The recapture of Corregidor is occasionally touted as “a battle of the best against the best”—elite US paratroopers fighting elite Imperial Japanese marines. While the 503rd Parachute Infantry was made up of picked troops, the men of the 3rd Battalion, 34th Infantry were standard US infantry from a Regular Army division. They played a critical role in the battle. The Japanese marines at Corregidor were far from elite troops, being inferior to US or Imperial Japanese regular infantry.
The problem comes from misunderstanding what marines are. In the United States and the UK marines are elite troops. The marines of both nations, the United States Marine Corps and the Royal Marines, are picked troops, trained to conduct amphibious warfare and maintain discipline aboard ships.
In other nations “marines” refers to any member of that nation’s navy used as ground troops. Sometimes, as was the case with the Kriegsmarine, all naval personnel go through basic infantry training before receiving training as sailors. Those nations’ marines are not necessarily elite, nor are they even particularly effective ground troops. World War II Imperial Japan was one of those nations. It lacked the quasi-independent infantry arm of the US and the UK. Rather, it had a collection of Navy Land Forces.
The best known were the Special Naval Landing Forces (SNLF, Kaigun-tokubetsu-rikusen-tai). These were equivalent to US Marines or Royal Marines. They were battalion-sized formations trained in ground operations. Well-trained and highly disciplined, they were firmly under Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) control. They played an important role in the opening stages of the Pacific War. Two SNLF companies received parachute training—a combination of US Marines and US Army paratroopers. No SNLF troops were present on Corregidor when Rock Force landed.
Troops of the Japanese 81st Guard Unit-Troops Conducting a Landing Drill (Wikipedia)
The IJN had other categories of marines: base forces, defense units, guard units, antiaircraft defense units, and construction battalions. The Japanese “marines” the US Army fought on Corregidor were drawn from these other units.
Base forces provided administrative services at shore installations in combat zones. As was the case on Corregidor, they could be given guns when under attack to defend their installation, but that was not their primary function.
Defense units and guard units were sailors organized to conduct ground combat. Defense units generally operated within Japan (including on Formosa and in other prewar Japanese territories). Guard units executed these same responsibilities at facilities outside Japan. Defense units were organized in 250–2,000-man units, while guard units had between 100 and 1,500 men. They included artillery units. Antiaircraft defense units were similar, made up of sailors typically manning the same types of antiaircraft artillery they used aboard ships.
Finally, there were construction battalions. These were not equivalent to US Navy Seabees, who were construction workers trained to fight. They were more like a road gang pressed into naval service. Some had construction skills. Many were unskilled laborers, working with pick and shovel. Often their ranks were filled out with civilians, some conscripted from Korea.
These were the “marines” the US paratroopers and infantrymen fought—members of IJN guard and construction units. Moreover, in many cases the Imperial Japanese Navy assembled these units at the last minute. Many of the ground forces came from ships sunk or crippled during the naval battles fought around the Philippines. Their crews were reorganized into guard companies and battalions.
The East End of Malinta Tunnel, Where an Inept Breeching Attempt Killed More Japanese Than Americans (US Army, Public Domain)
The garrison of Fort Drum on El Fraile was made up of survivors of the sinking of Musashi. At least they had the comfort of living in an environment approximating life aboard ship. Shipwrecked sailors on Corregidor found they had become infantry on a mountainous island. As it was, they often proved more of a danger to their own side than to the enemy. The breeching of Malinta Tunnel illustrated that, where inexperienced sappers killed two orders magnitude more Japanese than Americans.
None of this takes away the accomplishments of either side. Rock Force fought a brave and determined (if unskilled) enemy entrenched in difficult terrain. The 503rd PIR landing on Topside as an organized force was an operation almost unprecedented in difficulty. Even if the garrison had been made up exclusively of SNLF troops, the battle would have ended with Corregidor in US hands. It may have taken longer, with more US casualties, but once the 503rd was on Topside and the 3rd/34th was on Malinta Hill, the outcome was certain.
The Japanese garrison, despite being ill prepared and ill equipped, fought to the end. They forced their enemy to fight for every inch of Corregidor. It would take a mean-spirited individual not to honor the courage shown by both sides.
If you enjoyed today's blog post you can find out more in Corregidor 1945: Repossessing the Rock here.