Leatherneck Surveyors—Part 2-The Island Mappers

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This is the second of a two-part series on the role of the United States Coast and Geodetic Survey serving with the United States Marine Corps during World War II in the Pacific Ocean. As noted in Part I, eleven C&GS officers were called into the United States Marine Corps in 1942. Those officers served with distinction as regimental artillery survey officers, mapping officers, engineering officers, intelligence officers, and in specialized photogrammetric units. The survey and engineering officers were often in the front lines of some of the fiercest fighting of the Pacific war while the intelligence and photogrammetric officers, although nominally rear echelon were also subjected to the hazards of artillery, aerial bombardment, and sniper fire while ashore, and kamikaze attack while offshore.

The Island Mappers
Ensign Norman Porter, C&GS, found himself attached to the Marine Corps in July, 1942. During the next 3 years he served as Mapping Officer for the I Amphibious Corps, III Amphibious Corps, and V Amphibious Corps. He served from Guadalcanal to the occupation of Japan and was part of the amphibious assaults on Bougainville, where he landed on D-Day, and Guam, where he landed on D+2. He and Commander Joseph Partington, C&GS, were assigned the responsibility of mapping the British Solomon Islands. This involved the production of original maps as much of the area had been only partially explored prior to the war. Concerning military mapping, Partington and Porter published an article in the Military Engineer for July 1944 which succinctly stated the need for accurate charts and maps for military operations:

"It is the responsibility of intelligence sections to collect, among other data, terrain information on areas under hostile occupation. Only with a knowledge of the characteristics of a battlefield and of the strength, location, and disposition of the enemy can a commander determine the enemy’s capabilities and fully accomplish his mission.

"In amphibious operations, water depths, sizes and shapes of bays, widths of approaches, landmarks, bottom characteristics, underwater dangers, tides, currents, surf conditions, and beach profiles determine the types of ships and landing craft which can be used. The placement and method of construction of airfields, camps, roads, gun positions, and other vital installations are dependent largely upon the terrain and availability of construction materials such as coral, gravel, and sand. Fresh water in sufficient quantity is a necessity for military operations, and a study of the drainage pattern prior to operations indicates sources of supply and makes possible the selection of equipment for its procurement."

Porter landed on Bougainville on D-day, November 8, 1943. He wrote that "The scene of our landing, the Empress Augusta Bay area on the central west coast of Bougainville, was practically virgin territory prior to our landing. Few men had ever traversed this hot and humid area. Our first few days ashore were busy ones indeed. My section’s working quarters consisted of a pyramidal tent with a six-foot deep slit trench on two sides. Under the canvas a Marine captain and four enlisted Marines assisted me. My home consisted of a foxhole in which I had suspended an Army jungle hammock. I found it quite comfortable as a place of refuge from the nightly Japanese aerial attacks to which we were subjected during the next six weeks. The K-rations were a novelty for the first two meals but lost their popularity with the passage of time and I can now vividly recall having turkey and all the "fixins" on Thanksgiving Day of 1943."

One of Porter’s jobs on Bougainville was to determine an astronomic latitude and longitude of Cape Torokina to be used as a control point for surveying and mapping. This was particularly critical as many of the old surveys in the area were off in longitude by many miles. Three nights were consumed in this effort because of nightly Japanese bombing raids, including one which lasted for three hours. Porter’s instrument setup was located in a shell-hole adjacent to a 50 caliber machine-gun emplacement that fired at attacking Japanese planes. Often during this survey work, Japanese planes would return fire and strafe the area where he was working.

Norman Porter finished on Bougainville in early December and returned to a headquarters area where he worked on mapping and charting problems for the next 5 months. On May 27, 1944, his group boarded the U.S.S. PRESIDENT POLK and spent the next 57 very hot days at sea. At 0200 on July 21, he arose to watch the naval bombardment of the Agat landing area on Guam. "We made our way closer to the beach as dawn approached. There was much activity on our and the neighboring transports. Landing craft were loaded with anxious Marines and then lowered into the water. Dive-bombers in great numbers appeared and bombed and strafed the beachhead area as the landing craft made their way to the beach and as they did the Naval gunfire was raised and directed in the path of advance of the Marines. As at most landings the initial waves met heavy devastating enemy fire but the opposition was progressively overcome…."

Following Guam, Porter helped plan the amphibious assaults on Pelelieu and Okinawa, and then was detailed to the U.S. Sixth Army to plan for the invasion of Kyushu, Japan. Fortunately this planning was never executed as WWII came to an end. Lieutenant Commander Porter was sent to Sasebo, Japan, as part of an advance team to smooth the landing of American occupation troops through this huge naval base. For the next 3 months Porter acquired information on the port cities of Japan. As a side note, he observed that the differences between Japanese tide tables and those produced by the Coast and Geodetic Survey for Japanese port cities were negligible. On September 22, 1945, the day that American troops landed in Sasebo, the difference in predicted tides was less than 10 minutes in time and 0.5 feet in range.

Norman Porter returned to the United States in early 1946 and reported to the Ship GILBERT for duty with the C&GS on April 21, 1946.

Because of the virtual lack of accurate maps for many of the Pacific islands, Marine Photographic Squadrons were formed for the purpose of compiling maps from aerial photography and also for collecting tactical intelligence information. Lieutenant Commander Emmett Sheridan was assigned to the first of these squadrons to be formed, VMD-154, in late October 1942 as Mapping and Reconnaissance Officer. After a short time of indoctrination, the squadron embarked from the United States on December 2 and arrived in Espiritu Santo, New Hebrides Islands, on December 30, 1942. This outfit suddenly found itself subjected to "intense heat, torrential rain, dense jungle, and myriad insects and bugs". Upon arrival, Sheridan was assigned the additional duties of construction officer responsible for clearing the jungle; erecting mess halls, sick bays, sanitary facilities, and a photographic laboratory; putting up required tents; and laying out a road system.

Over the next year, VMD-154 participated in the Guadalcanal, Munda, and Bougainville campaigns. PB4Y aircraft (B-24’s) attached to the squadron overflew and photographed virtually all islands in the New Hebrides and Solomon groups. Mosaic maps of the areas covered were provided when requested to operating units. Particular strategic locations of enemy activity were "pinpointed" by daily coverage when required. The operations extended as far as Puluwat Island in the Caroline Islands. Emmett Sheridan’s function was to prepare a flight map, lay out flight lines for photographic coverage, and compute the necessary parameters related to a successful photographic mission. When the plane returned and the photographs were processed, Sheridan oversaw the production of a photo mosaic and interpretation of the photographs.

In December 1943, VMD-154 was relieved by VMD-254 and returned to the United States in order to train other units in the methodologies they had developed. Commander Roswell C. Bolstad, C&GS, was the Mapping and Reconnaissance Officer for VMD-254.

During the year that Bolstad was overseas with VMD-254 he worked on Espiritu Santo; Guadalcanal; the Russell Islands; Munda, New Georgia Island; Vella Lavella; Treasury Islands; Bougainville; and Green Island all within the Solomon Islands. In the Bismarck Archipelago he worked at Emirau and Mussau in the St. Mathias Group; participated in PT-boat coastal reconnaissance raids on New Hanover Island and Tench Islands; at New Ireland participated in both PT-boat reconnaissance and flight missions; and worked at Los Negros in the Admiralty Islands. In the Mariana Islands he accompanied pre-invasion air-photo missions over Guam and also worked at Rota. Between flying over hostile territory and accompanying PT-boat reconnaissance into enemy-held territory, Commander Bolstad also found time to develop what he termed an Approach Recognition Chart to aid planes striking at Truk.

C&GS officers worked with the Marine Corps throughout the western Pacific producing maps for use by infantry, artillery, and combat aircraft. During the course of individual battles they often served as intelligence officers interpreting aerial photography for target acquisition, disposition of enemy troops, and terrain analysis. Lieutenant General Roy Geiger, USMC, wrote of Lieutenant Commander Norman Porter "… he was indefatigable in obtaining mapping data and hydrographic data, without which accurate maps could not have been made…. his technical intelligence was of inestimable value in planning for three major campaigns…." Similar words could have been applied to any of the C&GS officers assigned to mapping and intelligence functions with the Marine Corps.

The last great battle of the Pacific war was Okinawa. During this battle, Lieutenant Commander Horace Conerly, C&GS, was Assistant Engineering Officer for the Third Amphibious Corps. Conerly had already served at Bougainville as a regimental survey officer with the Third Marine Division and also at Guam as an Intelligence Officer. At Bougainville, he received a letter of commendation for establishing survey control for the artillery battalions of his regiment, the 155 mm guns of a Defense Battalion, and the guns of a Coast Artillery Unit of the U. S. Army. Oddly, Conerly received a Bronze Star Medal for accomplishing work that was primarily of a hydrographic nature while on Okinawa. He advised the III Amphibious Corps commander on the selection of initial landing sites and then helped determine additional landing sites for supply vessels as the fighting moved up the island. He came under artillery fire from Shuri Castle while conducting a hydrographic survey for an LCT landing area. On another occasion he conducted a beach reconnaissance and hydrographic survey along the seaward flank of the front lines of the 6th Marine Division while under small arms fire. He also was commended for rendering excellent advice on a series of difficult problems concerning amphibious operations over coral reefs.

Following the war, Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz recognized the role of the C&GS in contributing to the success of U.S. forces in the Pacific. He wrote a personal message to Rear Admiral H. Arnold Karo on a photograph of the signing of the Japanese surrender documents on the U.S.S. MISSOURI: "… with best wishes and great appreciation of the assistance of the U. S. Coast and Geodetic Survey in making possible the above scene." The surveyors, mappers, and intelligence officers of the C&GS attached to the Marines had made their contribution to that final scene of World War II.

Albert "Skip" Theberge served as a NOAA Corps officer for 27 years prior to retirement in 1995. During that period he was primarily engaged in nautical charting and seafloor mapping but also served a stint in geodesy working on the Transcontinental Traverse project during the 1970s. For the past 18 years he has worked as a research librarian at the NOAA Central Library and has produced a number of historical works related to the Coast and Geodetic Survey (C&GS) and seafloor mapping. He also produced the NOAA History website (www.history.noaa.gov) and the NOAA Photo Library (www.photolib.noaa. gov) which includes thousands of historic photos related to the work of the C&GS.

A 5.101Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE