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Book Review 268: Mission Raise Hell

March 9, 2013 - Harry Eagar
MISSION RAISE HELL: The U.S. Marines on Choiseul, October-November 1943, by James F. Christ. 257 pages, illustrated. Naval Institute.

James Christ's “Mission Raise Hell” is one of the more interesting small unit battle histories I have read.

As a diversion before the invasion of Bougainville, the Marines sent in the Second Parachute Battalion to a beach within about 10 miles of the principal Japanese base on Choiseul. One thing Christ does not make clear is why the Japanese fell for the diversion.

After fighting tenaciously for over a year for Guadalcanal, you'd have thought the Japanese would have figured out that the real military value of a Solomon island was space for an airfield, or secondarily, a naval base. Choiseul had neither.

Nor did Bougainville, really, but Choiseul was even less attractive militarily.

The Second was told not to expect any help, as the South Pacific Command was still shorthanded. They got a few sorties by aircraft and the backing of a couple of PT boats (one skippered by Jack Kennedy), but the 650 Marines were left to themselves on an island with about 5,000 Japanese marines – elite troops whose large stature surprised the Americans.

It was not as suicidal as it sounds. Moving forces around on Choiseul was not easy, and in their week ashore, the Marines fought only two actions, apart from patrolling clashes, both small.

The excellence of “Mission Raise Hell” arises from Chist's years of interviews with all the surviving Marines in the late '90s, just over 10% of the assault force. Of the survivors, almost every one had been wounded in the battalion's other major action, Iwo Jima, so it was somewhat remarkable that so many men were still available by 1998, including the commander, Lt. Col. Victor “Brute” Krulak, a legend among Pacific Marines.

By sticking only to what each informant told him about his week, Christ gives an excellent feel for what it felt like. And since it was a small action, he had informants covering all the important sectors of the operation.

He supplemented memories with the war diary and other written sources, but notes that the eyewitness testimony at the center of his history is ambiguous. Some men recalled their week as dry, others as incessantly wet.

Christ leaves such ambiguities alone, but it seems obvious that the days and the coasts were dry and the nights and slopes were wet (just as we experience on the high subtropical island of Maui where I live). A Marine's memory, after 50 years, seems to reflect whether his assignments took him to the coast in daylight or kept him at the hideout in the mountains at night.

A lot of what the Marines recalled was not combat but jokes and idiosyncrasies of their fellows. And their fondness for the Johnson semiautomatic rifle and Johnson light machine gun.

As elite troops, the paramarines were equipped with the inventions of Melvin Johnson, and they much preferred them to standard models. The Johnsons were light and did not jam.

But few were made.

Christ also notes that the paramarines commanded the most firepower, per squad, of any army in the world at the time, another reason they were bold enough to go against 10 to 1 odds.

This is not strictly accurate. Some Red Army units were equipped entirely with submachine guns, but the Marines did have an advantage.

Their real advantage, though, was that they were on the tactical defensive, even if on a strategic offensive. Krulak was ordered to make a commotion but avoid pitched battles.

Thus the Marines went looking for trouble but as soon as they found it, they took defensive positions. Since the defense, with automatic weapons, is usually reckoned as three times as effective as the offense, that went a long way toward ensuring that the Marines escaped with few losses – 14 dead, the same number they had suffered a little before in a few seconds during a Japanese air raid on Vella La Vella.

At Iwo Jima, when the Japanese were on the defensive, the Marines suffered about 120% casualties.

 
 

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