One of the more unusual units that hit Green and Red Beaches on Iwo Jima 75 years ago this month were the Marines of the 1st Provisional Rocket Detachment, assigned to the 4th Marine Division, and the 3rd Provisional Rocket Detachment assigned to the 5th Marine Division.
Dubbed the “Buck Rogers Men” by other Marines, the weapon of choice for these rocketeers were seemingly humble one-ton International Harvester M2 4×4 trucks, made dangerous with the addition of racks for M8 4.5-inch HE barrage rockets.
“ROCKET BARRAGE— Hit and run rocket fire was the order when these Marines of the Fifth Division loosed a barrage at the enemy on Iwo Jima. Being mobile, the units used hit-and-run tactics so that the enemy could never get an exact fix on their positions.” USMC Photo.
While the Army used the same 38-pound fin-stabilized rockets in Europe, they did so typically from the 60-tube Calliope launcher mounted on an M4 Sherman tank or massed batteries of the smaller towed 8-tube “xylophone” launcher.
The Marine version used a six-tray slotted rack, each capable of holding six rockets, which was lighter than the Army’s tube system and provided 36 rockets at the ready. Operators would fire the unguided rockets from a control box while dismounted and the vehicle had an M2 .50 caliber Browning for emergencies.
As Col. Joseph Alexander notes in his USMC History Division text, Closing In: Marines in the Seizure of Iwo Jima:
A good crew could launch a “ripple” of 36 rockets within a matter of seconds, providing a blanket of high explosives on the target. This the infantry loved—but each launching always drew heavy return fire from the Japanese who feared the “automatic artillery:”
Using early “shoot and scoot” tactics to avoid return fire, the rocket men learned to fire a salvo or two max, then rapidly displace.
“The nearby infantry knew better than to stand around and wave goodbye; this was the time to seek deep shelter from the counterbattery fire sure to follow,” noted Alexander.
“FIRECRACKERS—A Marine rocket truck empties it’s launching rack of projectiles as it lays a barrage on Japanese positions on Iwo Jima. Being mobile, the rocket units used hit-and-run tactics during the operation, so that the enemy could never get an exact fit on their locations.” USMC Photo.
Nonetheless, the two detachments fired more than 30,000 rockets in the six weeks of the Iwo Jima campaign, often launching single rockets to clear suspected enemy positions.
Today, the old Buck Rogers Men are ably represented in the Marine’s new M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS), which uses an M1140 FMTV truck frame to tote around a half-dozen MLRS M270A1 rockets or one MGM-140 ATACMS missile. As with the Iwo trucks, the system weighs a good bit less than the Army’s comparable MLRS system. Further, it can be used while aboard a ship, such as an MSC vessel or even a merchant taken up from trade, and in conjunction with over-the-horizon targeting such as provided by an F-35.
HIMARS, still a truck with some rockets on the back, ready to land at a beach near you