World War Two: Bougainville (13); Exploiting the Beachhead

The ground troops at Cape Torokina could be expected to carry out their missions efficiently only if they were unhampered by Japanese aircraft and warships. Therefore the real battle for the beachhead was fought in the air and on the sea. The primary mission of South Pacific aircraft and warships during the first days of November was protection of the newly won beachhead. In this mission they fought hard and with excellent results.

Air and Surface Action, 1-11 November

When Admiral Omori led his task force out of Rabaul in late afternoon of 1 November, he had orders to escort Imamura’s troops and to attack Wilkinson’s transports in Empress Augusta Bay. But after joining with the troop-carrying destroyers in Saint George’s Channel between New Britain and New Ireland, Omori was sighted by a U.S. submarine. Further, an unidentified plane dropped a bomb near the light cruiser Sendai. The Japanese, sure that their intentions had been deduced, postponed the troop movement, but Omori was allowed to take his task force of two heavy and two light cruisers and six destroyers to Empress Augusta Bay with the intention of destroying the American transports and cargo ships which he thought would still be there.

 

Meanwhile, Admiral Merrill’s Task Force 39 had sailed to the vicinity of Vella Lavella after the two bombardments on 1 November. Four of his eight destroyers were refueling in the late afternoon of 1 November when General Twining’s reconnaissance planes spotted Omori and flashed a warning. Halsey ordered Merrill out to intercept Omori. Receiving continuous, accurate plots of Omori’s course and speed, Merrill set his course and speed so that his four light cruisers and eight destroyers would intercept west of Empress Augusta Bay.

 

At 0229, 2 November, a few miles from Cape Torokina, Task Force 39 made contact with Omori and attacked at once. In this engagement, the Battle of Empress Augusta Bay, Merrill sank one light cruiser and one destroyer; except for the destroyer Foote, which lost her stern to a Japanese torpedo, the American ships received light damage. The flashes from gunfire and explosions were visible to Commodore Reifsnider’s four cargo ships, which had put out to sea, and to the marines ashore. The engagement lasted until dawn, when Omori, tacitly acknowledging failure, took his surviving ships back to Rabaul.

 

Near as he was to Rabaul, Merrill expected to suffer air attack at dawn, and he was not wrong. When a Japanese patrol plane sighted him 18 dive bombers and 80 fighters promptly took off from Rabaul to the attack. Bad weather on the morning of 2 November had kept most of the Allied fighters on the New Georgia fields, but 8 F6F’s, 1 F4U, 3 P-38’s, and 4 New Zealand P-40’s, vectored by a destroyer still in Empress Augusta Bay, hurled themselves at part of the Japanese formation and shot down several planes.

 

The remaining enemy planes came upon Task Force 39 shortly before 0800 and promptly attacked. The task force maneuvered rapidly, sailing clockwise in a great circle and shooting 5-inch, 40mm.,20-mm., and even 6-inch guns at the diving Japanese with considerable success. The light cruiser Montpelier suffered two bomb hits which wounded several men, but the other ships went unscathed. The Japanese broke off the action, but on the way home lost more planes to Allied fighters. More planes from Rabaul would doubtless have come out after Merrill that day but for the Fifth Air Force’s raid on the airfields, which the Japanese carrier pilots contested so hotly.

 

Merrill’s ships, after two busy days that included two shore bombardments, the night action of Empress Augusta Bay, and the morning air attack, now escorted Reifsnider’s retiring cargo ships as far as Rendova, then steamed for Florida and concluded their eventful, successful cruise. On the other hand, the Japanese had lost two ships and numerous aircraft, and had not inflicted anything like equivalent damage to the Americans. But Admiral Koga had not given up. When he was informed of the landings at Empress Augusta Bay, he ordered Vice Admiral Takeo Kurita to take seven heavy cruisers, one light cruiser, four destroyers, and a fleet train from Truk to Rabaul. Kurita arrived safely on 4 November, although later ships were hit by Twining’s B-24’s.

 

This force of heavy cruisers at Rabaul posed a serious threat to the new beachhead at Empress Augusta Bay, and created, wrote Admiral Halsey, “the most desperate emergency that confronted me in my entire term as COMSOPAC.” He knew that he had to stop them, but he had only two naval task forces—Merrill’s, which was exhausted after its performance of 1-2 November, and Sherman’s carriers. Up to now carriers had been employed against land bases only in the most gingerly fashion. The South Pacific staff calculated that Sherman, from his refueling position near Rennell, could strike Kurita before Kurita would strike Empress Augusta Bay. So Halsey ordered Sherman to hit Rabaul. When he gave these orders the South Pacific commander expected the carrier air groups to be “cut to pieces” and the carriers “stricken.” I fully expected that they [Sherman’s carriers] would be lost.” “…but we could not let the men at Torokina be wiped out while we stood by and wrung our hands.” Halsey was never a man to stand idly by and wring his hands, or to allow anyone else that emotional luxury.

 

Halsey directed South Pacific land-based air (Task Force 33) to provide cover for Sherman during his daylight approach and retirement. This job was done by Navy fighters from New Georgia, which of course were capable of landing on carrier decks. Thus Sherman was able to send all his aircraft against Rabaul instead of keeping some of them overhead for protection.

 

Task Force 38 reached its launching point in the Solomon Sea 57 miles southwest of Torokina and 230 miles southeast of Rabaul at 0900, 5 November. The weather was fine for carrier operations; a steady breeze was blowing, and there were frequent rain squalls where the ships could hide in case of air attack. The two carriers sent out 97 planes: 23 torpedo bombers, 22 dive bombers, and 52 fighters. They arrived over Rabaul and dived through a hole in the clouds to take the Japanese by surprise. Though faced by intense antiaircraft fire they bored in with resounding success. They did not sink any ships, but damaged three heavy cruisers, two light cruisers, and two destroyers so severely that months passed before any of them were fit to fight again. This was done at a cost of fifteen men killed or missing, ten planes lost. Halsey’s gloomy expectations were not fulfilled.

 

Twenty-seven B-24’s and fifty-eight P-38’s from the Fifth Air Force reached Rabaul in the afternoon. As practically all the Japanese planes were out after Task Force 38, Kenney’s men bombed the wharves. The Japanese failed to find Sherman, but they attacked an LCI, an LCT, and a PT boat near the southern arm of Empress Augusta Bay, and claimed a tremendous but nonexistent victory.

Sherman’s victory, on the other hand, was real. Next day Koga decided to pull his heavy cruisers back to Truk, and the threat to Cape Torokina was ended. Thereafter no more heavy Japanese ships went to Rabaul.

 

Meanwhile Kusaka’s 11th Air Fleet and the carrier planes, besides attacking Merrill and Sherman, had been striking day and night against Cape Torokina, hammering at reinforcement convoys, and fighting almost constantly with Allied fighter planes. They damaged three ships and sank one, but kept losing planes to ship- and shore-based antiaircraft guns and to Twining’s fighters.

 

Air Command, Solomon’s, made a maximum effort to keep the enemy’s Bougainville bases out of action and to keep the Rabaul-based planes away from Cape Torokina and the reinforcement convoys. For example, on 10 November there were 712 take-offs and landings at Munda airfield alone.

 

Rabaul was still a primary target for General Kenney. The weather prevented an attack on 6 November, but 10 November saw a heavy attack, and next day RAAF Beauforts and Fifth Air Force planes struck in the morning before heavy clouds piled up over Rabaul.

 

The additional carrier task group of the Fifth Fleet that Admiral Nimitz had promised to Halsey reached the South Pacific on 7 November. Commanded by Rear Admiral Alfred L. Montgomery, it consisted of the carriers Essex, Bunker Hill, and Independence. Halsey planned to use Montgomery’s ships as well as Task Force 38 in a double carrier strike against Rabaul on 11 November.

 

 Sherman sailed to a point in the Pacific Ocean near Green Island, north-northwest of Bougainville, and launched planes. They reached Rabaul in bad weather about 0830, struck at ships, and returned to the carriers, which retired southward without being detected.

 

Montgomery launched his strike from a point in the Solomon Sea about 160 miles southeast of Rabaul. His planes hit at ships too, then returned to their mother carriers. The Japanese found Montgomery and delivered a series of furious though unsuccessful air attacks which inflicted only slight damage. They lost thirty-five planes to ships’ antiaircraft guns and to Allied fighters from New Georgia.

In eleven days of the RO operations against the Allied lines of communication and the Torokina beachhead, the Japanese pilots had reported enormous damage to Allied ships and planes, whereas in reality they had accomplished very little and had suffered the real damage themselves. Koga had sent 173 planes and 192 men down from Truk, and by the end of 11 November 121 planes had been destroyed and 86 of the men were dead. The 11th Air Fleet had lost about 70 planes. These losses “…had put the carrier air force in a position where further combat would rob it of even a skeleton force around which to rebuild….” Koga may have believed his pilots’ claims, but he also recognized the significance of his own losses. On 12 November he withdrew the carrier planes to Truk. The withdrawal, first of the cruisers and then of the planes, ended Rabaul’s offensive threat. Thereafter it was a formidable defense position only, and after Armistice Day Southwest Pacific planes were able to cease their attacks against it and concentrate against enemy bases to the west.

 

[N13-7: The Japanese reported sinking 5 battleships, 10 aircraft carriers, 19 cruisers, 7 destroyers, and 9 transports between 27 October and 10 December.]

The damage that Sherman’s pilots inflicted on the heavy cruisers and Koga’s losses in carrier planes had repercussions that were felt far beyond Empress Augusta Bay. Koga had planned to use the Combined Fleet to seek out and destroy the U.S. Pacific Fleet if the Americans invaded the Gilberts or Marshalls, but when Admiral Nimitz’ forces moved into the Gilberts on 21 November 1943, Koga did not stir out of Truk; the cruiser damage and aircraft losses had completely immobilized the Combined Fleet. This series of events, wherein the Japanese shifted forces back and forth to meet Allied threats from different parts of the Pacific, and lost as a result, was an advantage the Joint Chiefs of Staff had in mind when they ordered two advances rather than one. The series illustrates also the strategic importance of Rabaul, and the advantages that their interior lines gave to the Japanese.

 

Operations Ashore

Now landed and completely protected from Japanese surface attack, although subject to frequent air raids by day and by night, the 3rd Marine Division was hampered as much by terrain as by the enemy. The swamps and dense forest slowed the movement of supplies and the building of roads and airfields. During their first five days on shore the marines patrolled, established antiaircraft and beach defenses, and extended the perimeter two thousand yards inland. Seventy-eight marines were killed or missing, 104 wounded.

 

More Troops

 The first reinforcements, one battalion of the 21st Marine Regiment, arrived on eight LST’s and eight APD’s on 6 November. Escorted by six destroyers and covered by Task Force 39, these ships had sailed from Purvis Bay two days before. Japanese aircraft harried them during the night of 5-6 November but did no damage.

 

For speedy unloading, the LST cargoes had been packed on trailers at Purvis Bay. But Cape Torokina did not boast very many beaches suitable for the LST’s (which in the South Pacific almost never carried tanks). One beach at Puruata Island had room for three LST’s, but using this meant unloading gear at Puruata and then transshipping it to the mainland. At the beaches east of Cape Torokina the LST’s grounded offshore. Seabees improvised coconut log runways, which failed to stand up under the strain. The eventual answer to the problem lay in steel pontons.

 

On 8 November substantial reinforcements came in, some aboard six of the ships that had made the initial invasion and then returned to Guadalcanal to pick up the 148th Regimental Combat Team of the 37th Division. Japanese aircraft made the day exciting as the soldiers unloaded and went ashore. Over a hundred planes attacked at noon. Twenty-eight Allied fighters from New Georgia kept many of them off, but some got through and damaged the President Jackson. Once ashore, the 148th relieved the 3rd Marines on the left flank, and the marine regiment was assigned a position in the middle of the inland side of the perimeter defense.

 

General Geiger, having flown out from Washington and relieved General Vandegrift as corps commander, arrived at Bougainville on the 9th. On 13 November Admiral Wilkinson relinquished his control and Geiger became directly responsible to Halsey. The amphibious commander retained responsibility for the transport of troops and supplies to the beachhead.

 

Other reinforcements from the 37th and 3rd Marine Divisions came in promptly. The 129th Regimental Combat Team landed on 13 November, and was followed six days later by the 145th.

 

Except for miscellaneous units and detachments, this completed the movement of General Beightler’s veteran division to the beachhead. The remaining units of the 21st Marines arrived on 11 and 17 November. During the latter shipment the APD McKean was fatally torpedoed by a Japanese plane. Thus by the end of the third week in November there were two full divisions at Empress Augusta Bay, plus substantial bodies of corps troops, naval construction battalions, and naval base forces. The I Marine Amphibious Corps held a perimeter about sixteen thousand yards in circumference, including seven thousand yards along the beach. The 37th Division held the left, the 3rd Marine Division the right. This perimeter was not attained without fighting, but the 37th Division was fortunate in that, except for patrol clashes, all the fighting occurred in the 3rd Marine Division’s zone.

 

 Expansion of the Perimeter

Even after 1 November Japanese Army commanders continued to cherish the delusion that the main effort was yet to come, and that southern Bougainville or Buka was the real target. However, on orders from Imamura to destroy the wide, shallow Allied beachhead at Cape Torokina, Hyakutake dispatched the two battalions of the 23rd Infantry from the Buin area to the cape. Under command of Major General Shun Iwasa, infantry group commander of the 6th Division, the 23rd was to operate in conjunction with the 17th Division troops whose transfer from Rabaul, first planned for 1 November, had been postponed. Aboard four destroyers, 475 men of this group finally got under way for Torokina on 6 November; 700 others sailed for Buka. The 17th Division troops were to cover the movement of the 23rd Infantry by landing north of the cape near the Americans’ left and creating a diversion. They would then move inland and join with the 23rd. Iwasa was to advance down a trail with the combined force and attack the beachhead.

 

The troop-carrying destroyers hove to off the beach between the Laruma and Koromokina Rivers in the predawn darkness on the morning of 7 November. Between 0400 and 0600, the 475 soldiers slipped ashore in twenty-one landing craft under the very noses of the American defenders. Patrolling PT boats missed the destroyers, and an antitank platoon on shore saw the landing craft but thought they were American. The enemy soldiers landed so close to the American lines that they actually cut off several marines in an outpost, who were later rescued by two LCM’s.

 

The Japanese attacked at once in the vicinity of a lagoon about fourteen hundred yards west of the Koromokina River. The sector was defended by troops of the 3rd Marines who had just exchanged positions with the 9th Marines. General Turnage had ordered the transfer because the 3rd had seen all the fighting on D Day, the 9th (which landed on the left) none, and there seemed to be no immediate prospect of fighting on the left. The enemy made some small local gains by infiltrating. The fighting, with rifles, machine guns, mortars, and grenades, was close work, but the marine lines held.

 

Next morning five field artillery batteries, plus mortars, antitank guns, and machine guns, fired a twenty-minute preparation into the Japanese position. Then the newly arrived 1st Battalion, 21st Marines, supported by light tanks, assaulted. It met only light opposition; the artillery preparation had come close to achieving perfection. Instead of engaging in a fierce fight, the 1st Battalion walked, cautiously but steadily, through the jungle. It found, in the small area where the Japanese had packed themselves, about three hundred men killed almost instantaneously, their dead bodies lying beside their smashed weapons. In this action at Koromokina Lagoon the marines suffered sixteen men killed, thirty wounded.

 

Meanwhile the 23rd Infantry had moved into position inland and had already begun attacking the trail blocks the marines had set up. Control of the trail system inland was of great importance to the security of the beachhead. It was clear that unless the Japanese had enough strength to deliver a major attack from the sea (and Admiral Sherman had settled that question on 5 November) any Counteroffensives would be delivered along the axes of the trails.

 

There were two important tracks at Cape Torokina, East-West Trail and the Numa Numa Trail. The latter ran from the shore near the mouth of the Piva River northward through the mountains to Numa Numa on the east coast. East-West Trail intersected the Numa Numa Trail about five thousand yards inland (north) of the Piva’s mouth. It led eastward, then north through the mountains to Roravana Bay and intersected the several trails leading to Buin. A local track, Mission Trail, ran from a point about two thousand yards north of the Piva mouth southwestward to the Roman Catholic mission station at Buretoni just northwest of Torokina.

 

On 5 November the 23rd Infantry attacked a block on Mission Trail that was held by the 3rd Raider Battalion. After the raider battalion beat off the 23rd; it and later the 3rd Battalion, 9th Marines, counterattacked up Mission Trail and by Armistice Day had advanced to the junction of Mission and Numa Numa Trails. Losing 19 killed and 32 wounded, the marines estimated that they had accounted for 550 of the enemy.

 

Two days later the 21st Marines continued the fight, this time not only to keep control of the trails but also to secure an airfield site. Since landing the I Marine Amphibious Corps had also been hard at work pushing supply routes through the swamps, an extremely difficult and time-consuming task. At the same time patrols had found a good airfield site in a coconut grove by the right (west) bank of the Piva River near the junction of the Numa Numa and East-West Trails. This was some distance from the 3rd Division’s front, and the difficulties of pushing supplies so far prevented an immediate forward displacement of the 3rd Division to include the site. Generals Geiger and Turnage therefore decided to establish a self-sustaining outpost at the trail junction in order to hold the airfield site. On 13 and 14 November troops of the 21st Marines, fighting hard against Japanese in prepared positions, made their way through the coconut grove and by 1600 of 14 November had seized the trail junction.

 

Because the building of roads and trails inside the beachhead eased the logistical situation, Geiger decided to move his whole front forward in the latter part of November. The 3rd Division would advance on the east (right), the 37th Division on the west. Five artillery battalions, operating under the 37th Division artillery commander, Brigadier General Leo N. Kreber, would provide support, as would the Aircraft, Northern Solomon’s, under Brigadier General Field Harris, USMC. The 37th Division met no fighting in its advance but the 3rd Marine Division continued to meet opposition from the 23rd Infantry along the trails, especially on the Numa Numa Trail north of the airfield site and in the region northeast of that site where the East-West Trail crossed several tributary forks of the Piva River.

 

Here, between 20 and 24 November, the Japanese resisted vigorously but vainly. By 26 November the 3rd Marine Division, maintaining contact on the left with the 37th Division, had extended its lines as far north as the south shore of Lake Kathleen, about 7,500 yards north of the Piva’s mouth. In the fighting in the Piva forks the 3rd Marines took the first high ground in the beachhead. Along the shore line the I Corps held the beach from a point 6,000 yards northwest of Cape Torokina to a point 3,500 east of the cape. The inland lines of the perimeter were about 19,500 yards long.

 

During November the Japanese Army commanders still refused to believe that Halsey had made his main effort at Empress Augusta Bay and therefore undertook no counterattacks on a scale large enough to be effective. But Rabaul-based aircraft continued to raid the beachhead.

 

Both division command posts were hit, as were several fuel and ammunition dumps, which blew skyward in impressive and expensive displays. On a few occasions the enemy planes swooped down suddenly over the mountains during daylight and caught the beachhead by surprise (the mountains blocked the radar beams), but most of the bombings were nocturnal, and the Japanese simplified the radar operators’ problems by attacking from seaward where they were easy to locate in time for warning to be given and the antiaircraft guns to go into action. Puruata Island, with phosphorescent water outlining it clearly, was a favorite and profitable target, since it was nearly always packed with supplies awaiting transshipment to the mainland.

 

These attacks did not jeopardize the security of the beachhead but they were a costly nuisance. Of ninety air alerts in November, twenty-two resulted in bombings and strafing’s that killed twenty-four men and wounded ninety-six. In addition to the antiaircraft guns a few PV-1 night fighters from New Georgia defended against Kusaka’s fliers. Though their losses were lighter than in daylight attacks, the Japanese lost several planes to the night fighters and the antiaircraft batteries.

 

[N13-11: In the early hours of 20 November a Japanese plane scored a direct hit on one of the 90-mm. guns of F Battery, 3rd Defense Battalion, on Puruata that killed five and wounded eight of the crew as well as knocking the gun out of commission and blowing up a fuel dump.]

 

So sure were the Japanese that Buka was an ultimate target that they continued to send reinforcements there. Late in November 920 soldiers on board three destroyers with two more escorting attempted to get to Buka. They were intercepted in the Solomon Sea during the night of 25 November by Captain Burke’s destroyer squadron, which chased them from near Buka almost to Cape Saint George, the southern tip of New Ireland. Burke’s ships sank three destroyers without receiving as much as one hit themselves. This action, the Battle of Cape Saint George, was the last of the night surface engagements which had characterized the Solomon’s campaigns since the one off Savo Island on 8 August 1942.

 

In November and December at Empress Augusta Bay the indefatigable Japanese had begun to emplace artillery of calibers as high as 150-mm. on the high ground around the beachhead, especially in a group of hills that lay east of the Numa Numa-East-West Trails’ junction and paralleled the west bank of the Torokina River. With these guns they shelled the beachhead, especially the airstrips and the supply dumps. The 3rd Marine Division reacted by extending its lines to include the hills in a series of operations that lasted from 9 December through 27 December. One eminence, Hellzapoppin Ridge, was a natural fortress three hundred feet long, with sharp slopes and a narrow crest. It overlooked much of the beachhead and was an excellent site for artillery. Here the Japanese had constructed extensive positions on the reverse slopes using natural and artificial camouflage. The 21st Marines attacked Hellzapoppin Ridge but were driven off on 18 December.

 

Several air strikes missed the narrow ridge completely. Finally, co-ordinated air (TBF’s dropped 100-pound bombs with delay fuzes), artillery, and infantry attacks resulted in the capture of Hellzapoppin on Christmas Day. In the air strikes success was finally attained by marking the American front lines with colored smoke and designating the enemy targets with white phosphorus.

 

By 15 December the Americans held their final defensive line, a perimeter defense that extended on its inland side for about 22,500 yards. Over 44,000 men were present. Construction of the defense perimeter had begun in some sectors on 25 November, and by 15 December the work was complete. The line consisted of two-man foxholes, trenches, emplacements for automatic weapons, mortars, antitank guns, and artillery, with alternate positions for all weapons. Fields of fire were cleared for 100 yards in front of the lines but all possible foliage was left in place overhead. The field artillery, grouped under command of General Kreber, was sited to fire in support of any threatened sector, and all weapons were registered and adjusted for every possible avenue of approach. All trails were blocked, and the approaches to the swamps were mined. Whenever possible machine guns were posted in commanding positions on high ground.

 

The 4.2-inch chemical mortars were so sited and adjusted that they could place their fire directly in front of the infantry. The whole front was wired in behind two rows of either double-apron or concertina barbed wire, and the wire was full of trip wires and of cans hung up to rattle when an enemy approached the wire. Several antiaircraft searchlights were set up to illuminate the front at night, either directly or by throwing up widely spread beams that would be reflected down from the clouds. The defenses were formidable, and it would be some time before the Japanese got around to testing them thoroughly. Meanwhile life inside the perimeter promised to be relatively agreeable.

 

The XIV Corps Takes Over

The 3rd Marine Division had borne the brunt of operations thus far, but it was not to be allowed to settle down in comfort behind its defenses. Admiral Halsey had other plans. The Americal and 40th Divisions had at first been scheduled for the projected assault against Kavieng, but Halsey now wanted the I Marine Amphibious Corps, consisting of the 3rd Marine Division and the 40th Infantry Division, to conduct the operation. He proposed sending General Griswold’s XIV Corps headquarters to Bougainville to relieve General Geiger’s headquarters, and transferring the Americal Division from the Fijis to relieve the 3rd Marine Division. [The 40th was then in Hawaii due for shipment to the South Pacific.] When Halsey first announced his plan on 2 November General Harmon opposed it, but Halsey overrode his objections.

 

Thus on 15 December General Griswold relieved General Geiger of command of all Allied air, surface, and ground forces based at Empress Augusta Bay and in the Treasuries. Admiral Halsey also made Harmon his informal deputy for supervising operations of the XIV Corps. On Christmas Day came the first troops of the Americal Division, the 164th Regimental Combat Team. Bidden farewell by one of the area’s frequent earthquakes, the battle-weary 3rd Marines departed on the ships that had carried the 164th. On 28 December General Hodge arrived and took over command of the eastern sector from Turnage, and the 182nd Regimental Combat Team prepared to take over from the 21st Marines. The 132nd Regimental Combat Team took over its part of the line on 9 February, and five days later the Americal’s field artillery battalions, the 221st, 245th, 246th, and 247th, began relieving the 3rd Division’s artillery regiment, the 12th Marines. The 3rd Defense Battalion and several Marine air squadrons remained at Empress Augusta Bay.

[Total casualties for the I Marine Amphibious Corps to 15 December were:

1. Empress Augusta Bay, 293 killed, 1,071 wounded, 95 missing, and 1,161 sick and evacuated. (The relatively large figure for missing was due to the McKean’s sinking and the loss of many of her passengers.)

2. Treasuries, 53 killed, 174 wounded, and 1 missing.

3. Choiseul, 7 killed, 14 wounded, 4 missing. In addition I Marine Amphibious Corps lost several men at the base depot in Vella Lavella to aerial bombardment. Of the total casualties, the 3rd Marine Division lost the most—186 killed, 624 wounded. The 37th Division suffered 10 wounded during the period. All these figures are taken from a casualty report in I Marine Amphibious Corps’ report, Phase III. The 3rd Marine Division reported that it had counted 2,100 dead Japanese.]

 

With the Japanese quiescent in December except for intermittent air attacks at night, the immediate problems facing Griswold were logistical rather than tactical. The road net had to be finished; a good road net would support of infantry troops, only improve the supply situation but would give Griswold all the benefits of interior lines if and when the Japanese attacked in strength.

 

The inland airfields had to be completed, beach congestion ended, more dumps and depots established. General Griswold stated the problem thus: Puruata Island was so heavily loaded down it was about to sink. All beaches were congested. No long range supply road system had been planned. Long hand carry was the rule, particularly in the Marine Division sector (later the Americal) for the front line troops. Forward ration dumps, ammunition and bomb dumps, gasoline dumps, hospital areas and bomb shelters for the same, beach developments, interior supply roads, the Service Command area itself, a central cemetery, refrigeration, sawmills, drainage ditches, and a myriad of other things were non-existent, and not even visualized. Space for all these things had to be carved out of the virgin jungle.

 

Griswold, characterized by Halsey as “a farsighted and capable planner,” set to work with his staff.16 Harmon’s headquarters contributed greatly to the solution of the logistical problems by activating, in New Caledonia on 15 December, a Provisional Service Command for Bougainville. This organization, specifically tailored for the particular mission of supporting the XIV Corps, began its operations on Bougainville on 6 January 1944. By 31 January its strength was slightly more than two thousand men.

 

Logistical development under Griswold was extensive and orderly. By now the swamp had been drained. Malaria was kept rigidly under control. The volcanic ash of the region made adequate roads, but the heavy rainstorms that fell almost daily tended to wash them away. Road maintenance was therefore one of the most difficult logistic problems. By 1 March forty-three miles of two-way and thirty-six miles of one-way roads had been built. The troops also cleared several acres for gardens. The hot sun and frequent rains gave them fair returns, and fresh vegetables, normally a rarity in that part of the world, improved the otherwise almost unvarying diet of C and K rations and dehydrated foods.

 

Green vegetables grew fairly well, but tomatoes and corn did not. There were frequent distributions of books, movies, performances by motion picture and radio personalities, sports, and occasionally beer and soft drinks. Empress Augusta Bay was about as pleasant a beachhead as one could hope for.

During the first two and a half months following Griswold’s assumption of command there was no heavy fighting. There were not enough troops to hold all the high ground inland, but combat and reconnaissance patrols went out to the east, the north, and the west to keep tab on all the possible routes of Japanese approach. Airplanes also reconnoitered trails, and PT boats, water routes.

 

One of the outstanding patrols was conducted by the 1st Battalion of the Fiji Infantry Regiment, which arrived in late December. This battalion, composed of 34 officers (some white, some Fijian) and 777 enlisted Fijians, was at first commanded by Lieutenant Colonel J. B. K. Taylor of New Zealand. But Taylor was wounded his first night ashore and was replaced by Major Geoffrey T. Upton, also of New Zealand.18 A detachment of the Fiji battalion left the beachhead on 28 December and walked through the mountains over the Numa Numa Trail to the village of Ibu, east of the mountains, where they set up an outpost on 30 December. From Ibu these natural jungle fighters kept watch over enemy movements on the east coast so that no Japanese could advance unsuspected along the Numa Numa Trail. They reported to corps headquarters by radio and were supplied by air drops from C-47’s. They also hacked an airstrip suitable for L-4 planes (Piper Cubs) on the 1,700-foot-high shelf that Ibu rests on.

 

But during December 1943 all ground operations were of minor importance when compared with the air operations against Rabaul that were conducted by South Pacific aircraft.

 

December Attacks Against Rabaul

Eight Seabee battalions and one New Zealand engineer brigade had begun work on a fighter strip at Cape Torokina promptly after D Day. Because the area was one of the few relatively dry patches of ground at Empress Augusta Bay, there was some competition among other units to occupy it, but the squatters were evicted and the builders were able to work unimpeded.19 The strip was ready for operations on 9 December, and the next day seventeen F4U’s of Marine Fighting Squadron 216 (I Marine Aircraft Wing) flew in and set up at their new base.

 

Starting in mid-November B-24’s of the Thirteenth Air Force had begun bombing Rabaul every few days, but now, with its new forward fighter fields at Torokina and in the Treasuries, Air Command, Solomon’s, was ready to start an intensive series of operations with the purpose of completely neutralizing Rabaul.

 The Solomon’s air command now had a new commander. Major General Ralph J. Mitchell of the Marine Corps relieved General Twining on 20 November. Twining returned to the United States, then went to Italy where he commanded the Fifteenth Air Force.20 The strength of General Mitchell’s command was formidable, even after the intensive operations of October and November. He had, in operating condition on 17 December, 199 fighters, 200 light and medium bombers, and 99 heavy bombers, or about twice what the Japanese had in the entire Southeast Area.

 

The first time the Torokina field was used against Rabaul was 17 December, when fighters from New Georgia staged through it on a 76-plane sweep. From then on it was almost continuously in use. For the rest of December, except when the weather was too bad for flying, Mitchell continued the attacks, varying fighter sweeps with fighter-escorted raids by B-24’s.

 

[n13-21: Total strength of Mitchell’s command, including nonoperational planes, was 268 fighters, 252 light and medium bombers, and 111 heavy bombers.]

 

[N13-22: On Christmas Day Halsey sent a carrier raid against Kavieng. He ordered a surface bombardment of Buka in order to lure out enemy aircraft, whereupon Admiral Sherman’s two carriers (Bunker Hill and Monterey) struck Kavieng soon after sunrise. But Sherman’s pilots found few targets.]

 

 But Mitchell’s heavy bomber pilots, like Kenney’s, were unable to knock out Rabaul, and toward the end of the year the Japanese sent in more planes. Medium, dive, and torpedo bombers would have to be used, and their employment would have to await completion of the strips near the Piva River. The first of these, termed Piva U or Piva Uncle, was started on 29 November and completed on 30 December. The second, Piva Yoke, was ready on 9 January 1944.

 

It was clear that the reduction of Rabaul would not occur until 1944. Kenney’s and Mitchell’s attacks in 1943, however, were quite effective, if not completely successful. They caused enough damage to make the Japanese garrison start wholesale excavation in November in an effort to put everything possible under ground and so escape complete destruction.

 

Meanwhile, under partial cover of the invasion of Bougainville and Mitchell’s attacks on Rabaul, General MacArthur’s forces had crossed Vitiaz and Dampier Straits to invade New Britain.

SOURCE: Cartwheel: Reduction of Rabaul; By John Miller Jr. (United States Army Center of Military History)

World War Two: Admiralties (14); Crossing the Straits

World War Two: Bougainville Counterattack (17)

World War Two: Bougainville (12); Invasion

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