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APD Transport Destroyer

The origins of the destroyer transports are relatively obscure. The first mention of them came in the 1st Marine Brigade's after action report on Fleet Landing Exercise 3 (FLEX 3). Brigadier General James J. Meade suggested in that February 1937 document that destroyers might solve the dual problem of a shortage of amphibious transports and fire support. With such ships "troops could move quickly close into shore and disembark under protection of the ships' guns." The Navy apparently agreed and decided to experiment with one of its flush-deck, four-stack destroyers. It had built a large number of these during World War I and most were now in mothballs.

In November 1938 the Navy reclassified Manley (DD 74) as a miscellaneous auxillary (AG 28). After a few weeks of hasty work in the New York Navy Yard, the ship served as a transport for Marine units in the Caribbean. In the fall of 1939 Manley went back into the yards for a more extensive conversion. Workers removed all torpedo tubes, one gun, two boilers, and their stacks. That created a hold amidships for cargo and troops. The Chief of Naval Operations made it a rush job so the ship would be available for FLEX 6 in early 1940. Company A, 1st Battalion, 5th Marines, was the first unit to use the revamped Manley. It used rubber boats to execute its 23 February 1940 assault landing against Culebra in the Caribbean.

Satisfied by the utility of the destroyer transport, the Navy redesignated Manley yet again, this time as the lead ship of a new class, APD-1. The APD designation denoted a highspeed transport. By the end of 1940 the Navy yards had reactivited five of Manley's sister ships and converted them in the same fashion. In its haste, the Navy had left out any semblance of amenities for embarked Marines. When Lieutenant Colonel Edson took his battalion on board the APD squadron in the summer of 1941, each troop compartment was nothing more than an empty space--no ventilation, no bunks, and just four washbasins for 130 men. It took a high-level investigation, launched by one Marine's letter to his congressman, to get the billeting spaces upgraded.

These original six APDs would be the only ones available until the Navy rushed to complete more in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor. As the two raider battalions moved out into the Pacific, so did the APDs. All six ships saw service in the Solomons campaign, but only Manley and Stringham (APD 6) survived. Japanese bombers sank Calhoun (APD 2) on 20 August 1942, just after it had transferred a company of the 1st Raiders from Tulagi to Guadalcanal. Enemy destroyers sank Gregory (APD 3) and Little (APD 4) in the early morning hours of 5 September 1942 after the two transports had participated with the 1st Raiders in a reconnaissance of Savo Island. A torpedo bomber ended the existence of McKean (APD 5) on 17 November 1943 as she ferried troops to Bougainville. Before the war was over, the Navy would convert another 133 destroyers and destroyer escorts to the transport role.

Several historians rrace the appearance of the raiders in early 1942 to the friendship developed between Franklin D. Roosevelt and Evans F. Carlson. As a result of his experiences in China, Carlson was convinced that guerrilla warfare was the wave of the future. In January 1942, Captain James Roosevelt, the president's son wrote to the Major General Commandant of the Marine Corps and recommended creation of "a unit for purposes similar to the British Commandos and the Chinese Guerrillas." These ideas were appealing at the time because the war was going badly for the Allies. The Germans had forced the British off the continent of Europe, and the Japanese were sweeping the United States and Britain from much of the Pacific. The military forces of the Allies were too weak to slug it out in conventional battles with the Axis powers, so guerrilla warfare and quick raids appeared to be viable alternatives.

The British commandos had already conducted numerous forays against the European coastline, and Prime Minister Winston S. Churchill enthusiastically endorsed the concept to President Roosevelt. The Marine Commandant, Major General Thomas Holcomb, allegedly succumbed to this high-level pressure and organized the raider battalions, though he himself thought that any properly trained Marine unit could perform amphibious raids.

Although the Marine Corps Schools had created the first manual on amphibious operations in 1935, during the early days of World War II General Holland M. Smith faced the unenviable task of trying to convert that paper doctrine into reality. As a brigadier general he commanded the 1st Marine Brigade in Fleet Landing Exercise 6, which took place in the Caribbean in early 1940. There he discovered that several factors, to include the lack of adequate landing craft, made it impossible to rapidly build up combat power on a hostile shore. The initial assault elements would thus be vulnerable to counterattack and defeat while most of the amphibious force remained on board its transports.

As a partial response to this problem, Smith seized upon the newly developed destroyer transport. During FLEX 6, his plan called for the Manley (APD 1) to land a company of the 5th Marines via rubber boats at H-minus three hours (prior to dawn) at a point away from the primary assault beach. This force would advance inland, seize key terrain dominating the proposed beachhead, and thus protect the main landing from counterattack. A year later, during FLEX 7, Smith had three destroyer transports. He designated the three companies of the 7th Marines embarked on these ships as the Mobile Landing Group. During the exercise these units again made night landings to protect the main assault, or conducted diversionary attacks.

Smith eventually crystallized his new ideas about amphibious operations. He envisioned making future assaults with three distinct echelons. The first wave would be composed of fast-moving forces that could seize key terrain prior to the main assault. This first element would consist of a parachute regiment, an air infantry regiment (gliderborne troops), a light tank battalion, and "at least one APD [highspeed destroyer transport] battalion." With a relatively secure beachhead, the more ponderous combat units of the assault force would come ashore. The third echelon would consist of the reserve force and service units.

In the summer of 1941 Smith was nearly in a position to put these ideas into effect. He now commanded the Amphibious Force Atlantic Fleet (AFAF), which consisted of the 1st Marine Division and the Army's 1st Infantry Division. During maneuvers at the recently acquired Marine base at New River, North Carolina, Smith embarked the 1st Battalion, 5th Marines, in six APDs and made it an independent command reporting directly to his headquarters. The operations plan further attached the Marine division's sole company of tanks and its single company of parachutists to the APD battalion. The general did not use this task force to lead the assault, but instead landed it on D plus 2 of the exercise, on a beach well in the rear of the enemy's lines. With all aviation assets working in direct support, the mobile force quickly moved inland, surprised and destroyed the enemy reserves, and took control of key lines of communication. Smith called it a "spearhead thrust around the hostile flank."

Lieutenant Colonel Merritt A. "Red Mike" Edson commanded that battalion. In a lengthy August 1941 report, the lieutenant colonel evaluated the organization and missions of his unit. He believed that the APD battalion would focus primarily on reconnaissance, raids, and other special operations--in his mind it was a waterborne version of the parachutists. In a similar fashion, the battalion would rely on speed and mobility, not firepower, as its tactical mainstay. Since the APDs could neither embark nor offload vehicles, that meant the battalion had to be entirely foot mobile once ashore, again like the parachutists. To achieve rapid movement, Edson recommended a new table of organization that made his force much lighter than other infantry battalions. He wanted to trade in his 81mm mortars and heavy machine guns for lighter models. There also would be fewer of these weapons, but they would have larger crews to carry the ammunition. Given the limitations of the APDs, each company would be smaller than its standard counterpart. There would be four rifle companies, a weapons company, and a headquarters company with a large demolitions platoon. The main assault craft would be 10-man rubber boats.

In mid-February 1942, the Major General Commandant redesignated his new organizations as Marine Raider Battalions. Edson's group became the 1st Raiders on 16 February; Carlson's outfit was redesignated to the 2d Raiders three days later. The raider battalions soon received first priority in the Marine Corps on men and equipment. The inculcated the units with an unconventional military philosophy that was an admixture of Chinese culture, Communist egalitarianism, and New England town hall democracy. Every man would have the right to say what he thought, and their battle cry would be "Gung Ho!" -- Chinese for "work together."

The first product of this effort was a two-company patrol on 4 September to Savo Island, where intelligence believed the enemy had an observation post. While Griffith commanded that operation, Red Mike planned a reconnaissance-in-force against Cape Esperance for the next day. When the Savo patrol returned in the late afternoon on Little (APD 4) and Gregory (APD 3), the men began debarking before they received the order to remain on board in preparation for the next mission. Once he became aware of the mix up, Edson let the offload process proceed to completion. That night Japanese destroyers of the Tokyo Express sank the two APDs. It was the second close escape for the raiders. During the shift to Guadalcanal enemy planes had sunk the Colhoun (APD 2) just after it had unloaded a company.

The fast destroyer-transport McKean (APD-5, formerly DD-90), had been the sole survivor of Transport Division 12, whose other three ships had been sunk off Guadalcanal in August 1942, sacrificing themselves to sustain the U.S. Marines ashore during the period when the U.S. Navy supposedly abandoned the Marines following the devastating U.S. Navy defeat in the Battle of Savo Island. McKean subsequently made multiple supply runs to Guadalcanal and then later landed troops in the Central Solomon Islands at New Georgia, Rendova, and other islands between July and November 1943, including landing troops on Mono Island on 27 October 1943, setting up a key search radar site in preparation for the landings on Bougainville.

In the desperate early days of 1942 there was a potential need for commando-type units that could strike deep in enemy territory and keep the Japanese off balance while the United States caught its breath. However, there had been only one such operation and it had not been a complete success. The development of the amphibian tractor and improved fire support also had removed the need for the light assault units envisioned by Holland Smith at the beginning of the war. Since then the raiders generally had performed the same missions as any infantry battalion. Sometimes this meant that their training and talent were wasted, as happened on Bougainville and Pavuvu. In other cases, the quick but lightly armed raiders suffered because they lacked the firepower of a line outfit. The failure at Bairoko could be partially traced to that fact. With many large-scale amphibious assaults to come against well defended islands, there was no foreseeable requirement for the particular strengths of the raiders.

The personnel and equipment priorities given to the first two raider battalions at a time of general scarcity had further fueled enmity toward these units. Now that the war was progressing toward victory, there was less interest on the part of outsiders in meddling in the details of Marine Corps organization. In mid-December 1943 HQMC set the wheels in motion to disband the raiders and the parachutists. Among the reasons cited was that such "handpicked outfits . . . are detrimental to morale of other troops." A week later, a Marine officer on the Chief of Naval Operation's staff forwarded a memorandum through the Navy chain of command noting that the Corps "feels that any operation so far carried out by raiders could have been performed equally well by a standard organization specially trained for that specific mission." The CNO concurred in the suggestion to disband the special units, and promulgated the change on 8 January 1944.

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Page last modified: 15-01-2020 15:01:46 ZULU