The Solomon Islands
Solomon Islands Geography
With the landing of the 1st Marine Division at Guadalcanal, Tulagi, Tanambogo and Gavutu in August 1942, a whole new series of place names entered the pages of American military history.1 The world's press found a new, almost unknown area of the globe on which it could focus its attention for the next 20 months. This area was the Solomon Islands. Here Americans and their Allies fought Japanese soldiers and sailors in one of the bitterest, most difficult campaigns in modern military annals.
The Solomon Islands, a 600-mile-long double, parallel chain lying between the Bismarck Archipelago in the northwest and the New Hebrides in the southeast, represent the spiny backbone of two long-submerged mountain ranges that in some prehistoric era may have formed the northern shore of a then landlocked Coral Sea. In later ages coral islets and reefs grew around the periphery of the larger calcareous and volcanic peaks that jutted up from the water. As geologic years passed, the action of rain, wind and tide caused the mountain slopes to incline gradually to the sea, where beaches of coral sand are washed by warm, tropical water.
The easily navigable deep water dividing the northeastern from the southwestern segments of the chain presents an obvious and partially sheltered sea route between the Southern Solomons and the Bismarcks. That particular area from Bougainville and the Shortlands in the north to San Cristobal in the south became known in World War II as "The Slot." (See Map #1.)
Seven large island groups comprise the principal components of the Solomons chains--a rugged, jungle-covered land surface of approximately 14,600 square miles. At the beginning of the Pacific War, this land of copra, trochus shell and ivory nuts supported an estimated 500 white men, 200 Chinese and 94,700 Melanesian natives.2
Chief town of the Solomons is Tulagi. There the British Resident Commissioner for all the Solomons south of Bougainville had his headquarters at the time of the Japanese invasion. And there United States Marines won fame and glory.3 All other towns worthy of a name are simply collections of grass shacks, usually located near the water's edge where they were easy of access to the all too infrequent inter-island trading vessels with their anxiously awaited cargoes of trade tobacco and fascinating trinkets.
Table of Distances from Munda Point
The Scene of Battle
In the center of the southwestern branch of the Solomons, between meridians 156° and 158°, lies the New Georgia group. This group, about 130 miles long and 40 miles wide, comprises New Georgia, Kolombangara, Vella Lavella, Rendova, Vangunu and literally hundreds of smaller islands. The group centers on the southwest tip of New Georgia at Munda Point, some 1,000 miles northeast of Townsville, Australia, and approximately 675 miles east of Port Moresby, New Guinea. Munda Point is about 170 miles west-northwest of Tulagi and some 400 miles southeast of Rabaul, principal town in the Bismarck Archipelago. About 125 miles southeast of the group lies a cluster of small islands known as the Russells, a stepping stone between New Georgia and Guadalcanal.
In the New Georgia group numerous symmetrical, volcanic cones, with cloud-obscured summits, reach from 3,000 to 5,000 feet into the air. River-filled mangrove swamps, studded with coral outcroppings and matted with rotting vegetation, fill the surrounding valleys. An almost impenetrable jungle blankets most of the land area. Through this jungle natives have pushed a few trails or tracks, often passable only in dry weather, that skirt the swamps and pass along coral ridges or cling to the sides of precipitous, volcanic cliffs.
An extensive coral barrier reef partially encircles the group. Between the reefs and the islands are extensive lagoons,4 shallow and encumbered with coral islets and coral pillars known as niggerheads. Marovo Lagoon, separating New Georgia Island from Vangunu, is probably the largest of its kind in the Solomons. Two other large lagoons, Tokovai and Grassi, lie on the main island's northern and northeastern coast. To the south of the main island is Roviana (Rubiana) Lagoon, approximately 30 miles long and from one to three miles wide. Although this lagoon is filled with shoals, and at low tide accessible only through Onaiavisi Entrance, natives have erected on its islands and shores the oldest settlements in the group. Baraulu and Dume Islands flank Onaiavisi Entrance, while Sasavele Islet, just inside the lagoon, commands the channel. Westward of the lagoon is Munda Bar, an extension of the barrier reef, which is generally covered by approximately two fathoms of water. Because of heavy swells in this area even small boats ground when attempting to approach Munda Point directly from the sea.
Across Blanche Channel and some seven and one-half miles southeast of Munda Point is Rendova Island, shaped like the haunch and hind leg of a dog. Rendova, as all other islands in the New Georgia group, is surrounded by coral reefs, which along the north coast form a cove or lagoon known as Renard Sound. There ships gain access to a sheltered harbor through two deep-water passages known as Western Entrance and Renard Entrance. Kuru Kuru, Bau and Kokorana, the largest and most prominent islands in Rendova's northern reef, flank these entrances.
To the southeast of New Georgia lie Vangunu and Gatukai in seeming extension of the main island, while to the northwest Kolombangara and Vella Lavella resemble a colon placed above an exclamation point. Kula and Vella Gulfs separate the three islands, with Arundel Island forming the southern base of Kula Gulf and Gizo Island capping Vella Gulf. (See Map #2.)
All the islands of the New Georgia group have irregular coastlines, pierced by inlets sometimes given the complimentary title of "harbor" or "anchorage," and often dotted with coconut palms and grass shacks. On the New Georgia shore of Kula Gulf the most important of these water features are Rice Anchorage, Enogai Inlet, Bairoko Harbor, Sunday Inlet and Diamond Narrows. In the latter the waters of Kula Gulf meet those of the Solomon Sea.
Into this hodgepodge of islands, reefs, gulfs, lagoons and channels American armed might moved against the Japanese aggressor in the midmonths of 1943. Here the United States and its allies would battle not only a human
OBJECTIVE RABAUL UNDER ATTACK by B-25's of ComAirSols Bomber Command. This strategic town became the vortex of attention for south and southwest Pacific planners in 1942 and early 1943. Lakunai, one of Rabaul's five airdromes, lies on the peninsula at the top center of this picture. (Air Force Photo.)
enemy but also tropical heat, omnivorous jungle and unceasing rain until all were conquered and the war passed to the north.5
The Rabaul Redoubt
Situated west and slightly north of the Solomons lies the Bismarck Archipelago, a group of islands similar in configuration and terrain but larger and not so numerous as the Solomons. New Britain Island, biggest of the Bismarcks, became the scene of a large-scale campaign fought during World War II.6 At the extreme northeastern tip is Rabaul, site of government for Australia's Pacific mandate, which included the Northern Solomons, the Bismarcks, and Eastern New Guinea.7
Rabaul sits on the shores of Simpson Harbor, one of the Southwest Pacific's better anchorages, only 436 miles from Port Moresby and 570 miles from Guadalcanal. Thus the nation holding Rabaul is in an excellent position to exercise military domination over the northern coast of New Guinea, the Solomons chain, the Bismarck Archipelago and all waters bordering on those area.
Clearly, the Japanese high command recognized the strategic importance of Rabaul. As
early in the "Greater East Asia War" as 23 January 1942, Japanese invaders attacked and drove out the town's small Australian garrison. Within a short time the enemy had improved the harbor, making it a major forward operating base for their fleet units. Meanwhile they added to the existing two Australian airfields by constructing three all-weather airfields from which their planes could maintain a continuous aerial umbrella over their planned successive moves toward the south.8
Upon completing the capture of Rabaul, the Japanese moved slowly, step by step, into the Solomons and New Guinea, so that by 3 May 1942 they had established themselves at Tulagi and were threatening Port Moresby and Milne Bay. By this time Rabaul had replaced Truk, Japan's prewar military bastion, as the citadel of the Pacific.
Throughout the months marking their southward advance, the Japanese developed Rabaul into the nerve center of their outlying, newly seized positions in the Solomons and New Guinea. As they prepared Rabaul as a springboard for the invasion of Australia,9 they took measures to protect their citadel from direct counteraction on the part of the Allies. Each of the Solomons being within fighter plane range of most of its neighbors, the enemy constructed forward landing strips at Buka (northernmost of the Solomons), in the Treasuries, the Shortlands and on Guadalcanal. They established garrisons on islands in the Northern, Central and Southern Solomons, and in the Bismarck Archipelago to intercept any attacks directed at Rabaul before the attacker could reach his target.
In August, when the 1st Marine Division invaded Guadalcanal, the enemy occupied strategic points in the New Georgia group to establish small-boat refuges and troop-staging bases for a contemplated counteroffensive. By November the Allies had inflicted a severe defeat upon the Japanese in land, sea and air battles in and around the Southern Solomons. The enemy, therefore, decided to prepare for an all out attempt to retake Guadalcanal and dispose of this threat to Rabaul. Accordingly, on 21 November 1942, the enemy moved into Munda Point to build an airfield intended to provide advanced air support for the proposed operation.
Japanese transports, destroyers, submarines and troop-carrying barges plowed up and down the Slot, meanwhile, carrying supplies and reinforcements to their besieged garrisons in the Southern Solomons. Incessant allied air attacks and the short cruising range of the smaller craft sometimes forced the enemy vessels to lie-to in refuges in the Central Solomons.
Allied commanders in Australia, New Caledonia and Guadalcanal were never unaware of Japanese movements. A few brave men kept the Allies enlightened with a flow of information concerning flights of enemy planes, tracks of enemy ships and activities of enemy troops. Such reports usually enabled American land, sea and air commanders to divine the Japanese intention and take prompt remedial action.
This phenomenon had its inception long before Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. Immediately after World War I, the Australian government grappled with the problem of protecting itself in the event of a war with Japan. Much of Australia and its island possessions to the north is uninhabited or so sparsely inhabited that an enemy could operate undetected in those areas for long periods. Australian Naval Intelligence, therefore, devised a scheme whereby trusted citizens, living on New Guinea, in the Bismarck Archipelago or in the Solomons, would--in the event of war--observe and report any enemy activity in their vicinity. The government furnished small radios for this purpose. For the most
The New Georgia Group
part government officers, traders, planters and missionaries were selected for this task.10
In 1929 the New Zealand Navy likewise set up a coastwatching scheme employing volunteer reserve officers. Operating under the New Zealand Naval Board, these officers were assigned responsibility for territories in the Eastern Pacific. The Naval Board coordinated its coastwatching activities with those of Australian Naval Intelligence, thus providing adequate coverage of all British Empire possesions and mandates in the Pacific Ocean. By 1935 the New Zealanders, too, had decided to utilize the services of trusted civilians. When World War II flared in Europe in 1939, coastwatchers occupied 58 previously assigned posts reaching from the Solomons in the west to Pitcairn in the east.11
At the time of the first Japanese incursions into the Bismarcks and Solomons in 1941, the Australian and New Zealand coastwatchers were already operating on a 24-hour basis. As the enemy pushed southward, white men living in the British portions of the Solomons, loath to see the British government leave its territory, volunteered their services to the coastwatching system (known by code-name FERDINAND). These men elected to remain behind in the bush with faithful native followers when the Japanese moved in, and they became the symbols of British authority for the islands.
The Resident Commissioner for the British Solomon Islands Protectorate, William Sydney Marchant, became the acknowledged leader of this intrepid group of new volunteers. At the outbreak of the Pacific war, Marchant, assisted by Lieutenant D. S. Macfarlan, Australian Naval Intelligence Officer for the Solomons, quickly organized small coastwatching units, to augment the regularly established groups, and assigned them areas of responsibility.
Leading these units were Marchant's assistants, the Administrative Officers. In more peaceful times the representatives of the British Government on the various islands, they now received military commissions from the Australian Government to give them official status if captured. Donald Kennedy, District Officer for the Western Solomons, operated first on Santa Isabel and later at Segi Point, New Georgia; Martin Clemens, stationed on Guadalcanal, did a magnificent job assisting the American forces that landed there; Bill Bengough served on Malaita, Michael Forster on San Cristobal, and Colin Wilson in the Santa Cruz Islands.
FERDINAND itself, as set up in this area before the war by Australia, was composed of experienced bushmen commissioned either in the Australian Navy or Air Force. It was under the immediate direction of Hugh Mackenzie, who first operated at Rabaul and later in the vicinity of Vila, Kolombangara. In the Central Solomons Mackenzie had stationed--among others--Flight Officer J. A. Corrigan in the vicinity of Rice Anchorage, Sub-Lieutenants Henry Josselyn and J. H. Keenan on Vella Lavella, A. R. Evans on Kolombangara and Flight Lieutenants Dick Horton and R. A. Robinson on Rendova. On these men, and others like them, fell the responsibility of reporting enemy land, air and naval movements and of organizing among the natives a system of resistance to Japanese domination of the Solomons.12 Their exploits are legend.
From their vantage points within enemy-held territory the coastwatchers also reported the enemy's progress in building airfields and boat refuges. Moreover, they conducted raids from time to time on the enemy's encampments or ambushed his patrols. By virtue of the information they passed to Allied commanders on Guadalcanal, American airmen compiled record scores in the gigantic air battles fought in the skies above Henderson Field.13 Sometimes, shortly after the landing forces had secured a contested beach, groups of friendly natives at the heels of a nearby coastwatcher would come smiling into the newly won beachhead to assist the Americans in driving the hated enemy from their island.
KURE 6TH SNLF STANDS INSPECTION at its home barracks before embarking for the Midway operation. After Japan's defeat in that battle, this force was deployed to the Central Solomons. (Photograph courtesy of the Morison History Project.)
Invariably amphibious scouting patrols contacted the coastwatcher stationed nearest to their targets to get information and assistance in the performance of their mission. To the coastwatchers many a downed Allied pilot or shipwrecked sailor owes his life. Coastwatchers performed all these functions in territory infested with Japanese, where sometimes the loyalty and dependability of the local natives was questionable.
Initial Strategic Situation
Various unforeseen considerations faced American planners the moment Japan committed the world to a war in the Pacific. During the inter-war years naval strategists realistically had faced the possibility of a Japanese attack on the United States and its possessions in the Pacific. Accordingly, they had devised ways and means of attacking Japan, not for the purpose of waging war per se, but to defend ourselves and to halt aggression. In the 20-year period following World War I the strategists formulated a series of basic war plans in which each possible enemy was named by a color. The series was known by the term RAINBOW, and Japan was given the designation ORANGE.
In December 1941 the plan then extant was Joint Basic War Plan RAINBOW 5, based on Navy War Plan 46, an outgrowth of a pre-World War I proposal of Captain Earl H. Ellis, USMC, then an instructor at the Navy's war college at Newport.14 These war plans envisaged an approach to Japan by following a route from Hawaii to the Marshalls, thence in turn to the Carolines, the Marianas, the Palaus, the Bonins, and finally the main islands of the empire itself.15
Japan's southward sweep in the early days of the war forced modification of the American planners' basic concepts. Australia and New Zealand, both drawn into the vortex of war, were now available as bases for an Allied offensive. It was incumbent upon the United States, moreover, to protect the line of supply and communications with those Allies. Japanese moves through the Solomons and New Guinea not only posed a threat to these Allied nations, but also seriously threatened to sever that life line. As early as 6 March 1942 it occurred to Admiral Ernest J. King, the Chief of Naval Operations, that with Australia in the war a new, additional route of approach to the Japanese homeland from the south presented itself.16
Ten days later the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) accepted this contention for planning purposes. On 30 March they assigned responsibility for conduct of combat operations in the Pacific to two commands: The Pacific Ocean Areas (divided into three subcommands--North, Central and South) and the Southwest Pacific Area. Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, Commander-in-Chief, U.S. Pacific Fleet, was given command of the Pacific Ocean Area, while General Douglas MacArthur, recently arrived in Australia from the U.S. defeat in the Philippines, was assigned the Southwest Pacific Area.17 Early in April Vice Admiral Robert L. Ghormley, as a subordinate of Nimitz, received command of the South Pacific Area.18
Meanwhile, the Japanese continued their southward thrusts to strengthen their southern approaches and to prepare for further invasions of Allied territory. By 3 May, as we have seen, they moved into Tulagi, observed by coastwatchers on Guadalcanal, who reported the fact to Allied headquarters in Australia. Although the battle of the Coral Sea (4-8 May) slowed the enemy somewhat, Japanese forces in the Solomons area still posed a serious threat to the Allied life line to Australia. Throughout the following month the Japanese
Pacific Command Structure
ADMIRALS NIMITZ AND HALSEY began planning for South Pacific Force participation in the TOENAILS operation early in 1943. Frequent face-to-face conferences, such as the one pictured here, ironed out many of the difficulties faced in the initial planning stages. (Navy Photo.)
command at Truk continued to strengthen Rabaul for defense and prepare it as a base for further operations toward the south. But a tremendous defeat suffered near Midway (3-4 June) forced the Japanese to alter their intentions. Proposed operations against New Caledonia, New Zealand and the Fijis were now postponed and the enemy potential at Rabaul increased.19 Rabaul, the bulwark of Japanese southern perimeter defenses, quickly became the key to Japanese operations and similarly became a consideration of prime importance to Allied planning.
A campaign against Rabaul would have a two-fold purpose: First, it would shift the Allies from the defensive to a limited offensive designed to blunt and turn back the forward prongs that Japan had thrust southward, thus protecting the United States-Australia life line; second, seizure of Rabaul would not only deny its use to the Japanese but also provide a base for further Allied operations into the Marshalls, Carolines, Marianas and Philippines. Although an approach toward Japan from the south was only one of many considerations in the Pacific war, by the end of June Rabaul had become a sine qua non objective, a focal point for the attention of Allied planners.
On 2 July 1942 the Joint Chiefs of Staff specified that Rabaul would be the principal target for Allied forces in the South and Southwest Pacific Areas, and that moves in that direction from both areas would be undertaken immediately.20 Code name for the operation was WATCHTOWER.
The campaign to reduce Rabaul began on 7 August 1942 when the 1st Marine Division landed on Tulagi and Guadalcanal. For the next six months the Southern Solomons was the scene of violent conflict as land, sea and air battles raged through the area.21 Under Admiral William F. Halsey, Jr., who on 18 October 1942 relieved Admiral Ghormley as South Pacific commander (ComSoPac), the Allies, after mid-November, won a series of great victories. As the Japanese were inexorably pushed back, they were forced to the expedient of supplying their garrisons in the Southern Solomons by fast destroyer runs down the Slot. This tactic, dubbed the "Tokyo Express" by American Marines, soldiers and sailors, cost the enemy heavily, for sharp-eyed coastwatchers forewarned the ubiquitous Allied airmen of the enemy's approach and Japanese vessels were blasted unceasingly.
As repeated Japanese attacks were defeated, the Americans found they could build up their ground forces on Guadalcanal faster than the Japanese could reinforce theirs. About the last day of 1942,22 Japanese Imperial Headquarters ordered Lieutenant General Hitoshi Imamura,23 the senior army commander at Rabaul, to abandon
plans for reinforcing or retaking Guadalcanal and to concentrate on holding a line stretching through New Georgia and New Guinea. Within six weeks, on 8 February 1943, Radio Tokyo could announce with reasonable accuracy that Vice Admiral Jinichi Kusaka's Southeastern Fleet had successfully evacuated Lieutenant General Haruyochi Hyakutake's Seventeenth Army from Guadalcanal right under American noses.24
During the strenuous six-month campaign for Guadalcanal, the Joint Chiefs of Staff had issued few directives affecting the war in the South and Southwest Pacific. Meanwhile, however, planning officers in those two commands proceeded with the development of Operation WATCHTOWER--the detailed plans for Rabaul's destruction. With the Southern Solomons now unquestionably secured for the Allies, the high command prepared for further advances up the Solomons Ladder toward Rabaul. Between the ultimate target and the front line lay the Central and Northern Solomons. In this area the Japanese-held islands of the New Georgia group presented the most immediate barrier. The next campaign, therefore, would be fought in the Central Solomons.25
The war was nearly a year old before the United States, faced with a deficiency of aircraft carriers and assault shipping, could undertake the long over-water movements that marked our later operations. For South and Southwest Pacific forces, therefore, the general scheme of maneuver had gradually evolved into a systematic advance of the land-based bomber line toward Rabaul by improvement of friendly bases with the greatest possible economy of
LIEUTENANT GENERAL HITOSHI IMAMURA, Japanese Eighth Area Army commander, established headquarters at Rabaul in December 1942. His authority, extended over the Solomons, Bismarcks and the eastern half of New Guinea, was confined solely to Japanese Army Forces stationed therein. (Photograph courtesy of the Morison History Project.)
force. In view of the paucity of shipping and the ever-present threat of Japanese countermeasures, Admiral Halsey and General MacArthur could plan no advances beyond the effective radius of land-based fighters. Moreover, without complete control of air and sea, bypassing operations, which might otherwise have isolated enemy bases and concentrations in the rear of our forward positions, were not yet practicable.26
Shortly after the Joint Chiefs' decision of July 1942, which gave him responsibility for
VICE ADMIRAL JINICHI KUSAKA, commander in chief, Japanese Southeast Area Fleet, arrived in Rabaul on 8 October 1942 as commander of the Eleventh Air Fleet. He was elevated on 24 December to the higher command, which embraced his own Air Fleet, the Eighth Fleet, and all land-based naval forces in the "Southeast Area". (Photograph courtesy of the Morison History Project.)
the over-all direction of the Allied campaign against Rabaul, General MacArthur conceived the general plan eventually executed by American forces. This plan, known as ELKTON envisaged a step-by-step advance up the Solomons Ladder by South Pacific forces while Southwest Pacific forces approached along the New Guinea coast. At this time MacArthur believed that Rabaul could be assaulted by a relatively small force, so long as the Allies maintained air and naval superiority in the target area and two forces closed in on the target simultaneously from two different directions.
Although basically sound, ELKTON underwent many changes and modifications before receiving Joint Chiefs of Staff approval. Movements of Japanese forces, ever changing fortunes on the part of Allied forces in the South and Southwest Pacific, and combat developments in other parts of the world all had their effect.
Even to the intransigent Japanese, their continuing failure to establish air supremacy over the Southern Solomons during the early battles for Guadalcanal dictated new, decisive action. As has been seen, the enemy undertook construction of a forward airfield at Munda Point about 21 November. They hoped that they could utilize the new field advantageously for mounting innumerable strikes against the American positions to the south, or at least impeding our advance up the Solomons Ladder. The enemy selected this particular location because there--before the employment of later-developed shallow-draft landing craft and the perfection of Underwater Demolition Team operations--topography rendered invasion from the sea almost impossible. With little effort the area could be made easily defensible.
Within a week after the Japanese had begun work on the new strip, observant coastwatchers reported this activity to Allied headquarters. South Pacific reconnaissance planes began making daily flights over the area, but despite the fact that work was in progress the pilots could not perceive the well-camouflaged construction. And although Japanese naval pilots began using the strip for emergency purposes, Allied aerial reconnaissance failed to pinpoint its exact location until the strip was almost completed.27
About 4 December the South Pacific Aerial Photograph Interpretation Unit (Commander Robert S. Quackenbush, Jr.) made an amazing discovery. The reports of the coastwatchers had been correct: the Japanese had nearly completed an airstrip on Munda Point.
Japanese camoufleurs had performed wondrous feats in hiding their airfield. After forming a net of heavy wire cables strung beneath the tops of coconut trees, the Japanese engineers had cut out the trunks of many trees below the branches (fronds), leaving the tops in position supported by the cables. By 17 December, when 3,200 feet of coral surfacing
covered the 4,700-foot runway, the enemy rolled back their green canopy and abandoned further attempts at concealment.28
Shortly before finishing their Munda strip, the enemy began building an additional air base at the Vila River mouth near the southern tip of Kolombangara Island. These forward air bases, strongly defended by ground forces, presented an immediate barrier to the northward Allied advance and therefore probably would become the next major objectives in the South Pacific campaign toward Rabaul. Accordingly, General MacArthur's ELKTON plans faced some slight modifications. Before Rabaul could be assaulted, operations would have to be conducted in the Central Solomons.29
After the Battle of Tassafaronga (30 November 1942), Allied air operations continued with ever increasing severity despite heavy and frequent enemy raids on the Guadalcanal fields. The Japanese acquisition of the new strips in the Central Solomons only served to rouse Allied interest in that area.
Even before the Guadalcanal campaign had come to a close, Admiral Halsey was eager to bring redoubt Rabaul under heavier attack immediately. In conformity with Joint Chiefs concepts and with MacArthur's ELKTON plan, he envisaged committing a small force to seizure of New Georgia as a base for further operations. South Pacific planners realized the obvious: If the Allies should move against New Georgia at once, before the enemy could provide strong defenses there, then the area could
South Pacific Command Structure
TARGET: MUNDA POINT. The Japanese stole a march on South Pacific Forces and built this airstrip in November 1942. From the time of its discovery in early December, until its seizure the following August, this strip received a daily pasting from South Pacific aircraft. Bomb craters pockmark the runway.
be seized with a minimal expenditure of effort.30
Three main considerations dictated selection of New Georgia as the target. First, the island group lay within the radius of fighter cover so essential for support of an amphibious operation; second, the ever-present danger of a surface attack by the very potent Japanese fleet required that our shipping scurry from exposed positions as quickly as possible, and such a maneuver would be reasonably simple inasmuch as New Georgia was so close to the Allied base at Tulagi; and third, the new airstrip constructed by the Japanese New Georgia garrison might be seized by friendly forces quite rapidly and utilized promptly with consonant economy of force. (See Map #1.) Conversely, if the Japanese were permitted to use the new air base, then they might again challenge U.S. domination of the Southern Solomons, so arduously won in the expensive naval and air battles fought around Guadalcanal.
Before proceeding further in his planning for an attack on New Georgia, however, Admiral Halsey had to take one intermediate step. He must seize the Russell Islands.
Seizure of the Russells
Early in their campaign to drive the Americans out of the Southern Solomons, the Japanese had occupied the Russell Islands, only 30 to 35 miles northwest of Cape Esperance, Guadalcanal, as a staging base and small boat refuge. Following their failure to evict the Allies, the enemy used the Russells as a staging base in the withdrawal of their defeated forces to positions in the Central and Northern Solomons. Although they displayed little evidence of resuming the offensive, the enemy continued to strengthen their holdings in the Solomons, the Bismarcks and in New Guinea. To South Pacific planners the Russells loomed as a possible strong point that could impede the Allied campaign against Rabaul. Enemy occupation of the Russells, moreover, posed a distinct threat to the Allied Guadalcanal position should the Japanese decide to utilize the area for staging an attack.
In implementation of the over-all scheme of advance as blueprinted by the ELKTON plan, Admiral Halsey, at the suggestion of his staff and with the strong concurrence of Admiral Nimitz and General MacArthur, late in December instituted a plan to occupy the Russells.31
Although it had many far reaching implications and required much detailed planning, Halsey's scheme had three fundamental objectives: (1) To prevent Japanese use of the Russells as a base from which to conduct harassing attacks or to stage troops into Guadalcanal; (2) To establish advanced fighter airfields with high radar stations for intercepting bombers headed for Guadalcanal, and to develop forward torpedo boat bases for intercepting the Tokyo Express, then shuttling troops and supplies into and out of Guadalcanal; (3) To construct airfields closer to New Georgia and thus permit our fighters to give effective cover during our projected attack on New Georgia.32
When Halsey's repeated requests for allocation of additional forces necessary to execute the operation reached Washington, Admiral Ernest J. King, Chief of Naval Operations, who desired to reach Rabaul quickly and with reasonable economy of force, objected. King, a firm advocate of the "by-pass" tactic, believed that such an undertaking on a relatively unimportant intermediate objective would commit large numbers of troops unnecessarily. But when it was pointed out that Japanese evacuees from and reinforcements for Guadalcanal occupied the Russells in what was believed to be great strength and might constitute a threat to future operations contemplated, King reluctantly agreed to permit the planning to continue.33
Even though concrete information concerning the Japanese decision to withdraw from Guadalcanal had reached neither the fighting men on the Southern Solomons front nor the Washington-based strategic planners, Halsey's idea received unexpected yet welcome and appreciated support. The Armed Services Chiefs of the United States and Great Britain, meeting as the Combined Chiefs of Staff at Casablanca
SBD'S CARRIED THE WAR TO THE ENEMY during the early stages of the Central Solomons campaign. New Georgia, Choiseul, and the Shortlands became oft-visited targets for these planes. (Navy Photo.)
on 23 January 1943, directed the immediate continuation of the attack up the Solomons chain toward Rabaul.34 A move into the Russells would be a step in the right direction.
That same day Admiral Nimitz met Halsey in Noumea and orally gave final approval to Halsey's plan--designated CLEANSLATE by the ComSoPac Staff. And on 7 February responsibility for detailed planning and actual execution of Halsey's concept fell to Rear Admiral Richmond Kelly Turner, commander of the South Pacific Amphibious Forces (CTF-62).35
Together with Halsey's subordinate commander of all Army troops in the South Pacific Area, Lieutenant General M. F. Harmon, Turner set about drawing up the detailed plans for the operation.
At this time, before the Allies realized that the Japanese had given up Guadalcanal, the situation with respect to possible enemy reaction to further moves was obscure. In view of Admiral Kusaka's fleet dispositions, the past attitudes of Kusaka and General Imamura, and their ever-present capabilities for offensive air and ground operations, the two Americans faced the distinct possibility that the enemy might attempt to retake Guadalcanal. They believed further that should the Japanese adopt such a course of action, we could not occupy the Russells without causing violent reaction. They therefore decided to embark on the operation
MARINES LAND SUPPORTING WEAPONS in the Russells on 21 February. Lack of enemy opposition made the operation easy. Here a 37mm gun captain points to the spot where he wishes his weapon emplaced.
DESERTED COCONUT GROVES greeted the assaulting infantry as General Hester's landing force swept the Russells. The enemy had fled leaving nothing but fallen coconuts for the Marines and soldiers.
fully prepared to sustain it against a major counterattack and allotted forces accordingly. Turner's estimate of the situation included the enemy capability of defending on the beaches. Any landing in the Russells, then, would require an assault or combat landing of a sizable and powerful force.36 Another problem facing the planners in February 1943, was the paucity of shipping in the Solomons area. Any forward movement would have to be conducted rapidly with a minimum of ships.
On 10 February 1943, Harmon assigned the 43d Infantry Division (Major General John H. Hester) to Turner for use as a landing force in the CLEANSLATE operation. As no authority in the South Pacific area realized that General Imamura had directed the withdrawal of all Japanese forces from the Southern Solomons, Turner decided to use the bulk of the 43d Division (less one regimental combat team) as the assault and occupation force. To this cadre he added the 3d Marine Raider Battalion (Lieutenant Colonel Harry B. Liversedge), the 10th Defense Battalion, FMF (Colonel Robert E. Blake), a detachment of the 11th Defense Battalion (Major Joseph L. Winecoff), Marine Air Group 21 (Lieutenant Colonel Raymond E. Hopper), and other reinforcing Army and Navy units. The 43d Division would land on the southernmost island of the group, while the Raider Battalion would spearhead a simultaneous landing on the northernmost. The short run between the bases of operations at Guadalcanal and Tulagi and the target area in the Russells could be accomplished expeditiously, so that only small, light transports, immediately available in the Solomons area, would be used.37
Within two weeks the CLEANSLATE operation was underway. At 2300, 20 February, Task Force 62 sailed from Guadalcanal, screened by a strong naval covering force. Eight destroyers of various types, each towing small landing craft loaded to the gunwales, led the convoy. Following were 12 LCT's and a tug-towed barge, piled high with 700 tons of ammunition. At dawn the next morning the Task Force divided into two parts, one heading for Banika Island, the other for Pavuvu Island, in accordance with the tactical plan. Covered by ships' guns and an air umbrella, the landing went off without a hitch. As correctly reported by a reconnaissance party that landed on Banika Island only two days previously, the enemy had vanished.38 By 1000 the shipping had completely unloaded and withdrawn, and the soldiers held Banika while the Marines held Pavuvu. And, when the Americans fanned out over the islands they found that the Japanese had failed even to construct any defenses for the Russells.
Erection of a radar station and construction of a patrol torpedo boat base and an airstrip started immediately. Within four days PT's were operating out of a new base at Wernham Cove. A steady stream of men, supplies and equipment poured in nightly. One week after the landing, Turner had more than 9,000 men ashore under his command, including naval base units, the 35th Naval Construction Battallion, the 3d Raider and 10th Defense Battalions from the Fleet Marine Force, and several other, smaller organizations.
Turner's Japanese adversaries apparently remained blissfully ignorant of the size or implications of the new American move, for they did not react until 6 March, when they launched an air attack against the new installations. But after that March date enemy planes raided the Russells almost every day and night for the next four months, despite effective radar interception and violent counteraction by Guadalcanal-based American planes. Nevertheless, construction of roads, airfields, and boat bases continued unabated, and on 15 April planes began operations from the first of two new strips that Seabees had laid out on Banika, second largest island in the group. Soon thereafter the Russells became a major Allied forward operating base and staging area.39
1. For the official account of Marine participation in this initial World War II offensive, see John L. Zimmerman, The Guadalcanal Campaign, Washington Government Printing Office, 1949.
2. R. W. Robson, The Pacific Islands Handbook, New York: MacMillan Company, 1945, 280.
3. See Zimmerman, op. cit., 26-33.
4. Lagoon, as used here, means a shallow lake or inlet of small dimensions found among Solomon Islands reefs. Such lagoons differ greatly from the extensive deep water lagoons found in Central Pacific atolls.
5. All the foregoing geographic information unless otherwise cited has been extracted from Robson, op cit., or USN Hydrographic Office, Sailing Directions For The Pacific Islands, Vol. 1, 4th ed., Washington: Government Printing Office, 1938.
6. See Frank 0. Hough, The Campaign on New Britain, Washington: Government Printing Office, 1952.
7. When the war came to Rabaul in 1942, the Australians were just in the process of moving their government site to Lae.
8. Only four of these fields were operational. (USSBS, Allied Campaign Against Rabaul, 12.)
9. Some authorities differ as to the purpose of Japanese seizure of Rabaul. Many American students stoutly maintain that the Japanese never intended to launch an invasion of Australia, as indicated here. But USSBS, The Allied Campaign against Rabaul, 5n, 46 and 113, and ComSoPac CIC Item #718 (and innumerable other CIC Items) definitely indicate that Australia was a target. A comparison of Gen Imamura's statement (made after the war) on page 87 of the first source with his statement of 7 April 1943, quoted in the second source, indicates that the general is guilty either of falsehood or forgetfulness or both.
10. Eric A. Feldt, The Coastwatchers, New York: Oxford University Press, 1946, 4-5.
11. D. O. W. Hall, Coastwatchers, Wellington, New Zealand: Department of Internal Affairs (War History branch), 1951, 3-4.
12. Feldt, op. cit., 78 et seq; Central Office of Information, Among Those Present, London: HM Stationery Office, 1946, 7, 11-12.
13. Zimmerman, op. cit., 147.
14. Newport, Naval War College, The Advanced Base Problem, 1913. (Capt Ellis). Vide Section I, 14 and Section II, 11.
15. CNO Tentative War Plan for use against Japan, 547, October 1919; MarCorps Advanced Base Operations in Micronesia, 712, 23Jul21; Joint Basic War Plan RAINBOW 5 (Navy WPL 46).
16. Adm Richmond Kelly Turner, speech to National War College, 23Feb51; JCS Meeting, 16Mar42.
17. JCS. 30Mar42. The boundary between the South Pacific Area and the Southwest Pacific Area was set at 160° east meridian.
18. Adm Robert L. Ghormley Memoirs, ms., 6-8.
19. For Marine participation in the battle of Midway see Robert D. Heinl, Marines at Midway, Washington: Government Printing Office, 1948, 28-42. For a discussion of strategy, tactics and operations at Coral Sea and at Midway see Samuel E. Morison, Coral Sea, Midway and Submarine Actions, Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1950, passim.
20. U.S. Chiefs of Staff Agreement, Operations in the Southwest Pacific Area, 2Jul42.
21. See Zimmerman, op. cit., passim and Morison, op. cit., 264-296, for a discussion of the Guadalcanal campaign. John Miller, Jr., Guadalcanal: The First Offensive, Washington: Department of the Army, 1949, contains a penetrating and exhaustive analysis of the strategic background to this conflict.
22. USSBS, Allied Campaign Against Rabaul, 9, says about Christmas Day; Miller, op. cit., 338, puts this date at 4 January 1943.
23. Commander-in-Chief Eighth Army Area, comprising the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Armies. (USSBS, op. cit., 84-87.).
24. The commands of Kusaka and Imamura were separate and distinct, both officers reporting independently to separate higher headquarters. However, as the general and admiral were personal friends, they cooperated for their common good. (USSBS. op. cit., 88; Interview with Lt Roger Pineau, USNR, 27Sep51).
25. USSBS, Campaigns of the Pacific War, Washington: Government Printing Office, 1947, 47-48, hereinafter cited as Campaigns; Ernest J. King, U.S. Navy At War, Washington: U.S. Navy Dept., 1946: Wm F. Halsey and J. Bryan, III, Admiral Halsey's Story, New York: McGraw-Hill Book Co., 1947, 108.
26. JCS, Jan43; CCS, 56th Meeting, 14Jan43; ELKTON, 28Feb43; RENO I, 25Feb43: ELKTON III, 26Apr43. The latter three documents originated in MacArthur's headquarters. The ComSoPac and CinCPac War Diaries for 1942 and early 1943 repeatedly imply this view, while CinCSoWesPac "Warning Orders for Operations," 30Apr43 treats the concept in detail.
27. CIC Item #598.
28. Useful sources in the study of this deception include: SoPac Photo Interpretation Unit Report #42, 4Dec42; SoPac Daily Digest, December 1942; JICPOA Item #2087, translation of a Japanese Diary; Halsey, op. cit., 154; Combat Narratives, 1-2; Karig, Pacific War: Middle Phase, 20; POA, Air Target Bulletin #21.
29. Gen MacArthur's ELKTON plan operations included, among others: Russells, New Georgia, Vella Lavella (which later replaced Kolombangara in the original plan), and Bougainville in the Solomons--all to be executed by SoPac Forces; Huon Gulf, Woodlark, New Britain and New Ireland elsewhere--to be conducted by SoWesPac Forces.
30. ComSoPac memo, serial 00121c, 8Dec42; memo, serial 0070, 13Jan43; memo, serial 0062, 12Jan43; CTF-31 ltr to ComSoPac, serial 0036, 13Jan43.
31. FltAdm W. H. Halsey, Jr., ltr to CMC, 2Mar51.
32. Turner ltr to CMC, 22Feb51.
33. Morison, Bismarcks, 97-98; MajGen Orlando Ward ltr to CMC 23Feb51.
34. Morison, Bismarcks, 6.
35. Turner ltr; Miller, op. cit., 351-352; Halsey ltr. The name TF-62 was changed to TF-31 on 15 March 1943.
36. Turner ltr; MajGen John H. Hester ltr to CMC, 9Feb51; LtGen M. F. Harmon ltr to War Department General Staff, 1May43.
37. LtCol F. S. Watson (G-3, 43d Division), "Movement of a Task Force by Small Landing Craft," encl to CG, 43d Div ltr to CG. SAFISPA, 17Apr43; Hester ltr.
38. MajGen H. D. Linscott ltr to author, 17Jan52.
39. ONI. Combat Narratives, Solomon Islands Campaign IX, 33.