The Marines Depart

Relief of the 1st Marine Division occurred suddenly and, even to the Commanding General, somewhat unexpectedly. The D-3 Section anticipated nothing more than staging right there in the Cape Gloucester area for further operations in the Southwest Pacific area and had already inaugurated a training program toward that end. Optimists in D-1 were working out a schedule for granting leave to Australia when the new orders arrived.1

Nor was the relief affected without some more or less heated correspondence in high places.2 General MacArthur, extremely desirous of retaining a Marine division in his theater of operations,3 protested that the First had not fully completed its mission. However, Admiral Nimitz, as CINCPOA, had already slated it for Operation STALEMATE (Palau Islands) and declared that substitution of a division without amphibious combat experience would seriously jeopardize success of that venture. He countered MacArthur's contention that he had no unit suitable for the relief by transferring the 40th Infantry Division from his own theater to Southwest Pacific, with the result that the 1st Marine Division completed its movement to the Russell Islands by early May.4

With its departure, the division's achievements may be examined with more detachment.

Summing Up

With the advantage of hindsight, an accomplished second-guesser can rationalize plausibly that each individual operation in the Pacific was quite unnecessary, per se, to the outcome of the war; that, to carry rationalization to the ultimate absurdity, all the Allies needed to do was hold what they had until perfection of the B-29 and the atomic bomb, then use the former to carry the latter into Japan proper. In the case of New Britain, such a contention is perhaps less far-fetched than in some other instances.

But it is pointless to speculate on what might have happened had the New Britain


campaign never been undertaken. The main point is that, at the time, General MacArthur believed control of Vitiaz Strait essential to his further westward progress, and the best strategic brains of the Joint Chiefs of Staff supported this belief. Thus, the operation came off as herein described, with the result that MacArthur's flank security had become a fait accompli by the time he resumed his advance in the Southwest Pacific.

At the tactical level, the 1st Marine Division achieved a degree of perfection probably never equaled in jungle operations; from the surprise achieved in selecting the landing beaches, to the adaptation of amphibious techniques which carried patrols 130 miles along New Britain's northern coast.5

Casualty figures attest this strikingly. New Britain cost the reinforced division 310 killed in action, 1,083 wounded.6 On Bougainville at nearly the same time and under essentially similar conditions, a considerably greater number of Marines, facing a considerably lesser number of Japanese7 lost 423 killed and 1,418 wounded.8 This comparison is not intended as odious. Luck played a part, if shrewd selection of beaches to achieve an unopposed landing can be so defined. But a more significant reason lies in experience, "know-how." Bougainville constituted their first operation, jungle or otherwise, for most of the Marines who fought there, whereas the 1st Division had been forged in the fire of Guadalcanal, tempered by training in the jungles of New Guinea.

Planning, which had proved such a headache from the beginning, paid off richly in

GENERAL RUPERTUS TURNS OVER CAPE GLOUCESTER to General Rapp Brush, CG of the 40th Infantry Division.

the end. Perhaps the mere fact that Army and Marine ideas remained at odds for so long prompted the latter to excel themselves all the way down the line as a matter of self-justification. In any event, few, if any, operations in the Pacific were more soundly planned in detail, or more efficiently executed. However "useless" the campaign may have proved strategically, it taught many useful lessons and served as the standard on which General MacArthur modeled his subsequent jungle operations to and through the Philippines.

And if the 1st Division staff had been exasperated at times with the ideas of some Army planners, the Marines had no complaint with the wholehearted cooperation they received from General Krueger and his staff, once the issue had been joined. In the words of the officer then serving as G-3, Sixth Army (ALAMO Force):

I wish to state that the First Marine Division did a grand job in the western New Britain operation, one that it has every right to be proud of. My relations with General Rupertus and his staff were always most pleasant and cordial and many close friendships have stemmed therefrom.9


So effectively did all elements play their parts in support of the infantry that it is difficult to single out any one for special praise. On New Britain the 1st Marine Division, reinforced, performed like a winning football team without individual stars, where each player did his part so well as to make an exceedingly difficult operation appear easy.

Perhaps the most significant tactical development to emerge was the adaptation of tanks, both medium and light, to jungle warfare. Steps in this direction had been taken in previous operations, notably the Central Solomons and Bougainville, but it remained for the Cape Gloucester fighting to prove the tank decisive: at Hell's Point, Suicide Creek, and in the Borgen Bay area, where unsupported infantry assault of dug-in, mutually supporting positions inevitably would have exacted a high toll of lives.

Credit for the tanks' achievements belong to many elements: to the tankmen themselves, who were always ready to attempt anything; to the Seabees of the 3d Battalion, 17th Marines, who built the bridges over which the tanks advanced to Hell's Point and on to the airfield; to the engineers and pioneers of the 17th, who got them through the jungle to Suicide Creek, then bulldozed the stream banks to bring them into the enemy positions, and who later built a mile-long corduroy causeway across the swamp to the Japanese pocket below Hill 150 that had withstood five days of infantry assault; to the Marine infantrymen, who protected the tanks as the tanks protected them in a fine display of teamwork.

In fact, so convincingly did the tanks perform that General MacArthur appropriated Company A, 1st Tank Battalion and its Sherman mediums for the Hollandia operation late in April, though its employment proved unnecessary.

Terrain and weather conditions imposed especially heavy handicaps on the shore party: 2d Battalion (Pioneers), 17th Marines, reinforced by personnel of a newly arrived replacement draft. Again thorough planning paid off. Its commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Robert G. Ballance, came in prepared to cope with narrow beaches, dense jungle and the surf created by the northwest monsoon, but no better prepared than anybody else for the "damp flat." However, so basically sound was his plan of overlapping dumps that, even when many of his proposed dispersal areas proved to be under water, he was able to improvise new ones in unexpected places and, by doubling up on those that were usable, insure a balanced supply of everything necessary from the outset. The shore party unloading and dispersing feat on D-Day merely set the pattern for things to come. Any subsequent shortages--and there were very few--resulted from non-arrival of the material rather than failure to get it where it was supposed to go. In the end the Army, openly skeptical of the plan before, adopted it in toto for its own subsequent jungle operations.

Of the 17th Marines as a regiment, it may be said that, if any operation was ever won by bulldozers, this was it.

It was no fault of the artillerymen of the 11th Marines that the tall rain forest greatly reduced the effectiveness of their fires on a dug-in enemy. The alacrity with which they got their guns ashore and into position under conditions artillerymen seldom have to face surprised everyone who saw them and earned the regiment a Navy Unit Commendation, the only unit award issued for the campaign. And the effectiveness of their counter-battery work, when opportunity afforded, rendered the Japanese artillery wholly impotent.

The versatile amphibian tractors did everything expected of them and contributed a few novel touches of their own. As noted thorughout the foregoing narrative, they often provided the only mechanical means of bringing food and ammunition to combat areas beyond the swamps. In doing so, their treads chewed up some miles of telephone wire, to the exasperation of many people; but their humanitarian services in bringing out the wounded caused all to be forgiven. In addition, they contributed machine-gun fire support against the enemy, both on land and at sea, and there are at least two verified


IT TOOK A LOT OF MATTING to get the Gloucester airstrip in usable condition.

instances of LVT's knocking out Japanese bunkers by the simple process of driving across their tops and crushing them.

Navy Medical Corps personnel performed up to the high standard which had become routine in Pacific operations, under conditions which were anything but routine. No physical handicaps slowed down treatment and prompt evacuation of the wounded, and despite the discomforts of climate and jungle, incidence of illness was kept surprisingly low.

No operation in which Marines ever participated had more strictly amphibious features than the New Britain campaign. One reason why these proved so strikingly successful is described by the officer who commanded the Army landing craft that participated in the later phases:

Another important and novel feature of this campaign which contributed not a little to its success was the fact that the First Marine Division maintained actual operational command over a substantial fleet of landing craft. The Army unit manning these was as much an integral part of the Task Force as any battalion in the division. No longer was it necessary to request amphibious lift, it could be ordered, and it was, not only for logistical support but for tactical landings and continuous patrolling. The increased mobility, freedom of action, general expedition that this lent to the operations eastward to the San Remo Plantation demonstrated what should have been obvious that a landing force commander should have as complete control over his boats as he does over his trucks and tanks. So pleased were the senior officers of the division by the way in which this integration worked that they formally requested that the boat battalion of the 533rd Engineers be permanently assigned to the division and redesignated as the 4th Battalion, 17th Marines.10


GENERAL IMAMURA (second from left, foreground) surrenders his sword, Rabaul and the Japanese Southeastern Army forces to Australian Lieutenant General Sturdee (right). (Photo courtesy of Australian Military Mission.)

The authors of this monograph are unable to document the formal request referred to above, but personal correspondence with the then Chief of Staff11 and D-4 indicates that the division was fully aware of the value of this operational command and that there was considerable discussion regarding effecting the boat battalion's permanent attachment.

Among the lessons learned, one proved wholly negative in character. The 1st Division departed New Britain convinced that the bazooka was useless as a weapon owing to the failure of its rockets to detonate in the soft earth and log Japanese defenses, and the tendency of its battery discharge system to


short-out owing to the excessive moisture. This illusion led to the expenditure of considerable time and ingenuity after the campaign in developing a mount which would permit the 60mm mortar to be fired from the shoulder as a flat trajectory weapon. This actually worked, at the cost of many sore shoulders, only to prove inferior to the despised bazooka when the division hit the adamant coral of Peleliu on its next operation.


For all practical operational purposes, the New Britain campaign ended with seizure of Willaumez Peninsula and Japanese withdrawal of all their forces to the immediate vicinity of Rabaul. There they sat out the rest of the war in magnificent isolation, harassed by routine "milk run bombing," powerless to influence the issue that was being decided hundreds and thousands of miles to the west and northwest. Expecting an attack until the end, General Imamura kept his garrison alert and in shape to do battle, making it cockily clear to his eventual conquerors that he surrendered only on Imperial order. Perhaps he was entitled to this gesture.

With the enemy self-isolated on the Gazelle Peninsula, some of the coastwatchers moved back in to see that they remained so. These hardy gentry organized and armed bands of friendly natives and led these in guerrilla warfare against the Japanese: raiding outposts, ambushing patrols and generaly keeping their activities under observation. Such operations finally reached the point where the coastwatchers' chronicler could state with commendable pride (and considerable exaggeration): "And now 40,000 Japanese were held in that same Gazelle Peninsula by 29 Coastwatchers and 400 armed natives."12

These developments combined to make all of New Britain save the extreme tips worthless to either side. Outposts of the 40th Infantry Division continued to round up a few wretched stragglers for a while around the base of Willaumez Peninsula, and on 7 May patrolled eastward to the abandoned Cape Hoskins airstrip.13 However, this wide dispersal of forces complicated supply problems to no useful purpose, and subsequently all Allied troops were withdrawn to the immediate area of the Cape Gloucester airdrome.14

Rabaul had slipped into the backwash of the war as inevitably as the Solomons before it and the Marshalls after. Its remaining military value existed only in the minds of Imamura and his immediate associates, who finally surrendered it to its former owners.

In a ceremony similar to that which had taken place in Tokyo Bay a few days earlier, Lieutenant General Vernon A. H. Sturdee, C. B., C.B.E., D.S.O., received the surrender of the Japanese Imperial Southeast Army and Naval forces at Rabaul on 6 September 1945. The surrender ceremony was held on the deck of the aircraft carrier, HMS Glory, which lay in Simpson Harbor for the occasion. General Sturdee, GOC 1st Australian Army, received the swords of the Japanese commanders and the surrender of all Japanese forces in the area involving approximately 135,000 men.


Table of Contents ** Previous Chapter (11) * Next Chapter (Appendix I)


1. Several officers were actually en route by air and had to be intercepted and brought back.

2. MacArthur via 7th Fleet; action CINCPOA, 3 Apr44. Nimitz to King, 3Apr44. CINCPOA to CINCSWPAC, 6Apr44.

3. "[MacArthur] said he was sorry to lose the division and then stated: 'You know in Central Pacific the 1st Marine Division will just be another one of six Marine divisions, if it stayed here it would be my Marine Division.'" (Fuller.)

4. McMillan, op. cit., 227.

5. "The Cape Gloucester operation was well planned, well led and superbly executed." Morison, op. cit., 378.

6. Figures prepared by Personnel Accounting Section, Hq USMC, 5Mar52; KIA include 64 DOW, 1 MPD.

7. According to Gen Imamura, approximately 1,200 Japanese occupied the Torokina area of Bougainville at time of the landing, which force had been built up to about 1,600, over and above casualties by the time the Marines were relieved. USSBS, 85.

8. Rentz, Bougainville and the Northern Solomons, 140.

9. Eddleman.

10. Ltr LtCol Robert Amory, Jr., Mass.NG, to CMC, 2Apr52.

11. "Amory's outfit did a fine job, but to repeat, I don't remember anything more than just casual conversation as to the desirability of having them attached." Ltr MajGen J. T. Selden to LtCol F. O. Hough, 28Apr52.

12. Feldt, op. cit., 241. Chap XX of this work describes these operations in detail.

13. 40th InfDiv BACKHANDER Opn Rpt.

14. This occurred following relief of 40th InfDiv by Australian 5th Div in November, 1944.

Transcribed and formatted for HTML by Jerry Holden for the HyperWar Foundation