The Historical Perspective: The Invasion of Martha’s Vineyard

The Historical Perspective: The Invasion of Martha’s Vineyard

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Lambert's Cove Beach in West Tisbury, shown in the tranquil off-season. In World War II, the Island beach was used by troops as a training area for amphibious assaults. — File photo by Susan Safford

Martha’s Vineyard’s history is a rich narrative of people and events. In a regular series, The Times has invited the Martha’s Vineyard Museum to draw on its unique cache of contemporary photos and first-person accounts to describe interesting but often unfamiliar moments in Island history called to mind sometimes, but not always, by current dates or events.

Fall is a tranquil time on Martha’s Vineyard. Beaches are for the most part quiet. That was not the case 71 years ago, when instead of the sound of waves lapping, residents heard explosions and the sound of machine gun fire during the invasion of Martha’s Vineyard.

On October 2, 1942, waves of U.S. amphibious troops from Camp Edwards in Falmouth stormed Lambert’s Cove as part of a mock invasion. The troops had been practicing landing drills on the Vineyard throughout the summer in preparation for the October “war games.” Contemporary articles and first-person perspectives shelved in the archives of the Martha’s Vineyard Museum describe the Island invasion.

Although the majority of the Vineyard population knew about the exercise on October 2, little was published about it. The next week, the Camp Edwards public relations office put out a press release describing the mock invasion in The Falmouth Enterprise.

“Thousands of amphibian and amphibious troops stormed across Vineyard Sound in assault boats, invaded the Island of Martha’s Vineyard, smashed enemy installations, disrupted enemy communications and forced the foe back into the sea in the most extensive land and sea maneuvers ever carried out in this section of the country,” the release said.

The invasion troops were to “capture Martha’s Vineyard Island and initiate preparations for the defense of the Island.” With soldiers stationed in the woods to repel the attack, the amphibious troops first landed on two different points on the Island to draw defenses away from their main target. About an hour and a half before daybreak, the amphibious infantrymen moved in on Lambert’s Cove. Greeted by “thunderous explosions,” the troops advanced up the beach as more boats landed.

The troops encountered many simulated obstacles in their attempts to take over the beach. In the face of fake enemy fire, the soldiers broke through barriers placed in the sand. Enemy aircraft dropped “bombs” to stifle the onrush of troops. Despite these obstacles, the “tireless soldiers…worked with amazing speed in the performance of their hazardous tasks.”

Everything needed to go as planned in this rehearsal to prove that the U.S. Army was ready for combat in Europe and the Pacific. Medical units set up collecting and clearing stations to evacuate casualties. The quartermaster unit fed crucial supplies to the attacking forces after landing on the hazardous shores. A chemical unit laid down smoke screens to cloak the attacking infantrymen from enemy sight. In addition, signal units established communications and disrupted the enemies in order to facilitate the invasion. Parachute troops then swooped down on “the vital enemy-held airport in Edgartown and assisted the invaders in establishing a grip on the Island.”

The training drills throughout the summer of 1942, and the invasion in October, transformed Martha’s Vineyard into a mock battleground. This created certain obstacles for residents and visitors trying to enjoy the place. Civilians often found roads and beaches blocked from entry. They would sometimes wander into military encampments, surprised to see a group of soldiers looking back at them in the woods. Despite the army’s continued use of the Vineyard, the general population of the Island did not publicly complain about the training exercises. Instead, many were proud that their Island played such an instrumental role in preparing the army for combat overseas.

Even though civilians were used to military presence by October, the mock invasion was unlike anything they ever witnessed. One observer recalled, “it was a strange sensation…to stand there in the darkness alone and to know that on the slope at either hand, somewhere in the night, soldiers had taken positions with their batteries of guns to repel an invasion of Martha’s Vineyard.” The war games were quite the spectacle for onlookers who woke up early enough to watch from the distant hilltops. The battling soldiers “seemed to be ants, running here and there with the speed and organization of ants.”

Interactions between soldiers and civilians were generally friendly. The troops who participated in the invasion were surprised by the “…hospitality of the Islanders which, many soldiers said was almost overwhelming.” In return, civilians enjoyed the “happy-go-lucky attitude of the troops…and the appreciation they expressed for such small favors as a cup of spring water or a glass of milk at a farmhouse door.” One fisherman recalls that the soldiers “were as nice a bunch as you’d ever want to meet….even after about 25 years, my wife and I still hear from some of those boys.”

Upon entering the World War II, the United States needed to develop a means of attack from the sea. The amphibious units who landed their boats in Lambert’s Cove provided that missing element. After the invasion, an army official said that “the Martha’s Vineyard war games were the most impressive he had ever witnessed.”

While Martha’s Vineyard was a frequent training ground for the U.S. military, the amphibious war games were perhaps the Island’s most important contribution in preparing the country for invasions like Normandy. As we reflect on World War II, we can appreciate the sacrifices of our veterans and be proud that Martha’s Vineyard played a small role in their success.

Jackson Murphy was a research and writing intern in 2012. He will graduate from Connecticut College in 2014. Visit www.mvmuseum.org for more information about upcoming programming and exhibits. The Museum is open year-round. Admission is free to members; admission for non-members is $7 for adults, $6 for seniors, $4 for children 6 to 15 and free for children under the age of 6.

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