Military history: And now for something completely different

Featured image: Machine gunner Pfc. George C. Miller carries his weapon to the rear after 19 days of heavy fighting while beating back the Japanese counterattack at Cape Gloucester’s Hill 660. (Marine Corps photograph by Sgt. Robert R. Brenner)

When we study military history, we do so with hindsight and generally a 30,000-foot perspective: on this date, Colonel So-And-So’s regiment took some objective, held off a counterattack or two, and the mission is graded on its tactical or strategic successes/failures. Not terribly compelling, but it serves the purpose of giving us the general idea of what happened.

But as we drill down, looking into how the battle was won or lost, the story becomes more interesting. We know that the United States was on the winning side of World War II, and we may know, for example, that the Marines were victorious in the Battle of Cape Gloucester. Knowing the outcome and being three-quarters of a century removed from the conflict colors our viewpoint. How did the Marines defeat the Japanese at Cape Gloucester?

We can read that on this date the beachhead was this many yards wide and deep, and that on this night, some company held off a fierce enemy attack, fought their way through dense jungles, climbed some steep hill, and so on. More detailed than the big picture, but apart from hearing about a ridge named after an officer and maybe someone who earned a Navy Cross for daring actions somewhere, you miss the thousands — if not millions — of individual actions that, when added together, decide who wins and loses on the battlefield.

So what if we were able to tell the story from the perspective of the individual Marines that fought on New Britain? In the coming days we are going to try exactly that.

By piecing together the story of the Cape Gloucester campaign (Operation BACKHANDER), using narratives for valor awards, my intent is to put together a history of the campaign not from the macro-level looking back, but from the micro-level looking forward. Stay tuned.

In the meantime, check out the developing archive of valor awards for the Marines at Cape Gloucester.

Author: Chris Carter

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