From the Allied aviator's viewpoint, the Central Solomons campaign was only an incidental phase in the over-all effort to reduce Rabaul to impotency. Nor does the Solomons air war in 1943 follow a clearly defined pattern and fall into distinct phases inaugurated by a D-Day and concluded by a date of securing a bit of terrain, as does the ground war.
For Marine, Army, Navy and New Zealand pilots, the Central Solomons campaign began long before JCS approval of the TOENAILS operation, and as far as pilots themselves were concerned the directive simply told them to do what they were already doing. Selection of a starting place for our story of the role of aviation in this campaign therefore must be necessarily arbitrary. L-Day (30 June 1943) is as good a place to begin as any other.
Delineation of Responsibility
On the Allied side, the air war during the TOENAILS operation was conducted by ComAirSols (Rear Admiral Marc A. Mitscher), a truly unified force formed as early as 15 February and staffed by representatives of each air service based on Guadalcanal. Under the general direction of ComAirSoPac (Vice Admiral Aubrey W. Fitch), Admiral Mitscher on 30 June controlled some 12 fighting squadrons (290 planes), 20 mixed-typed bombing squadrons (294 planes) plus a miscellaneous force of about 42 planes for search, rescue and service missions.2 Mitscher's organization was divided into three subordinate commands: Bomber, Fighter and Strike.
Bomber Command, primarily the Thirteenth Air Force, less its fighters but augmented by Navy, Marine Corps and New Zealand bombers, conducted long-range day or night bombing missions against enemy surface forces, ground installations and troop concentrations. For its work, this command employed B-17's (Fortresses), B-24's (Liberators), B-25's (Mitchells), B-26's (Marauders), PBO's (Hudsons) and PBY's (Catalinas).
Fighter Command, made up of all fighting squadrons based on Guadalcanal and in the Russells, on 30 June included VMF's 121, 122, 213 and 221, one New Zealand, five Navy and two Army squadrons. Flying F4F's (Wildcats), P-38's (Lightnings), P-39's (Airacobras), P-40's (Warhawks), the new F4U's (Corsairs) and F6F's (Hellcats), this command was responsible for maintenance of combat air patrols, interception of enemy planes, and protection of bombers on sorties over the Central and Northern Solomons.
Nine squadrons, including VMSB's 132 and 144, usually flying TBF's (Avengers) or SBD's
(Dauntlesses), comprised Strike Command, responsible for attacking nearby enemy bases or shipping and giving what then was considered close support to front-line units. Generally reinforced by planes of Fighter or Bomber Command, this force carried the burden of the Allied air effort against the enemy.
Some 40-odd additional squadrons3 to the rear at bases such as Espiritu Santo, Efati, New Caledonia, and Samoa were prepared to provide approximately 669 planes for commitment in the Central Solomons on 30 June.
To provide for an efficient and workable air Command organization ashore after the seizure of a beachhead in the New Georgia area, Admiral Turner set up ComAir New Georgia, a subcommand of the New Georgia Occupation Force. This new command, entrusted to Brigadier General Francis P. Mulcahy, Commanding General of the 2d Marine Air Wing, would exercise operational control over all aircraft in flight assigned to air cover and support missions in the immediate vicinity of the assault. Using personnel of his Wing's headquarters, Mulcahy formed a skeletal staff to assist him in his operations.
Thus, ComAirSols was the organization that conducted the Solomons air war during the TOENAILS operation, while ComAir New Georgia was the organization responsible for the control of direct support missions.4
Preparation for the Offensive
When, in early December 1942, the Japanese revealed that they were building new forward airstrips at Munda and Vila, Guadalcanal-based aircraft began making almost daily raids there to impede construction and prevent enemy utilization of the new fields.
By April the incessant attacks by Bomber and Strike Command had reached such a crescendo that Fleet Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto decided to take violent countermeasures. But
MAJOR GENERAL RALPH J. MITCHELL, senior Marine aviator in the Solomons, furnished many of the planes and pilots for the various Central Solomons operations. General Mitchell later relieved General Twining as ComAirSols. (Navy Photo.)
his all-out air offensive, dubbed the "I" Operation, collapsed when Fighter Command intercepted each strike and inflicted tremendous losses.5
Yamamoto himself fell victim to ComAirSols on the 18th. The previous day ComSoPac had learned of an intercepted message revealing that the Japanese commander would be flying to Buin on an inspection trip. Fighter Command prepared a welcoming committee of 16 Lightnings, which greeted Yamamoto's entourage of two BETTYS and nine ZEROS, shot down the bombers and splashed three of the fighters, at the cost of one Lightning and its pilot.
After this the tempo of American aerial activity increased still more while, with the exception of heavy attacks on 25 April, 13 May, 7 and 16 June, the enemy's sorties were weak and sporadic.
COLONEL CHRISTIAN F. SCHILT commanded Strike Command for ComAirSols throughout the TOENAILS operation.
Admiral Fitch issued his directive for the employment of aircraft in the TOENAILS operation on 18 June. Developed at a series of conferences in Noumea, Auckland and Espiritu Santo between Fitch, Turner and Mulcahy, this plan provided that ComAirSols would destroy all enemy units threatening the South Pacific Force and conduct the usual search, escort, reconnaissance and photographic missions. In addition to covering Task Force 31 during the approach and withdrawal stages of the operation, ComAirSols would maintain a minimum of 18 dive bombers on ground alert in the Russells for immediate employment by Turner.6
Meanwhile, the South Pacific's combat air transport command, composed principally of MAG-25, not only moved troops and supplies into Guadalcanal for the coming invasion, but also made plans to participate actively. Throughout the TOENAILS operation, SCAT--as it was fondly known--dropped supplies to isolated ground units, or moved men and matériel in to newly captured airstrips. On return trips, the planes would be loaded with evacuees. So effective was SCAT's eventual contribution that it became known in the Solomons as the "Burma Road of the Air."7
Despite the mounting effort on the part of Strike and Bomber Commands, and regardless of the heavy enemy losses in their forays into the Southern Solomons, Admiral Kusaka and General Imamura built up their air strength in the Northern Solomons. In June the Eleventh Air Fleet and Fourth Air Army reached a combined strength of approximately 212 effective planes from a figure of about 150 the previous January.8 As we have seen in Chapter III, the Japanese airmen were ready to meet the American amphibious assault when it came.
In New Georgia, aircraft participated on a much larger scale than in any previous operation, and the problems faced were correspondingly more difficult of solution. But these air forces had better training and more experience than the force that assaulted Guadalcanal. Fitch's staff had made good use of the springtime to plan and prepare. From its inception in mid-February until the landings on Rendova, ComAirSols had profited from almost daily contact with the enemy.
As Turner sailed into Blanche Channel and began pouring troops ashore, ComAirSols planes from Guadalcanal and Russells fields were aloft to assure the force of adequate air cover. The night before ComAir New Georgia and staff had embarked at Koli Point in the flagship McCawley and the transport Adams. Today at 0830 they followed the infantry ashore and, as but few Japanese had been encountered by the landing force, soon had a headquarters operating. Overhead the combat air patrol began the first of its many busy days of interception of enemy attacks. Only on 14 and 29 July did the days pass without a Condition Red.9
SOUTH PACIFIC AVIATION ORGANIZATION FOR THE
Fighter Command claimed destruction of 101 enemy planes (52 ZEROS, 30 BETTYS, 18 RUFES and 1 SALLY) on 30 June alone, with the loss of but 14 Allied fighters, seven light bombers and six pilots. On the other hand, enemy contemporary and postwar records acknowledge the loss of only 17 bombers and 13 fighters, while claiming destruction of 50 Allied planes. Whereas Turner's force lost only one transport sunk and two destroyers damaged, the enemy claimed the sinking of one cruiser and two destroyers, plus damage to eight transports and two destroyers.
This enemy defensive action failed to halt the Allied landing on Rendova. Japanese aerial casualties for June (including L-Day), as estimated by ComSoPac's air intelligence, soared to 254 planes. In the same period the Allies had lost only 36 planes and 13 pilots, with the heaviest losses suffered on L-Day. At the end of July Allied interceptors added 170 fighters, 25 bombers, and 20 other types to their claims,
THIS GRUMMAN "DUCK" carried General Mulcahy from Rendova to Munda shortly after the airfield was captured. After Mulcahy's arrival, all air operations in the area were conducted from his command post in a cave in Kokengolo Hill.
while admitting the loss of 56 planes.10 But despite the enemy effort to run the gantlet of Allied fighters and antiaircraft fire, the various New Georgia landings succeeded and at the end of July XIV Corps was poised on the edge of Munda airstrip, ready to seize it and make it an additional base for ComAirSols.
While troops ashore pressed the attack from Rice Anchorage to Bairoko and from Zanana Beach to Munda Point, Strike and Bomber Commands continued to hammer Japanese bases in the Central and Northern Solomons with profitable results. ComAir New Georgia directed those aircraft supporting the infantrymen trying to dislodge the enemy from Munda Point and other Japanese-held areas in the Central Solomons. During the period 30 June through 5 August, General Mulcahy requested 44 close support strikes, only seven of which were not executed in the immediate vicinity of advancing troops. In addition, Mulcahy directed over 1,800 pre-briefed sorties by SBD's, TBF's, B-17's, B-24's and B-25's at targets in the Munda, Bairoko, Enogai, Viru, Wickham and Webster Cove areas.
These attacks reached a climax on 25 July, the day Major General Nathan F. Twining, USAAF, succeeded Admiral Mitscher as ComAirSols. After destroyers hurled some 4,500 5- and 6-inch shells into the Lambeti Plantation area, a force of 175 light, medium and heavy bombers dropped approximately 392,000 pounds of explosives and metal in the same general locale. That afternoon 82 bombers put some finishing touches on hostile antiaircraft guns emplaced on Bibilo Hill.11
Reports of increased Japanese shipping in the Northern Solomons inspired a series of daylight raids by Allied planes. On 17 July, for example, 114 fighters covered 78 bombers on a strike at Kihili. When enemy ZEROS intercepted this force over the target area a series of dogfights ensued but nevertheless TBF's and SBD's slipped in fast and low to blast shipping in the harbor. Discrepancies mark the claims of both forces. ComAirSols reported 52 enemy planes downed, four destroyers and an oiler sunk, at a cost of five planes. Japanese postwar records, otherwise unsubstantiated and possibly subject to error, reveal that the enemy suffered 10 planes lost, the destroyer Hatsuyuki sunk, and three destroyers damaged. The aircraft destruction claims of Japanese pilots, however, are even more fantastic than those of the Allies: 87 planes shot down!12
For its undenied success in night prowls up the Slot, Strike Command could thank its "Black Cats." This plane was a modified version of the versatile Catalina (PBY), painted black and equipped with radar, used for search and antishipping strikes. Because of its long range (round trips of 1400 miles) and low-altitude night flights, it sought and attacked enemy ships not otherwise exposed to the Allies. Whenever the "Black Cat" could not press home an attack itself, it could call on other planes, standing by at friendly fields for just such an exigency. On 19 July, in answer to a Black Cat's call, a flight of six Avengers (TBF's) sank the destroyer Yugure and
damaged the heavy cruiser Kumano. The next day B-25's, following up the previous night's raid, skip-bombed the destroyer Kiyonami, and sent her to the bottom.
Another shipping strike found the seaplane tender Nisshin entering Bougainville Strait, loaded with troops and tanks, and sank her on 22 July. Coordinated strikes by long-range Army bombers worked over enemy installations around Bougainville. Escorted by fighters, including Marine Corsairs, B-17's and B-24's hit the strips at Ballale and Kahili again and again during July and August. Although enemy fields on southern Bougainville lay over 300 miles from Guadalcanal, ComAirSols kept them nearly inoperable.
In cooperation with naval surface units, ComAirSols slowed the flow of Japanese reinforcements to garrisons in the Central Solomons. When the continued strikes effectively reduced the number of enemy high-speed transports that dared venture south, the Japanese resorted to small, armored barges.13 If weather did not interfere, coordinated strikes and search patrols sought out and attacked this southward-bound traffic.
Bomber and Strike Command aircraft ranged far to the north to bomb and strafe Ballale, Buin, Kahili and the Shortlands at every opportunity. Concurrent strikes by General Kenny's Fifth Air Force on the Rabaul area materially aided the TOENAILS operation. And while ComAirSols and ComSoWesPac aircraft hammered enemy bases, ComAir New Georgia prepared for the coming invasion of Vella Lavella.
Throughout the campaign ComAirSols made every effort to give continuing and effective
UNARMED TRANSPORTS carried cargo and mail in, and casualties and messengers out, of New Georgia. They set such records for volume and regularity that their route became known as the "Burma Road of the Air." Here a SCAT plane pauses at the Segi Point airfield to discharge a small cargo of mail. Note how the jungle rises from the very edge of the strip.
aerial support to fleet units operating in the Solomons area. Combat air patrols, flying high above surface vessels, performed offensive as well as defensive missions, attacking targets of opportunity with bombs, bullets or torpedos or intercepting strikes by enemy planes. And when friendly and enemy ships joined battle, the American commander generally could call on his supporting planes to strike those foes out of range of naval guns or torpedos, confident that his fighter cover would prevent enemy planes from doing the same thing to him.
Allied naval bombardments were so planned as to take advantage of the availability of air cover. At the beginning of the operation American planners had gone into considerable detail to arrange for air support for Admiral Merrill's bombardment of the Shortlands. Black Cats would serve as eyes for the fleet; a combat air patrol would cover the approach and withdrawal; Strike Command would provide dive and torpedo bombers to augment the ships' fires. Unfortunately weather interfered with this plan, and the combat air patrol had to be withdrawn. However, the Black Cats were out on the night of 29-30 June, and when
LIEUTENANT COLONEL P. O. PARMELEE, air commander, Vella Lavella, confers with Major General Nathan F. Twining, USAAF (left) and Brigadier General Dean C. Strothers, USAAF (right). These three officers continued the air onslaught against the Northern Solomons after capture of Vella Lavella. (Air Force Photo.)
Merrill retired to the south the next morning he charted his course so as to come within range of the fighters covering Turner at Rendova; and take advantage of the protection they could offer.
The combat air patrol engaged in a number of defensive actions also. One instance cited as an example typifies them all, that being the battle of Kula Gulf on 5-6 July. In this engagement a task group commanded by Rear Admiral Walden L. Ainsworth had made contact with a Tokyo Express convoy and, after a violent surface engagement, in which he lost the Helena, managed to turn it back.
At the first report of surface contact, Com AirSols alerted Fighter and Strike Commands to prepare to support Ainsworth at daybreak. At first light the next morning some 60 small planes took off to cover the ships' retirement, protect the two destroyers remaining behind to rescue survivors of the Helena, and to attack the fleeing enemy.
ComAir New Georgia Operations
On 14 August 1943, General Mulcahy moved the ComAir New Georgia command Post from Rendova to Munda Point. An advance detail had already set up a fighter control and operations headquarters in a Japanese-built tunnel in Kokengolo Hill, located on one side of the landing strip and within one of the taxi-loops. Although Seabees had previously cleared the tunnel of all debris and dead enemy, the smell was still quite noticeable, and this combined with the extremely high temperature made the need for exhaust fans quite evident. It was a protected location, however, and, being underground, permitted the use of lights at night, thus facilitating a 24-hour work schedule. When the first fighters landed that day at 1500, to report to Mulcahy for duty, ComAir New Georgia was prepared to begin immediate operations.14
The first full day of operations from the Munda strip, 15 August, Mulcahy sent his Munda- and Segi-based fighters to cover the landings at Vella Lavella. Twice that day ComAir New Georgia planes intercepted enemy air attacks; twice the Americans turned back
MAJOR ROBERT G. OWENS lands his F4U in the first scheduled landing on the newly operational airstrip. From this day, 14 August, until the establishment of fields at Empress Augusta Bay on Bougainville about three months later, the Munda airstrip became the scene of intense activity as planes landed and took off in the campaign to reduce Rabaul.
the Japanese, claiming 26 kills, admitting the loss of two planes and one pilot. Although Allied shipping suffered only superficial damage, Japanese pilots reported four large transports, one cruiser and one destroyer sunk, four transports damaged, and 29 Allied aircraft destroyed. The enemy acknowledged the loss of 17 planes.15
From 16 to 19 August enemy shells fell on Munda airfield during the day; hostile aircraft harassed the area at night. The former hazard was terminated on the 19th with the capture of Baanga Island, but the air raids persisted and fighter sweeps from Kahili continued to strike Barakoma, where the air warning system was still incomplete. Although ComAirSols intercepted most of the enemy strikes over the target area, some Japanese planes succeeded in slipping through the screen for ineffectual bombing and strafing runs. The enemy paid dearly for these strikes. In the week ending 4 September, for example, ComAirSoPac estimated Japanese losses at 58 planes.
On 24 August Colonel William O. Brice, the new commanding officer of Fighter Command, moved his command post to Munda field and relieved ComAir New Georgia of responsibility for control of fighter aircraft operating there. Three days later Mulcahy organized a detachment of his operations section as an Acting Strike Command to coordinate the activities of all liaison, spotting, or visiting strike aircraft using Munda.
In August the air war cost the foe an estimated 220 planes destroyed, bringing the total for the past three months to 704. Despite these losses and the increased pace of Allied attacks against enemy fields in the Northern Solomons and the Rabaul area, the number of naval planes available to the Rabaul command was
WITH ENEMY OPPOSITION CLEARED FROM WESTERN NEW GEORGIA, the ComAir New Georgia command post moved above ground. To the right rises a semi-permanent "Quonset Hut," while to the left is the sand-bagged sick-bay and hospital.
kept at approximately July's level by continual reinforcement and replacement. General Imamura, however, decided to move his Fourth Air Army out of Rabaul. But in the long run this had little effect on the course of Japanese operations. Admiral Kusaka's Eleventh Air Fleet had long been responsible for the defense of the Solomons area, and the help it had received from the handful of Fourth Air Army planes had been negligible.16
Throughout September Kusaka's planes continued to harass and damage Guadalcanal, Munda and Barakoma. On 14 September, therefore, ComAirSols launched an all-out campaign to make the enemy's southern Bougainville fields inoperable, and impede Kusaka's effort.
At this time the dwindling number of ground support missions and the recognized predominance of air missions permitted removal of ComAir New Georgia from New Georgia Occupation Force control. On 23 September, the day of the first successful landings and takeoffs from the new Barakoma field, Brigadier General James T. Moore relieved General Mulcahy and became a new Task Unit commander under ComAirSols. A program of stepped-up activity, applying direct and aggressive pressure on southern Bougainville soon got underway. Introduction of radar-sighted SB-24's in late August aided this effort by permitting increased night bombing of Japanese shipping, especially barges. In September ComAirSols reported the damage or destruction of 68 such barges.17
Japanese losses continued to mount. When the enemy began to evacuate their Central Solomons garrisons at the end of September and the beginning of October, ComAirSols teamed with Admiral Halsey's PT boats and destroyers to sink three small ships and destroy 56 barges.
The effectivity of the air offensive became evident by mid-October. Japanese planes made fewer raids and the number of enemy aircraft sighted at southern Bougainville fields dropped from 446 on 2 October to 338 on 16 October. Despite this, Japanese interceptors made Allied air sweeps over Bougainville anything but an easy run. The enemy ferried in new replacements whenever they could and continued construction and repair of fields at Kara, Buka and Bonis. But the cumulative weight of the ComAirSols attacks caused replacements to lag behind losses.
As the Allied drive neared New Britain, the Japanese apparently decided it was wiser to concentrate aircraft there rather than expend them in a hopeless attempt to hold the Solomons. They increased the number of planes based at Rabaul at the expense of outlying fields, and shifted them about as needed to meet the various Allied thrusts. Aerial reconnaissance revealed that despite SoWesPac's heavy raids of 12 and 18 October, Rabaul could still contribute 116 fighters, 72 medium bombers and 23 light bombers for its own defense. Although reduced from its May and June levels, this force was still formidable.
On 20 October 1943 ComAirSols displaced forward to Munda and began operations from that strip. The purpose of the Central Solomons campaign had been served: Admiral Halsey had moved up the Solomons Ladder, closer to Rabaul, and was now in position to undertake the neutralization of that Japanese base. But Rabaul itself was still an ever-present danger to Allied intentions in the South and Southwest Pacific; two more campaigns would have to be fought, one in each area, before Rabaul was completely neutralized and bypassed.
Aircraft Losses in the Solomons-Bismarcks Japanese Figures Allied Figures 1943 Japanese Allied* Japanese Allied Feb 26 158 40 30 Mar 6 47 8 --- Apr 33 148 69 20 May 7 73 21 13 Jun 84 195 266 43 Jul 52 295 218 57 Aug 42 187 220 19 Sep 31 226 152 45 Oct 37 117 163 24 * Including Allied aircraft downed by antiaircraft fire over Rabaul.
Table of Contents ** Previous Chapter (5) * Next Chapter (7)
1. Unless otherwise specified, all information on which this chapter is based was extracted from ComSoPac, Weekly Air Combat Intelligence reports, or from war diaries of the various squadrons participating in the actions described.
2. TF-33 OpnPlan 7-43, Annex A.
3. Including the following Marine units, which either in whole or in part at one time or another served in the TOENAILS operation: VMF's 111, 112, 123, 124, 214, 215, 441; VMSB's 131, 141, 142, 143, 233, 234, 241; VMTB-143; VMO-251; VMD-154; MAG's 13 and 25.
4. 2dMAW, SAR; 2dMAW, WD, June 1943; TF-31, OpnPlan A8-43; Fighter Command, RE; Strike Command, RE.
5. Fighter Command, Interception of Enemy Dive Bombing Attack Against Shipping, Tulagi Harbor and Vicinity; Craven and Cate, op. cit.
6. ComAir New Georgia, AR; Sherrod ms.; TF-33 OpnPlan 7-43.
7. Maj W. K. Snyder ltr to CMC, 13Mar52.
8. Allied Campaign Against Rabaul, passim. The pinnacle was reached in March when about 250 Japanese planes were available. The 212 figure is doubly amazing when one considers the tremendous losses of March, April and May. (Campaigns, 162.)
9. ComAir New Georgia, AR.
10. Fighter Command, RE.
11. Strike Command, WD and RE.
12. Southeast Area Naval Operations, II.
13. The most common of which was the Type A, Daihatsu, metal-hulled, diesel-powered, 41 to 49 feet long, capable of carrying 100 to 120 men at eight knots.
14. ComAir New Georgia, AR.
15. Southeast Area Naval Operations, II; Combat Narratives, XI, 21-22.
16. Allied Campaign Against Rabaul, 46-50, 83-84.
17. Craven and Cate, op. cit.; ComAir New Georgia, AR.