By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
Starting with the invasion of Tarawa in
November 1943, most Marines who assaulted
enemy-held beaches in the Pacific theater
came ashore in tracked amphibious vehicles
known as the LVT (Landing Vehicle, Tracked)
or "Alligator." Where conventional
landing craft would become hung up on coral
reefs, the assault tractors would climb over
them and then cross the lagoon to deposit
their passengers on the beach. Amphibious
assaults became far more effective, and the
numbers of casualties suffered was probably
far less than would have been incurred using
traditional landing craft.
The vehicle grew out of financier John A.
Roebling's distress over the great loss of
life suffered by residents of southern Florida
during hurricanes that struck in 1926, 1928
and 1932; the 1928 hurricane killed over
2,500 people, most of them poor black farm
workers who had no means to escape the raging
storm surge. Roebling, whose father designed
the Brooklyn Bridge, turned to his engineer
son Donald with a challenge to build a vehicle
that could go to places where a car or truck
would stall and a boat would run aground.
Donald Roebling unveiled his prototype in
1935. Built from aluminum, then almost unheard-of
for such purposes, the Alligator as he called
it used its tracks to both paddle it through
water and drive it on land. This first model
had bogie wheels and return rollers, much
like a tank tread; the next prototype instead
ran the tracks through steel channels.
In October 1937, Life magazine ran a picture
and description of Roebling's invention,
attracting the attention of several officers
of the U.S. Marine Corps. Marine officers
went to Florida and test-drove the Alligator,
but the Marines had no money to buy even
one of them. Marine Brig. Gen. Emile P. Moses,
head of the Corps' Equipment Board, went
to see Roebling at his design studio in Clearwater
and somehow talked him into building an $18,000
test vehicle on his own account. Another
prototype, this time built of welded steel,
was built in the summer of 1940 with Navy
funds and this was accepted for series production.
Alligators of several models assault
Food Machinery Corporation, a Philadelphia-based
maker of insecticide spray pumps, had supplied
a number of components for the "free" Alligator,
and the Marines rewarded them with the first
production contract, for 100 Alligators.
The first went to the Marines in July 1941,
and over 1,200 of this LVT-1 would be manufactured.
It had no armor, and could do about 12 miles
per hour on land and six knots at sea. It
was armed with two machine guns, and could
carry 24 troops or a small gun or vehicle.
Continual improvements added armor and a
large ramp at the rear of the vehicle, and
improved speed over both land and water.
By 1944, fire-support versions with turrets
taken from M3 Stuart light tanks and M8
Scott assault guns appeared. All vehicles used in World War
II were open to the sky; a new version with
an armored roof entered service in 1949.
LVTs hit the beaches of Guadalcanal.
At Guadalcanal, the Alligators were mostly
used to bring supplies and equipment ashore;
the assault troops hit the beaches in "Higgins
boats," as the Marines called the early
LCVP landing craft. At Tarawa, however, the
LVT carried troops over the coral reefs and
saved countless lives. Huge waves of LVTs
carried the assault troops to the beaches
at Leyte, Saipan, Tinian and Okinawa. In
the Marianas, gun-armed LVTs even moved inland
to act as awkward tanks in support of the
Smaller numbers saw action in Europe; Canadian
troops employed the "Water Buffalo" in
the Dutch estuaries in 1944. All told, over
18,000 were manufactured, with most of them
going to the Marine Corps.
The LVT appears in Saipan 1944 in its more advanced models (including those armed with guns).
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Grenadier: 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. Leopold fears alligators.