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New Georgia: The Second Battle for the Solomons

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In 1942, the Solomon Islands formed the stepping stones toward Rabaul, the main base of Japanese operations in the South Pacific, and the Allies primary objective. The stunning defeat of Japanese forces at the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal in November marked the turning point in the war against Japan and the start of an offensive in the Central Solomons aimed at New Georgia. New Georgia: The Second Battle for the Solomons tells the story of the land, sea, and air battles fought there from March through October 1943. Making careful and copious use of both Japanese and Allied sources, Ronnie Day masterfully weaves the intricate threads of these battles into a well-crafted narrative of this pivotal period in the war. As Day makes clear, combat in the Solomons exemplified the war in the Pacific, especially the importance of air power, something the Japanese failed to understand until it was too late, and the strategy of island hopping, bypassing Japanese strongholds (including Rabaul) in favor of weaker or more strategically advantageous targets. This multifaceted account gives the fighting for New Georgia its proper place in the history of the drive to break the Japanese defensive perimeter and bring the homeland within range of Allied bombers.

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1 The Japanese Occupation

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WHEN EUROPEANS WERE EVACUATED FROM THE SOLOMON Islands following the fall of Rabaul on the island of New Britain in January 1942, the Reverend John Metcalfe stayed at the Kokenggolo Methodist Mission at Munda Point. He was certain that New Georgia had nothing of value to the Japanese. But on the stormy night of 13 November 1942, the Reverend Metcalfe was forced to set out on his escape route up the trail to Bairoko Harbor when the destroyer Hakaze began landing an airfield surveying party and a detachment from the Sasebo 6th Special Naval Landing Force (SNLF) to secure the area.1

Even on the run, Metcalfe was still puzzled about the Japanese motives until he learned on 17 December that they had built an airfield in the plantation. On the one hand he was surprised; on the other he immediately saw the implications. “I’ve wondered why the Yanks gave so much attention to Munda, now I know,” he wrote in his diary. “The prospect is not pleasant though, since it may mean the Y’s [Yanks] using it after the J’s [Japanese] which will mean a prolonged battle ground and make this a rather dangerous spot.”2

 

2 SOPAC: Bases and Logistics

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DURING A TRIP TO PEARL HARBOR, BRIGADIER GENERAL DEWITT Peck, USMC, Halsey’s war plans officer, stayed with Nimitz, and the next morning he was told to go down and visit the CINCPAC staff. Peck did. “They were laying for me,” he recalled. “They had one question: ‘What have you learned as a result of the Guadalcanal Operation?’ I had no hesitancy in replying, ‘the importance of logistics.’ Guadalcanal was operated on a shoestring – of necessity then – but I found out then, and we all did, that without adequate logistics, you are in a mess; and the 4 Section is one of the most important sections that you have, as important as the 3 [operations].”1

Thus CINCPAC’s Estimate of the Situation, Solomon Islands, dated 15 January 1943, began with a list of what had to be done to turn Guadalcanal into a satisfactory base: completion of storage ashore, particularly for aviation gasoline; completion of airfields now underway and projected; provision of as many aircraft as the airfields could handle; construction of unloading facilities at beaches and roads for the distribution of supplies; and development of Port Purvis as a large anchorage.2

 

3 SOPAC’s Air and Naval Offensive

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ON THE MAP BOARDS OF THE SOUTH PACIFIC IN WASHINGTON and Tokyo, no flag marked New Georgia as either a critical objective to be taken or an important position to defend. On the American side, the Joint Staffs’ March 1943 directive for an advance on Rabaul does not even mention New Georgia (although it was assumed that Halsey would take it for the airfields needed to provide air cover for the Bougainville operation).1 On the Japanese side, the IGHQ directives, also issued in March 1943, put the emphasis on the army’s need to hold eastern New Guinea while relegating the Solomons to a secondary area and New Georgia to a navy outpost.2 As it turned out, however, the battle for possession of New Georgia took all summer, and not long into the fighting, comparisons were being made to Guadalcanal and Buna.

“It does not seem possible, in view of the daily increasing power of our forces, that the enemy will be able now to hold this primary defensive line [New Georgia] for very long,” Major Frank S. Owen, intelligence officer of the 5th Bomb Group (H), had written in his February 1943 report. “But in the Buin area the Japanese have a ‘Gibraltar’ capable of defending itself for an indefinite time against tremendous odds.”3

 

4 The Japanese Air Counteroffensives

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ON 3 APRIL, YAMAMOTO AND UGAKI FLEW TO RABAUL TO command the air offensive against Guadalcanal and Papua. That afternoon, Ugaki met with Kusaka, Mikawa, and Vice Admiral Ozawa Jisaburō, commander, Third Fleet, who had flown in the day before with Vice-Admiral Kakuta Kakuji, commander, Carrier Division 2. That evening, Imamura joined the admirals for dinner at Kusaka’s headquarters at the New Guinea Club. Yamamoto and Ugaki were billeted in Mikawa’s quarters on a hill in east Rabaul, and there, with thunder rumbling over the hill and the area engulfed in a rain squall, Ugaki entered a passage in his diary that was very revealing of the mood in Combined Fleet. “When we decided to come down south to take command of operations, we of Combined Fleet made an important resolution,” he wrote. “If and when this attempt fails to achieve satisfactory results, there will be no hope of future success in this area.” But after what he had seen and heard in Rabaul, he “wondered if this has been fully brought home to those concerned with operations.”1

 

5 Plans and Preparations

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TO UNDERSTAND THE PLANNING, PREPARATIONS, AND CONDUCT of operations in the battle for New Georgia, a brief discussion of the command structure is necessary. As a result of the division of the South Pacific between the army and the navy, the Allies had two theaters, South Pacific, SOPAC (navy), and South West Pacific, SWPA (army), but a unified command – or a semblance thereof. The Japanese, on the other hand, had one theater, Southeast Area, but no unified command. At IGHQ, the army and navy general staffs worked out an agreement for the direction of operations; the local commanders, in turn, worked out an agreement to carry out the operations. While there was plenty of room for friction on both the Allied and Japanese sides, each conducted joint operations with relative harmony. This was due in large measure to the personal relationships of the top commanders.

As we have noted, MacArthur would have overall command of the final operations against Rabaul, while Halsey would be in tactical command in the Solomons. “Although this arrangement was sensible and satisfactory, it had the curious effect of giving me two ‘hats’ in the same echelon,” Halsey wrote after the war. “My original hat was under Nimitz, who controlled my troops, ships, and supplies; now I had another hat under MacArthur, who controlled my strategy.” Given the less than cordial relationship between MacArthur and the navy, the command setup could have become awkward, but that was prevented by the lasting friendship that developed between Halsey and MacArthur. “We had arguments, but they always ended pleasantly,” Halsey wrote. “Not once did he, my superior officer, ever force his decisions on me. On the few occasions when I disagreed with him, I told him so, and we discussed the issue until one of us changed his mind.”1 In this regard, it was not always Halsey who changed his mind.

 

6 The Landings

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HALSEYS PLANNEDINFILTRATIONOF NEW GEORGIA, AS WE have seen, called for five separate landings scattered throughout the islands. With the exception of Rice Anchorage, the initial landings were to be made simultaneously, but events at Segi would lead to a preemptive landing on 21–22 June. To further complicate matters for the historian, Rear Admiral Turner failed to file an action report. One can speculate that the report was a victim of the shift in the center of gravity of the navy’s war to the Central Pacific. King wanted Turner back at Pearl Harbor to set up the amphibious command for operations in the Central Pacific. Consequently, Nimitz wrote Halsey on 26 June, “I desire that you release Turner not later than the completion of your move into Rendova.”1

In the absence of an after-action report, reconstruction of the operations has been pieced together from Turner’s loading orders and from various other records.

 

7 The First Battle for Munda

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COLONEL GEORGE W. McHENRY MOVED WITH THE TROOPS TO the Barike River on 8 July, and on the thirteenth, he summed up the situation as he saw it in his personal diary:

Believe advance will bog down due to loss of momentum and drive and that fresh troops will have to be thrown in to keep moving toward Munda. Looks like a week’s job at the present rate and believe troops will be exhausted before then. They need a few “first down[s]” to bolster their spirits. Night harassing tactics are taking a lot out of them. They do not regain their nerves until about 0900. Maybe some limited night movement would help and restore confidence. Seems pretty low and haggard. They probably scare each other with their haggard look and tired eyes. Most all losing weight and are tired.1

The original plan for the quick capture of Munda Field – the 169th and the 172nd Infantry jumping off from the Barike River on 7 July and advancing from the east, and the 3rd Battalion, 103rd Infantry, landing on the west coast at Munda on 9 July – quickly fell by the wayside. On 7 July, Hester postponed the start date to 9 July and canceled the hook around to Munda. On that same day, while the 172nd was in place on the lower Barike, the 169th still had a battalion on Rendova, while its lead battalion on New Georgia, the 3rd (Major William A. Stebbins), lost six men killed and thirty wounded in a failed attempt to reduce a Japanese trail block east of the Barike.2 For the New Georgia Occupation Force (NGOF), it was a serious logistical failure. Colonel McHenry observed: “Whole offense set back about two days – can be attributed to amount of gear carried and conditions of roads and also reorganization of staffs due to casualties [from Endō’s 2 July air raid].”3 To this should be added that both Hester’s NGOF and Wing’s 43rd Division were initially understaffed. Hester took the senior 43rd staff officers; Wing was left with their assistants. To move two regiments and support units from the morass of mud at Rendova, through the narrow channel of Roviana Lagoon to the Zanana landing zone, and then 3,000 yards through rain forest and mangrove swamps to the Barike, would have required planning of the first order.

 

8 Battles in the Dragons Peninsula

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WHEN ASKED AFTER THE WAR ABOUT THE DEFEAT AT BAIROKO Harbor, Peck replied: “I was against it myself, but they had the raider battalion and they attacked Munda from the rear. It didn’t make sense. I’ve forgotten who made that decision. It must have been Halsey. Turner proposed the thing. I objected to it, but Halsey said, ‘All right, we’ll go ahead,’ and he had them attack from the rear, and they didn’t get anywhere.”1 With evident sarcasm, then Colonel Merrill B. Twining, operations officer, IMAC (I Marine Amphibious Corps), wrote of Bairoko Harbor that “this was Kelly Turner’s last appearance in the role of soldier/sailor in the Solomons.”2

So Turner got the blame, perhaps rightly so. But the story is a bit more complicated, as we shall see.

At Rice Anchorage on 5 July, as the sun rose and the rain slacked off and then stopped, Colonel Liversedge organized his forces. To secure the base at Rice Anchorage, he left Lieutenant Colonel George G. Freer with I and M Companies of his 3rd Battalion, 145th Infantry. With the rest of his force he set out for the Giza Giza River north of Enogai Inlet. The 1st Raider Battalion (Lieutenant Colonel Samuel B. Griffith II) was on point, followed by K and L Companies, 145th Infantry (Major Marvin D. Giradeau), and the 148th Infantry (Lieutenant Colonel Delbert E. Schultz) in the rear. If things went according to plan, once they crossed the Tomoko River at the head of Enogai Inlet, the 148th would strike off southwest and establish a block on the Bairoko-Munda Trail; two companies of the 1st Raiders would take Enogai, while the other two would take Bairoko Harbor. Giradeau’s two companies would be in reserve. The elimination of the estimated 500 Japanese from the Dragons Peninsula was expected to be quick: Liversedge’s troops carried just three days’ rations and one unit of ammunition.3

 

9 Battles with the Tokyo Express

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BOTH AINSWORTH, IN TWO NIGHT SURFACE ENGAGEMENTS, AND Mitscher, in a weeklong air campaign, failed to stop the Japanese Reinforcement Force from landing troops during the battle for Munda. Samuel Eliot Morison, author of the Navy’s history of World War II, was on the bridge of Honolulu with Ainsworth at the battle of Kolombangara and saw with his own eyes what he thought were three Japanese ships burning and exploding. But the Japanese lost only one ship, had no others damaged, and in turn sank an American destroyer and torpedoed all three Allied light cruisers. But Morison, like Ainsworth, could never quite shake the belief that they had at least damaged two other Japanese ships. Consequently, even after his volume that included the New Georgia campaign had been published, he was still trying to find evidence for that belief. “Another delicate subject for you to investigate in Tokyo,” he instructed one of his researchers, “is the Battle of Kolombangara, July 1943, won (?) by me and Pug [Ainsworth].” What he wanted was evidence that two of the Japanese destroyers sunk by COMAIRSOLS a few nights later had been damaged in the naval battle. “It would console us a lot if this surmise could be shown to be at least probable.”1 But no evidence was discovered then, or since.

 

10 The Second Battle of Munda

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ON 5 AUGUST, GRISWOLD TELEGRAPHED HALSEY THAT AFTER twelve days of fighting, Munda had fallen, and the troops “present it to you, as of 1500 Love, as the sole owner. . . . This operation to date has seen the integrated use of naval bombardment, all forms of air bombardment, the use of tanks, flame throwers and superb artillery – all used in direct support of the infantry, which still had to close and physically wrest the ground from a determined foe. Thus, our Munda operation is the finest example in all my experience of an all-service, All-American Team.”1

Griswold’s plan was simple enough. Following a naval bombardment and a heavy bombing, infantry, supported by marine tanks and Barker’s artillery, would make a frontal attack on the Japanese line. The 43rd Division on the left would take Lambete Plantation and the airfield, and the 37th Division on the right would take Bilbilo Hill and envelop the Japanese north of the airfield. Forming his battle line of two divisions would take time, however, so Griswold set the attack date for 25 July.

 

11 The Vella Lavella Occupation

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ON THE NIGHT OF 22 JULY, GENERAL HARMONS CHIEF ENGINEER, Colonel F. L. Beadle, took a party of six to Vella Lavella in a PT boat. Aerial photographs had identified two possible airfield locations, and Beadle’s mission was to inspect these sites. If they proved unfeasible, he was to look for others. Scouts in canoes met them off Barakoma, and with Josselyn as guide, an inspection quickly showed both sites to be unfeasible. But back at Barakoma, Beadle determined that a 4,000-foot field could be built and that the landing beaches were adequate for LSTs. His report established the first prerequisite for a move to Vella Lavella.1

The second prerequisite was the ability to provide effective air cover. Vella Lavella in Allied hands would cut the Japanese supply line to Kolombangara, which by this time was heavily dependent on the fishing boats and barges based at Buin. The Japanese could be expected to throw their available air forces against the beachhead, especially against the slow LSTs that constituted the bulk of Wilkinson’s shipping. Since significant changes in command structure and force composition occurred in both air forces during late July and early August, we will take up these next.

 

12 The “Cleanup” in New Georgia

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AFTER THE CAPTURE OF MUNDA, MAJOR GENERAL OSCAR W. Griswold’s next objective was to clear the Japanese from New Georgia Island and the Diamond Narrows/Hawthorne Sound area. Operations went much more slowly than he had expected. Around 25 August, he wrote in his diary, “I am not happy. This clean-up is almost as bad as the big battle.” He noted the terrain: “Very difficult supply problem and much rain. Air drops used extensively for supply. Operations over almost unbelievably difficult terrain – moved very slowly.”1 But there were problems he did not mention. Intelligence had little knowledge of the topography, so that the maps prepared for the operations were of little use; often the combat units had no idea where they were in relation to each other or to reference points on the maps. Nor, with the exception of Bairoko Harbor, did intelligence have any knowledge of the location or composition of the Japanese forces. While intelligence was aware that the Japanese forces were withdrawing over the Zieta Trail rather than the Bairoko Trail, it was assumed that they were headed for the Sunday Inlet on the coast of Hawthorne Sound. The strong Japanese resistance at Zieta (Yano) and Baanga (Nagakari) would come as an unpleasant surprise.

 

13 The Japanese Evacuation

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THE ENEMY WAS GUARDING THE KOLOMBANGARA AREA VERY cautiously,” wrote Lieutenant Commander Imai, 8th Combined chief of staff. “Forty sea miles from Kolombangara to Choiseul, they had surrounded the area with torpedo bombers, destroyers, and cruisers. We had to go through the siege, close to being unarmed, with twice as many passengers as we should have, on slow motor barges. It was like sending the troops to sea just so they could get sunk. At worst, we all could have died. Even if we were successful, we thought we would probably lose half the troops. It was a miracle that 90% of the troops were actually transported.”1

Perhaps it was a miracle, but the close cooperation between the army and the navy in planning and executing the operation, the bravery of the barge commanders and their crews, and Terai’s 938th seaplanes, which scouted for the barges and harassed the American destroyers, all played their part.

Samejima was responsible for the planning and execution of the operation. For guidance, he had a general memorandum of understanding between Kusaka and Imamura, issued on 30 August. The main points were: (1) the evacuation would be carried out using only small boats, either via Vella Lavella or Choiseul, and would take place from late September to late October, and (2) the army would contribute Major General Yoshimura Masayoshi’s 2nd Shipping Engineer Group, less the 1st Regiment, with at least thirty barges.2

 

14 The Bomber Offensive against Buin

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BY MID-OCTOBER THE ENEMY AIR RAIDS AGAINST THE 26TH AIR Flotilla at Buin had become intolerable,” Okumiya Masatake wrote after the war. “With its base constantly subjected to enemy bombs and strafing attacks, with living facilities reduced to the lowest possible level, and with a mounting loss of supply ships, the navy pulled out, moving its air strength directly to Rabaul.” As chief of staff to Sakamaki at Buin, Okumiya wrote from firsthand experience, but there were other factors, especially events in New Guinea, that affected the Japanese air war in the Solomons.1

The air offensive against Buin can be broken down into two phases. The first, which corresponded to the height of the fighting for Munda in July and August, saw mainly nighttime missions. There were exceptions, the shipping strikes in mid-July, which we have covered in regard to the Tokyo Express battles, and four daylight missions in August, which we will cover here. The second phase, September and October, saw a daylight formation bombing campaign against both airfields and base installations.

 

Epilogue: TOENAILS Concluded

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AFTER 1ST BATTALION, FIJI INFANTRY, WHICH WAS SENT IN ON 12 October to occupy Kolombangara, had scoured the island and reported no Japanese, Halsey on 15 October 1943 declared TOENAILS terminated. Two days before, the Japanese had similarly called an end to Se-gō as they ferried the last of the evacuated troops on Choiseul across the Bougainville Straits to Buin. The 13th Infantry described the trek up Choiseul as being as bad as the Slot crossing, with a shortage of food and with harassment by COMAIRSOLS aircraft the entire way.

TOENAILS had as its objective the securing of airfield sites from which to cover the invasion of Bougainville. This objective was fully achieved. When the landings went in at Torokina on Empress Augusta Bay on 1 November 1943, bypassing the Japanese stronghold at Buin, four New Georgia airfields – Munda, Segi, Ondonga, and Barakoma – based 350 planes.1 Of these, 200 were fighters. In the Bougainville air battles, fought from 1 to 11 November, the New Georgia–based fighters were instrumental in the destruction of the Japanese naval air forces. Ozawa’s Carrier Division 1, which Koga finally committed, lost 70 percent of its aircraft and 47 percent of its crews, according to the official historians, who also estimated that Kusaka lost 125 of 175 planes.2 New Georgia’s role in furthering the war effort against Rabaul did not end with Bougainville. After the Joint Chiefs made the decision to bypass Rabaul and neutralize the base from the air, the single-engine bombers advanced to the newly built airfields at Torokina, while all of the heavy bombers moved to Munda, where they based for the duration of the air campaign against Rabaul. When the 5th and 307th Bomb Groups (H) departed Munda in the spring of 1944, they flew over an isolated and devastated Rabaul, where the Japanese were reduced to living in hundreds of kilometers of tunnels, to base in the Admiralties and support the Allied offensive westward. Thus, unlike some Pacific War battles, New Georgia furthered the war effort against Japan.

 

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