Japanese Special Naval Landing Forces

Mike Yaklitch, Allan Alsleben
and Akira Takizawa

Japanese Special Naval Landing Forces

The Beginings

The Japanese Special Naval Landing Forces were not a part of the Japanese Army. Nonetheless, these naval infantry units, despite their relatively small numbers in comparison to Army ground forces, comprised a significant augmentation of the Japanese combat capabilities on dry land. The transition in the Japanese Navy from simply designating certain ships to provide shore parties composed of regular sailors, to creating a force of full-time naval infantry, occurred after the First World War. The Japanese "Special Naval Landing Forces," as the Japanese Navy marine infantry units were officially known (also known in Japanese as Rikusentai* ) saw their first action in the "Shanghai Incident" of 1932. At first they were rather large and unwieldy formations, about 2,000 men each (hence sometimes described as "brigades"). Most of the Special Naval Landing Forces that fought in World War II proper were however created in 1940-1941, or even later, and these were more streamlined units, generally ranging anywhere from about 750 to a little over 1,500 men in strength. The 1941 table of organization called for each SNLF to have two rifle companies and one or two heavy weapons companies. The SNLF rifle companies were much larger than their Army counterparts, and intended to fight independently if necessary, especially for defensive purposes. Typical organization of the company was a headquarters (a naval officer with the rank of Commander was normally in charge), four rifle platoons (originally six), and a machinegun platoon. The rifle platoons had a platoon headquarters, three rifle squads (13 men each, with one bipod-mounted machinegun), and a weapons support squad (13 men with three 50mm "knee mortars"). The machinegun platoon had four squads, each having at least ten men and two tripod-mounted machineguns (thus eight tripod-mounted mgs in the company, or two per platoon for direct support). In some Special Naval Landing Forces the rifle companies were considerably larger in terms of numbers of men, but I am not sure of the specific organization of the bigger ones (some of these probably retained the original organization of six rifle platoons per company instead of four, and/or the individual squads may have been larger by a couple of riflemen).

Armament of the SNLFs

The heavy weapons companies were initially an organic artillery support component. When first established, they had two 75mm regimental guns, two 70mm battalion pack howitzers (these two pieces the same types as used in Army formations of that size), and usually four 3-inch (76mm) naval guns mounted on wheeled carriages. The heavy weapons companies themselves also included up to three rifle platoons organized in the normal fashion, to provide close infantry support, or the possibility of both fire and maneuver elements in the same company. By the Second World War, heavy weapons companies of the SNLF often included 81mm mortars (as for instance encountered at Betio Island in Tarawa Atoll). Artillery directly attached to the SNLF heavy weapons units might also include the 47mm antitank gun (also found at Tarawa Atoll), which was originally developed from a shipboard naval cannon.

The weapons used by Japanese naval infantry in the individual SNLFs (with the exception of the naval 3-inch guns noted above) were pretty much identical to the types employed by the Army (however, the Navy did make some use of the old Lewis bipod-mounted MG in addition to the more commonplace Nambu models, and occasionally employed the heavy 13.2mm machinegun in place of the 6.5mm or 7.7mm tripod-mounted types). However, when antiaircraft elements were attached to or supporting the SNLFs, these utilized naval AA weapons, such as the 13.2mm machinegun on a twin mount, or the automatic 25mm shipboard antiaircraft gun adapted for land use. With the obvious exception of Navy instead of Army rank insignia, etc, their uniforms and personal equipment were similar to that in Army use as well, but with some significant differences.

The uniforms of SNLFs

The uniforms of SNLF members were a drab olive green, whereas those of their Army counterparts were generally khaki brown. Like the Army soldiers, the Japanese "marines" * wore lace-up, ankle-length marching boots with hard rubber or steel hobnailed soles, and above these wrap-around puttee leggings, but the Navy boots were black leather while the Army's were usually brown. Finally, on the front of the steel helmet (the Japanese helmets, both Army and Navy, being relatively flimsy compared to the US model), where the Japanese Army soldiers sported a small yellow star, and the Navy infantry had an anchor emblem. As with the Army footsoldiers, the Japanese naval infantry frequently wore netting over their helmets, into which bits of the local foliage could be stuck for camouflage purposes.

Entry into War

The Special Naval Landing Forces, at least at the start of the war, were highly-trained units who recognized that their position in the forefront of amphibious landing operations made them a sort of elite, and who evidenced correspondingly high motivation and morale as well. Comments, such as I have seen at times both in various publications and on this list, to the extent that the Japanese "marines" were nothing special as soldiers, and even sub-standard in performance (especially in comparison with their US counterparts), are probably due to confusion of the Special Naval Landing Forces with other (and admittedly less proficient) naval land forces, such as the garrison, defence, and construction units, or perhaps to the significant drop-off in training and quality that was evidenced in the final wave of SNLFs created in 1944-1945. Lumping together hastily-raised shore parties from ships' companies or sailors and naval base personnel organized for land fighting as the war turned against Japan (for instance, as occurred on a large scale in the defence of the Philippines, and especially in and around Manila) may also have contributed to these conclusions, because these improvised units are often referred to as "Japanese marines" or "marine infantry" as well. It might also be admitted that quality seemed to drop off with every successive "wave" of Special Naval Landing Forces raised during the war. However, it is on the activities of the early-war Special Naval Landing Forces that I wish to focus here, and these played an important and often quite successful part in Japan's opening offensive in the Pacific and southeast Asia. When that great Pacific offensive began in December 1941, there were a dozen full-size Special Naval Landing Forces in existence. All had been organized over the previous two years. These units were as follows:

Japanese Naval Landing Forces
1st Kure SNLF
1401 men
Landing at Legaspi, (Philippines)
2nd Kure SNLF
1401 men
Landing at Jolo Island (Philippines)
1st Maizuru SNLF
746 men
At Hainan Naval District, 3rd China Fleet
2nd Maizuru SNLF
1069 men
Landing on Wake Island
1st Sasebo SNLF
1622 men
Landing on Menado, Celebes
2nd Sasebo SNLF
1473 men
Under 32 Special Base Force, 3rd Fleet
8th Sasebo SNLF
746 men
At Hainan Naval District, 3rd China Fleet
Shanghai SNLF
746 men
Operated from port of Shanghai, China
1st Yokosuka SNLF
849 men
Parachutes onto Menado airfield, Celebes
(naval parachute unit)
2nd Yokosuka SNLF
746 men
Landings at Miri, Seria, and Lutong, Sarawak
3rd Yokosuka SNLF
849 men
Landing on Koepang, Timor Island
(naval parachute unit)
4th Yokosuka SNLF
746 men
At Hainan Naval District, 3rd China Fleet

              Note List of SNLF units for December 7, 1941
                  SNLF = Special Naval Landing Force

The SNLF Paratroopers

Of the above, probably the most unique were the 1st and 3rd Yokosuka SNLFs, which comprised the Japanese Navy's own parachute infantry force. Apparently not all the men in each of these three outfits were provided with jump training, as a force of 750 in each SNLF were organized as combat paratroopers, the remainder as an administrative and logistic base force. The Navy paratroopers were only organized on the very eve of the war, beginning in September 1941. Their first training drop occurred only on November 16th. Note, too, how all of the SNLFs bore the name of a major Japanese naval base for administrative purposes, although in practice they were attached to the various fleet headquarters, and administered directly from there. This is perhaps another reason that the Japanese SNLFs have not been considered in the same class with the US Marine Corps, because there was no higher organization controlling all the SNLFs. The Japanese did on occasion create what they called a Combined Special Naval Landing Force, which was usually two of the conventional SNLFs lumped together under the command of a Rear-Admiral. Some of the above SNLFs remained in the China theatre or in various base areas for much or all of the war (for instance, the Shanghai SNLF, which operated from that port-- the 4th Yokosuka and 8th Sasebo SNLFs were attached to 3rd China Contingent Fleet and based on the island of Hainan, off China's southern coast, a piece of real estate intially seized by Japanese naval infantry during the war with China). However, the Special Naval Landing Forces played an important part in the initial Japanese offensive operations, particularly in the Philippines and Dutch East Indies. Furthermore, their role was usually to spearhead amphibious landings, and secure the beaches so that the larger Army contingents to follow could be put ashore without mishap.

The SNLFs in combat 1941-1945

In December 1941 several Special Naval Landing Forces participated in the Japanese invasion of the Philippines, and especially the multiple landing operations aimed at the main northern island of Luzon. The naval command had created the "Sasebo Combined Naval Landing Force" by grouping together the 1st and 2nd Sasebo SNLFs, under the command of Navy Commander Kunizo Mori. From this formation 490 men were put ashore with the first wave in Lamon Bay, while another 490 first occupied Batan Island in the Luzon Strait, then moved on (accompanied by a seaplane tender) to land on Camiguin Island, where the Japanese intended to establish a base for their floatplanes. However, the seas surrounding the island were found to be too rough for operating the seaplanes, and so the force was withdrawn to Formosa.

The main Luzon landing at Legaspi had 575 men from the 1st Kure SNLF in its forefront. Another 245 men of the 1st Kure accompanied the third Luzon landing at Davao, and then reboarded their ships and occuppied Jolo Island. The 2nd Yokosuka SNLF acted in a conventional amphibious role to occupy Calayan Island in the Luzon Strait, where the Japanese hastily hacked out a small emergency landing strip, before returning to their base on Formosa. A smaller, more improvised SNLF known as the Amatsukaze SNLF-- organized from shipboard marine contingents from the cruiser Jintsu and the destroyer Kuroshio, and composed of less than 30 men-- also landed in the Davao area, its mission to release Japanese civilians who had been interned by the Filipinos. It set 29 Japanese nationals free. A day earlier the Bandasan SNLF, comprising about 60 men from the same two ships, also landed at Davao with the same intent, and "liberated" two locations where Japanese had been interned, rescuing a total of 435 Japanese civilians. But these ad hoc landing forces were not really in the same category as the standard SNLFs, and were essentially one-shot expedients scared up to deal with a specific situation [ 1 ].

Meanwhile, also in December 1941, the Maizuru Independent SNLF Company provided 350 men (plus one company of 6th Base Force with 310 men) to attack the US Pacific outpost of Wake Island. When the first assault was repulsed by the determined resistance of the small US Marine garrison there, reinforcements from the 2nd Maizuru SNLF, which had been part of the garrison force at the Japanese Navy's main central Pacific base of Truk, were sent in to finally overwhelm the outnumbered Americans and secure the island.

Operations aimed against Dutch East Indies and the great oil supplies Japan coveted also began in December 1941, and again the Special Naval Landing Forces were in the forefront. The 2nd Yokosuka SNLF naval infantrymen came in by boat to land at Miri in British Borneo, and within two and a half hours had secured its objective, the Lutong oil refinery. Eight days later elements of the 2nd Yokosuka SNLF carried out another landing at Kuching, the main port of south Borneo. The 1st and 2nd Kure, 1st and 2nd Sasebo, and 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Yokosuka SNLFs were all detailed for the prolonged Indonesian operations. In January 1942, the 2nd Kure SNLF (along with one Army regiment) landed at Tarakan Island, Borneo. As related in the previous post concerning airborne operations, the 1st Yokosuka SNLF paratroopers carried out Japan's first ever combat air drop at Menado on Celebes, on January 11th. Four hours before the airborne landings, the 1st Sasebo SNLF had come ashore by sea a bit further north. Later in the month, 1st Kure SNLF occupied Ambon Island, site of an important airfield. Finally, in late February 1942, the Sasebo Combined Special Naval Landing Force were landed amphibiously and fought as ground troops in the battle for Koepang on Timor Island. Several days before the 3rd Yokosuka SNLF (a naval parachute unit) was airdropped at Koepang, suffering heavy casualties in the forthcoming battles.

The early successes of the SNLFs led to the creation of further such units, although it is possible that some drop-off in quality of the men's training and combat effectiveness was already noticeable in this "second wave." The Special Naval Landing Forces thus continued to play a role in Japanese Navy offensive operations, which were now concentrated primarily in the Solomons and New Guinea area. Both the older and new SNLFs became involved. The 3rd Kure SNLF led the way when the Japanese landed on Tulagi to establish a seaplane base there (also occupied the adjacent small islands of Gavutu and Tanambogo). These units put up a pretty fierce resistance against the US Marine landings there in August. Meanwhile the 5th Yokosuka SNLF was the only real fighting force established on Guadalcanal once the Japanese started to construct an airstrip there-- in contrast to the forces on and around Tulagi, these essentially melted away into the jungle when the Marines started coming ashore.

On New Guinea, also in August 1942, the Japanese conceived a fairly ambitious plan to secure Milne Bay on the island's eastern tip. The initial landing force conisted of 612 men from the 5th Kure SNLF, 197 men of the 5th Sasebo SNLF, and 362 (non-combat) troops of the 16th Naval Construction Unit. This force was commanded by Navy Commander Shojiro Hayashi. These landed from two transport ships, escorted by cruisers, in a driving rain on the night of August 25th. The plan called for an additional 353 men of the 5th Sasebo SNLF, carried in seven large wooden motor barges, to land on the Solomon Sea side and make a separate approach by marching over the mountains. But the Japanese plan miscarried almost from the start. The Allies, too, were interested in constructing an airfield at Milne Bay, and they in fact had 4,500 Australian infantry troops in the area already, along with almost the same number of artillerymen, engineers, and construction troops (including 1,300 Americans). Even after reinforcements were sent in on August 29th, in the form of 568 men from the 3rd Kure SNLF and 200 SNLF soldiers (fighting as infantry) from the 5th Yokosuka SNLF (with them arrived Navy Commander Yano, who then took over as he had seniority over Hayashi), this left the Japanese outnumbered two to one in combat troops, and almost four to one overall, hardly promising conditions for an offensive. The Japanese naval troops did put ashore two light tanks, but these soon got bogged down in deep mud and were not able to accomplish much.

After August 1942 the Special Naval Landing Forces found themselves fighting a much different kind of war. Now they were almost exclusively involved in defensive fighting, holding various island outposts against the growing US offensive. In the Solomons, the next battle after Guadalcanal centred on New Georgia. The Japanese Navy in this area had the 6th Kure and 7th Yokosuka SNLFs (the latter sometimes cited as an example of the deficiencies in equipment, training, and hence combat performance which came to characterize SNLF operations as the war progressed). These were joined together as the 8th Combined Special Naval Landing Force, under Rear-Admiral Minoru Ota*. In the New Georgia fighting, the 6th Kure SNLF was initially on New Georgia itself (with one company on Rendova, which was actually the first island in the group attacked by the Americans). The 7th Yokosuka SNLF was brought over from the adjacent island of Kolombangara to reinforce the New Georgia force as the battle developed.

Perhaps the most famous defensive stand by the Japanese Special Naval Landing Forces came at Tarawa Atoll in November 1943. Here there were no Japanese Army troops-- only 1,497 men of the 7th Sasebo SNLF, and a little more than 1,100 members of the 3rd Special Base Unit. With more than 100 machineguns pointed at the Marine landing bases and fifty various pieces of artillery supporting them, the Japanese naval troops in their strong bunkers withstood a ferocious bombardment and still emerged to cause one of the worst bloodbaths in US military history. More than 3,000 Marines became casualties before the vicious fighting was over, one of the few times in the entire Pacific war when the Japanese forces actually inflicted greater casualties than they themselves suffered on any given island. The Japanese Special Naval Landing Forces would continue to be encountered in most subsequent major campaigns-- they were present on Saipan (where the paratroopers of the 1st and 3rd Yokosuka SNLFs, consolidated into a single unit, were essentially wiped out fighting as conventional infantry), they were on Iwo Jima Island, and naval ground troops of all kinds were very prevalent in the fighting in Manila and Manila Bay in the Phillipines (it was naval ground forces, in defiance of Yamashita's orders, who defended the city of Manila and turned it into a horrible massacre, running amok among the civilian population, about 100,000 of whom died, before the city was liberated. Naval infantry also held Corregidor and several smaller fortress islands). And there were about 10,000 naval ground troops on Okinawa, the actions of Ota's group being described done in notes. But most of the Special Naval Landing Forces and the more improvised naval ground units raised in the final two years of the war were a far cry from the well-trained units which led the way in the early successful Pacific offensives [ 2 ].

[ 1They were not SNLFs. They were temporary naval ground troops (the original meaning of Rikusentai) formed from the crews of vessels. The SNLF is the full-time ground force.

[ 2The 3rd Special Base Unit did not include Korean labourers. Korean labourers belonged to the 111st Construction Unit.

Note The original meaning of the Japanese word Rikusentai refers to a group of sailors detached from a warship for a special landing mission. This kind of detachments were often used by the Imperial Japanese Navy during invasion of Dutch New Guinea.

Note The term "Japanese marines" is not quite correct as a description for these naval personnel who were actually ground soldiers, and as "Special Naval Landing Forces" is a bit long to keep typing over and over, I will be using the abbreviation "SNLF" for these units at some points in this text.

Note The same Rear-Admiral Ota who commanded the Japanese naval infantry forces defending Oroku Peninsula against the US Marines on Okinawa in early June 1945, in the final stages of the prolonged battle for that island. Our own Ben Frank, in his book "Okinawa: Touchstone to Victory" quotes at length from the final message Ota sent out to Tokyo on June 6th, shortly before his own suicide. Ota concluded with the poignant words, "though my body decays in remote Okinawa, my spirit will persist in defence of the homeland." Ota commanded about 2,000 naval ground troops on Oroku peninsula, and they put up an extremely tough defence before being overwhelmed by the sheer volume of American firepower. The 6th Marine Division suffered over 1,600 casualties in the ten-day Oroku operation, and also lost 30 of its tanks - one of them took a hit from an 8-inch naval gun.

Bibliography . Article List . Geographic Names
Forgotten Campaign: The Dutch East Indies Campaign 1941-1942
Copyright Mike Yaklitch, Allan Alsleben and Akira Takizawa 1999-2000