Pacific War Memoirs

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Larso
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Pacific War Memoirs

Post by Larso » 13 Sep 2009 03:16

With the new mini-series ' The Pacific' due out next year I've begun to take a look at some of the memoirs I have assembled about the war against Japan. It seems that several books provide the foundation for this new series. These include Sledge's 'With the Old Breed' and Robert Leckie's 'Helmet for my pillow' (which is reviwed below). I'll concentrate on the US memoirs first but I have a number of British and Australian accounts to look at as well. Again, my focus will be on the amount of combat each author reveals.



'Helmet for my Pillow' by Robert Leckie

Massmarket paperback (4 x 7 inch) 324p

Leckie was with the 1st Marine Regt (2nd Bn) of the 1st Marine Division on Guadalcanal, New Britain and Peleliu. First published in 1957 it is a fairly raw account of life and battle as a Marine. Apart from the battlefields, Leckie writes of his training on Parris Island and extensively of leave in Melbourne. He covers things that others don’t –being AWOL, being drunk and being in the brink. He doesn’t sanitize things either or imply everyone was a big happy family. For instance he makes many pithy observations about officers, their ways, their airs and their privileges. At other times, the petty discipline and denial of home leave has tragic effects.

As for battle, there is a variety of experiences. Most of it is of being continually in the line on Guadalcanal. He is never faced with a direct attack, though he does deal with a few stragglers with his 30 cal (his later trip to gain souvenirs is unsettling in a number of ways). Even so the campaign is exceedingly wearing. The attacks by Japanese planes and big ships are constant and deadly. The debilitation caused by the tropics (Malaria is torture!) and inadequate food is also made clear. It was a close run thing but the Marines emerge with intense pride when the extent of their achievements is finally clear. On New Britain Leckie is mainly involved in patrols but he does use his personal weapon to deadly effect. Peleliu though is a hellish experience that overwhelms him. The Japanese resistance is ferocious and the casualties are very heavy (he is caught in the armoured counterattack). So in terms of battle experiences, there is a lot to read.

Leckie was a journalist before and after the war and is an impressive writer. There is some excellent description and imagery (“the sand clung to us like flour to a fillett” P38 and “A soldiers pack is like a woman’s purse, it is filled with his personality.” P34). Interestingly, he never writes about fellow marines by name. Everyone is given a nick-name: The Artist, Sergeant Straight Talk, Lieutenants Commando, Ivy-League and Racehorse, Runner, Chuckler. While simplistic, I found this devise to be effective in revealing personality types and it allows Leckie to write bluntly of deeds and misdeeds. The cult of Marine is also explored and aspects of this are quite stirring. It is a deeply considered and informative book and I found it amazing in many ways. Highly Recommended
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Larso
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Re: Pacific War Memoirs

Post by Larso » 16 Sep 2009 11:57

I posted this review a while back but I've copied it here to put them altogether. This is the other memoir that 'The Pacific' is based on.

'With the Old Breed' by Eugene B. Sledge

Oxford Uni Press, 1990, Paperback - 326pgs.

This is a memoir about the author's time with the 1st Marine Div (K Co, 3rd Bn, 5th Marine Regt) on Peleliu and Okinawa. In a word, it is outstanding! It is a true war memoir in that it is virtually entirely about the authors combat experiences. The first 40 pages or so recount his basic background and then his training. The next 100 pages are entirely about the combat on Peleliu. The next half of the book is almost entirely about Okinawa. There is combat on virtually every page. But it is not overblown. There is a great deal about the front line conditions, digging foxholes, being thirsty, being miserable, about living beside the dead.

Most of the text though recounts the authors involvment in combat. At times there is a breathtaking story on every page. Some of these are so momentous that I'd realised I'd read them before - as they'd been selected in others peoples books as quotes. (Indeed, I recalled seeing Sledge himself on a doco "The colour of War' (?), retelling one of his more graphic experiences.) Many of these are not for the faint hearted. Sledge spares no one in terms of the awfulness of many of the events. His view that the war was an awful waste is very strong and he has chosen to detail things like they were to prove his point. He is also concious though that regardless of this the war had to be fought. He is exceedingly proud to have been a member of the 1st Marine Division. He also had a great hatred of the Japanese, given what he'd learned of them in combat. He comes to the conclusion that "To defeat an enemy as tough and dedicated as the Japanese, we had to be just as tough. We had to be just as dedicated to America as they were to their emperor." (Pg 156) A very profound observation for a 20 year old to make.

Above all, one is left with his deep sadness about buddys lost. His unit landed at Okinawa with 235 men, received 250 replacements and departed only 50 strong. The fighting before Shuri is ferocious and it sickens him. We read of Japanese infiltration at night, mutilated bodies and mistakes by fellow Marines that cause 'own' deaths. Again, the idea of a terrible waste is revisited again and again. As is the authors disgust and fury towards the Japanese in the way they fought the war.

This book has been described as a classic. Other references on this board tend to reflect that. I also agree. One reviewer on Amazon, compared "With the Old Breed' to Sajer's 'Forgotten Soldier'. Given the scope of Sledge's writings and the revelation of his deepest thoughts, I'm inclined to support that. This book is one of the top three memoirs of war that I have ever read. Very Highly Recommended!

PS - The original book was published in 1981. My 1990 edition has a lot of little footnotes and additional passages that fill in some of the greater detail - all of which enhance this book even more.


I've spent quite a bit of time scouring Amazon and other sites for WW2 memoirs. As far as US groundforce ones go for this theatre I've found 4 for the 1st Marine Division and 1 each for the other Marine divisions, except the 4th for which there doesn't seem to be any. The following army divisions also have a memoir from a former member - 6th, 7th, 24th, 25th, 32nd, 41st, 77th, 96th, 97th and Americal. Oddly there are 5 tank crew memoirs, 3 Marine and 2 army (both 763rd Bn) when the whole European theatre produced only 2! I have about 12 US Pacific memoirs at the moment and I think I should be able to get 20 or so done. There'll also be some Allied ones at various points too.

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Re: Pacific War Memoirs

Post by Larso » 26 Sep 2009 03:13

Faithful Warriors by Dean Ladd

Subtitled: A combat Marine remembers the Pacific War
Co-Authored by Steven Weingarter (an historian and author)
Naval Institute Press 2009. Hardcover, 241 pages.

This book is superb! Ladd was with the 1/8th Marines of the 2nd Marine Division on Guadalcanal, Betio (Tarawa), Saipan and Tinian. He opens with his experience of the disasterous landing on Betio where the reef forced his battalion to wade 600 yards to the beach through curtains of heavy fire. He is lucky to survive and it is a gripping start to his story. Subsequently he covers his long stint on Guadalcanal in a very detailed and clear manner. There is a lot here on the general mess that was made of supplying the troops and the steps they took to rectify what they could (often at the expense of army troops). His most searing experiences though are on Saipan and Tinian. While he just avoided the massive Banzai attack he was closely involved in the action the following day. He writes extremely vividly of the sights and of dealing with the surviving Japanese. This is followed by witnessing many of the cliff suicides and the general fanatical and at times diabolical resistance. It seemed like a war of extermination.

There is a 1993 version of this book, apparently this edition has been written to provide a more immediate and personal element. Ladd has a good understanding of the bigger picture too and there is a lot on units and general circumstances. Ladd writes on weapons, tactics, the failures of some men and the enthusiasm others had for killing Japanese. At times he is critical of various others and he sets the record straight in a few spots too. He gives a very clear picture of the challenges of being an officer and the attitude required to be a marine. There is some humour too in recounting the high-jinks of leave in New Zealand, some of which came back to haunt veterans at post-war conventions.

Ladd writes openly about his own actions, including on killing. He is an officer, initially of mortars, so he is usually directing the fighting though. He does go to some lengths to fill in gaps by including the experiences of his men and there is some exceedingly interesting material here. He particularly writes about his commanding officer John Murdock, who had some amazing encounters (including with the ladies on leave!). Through this Ladd has given a very full picture of the war as his unit saw it. It remains essentially his story though. It is also a story of an incredibly merciless war. Some sections are harrowing and it is later quite moving to read of Ladd’s meetings with former Japanese soldiers and the friendships he established.

This is a very full story indeed. Ladd’s central narrative is engrossing and is enhanced by his intelligent provision of context and the inclusion of relevant experiences of others. The writing is very strong and there is an extremely detailed index, as well as maps and pictures. It is therefore broader in scope than a standard memoir and while this is a strength, I will rate it just under Sledge’s book. It is a fascinating read in its own right - Very Highly Recommended!

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Re: Pacific War Memoirs

Post by Larso » 03 Oct 2009 02:34

The Long Road of War by James Johnston

First published University of Nebraska Press, 1998.
This edition Bison Books 2001, paperback, 174p.

This is another outstanding book by a 1st Marine Division man. Johnston served with E Co 2nd battalion 5th Marines on Bouganville, Pelelieu and Okinawa. To his surprise he also got a campaign star for New Guinea as he doesn’t recall anything happening there. Initially he is a machine gunner with the Heavy weapons company but battle experience led to a reorganization that saw machine gunners attached to line companies (the mortars were attached to HQ Company). Accordingly, Johnston is in the thick of the action, particularly on Peleliu and on Okinawa where he commands two rifle squads.

This is a particularly articulate book in the way it deals with combat. Johnston writes of plenty of action but also gives some rare glimpses into the horrific nature of battle wounds. He only touches on this but it is sobering stuff. On Peleliu he is a ‘second’ in a gun crew that piles up more than 100 Japanese dead in front of their position. He personally accounted for several with his .45 pistol, a weapon with a devastating punch. There is some vivid description of the swirling nature of the fighting and the absolute exhaustion. Okinawa has its own horrors, though he is less explicit about specific actions.

Johnston’s journey is fascinating. He is very much the naïve country boy at the outset. He found the training generally enjoyable and truly felt himself to be on a great adventure. His ongoing experiences of course change all that. This is partly revealed by the growing gap between what he wrote to his parents and his actual feelings. It is amazing to watch him harden and toughen. For instance his occasional but increasing use of blunt army language emphasizes the extent of this transformation (sometimes deliciously so). The gradual exhumation of the incidents which spawned his continuing nightmares is another. Apart from the combat, one of his themes is that the marine corps itself left its own scars on him. Like many he remains resentful at the ‘chickenshit’ and the abuse of authority. There is a lot of insight into the good and bad of the Corps. Indeed, his failure to expand on his post-war activities suggested a man forever in limbo. He has additional frustrations about the issuance of medals (though not for himself) and the ignorance of later writers regarding his regiment and the role of machine-gunners.

This book is only 174 pages long though it is of the slightly larger 6x9 inch format. It is though a very intense read. The combat is never sensationalistic but very clearly shows the horror of death, wounds and its shattering effect on men. Johnston has written a highly developed memoir that goes further than most towards graphically illustrating the nature of combat in the Pacific. Very Highly Recommended!

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Re: Pacific War Memoirs

Post by Peter H » 03 Oct 2009 02:49

Thanks,some good stuff here.

I've always wondered why the PTO (at least from an American angle) dominates the American experience of WW2 in memoirs and novels.Jim Jones,Norman Mailer also appeared soon after the war with their novels.The ETO seems to be covered less sparsely but Charles MacDonald,Paul Fussell and Harold Leinbaugh come to mind.

One suggestion that has been made is that the crop of Marine memoirs out there also relates to them being relatively young at the time(something like 3-4 years younger than their Army counterparts) and more moving on into academic and educational pursuits after the war.


Recommend Charles Walker's Combat Officer A Memoir of War in the South Pacific as well:

http://www.amazon.com/Combat-Officer-Me ... 0345463854

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Re: Pacific War Memoirs

Post by Pips » 03 Oct 2009 04:15

What I find interesting is that (for US veterans) Pacific memoirs dominate the retelling of land actions, whereas European memoirs dominate the air action side. Why is that?

Could it possibly be that, although while both the Germans on land and the Japanese in the air were hard opponets, they pale by comparison to the fierce, ruthless and bloody actions of their compatriots in the Pacific and over European skies? And so required the cathartic release of writing?

Which perhaps explains why there are so many Australian memoirs of being POW's to the Japanese; or of British memoirs of naval actions in the Mediterranean; or of service in Bomber Command?

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Re: Pacific War Memoirs

Post by Camp Upshur » 03 Oct 2009 06:00

"One suggestion that has been made is that the crop of Marine memoirs out there also relates to them being relatively young at the time(something like 3-4 years younger than their Army counterparts) and more moving on into academic and educational pursuits after the war."

Peter H , I am (respectfully) stunned by this observation.

Are you positing* that a youthful naivete and/or a presumed relative immature impressionability of these individual author/combatants accounts for the radically different characterizations of the type and intensity of combat in the Pacific theater vis a vis the European theater for Americans?

Others, inclusive, note the salient differences incumbent to the Marine Corps' island hopping Pacific war (typified by relatively short and vicious amphibious assualts) vice the US Army's land war of attrition in Europe.

Differences in enlistment, training, service culture and inculcated motivations in defining the enemy and defining the individual rifleman's purpose for engaging the enemy are likewise distinctive areas of comparison for we other veteran/'scholars'. These areas of distinction were consciuosly indentified and exploited by the Marine Corps of WWII and to some lesser degree exist to this day.

*I am aware of your significant and impressive <although not necessarily exclusive> depth of research and contribution in this area of historical research.

R/S
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Re: Pacific War Memoirs

Post by Peter H » 03 Oct 2009 06:33

I should have made myself a bit clearer.

In the view the Marines contained a greater proportion of younger men,of high calibre,who took full advantage of the educational benefits available postwar without their age,commitments or family responsibilities limiting them as such.A lot then had later successful careers in academics or business.Being mainly volunteers also hints they possessed the attributes that would do them well later in life.The popular interest in WW2,especially since the 80s,has also meant that many were not too old to share their experiences in print.

Even then to get published seems to be a combination of time,money,connections,standing,writing ability and luck.Marketing also plays it part.Some might prefer to read the memoirs of a Marine rather than that on an artilleryman on Luzon.The former offers experiences on close combat while the later might come across as more mundane,more technical.

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Re: Pacific War Memoirs

Post by Larso » 03 Oct 2009 11:47

Well a few things, I'm not sure of the respective troop ratio regarding theatres but there are many more ETO memoirs than Pacific. As I've written, I've identified about 25 memoirs from the Pacific (ground force only) and at this point I have read almost 40 ETO ones (15 airborne alone) with another 20 still to go through (not counting Italy either). This doesn't count many of the hardcovers or the significant number that are out of print. So there doesn't seem to be an undue number of memoirs from the Pacific. I will try to get some figures on respective troop numbers to see if there's weight one way or the other. Unless someone else comes up with figures before me. Even division numbers would be a useful start.

As for education level, I'm not so sure again. A lot of the ETO memoirs have been written by lads who were in the ATSP. These college boys were even more likely to become future educators. I haven't come across any of these guys going to the PTO, and surely there were some, but it might have only been a small proportion. The surprising thing to me so far has been the outstanding quality of the marine memoirs as the stereotype of a marine is not an academic one. I think the Corps drew volunteers in the same way the Airborne did and this included men from all walks of life. A point on that is the Airborne, with really only two divisions represented have produced 3 times as many memoirs (roughly speaking) as the six Marine divisions. This is even more curious given divisional structures. I think Marine divisions were probably twice as big and were in action over a greater time, so each would've had even more members going through again.

I have got some army memoirs as well as a few more Marine ones. I've just read Walker's book and it was impressive too, I'll try to finish writing my review up and post it during the next week. Even at this early stage there are some fascinating differences between the two forces. Oh and there are definately some differences between ETO and PTO memoirs. The Pacific theatre guys are clearly a lot more ready to admit to killing their enemies......

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Re: Pacific War Memoirs

Post by Larso » 03 Oct 2009 23:06

Well a quick count of divisions has 27 in the Pacific (19 infantry, 1 airborne, 1st Cav and 6 Marine) against 68 in Europe. So that's a ratio of 1 to 2.5 and if we take off the 7 divisions in Italy it's almost 1 to 2. A very rough count of memoirs seems to indicate there are 5 or 6 ETO memoirs to each Pacific one. The question might well be why is it so far out of proportion in favour of the ETO?

There are interesting anomalies. 10th Mountain in Italy fought for only a couple of months yet it spawned more memoirs than 1st Infantry. Then there is the almost total absence of memoirs from US armoured units in France - 2 or 3 against at least 5 from the Pacific. Allowing that independent tank and TD battalions were in proportion (or given German armour maybe a greater number even in Europe) there were still 16 Armoured divisions against just 1st Cav in the Pacific.

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Re: Pacific War Memoirs

Post by Larso » 07 Oct 2009 11:17

My computer is broken so I can't access my records but from some older printouts it seems that I've identified just over 120 odd ETO memoirs as against about 25 for the Pacific. Now while I've done a fair bit of researching (mainly on Amazon but also more broadly on the net) my lists are by no means exhastive but I feel that I've probably missed any others in proportion. I don't have figures on the number of combat troops in each theatre but the infantry divisions in Europe suffered KIA's and DOWs at almost twice the number suffered in the Pacific. So given that there were a little more than double the number of units in Europe and based on casualties, they seemed to have double the number of men process through them, the number of memoirs from each theatre is roughly in proportion.

It does seem likely though that given the attack on Pearl Harbor there was greater interest in Pacific events and this would have encouraged veterans from there to write. I think also there were more Pacific battles with resonance with the general public (even though they were on a smaller scale) and this would appeal to publishers.

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Re: Pacific War Memoirs

Post by Larso » 31 Oct 2009 02:07

My computer is finally fixed! Here's an army one that I've now been able to draw together.

'Combat Officer' by Charles H. Walker

Ballantine Books, NY, 2004. Mass market paperback - 240 pages.

Walker was an officer with 164th Infantry Rgt of the Americal Division. He fought on Guadalcanal, Bougainville and Leyte. Initially with the heavy weapons Co, he is promoted and most of his combat is as commander of E Co. As such he is in the line quite a bit and given the nature of the jungle war he encounters Japanese soldiers on a frequent basis and to put it bluntly, personally accounts for many of them. A lot of this is with grenades and his rifle but also, in a first for me in my memoir reading, his combat knife! So there is combat in spades.

The 164th, a National Guard unit, is the first to assist the 1st Marine Division on Guadalcanal. Walker’s role is positioning machine guns and seeing that they stay in action. His unit is hit hard in the attacks of late October and he encounters quite a few Japanese infiltrators. His thoughts on operating with the Marines are interesting (and I smiled to read about being on the receiving end of Marine ‘scrounging’). In the offensive phase he is frequently on patrols and involved in assaults. After rest in Fiji he spends a year on Bougainville and there are a lot of patrols, ambushes and company level actions. There is a lot of insight here into the role of a company level officer. The most notable campaign to me though was the fight for Leyte. Again Walker commands E Co but the intensity of the fighting is much greater. Walker’s units (and Walker himself) account for large numbers of Japanese. The extent of these actions was news to me!

Walker also deals with much else. He discusses the particular challenges of the tropics (including large poisonous centipedes!), disease and in particular weaponry. One of the more surprising aspects was issues with the officer Corps. Quite a number of the original National Guard officers were cowards, incompetents or arrogant fools. West Point trained officers were unfairly favoured and there were ridiculous jealousies and petulance and soldiers died as a result of these tensions. Walker has his share of run-ins but his priority is turning his company into a well trained and deadly force. It is interesting to read how he learned from his mistakes and also how he frequently out thought the enemy. He is also lucky. There were a number of occasions where he was nearly killed.

The writing style is more straightforward and less intense than those of the top writers here. There is quite a bit of detail but at times I felt more could have been said. Walker is never boastful and probably quite properly, doesn’t elaborate too much on killing. This said, he is keen to record the numbers of casualties his company inflicts. It was a very bitter war after all. This is a good memoir. It gives an army perspective on battles where the Marines received most of the coverage. It also reminds the reader that the wholly army campaigns were of a significant nature. So while I think it could all have been revealed in a more compelling manner, in terms of direct combat this is very impressive memoir. Highly Recommended. 4 stars

That last ETO memoir by Standifer, 'Not in Vain' pointed me to a Pacific ATSP book. It is 'GI Jive' by Frank Mathias and it deals with his time with the 37th Division in the Phillipines, firstly as a rifleman, then as a bandsman. It's in paperback and I'll try to get it. It's the first 37th Div memoir I've come accross too. I've also found another for the 41st Div. It's described as fiction and a unit history in various places but it does appear to be a memoir, it is 'The Sunset War' by Paul Wilson. Another which also appears to be from the 41st Div is 'Biak-Zambo' by Lincoln Peters. It too is tricky to confirm as a memoir (in fact this may be the one called 'fiction'?) but it appears too expensive for me anyway.

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Re: Pacific War Memoirs

Post by Larso » 07 Nov 2009 08:07

‘Jungle, Sea and Occupation’ by Paul D. Veatch

McFarland & Co, Jefferson NC, 2000, Paperback 162p (larger format) Assisted by Paul Veatch Jr

Veatch was drafted and posted to the 24th Infantry Division, serving firstly with the 21st Regt (A Co, 1st Bn), then D Co of the 19th Regt, before returning to the 21st. He described himself as an excellent student and athlete and he did very well in his army training, emerging as a mortar man. The 24th division was a regular army unit and it first served in New Guinea. Veatch’s primary memories here are of the heat and humidity, though he does go on a fairly interesting patrol into the interior. He is fascinated by some of the dangerous fauna and the story of the foot long poisonous centerpede that attacked one man's scrotum will stay with me for a while. His first exposure to combat comes on Leyte. Unfortunately, it was in the form of a couple of routs and other sharp reverses. The Japanese he meets are tough and proficient. His company is decimated and the few friends he has are killed or wounded. He is transferred to the 19th Regt for operations on Mindoro where he is mainly on the receiving end of Japanese bombing. There is reasonable detail in what he writes but there is significantly less combat compared to the others here so far. There is no face to face stuff, he doesn’t write much about firing his rifle (or those mortars) but he does have some very close shaves, including being on an LST that is sunk by a kamikaze.

His perspective is an interesting one though. He is in an average unit, the Japanese are deadly and due to having few things in common with his fellow soldiers, he is essentially a loner. Despite the 24th being a regular formation it’s manning doesn’t seem to have been of the first order. There are a number of soldiers who had distinct mental issues. There were also many under-educated ‘Southerners’, drunks and freaks and leadership was generally poor. Veatch never feels at home and once he loses those few friends he has little heart for the war. He even takes a couple of opportunities to avoid the front line before choosing to return, fortunately, for the occupation of Japan rather than its invasion. It was interesting to read of his generally negative experience in the war. The absence of almost any camaraderie is particularly affecting. Indeed it is a little sad to see his disillusion grow after what seemed a promising beginning as a soldier. He does find some solace, particularly in immersing himself in Japanese culture while he is posted there. I don’t imagine he attended any divisional reunions though.

Overall, there is a reasonable amount of value in Veatch’s account. It is not however a rollicking combat story. His experiences there are ill-starred and his fellow soldiers are often disagreeable. This said, it is not a long read and it is well written and reflective. I think he gives voice to a lot of things many others would have experienced but probably kept quiet to maintain the usual myths. Generally recommended but only of some interest in relation to combat experiences.

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Re: Pacific War Memoirs

Post by Le Page » 28 Nov 2009 09:49

Larso wrote:there were still 16 Armoured divisions against just 1st Cav in the Pacific.
Not to quibble, but the 1st Cavalry Division essentially was an infantry division.

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Re: Pacific War Memoirs

Post by Larso » 29 Nov 2009 08:49

A fair point, I remember being a little surprised when I read of it being described as an armoured division. (I can't remember where I read it now.) I'd assumed, from this source, that there were tanks incorporated into the cavalry regts/sqns at a fairly significant level. As far as I can see there was no organic tank battalion organic to it as there were with the armoured divisions in Europe.

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