Bloodstained Sands

Bloodstained Sands

U.S. Amphibious Operations in World War II

Michael G. Walling

Osprey Publishing, Oxford, United Kingdom, 2017, 448 pages

Book Review published on: April 13, 2018

Michael G. Walling’s Bloodstained Sands: U.S. Amphibious Operations in World War II provides a historical overview of the amphibious operations in World War II. He undertakes a large task, covering operations in Europe, the Pacific, and the Mediterranean. A former U.S. Coast Guard officer, he sets out to “keep the often neglected memories of the amphibious forces alive.”

Walling does an admirable job, focusing his narrative on the stories from first-hand accounts, from official records of the vessel crews that delivered the assault waves to the beaches, and from the various Navy, Marine, and Army forces charged with clearing obstacles at the waterline. Historians often focus on the well-known assault forces such as the 1st Marine Division at Guadalcanal, the 3rd Infantry Division in Sicily, or the combined Allied forces assaulting the heavily defended beaches of Normandy. Bloodstained Sands tells the rest of the story: who drove the boats to the beaches, who cleared the way off the beaches, and who treated and evacuated the considerable number of casualties.

Walling begins his story with a short history of amphibious operations and includes details on the units and the equipment that supported the assault forces. The United States engaged in amphibious operations as far back as the American Revolution, when sailors and marines landed near Nassau, Bahamas, in 1776. It was not until World War I, however, that militaries were able to conduct amphibious assaults on a grand scale, and it was not until World War II that militaries could land tens of thousands in a single day. Through his book, Walling provides a look at the mechanics involved in doing just that.

A strong point of Walling’s narrative is his use of first-hand accounts provided by crew members of the various landing craft or support units that enabled the assault waves. These accounts underscore just how difficult and dangerous it is to make a contested landing against a determined enemy. Landing craft crews often had to fight tide and weather to get to the assault area, and then they had to endure accurate fire while discharging troops for the assault. Engineers charged with clearing obstacles did so under heavy and accurate enemy fire while remaining focused on their missions instead of returning fire. Reading these accounts, one gets a real sense of how terrible the combat in the assault area must have been.

The scope of Walling’s work also allows for one criticism of the book: there is not enough space in one volume to cover the planning and execution of any one amphibious assault in detail. The logistics behind an amphibious assault are staggering. Who allocates the landing craft against other competing priorities? Who develops the landing load plans and timetables based upon available landing craft? Who calculates the mix of men, materiel, and supplies to ensure the amphibious assault has both sufficient force to get onto the beach and sufficient endurance to stay there? Walling, writing a historical survey, could not fit these details into his work. However, Bloodstained Sands certainly provides a tremendous starting point for further research.

Considering the current slate of adversaries facing the United States and its allies, especially in the Pacific, military planners would do well to remember just how difficult conducting a successful opposed landing is. The casualty figures presented give one pause. Do we still possess the will to accept several hundred dead and wounded in such a short time span to reach strategic objectives? Certainly, the United States no longer possesses the organization and equipment required to land much more than a Marine expeditionary unit, or some 2,200 marines and equipment, onto a contested shore at one time.

Walling discusses Operation Iceberg, which was the invasion of Okinawa, Japan, in April 1945, late in his book. The U.S. capacity for amphibious operations by the end of World War II had grown such that Lt. Gen. Simon Bolivar Bucker, the commander of the assault forces, was able to land a combined force of four divisions in one day. No less than forty-two aircraft carriers of varying sizes supported Bucker’s assault. That invasion came slightly less than three years and four months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Building that much capacity in such a time span is something else readers of Walling’s book should note. What would it take to increase the capability of U.S. forces to land even one division equivalent onto a contested shore? Are there lessons here we can leverage as the Department of Defense works to reform its current procurement systems?

Book Review written by: Col. Paul G. Schlimm, U.S. Army, Retired, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas