Remembering Eniwetok

Seventy-five years ago, in February 1944, American soldiers, sailors and Marines were slugging it out in Europe and the Pacific. In concert with their allies, the American war machine had begun to push Germany and Japan back from territory they had occupied and militarized a few years before.

It was a costly push, above all in lives on both sides. 

Four months later, the most massive military invasion in history would take place on June 6, 1944, on the French coast of Normandy. Meanwhile, American and British troops were slogging up the Italian peninsula, winning hard-earned territory mile by mile. 

The European Theater of Operations was the focus of most Americans back home, and D-Day was deservedly the highlight of the year 1944. But much of the most brutal fighting took place on the islands of the western Pacific, and February 1944 proved typical of the bitter battle scenes that continued there for nearly three years.

The American reconquest of the Pacific had begun a few months after the December 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor. 

After defeating a large Japanese fleet in June 1942 near Midway Island, the first major American installation to the west of Hawaii, the U.S. Navy turned to its strategy of island-hopping inexorably toward Japan.

The Japanese Empire at the end of World War I had been awarded former German colonial island groups in the South Pacific as mandates. The Empire closed the islands to the outside world and secretly armed them prior to the Pearl Harbor attack. 

The Allies took Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands northeast of Australia, with American troops finally declaring victory there in February 1943. They then headed on to the northeast to take Tarawa and Makin in November, although at great cost due in large part to poor planning and execution. 

Tarawa alone cost 1,000 American lives with another 2,000 wounded.

But the Americans learned from those errors, and moved on north to challenge Japan in the Marshall Islands, the next group in the Japanese “outer ring” defenses. 

Two significant U.S. victories took place there 45 years ago, in February 1944, in the atolls of Kwajalein and Eniwetok.

Kwajalein is the largest coral atoll in the world, with 93 small islands surrounding a lagoon comprising 324 square miles, located 2,400 miles southwest of Honolulu. The largest of the 93 islands, itself called Kwajalein, is 2½ miles long and only 880 yards wide. 

After a withering bombardment, American Marines and Army troops debouched from amphibious vehicles and occupied the island in four days, mopping up operations on Feb. 3. 

The quick success showed the amphibious capability of the Americans and evinced their tactical improvement in the months since Tarawa. It provided the impetus for the next hop, to Eniwetok, 389 miles northwestward toward Japan.

Eniwetok is an atoll comprising 40 small islands surrounding a 50-square-mile lagoon. The atoll’s mean elevation is less than 10 feet. The Japanese had reinforced the three largest of the islands.

The capture of Eniwetok would provide a harbor and airfield to help launch the next hop, once again to the northwest, to the Marianas. The American invasion and victory took seven days, with nearly all 2,586 Japanese military personnel on the atoll losing their lives. American casualties totaled 195 killed and 521 wounded. 

Few Japanese prisoners were taken on Kwajalein or Eniwetok, for the horrific reason that Japanese military personnel subscribed to the ancient samurai ethos of Bushido, which considered surrender to be the ultimate dishonor. 

They fought to the death rather than deliver themselves into the hands of the Americans. 

That samurai-like attitude continued through the rest of the American island-hopping campaign, with Japanese who were killed or who committed suicide vastly outnumbering the prisoner total. 

As a result, Americans often resorted to flamethrowers and demolition devices as weapons against the deeply-dug-in enemy troops on island after island.

Eniwetok became a test site for American nuclear weaponry for a number of years after the war. 

Thirty tons of radioactive material were exploded on the atoll. Civilian residents on the atoll were moved to other South Pacific locations before the testing began. 

Radioactive soil and rocks have been buried on the atoll beneath a thick concrete dome as part of a decontamination process, but it has started to crumble and some of the material has started to leak out. What’s more, rising sea levels caused by climate change have penetrated the dome and created additional leakage.

Scientists say the atoll could be fit for human habitation once again by the year 2027, if the leakage can be stopped.

At Kwajalein, after the war ended, 150 still-operational U.S. military aircraft were sunk into the sea because that was cheaper than transporting them back to the U.S.

Eighteen months after the Kwajalein and Eniwetok battles, the war in the Pacific ended with the Japanese surrender following the atomic bomb destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The invasion of the Japanese home islands, feared by both the United States and Japan, proved to be unnecessary. 

But had an invasion been required, the battles of Kwajalein and Eniwetok would have been essential cogs in driving the Japanese military back onto its home turf. 

The American campaign in the Pacific was the largest naval operation ever in history.

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