The use of armor in the Pacific during World War II began as an experimental attempt to break through the strong defensive positions on the island of New Guinea during the battle of Buna. The military found that even though the terrain dictated when and where tanks could be employed, their use provided the infantry with the needed firepower and armor protection that could be found nowhere else on the battlefield at the time.
There were occasions where tanks could not be used, primarily due to poor terrain. During the New Guinea campaign, tanks were brought onto the beach at Hollandia, but due to the wetness of the terrain and softness of the ground, could not be used in that area. They remained on the beach to protect the logistical base. The same holds true for the Santa Maria area of the Philippines where tanks were relatively useless due to the terrain. Wherever possible, tanks were brought ashore early in an assault to provide necessary support for the infantry.
Tanks were effective in providing direct support to the infantry and proved to be an invaluable asset during the war. Their ability to get close to Japanese positions and employ cannon or flames to destroy enemy fortification complemented and enhanced the infantry’s role, which was to destroy the enemy in close combat. The development of the tank-infantry team concept enhanced both combat arms’ ability to accomplish assigned missions. They were employed as a team, along with artillery, engineers, and air power whenever possible. Although the war in the Pacific was primarily an infantryman’s battle, the tank provided necessary direct support to the infantry and was employed in a manner which best suited the terrain and situation at the time.
The first introduction of armor into the Pacific theater of World War II was during the battle of Buna, New Guinea, from November 1942 to January 1943. Although the Japanese attempted to use tanks prior to Buna to overrun the Allied position in a surprise attack at Milne Bay on 25 August, the event was relatively insignificant as the tanks became mired in the mud and were abandoned by the Japanese. The lessons learned from this brief but unexpected armored confrontation were that the Australians were not armed with antitank weapons at the point of the attack and only poor trafficability saved what could have been a successful Japanese incursion.
The first Allied use of armor occurred just outside the village of Buna. Allied forces discovered a well- fortified Japanese strongpoint which repelled numerous infantry attempts to destroy the positions. The Allies’ first attempt to use armored vehicles was the employment of armored Bren gun carriers, which were light armored cars with a top mounted heavy machine gun. Five carriers assaulted the Japanese positions, but were not supported by infantry. One well-concealed Japanese antitank gun destroyed all five carriers in less than 20 minutes. The infantry, pinned down behind a log wall, was unable to provide adequate supporting fire to suppress the enemy gun. The first attempt of allied use of armor failed due to lack of coordination of combined arms teamwork and support.
On December 18, 1942, Allied forces employed tanks in an offensive role in the vicinity of Cape Endaiader, also near Buna. Seven tanks, with one held in reserve, led a successful assault against Japanese machinegun emplacements. The tanks’ 37mm main guns were used to penetrate the bunker and destroy the position. Dismounted infantry was used to protect the flanks of the vehicles during the attack. The tanks also used the main gun to knock down trees being used by snipers. As the attack continued, the tanks were slowed by heavy undergrowth. The infantry continued the attack but was soon stopped by more Japanese machinegun positions. The tanks were once again brought forward, supported by infantry, and destroyed the bunkers within two hours. General Eichelberger described the Japanese strongpoints as a series of bunkers connected by trenches. The positions were concealed and well-protected and almost impervious to rifle and machinegun fire. He continued to assess that the successful destruction of Japanese bunkers at Buna was largely due to the employment of tanks, supported by infantry.
One tactic developed during the attack on Buna was to maneuver the tanks close to a bunker position, blast a hole in a corner of the bunker with the tank main gun, then use the tanks’ machineguns to cover an infantry attack on the position. The infantry would throw hand grenades into the hole created by the tank round and destroy the bunker. This technique was demonstrated numerous times and was extremely effective in the elimination of enemy positions.
During the battle for Buna, many tanks were lost to enemy fire. The Japanese used antiaircraft guns effectively as antitank weapons against Allied tanks that were employed without infantry support. Of the original eight tanks listed previously, four were knocked out by Japanese antiaircraft guns. In almost all cases, the tanks were knocked out while leading an attack without reconnaissance or proper intelligence of the enemy situation.
The terrain in the area around Buna was a mixture of grassy plateaus, heavy forested areas, and swamps. Tanks were best used in the open, grassy terrain but were most vulnerable to enemy antitank fire. Only under complete surprise were tanks able to achieve success, as was the case on January 1, 1943 at Giropa Point. In this case, Allied tanks made a swift attack across open terrain, caught the Japanese by surprise and caused them to scatter and flee at the sight of the oncoming tanks. The Japanese were unable to reposition their antitank weapons in response to the suddenness of the attack and lost the advantage of their well-established kill zone (an area which the defender plan so inflict the most casualties on the enemy). In the heavily forested areas, the infantry physically led the tanks through the jungle, greatly impeding the speed and momentum of the attack. Engineers were not available at Buna to make roads for the tanks, which made them bypass swamps, forcing the infantry to continue the attack without tank support until a different route could be found.
General Eichelberger stated, “There were no new principles of warfare learned at Buna,” but the importance of tank-infantry cooperation and the usefulness of tanks in support of the infantry during Buna became quite evident. In many cases, individual tanks were employed in support of an infantry platoon or company, and became an important asset to the success of the operation. Major General George Vasey, commander of the 7th Division, highlighted this thought when he stated that without tanks at Buna, the infantry could not have defeated the bunkers.
Tarawa Although the terrain on the island of Tarawa was not conducive to armored warfare, the Marines attempted to employ armor in the jungle fight during the fall of 1943. As at Buna, the Marines experimented with the problem of reducing and destroying heavily fortified enemy positions. The use of tanks at Tarawa did not resolve this problem for the Marines, but tanks were used wherever possible to support operations. During the battle of Tarawa, one tank battalion was assigned to each Marine division. Two medium tanks and seven light tanks supported the 3rd Battalion, 6th Marines during this operation. During the final offensive phase, the employment of the two medium Sherman tanks was paramount in saving many Marine lives.
On November 23, 1943, as the two Sherman tanks led a final assault, a strong Japanese counterattack poured down a narrow valley towards the American position. The tanks provided supporting fire using canister antipersonnel ammunition and decisively broke the enemy attack. It was estimated that the first round fired from the lead tank had killed 60-70 enemy soldiers. The main role for armor during the battle for Tarawa was to provide direct fire support for the infantry.
Throughout 1944, General MacArthur continued a leapfrog campaign from island to island to reduce Japanese strongholds in the Pacific. On May 27, 1944, American forces continued this strategy by landing on the island of Biak, a small Japanese-held base off the New Guinea coast. Although the terrain was not suitable for massed armored warfare, both American and Japanese forces employed a small number of tanks during this battle.
On 6 June. 1944, as United States infantry attacked across Biak, the first tank battle in the Pacific ensued. Seven light Japanese tanks attacked the American forces which were led by five Sherman tanks. The attacking Japanese tanks were destroyed in a battle that lasted less than thirty minutes. The amount of armor protection and larger gun system on the Sherman tanks directly contributed to the American success in battle.
Throughout the remainder of the battle for Biak, tanks were used to support the infantry and engineers. The island was found to be honeycombed with caves which the Japanese used as bunkers and hiding positions. Tank main gun fire was used to cover engineer demolition teams while they placed explosives in the caves. Other than the previously mentioned tank battle, armor was used to provide direct fire support for the infantry and engineers throughout the battle.