“Knock it off you bastards, and get back on the guns. What d’ya think this is, a ball game?”
It was Dec. 11, 1941, when Marine Sgt. Henry Bedell yelled at his Marines, who had just erupted into loud cheers.
They were assigned to Battery L of the 1st Defense Battalion at Wake Island during World War II.
The reason for the celebration? The Marines had just sank the first Japanese destroyer with their 5-inch gun, according to a U.S. Navy account of the battle.
Wake Island’s scant defense consisted of 422 Marines assigned to a shore battery known as the 1st Defense Battalion, who were equipped with six 5-inch guns, and a squadron of Grumman Wildcat F4F-3 aircraft from Marine Fight Squadron VMF-211 based out of Hawaii.
Shortly after the devastating Japanese raid on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, the Japanese light cruiser Yubari and six Japanese destroyers, among other ships, had steamed for Wake Island — a small American outpost within striking distance of Japanese-held Pacific territory.
With no radar, the lightly defended Marines relied on aircraft patrols and observation towers to spot enemy aircraft and approaching enemy ships.
Just before noon on Dec. 8, 1941, Japanese attack aircraft descended from cloud cover over Wake to bomb the Americans — their engines deafened by crashing waves on the island.
The U.S. defenders on Wake would withstand several aerial bombardments during the next few days before enemy ships appeared on the horizon.
Marines manning the island’s 5-inch guns were ordered to hold fire until the Japanese ships moved closer to the island.
By 5:22 a.m. on Dec. 11, Japanese ships had started to shell the American defenders as their ships crept closer to the shores.
“What are you waiting for, open fire, must be Jap ships all right,” ordered Maj. James Devereux, the commander of the 1st Defense Battalion, according to Robert J. Cressman’s account in “A Magnificent Fight: Marines in the Battle for Wake Island.”
The Marines would pummel Japanese ships that day with accurate fire from their 5-inch guns — lobbing 51 caliber, 50 pound rounds with a max range of roughly 17,000 yards.
The Japanese flagship cruiser Yubari was struck 11 times, according to a Navy account of the fight. The Japanese destroyer Hayate blew up after being struck by a several salvos from the American guns.
Marine Capt. Henry T. Elrod, a pilot with VMF-211, would be credited with sinking the next Japanese destroyer during the Wake Island fight. Elrod hit the Kisaragi with a couple 100-pound bombs while piloting his Grumman Wildcat F4F-3.
By the end of the day, more than 200 Japanese troops were dead, a number of ships damaged and two destroyers sunk, according to a Navy history release. The Japanese would withdraw their forces from the fight temporarily and request aircraft carrier support.
The island would later fall to the Japanese on Dec. 23, 1941.
But, the battle of Wake Island during World War II is considered the “only successful defense against an amphibious landing,” according to Navy Cmdr. Keith Patton, the deputy chairman of the strategic and operational research department at the U.S. Naval War College.
It also is one of the first and maybe only account of Marines being credited with sinking an enemy ship from a shore battery, according to the Marine Corps History Division.
At least 29 ships would be sunk by coastal battery systems during World War II, Patton told Marine Corps Times.
Fast-forward nearly 80 years
Sinking ships is not something the Marine Corps has done since WWII, but the fight at Wake Island may serve as the Corps’ only example of how it can help the Navy destroy ships and control waterways and sea access.
Rising naval threats from China has the U.S. military looking back “to that pre-World War II mentality where we actually faced a naval threat,” Navy Cmdr. Keith Patton said.
The U.S. Army shuttered its coastal artillery Corps after World War II.
Gen. David Berger, the commandant of the Marine Corps, told Marines during an August visit to Camp Pendleton, California, that the Corps needs “to be able to hunt and kill ships.”
The Corps is not currently manned or equipped for hunting and sinking enemy ships. But the Marine Corps is in hot pursuit of anti-ship missiles and a mobile shore-based artillery system that can strike moving ships at long distances.
In his July planning guidance, Berger expounded on the importance of the Corps acquiring long range precision fires with a range of no less than 350 nautical miles.
“Possession of such capabilities is not only an operational imperative based on the threat, but one that will increase options to commanders, and should radically alter our forward posture once fully realized,” Berger wrote.
Nothing in the Corps’ current arsenal can reach 350 nautical miles.
And such ranges for ground-based missile systems was prohibited by the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. That treaty called for the U.S. and Soviet Union to eliminate ground-based ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges of 500 km to 5,500 km. In August it was reported that the U.S. plans to withdraw from the treaty.
That treaty “limited the U.S. from deploying shore land-based missiles,” Patton said.
Now, long range HIMARS launchers may be how the Corps drops ships in the ocean.
According to a Marine Corps brief to Congress, the Corps is interesting in procuring a remotely operated Joint Light Tactical Vehicle rocket artillery HIMARS system that can integrate with an anti-ship missile.
The Marine brief to Congress was obtained by Marine Corps Times through a government records request.
HIMARS launchers traditionally have been a long-range truck-mobile all-weather artillery system capable of providing precision strikes for ground forces. Now the Corps wants to test whether it can sink moving ships at sea.
The Corps’ current HIMARS launcher is emplaced on a larger C-130-transportable 5-ton truck, which is capable of launching the Army’s Tactical Missile System and the Guided Multiple Launch Rocket Systems.
Maj. Ken Kunze, a Marine spokesman, confirmed to Marine Corps Times that the Corps was looking at remotely operated launchers “to meet the commandant’s goals of smaller, more lethal and more risk-worthy platforms that help facilitate sea denial and sea control.”
And the anti-ship missile the Corps is interested in is the Naval Strike Missile, according to Marine officials.
The Naval Strike Missile can find and destroy ships up to 100 nautical miles, according to Raytheon, the missile’s creator.
The U.S. Navy littoral combat ship Gabrielle Giffords is armed with the Naval Strike Missile and deployed on Sept. 3 to Indo-Pacific theater, Defense News recently reported.
In on the action
The deadly Naval Strike Missile is so precise an operator can pinpoint it to a specific part of a ship.
Integration and testing for the Naval Strike Missile with the new remotely operated JLTV HIMARS system was awarded to Raytheon in an April 2019 contract, according to Kunze.
The Corps plans to produce two protype anti-ship launchers in fiscal year 2019, with testing scheduled to take place in fiscal year 2020 at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, according to the brief.
“Prototype vehicles will undergo various missile firing tests, automotive performance testing and demonstrations of the remote-control capability with Marine units,” the brief reads.
“Tests will also be conducted to determine the command and control processes and procedures for the coordination of long-range anti-ship missions.”
The Corps has been flexing its HIMARS capabilities across the Pacific throughout the past several years. The rocket artillery system will prove to be vital to how the Corps fights and survives in a decentralized and distributed fight across the expanse of the Pacific.
“Now with modern missiles you can reach as far as the ships can reach,” Patton said.
The ability to rapidly move a long-range precision rocket artillery system will aid in deterrence and help create dilemmas for the enemy.
For the first time ever, a HIMARS system is deployed with and organic to the annual Marine Darwin, Australia, deployment, according to 1st Lt. Colin B. Kennard, a spokesman for Marine Rotational Force – Darwin, Australia.
Marines have carried out several HIMARS air artillery raids known as HIMARS Rapid Infiltration, or HI-RAIN, during this year’s rotation to northern Australia. This tactic allows Marines to rapidly move a HIMARS system by C-130, land and then destroy several targets with precision strikes before withdrawing.
HI-RAIN is a skill Marines have been honing since 2014. The tactic will allow Marines to mobilize small truck-launched missile systems across islands in the Pacific, potentially denying sea access to the enemy.
China is a formidable opponent, but not invincible, said ret. Marine Lt. Col. Dakota Wood, a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation.
The pending bout in the Pacific will be about sea control, “who can make it difficult for the other actor to maneuver,” Wood said.
And in August, for the first time ever, the Marine Corps carried out an amphibious HIMARS raid.
A HIMARS platoon, assigned to the 12th Marine Regiment, loaded a HIMARS launcher onto a landing craft utility ship and simulated a beach raid at Kin Blue, Okinawa, Japan, according to a press release.
“This exercise helps showcase our unit’s mobility and the mobility of the HIMARS in the Indo-Pacific,” Marine Cpl. Pablo Villegas, a HIMARS operator, said in a release.
And in 2017, the Marines successfully fired a HIMARS system from the deck of the San Antonio-class amphibious transport dock Anchorage.
Challenges and hurdles
While today’s advanced technology provides more potency for any future coastal defense unit, the Corps will have to work with a joint force to ensure its HIMARS systems are punching holes in Chinese ships.
A challenge for the Marines, Patton explained, is that Marines ashore manning a shore-based anti-ship system will not be able to see targets hundreds of miles away.
The defenders at Wake during WWII relied on observation towers to spot enemy ships and could only effectively engage the vessels when they crept closer to shore.
Today the U.S. military will have to integrate sensors and unmanned and manned patrol aircraft, according to Patton.
The Corps already appears to be experimenting with this. In October 2018 Marine Lt. Gen. Steven R. Rudder, the deputy commandant for aviation, at the Center for Strategic & International Studies in Washington said that the Corps had successfully conducted an F-35 sensor-to-shooter HIMARS shot.
An F-35 was able to relay targeting data to a HIMARS unit, which then fired its rockets and destroyed a target.
The Corps’ new ship sinking mission is all about the Marines’ reintegration with Navy after nearly 20 years of fighting counterinsurgency operations across the Middle East.
Sinking ships is Berger’s way of telling Marines that it’s time for the Corps to start thinking about how it can serve the Navy’s needs.
“When you look at the likely opponents’ weapon systems, their ranges, the geography involved, it’s inherently a maritime and naval theatre in character,” Wood said.
“And [Berger] is decidedly intent on repositioning the Marine Corps to focus on that,” he said.
What’s old is new again.
The common phrase has been tossed around by defense officials and policy wonks as the U.S. re-enters a world amid a great power competition.
The Corps and the American military are looking back to how each operated during the Cold War and World War II to confront the future challenge, after years of fighting in low tech environments.
And right now, “China is the pacing threat in the region,” Wood said.
According to an annual DoD on China’s military capabilities, the People’s Liberation Army Navy, or PLAN, is the largest in the region with nearly 300 ships.
China is heavily invested in rapidly modernizing its naval forces and expanding its marine component. It’s also building forces that will be able to land and seize islands across the Pacific.
“The PLAN is rapidly replacing obsolescent, generally single-purpose platforms in favor of larger, multi-role combatants featuring advanced anti-ship, antiair, and anti-submarine weapons and sensors,” the DoD review reads.
The PLAN Marine Corps is also undergoing expansion and changes to its mission.
According to the DoD review, the PLAN Marine Corps will consist of seven brigades and have a force strength of 30,000 personnel. Previously, the Chinese marine unit was manned with two brigades with roughly 10,000 troops.
The Chinese Marines will also be expanding the scope of their mission beyond Taiwan and the South China Sea.
“While the PLANMC will still be preparing for fights closer to home, it is developing itself into a force also capable of embarking on PLAN ships outside of the first island chain and deploying to protect Chinese overseas interests and secure its military bases,” Conor Kennedy, a research associate at the Naval War College, told Marine Corps Times.
The first island chain stretches from Japan to Taiwan and the Philippines. China believes it is central to its defense.
“The PLANMC may also establish an aviation brigade, which could provide an organic helicopter transport and attack capability, increasing its amphibious and expeditionary warfare capabilities, the DoD review reads.
The Chinese marines have “grown in importance” in China, and new training instructions released in 2014 are honing skills in the marines’ ability to “rapidly deploy to any theater of operates and carry out missions effectively,” Kennedy said.
China is growing in its ability to confront the U.S. in the Pacific and even land forces to wrest control of strategic islands.
To fight in the Pacific the Corps will need to sink landing forces before they hit the shores, they’ll also need to ensure the U.S. Navy can maneuver across the battlespace.
The Corps is currently homing in on HIMARS with anti-ship missiles to accomplish this task.
Shawn Snow is the senior reporter for Marine Corps Times and a Marine Corps veteran.