The Bunker Busters
Mike Guardia, American Armor in the Pacific (Casemate, 2020)
The Pacific War in World War II conjures images of US Marines storming ashore onto beaches flayed by Japanese gunfire. We might see a tank or two, especially when dealing with Japanese bunkers. But Mike Guardia’s American Armor in the Pacific reveals that there was much more to tank warfare in the Pacific than a first glance suggests. Indeed, without tanks, the Americans would have lost many more men than they did, and the war could conceivably have ground to a halt as the Japanese intended.
After a timeline of major events, Guardia introduces us to his subject along with some background information on the causes of the war. He notes there were no tank-on-tank battles in the Pacific, but US tanks performed valuable service supporting the infantry. When Japanese tanks made an appearance, their American counterparts generally made short work of them. Guardia surveys the development of the Japanese tanks with an overview of those used in combat, moving up the size scale through the Type 94, Type 97, Type 89, Type 95, Type 97, and the light Type 98 (at the end for some reason). The American tank evolution follows. They were slow starters in developing tanks but brought some useful machines to bear in the Pacific, such as the M2, M3/M5, and of course the workhorse M4 Sherman. Guardia adds the LVT Alligator as an assault vehicle and the M3 Half-Track Gun Motor Carriage. With the opponents outlined, Guardia takes us into combat.
Guardia begins his narrative in the Philippines in 1941 where US M3 tanks fell prey to Type 95s and enemy aircraft in a bitter defeat. The US campaign in the Southwest Pacific offered revenge for the American tanks. At Guadalcanal in August 1942, the Type 97s succumbed to Marine anti-tank guns while US M3 Stuarts provided sterling support for the US infantry – it helped that the Japanese had no anti-tank guns, opting for infantry assaults with bayonets and grenades. They had magnetic mines though in New Georgia in 1943, which the US countered with wood and concrete add-on armour. By Bougainville in November, the Sherman was on station. The terrain on these islands, however, inhibited US tanks, but they worked closely and successfully with the infantry, which carried through to the Central Pacific campaign in 1943. The terrain was better there, but the big development was the flamethrower tank, ideal for clearing bunkers and caves. Shermans, Stuarts, and Alligators all took part at Tarawa in November 1943 where shell-holes from pre-invasion naval gunfire caused the biggest problems. At nearby Makin, both the M3 Lee and M3A1 Stuart took part, demonstrating the diversity of US tanks in the region. Then came the Marhsall Islands and the Mariana Islands.
The Japanese stiffened their defences with more tanks and anti-tank guns the closer the US came to the mainland, but US armour tactics were improving – of the 44 Japanese tanks on Saipan, 32 were destroyed. Arguably the most satisfying campaign in the Pacific was the recapture of the Philippines. Here some Japanese generals eschewed tanks and paid the price for that negligence. What tanks they did deploy, including innovative amphibious tanks, were destroyed quite handily – the US had also developed a semi-amphibious Sherman using snorkels on the back to keep the engines from seizing. The biggest threat to US tanks was better Japanese anti-tank guns, but they in turn were susceptible to US infantry working with the tanks. On Iwo Jima, Japanese mines and the soft volcanic sand took their toll of US tanks, but they still delivered crucial infantry support. They performed with similar distinction at Okinawa. Guardia concludes by arguing that for all their tactical ingenuity, the Japanese tanks were ‘under-armored, underpowered, and mechanically troublesome’ but that does not take anything away from American ‘tenacity, dedication, and…innovation’.
American Armor in the Pacific is an excellent little survey of tank warfare in the Pacific. Guardia’s narrative sticks closely to tank operations and he does not get bogged down in detail – he allows his profile pages to do that work. The book is also full of illuminating monochrome photographs of tanks that will keep modelers happy. A true enthusiast might want more meat on the bone, but for the average student of tanks in the Pacific War, Guardia’s book works very well.