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Special Naval Landing Forces
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
May 2015

While the Japanese Army provided the overwhelming majority of Japan’s land forces during World War II, the Japanese Navy’s ground troops saw significant action as well, especially against the United States. These troops appear in our Panzer Grenadier: Saipan 1944 game alongside conventional Army troops.

Rivalry between Imperial Japan’s Army and Navy had roots deep in the island empire’s feudal structure. After the Mieji Restoration of 1868, clans of different factions sent their sons to become officers in one service or the other, but did not intermix them. This was far more than interservice rivalry on the American model; the Army and Navy reflected a millennium of distrust and dislike. No amount of "jointness" would heal this breach.

The Army would not provide soldiers for what it saw as naval operations, while the Navy did not want them aboard its ships anyway. During the First World War Japanese ships detailed groups of sailors as landing parties for shore actions. Afterwards, the Navy formed its own infantry force, known as Rikusentai (“naval landing parties”), or Special Naval Landing Forces. Each force was brigade-strength, about 2,000 men. These sea soldiers saw their first action in 1932, during the “Shanghai Incident.”

Brigades proved unwieldy in action, and in 1939 the Navy began re-organizing them into battalion-sized forces. Each Special Naval Landing Force, named for the naval base where it was organized, had two rifle companies and one or two heavy weapons companies. Of the 12 such forces organized before Pearl Harbor, several of them had oversized companies, with six rather than the four platoons common to an Army rifle company. The Navy also fielded base defense units, though these had a lower standard of training and personnel selection.


SNLF troops practice with the Nambu light machine gun.
Naval troops wore uniforms of a similar cut to those of the Army, but olive drab rather than the Army’s khaki and with black rather than brown boots. They carried the same weapons as Army soldiers, 6.5mm Arisaka rifles and 6.5mm and 7.7mm Nambu machine guns. The heavy weapons companies included machine guns and the typical 75mm howitzers and 70mm mountain guns used by the Army, but also 76.2mm naval guns on artillery carriages. Weapons companies also were often oversized, with several rifle platoons as well as the “heavy” components.

Two of the Forces, 1st and 3rd Yokosuka, had jump training for use as paratroopers. They along with the other Forces practiced opposed amphibious landings as well as standard infantry training. Standards appear to have been high; U.S. Army conclusions that these units were not particularly good seem to have been based on encounters with the lower-quality troops found in the base defense units. The U.S. Marine Corps had a much different assessment.

“Naval units of this type are usually more highly trained,” read the 6th Marine Division’s intelligence report before the landing on Tarawa in August 1943, “and have a greater tenacity and fighting spirit than the average Japanese Army unit.”

Tarawa veterans found the reports highly accurate. “They were pretty tough, and they were big, six-foot, the biggest Japs that I ever saw," recalled Maj. Lawrence C. Hays. “Their equipment was excellent and there was plenty of surplus found, including large amounts of ammo.”

Japan had no equivalent of the U.S. Marine Corps — each SNLF, though named for a naval base, reported to a fleet headquarters. Some ad hoc organizations appeared with two or three SNLF units commanded by a rear admiral, but no marine divisions ever existed and no formal units larger than the battalion-sized SNLF. In another difference from the American marines, SNLF soldiers used navy ranks and insignia.


SNLF anti-tank gun. 7th Sasebo SNLF troops help mount an 8-inch Vickers naval gun on Betio, early 1943.
The war with the United States, Britain and the Netherlands was the Navy’s war (the Army’s war being the conflict with China begun in 1937), and the SNLF troops were in the forefront of Japan’s advance across the Pacific. They spearheaded the landings in the Philippines and the Dutch East Indies, with great success.

The 1st and 2nd Sasebo and 2nd Yokosuka SNLF’s attacked islands off Luzon to seize airfield sites, while 1st Kure SNLF formed the first wave of the Army’s main landing at Legaspi. The 1st and 2nd Kure, 1st and 2nd Sasebo, and 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Yokosuka SNLF's all undertook repeated assault landings in the Dutch East Indies, with 2nd Kure having the primary Japanese assault role in the bloody battle at Tarakan.

A company from the 1st Maizuru SNLF undertook the first assault on Wake Island, bloodily repulsed by the U.S. Marine garrison there. The 2nd Maizuru SNLF undertook the second, successful attack that captured the island.

Japan’s first airborne landing came at Menado on Celebes in the Dutch East Indies, when 1st Yokosuka paratroopers jumped and linked up with 1st Sasebo that had landed over the beach. On Sumatra, 3rd Yokosuka undertook an opposed parachute landing to link up with the combined Sasebo SNLF’s at Kaepong, and suffered very heavy casualties. The two airborne units had only formed in September 1941, and undertook their first training jump in November. The lack of experience showed, and only grew worse in coming years as the Navy quickly organized more SNLF units. The new units showed markedly less combat ability than the tough pre-war troops. On Tulagi, U.S. Marines encountered the 3rd Kure SNLF, one of the new units. The Kure troops fought fanatically hard, but on Guadalcanal the 5th Yokosuka SNLF put up much less determined resistance and the brunt of the fighting there would be borne by Army reinforcements.


SNLF troops on parade.
For the remainder of the war, the SNLF units fought defensive engagements with just as much fanatical determination as their Army counterparts. One of the bloodiest island battles of the war, the American assault on Tarawa, was waged by the 7th Sasebo SNLF with the 3rd Base Defense Unit. The two SNLF airborne units died to a man on Saipan, fighting as conventional infantry. But while the Navy’s army fought at least as hard as the actual Army, its troops showed the same twisted concept of honor as their khaki comrades. SNLF and naval base defense troops massacred tens of thousands of Filipino civilians before and during the battle for Manila in 1945, in one of the worst war crimes of World War II.

See the SNLF at war: click here to order Saipan 1944

Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and award-winning journalist, he has published over 100 books, games and articles on historical subjects. He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold.