Occupation of the Russells Prior to the final advances on Guadalcanal, the Allied command in the South Pacific had been considering additional measures to counter the Japanese infiltration down the Solomon’s. The Americans wished to attack New Georgia but in January 1943 lacked the forces for so large an undertaking. The occupation of the Russell Islands, a small group lying about 35 miles northwest of Cape Esperance and about 125 miles southeast of the New Georgia group, seemed feasible. Possession of the Russells would deny them to the Japanese, who had been using the islands as a staging area for shipping troops to Guadalcanal. In addition, airfields could be built in the Russells which would shorten the airline distance from Henderson Field to Munda by about sixty-five miles, and motor torpedo boat and landing craft bases could also be established. The Russells would not only strengthen the defenses of Guadalcanal but would serve as a useful advanced base and staging area to support the invasion of New Georgia.
On 29 January Admiral Halsey received permission from Admiral Nimitz to proceed with the occupation. Halsey’s first plans for the attack called for an infiltration from Guadalcanal by one infantry battalion and antiaircraft units carried on two destroyer-transports. On 30 January, however, General Patch reported that four hundred Japanese were in the Russells. At that time the Americans were unaware that the Japanese were evacuating their troops from Guadalcanal, so could not know how the enemy would react to the loss of the island. South Pacific intelligence estimates in February assumed that between 33,000 and 41,000 enemy troops were stationed in the Solomon’s at Buka, Bougainville, the Shortlands, New Georgia, and Rekata Bay at Santa Isabel; 157 Japanese aircraft, besides 3 cruisers, 21 destroyers, and 9 submarines were supposed to be distributed throughout the area. In addition 15 warships and 30 noncombatant craft were estimated to be in the Bismarck waters. If the Japanese were determined to recapture Guadalcanal, they could be expected to react violently to the American occupation of the Russells. The Russells occupation force, it was decided, would have to be strong.
Admiral Halsey gave orders for the occupation of the Russells on 7 February. He directed that the landing force consist of two infantry regimental combat teams, one Marine raider battalion, antiaircraft detachments from a Marine defense battalion, and naval base and construction units. Admiral Turner was to command the operation. Once the amphibious phase had ended and a 60-day level of supply had been established, command of the occupation troops would pass to the commanding general of the XIV Corps on Guadalcanal, who would then assume responsibility for the supply of the islands. South Pacific land-based aircraft under Admiral Fitch would support Operation CLEANSLATE (the code name assigned) by covering the movement of the troops to the Russells and the landings there, and by executing long-range search and bombardment missions. South Pacific naval forces would also support and cover the invasion.
The CLEANSLATE Amphibious Force, under Turner, had no large warships, transports, or cargo ships. It consisted of four destroyers, four destroyer-transports, five high-speed minesweepers, twelve tank landing craft, a number of smaller landing craft, a 1,000-ton barge, and the Russells Occupation Force. The transports would be protected by eight motor torpedo boats, an integral part of the Amphibious Force, as well as by the South Pacific air and naval forces.
The Russells Occupation Force, commanded by Major General John H. Hester (Commanding General, 43rd Division), consisted of the 43rd Division, less the 172nd Regimental Combat Team which was then at Espiritu Santo. As Operation CLEANSLATE was to be mounted from Guadalcanal, seven ships moved the 103rd and 169th Regimental Combat teams and thirty days’ supply, five units of fire, and 40 percent of the division’s vehicles from Noumea to Koli Point. Four thousand men of the first echelon landed at Koli Point from three ships between 0900 and 1700 on 16 February. The second echelon, 4,500 men aboard four ships, was unsuccessfully attacked by Japanese bombers about 100 miles southeast of Guadalcanal on 17 February. It suffered no damage, and debarked at Koli Point the next day. The two combat teams thereupon sorted their supplies in preparation for loading the destroyers, minesweepers, destroyer-transports, and landing craft.
While the combat teams were moving to Guadalcanal, officers of the 43rd Division and Navy and Marine officers reconnoitered the Russells to determine whether the Japanese were there and to select landing beaches and sites for airfields and torpedo boat bases. They sailed from Guadalcanal on the New Zealand corvette Moa and went ashore in a landing boat at Renard Sound at Banika, the easternmost main island, after dark on 17 February. Natives assured them that the Japanese had evacuated. The next day the patrol examined the area around Paddy Bay at Pavuvu, the largest island, and returned to Guadalcanal on the night of 18-19 February.
The 43rd Division, which was to use two small echelons in the initial landings, continued its preparations at Koli Point. The first echelon consisted of division headquarters, the 1st and 2nd Battalion teams of the 103rd Regimental Combat Team, the 43rd Cavalry Reconnaissance Troop, the 3rd (Marine) Raider Battalion, a detachment of the 11th (Marine) Defense Battalion, and the 43rd Signal Company. It assembled on the beach on 19 and 20 February. At 0530 on 20 February loading of the LCT’s was begun, and by 1600, when the landing craft, destroyers, mine sweepers, and destroyer-transports were loaded with troops, supplies, weapons, and ammunition, the Amphibious Force was ready to sail.
CLEANSLATE was more a shore-to-shore than a ship-to-shore operation. The destroyers, mine sweepers, and destroyer-transports were loaded with men and materiel, but they also towed fully loaded landing craft. Ten of the ships towed one LCM (landing craft, mechanized), two LCP’s (landing craft, personnel) and one LCV (landing craft, vehicle) each; two ships towed two LCV’s and two LCP’s each, and one ship towed one LCV and one LCP. A tug towed the barge, and the LCT’s proceeded under their own power. The movement to the Russells was uneventful.
Early in the morning of 21 February, about ten miles east of the Russells, the Amphibious Force divided into three groups, each of which proceeded to a separate beach to land the troops in accordance with tactical plans previously prepared by Admiral Turner and General Hester. Plans for a preliminary bombardment by the destroyers, mine sweepers, and destroyer-transports had been prepared, but the absence of the Japanese made naval gunfire unnecessary. By 0530 all landing craft had cast their tows loose and were closing in toward the assigned beaches, and at 0600 the assault waves went ashore unopposed.
The plans were executed in accordance with the original schedules without hindrance from the Japanese. Headquarters and the 1st Battalion Team of the 103rd Regimental Combat Team, the 43rd Signal Company, the 11th Defense Battalion detachment, and 43rd Division headquarters landed at Yellow Beach at Wernham Cove at the southern end of Banika. The 2nd Battalion Team of the 103rd and the 43rd Cavalry Reconnaissance Troop landed on Blue Beach on the north and south coasts of Renard Sound on Banika.
The 3rd Raider Battalion landed from the destroyer-transports at Red Beach and Paddy Bay at Pavuvu. Patrols immediately pushed inland, but found no Japanese. The engineers patrolled to find drinking water, a more pressing problem than the enemy. By 1800 all elements of the landing force could communicate by telephone; wire crews had put a telephone line across Sunlight Channel to connect Banika with Pavuvu. By 1900 the troops had dug themselves into defense positions, and outposts and observation posts had been established.
Logistical operations at the beaches were progressing in a satisfactory manner. The invasion had been effected under radio silence; the enemy air and naval forces had not interfered, and the unloading had not been interrupted. The commanders had emphasized the necessity for unloading rapidly and moving the supplies inland to keep the beaches clear. About one-third of the landing force had been assigned to unload the ships and landing craft. Ship unloading details numbered eighty men per reinforced battalion; forty-five men were assigned to each LCT. The beach parties, besides naval elements, consisted of 200 soldiers or marines per reinforced battalion. By 1000 all craft except the barge had been unloaded and fifteen days’ supply of B rations, ten days’ supply of C rations, five days’ of D rations, five units of fire, and thirty days’ supply of gasoline had been landed. The ships and landing craft withdrew to Guadalcanal to embark the second echelon.
The destroyers, mine sweepers, destroyer-transports, and landing craft returned the next morning (22 February) to land the 169th Regimental Combat Team at Paddy Bay and Beach Yellow. Throughout the rest of February LCT’s transported the remainder of the 43rd Division (less the 172nd Regimental Combat Team) from Koli Point to the Russells. By the end of the month a force of 9,000 men had landed in the islands. By 16 March 15,669 troops of all services had reached the Russells. Beach and antiaircraft defenses, including long-range and fire-control radar, 155-mm. guns, 90-mm., 40-mm., and other antiaircraft guns had been established. The Japanese never attacked the Russells by sea, although they launched frequent air raids.
The first evidence that the Japanese were aware of the occupation was an air raid on 6 March. As the Russells had been under radio silence, radars had not alerted the islands, but the damage from the raid was slight. Thereafter the Japanese continued to bomb the Russells by day and night, but the radars alerted the troops in time, and fighters from Guadalcanal usually drove the enemy off until the airfields in the Russells were completed. By 16 April supplies had reached the prescribed levels—sixty days of most types, ten units of fire for field and seacoast artillery, and fifteen units for antiaircraft artillery—and the command of the Russells passed from Admiral Turner to the commanding general of the XIV Corps.
Construction of roads, airfields, and boat bases had begun in February, and by 15 April the first of the two airfields on Banika was ready for operation. Surfaced with rolled coral, it was then 2,300 yards long and 100 yards wide. The torpedo boat base at Wernham Cove had gone into operation on 25 February and by 15 February three landing craft bases were operating. The Allied base in the Russells was ready to support further advances northward.
Source: Guadalcanal: The First Offensive ; BY: John Miller, Jr. (United States Army Center of Military History)