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Chapter 8: Conclusion

Relief in Place1

Navy and Marine Corps leaders were seriously concerned about the retention of the 1st Marine Division in the Southwest Pacific Area and particularly about its employment in a role that did not take full advantage of its training and experience.2 Veteran amphibious divisions were scarce throughout the Pacific, and officers of the naval service felt that the shore-to-shore operations which General MacArthur had projected for the remainder of 1944 could be handled well by units that had not made a specialty of amphibious assault. In sharp contrast, the capture of the island targets of Admiral Nimitz’ Central Pacific drive demanded trained amphibious divisions. To spearhead its long overwater advances and the unavoidable fierce contests to win secure beachheads, the Navy wanted Marine assault troops.

The allocation of troops to seize various Pacific objectives rested with the Joint Chiefs of Staff. In Washington, the Commandant of the Marine Corps worked through Admiral King to get the 1st Marine Division back under naval command and employed to its full amphibious capability.3 Neither General Vandegrift nor General Rupertus was convinced that pursuit of the remnants of the Japanese garrison of western New Britain was a task that made the best use of the division.4 General MacArthur was reluctant to release the Marine unit to Pacific Ocean Areas’ command, however, until operations to seize Kavieng and further isolate Rabaul were concluded.

During March, at a series of conferences in Washington attended by key representatives of both MacArthur’s and Nimitz’ staff, the conflicting points of view regarding the relative strength to be employed in the Central and Southwest Pacific offensives were aired. On the 12th, the Joint Chiefs directed CinCSWPA to complete the isolation of Rabaul with a minimum of forces and to bypass Kavieng, while he made his main thrust west along the New Guinea coast toward the Philippines. CinCPOA was ordered to seize positions in the southern Marianas in June and then to move on to the Palaus in September.

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The 1st Marine Division was to be returned to Nimitz’ control for employment as an assault division in the Palaus operation.

The JCS left the negotiations regarding the actual redeployment of the 1st Division up to the two senior Pacific commanders. On 31 March, Nimitz radioed MacArthur asking that the division be disengaged as soon as possible and withdrawn to a base in the Solomons. In reply, the general stated that he thought that the division should not be relieved until late June and that when the relief took place it would require extensive use of amphibious equipment since there were no docks at Cape Gloucester. MacArthur indicated that in view of prospective operations in his area such equipment was not available to accomplish the relief.

On 6 April, both Marshall and Nimitz reminded MacArthur of the intended employment of the 1st Marine Division in the Palaus operation, and Nimitz stated that the division would have to be released prior to 1 June in order to “have ample time to prepare for participation in a major amphibious assault.”5 At the same time, Admiral Halsey was asked to determine to what extent his South Pacific Force could support the movement of troops involved. The Pacific Ocean Area’s commander pointed out further that the timing and success of operations in the Palaus depended upon the planned use of the 1st Division, and that any delay in the completion of the campaign would “cause corresponding delays in the readiness of the Pacific Fleet”6 to support MacArthur’s operations.

The reaction to the messages from Pearl Harbor and Washington was swift. By 8 April, arrangements had been made to relieve the 1st Marine Division with the 40th Infantry Division which was stationed on Guadalcanal. The movement was to be made in two echelons using transports belonging to Halsey’s force. To speed the transfer and ease cargo space requirements, the two divisions were directed to exchange in place all equipment that was common to both or could be reasonably substituted therefor. The first elements of the 40th Division to arrive at New Britain would be utilized to relieve the Marines deployed in the Iboki and Talasea areas.

Marine Withdrawal7

Before the Army relief arrived, the 1st Marine Division had begun the inevitable aftermath of a combat operation—a new training cycle. On 17 March, General Rupertus issued a directive to all units at Cape Gloucester outlining a seven-week program of individual and organizational training which laid emphasis on firing practice and tactical exercises from the squad through the regiment. Colonel Smith was ordered to start a similar program for the 5th Marines at Talasea as soon as his situation permitted.

Word of the division’s pending departure for the Solomons brought the training schedule to an end, but not before an amphibious reconnaissance school

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graduated a class well-versed in the techniques painstakingly acquired by Lieutenant Bradbeer and the other veteran division scouts. Before the graduates returned to their units, they took part in an actual scouting mission to check the landing beaches and the airdrome on Cape Hoskins. On 13 April, a 16-man patrol landed from LCMs about 5,000 yards west of the enemy airfields and started for the objective. The scouts were split into three parties, one followed the shoreline, another the coastal trail, and the third circled inland.8 As it approached Cape Hoskins, the center party ran into a Japanese ambush bristling with mortars and machine guns.. Despite the enemy fire and a close pursuit, the various elements of the patrol were able to shake loose from contact, get back through the jungle to their rendezvous point, and withdraw without incurring any losses. The next American reconnaissance to Cape Hoskins was made on 7 May, and by the Army, but the Japanese encountered by the Marines, evidently a rear guard, had departed in the general retreat to Rabaul.

Major General Rapp Brush, commanding the 40th Division, flew to Cape Gloucester on 10 April to arrange for the relief in place of the 1st Marine Division by elements of his own unit. The first echelon of the Army division, principally the 185th Infantry and its reinforcing units, reached the cape on 23 April. On the following day, the 1st Marines and detachments from a number of division supporting units boarded the transports that had brought the soldiers and sailed for the South Pacific. The 185th, at the same time, crowded into engineer landing craft at Borgen Bay and sailed for Iboki. Stopping overnight at the plantation, the Army regiment moved on at dawn, leaving behind a platoon to replace a like detachment of the 5th Marines. On the 25th, the soldiers reached Willaumez and the Army commander took over responsibility for the area from Lieutenant Colonel Buse, who had taken command of the 5th Marines when Colonel Smith was promoted and returned to Cape Gloucester to become ADC.9 The Marine regiment and its attached units boarded the LCMs and LCVPs that had brought their welcome relief force and started back for Cape Gloucester the following evening.

The remainder of the 40th Division arrived on 28 April, and General Rupertus turned over command of the BACKHANDER Force to General Brush. While Captain Petras flew the Marine leader back to the Solomons, the second echelon of the 1st Division loaded its gear and sailed. On 4 May, when the ships that had transported the first echelon returned, the last elements of the division departed. Only one Marine unit, the 12th Defense Battalion, remained at Cape Gloucester, but it too, was relieved later in the month when an antiaircraft artillery group arrived to take its place.10

The last group of ships returning to the Solomons joined LSTs carrying

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Companies A and B, 1st Tank Battalion, and personnel of the division rear echelon who had closed out the Marine supply dumps on New Guinea. Company B had been released from the DIRECTOR Force in mid-April and sent to Finschhafen in anticipation of the 1st Marine Division’s withdrawal. Company A, which had the only medium tanks available in the forward area, had been alerted for action in the Admiralties and was actually employed on 22 April as a part of the assault forces at Tanahmerah Bay in the Hollandia operation. A large swamp and a precipitous mountain range immediately behind it prevented the Marine tanks from moving inland, and while the Army infantrymen advanced, the Marines “sat on the beach, fished, and were eventually loaded aboard ship again.”11

When the 1st Marine Division, reinforced, added up the cost of its four-month campaign on New Britain, the casualty total read 310 men killed or died of wounds and 1,083 wounded in action. The figures could easily have been higher had the operation not been well planned and skillfully executed by veteran troops. When General Rupertus relinquished command of BACKHANDER Force to General Brush, the toll of enemy killed and captured stood at 4,288 and 420, respectively.12 In postwar calculations, a senior staff officer of Eighth Area Army reckoned the Japanese loss in the fighting at Arawe and Cape Gloucester and in the withdrawal to Rabaul at 3,868 killed and died of wounds.13 It is probable that the actual total of enemy killed lay somewhere between the claim and the recollection.

The 40th Infantry Division had its first clash with the Japanese as soon as it relieved the 1st Division’s advance posts. Following his orders from ALAMO Force, General Brush kept pressure on the 17th Division stragglers and mopped up the few enemy troops that remained alive west of Rabaul. On 7 May, patrols of the 185th Infantry occupied Cape Hoskins airdrome and found the area mined but deserted. In June, a regiment of the 40th relieved the DIRECTOR Force at Arawe, and, in October, units of the division occupied Gasmata. Late in November, the Australian 5th Division relieved the 40th in its positions on New Britain, and the American unit moved west to take part in MacArthur’s attack on Leyte.

In its seven months of active patrolling, the 40th Division killed 31 Japanese soldiers and took a mere 18 prisoners, proof enough that the enemy had successfully withdrawn his troops to Rabaul. Close to a thousand enemy were accounted for by natives roaming the jungle that ringed the Japanese stronghold. For self defense, the coastwatchers who manned the observation posts on Gazelle Peninsula and in the jungles to the east had to arm selected natives. An initial air drop of 100 riot guns and ammunition was made on 21 February and proved so worthwhile an idea that it was followed up repeatedly and to such effect that nothing short of all-out enemy retaliation sweeps could have stopped the slaughter. In time, the specter of bushy-haired Melanesians armed with shotgun and knife lying in ambush along every trail put a severe crimp in the aggressiveness of Japanese patrols ranging out from Rabaul.

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Campaign Appraisal14

Many serious students of the Pacific War have questioned the selection of Cape Gloucester and Arawe as Allied objectives. In most cases, too little heed has been given to the commander’s responsibility to approve operations that are within the reasonable capabilities of his forces. Observers who recognize that the men and munitions available to MacArthur and Nimitz were stretched thinly, argue that the Allies might have made bolder use of limited resources. The conclusion is inescapable that such judgments are based on a knowledge of results.

If, in retrospect, the landing at Saidor seems to have been a wiser move than that at Cape Gloucester, it should not be forgotten that the one was contingent upon the success of the other. If now Arawe’s seizure appears to have been a fruitless effort, it did not appear so at the time to many responsible and intelligent men. Away from the pressure of war, it is not hard to see that many of the operations undertaken to reduce Rabaul were unnecessary. At the time, however, DEXTERITY objectives were vital in the opinion of the men who chose them.

In many respects, the seizure of Cape Gloucester was a model amphibious operation. The difficulties overcome in landing a large assault force on an obscure beach with numerous off-lying reefs were formidable. Excellent aerial photography by Allied Air Forces enabled Admiral Barbey’s staff to prepare accurate navigational charts for the attack force. A careful plan, with adequate emergency safeguards to insure its execution, provided for essential minesweeping and buoying of boat lanes. Landing craft control procedures were well thought out, and a senior naval officer was made responsible for the safe passage of the craft through the reefs and on to the beaches.15 Coxswains and wave officers were given panoramic sketches built up from maps and photographs to help them identify beaches as they were seen from boats approaching the shore.

Although there was no hitch in the landing operations at Cape Gloucester, and the Navy and Marine Corps worked together with practiced ease, MacArthur’s headquarters realized that the problem of who was in overall control at the time of the landing had been left in the air. Naval amphibious doctrine clearly gave this responsibility to the attack force commander, and at the conclusion of DEXTERITY, GHQ adopted this concept of control for future operations in the Southwest Pacific. Landing force commanders would take charge when their troops were firmly established ashore.16

What Admiral Barbey called “the old problem of efficient joint planning”17 was handled well in the preparations for DEXTERITY. The various staffs—ground, naval, and air—at GHQ and at operating forces levels coordinated their planning activities, and the operations, instructions, and plans that were issued reflected concurrent thinking. Conferences between interested commanders were

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frequent enough to work out solutions to differences regarding objectives, forces available, and timing. The abandonment of Gasmata as a target, the substitution of Arawe, and the diversion of the Gasmata landing force to Saidor were all examples of the flexibility with which changes in the operational situation were met. The 1st Marine Division’s strong views on the composition of the BACKHANDER assault force were carefully considered and finally accepted. The decision to cancel parachute troop participation and to strengthen the Marine landing force instead owed a great deal to the Commander, Allied Air Forces and his reluctance to support the air drop as planned.

General Kenney was much more interested in the aerial support that his bombing and attack squadrons could give to DEXTERITY operations than he was in the diversion of transports to a parachute landing. “Gloucesterizing” was an expression that came into use in the Fifth Air Force “to describe the complete obliteration of a target.”18 The word was invented by pilots as a tribute to the thoroughness of the preinvasion aerial bombardment of Cape Gloucester. Japanese prisoners and captured diaries confirm the devastating effect of the steady hammering by Allied planes. Several hundred enemy troops lost their lives in the bombing and strafing attacks, and most of the permanent installations and fixed defenses near the airdrome were destroyed. Enemy morale skidded downward as antibarge strikes mounted in intensity and effectiveness with the approach of D-day, and the flow of supplies to the garrison of western New Britain dwindled.

The shortage of fire support ships, and the desire to conceal the chosen landing beaches from the enemy, limited naval gunfire preparations to the morning of the actual assault at both Cape Gloucester and Arawe. The featureless blanket of jungle growth crowding to the water’s edge showed few targets that were suited to the flat trajectory of naval guns. Most of the ships’ bombardment was confined to area fire which showered the airfield, the hills that broke through the jungle, and the ill-defined beaches. Opportunity targets, such as the antiboat guns that ripped through the rubber boat formation at Arawe, were sure game for destroyers, but such targets were few.

To bridge the gap between the end of naval gunfire and air bombardment of the beaches and the grounding of the first assault wave, ship-launched rockets were called into play. Both Admirals Barbey and Kinkaid were impressed with the potential of the new weapon, but the lack of opposition to the BACKHANDER and DIRECTOR landings deferred an evaluation of its effect against a stoutly-defended shore. There appeared to be little doubt, however, that the rockets would be a welcome and standard addition to amphibious fire support.

The YELLOW Beach assault marked the first time that smoke was used to screen a landing operation in the Southwest Pacific. General Rupertus was not in favor of its employment, arguing that the smoke, dust, and flying debris of the preliminary bombardment was enough to becloud the vision of enemy observers on Target Hill.19 The Marine general anticipated what happened; the smoke laid by bombers drifted lazily across the landing

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lanes and obscured the beaches. Fortunately, as Admiral Barbey noted, “landing craft were handled boldly and successfully in it,”20 and the smoke cover was not a serious problem. The lack of Japanese opposition must have had a good bit to do with the VII Amphibious Force commander’s belief that the smoke was valuable “in protecting landing craft during the later stages of their approach to the beach.”21 If supporting fires to destroy coast defense guns had been needed, ships’ gunners and pilots overhead would have been hard put to locate targets in the thick fog of smoke that hid the coast.

The considerable problems, both logistical and tactical, that were presented by the unexpected swamp behind the YELLOW Beaches were met with ingenuity and dispatch. Adapting the dump dispersal and ship unloading plan to the limited stretch of dry ground available, the shore party solved a snarl that might have stalled the entire operation. Mobile loading, which was a key feature of the supply plan for BACKHANDER, worked, but not without considerable difficulty. Much of the trouble that arose in the use of preloaded trucks came from the employment of inexperienced and ill-disciplined drivers for a job that demanded skill and individual responsibility. In assessing the operation, ALAMO Force commented that there had been a tendency at Cape Gloucester, common to most amphibious operations, to bring in more motor transport than could be efficiently used. The excess vehicles landed tended to clog the limited road net and delay rather than speed unloading operations.

The readiness of Marine pioneers to meet any crisis that cropped up reflected their sound training as the 1st Division’s shore party. Rupertus gave the men well-earned praise for meeting the original supply schedules and told Krueger that “I have seen no finer performance of duty on any landing beach by any unit in my career.”22 The contrast with the diligent but slow unloading efforts by improvised and poorly trained shore parties at Tauali and Arawe was marked. Krueger, recognizing that “a highly trained and well equipped shore party is indispensable in any landing operation,” used an amphibian engineer shore battalion at Saidor and recommended the use of similar units in any future operations.23

The Marine practice of carrying trained replacements into combat as part of the shore party proved itself again at Cape Gloucester. The 300 men that reinforced 2/17 were available as laborers on the beaches and in the dumps at a time when shore party manpower demands were highest. At night, the men joined the pioneers in backing up perimeter defenses and, when the situation demanded, filled in as casualty replacements in hard-hit combat units.

The shore party commander drew attention to the fact that the naval beach party had a good share of the success of unloading operations, noting:

For the first time a Marine shore party had the benefit of a trained, permanently organized beach party as one of its reinforcing elements. This beach party concept was an innovation of VII Amphibious Force, and its personnel were made available

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several weeks in advance of the landing. They lived and trained with the shore party of which they were a part and were lifted to Cape Gloucester with it. Here the means to control effectively the approach and beaching of landing ships and craft was conclusively demonstrated, and the performance of this beach party fully justified the high praise bestowed by Rupertus.24

Although the 1st Marine Division had its own shore party, it did not have an organic unit to provide the services of another element of the amphibian engineers, the boat battalion. In a role particularly well adapted to the shore-to-shore operations of the Southwest Pacific Area, the Army-manned small craft proved themselves a valuable addition to the BACKHANDER Force. In an analysis of their worth, the boat group commander at Talasea noted:

... the First Marine Division maintained actual operational command over a substantial fleet of landing craft. The Army unit manning these was as much a part of the Task Force as any battalion in the division. No longer was it necessary to request amphibious lift, it could be ordered, and it was, not only for logistical support but for tactical landings and continuous patrolling. The increased mobility, freedom of action, [and] general expedition that this lent to the operations eastward to the San Remo Plantation demonstrated what should have been obvious, that a landing force commander should have as complete control over his boats as he does over his trucks and tanks.25

If the 1st Marine Division had continued to serve in the Southwest Pacific, it is probable that boat detachments would have been assigned to its command in future operations. In the Central Pacific, where successive objectives were usually widely separated small islands, operational requirements for amphibious craft were met differently. There, after the assault landing, Navy small boat pools left at the target, together with the landing force’s organic LVTs and DUKWs, provided the necessary logistical and tactical support. Still, the practical uses of a boat detachment under direct command were not lost on many Marines, and the 1st Division’s D-4 at New Britain voiced his conviction that in “any operation of an amphibious nature wherein a rapid seizure will be followed by an operation involving movement from shore to shore the demand for boat companies will continue to exist.”26

Important as the engineer boats were to the success of BACKHANDER operations, there was an even greater star performer among the amphibious craft, the LVT. It is difficult to imagine what the fighting at Cape Gloucester would have been like without the support of amphibian tractors. The LVTs took so vital a part in combat operations in the swamp behind the beaches that their accomplishments can not be separated from the achievements of the infantry and supporting artillery. Despite their occasional use as fighting vehicles, the tractors were employed primarily in a logistical support role. Most 1st Division officers were so sold on their usefulness in supply and evacuation that they disapproved of a proposal to put a turret on the Buffalo, agreeing with General Rupertus, who said: “If you put a turret or a canopy on a Buffalo you have simply a light tank, lightly armored and quite slow. You lose

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the cargo carrying capacity.”27 Regardless of the recommendations of the 1st Division, however, the amphibian tank was already in being and had proved its worth in combat in the Central Pacific. At Peleliu, where the division next landed in assault, LVT(A)s formed the first waves.

The armored vehicle that the 1st Division Marines preferred was the medium tank.28 The Shermans proved their value repeatedly and repaid many times over the labor that the engineers, pioneers, and Seabees expended to get them through difficult terrain to the front lines. Tank-infantry techniques used in the drive to the airfield so impressed the Army liaison officers with the Marine division that they recommended that they be studied in the U.S. and used in training all units destined for the Southwest Pacific.29 Marine light tanks served well at Cape Gloucester and Arawe, as they had previously in the South Pacific, but once infantry commanders saw what the mediums could do in the jungle, the cry mounted for more of the heavier-gunned and -armored machines. Light tankmen at Arawe could take credit for pioneering in telephone communication between supporting riflemen and armor, a procedure that became standard throughout the Pacific fighting.

The only unit of BACKHANDER Force to be specially cited for its work at Cape Gloucester was the 11th Marines, which received a Naval Unit Commendation emphasizing the regiments’ determination to get into position and fire in support of the assault troops regardless of obstacles.30 An ALAMO Force observer pinpointed the reason for the high and deserved praise of the regiment when he noted that 1st Division Marines were “very artillery conscious. They claim to have the best artillery in existence and use it effectively at every turn.”31 The 75-mm pack howitzer lost ground as a supporting weapon at Cape Gloucester despite its excellent record. Against an enemy that dug in deeply and well on every possible occasion, the heavier, more powerful 105-mm howitzer spoke with deadlier effect. To do its best job, however, the 105 needed better ammunition, shells with delay fuzes that would penetrate the jungle cover and blast apart the Japanese bunkers, instead of bursting in the tree canopy or the underbrush.

In one respect, artillery employment at Cape Gloucester did not come up to expectations. The inefficient radios used by the aircraft of the division’s squadron of light planes prevented effective artillery spotting. But, if infrequent use was made of the Piper Cubs to direct howitzer fire, there was very little else that the planes and pilots did not do. The range of employment of the makeshift but efficient

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outfit was as wide as the aerial supply of the Gilnit patrol and the impromptu close air support at the Volupai landing. In future operations in the Pacific, the 1st Marine Division would have a regularly constituted observation squadron assigned for operational control, but the “do anything” tradition of the division’s first air unit survived.

General Rupertus, writing to the Commandant shortly before DEXTERITY was formally secured, observed: “We have learned much, especially [from] our errors at Guadalcanal, and I feel sure that we have profited by them in this operation.”32 Perhaps the most useful lesson learned was an appreciation of the value of battlefield intelligence. Throughout the fighting in western New Britain, enemy documents were turned in that might have been pocketed or thrown away by troops who were not convinced of their worth. The wealth of material that came back from assault units and intelligence teams closely trailing the advance was systematically and rapidly evaluated by translators with the combat teams and put to use immediately at the appropriate level of command. With the exception of the 51st Reconnaissance Regiment, which appeared unheralded on the scene, the 1st Division’s order of battle officers kept accurate track of the Matsuda Force and its state of combat efficiency.

The terrain was the major obstacle to the efficient use of the enemy intelligence that was accumulated. Although the Marines knew early in the fighting approximately where the Japanese headquarters were and the general location of the trails that were being used for troop deployment, the information was of limited use. The jungle shrouded everything. Even when the division’s Cubs skimmed the treetops, the pilots and observers could spot little through the green carpet below. The Allied Air Forces photographic planes that did such a fine job establishing the shoreline and fringing reefs of the objective area were far less successful when the runs crossed the interior. The jungle gave up few secrets, even to the most skilled photographic interpreters.

The infamous “damp flat” area back of the YELLOW Beaches was known to contain standing water in the rainy season, but the probing cameras did not show the swamp that actually existed. This fact, however, may have been a blessing in disguise, since it was probable that the assault landing would have been switched to other beaches if the situation had been known. The Japanese were completely unprepared for a landing in such an unsuitable place, and what might have been a hotly contested fight for a toehold on the shore never materialized. Because it was a veteran unit, with a well-trained shore party, the 1st Marine Division was able to surmount the miserable terrain and get firmly established before the enemy made a serious attempt to dislodge it.

Certainly, any well-trained, well-led, but untried Allied division could have wrested control of western New Britain from the Matsuda Force; the preponderance of strength lay too heavily in the Allies’ favor for any other conclusion. Just as surely, the 1st Marine Division did the job faster, better, and at less cost by virtue of its combat experience, its familiarity with the jungle and the Japanese, and its battle-tested unit spirit. The tactics the Marines

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used were “book” tactics for jungle warfare; their refinements on basic techniques were those of veterans. Fire discipline at night was excellent, patrolling was careful but aggressive, and weapons were always at hand ready to fire. The enemy’s captured guns were expertly manned by Marines and turned against their former owners. Small unit leaders were capable of independent action in brush-choked terrain, where the bitterest fighting was often done at close range with an unseen enemy.

The 1st Marine Division was jungle-wise and combat-ready when it landed on New Britain. When it left, four months later, its mission accomplished, it was an even more effective team. Ahead lay a summer of intensive training and then combat again, this time at Peleliu, a bloody step closer to Japan.