Battle of Engebi, 17-18 February 1944

The battle of Engebi (17-18 February 1944) was the first stage in the American conquest of Eniwetok Atoll in the Marshall Islands (Operation Catchpole).

Engebi is a triangular island. The east coast ran roughly north-south, and the north coast ran slightly to the south, both facing the ocean. The lagoon coast ran from north-west to south-east. The limited number of buildings faced the lagoon. The airfield ran across the northern part of the island. A palm grove filled the eastern part of the island.

Engebi was lightly defended. After the construction of the airfield, a garrison of around 60 arrived on the island. They had a battery of two 12cm guns and two twin mounted 13mm machine guns. On 4 January 1944 the 1st Amphibious Brigade arrived on Eniwetok Atoll. The brigade contained 3,940 men, of whome 2,586 were posted on Eniwetok. Most of these men were posted on Parry Island, the location of the HQ of General Nishida Yoshimi, commander of the brigade. 692 men from the brigade, 54 naval personnel from the 1st Amphibious Brigade and 500 non-combatants were on Engebi, under the command of Col Yano Toshio. The garrison had two flame throwers, thirteen grenade launchers, twelve light machine guns, four heavy machine guns, two 37mm guns, eleven 81mm mortars, one 20mm automatic gun, two 20mm cannons, two mountain guns and three light tanks, as well as the 12cm coastal guns. The defenders were concentrated on the lagoon side, as Colonel Yano expected the Americans to land on that side. A strong point was constructed half way along the lagoon shore and there were smaller strong points at the three corners of the triangular island.

On 16 February aircraft from TG 58.4 attacked Eniwetok. On Engebi they temporarily knocked the airfield out of use, destroyed one of two coastal defence guns at the north-eastern corner of the island and destroyed up to 14 aircraft.

The invasion fleet arrived off Eniwetok early on 17 February. It then split up, with each part going to its attack position. Mine sweepers opened the Wide Passage and the Deep Passage, allowing the fire support group and transport group into the middle of the atoll.

At 1318, after some confusion, the Americans landed on Canna and Camelia Islands, near to Engebi. No resistance was encountered, and a mix of 75mm and 105mm guns were soon landed. Harassing fire began at 1902. The underwater demolition teams then went to work, supported by heavy fire from the battleships Colorado and Tennessee and the destroyer Heerman and McCord. More smaller islands were secured without resistance, and overnight a blocking force was placed on the island chain to the south of Engebi to stop the defenders from escaping.

The main landings were to be carried out by two battalions from the 22nd Marines, with the 1st Battalion landing on White Beach 1 on the right and the 2nd Battalion landing on Blue Beach 3 on the left. W Hour was set for 0845. The landing was to be supported by medium tanks and two 105mm self propelled guns.

Aerial View of USS Louisville (CA-28)
Aerial View of USS Louisville (CA-28)

At 0655 on 18 February Colorado and Louisville began to bombard the northern and eastern parts of the island. The Tennessee and Pennsylvania opened fire on the beach defences at dawn, and at 0720 the destroyer Phelps began direct fire. At 0800 a naval air attack began, and at 0811 the naval bombardment resumed. Artillery from the islands captured on 17 February began soon afterwards. The attack force was preceded by LCI gunboats, with rockets and 40mm guns.

The first vehicle to land were the LVT(A)s, which advanced about 100 yards inland and fired at any possible target. They were followed by three waves of troops and then by the medium tanks, all but one of which landed safely. There was very little resistance at the beach, with the worst coming from the southern tip of the island. This slowed down the advance on the right, but the 2nd Battalion on the left made rapid progress. The airfield was quickly captured, and within a hour the tanks had reached the northern short. The naval gunfire had to be cancelled at 0925 because the Marines were so far inland. The 3rd Battalion landed at 0955 and began to mop up the few remaining defenders.

On the right the 1st Battalion ran into more determined resistance at Skunk Point, the southern tip. These troops were slowly pushed back to the north and eleiminated.

The island was declared secure at 1450 on 18 February, although some mopping up continued until late on the following day. The 3rd Battalion and 2nd Separate Tank Company both re-embarked on 18 February, ready for the invasions of Parry and Eniwetok.

The Marines lost 85 killed and missing and 521 wounded. The Japanese lost 1,276 dead and 16 prisoners.

On 18-19 February the smaller islands in the eastern branch of the atoll were cleared. During this process the Americans found evidence that Parry and Eniwetok were more heavily defended than expected, so the plan to invade both on the same day was cancelled. Eniwetok would be cleared first, followed by Parry.

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (29 January 2018), Battle of Engebi, 17-18 February 1944 , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/battles_engebi.html

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