wanted to explore the situation all along Koro's north coast. 13

' Recommend Finding Another Beach'

Clark found similar conditions on each of the rehearsal beaches. Convinced it was too dangerous for the landing craft to continue trying to reach the shore, and given he had only a limited stock of spare propellers, the lieutenant signaled the Fuller's commanding officer, Captain Paul S. Theiss: "Beach full of huge coral knobs. If we require boats for a real landing shortly, recommend finding another beach." 14

Unknown to Clark, his Aldis lamp message to Theiss was also picked up by the McCawley . Soon afterward, the lieutenant observed one of the flagship's boats carrying "Brass Hats"—evidently including General Vandegrift—approach the shore and then turn around and head back to the McCawley. 15 Later Clark noticed that landing craft from the McCawley , Barnett (AP-11), and George F. Elliott (AP-13) were pulling up short of the coral-infested area off of Beach Red and returning to the transports with their Marines still on board.

The Barnett's first- and fifth-wave Beach Red boats, carrying troops of the 1st Battalion, 1st Marines, had reached the line of departure between 1445 and 1454 (almost two hours late) when the wave commanders received a visual order to return to the transport. Her second, third, and fourth waves were ordered back even before reaching the line of departure. 16 The McCawley 's landing craft also returned without disembarking their Leathernecks from the 3d Battalion, 1st Marines, although before turning around, some of the boats' propellers were damaged by coral. The wave commanders of landing craft carrying some of the men from the George F. Elliott —F Company, 2d Battalion, 1st Marines; H Battery, 3d Battalion, 11th Marines; and a Navy beach landing party—apparently were not alerted in time, and the Marines and Navy men landed on Beach Red. 17

To the west at Beach Blue, the landing exercise had run closer to the timetable, with the first wave of the 2d Battalion, 5th Marines, from the Neville (AP-16) reaching shore at 1250, only 20 minutes behind schedule. The 1st Raiders, also from the Neville as well as four destroyer transports, reached the beach at about H-hour. As at Beach Red, coral heads obliged many coxswains to offload their passengers some hundreds of yards offshore, but at that distance the water at Blue was not as deep, and the Marines waded in. 18

Two hours after H-hour, the first- and second-wave landing craft from the President Jackson (AP-37), carrying men of the 1st Battalion, 2d Marines, landed on Beach Blue, followed immediately and in order by the next three waves of boats. 19 The latter craft, however, ran into coral heads some 100 yards offshore and had to disembark their Marines short of the beach. 20

Ship-to-shore operations for the much smaller landing at Beach Green went according to schedule. Disembarking from the Heywood (AP-12) into landing craft by 1136, the 395 Marines of the 1st Parachute Battalion reached the Nola Point beach at H-hour, 1230. 21 Nevertheless, as at the other beaches, coral heads proved hazardous. For example, Coxswain Don Chalmers' boat propeller was so damaged by coral the vessel had to be towed back to the Heywood. 22

Marines' Onshore Misadventures

The 1st Battalion paratroopers were scheduled to spend only a few hours on Beach Green, and by 1455, the first boats returning them to the Heywood had arrived back at the transport and were being hoisted aboard. 23 On Beach Red and Beach Blue, however, Marines who had landed before the ship-to-shore operation was cancelled spent part of the afternoon attempting to "seize" inland objectives, often with frustrating results. As the sun began to set, they started to make arrangements for an overnight stay. Few, if any, had ever spent a night on a South Sea island.

On Beach Red, the men of the 1st Battalion, 5th Marines, had followed orders and remained in a restricted area just off the beach. Several platoons of the 3d Battalion, however, ventured inland in search of food. After discovering pigs and chickens left behind by the evacuated natives, their night culminated in several impromptu barbecues. 24 When one young officer of F Company, 2d Battalion, 1st Marines, wandered upon some 100 of the battalion's men roasting chickens, he hesitated to stop the unauthorized activity. Moments later he found himself under a threat of court-martial when the irate commanding officer of the 5th Marines, Colonel Leroy Hunt, emerged from the darkness demanding to know who the senior officer present was. 25

Some other F Company men had spent the afternoon taking souvenirs from evacuated villagers' thatch huts, despite the efforts of a platoon sergeant to stop them. Later, as they tried to sleep that night, the Marines could hear the engines of Higgins boats and shouts of coxswains as they tried to free their landing craft from the coral heads. 26

To the west, inland from Beach Blue, the men of the 2d Battalion, 5th Marines, had spent a sweaty afternoon hiking through seven-foot-high kunai grass and climbing steep slopes in an effort to reach their objective. After an evening meal of C rations and coconuts, they slept in a coconut grove. 27 Elsewhere in the Beach Blue area, platoons of the 1st Battalion, 2d Marines had hacked their way through thick jungle in attempts to reach their objectives. Some A Company Marines chased down goats and chickens, which were served to the company for dinner. Later, many of A Company's 3d Platoon were too worked up to sleep and under brilliant moonlight played pinochle until late into the night. 28

A Day of Recovery and Reprimands

According to the invasion exercise's original plan for A+1 (29 July), assault and support troops landed the day before on Beach Red and Blue were to be recovered and returned to their transports. On Beach Green, meanwhile, the 2d Battalion, 2d Marines, from the USS President Hayes (AP-39), was to land at H-hour, and then re-embark and return to the Hayes by 1500. 29

Of course, because of the cancellation of A-Day's landing plan in mid-execution, there were fewer Marines to be picked up. Concerned that the support troops (mainly the 11th Marines) had not been able to participate in the landing exercise the day before as planned, Admiral Turner ordered that they should embark in landing craft and be taken to within 2,000 yards of Beach Red and then re-embark aboard their transports. The Marines would at least get experience climbing down cargo nets into pitching boats and riding in toward an invasion beach. The originally planned landing of the 2d Battalion, 2d Marines, on Beach Green was dropped from the schedule. 30 The day's operations went according to the revised plans. 31

When Jack Clark had returned to the Fuller that morning, Captain Theiss informed him that in recognition of his invaluable warning about the conditions off the landing beaches, Admiral Turner was appointing him beachmaster for Transport Group X-Ray (62.1), meaning he would be in charge of beach operations for all of the landings on Guadalcanal. Later, Clark checked in with his repair gang. It was already busy trying to get damaged landing craft into operational condition by replacing twisted propellers from their stock of spare screws and making hull repairs. 32

As newly appointed X-Ray beachmaster, Clark began participating in meetings with Turner and his staff on board the McCawley . Not surprising given the previous day's performance, Turner was living up to his nickname—Terrible Turner—on A+1. He was particularly furious about the damaged condition of the landing craft, raking the ship captains over the coals for the inoperable status of many of their boats. 33

Turner also sounded off "in no uncertain terms" about the slowness of ship-to-shore operations. Too much time was being taken to hoist out the boats—even reducing the time by 50 percent would be unsatisfactory to the amphibious force commander. 34 The Marines, moreover, were taking too long to get into the boats. 35 Each transport captain was ordered to report to him the times when landing craft were ordered to be lowered, the last one was in the water, boat-group troops had completed debarkation, each boat wave arrived at the line of departure, and each wave reached the beach—if that were the case. 36

More Confusion on B-Day

Under revised orders issued by Admiral Turner on the evening of 28 July, the A-Day ship-to-shore operation would be repeated on 30 July, B-Day, but instead of actually going ashore, the Marine-laden boats would proceed to a line 2,000 yards short of the designated beaches and then return to their transports. The five-minute destroyer and cruiser shore bombardment scheduled to commence ten minutes before H-hour (1000) would remain unchanged, as was the plan for early-morning strafing and bombing of the beaches and inland "targets." 37 The B-Day operations began with F4F Wildcats and SBD Dauntlesses from the three carriers hitting their targets as planned. 38 But at 0855, Turner moved H-hour to 1030. 39

Off Beach Blue, the coordinated shore bombardment-landing approach proceeded on schedule. The cruiser San Juan (CL-54) fired 42 5-inch rounds at targets along the west half of the beach from 1020 to 1026, while the destroyers Buchanan (DD-484) and Monssen (DD-436) hit the eastern half with 5-inch shell fire from 1017 to 1023 and 1020 to 1025, respectively. 40 Afterward, waves of boats carrying troops of the 2d Battalion, 5th Marines; 1st Raiders; and 3d Battalion, 2d Marines, reached the line 2,000 yards off the beach and then returned to their transports. 41

Off Beach Red, however, a failure to communicate the H-hour delay to the Fuller before the exercise began disrupted the shore bombardment and imperiled the lives of members of the 3d Battalion, 5th Marines, and F Battery, 2d Battalion, 11th Marines, who were in landing craft approaching the beach. 42 Strangely enough, Captain Theiss did not seem to understand that the boats were only to approach to within 2,000 yards of the beach, not to make a landing, and the first-wave Marines came ashore. Acting quickly, the control ship, the destroyer Ellet (DD-398), intercepted the second wave as it approached the beach at 1002 and prevented the subsequent boats from heading in. On the beach, however, efforts to re-embark the first wave were not completely successful. With Marines ashore and the scheduled bombardment of Beach Red set to commence at 1020, the Ellet and Wilson (DD-408) were ordered to postpone their firing practice until after 1500. 43

The first waves of troops from the McCawley , Barnett , and George F. Elliott did not arrive 2,000 yards off Beach Red until after 1230, more than two hours late. 44 Several hours later, the Marines who had been stranded on the beach that morning experienced the Ellet's and Wilson's shore bombardments from close range. 45 Evidently a false report that Japanese scout planes were in the vicinity had resulted in the Fuller and other transports moving farther offshore, which apparently resulted in the postponement of efforts to re-embark the Marines. They were still on the island when the destroyers' guns cut loose for seven minutes at 1548. 46

On to the Solomons

The only troops involved in ship-to-shore operations on the final day of the exercise were from the 2d Battalion, 2d Marines, and from some units of the 11th Marines. Their landing craft proceeded to 2,000 yards off of Beach Blue and Beach Red, respectively, and then returned to the transports.

Grouped in traveling formation, the ships of the Guadalcanal armada stood out at sea at about 1700, the Koro rehearsal concluded. 47 Men of the 11th Marines on board the last landing craft returning to the USS Hunter Liggett (AP-27) late that afternoon, however, suffered anxious moments when they had to chase down the transport, which was already under way. Similarly, the Marines who had been stranded on Beach Red the morning of B-Day needed to chase down their transport, the Fuller. To get back aboard, they then had to struggle up cargo nets as the transport continued on her way to the Solomons. 48

On board the McCawley, General Vandegrift was displeased. "I shuddered to think what would happen [sic] if those beaches turned out to have been defended in strength," the 1st Marine Division's commander recalled in his 1964 autobiography. But as he went below for dinner, he rationalized that "a poor rehearsal traditionally meant a good show." 49

History would prove him right. The rehearsals pinpointed air-sea-land amphibious coordination deficiencies that were partially or completely overcome by the time of the 7 August landings on Guadalcanal, Tulagi, and Gavutu-Tanambogo. More important, the practices provided practical experience in ship-to-shore debarkation that proved invaluable in reducing the time required to get boats in the water, Marines down the nets, and the craft on their way. Those aspects of the Solomons' landings ran like clockwork.

 



1. George C. Dyer, The Amphibians Came to Conquer (Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1971), pp. 284-85, 305.

2. "Overseas Mission of the 1st Marine Division, FMF," p. 7, in National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, MD, (hereinafter cited as NARA) RG 127, Geographic Area File Guadalcanal, Box 48; oral history transcript of 1966 interview of GEN Gerald Thomas, p. 261, in Marine Corps Historical Center; letters to author from COL C. Ray Schwenke, 17 March, 10 May, and 26 August 1999.

3. Commander, Task Force 62, "Rehearsal Operation Plan AR-42," 22 July 1942, in NARA RG 38, War Diary, CDR Amphibious Force South Pacific, Box 173 (cited hereinafter as War Diary).

4. Richard B. Frank, Guadalcanal (New York: Random House, 1990, p. 623 (for numbers of each type of craft).

5. First Marine Division, "Operation Order No. 8-42", 20 July 1942, and Commanding General, 1st Marine Division, "Special Instructions", 23 July 1942, in NARA, RG 127, Geographic Area File Guadalcanal, Box 44 (hereinafter cited as Special Instructions); "Record of Events, 2nd Bn, 5th Marines," 12 February 1943, in National Archives RG 127, Box 5, Folder 5.

6. War Diary; Annexes B and C to CT-4 Operation Order No. 2-42, in Chuck McPartlin private papers.

7. Author's estimate, based on examination of the deck logs of the American Legion and Fuller in National Archives RG 24.

8. The tide at Koro was at its lowest this day at 1300, according to the records of the Fiji Hydrographic Office provided the author in Suva by the Chief Hydrographer on 27 April 1999.

9. Letters to author, Roy Tyner (former coxswain, American Legion), 6 July and 3 September 1999.

10. Ibid; letters to author from former 5th Marine officers Gerard Armitage (12 December 1998), Charles Rider (16 November and 6 December 1999), Frank Bacon (19 October 1998), Thomas Grady (9 January 1999), and John McLaughlin (2 August 1999) and enlisted men Robert Amery (9 January 1999) and Anthony Izbicki (31 October 1999).

11. Ibid.

12. CAPT G. D. Gayle, "Record of Events, 5th Marines, 1st Marine Division, 22 June 1942 to 7 August 1942," 15 February 1943 (hereafter cited as Gayle Report), in NARA RG 127, Geographic Area File 1942-46, Box 5. CPL Ore Marion, "The First Wave that Almost Missed the Boat," Guadalcanal Echoes, 10 March 1990, p. 18.

13. Letter, Jack Clark to Stan Brown, Suva, Fiji, 8 July 1993; letters to author from Clark, 15 January, 21 February, and 26 May 1999; Annex Dog to Operation Plan 1-42 (TG 62.1), 24 July 1942, in Papers of Admiral Richmond K. Turner, Box 27, Navy Historical Center.

14. Letter, Clark to Brown.

15. Ibid; transcript of oral history of GEN Gerald Thomas.

16. Memo, CO USS Barnett to CDR Task Force 62, "USS Barnett?Report on Landing Exercises," 30 July 1942, in Turner Papers, Box 31, Folder A16-3(1).

17. Diary of 2LT Bayard Berghaus (L-3-1); letters to author from Robert Rheindt (McCawley coxswain), 12 September and 13 October 1999; deck log of the George F. Elliott, entry for 28 July 1942, in NARA RG 24; "History of the 1st Marine Regiment," Phase I, in NARA RG 127, Geographic Area File 1942-46, Box 5; letters to author from Ed Craig, 9 August 1999, B. J. Wilson, 23 July 1999, and Nathaniel Mewhinney, 12 May 1999.

18. "Record of Events, 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines," 12 February 1943, in NARA RG 127, Geographic Area File 1942-46, Box 5; letters to author from Edward Bryan, 18 February 1999; Paul Moore, 17 February 1999; and Julius Goldblatt, 12 February 1999.

19. Deck log of the USS President Jackson, entries for 28 July 1942, in NARA RG 24.

20. Memoir of CPL James H Sorensen (A-1-2), November 1942.

21. Amphibious Forces South Pacific, "Staff Log," Vol. 1, July-October 1942 (hereafter cited as Peyton Log), in Turner Papers, Box 36, Naval Historical Center; deck log of the USS Heywood, 28 July 1942 entry, in NARA RG 24.

22. Letter to author from Don Chalmers, 5 October 1999.

23. Deck log of the Heywood, entry of 28 July 1942.

24. Letter to author of T. Fred Guffin, 6 July 1999; telephone call of Charles Price to author, 19 November 1998.

25. Letters to author from an officer of F-2-1 who prefers to remain anonymous.

26. Letter to author from B. J. Wilson, 23 July 1999.

27. "Record of Events, 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines"; letters to author from Goldblatt, Moore, and Bryan.

28. Memoir of James Sorensen.

29. Commanding General, 1st Marine Division, "Special Instructions."

30. CTF visual dispatch no. 281023, 28 July 1942, in Operation Order AR-42 file.

31. Deck logs of the Fuller, Elliott, McCawley, American Legion, Neville, Barnett, Hunter Liggett, and President Jackson, entries for 29 July 1942.

32. Letter, Clark to Brown; letters, Clark to author.

33. Letters of Clark to Bartsch; oral history transcript of GEN Thomas, pp. 263-64.

34. Comments of CDR C. B. Hunt, CO USS Alhena, in Dyer, p. 310.

35. Letter of Vandegrift to his family, 28 July 1942.

36. CO, USS Barnett, "Report on Landing Exercise, USS Barnett."

37. CTF 62 visual dispatch no. 282210, 28 July 1942, in Operation Order AR-42 file; Annexes Afirm and Cast, Operation Order AR-42.

38. Peyton Staff Log, entry for 30 July 1942.; John B. Lundstrom, The First Team and the Guadalcanal Campaign (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1994), p. 30.

39. Peyton Staff Log; "Plot of Events, 26 July?7 August 1942," entry for 30 July 1942, in Turner Papers, Box 36.

40. Deck logs of the San Juan, Buchanan, and Monssen, entries for 30 July 1942, in NARA RG 24.

41. "Record of Events, 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines"; deck logs of the Neville and the President Adams, 30 July 1942 entries, in NARA RG 24; letter to author from Simeon Mattock (M-3-2), 29 January 2000.

42. Peyton Staff Log, entry for 30 July 1942.

43. Diary of T. Fred Guffin, entry for 30 July 1942; deck logs of the USS Ellet and Wilson, entries for 30 July 1942, in NARA RG 24.; Herbert C. Merillat, Guadalcanal Remembered (New York: Dodd, Mead and Company, 1982), p. 39.

44. CO USS Barnett; Berghaus diary, entry for 30 July 1942.

45. Deck logs, USS Ellet and Wilson.

46. Paul Bohrer to author, telephone call, 21 September 1999; Guffin diary, entry for 30 July 1942; deck log, USS Fuller, entry of 30 July 1942.

47. Turner's Chief of Staff recorded the departure time as 1630, but this appears about a half hour too early, based on deck logs of the transports.

48. Diary of Abraham Felber (published as The Old Breed of Marine [Jefferson: McFarland, 2003], 31 July 1942 entry; Marion; telephone call to author by Paul Bohrer, 21 September 1999.

49. A. A. Vandegrift, Once a Marine (New York: W.W. Norton, 1964), p. 122.

Dr. Bartsch is the author of December 8, 1941: MacArthur's Pearl Harbor (2003) and Doomed at the Start: American Pursuit Pilots in the Philippines, 1941-1942 (1992) both published by Texas A&M University Press. He earned the Naval Historical Center's Ernest M. Eller Prize in Naval History for a longer, academic version of this article, published in the April 2002 issue of The Journal of Military History .

 

 

Dr. Bartsch is the author of December 8, 1941: MacArthur's Pearl Harbor (2003) and Doomed at the Start: American Pursuit Pilots in the Philippines, 1941-1942 (1992) both published by Texas A&M University Press. He earned the Naval Historical Center's Ernest M. Eller Prize in Naval History for a longer, academic version of this article, published in the April 2002 issue of The Journal of Military History.

More by this Author

None found for this author.

Events and Conferences

None found for this author.


 
 

Conferences and Events

2014 U.S. Naval Institute History Conference

Wed, 2014-10-01

The 2014 Naval History Conference is hosted by the U.S. Naval Institute and the U.S. Naval Academywith support from The William M...

Defense Forum Washington 2014

Newseum - Knight Conference Center

2015 WEST Conference

Why Become a Member of the U.S. Naval Institute?

As an independent forum for over 135 years, the Naval Institute has been nurturing creative thinkers who responsibly raise their voices on matters relating to national defense.

Become a Member Renew Membership