Special Naval Landing Forces

Until several years after World War I, Japan had no separate permanent naval landing organization corresponding to the U.S. Marine Corps. Instead, naval landing parties were organized temporarily from fleet personnel for a particular mission and were returned to their ships at its conclusion. This practice was made possible by the fact that every naval recruit was given training in land warfare concurrently with training in seamanship. The results of such training, together with any special skills such as machine gunner, truck driver, etc., were noted on the seaman's service record to serve as a basis for his inclusion in a landing party. Normally, the fleet commander designated certain ships to furnish personnel for the landing party.

In 1900 a wave of violence, led by an athletic society known as the Boxers, was erupting in China, where a number of foreigners were killed or subjected to gross indignities. The Imperial Government, sympathizing with the movement, did little to stop it, and the foreigners in Peking were soon forced to the take refuge in the legations there. Along with detachments of British, Russian, French, Italian and American Marines, troops of a Japanese Landing Force reached Peking on the night of 31 May just before the city was encircled. the disheartened Boxers agreed to an uneasy truce on 16 July.

This sort of employment, however, depleted their crews and lowered their efficiency for naval action. Therefore, in the late 1920's Japan began to experiment with more permanent units known as Special Naval Landing Forces (Rikusentai). Those units were formed at the four major Japanese naval bases: Sasebo, Kure, Maizuru, and Yokosuka, and were given numerical designations as formed; for example, there was a Sasebo 2nd Special Naval Landing Force and a Kure 2nd Special Naval Landing Force. They were composed entirely of naval personnel with a naval officer, usually a commander, in charge. These forces, first used against China and later against the Allies, went through several stages of evolution as the general war situation changed.

The Japanese Special Naval Landing Forces saw their first combat action in the "Shanghai Incident" of 1932. In February 1932, the newly formed Inukai Cabinet in Japan was obliged to dispatch an Army contingent to rescue the Japanese marine corps which was threatened with annihilation by a superior Chinese force.

As World War II progressed, and the Japanese Navy became more involved in the seizure and defense of Pacific islands, other naval land organizations came into existence. Examples of these are: the Base Force (Tokubetsu Konkyochitai). the Guard Force (Keibitai), the Pioneers (Setsueitai) and the Naval Civil Engineering and Construction Units (Kaigun Kenchiku Shisetsu Butai).

Imperial Japanese Navy Land Forces originated with the Special Naval Landing Forces, and eventually consisted of the following:

  • Naval Landing Force [Kaigun Rikusentai]: In the narrow sense, a temporary unit consisting sailors for ground battles. In the wide sense, a general term meaning Navy Land Force.
  • Special Naval Landing Forces [Kaigun Tokubetsu Rikusentai]: the Japanese Marines
  • Base Force [Konkyotitai] and Special Base Force [Tokubetsu Konkyochitai] This unit is the Naval Command echelon for the defense forces of a prescribed area. In addition to headquarters personnel, the base force has certain heavy coast artillery and also heavy and medium antiaircraft artillery. There appears to be no fixed organization, the size of the base force depending upon the importance and extent of the area to be defended.
  • Defense Units [Bobitai or Boei-han] detachments of 200 to 400 men.
  • Guard forces [Keibitai] This unit is used for the defense of small installations. It is composed of naval personnel, and has light and medium antiaircraft and heavy infantry weapons. Its size, armament, and organization vary [generally detachments of 200–500 men ], and several guard forces may be attached to a base force to provide security to Imperial Japanese Navy facilities.
  • Air Defense units [Bokutai] Antiaircraft artillery units of 200-300 men equipped with 8 Anti-Aircraft guns or 24 AA machine guns.
  • Pioneers [Kaigun Setsueitai] The function of this unit is the construction of airfields, fortifications, barracks, etc. It is commanded by a naval officer, usually of the rank of captain or commander, has attached officers and civilians with engineering experience, and was semi-military in character. There appear to have been two types of organization, of 800 and 1,300 men respectively, depending on the size of the job. The unit contains from 1/4 to 1/3 Japanese, and the balance Koreans or Formosans. The 15th Pioneers was such a unit.
  • Navy civil engineering and construction unit (Kaigun Kenchiku Shisetsu Butai). This unit appears to be used primarily for common labor, and is of little combat value. It is commanded by a Japanese civilian and is composed mainly of Koreans, with about 10 percent armed Japanese to serve as overseers. Its size appears to be around 1,000 men. In combat value, it is inferior to the pioneer unit since it contains fewer armed Japanese.
  • Naval Communications Units [Tsushintai] of 600–1,000 men to provide basic naval communications and also handled encryption and decryption.
  • Tokkeitai Navy military police units were part of the naval intelligence armed branch, with military police regular functions in naval installations and occupied territories; they also worked with the Imperial Japanese Army's Kempeitai military police, the Keishicho civil police and Tokko secret units in security and intelligence services.

Although both the keibitai and bobitai received amphibious assault and beach defense training, their performance was poor or average when they were used as assault troops. The Imperial Japanese Army also raised amphibious units called Sea Landing Brigades. These 3,500-strong brigades were used to assault and then garrison islands.

Special Naval Landing Forces were used extensively in landing operations on the China coast beginning with 1932, and often performed garrison duty upon capturing their objective. Their performance was excellent when unopposed, but when determined resistance was encountered they exhibited a surprising lack of ability in infantry combat. These early special naval landing forces were organized as battalions, each estimated to comprise about 2.000 men divided into 4 companies. Three companies each consisted of 6 rifle platoons and 1 heavy machine gun platoon; the fourth company, of 3 rifle platoons and a heavy-weapons platoon of four 3-inch naval guns, or two 75-mm regimental guns and two 70-mm battalion guns. Tank and armored car units were employed in garrison duty and, where the terrain and situation favored their use, in assault operations.

When World War II began in the Pacific, several Special Naval Landing Forces participated in the Japanese invasion of the Philippines in December 1941, and especially the multiple landing operations aimed at the main northern island of Luzon. Special Naval Landing Forces at first were used to occupy a chain of Pacific island bases. Wake Island was taken by one such force, while another seized the Gilbert Islands. Later they were used to spearhead landing operations against Java, Ambon, and Rabaul, where the bulk of the attack forces consisted of army personnel. During this period the Special Naval Landing Forces, although heavily armed, were used as mobile striking units. They consisted of two rifle companies (each having a machine-gun platoon), and one or two companies of heavy weapons (antitank guns, sometimes antiaircraft guns, and tanks), a total of 1,200 to 1,500 men. A small number of special troops (engineer, ordnance, signal, transport and medical) was also included.

Special Naval Landing Forces, or similar organizations, occupied a number of outlying bases, because the Army was reluctant to take over the defenses of these outposts. Since Japan had lost the initiative in the Pacific, these forces had been given defensive missions, and the Japanese Navy changed their organization accordingly. This point is strikingly illustrated by a comparison of the organization of the Yokosuka 7th Special Naval Landing Force, encountered on New Georgia, with that of the Maizuru 2nd. The Yokosuka 7th had a larger amount of artillery, and its guns were mainly pedestal-mounted naval pieces. As first organized, the Yokosuka 7th was deficient in infantry troops and infantry weapons for defense, but later it was reinforced by a second rifle company. This new company consisted of 3 rifle platoons of 1 officer and 48 enlisted men each (3 light machine-gun squads and 1 grenade-discharger squad), and a heavy-machine-gun platoon of 1 officer, 58 enlisted men and 8 heavy machine guns.

Other Special Naval Landing Forces probably started with an organization similar to that of the Maizuru 2nd, but their gun strengths and organizations most probably have veered toward that of the Yokosuka 7th. This process was found to have occurred in the Gilberts and Marshalls. Under Allied pressure Japan has found it necessary to increase the defenses of some islands by reinforcing the special naval landing force, or by combining two or more special naval landing forces into a new organization known as a Combined Special Naval Landing Force. In New Georgia the Kure 6th, the Yokosuka 7th, and portions of the Maizuru 4th were combined into the 8th Combined Special Naval Landing Force. In the Gilberts a special naval landing force was combined with a guard or base force to form a Special Defense Force.

The earlier Special Naval Landing Forces received extensive training in landing operations and beach defense, but their training in infantry weapons and tactics did not appear to have been up to the standard of the Japanese Army. Later, there was a greater emphasis on infantry training for units already in existence. Tactical doctrine for land warfare followed that of the Army, with certain changes based on lessons learned during the war.

The platoon was the basic tactical unit, rather than the company. The Japanese Navy had not hesitated to cut across company lines in assigning missions within the landing force and in detailing portions of a landing force to detached missions. A typical SNLF unit in a defensive role was commanded by a navy captain and consisted of three rifle companies augmented by anti-aircraft, coast defense, anti-boat, and field artillery units of several batteries each, plus service and labor troops.

Only two japanese naval units were identified as parachute units - the 1st and 3d Yokosuka Special Naval Landing Forces, organized in October 1941. Each had a Table-of-Organization strength of 844 officers and men. Their duties were similar to those of the Army parachute units, and in addition included guard or security functions. After engaging in the Netherlands East Indies campaign in early 1942, they were returned to Japan and combined. This combined unit was designated the Yokosuka 1st Special Naval Landing Force and has a Table-of-Organization strength of 1,326 officers and men. At Saipan the 1st Yokosuka Special Naval Landing Force had a total strength of approximately 850 officers and men and consisted of a command platoon, a headquarters company, three infantry companies, and an antitank unit.

Small arms and personal equipment were similar to that used by the Army. Dress uniform consists of navy blues with canvas leggings. The Japanese characters for "Special Naval Landing Force" appear on the naval cap in the manner in which the words "U.S. Navy" appear on the caps of U. S. enlisted men. Field uniforms are similar to the Army in cut and color, although the color is sometimes more green. The typical Army cloth cap and steel helmet are used, but the insignia is an anchor instead of the star of the Army.

The Japanese"Imperial Marines" earned the grudging respect of their American counterparts for their esprit, discipline, marksmanship, proficiency with heavy weapons, small-unit leadership, manifest bravery, and a stoic willingness to die to the last man. The Japanese used Special Naval Landing Forces frequently in the early years in the war. In December 1941, a force of 5.000 landed on Guam, and another unit of 450 assaulted Wake Island. A small detachment of 113 men was the first Japanese reinforcing unit to land on Guadalcanal. Ten days after the American landing. A 350-man SNTF detachment provided fierce resistance to the 1st Marine Division landings on Tulagi and Gavutu-Tanambogo early in the Guadalcanal campaign.

The United States Marines at the Battle of Tarawa in November 1943 were scared, brave and determined to take control of Betio Island on the Tarawa atoll to provide the U.S. with a vital strategic advantage in World War II. This was the first time the U.S. faced serious opposition from the Japanese in an amphibious assault. Tarawa was the first large-scale encounter between U.S. Marines and the Japanese Special Naval Landing Forces. The division intelligence staff had forewarned that "naval units of this type are usually more highly trained and had a greater tenacity and fighting spirit than the average Japanese Army unit," but the Marines were surprised at the tenacity of the defenders on Betio.

Colonel Merritt A. "Red Mike" Edson, as division chief of staff, who had worked tirelessly to forge an amalgam of veterans and newcomers into an effective amphibious team. American intelligence sources estimated the total strength of the Japanese garrison to be 4,800 men, of whom some 2,600 were considered first-rate naval troops. "Imperial Japanese Marines;" Edson told the war correspondents, "the best Tojo's got."

The commander of the Japanese garrison, Rear Admiral Meichi Shibasaki, boasted to his troops, "a million Americans couldn't take Tarawa in 100 years." The Japanese garrison on Betio on P-Dav consisted of the 3rd Special Base Force (formerly the 6th Yokosuka Special Naval Landing Force), the 6th Sasebo Special Naval Landing Force (which included 200 NCOs and officers of the Tateyama Naval Gunnery School, the 111th Pioneers, and the 4th Construction Unit, an estimated grand total of 4,850 men. All crew-served weapons on Betio, from 7.7mm light machine guns to eight-inch Naval rifles, were integrated into the fortified defensive system that included 500 pillboxes, blockhouses, and other emplacements. The basic beach defense weapon faced by the US Marines during their landings on the northern coast was the M93 13mm, dual purpose (anti-air, anti-boat) heavy machine gun. In many seawall emplacements, these lethal weapons were sited to provide flanking fire along wire entanglements and other boat obstacles. Flanking fire discipline was ensured by sealing off the front embrasures.

The cost of the victory for the US Marines was extremely high, suffering nearly 3,000 casualties, with nearly 1000 American dead. Major William K. Jones, whose 1st Battalion. 6th Marines, engaged more of the enemy in hand-to-hand combat on Betio than any other unit, said "these (defenders) were pretty tough. and they were big, six-foot, the biggest Japs that I ever saw" Major Larwrence C. Hays reported that "their equipment was excellent and there was plenty of surplus around, including large amounts of ammo."

Losses for the Japanese Marines were even greater. Admiral Shihasahl organized his troops on Betio for "an overall decisive defense on the beach." His men fought with great valor. The Japanese Naval Infantry on Tarawa was motivated to fight virtually to the last man. After of 76 hours of bitter lighting, 4,690 lay dead. Most of the 146 prisoners taken were were conscripted Korean civilian laborers. Only 17 wounded Japanese surrendered.

Gyokusai, literally meaning "shattered jade", "broken jade" or "jade shards", derives from the Chinese proverb from 'The Story of Yuan Jing-An', famous in the Confucian cultural sphere: "It is better to be a gem that is smashed to atoms than a tile that is whole." The expression Gyokusai firstly appeared in Japanese official statement about war when the GHQ (dai-hon-ei) announced that Attu garrison was shattered in May 1943, to glorify their death. This word was so mainly used for a group or troop fought to the last man.

In 1945, General MacArthur committed U.S. troops to driving the Japanese Marines out of Manila. As a result, he is often criticized for the resulting terrible casualties that the Filipinos suffered. What MacArthur’s critics of his operations in the Philippines in 1945 often miss is the question of whether the general could have avoided the commitment of U.S. troops had the Japanese begun to slaughter the Filipinos and American prisoners of war.

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