Chapter 2: The 11th Group and the Landing in the Solomons

Despite the fact that a workable basis for Army-Navy cooperation had been reached at a time when the June victory at Midway made it possible to mount an initial offensive against the Japanese, the remainder of 1942 loomed precariously for the Allies in the South Pacific. The Midway battle had only approximately restored the balance of fleet power. Shipping was extremely short. Only the 1st Marine Division, reinforced, could be spared for the assault on Guadalcanal. General Harmon found himself in command of units originally sent posthaste in early 1942 to garrison the


stepping stones to Australia, units largely tied down to a defense for which they were scarcely adequate.

Nevertheless, preparations for the blow against the Guadalcanal area went forward. As early as April Tulagi had been designated the number one American objective in the Solomons. The Marines began arriving in New Zealand in mid-June; D-day was set originally for 1 August, then for as near that date as practicable. Arrangements were completed whereby General MacArthur's aircraft would search and bomb in the northern Solomons and strike the airdromes at Lae and Salamaua.

The final week in July saw the initial B-17's of the 11th Bombardment Group arrive in the South Pacific, the first squadron landing during a driving rainstorm at Plaines des Gaiacs airdrome on New Caledonia. The 11th had been based in Hawaii, was a veteran of Midway. Now, under the leadership of Col. Laverne G. Saunders, it was to participate in the assault on Guadalcanal.1

The Army Air Forces, seeking to give air striking forces a mobility analogous to that of major naval units, had initially distrusted committing heavy bombers to fixed assignments in the islands. The area was described as "linear in type and of limited depth." Its defense, it was thought, could be accomplished more economically by holding major air striking forces at the extremities, and providing bases and logistical services for their rapid concentration against a threat to intermediate points. Originally this concept envisaged stationing heavy bombers only in Hawaii and Australia. However, in July the 11th Group was ordered to New Caledonia as the Mobile Force, Central Pacific, and below in Australia the 19th Group was named the Mobile Force in the Southwest Pacific.

Four days after the new designation, the squadrons of the 11th Group left Hickam Field, the 98th and 42d arriving at Plaines des


Gaiacs on the 21st and 23rd of July, respectively. On the 24th, the 431st landed at Nandi in the Fijis and the following day the pilots of the 26th set down their planes at Efate. It had been planned to base one squadron each at Plaines des Gaiacs, Koumac--also on New Caledonia--Nandi, and Efate, and advance these when practicable to the new base under construction on Espiritu Santo.

Lying directly in the path of a possible thrust from the Solomons, Espiritu Santo had been a sort of no man's land. Admiral McCain, perceiving the value of the position to the contemplated seizure of Tulagi, had immediately upon his arrival in the theater in May requested that troops be sent in and an airfield constructed. The troops were sent but construction of the airdrome was not approved. Nevertheless, COMAIRSOPAC surveyed a site, built a road to it, and confidently awaited orders to complete the project; the orders came in July. All available troops pitched in and in 16 days an airstrip 5,000 by 200 feet was hacked out. On 30 July, Maj. Allen J. Stewart of the 11th Group's 26th Squadron set down the first B-17 on the new strip.

Pre-Assault Operations

For the Guadalcanal operation, Admiral McCain divided his shorebased planes into task groups. The 11th constituted the second task group, responsible for daily search of the southern Solomons and their western waters, for tracking important enemy contacts, and for execution of air attacks as directed. The dual role of search and bombing assigned the B-17's by COMAIRSOPAC's operations orders had been foreshadowed by his policy of placing the B-17's, together with the Navy patrol bombers, under both Air Patrol and Bomber Commands at South Pacific air bases. The great areas of the Pacific, shielding a powerful and aggressive enemy fleet, made search a prime necessity.

With its service crews still at sea, the 11th nevertheless tackled vital photo work almost on arrival, flying photographic missions over the Tulagi-Guadalcanal-Gavutu area on 23 and 25 July and getting its first taste of local fighter opposition when float Zeros ineffectively intercepted both missions.2 During the very few days remaining


before the departure of the Marines for Guadalcanal, strenuous efforts were made to procure information on Japanese positions. Maj. Gen. Alexander A. Vandegrift, commanding the 1st Marine Division, was experiencing a woeful lack of photos, and Navy charts were badly out of date. In an effort to remedy this situation the 435th Squadron of the 19th Group during June and July had flown a number of reconnaissance missions over the Guadalcanal-Tulagi area from Port Moresby.

General Vandegrift particularly desired recent photographs of the north coast of Guadalcanal, the area he was called on to assault. He received only two, a print of Tulagi and one of the Lunga Point-Kukum area--both dropped on a carrier by light planes, developed, and forwarded to the Marine commander by COMAIRSOPAC, and constituting the first photos to reach General Vandegrift since 24 June.

At no time during 1942 were trained Army personnel or Army photographic equipment available for photographic work. Cameras came from the Navy, photographers from the Marines. Only the 11th's B-17's represented the Army, and this condition remained SOP until AAF photo and mapping units arrived in 1943. "Quackenbush's Gypsies," as Lt. Comdr. Robert Quackenbush's naval photo personnel were named, regularly flew with the B-17's on photographic coverage of the Solomons.

Colonel Saunders' bombardment directive from Admiral McCain was both general and concise: to hit Tulagi and Guadalcanal with maximum strength from 31 July to 6 August, inclusive. COMAIRSOPAC left the group commander free to carry out this task as he saw fit, and the 11th forthwith inaugurated heavy bombardment against the Japanese in the South Pacific. During the 7 days, in addition to 22 sorties for purposes of search, the group flew 56 bombardment sorties, a most creditable performance in view of the primitive conditions under which operations labored.

Although the advanced field on Espiritu Santo was reported ready, Colonel Saunders was skeptical as to its service facilities and decided to open his attack from Efate, 710 nautical miles from the target at Guadalcanal. For his first mission on 31 July, Colonel Saunders mustered every plane possessing a radio compartment tank. Since each of the nine aircraft thus equipped also carried a bomb-bay tank, full bomb loads were impossible. But in spite of this considerable reduction in striking power, the initial blow was a success. Led by


Map 1: The Solomons and Related Areas


Colonel Saunders, the Forts flew the 710 miles to Guadalcanal under the protection of bad weather and unloaded their bombs from 14,000 feet. The first flight, carrying 500-pounders, struck at the new landing strip, while the remaining six aircraft ravaged the supply dumps in the Lunga Point area with 100- pounders. Resistance was slight, the AAA ineffective, and the Zeros at Gavutu, probably without functioning radar, failed to leave the water in time for interception. The bombers came through Mission One against Guadalcanal undamaged.

It was determined that Lunga Point held the chief concentrations of supply and personnel and first claim to Colonel Saunders' attention. Next ranked the nearly complete Lunga airdrome, shortly to become Henderson Field. Tulagi also was to receive a quota of bombs almost daily.

Thus was the pattern set. On 1 August the B-17's bagged two Zeros, on the next day they got one and started fires in the Lunga and Tulagi storage areas. By the 3d, reports had come in of land- based Zeros on the Lunga field and on 4 August five enemy fighters intercepted a three-plane flight over the target. In this engagement a float Zero, flaming and pressing a close attack, struck a B-17 near the No. 3 engine, causing an explosion which destroyed plane and crew. This, the first destruction of one of our aircraft by ramming, was considered the result of a Zero out of control rather than intentional self-sacrifice.

With the field on Espiritu Santo operational by 1 August, B-17's headed for Guadalcanal were able to take on full bomb loads, fill their radio tanks on Efate, and refuel at Espiritu Santo on the return leg. Tulagi and the Kukum area of Guadalcanal were thus bombed on 5 August, when another B-17 was lost; and on D-Day, 7 August, two search planes dispatched to cover the Solomons sector to a depth of 700 miles (1,296 km) from Espiritu, by that time the main base, took off at 0300 with instructions to avoid the target area where the attack was scheduled at 0530. One aircraft failed to return.

Guadalcanal Assault Opens

Below the searching B-17's the battle of Guadalcanal was unfolding. Two major task forces had been set up for the occasion: Rear Adm.Leigh Noyes commanded the supporting carriers, Rear Adm.Richmond K. Turner the amphibious force which would undertake the


assault. Over-all command of these groups was vested in Vice Adm. Frank Jack Fletcher in the Saratoga.

On 31 July the amphibious force had left Koro Island in the Fijis, where it had proceeded from New Zealand to hold landing rehearsals. As the fleet cleared the New Hebrides the weather changed to a complete overcast, effectively hiding the force from enemy search planes. Navy PBY's, meanwhile, operating from Ndeni in the Santa Cruz group towards enemy bases to the north, reported no hostile concentrations. At 0133, 7 August, the dim bulk of Guadalcanal could be made out, and the assault forces slid past Savo Island, the one to the north headed for Tulagi, the southern standing in for the Lunga area. The surprise was complete.

At 0613, the heavy cruiser Quincy opened on targets near Kukum and 2 minutes later carrier planes, appearing on schedule, joined the attack. Simultaneously the bombardment of Tulagi commenced. The landing at Guadalcanal occurred without opposition. Carrier-based aircraft from the Enterprise and the Saratoga shielded the operation. Instead of the 5,000 enemy estimated on the island, a mere 600 Japanese were reported by prisoners and these promptly took to the hills. The Marines met relatively light opposition on Guadalcanal during the first day, but on Gavutu and Tulagi, across Sealark Channel, resistance was fierce and these islands were not mopped up for several days.

On 8 August the Marines occupied Lunga airdrome on Guadalcanal.3 The runway, damaged by 11th Group attacks, was rapidly repairable, and in addition to this important field, large semi-permanent camps, finger wharves, machine shops, radio sets, and an ice and power plant fell to the Marines. These gains, however, were not to be consolidated in peace. The Japanese reacted promptly with air and naval forces, and on the afternoon of D-day hurled two heavy air attacks at the transports lying off Guadalcanal.

The evening of 8 August, Admiral Fletcher requested permission to withdraw his carriers. Combat with raiding enemy aircraft and other causes had reduced his carrier strength from 99 to 78 fighters.


Fuel was running low and the presence of large numbers of enemy bombers in the area presented a serious menace. [Adm. Fletcher's claims in these regards have not stood up to examination.--pwc] Admiral Ghormley agreed to the request late that night and towards morning the Air Support Force began retirement to the south. Its withdrawal left the amphibious force dangerously exposed to enemy air, and the decision was consequently taken to withdraw the remainder of the invasion fleet at 0600 the following day. Previously it had been planned that the transports would unload until D plus 4.

On 8 August the Japanese Navy took a hand. Through the moonless, Solomons night a Japanese task force, slipping down past Savo Island, closed with the Allied cruisers protecting the transports off Guadalcanal. Searchlights and flares illumined the sea; then the sudden shock of shell and torpedo--and when the Japanese fleet retired into the night it had sunk four heavy cruisers and one destroyer, the core of the forces patrolling off Savo Island. The beachhead was uncovered. The Marines were left to shift for themselves, and on 9 August the transports up-anchored for the safety of Noumea.

For a time, the 11th settled back into its search routine. On days immediately following the landings, the bombers covered the Lower Solomons on sectors ranging from 286º over to 316º from Espiritu to a depth of 700 to 800 miles. Ordinarily, contact was with friendly surface forces. However, on 9 August, two light cruisers, two destroyers, and a number of seaplane tenders were reported heading for Rekata Bay on Santa Isabel. Eight B-17's were bombed up and took off but, despite ideal visibility, failed to sight the enemy. Daily searches through 14 August failed to reveal anything significantly a handful of landing barges on Florida Island.

By the 15th the Japanese were more in evidence. Destroyers, cargo vessels, even light cruisers began to frequent the central Solomons, and Gizo Island and Gizo Bay in the New Georgia group became favorite target areas for the 11th. Moreover, the tedium of the long searches was apt to be broken by engagements with the huge Japanese patrol aircraft, the four-engine Kawanishi 97's, or their only slightly smaller successors.. These Goliaths were slower and less maneuverable than the B-17's; their 20-mm cannon were outranged by the .50-caliber machine guns. Invariably Colonel Saunders' pilots attempted to close with them. The first victim fell to the crew of Capt. W. Y. Lucas when, after a 25-minute combat the Mavis, attempting to


settle her damaged bulk on the sea, was blown up by the B-17's tall gunner. By 30 September the 11th had encountered 21 Kawanishis; 5 were destroyed and 7 damaged.

Meantime the enemy prepared his counterblow. On 12 August Admiral Ghormley had reported naval concentrations at Rabaul and in the Bougainville region. A week later these concentrations began to appear in the Buin-Faisi area, and on the 20th the Admiral warned Colonel Saunders that the task forces to retake Guadalcanal already were moving down from Truk and Ponape. The grinding routine of sea search became of utmost importance. Day after day, the B-17's, taking off from Espiritu Santo at 0300, crossing over Tulagi at sunrise and, scouring the sea to the northwest, logged 1,600 miles of open-water flying.

Daily action had taken its toll. From 31 July to 20 August, 11 B-17's were lost, 8 operationally, 2 at sea, only 1 in combat. Men and equipment stood up well against the enemy. Japanese gunnery, both aerial and AAA, was uniformly poor and the supposedly fanatical pilots showed little eagerness to close with the B-17's. During the 8 days of intensive operations preceding the landings, enemy fighters were engaged on all but two missions to the Guadalcanal-Tulagi area and other than in the "ramming" incident, no B-17 was lost to the float planes. The few hits scored on the heavies were by 7.7 mm fire and not very damaging. Three crew members were slightly wounded. The pilots learned that the Japanese always attacked singly, that, if the Forts turned their formation into him, he would always draw off at the fire of the turret guns. Bad weather, not the Zero, was the chief antagonist. Lack of homing facilities and radio direction-finding equipment brought down more B-17's than enemy pilots did.

Operational Problems

In the Pacific theaters nature and distance are usually as formidable a foe as the Japanese. When Colonel Saunders and his 98th Squadron set their B-17E's down on Plaines des Gaiacs on 21 July, they found a red dust strip hacked out of a swamp. High in iron oxide, this dust, sifting through the filters, honed out the cylinders, so that shortly the B-17's were fortunate to fly 6 hours with a full load of oil. Additional complications were lack of service and maintenance personnel.


Nine maintenance men for nine aircraft were all that could accompany the 26th to Efate, and these nine served additionally as ground crews during the subsequent 3-week period of intensive operations. Under such circumstances, a large share of the service and maintenance burden fell upon the combat crews. The 26th owed a debt of gratitude to the Negro enlisted men of the 24th Infantry Regiment who helped to service the planes and even improvised spare parts. Artillerymen messed the airmen on Efate, while over on Espiritu the entire 98th Squadron, not excepting Colonel Saunders, slept under trees or wings, or in the Forts themselves.

The 11th had no water carts; two of its eight Cletracs had arrived at Nandi , when they were needed at Espiritu. The shops aboard the USS Curtiss, Admiral McCain's headquarters, contributed tow bars; but homing devices and navigational aids could not be improvised.

At Espiritu existed a fair example of South Pacific logistics. On 18 August Colonel Saunders described its unloading facilities as "one barge, a sandy beach and a prayer." Heavy equipment was slung over the side of cargo vessels into a lighter. Ashore there were no cranes and the small, finger piers made of coconut logs salted down with coral washed out and disappeared after 2 or 3 weeks' use. Since the supply officer seldom was informed of arrival dates, boxes and crates accumulated in the coconut groves. There was no question of living off the country; each item of food, clothing, and housing had to be brought in. The mud was there in abundance. Espiritu Santo a foot-thick covering of soft black dirt, a quagmire after the tropical rains.

The Navy had moved .50-caliber ammunition and 300,000 gallons of gasoline to Espiritu in preparation for the 11th. Fuel consumption had been estimated for 2 weeks of operations and a safety factor of 100 per cent allowed, but the supply was exhausted in 10 days and only the timely arrival of the SS Nira Luckenbach with 3,000 drums of gasoline prevented operations from coming to a sudden halt. Getting the fuel out of the drums and into the tanks of the B-17's was one of those impossible jobs which somehow got done. Gas trucks and trailers did not exist; the steel drums were dumped over the ship's side, floated ashore in nets, hand-rolled up under the trees, and dispersed in dumps of 20 to 30. From these they were loaded on trucks, rolled up on stands, and emptied into the tank wagons which serviced


the aircraft. On 6 August, all available hands--and available hands included Colonel Saunders and Brig. Gen. William C. Rose, who commanded ground forces on Espiritu and Efate--worked a bucket line for 20 hours in a driving storm to put 25,000 gallons of gasoline aboard the bombers. But such labors were not enough, and strike missions were delayed for lack of service facilities.

Espiritu's airdrome was no Randolph Field, Texas. A narrow strip cut partly from a coconut grove, partly from the encroaching jungle; revetments barely deep enough to keep a B-17's nose off the runway and so narrow a man had to stand at each wing tip to guide the pilots out to the short taxiway; no lights. Bottles of oil with paper wicks flickered along the runway and jeep headlights marked its end as the early morning missions took off. The squadrons of the 11th were distributed as follows: the 42d at Plaines des Gaiacs; the 98th at Espiritu , where the 26th subsequently joined from Efate; and the 431st Bomb Squadron at Nandi. Headquarters was at Efate, but Colonel Saunders maintained a command post on Espiritu and flew part of his headquarters personnel there on 10 August. Nandi, the most rearward of the bases, was clean and quiet and served as a rest area and a convenient place for engine changes. Colonel Saunders regularly relieved his units after 1 week in the forward area.

Operational control defied the field manuals. The wide dispersal of the units and unreliable radio communications made contact with the squadrons exceedingly difficult. Colonel Saunders could exercise direct control only over the 14 B-17's on Espiritu Santo, and even this was complicated by lack of field telephones and motor transport. He was running four search missions daily and holding six aircraft for a striking force. In an emergency he might supplement the latter with six B-17's from Efate, but he strongly doubted that the Efate contingent could hit the target at such a distance. He advised General Harmon that additional fields were needed on Espiritu Santo.

By the 18th of August, the supply situation of the group had become critical. Six ball turret doors had already broken off and no spares were available. Turbosupercharger regulators were giving trouble, as were flight and engine instruments. The dusty fields necessitated constant engine changes; Nandi's 12 spares were already in service and the next change at Plaines des Gaiacs would exhaust


HEADING FOR HOME. After a successful attack on the shipping shown in the lower left of the photograph, a B-17 of the 11th Bombardment Group (H) wings over Kahili Airfield as enemy fighters taking off raise clouds of dust. The picture was taken looking southwest. The surface ships are off the settlement at Buin, and the finger of water above the wing at the left is Tonolei harbor.


the supply in New Caledonia. But in spite of such operational aches and twinges, the 11th was prepared to take part in the series of actions known as the Battle of the Eastern Solomons, the first Japanese attempt to retake Guadalcanal.

Battle of the Eastern Solomons

Following the disastrous Savo Island drama, there had been a lull on Guadalcanal. The Navy ran in small reinforcement convoys, but operated its task forces well to the southward of the island, out of range of Japanese search planes; and the enemy seized the opportunity to reinforce Guadalcanal on his own account. Nightly, his destroyers and cruisers shelled the Marines, for the most part without let or hindrance. The beginnings of the "Tokyo Express" were discernible.

However, on 19 August a light cruiser venturing on such a reinforcement mission was unwisely left exposed in Sealark Channel by day. A searching Fort spotted her, banked for a bombing run. The delighted Marines saw columns of dark brown smoke pour from abaft the warship's mainmast. She made for the open sea beyond Savo Island, her fantail afire, and later sank.

On the 23rd the Navy received warning that the Japanese were moving on the Solomons from the north. Carrier task forces, including the Saratoga, the Enterprise, and the new North Carolina were readied to meet the threat. On the 24th the Saratoga's torpedo and dive bombers, engaging the Jap carrier Ryujo, sent her into an evasive turn, dived in a coordinated attack, and hammered their bombs the length of her deck. Fierce air battles during the day all but stripped the enemy carriers of their aircraft and by nightfall the enemy fleet, badly hurt, retired. The damaged Enterprise returned to Pearl Harbor for repair.

In relation to its striking power the 11th Group played an important role in this action. On 24 August at 1215 Colonel Saunders was advised of a contact with an enemy carrier force 720 miles from Espiritu. Admiral McCain, aware that a B-17 strike would involve hazardous night landings, left the attack decision to Colonel Saunders. The risk was accepted. Two flights of B-17s were dispatched separately, three Forts under Major Ernest R. Mannierre and four led by Major Stewart.


At 1745 the three-plane flight attacked a carrier, dead in the water and under tow by a cruiser or large destroyer. On the first run the bombs overshot and the Forts banked for another try. Four direct hits were claimed. (Whether this vessel was the Ryujo, blasted more than an hour before by Saratoga's planes, or another small carrier is unknown.)

When this flight returned to Espiritu Santo the night landing took its toll. Espiritu's field was just a wide slash through the jungle, with low hills close in. As the planes approached, a tropical rainstorm drenched the field and the darkness was complete. Lt. Robert E. Guenther's plane, the No. 4 engine failing, went into a steep bank and crashed into the hillside. The pilot and four of the crew were lost.

Forts Assail Japanese Ships

Sixty miles to the eastward of Major Mannierre's strike, Major Stewart's four B-17's surprised a second Japanese armada at twilight. Below the Forts plowed a possible small carrier, with escort of one battleship, four light cruisers, and four destroyers. The Forts steadied for the run. Two or more hits were claimed on the carrier, but final results were observed only by one ball turret gunner who contended that the warship could not have been a carrier since the 500 pounders had "knocked her turrets off." The attack did not go unopposed, and of a swarm of Zeros attacking the bombers five were surely, seven probably destroyed. Two of the Forts were damaged and all were desperately low on fuel, but Major Stewart led his flight back to Efate intact.

Again on the 25th the heavies saw action. The preceding day Lunga airdrome, now named Henderson Field after the commander of the Marine dive bombers at Midway, had been attacked by land and carrier- based planes, the latter probably from the Ryujo. Newly arrived Marine pilots, defending the Guadalcanal lodgment, knocked down 21 of the attackers for a loss of 3. At midnight the Marine positions were shelled by four enemy warships, one of which may have been sunk by dive bombers from Henderson Field. A dawn air attack was anticipated but none came.

At 0835 on the 25th eight escorted dive bombers from Guadalcanal uncovered the main Japanese occupation force about 125 miles to the


north. One large and three small transports, escorted by a heavy cruiser, light cruisers, and four destroyers, presented a fat target. Thousand-pounders gutted the large transport and damaged the heavy cruiser. Eight additional B-17's, leaving distant Espiritu at 0617, broke the back of either a cruiser or a destroyer with three direct hits from 500-pounders and at 1015 saw her sink. By noon of the 25th the Japanese were making all speed to the north and Guadalcanal was, for the moment, secure.

From this telling action, the 11th returned to the tedium of search duties and primitive operational conditions. The enemy reverted to a pattern of harassing attacks and minor reinforcement efforts. At 1200 on the 25th, 21 Japanese bombers pounded Henderson Field, and that evening destroyers landed reinforcements at Cape Esperance and came down Sealark Channel, guns ablaze. By this time, however, Guadalcanal had the means to defend itself, partially at least, against such measures; Marine fighters and dive bombers were based on the island and elements of the USAAF's 67th Fighter Squadron had arrived.


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[1] In the early stages of the battle for Guadalcanal the Army Air Forces was represented by the 11th Bombardment Group (H) and the 67th Fighter Squadron. Later the 11th was joined by squadrons of the 5th Bombardment Group, and still later, replaced by the 307th Bombardment Group (H). Various other fighter squadrons stationed in rear areas, such as the 12th, 44th, 68th, 70th, and 339th, all eventually contributed detachments or moved up to the island as did the 69th and 70th Bombardment Squadrons (M). As the subtitle implies, this narrative is concerned primarily with the activities of the 67th Fighter Squadron and the 11th Bombardment Group (H). Thus the actions of the 19th Bombardment Group (H), located at Port Moresby, which were coordinated with the initial attack and subsequent actions on Guadalcanal, are not detailed here and deserve a separate narrative.

[2] The greater part of the operations described in this narrative took place before the standard names "Hamp," "Zeke," etc., had been adopted for reporting Japanese aircraft.

[3] On 17 August this field was unofficially designated Henderson Field after Marine Maj. Lofton Henderson. Construction begun by the Japanese was carried on by the Marine 1st Engineer Battalion until the arrival of the 6th Naval Seabee Battalion. In November 1942 Fighter #1, one mile east of Henderson, was rendered operational by the 6th Seabee Battalion and had been used in emergencies as early as October. Before the end of the year Fighter #2, west of Henderson, was also in operation.

Transcribed and formatted for HTML by Patrick Clancey, HyperWar Foundation