By March 1944 the Japanese were clearly beaten in the Southeast Area. With air and naval strength gone, the ground troops were stranded, immobilized, incapable of affecting the course of the war. Only at Rabaul were the Japanese strong, and that strength could not be employed unless the Allies chose to attack. But among the characteristics that made the Japanese a formidable opponent was his refusal to accept defeat even in a hopeless situation. If beaten, he knew it not. Thus it was that Generals Imamura and Hyakutake designed the destruction, in March, of the XIV Corps at Empress Augusta Bay, Bougainville.
Preparations : The Approach
When in late 1943 the Japanese commanders had finally concluded that the invasion of Empress Augusta Bay was actually the Allied main effort at Bougainville, they began making plans for their counterattack. Unfortunately for him, Hyakutake’s intelligence estimate was as inaccurate as most other Japanese estimates during World War II. He placed Allied strength at Empress Augusta Bay at about 30,000 of whom 10,000 were supposed to be aircraft ground crews. His figure for General Griswold’s total strength was too low by half. Against the XIV Corps he planned to use the main strength of the 17th Army, which consisted principally of General Kanda’s 6th Division and several battalions of the 17th Division that Imamura had sent down in November. Total Japanese strength involved is variously reported as 15,000 to 19,000 men.
[N17-2: ACofS G-2 XIV Corps, History of the “TA” Operation, a careful, conservative study written after the counteroffensive from prisoner-of-war interrogations, captured documents, and G-2 periodic reports and summaries, gives 15,400 men as the total. In 1949 General Kanda, speaking from memory, said there were 19,000 men involved plus about 2,000 sailors. He may have included all troops in rear areas in his figure. ]
During the early part of 1944 Japanese engineers built or improved roads, trails, and bridges so that the 17thArmy could move from north and south Bougainville to assembly areas in the hills inland from the XIV Corps’ perimeter. By mid-February the enemy soldiers were all on their way, and Hyakutake left Erventa to supervise the action himself.
The Japanese had hoped to launch an amphibious assault against the Americans, coupled with an attack from inland. A shortage of landing craft made the amphibious assault impossible, but barges, operating on moonless nights to avoid Allied aircraft and PT boats, transported heavy equipment, including artillery, to a point east of Cape Torokina from where it was laboriously hauled inland to the hills. Packhorses and trucks carried supplies part of the way on the overland routes.
The infantry regiments of the 6th Division advanced along both coasts, the 13th and 23rd Infantry Regiments on the west, the 45th Infantry up the east coast to Numa Numa, thence southwest by the Numa Numa Trail. The 17thDivision battalions also marched along both coasts from their positions in the north.
Such a move could hardly go unnoticed. Coast-watchers , radio intercepts, long- and short-range ground patrols, interrogation of prisoners and even of a few deserters, Japanese activity near the Fiji outpost at Ibu, interpretation of aerial photographs, and air and naval searches told General Griswold that the Japanese were on the move all over the island, and that attack was imminent. Allied planes regularly bombed all suspected troop movements, bridges, and assembly areas. When the Japanese launched strong attacks at Ibu in mid-February, the corps commander ordered the Fijians back to the perimeter. Four hundred and fifty Fiji soldiers and two hundred Bougainville natives made their way to Cape Torokina. Two Fijians were slightly wounded during the withdrawal.
Patrol clashes and fire fights in the hills north and northeast of the XIV Corps’ perimeter indicated that the Japanese were concentrating there. Further, Japanese carelessness in safeguarding important documents played into General Griswold’s hands. Papers taken from enemy corpses gave him a precise idea of Hyakutake’s plan of attack, told him exactly which Japanese units were about to attack him, and gave him the general location of the enemy artillery units. Information about the attack was posted on the American units’ bulletin boards.
XIV Corps’ Defenses
At the beginning of March the XIV Corps’ perimeter was somewhat larger than it had been when Griswold took over. It included, in a horseshoe-shaped line on the inland side, some 23,000 yards of low hills and jungle. The beach frontage totaled 11,000 yards. Depth of the position was about 8,000 yards. The main ground combat elements of the corps were the Americal and 37th Divisions, which numbered about 27,000 men. Altogether, 62,000 men, including naval units, were attached or assigned to the XIV Corps.
All the infantry regiments were placed on the front lines. A total of twelve rifle battalions held frontages varying from 2,000 to 2,400 yards. Usually each regiment held one battalion in reserve. The 37th Division defended the left (northwest) sector from a point on the beach 5,500 yards northwest of Cape Torokina to the area of Hill 700, about 2,000 yards east of Lake Kathleen. The 148th Infantry, on the division left, and the 129th Infantry, in the center, held low ground. The 145th Infantry, on the right, held Hill 700, the highest ground possessed by the Americans. The Americal Division’s line ran from just east of Hill 700, where the 164th Infantry’s left flank tied in with the 145th’s right, over Hills 608, 309, and 270, then along the west bank of the Torokina River. Near its mouth the line crossed over to the east bank.
The 182nd Infantry, in the division’s center, held Hills 309 and 270 on the main perimeter line. The 132nd Infantry on the right held low ground. In addition a detachment of the 182nd Infantry, plus artillery and mortar observers, maintained an outpost on Hill 260, an eminence which was some distance east of the main line of resistance and overlooked the Torokina River. Griswold had ordered this hill held so that it could be used as an American artillery and mortar observation post, and so that the enemy could not use it to observe American positions.
[N17-3: The 132nd Infantry, Americal Division, had seized this area in an action in January wherein Staff Sergeant Jessie R. Drowley fought so valiantly that he was awarded the Medal of Honor. WD GO 73, 6 Sep 44.]
All units had been developing and strengthening positions on the main line of resistance, which now consisted of rifle pits and earth, log, and sandbag pillboxes, wired in behind double-apron or concertina barbed wire. In front of the wire were minefields. Various devices were employed to give illumination at night: searchlights, either shining directly or reflecting a spread beam off clouds; flares tied in trees and set off by pull wires; flashlights; thermite grenades; and cans full of sand and gasoline. Grenades, with wires attached, were set up as booby traps along obvious approach routes. Oil drums, each with scrap metal packed around a bangalore torpedo, were wired for electrical detonation. Fields of fire fifty yards or more deep, deep enough to prevent the enemy from throwing hand grenades at the American positions from cover and concealment, had been cleared.
Almost all the infantry regiments possessed extra machine guns, and had issued two BAR’s to each rifle squad. All regiments had constructed reserve positions. The naval construction battalions, the 3rd Marine Defense Battalion, Army engineer units, and others maintained provisional infantry units as part of the corps reserve, which also included the 82nd Chemical Battalion, the 754th Tank Battalion, and the 1st Battalion, 24th Infantry. [This unit had served on Bougainville since 30 January, chiefly as a labor battalion. See Ulysses G. Lee, Employment of Negro Troops, a volume in preparation for the series UNITED STATES ARMY IN WORLD WAR II. ]
Artillery support for the perimeter, though below American standards, was stronger than the enemy’s supporting artillery. The XIV Corps still had neither organic artillery nor an artillery commander. Serving as corps artillery commander was General Kreber, artillery commander of the 37th Division. Under General Kreber’s command were the eight (six 105-mm. and two 155-mm.) howitzer battalions organic to the two divisions, plus the provisional corps artillery. This consisted of two 155-mm. gun batteries of the 3rd Marine Defense Battalion; four 90-mm. antiaircraft batteries of the 251st Antiaircraft Artillery Regiment; and four 90-mm. antiaircraft batteries of the 3rd Marine Defense Battalion, of which one, D Battery, 70th Coast Artillery (Antiaircraft) Battalion, was attached from the Army. Gun power of the XIV Corps units was augmented on 3 March when six cannon companies, with 75-mm. pack howitzers, reached Bougainville and joined the infantry regiments.
The XIV Corps’ positions were strong, and since he possessed interior lines General Griswold could easily switch his reserve units back and forth. But the positions were not ideal. The corps lacked enough men, by American standards, to hold all the high ground in the vicinity. Beyond the coastal plain the ground rises abruptly from ridge to ridge, each higher than the preceding one, up to the summits of the Crown Prince Range. Thus the Americans on Hills 608 and 700 held positions that were dominated by the higher ground in Japanese hands—Blue Ridge, three thousand yards north of Hill 700, and Hills 1000 and 1111, just southeast of Blue Ridge. These hills gave the enemy an excellent view over all the perimeter except the reverse slopes of the American-held hills. By 1 March, however, General Griswold was sure that “the perimeter was as well organized as the personnel and the terrain would permit.”
The Japanese Plan of Attack
General Hyakutake organized most of his infantry into three forces, each named for its commander. The Iwasa Unit, under General Iwasa, consisted of the 2nd Battalion, 13th Infantry; the 23rd Infantry; and two batteries of field artillery, some mortars, and engineers and other supporting troops. The Magata Unit, led by Colonel Isaoshi Magata of the 45th Infantry, whom Kanda considered to be a crack regimental commander, included nearly all the 45th Infantry plus mortars, field artillery, and engineers.
The third unit, under Colonel Toyoharei Muda, who had succeeded the late Tomonari in command of the 13th Infantry, consisted of the remainder of the 13th plus engineers. Supporting the attacks of the three infantry units was an artillery group commanded by a Colonel Saito. This consisted of four 150-mm. howitzers, two 105-mm. howitzers, and a number of smaller pieces.[N17-6 ] Artillery ammunition supply totaled three hundred rounds per piece, of which one fifth was to be used for direct support of the infantry, the rest for interdicting the airfields.
[N17-6 General Kanda specified 18 70-mm. battalion guns; ACofS G-2 XIV Corps, History of the “TA” Operation lists 168 75-mm. mountain guns. The Japanese 105 is often called a 10-cm. piece.]
Also present were elements of the 1st and 3rd Battalions, 53rd Infantry, and part of the 81st Infantry, all from the 17th Division. At first these were either placed in 17th Army reserve or were assigned diversionary missions against the northwest part of the XIV Corps’ beachhead.
The Iwasa Unit assembled behind Hill 1111, the Magata Unit behind Mount Nampei, a shoulder-shaped ridge extending outward from the Crown Prince Range just northwest of Blue Ridge. The Muda Unit assembled at Peko, a village on the East-West Trail about 5,400 yards east-northeast of Hill 260. The artillery group emplaced in the vicinity of Hill 600.
The plan of maneuver involved two thrusts from the north coupled with an attack from the northeast, all on a complicated schedule. Briefly, the Iwasa Unit was to attack and secure Hill 700 on Y Day (set, after some delays in moving into position, for 8 March), reorganize on 9 and 10 March, and advance to the Piva airfields. During this period the Muda Unit was to capture Hills 260 and 309, whereupon it and one battalion of the Iwasa Unit were supposed to attack Hill 608 from the southeast and northwest on 12 March. All these attacks were preliminary to an effort which was to be delivered, starting 11 March, by the Magata Unit against the 129th Infantry in its low ground west of Hill 700.
Magata’s men, after cracking the 129th’s line, were to advance against the Piva airstrips in conjunction with Iwasa’s advance. Then all units were to drive southward on a broad front to capture the Torokina fighter strip by 17 March. Haste was essential, since the 17th Army had brought with it but two weeks’ rations.
Hindsight indicates that the Japanese plan was unsound. Even had Hyakutake’s estimate of American strength been correct, he still lacked enough strength in manpower and in artillery (he had no air support whatever) to attack prepared positions, and under the actual circumstances he was hopelessly outnumbered and outgunned. If his object had been to inflict maximum damage regardless of his own losses, he might have achieved a larger degree of success by concentrating his forces from the first in order to overwhelm a narrow portion of Griswold’s front, break through, and spread destruction throughout the rear areas until Griswold could redeploy his infantry regiments. Of course, Hyakutake might have achieved more success had the American soldiers elected to turn and run instead of standing their ground, but that was an imponderable that he could not count on. The Americal and 37th Divisions were veteran units.
[N17-7 Hyakutake, in 1942, had delivered a similar, unsuccessful, counterattack against Vandegrift’s positions on Guadalcanal. See Miller, Guadalcanal: The First Offensive]
By 8 March almost everything was ready. The rhetorical manifestoes by which Japanese officers exhorted their troops were issued. General Hyakutake expressed himself along these lines: The time has come to manifest our knighthood with the pure brilliance of the sword. It is our duty to erase the mortification of our brothers at Guadalcanal. Attack! Assault! Destroy everything! Cut, slash, and mow them down. May the color of the red emblem of our arms be deepened with the blood of the American rascals. Our cry of victory at Torokina Bay will be shouted resoundingly to our native land. We are invincible! Always attack. Security is the greatest enemy. Always be alert. Execute silently.
[N17-8 Quoted in Frankel, The 37th Infantry Division in World War II, pp. 142-43. The “red emblem” referred to was probably the shoulder patch of the 6th Division. ]
Not to be outdone, General Kanda had this to say: We must fight to the end to avenge the shame of our country’s humiliation on GUADALCANAL. . . . There can be no rest until our bastard foes are battered, and bowed in shame—till their . . . blood adds luster … to the badge of the Sixth Division. Our battle cry will be heard afar. . . .Again, the most apt comment is in Proverbs XVI: 18.
At 0545, shortly after daybreak of 8 March, Hyakutake’s artillery heralded the opening of his counteroffensive by firing on all parts of the beachhead, with especial attention to the Piva airfields.
American observers on the ground, in artillery liaison planes, and on board destroyers, aided by information gained from documents, quickly determined the general location of the Japanese artillery, and counterbattery fire by the corps artillery and the organic division artillery battalions began at once. The Americal Division artillery put its fire on hills to the east and east-northeast, the 37th on those to the northeast. Smoke shells were fired at suspected enemy observation posts to blind the enemy. In the 37th’s sector the 6th Field Artillery Battalion, supporting the 129th Infantry, and the lagth Infantry Cannon Company were so situated that they could shoot directly at enemy gun flashes. The other battalions fired by forward observer.
[Throughout the operation U.S. destroyers also fired counterbattery fire and against suspected enemy assembly areas and approach routes. ]
At 1045 twenty-four SBD’s and twelve TBF’s of the 1st Marine Air Wing dropped fourteen tons of bombs on Hills 250 and 600. A strike against Hill 1111 was planned for the late morning but was postponed when a sudden cloud screen obscured the hilltop. Finally, at 1600, fifty-six SBD’s and thirty-six TBF’s, guided by artillery smoke shells, dropped 100- and 1,000-pound bombs on Hill 1111 and environs.
In the course of the day’s firing the Japanese destroyed one B-24 and three fighters, and damaged nineteen planes on Piva strips. Before nightfall all bombers except six TBF’s which remained for local support left for New Georgia to escape destruction. The enemy also damaged one 155-mm. gun and several tanks. Early next morning, the 9th, the enemy guns turned their attention to the Torokina fighter strip and forced its planes to take to the air for safety. Almost no shells fell on the front lines except in the 145th Infantry’s area, where shellfire and mortars caused several casualties.
The sector of the 145th, now commanded by Colonel Cecil B. Whitcomb, extended from low ground in the vicinity of the Numa Numa Trail eastward past the south shore of Lake Kathleen and up along the military crest of Hill 700, a frontage of about 3,500 yards. The 3rd Battalion, on the left (west), held the low ground just south of Lake Kathleen and Cannon Hill, an eminence slightly lower and to the west of Hill 700. On the right the 2nd Battalion held Hill 700 with two rifle companies (E and G) and machine gun sections of H Company in line, F Company in reserve, and H Company’s 81-mm. mortars grouped on the reverse (south) slope.
Hill 700, which commanded the entire beachhead, was steep, with slopes of 65 to 75 percent in all directions. American intelligence estimates, though not ruling out an enemy attack here, had tended to discount its probability. The steepness that increased the difficulty of attack also complicated the defense, for the forward (north) slope fell away too sharply to permit it to be completely covered with grazing fire. Thus the 2nd Battalion had an extra allotment of machine guns. Its pillboxes housed 37-mm. antitank guns, light and heavy machine guns, BAR’s, and rifles. The front was wired in, with some mines in front. In direct support were the 105-mm. howitzers of the 135th Field Artillery Battalion and, starting on 8 March, the 4.2inch mortars of D Company, 82nd Chemical Battalion. [This company also supported the 129th Infantry. ]
That the 145th Infantry was in danger of attack had become obvious on 6 March when patrols reported the presence of large numbers of Japanese about fourteen hundred yards north of Hill 700. Additional ammunition was made available to the troops, and two days’ C rations, ammunition, and a five-gallon can of water were stocked in each pillbox against a breakdown in supply. For nocturnal illumination each machine gun section was issued four incendiary grenades and a gallon can of flame thrower fuel.
On 7 March Japanese wire-cutting parties started work in front of the 145th. Next day patrols in front of Hill 700, Cannon Hill, and along Lake Kathleen’s shores kept running into enemy troops. At the same time 129th Infantry patrols reported many enemy contacts, and Americal Division patrols also observed enemy troops east of the Torokina River, along the East-West Trail, and around Hills 250 and 600. In front of the 145th fire fights and skirmishes went on all day. When patrols reported that the enemy was massing, the 37th Division artillery, the 145th’s Cannon Company, and the 4.2-inch mortars fired a counter preparation twelve hundred yards wide and two thousand yards deep in front of the 2nd Battalion. Japanese orders had called for an attack on 8 March, but none developed.
The 23rd Infantry had spent the day moving into position in front of the 145th; the 2nd Battalion reconnoitered Cannon Hill, the 3rd, 700, but for some reason the regiment did not assault. Rain fell throughout the night of 8-9 March. Shortly after midnight, concealed by darkness, rain, and mists, about two companies of the 23rd Infantry attacked up the north slope of Hill 700 against the 1st Platoon, G Company, 145th, which held a level saddle between the topmost eminence of the hill and a rise to the left (west) dubbed Pat’s Nose. Other elements of the 23rd put pressure on E Company, 145th, on the highest point of 700. This attack was repulsed.
About 0230, 9 March, the 23rd Infantry attacked G Company’s 1st Platoon again, this time in column of battalions. The 2nd Battalion, in the lead, blew up the barbed wire, knocked out a pillbox, and through the gap its forward elements moved onto the saddle and set up machine guns. American mortars and artillery opened up and appear to have severely punished the 3rd Battalion, which was following the 2nd.
When day broke the Americans were not sure of the extent of the enemy penetration, as mists and enemy fire hampered reconnaissance. Some local counterattacks, largely un-co-ordinated, were attempted but all failed. Soldiers of the 145th tried to attack northward up the south slopes of Hill 700, but the Japanese drove them back by rolling down grenades.
By noon the situation was clarified. The Japanese had made but a minor penetration; about one company held a salient on the saddle about one hundred yards from east to west and fifty yards deep. It had captured seven pillboxes, plus observation posts, in the 1st Platoon’s line and had set up light and heavy machine guns.
General Beightler released the 1st Battalion, 145th, from division reserve to Colonel Whitcomb, who attached it to the 2nd Battalion, and elements of the 117th Engineer Battalion took up positions in the 145th’s regimental reserve lines south of Hill 700.
About noon C Company, 145th, started northward up Hill 700 toward the saddle in frontal assault while two F Company platoons attacked the saddle from the east and west. By 1530 the platoon attacking from the east had recovered some of the lost ground but C Company had been halted about two thirds of the way to its objective.
Two light tanks of the 754th Tank Battalion, released out of corps reserve by General Griswold, tried to support an attack later in the afternoon, but the hill proved too steep for them. The F Company platoons pressed their attack anyway and by 1735 had retaken five pillboxes. By nightfall a solid line had been established in front of the Japanese. It ran along Hill 700 south of the crest in the region of the penetration and joined its flanks with the original main line of resistance. B and C Companies and one platoon of D Company held the new line.
During the day the Japanese used their point of vantage on the saddle to put mortar and machine gun fire on McClelland Road, a lateral supply route south of the crests of the hills, roughly parallel to the main line of resistance. This fire halted the ¾-ton trucks and half-tracks that were used to bring up ammunition and required the use of hand-carrying parties, which hauled ammunition forward and took out the wounded under Japanese fire.
Neither Japanese nor Americans made any aggressive moves on the night of 9-10 March, but it was a noisy night. The Japanese laid mortar and small arms fire on the American lines, while the 37th Division artillery and mortars put close in and deep supporting fires in front of the 2nd Battalion, 145th.
At 0645 the next day, 10 March, while the Muda Unit began its attack against the Americal Division troops on Hill 260, the 23rd Infantry troops on the saddle renewed their attack and other elements of the Iwasa Unit attempted to get through the curtain of American artillery and mortar fire to reinforce the saddle. The Americans on Hill 700 responded with fire and local counterattacks. There was no change in the location of the front lines.
During the morning Griswold released the Provisional Infantry Battalion, 251st Antiaircraft Artillery Regiment, from corps reserve; it proceeded to the 145th’s regimental reserve line. Elements of the 117th Engineer Battalion thereupon made ready to destroy the Japanese positions with bangalore torpedoes and pole charges of TNT. But this came to naught when four engineers, trying to snake a torpedo into a pillbox, were killed outright by the torpedo, which either exploded prematurely or was detonated by a Japanese shell. A Japanese-speaking American soldier brought a loud-speaker up close to the enemy and urged immediate capitulation; the Japanese responded with a mortar shell which knocked the loud-speaker out of action.
By afternoon of this day of pattern less and ineffective action (which also featured enemy fire on McClelland Road and a 36-plane strike against Japanese positions), the American units in contact with the enemy had become intermingled. Sorting and reorganizing them consumed much of the afternoon, so that it was 1700 before elements of the 1st and 2nd Battalions, 145th, after a ten-minute mortar preparation, delivered a co-ordinated attack. The Americans used bangalore torpedoes, rocket launchers, and pole charges in the face of artillery, mortar, machine gun, and rifle fire. The fighting was close work; several pillboxes were recaptured and then lost. As darkness fell, however, the Americans had achieved some success. The Japanese penetration was now reduced by more than half. By 1930, G, F, A, C, B, and E Companies held the line; the 37th Reconnaissance Troop, which General Beightler attached to the 145th at 1815, was in reserve.
During the night, as Colonel Magata prepared to deliver his attack against the 129th Infantry, General Iwasa sent the rest of his command against the 145th’s front from Cannon Hill to the crest of 700. The Japanese came in closely packed waves, shouting, the 37th Division reported, imprecations in Japanese. The fields of fire at Cannon Hill and Pat’s Nose were better than at 700, and the 145th, heavily supported by artillery and mortars, handily repulsed Iwasa everywhere except on the saddle, where the Japanese captured one more pillbox.
As dawn broke on 11 March, a day on which Muda was active at Hill 260 and the Magata Unit began its attack against the 129th Infantry, General Beightler was obviously concerned over the 145th’s failure to reduce the enemy salient. The night before he had ordered the 2nd Battalion, 148th Infantry, to move from its regimental reserve positions to the 145th’s sector. To replace it General Griswold placed the 1st Battalion, 24th Infantry, at Beightler’s disposal. Beightler also dispatched his assistant division commander, Brigadier General Charles F. Craig, to the 145th’s sector to observe operations and keep him informed. The regimental commander was suffering, Craig reported later, from extreme battle fatigue and was relieved. Colonel Freer, who had been serving as executive of the 145th, took his place.
In the meantime the Japanese made valorous efforts to put more troops onto the saddle. The Americans resisted with vigor and with all the fire power at their disposal. Charging, literally, over the piled heaps of their dead comrades, the enemy soldiers fought hard but vainly, and failed either to budge the Americans or to strengthen the saddle. The 2nd Battalion, 148th, reached its assembly area behind the 145th at 1115. Colonel Radcliffe, its commander, reconnoitered in preparation for an afternoon attack. Three 105-mm. howitzer battalions, the 145th Infantry Cannon Company, 4.2-inch chemical mortars, the 81-mm. mortars of D, H, and M Companies of the 145th, and the 60-mm. mortars of all the rifle companies of the 2nd Battalion, 148th, fired a preparation from 1320 to 1330. Then elements of the 148th attacked.
Two platoons from E Company moved east from Pat’s Nose in an effort to envelop the saddle from north and south while a third platoon delivered a holding attack westward from the crest of Hill 700. The whole target was blanketed by artillery smoke shells. The 145th supported the attack with overhead fire. The platoon making the envelopment from the north gained the crest, losing eight dead, whereupon the platoon leader and four enlisted men seized a communication trench, then a pillbox. But the Japanese killed the five men and the attack halted about 1900. The troops dug in on the ground they had gained. During the night the Japanese harried the Americans but failed to penetrate the line.
The attack on 12 March followed the previous day’s pattern. While intense local battles raged in the 199th Infantry sector and on Hill 260,E Company continued its attack and F Company attacked northwestward from the top of 700. Using grenades, rifles, flame throwers, and rocket launchers, the 148th soldiers methodically reduced the pillboxes one by one. When nearly all the officers in both companies were wounded, sergeants took over command. By 1300 the Japanese held but one pillbox; by 1317 they had lost it, and by 1530 mopping up was completed, all the Japanese save two wounded prisoners were dead, the 145th’s line was restored. Three hundred and nine enemy corpses were counted in the immediate area. During the next day the Iwasa Unit, which had suffered heavily in its unsuccessful attack, withdrew behind a screen of combat patrols and fire.
During the period 8-13 March the 37th Division lost five officers and seventy-three enlisted men killed. The artillery expended a considerable amount of ammunition in defense of Hill 700: 20,802 105-mm. rounds; about 10,000 75mm. rounds; 13,000 81-mm. and 811 4.2inch mortar shells.
[N17-15 On 14 March General Kreber ordered 90-mm. antiaircraft guns to supplement certain 40-mm. guns already in use on the front lines. Thereafter these flat-trajectory weapons sniped at enemy guns emplaced on the forward slopes of the hills to the north and northeast. ]
While General Iwasa was meeting defeat at Hill 700, Colonel Muda was attacking the American outpost on Hill 260 in preparation for operations against Hills 309 and 608 in the Americal Division’s sector. The Muda Unit—principally one battalion and two companies of the 13th Infantry—completed its assembly at Peko and moved forward. On the night of 9-10 March small enemy forces infiltrated between Hill 260 and the main line of resistance, while an assault force assembled east of 260 and made ready to attack.
Some 800 yards east of the main perimeter line and 7,500 yards north of the Torokina’s mouth, Hill 260 is shaped like an hourglass. Its long axis runs from northwest to southeast. The two ends of the hourglass are rises called North Knob and South Knob. Each knob is about half the size of a football field. The handle between them is slightly lower and so narrow that there was room for only a trail. North and South Knobs lie so close together—less than 150 yards apart—that to hit one knob with artillery or mortar fire inevitably showered the other with fragments. The slopes to the east and west are very steep.
The East-West Trail crossed the Torokina just east of 260 and, bending south of South Knob, entered the main perimeter line between Hills 309 and 608. A small north-south stream, called the Eagle River by the Americans, flowed between 260 and the main perimeter before running into the Torokina River. In the early part of March only one trail led from the main line to South Knob. The last hundred yards to the top consisted of a steep stairway revetted into the southwest slope. A small vehicular bridge had been built over the Eagle. The entire area, including the east and west slopes of 260, was heavily jungled.
From a platform on a 150-foot-high tree (“OP Tree”) on South Knob, American mortar and artillery forward observers could view the banks of the Torokina below, the East-West Trail, and Hills 250 and 600 to the northeast. Conversely, in Japanese hands Hill 260 would have provided good observation of Hills 608 and 309 and of the corps’ rear area between them. On 10 March the American garrison on 260 consisted of about eighty men including forward observers and a reinforced platoon from G Company, 182nd Infantry, which regiment held the main perimeter west of 260. It was “a sore thumb stuck out into the poison ivy.” Defenses, all on South Knob, consisted of pillboxes and bunkers inside barbed wire and defensive warning devices arranged in a triangle around OP Tree. Fire lanes faced northeast, east, and southeast.
The Americans had been maintaining ambushes on the northeast and southeast approaches to South Knob but on 9 March withdrew them to put harassing and interdictory fires over the whole area from 1830 to 2330, 9 March, and again from 0415 to 0500, 10 March. A few minutes after 0600 on 10 March, during the 182nd’s normal stand to for the two hours before daylight, fire from Japanese mortars, machine guns, and rifles began striking the American positions on 260. At 0638 an officer of the 246th Field Artillery Battalion, Americal Division, reported from his post in OP Tree that the Japanese had attacked and were all around the base of his tree. He was not heard from again.
The attack, which the Americans estimated was made by one company, was actually delivered by all or part of the 3rd Battalion, 13th Infantry. It overran most of the American positions, captured OP Tree, and drove the survivors of the American garrison to North Knob. One six-man group from the mortar and artillery observation teams took refuge in two pillboxes and put up such stout-hearted resistance that they held their positions in spite of the fact that the Japanese had surrounded them.18
When the enemy attack was reported to General Griswold, he ordered General Hodge, the Americal Division’s commander, to hold 260 at all costs. This order came as a surprise to the Americal’s officers, who had not expected to be required to hold 260 in the face of a strong enemy attack.19 Colonel William D. Long, commanding the 182nd, promptly released two companies—E and F—of his 2nd Battalion from regimental reserve and placed Lieutenant Colonel Dexter Lowry, commander of the 2nd Battalion, in charge of operations. F Company left the perimeter, crossed the Eagle River and pushed northward through virgin jungle to North Knob, made contact with the G Company soldiers who had made their way there, and established a perimeter defense. At 0845 E Company was ordered to advance east over the trail to attack the South Knob from the southwest in conjunction with a southward move by one platoon of F Company.
By 1045, when E Company reached the base of Hill 260’s southwest slope, the troops on North Knob had become aware that some Americans on South Knob were still alive. The attack began immediately after E Company’s arrival. One E Company platoon started up the steep slope as the F Company platoon attempted to move south, but after a gain of about thirty-five yards both platoons, now coming into the cleared areas, halted under enemy fire. Shortly after 1300 Long authorized Lowry to contain the Japanese at the base of OP Tree until he could send flame throwers forward.
Lowry therefore held up the attack, received the flame throwers, and by 1420 was ready to go again. This time he planned a double envelopment from 260’s southwest spur. One platoon of E Company was to move left (north) to make contact with the F Company platoon advancing south while a second E Company platoon moved right to attack from the south and southeast. The platoons moved out and began their attack at 1445. The Japanese quickly halted the northern attack. The southern platoon started up South Knob, met grazing fire, retired, moved to the right, and assaulted again. This time, using flame throwers and grenades, the platoon drove up onto a shelf on the southern edge of South Knob that protected it from small arms fire. It was within earshot of the trapped Americans. Colonel Lowry, now estimating that at least two enemy companies held South Knob, reported that his and the enemy’s forces were too close for him to use 60-mm. mortars safely. The attack was renewed at 1800, but by then battle casualties and exhaustion had reduced E Company’s strength by one half. Lowry and Colonel Long, who had arrived at South Knob at 1715, decided to hold their present positions. The six Americans in the pillboxes thought E Company had secured the hill, and stayed where they were. Active operations for the day were concluded by an enemy bayonet assault which F Company repulsed by fire.
Early next morning the Japanese, apparently strengthened during the night, struck at E Company in a quick attack. The company turned back the attackers, but of its 7 officers and 143 enlisted men who had left the perimeter the day before, only 1 wounded officer and 24 enlisted men remained at the front. Colonel Long therefore ordered G Company (less its original outpost platoon) out of the main perimeter to relieve E.
As G Company advanced up the west slope of South Knob it ran into enemy troops attacking from the east, southeast, and south. Colonel Lowry reported his troops in distress as the enemy threatened to encircle his position on South Knob and began driving E Company off. But there was almost no way to strengthen him. General Hodge was required to hold one battalion available for service in corps reserve, and there were few other troops that could be committed without weakening the main line of resistance, which was now under attack on Hill 700 and in the 129th’s sector.
With the foothold on South Knob practically lost, and because South Knob could be neutralized from North Knob, Hodge and Long decided to pull E and G Companies off South Knob and send them to North Knob, and to send B Company forward to assist them in breaking contact. The Japanese, failing to follow up their advantage, did not pursue E and G Companies as they retired toward the Eagle River, where they were joined by B Company. All companies proceeded to North Knob. B Company, cutting a trail from the old trail northward parallel to the north-south axis of 260, led the way. When a larger perimeter on North Knob was completed, G Company went back to the main line of resistance.
In midafternoon, Brigadier General William A. McCulloch, the Americal’s assistant commander, arrived at the 182nd Infantry command post and assumed command of operations at Hill 260. In late afternoon B and F Companies, reinforced by a provisional flame thrower platoon from the 132nd Infantry, attacked again. F Company pushed front ally while B Company attempted a flanking movement around OP Tree. This time flame throwers burned out two Japanese positions and B Company managed to drive onto South Knob. The six trapped Americans successfully sprang for safety, but at 1915 both companies withdrew to North Knob. B Company established a trail block on East-West Trail, but unlike Magata and Iwasa in the 37th Division’s sector, Muda attempted neither night attacks nor harassing infiltration.
The next day, 12 March, was subsequently referred to by the 182nd Infantry as “Bloody Sunday.” By now all combat elements of the Muda Unit were emplaced on South Knob. Operations on Bloody Sunday opened about 0700 when the Japanese put artillery and mortar fire on the Americal’s main perimeter and the rear areas. Before 12 March the presence of American troops on both knobs had inhibited the employment of American artillery and mortars, but now that the Americans were off South Knob the supporting weapons could shoot with a little more freedom.
The Americal Division, using OP Tree as a registration point, replied therefore to the Japanese with artillery and mortar fire on targets of opportunity, especially on South Knob and the approaches to Hill 260. This fire, like all similar fire, forced the Americans on North Knob to move back to avoid being hit by fragments from the shells landing on South Knob.
Meanwhile supplies on North Knob were running low, and getting more food, ammunition, and water to the companies there was proving difficult The only supply route was the trail B Company had cut northward from the old trail, and it was a footpath too narrow for vehicles. Carrying parties on the north leg of the trip encountered so much fire from the Japanese on South Knob and on the west slopes that they made the trip by running in spurts while covered by riflemen. This, to phrase it mildly, was tiring. But by noon these methods had succeeded in amassing enough ammunition to mount an attack, and the American commanders decided to deliver one and so capitalize on the advantages they presumed the morning bombardment had given them. [Later, when more troops became available, a trail wide enough for jeeps was built from the perimeter directly to North Knob. ]
The plan of attack called for F Company, 182nd, to provide a base of fire from the perimeter on North Knob while B Company, with six flame throwers attached, moved south and west to attack South Knob from the west and northwest. [Colonel Lowry, lightly wounded and weary, had by this time been temporarily replaced in command of the 2nd Battalion by Lieutenant Colonel William Mahoney, until then the regimental executive officer. ]
In column of platoons, B Company started off North Knob at 1300. The 2nd Platoon, in the lead, tried to storm the crest of South Knob from the northwest, but as it moved across a small gully two new Japanese pillboxes on the west slope opened fire and it halted. The enemy had revealed his positions, and 81-mm. mortars and machine guns opened up on the pillboxes. Under cover of this fire, and freely using flame throwers, the next platoon in column (the 3rd) crossed the gully and moved as far as the top of South Knob without losing a man.
It had reached a point southwest of OP Tree when fire from Japanese positions on the east slope struck and the soldiers hit the ground. Every attempt to maneuver brought down enemy fire, but when American mortars struck the Japanese positions the 3rd Platoon renewed the assault with grenades and flame throwers, with the latter protected by BAR men who blazed away almost continuously at the enemy. The fearsome sight of the flame is reported to have caused some Japanese soldiers to throw down their arms and flee.
At this point, when victory seemed almost won, the 3rd Platoon was struck by machine gun fire from the east of OP Tree and from a machine gun at the base of the tree itself. The day was nearly gone; it was 1620, and the attackers’ ammunition was running low. No fresh troops were immediately available on Hill 260. The 1st Battalion (less C and D companies), 132nd, had been attached to the 182nd and A Company was alerted for movement at 1515, but it was 1600 before A Company reached the 182nd’s main line of resistance.
Hoping to hold the ground gained, McCulloch and Long decided to send A Company, 132nd, along the old trail to attack the South Knob from the southwest, make physical contact with B Company, 182nd, and establish a defensive position on the crest of South Knob. Time was running out. Another hour went by before A Company began its move, and as it neared Hill 260 it received enemy gunfire which killed the company commander. There was confusion and further delay until order was restored. By now it was obvious that A Company would not reach B before dark. Thus, because there were not enough men to hold the ground B Company had gained, the American commanders reluctantly made the “painful decision” to order B Company to return to North Knob, A Company to the main perimeter.
The fight for Hill 260 had gone on for three days. Continued bombardments and attacks had failed to dislodge the Japanese. No reinforcements were available. The supply line to Hill 260 was tenuous, and it seemed that a resolute attack from the north might cut off the two-company garrison. In view of these factors, and perhaps because the cost of holding a small hill a half-mile in front of the main perimeter seemed disproportionately high, the Americal Division asked permission to pull off the hill. Corps headquarters refused.
The 13th of March was largely a repetition of the previous day’s action, except that different companies were involved. To improve the supply situation and prevent the Japanese from severing the old trail by attacks from South Knob, a more direct trail from the main perimeter was cut to North Knob. At 1000 A Company, 132nd, relieved E Company, 182nd, on North Knob. Additional flame throwers, this time a provisional platoon from the 164th Infantry, were attached to the 182nd. During the morning about one thousand 105-mm. and another thousand 4.2-inch mortar rounds hit the enemy on South Knob.
[NOTE: As Colonel Long put it in his comments, “Artillery with its dispersion and range had to be used on South Knob carefully. Artillerymen were strong for an impact fuse which gave a treetop burst of help to the observer in adjusting fire. I wanted the artillery to dig after the Japanese with delayed action fuses. I think we finally compromised on 50-50.” And “you can work up a healthy argument on the type of fuse to be employed in any Officers’ Club throughout the world. The Artillery like to get it in the air where their FO’s can see it, and the Infantry likes to get it down into the ground where the enemy can feel it.”]
At 1400, B Company, 132nd, having moved out from the main perimeter, attacked up the southwest slope toward OP Tree after an artillery and mortar preparation. On North Knob A Company, 132nd, provided a base of fire; B Company, 182nd, was in reserve. The uphill attack succeeded in getting two platoons abreast on the southwest and west slopes of South Knob but halted in the face of grenades and rifle fire. The Japanese then retaliated with a counterattack against the left flank of B Company. A Company pushed one platoon toward OP Tree to relieve the pressure on B but it too was quickly stopped. B Company’s reserve platoon drove off the attacking Japanese, whereupon the American units withdrew.
Next day the American commanders considered using tanks against the Japanese but decided against it because the vehicles could not ford the Eagle River over the new trail and the hill was too steep for them to climb. After one more unsuccessful effort to capture OP Tree, the American commanders changed their plans. Patrols to the northeast of 260 had failed to find any large bodies of the enemy. Since the Japanese apparently had no more reserves to commit in that sector, and were obviously incapable of driving beyond Hill 260 against the main perimeter, the Americans decided to reduce their casualties by halting general attacks against South Knob, but to harry the enemy and reduce his strength by raids and combat patrols, by sapping forward from North Knob, and by extensive artillery and mortar fire.
Ironically enough, on 15 March, after the Americans had made their decision, the Japanese commanders made a similar one. As Colonel Magata’s main attack against the 129th Infantry had gone badly, Hyakutake and Kanda decided to send Muda’s main strength to reinforce Magata, leaving only a screening force on South Knob.
From then until 18 March, when General McCulloch launched a series of coordinated attacks, the Americans shelled South Knob heavily and made several ingenious attempts to burn out the Japanese with gasoline. They threw gallon cans of gas by hand and tried to ignite them with white phosphorous grenades.
They jury-rigged a 60-mm. mortar for throwing cans. Finally they took two hundred feet of flexible pipe and snaked it to within nine feet of an enemy emplacement; with oxygen pressure they pumped gasoline from a drum through the pipe and over the enemy, and ignited it with a white phosphorous grenade.
All the while mortars and artillery hammered away, the artillery firing at the reverse slopes while the mortars covered the hilltop. The 182nd Infantry’s Cannon Company emplaced its 75-mm. pack howitzers on Hill 309 for direct fire and did its best to knock down OP Tree. By 14 March South Knob, jungled no longer, was a bare, blasted slope. At 1900, 17 March, OP Tree fell to the ground. During the action more then ten thousand 105-mm. rounds struck South Knob. When all was over, the Americans reported counting 560 enemy dead. American casualties totaled 98 killed, 24 missing, and 581 wounded.
[N17-29 These figures come from Griswold, Bougainville, p. 120. The 182nd Infantry’s report gives figures which differ slightly from these. Colonel Long later wrote, in his comments, that the wounded-in-action figure was somewhat inflated because fatigue cases had been diagnosed with “unreasonable freedom” and counted among the wounded. ]
Action by the Creeks
The sector of the 37th Division’s 129th Infantry, where Colonel Magata delivered his attack, was generally flat and low. In contrast with the Iwasa Unit, which assaulted up very steep slopes, Magata’s soldiers possessed easy routes of approach along Numa Numa Trail and various streams. The 129th, in the center of the 37th Division’s line, held about 3,900 yards of curving front from a point slightly east of the Numa Numa Trail west and southwest to the right flank of the 148th Infantry. Several small streams, all tributaries of the Koromokina River, flowed through the area in a generally southerly direction. Taylor Creek cut through the 129th’s lines less than 1,000 yards west of Numa Numa Trail. Cox Creek entered the line about 750 yards southwest of Taylor Creek’s penetration. The Logging Trail, cut and used extensively by XIV Corps engineers in the relatively peaceful days before March, entered the main perimeter just west of Taylor Creek.
The 129th Infantry, commanded by Colonel John D. Frederick, held its front with two battalions in line. The 2nd Battalion, on the right, faced north, its left (west) flank joined to the right of the 3rd Battalion between Cox Creek and another branch of the Koromokina River.
In general, the 129th’s positions were stronger than the 145th’s, since the terrain permitted grazing fire except in the numerous ravines and gullies that were scattered throughout the area. Earth-and-log-pillboxes, mutually supporting and arranged in depth, formed the backbone of the main line of resistance, which was wired in behind single barbed wire and double-apron barbed wire fences. Antipersonnel mines had been laid in front of the wire. The entire front was covered by interlocking bands of machine gun fire. Additional rows of double-apron barbed wire extended diagonally from the main line of resistance to channel Japanese attacks into the machine gun fire lanes. In addition to division artillery, mortars, and the 75-mm. pack howitzers of the 129th’s Cannon Company, the front was supported by 37-mm. antitank guns (firing canister) and 40-mm. antiaircraft guns.
The 2nd Battalion, under Lieutenant Colonel Preston J. Hundley, had in line three rifle companies, F, G, and E from left to right. Cox Creek lay in F Company’s sector, the Logging Trail and Taylor Creek in G’s, and the Numa Numa Trail in E’s.
During the early days of the 17th Army’s attack the 129th Infantry received mortar and artillery fire, engaged in fire fights and patrol clashes, and strengthened its positions, but was not heavily engaged in battle. But on 11 March Colonel Magata moved forward from his assembly area behind Mount Nampei to begin the attack that was designed to pierce the 129th Infantry and capture the Piva airfields not far away. Outposts and patrols reported increasing numbers of Japanese troops in front of the 129th, and the artillery fired on them off and on all day. When an antipersonnel mine in front of E Company was exploded about 1600, Colonel Frederick ordered in the outposts. Shortly afterward Japanese troops were reported advancing down the Logging Trail toward the perimeter. Starting at 1800, when all outposts and patrols had come in, division artillery and mortars laid a ten-minute concentration to the front of Colonel Hundley’s battalion. A patrol from G Company went out to examine the impact area, now cleared of underbrush and foliage, but came under Japanese fire and returned to the perimeter to report that it had located no less than fourteen enemy machine guns.
In the gathering dusk Magata’s troops —the 1st Battalion, 45th Infantry, on the left (east) and the 3rd Battalion on the right—opened up on the 2nd Battalion, 129th, with machine guns and rifles. The Americans replied with rifles, mortars, machine guns, and a 40-mm. antiaircraft gun, which along with a .50-caliber machine gun put searching fire up the Logging Trail. Machine guns in the front-line pillboxes abstained from firing so as not to reveal their locations to the enemy. This fire fight continued until 1920, then died down to flare up sporadically throughout the night.
General Beightler, at 2100, ordered his regimental commanders to keep their troops alert, for documents captured that day (apparently on Hill 700) indicated that the Japanese planned to attack in strength the next day. At the same time, as Japanese soldiers began working their way through the American wire, C Company, 82nd Chemical Battalion, was attached to the 129th Infantry, and at 0420 the next morning its 2nd Platoon moved its 4.2-inch mortars into position behind the Antitank Company, 129th, which was supporting the rifle companies.
By dawn of 12 March, though the Japanese had made earnest efforts to get through the lines, they found they had been held for very small gains. As the coming of daylight clarified the situation, the 2nd Battalion, 129th, found that the Japanese had succeeded in cutting through G Company’s wire and effecting two minor penetrations. In the 2nd Platoon sector, where Taylor Creek and the Logging Trail entered the perimeter, the Japanese had captured two pillboxes (one an alternate, unoccupied position), and to the right (east) they had seized five pillboxes.
The Japanese tried to exploit their penetrations and break out to the south but were held back by American artillery, mortar, machine gun, and rifle fire. Then the 129th prepared to counterattack and restore the line. Colonel Frederick ordered C Company out of regimental reserve and forward to support G Company at 0723. By 0810, when C Company moved into position behind the 2nd Platoon of G Company, one platoon of the Antitank Company had at tacked the western penetration and retaken one pillbox. During the rest of the morning another Antitank Company platoon moved in behind E Company; 81-mm. mortars of D Company, 129th, took up positions to support the 2nd Battalion; and B Company moved forward behind C.
At 1255, after a mortar concentration, three rifle platoons (two from C and one from G), plus two flame throwers, attacked the western penetration and by 1405 had retaken the second pillbox. The Japanese retaliated with a counterattack that was promptly repulsed. By the end of the day the Japanese still held the five pillboxes, which the Americans had not attacked, in the 3rd Platoon’s sector. Two Americans had been killed, twenty-two wounded in the day’s action as compared with one killed and six wounded the day before.
American artillery and mortars shelled the enemy during the night. Searchlights tried to illuminate him with direct beams, but failed as he took refuge in the ravines and draws. The searchlights then achieved more success by raising their beams so that they were reflected from the clouds.
The 1st and 3rd Battalions of the 45th Infantry struck again at G Company about 0400 of 13 March and gained one more pillbox before they were stopped. To eliminate this penetration, Colonel Frederick requested tanks. Corps headquarters, at 0815, released the 1st Platoon of C Company, 754th Tank Battalion, to the 129th. General Griswold released the tanks with the express proviso that they could not be used as stationary defenses, but must be employed in an attack to recapture the lost pillboxes. At 0812 General Beightler ordered the 129th not to deliver any piecemeal infantry attacks but to wait for the tanks and organize a coordinated tank-infantry assault He issued this order just fifteen minutes after C Company, 129th, made a local counterattack which regained one pillbox.
Four tanks and elements of B, C, and G Companies attacked at 1000 after a ten-minute artillery preparation. Although the ground was generally level, the tanks had difficulty in bringing their guns to bear because the Japanese were down in ravines with steep slopes. After two pillboxes had fallen, the tanks withdrew. The attack was renewed at 1315.
After another hour the tanks had almost exhausted their fuel and ammunition, and the attack was suspended while the 2nd Platoon, C Company, 754th Tank Battalion came up to replace them. [N17-31] The new tanks and the same infantry units attacked at 1730. This time the tanks and infantry managed to demolish all the Japanese-held pillboxes. By 1930, at a cost of eighteen wounded, the original line was almost restored. Colonel Magata withdrew his battalions to rest, reorganize, reconnoiter, and make ready for another attack.
[N17-31 During the afternoon XIV Corps headquarters assigned one battalion of the 131st Engineer Regiment to buttress the 1st Battalion, 24th Infantry, on the 129th regimental reserve line. A Company of the 131st had been assigned the day before. ]
On the 14th, a day that was quiet except for small arms fire and occasional shelling, the 2nd Battalion repaired its positions, strung new wire, planted mines in the ravines that provided covered routes of approach, and fired its mortars. Patrols went out and reported the presence of strong bodies of the enemy not far from the perimeter. Thus the Americans were sure that the Japanese withdrawal was only temporary.
Temporary it was, for at 0400 of 15 March the 1st and 3rd Battalions of the 45th Infantry and the 2nd Battalion, 81st Infantry, renewed the assault. They again achieved a small local success in the Cox Creek sector held by the 2nd Platoon of F Company. By dawn they had seized one pillbox and penetrated to a depth of about one hundred yards. F Company, supported by one platoon of C Company and aided by a 36-plane air strike in front of the battalion line, counterattacked with flame throwers and bazookas to recapture the pillbox by 1153. But the enemy, still holding a salient in the line, was digging positions in the roots of banyan trees and appeared to be pushing in reinforcements and more weapons.
General Craig, arriving in the sector to observe and inform General Beightler, as he had on Hill 700, asked for tanks. General Griswold sent a platoon. A tank-infantry attack, delivered at 1500 with artillery and mortar support, made small gains. A second, at 1635, killed or drove off all the enemy at a cost of seven killed, fifty-six wounded, and one tank damaged. One hundred and ninety Japanese corpses lay within the American lines, and four enemy soldiers were captured. The Japanese suspended their assaults on 16 March but renewed them on the 17th and effected a small penetration in F Company’s sector which tanks and infantry promptly eliminated.
This was the last attack for several days, for the Japanese overhauled their plans. They had decided to abandon the attacks on Hills 260 and 700 in favor of a massed attack by the depleted regiments of the 17th Army against the 129th Infantry. While the survivors of the Muda and Iwasa Units, except for the screening forces on Hill 260, moved through the jungles to Magata’s position, the front lines remained static. Artillery and mortar fire, patrol skirmishes, and fire fights continued, especially in the sector of the 2nd Battalion, 129th Infantry. By 23 March the 13th and 23rd Regiments had joined Magata and the attack was ready. But captured documents and reconnaissance enabled the Americans to divine Japanese intentions, so that in late afternoon of the 23rd Beightler warned his troops to expect a general attack at dusk.
After dark the Japanese shelled the American positions. As before, sporadic fire fights went on all night and, concealed by the darkness, nearly all Hyakutake’s remaining units attacked through the ravines. [NOTE: In 1949 Kanda asserted that on his recommendation Hyakutake had called off this attack, but the validity of his assertion is belied by American experience and by contemporary Japanese documents.]
The 37th Division artillery and the various mortars promptly opened fire and largely broke up the Japanese assault before it got started. But the enemy succeeded in again piercing the 1st Platoon of F Company in the Cox Creek area, this time a little to the west of the earlier penetration. [Also defending this sector, in supporting positions, were platoons of B and C Companies. ] About one hundred Japanese soldiers captured four pillboxes and pushed to a low ridge about twenty-five yards from the battalion command post. When dawn broke a fire fight was raging throughout the entire area as the Japanese unsuccessfully attempted to enlarge their holdings.
The American commanders responded promptly. Two platoons of the Antitank Company and one platoon of K Company, 129th, assembled near the 2nd Battalion command post, and General Beightler dispatched two companies of the 148th Infantry to positions behind Colonel Hundley’s battalion. The Antitank and K Company platoons, plus the 3rd Platoon, A Company, 754th Tank Battalion, attacked northwest from the command post at 0725 and within twenty minutes had gained possession of the ridge. At 0930 the attackers reorganized and drove in again, supported this time by 37th Division artillery, three battalions of the Americal Division artillery, the 129th Infantry Cannon Company, and twenty-four 4.2-inch mortars, which fired into the ravines. The Americans burned, dug, and blasted the Japanese out of their ravines, trenches, foxholes, and pillboxes while the seven artillery battalions, their fire directed by General Kreber and augmented by the heavy mortars, shelled the concentrated enemy troops in front of the American lines. By 1400 General Griswold had dispatched more reserves to the area but they were not needed. The Japanese were dead or dispersed, the line restored. Hyakutake’s counteroffensive was over.
His troops withdrew from the 129th’s front pursued by the Fijians and two American battalions from the corps reserve, and on the same day he told Imamura that further attacks would be fruitless. Imamura left the. next move to Hyakutake but ordered him to resort to guerrilla warfare and raise as much of his own food as possible. Hyakutake, though not abandoning his desire to counterattack, elected to withdraw to the posts whence he had come. The 6th Cavalry and the 2nd Battalion, 4th South Seas Garrison Unit, came north to cover the retreat which began on 27 March. South Knob of Hill 260 was evacuated; the Americans reoccupied it on 28 March. The withdrawal was an orderly affair, although wounded men and heavy equipment were abandoned along the way.
In the attack the Japanese had lost over 5,000 men killed, more than 3,000 wounded. The XIV Corps lost 263 dead in its successful defense.[N17-35] The 17th Army, in spite of its serious losses, was still an effective fighting force; late March and early April saw several sharp fights when the XIV Corps fanned out to pursue the enemy and enlarge the perimeter.[N17-36 ]
[N17-35 Griswold, Bougainville, p. 139; 8th Area Army Operations, Japanese Monogr No. 110 (OCMH), p. in. By 29 April twenty-eight 75-mm., one 105-mm., and four 150-mm. field pieces had fallen into Allied hands. ]
[N17-36 This was done to gain commanding ground, to establish trail blocks, and, at the behest of the War Department, to give combat experience to the 1st Battalion, 24th Infantry, and the 25th Regimental Combat Team of the 93rd Division, which arrived in late March. ]
So ended the last Japanese offensive effort in the Solomon’s. Had it succeeded, it would have seriously affected the course of the war in the Solomon’s by requiring the commitment of more men, ships, and planes to recapture Empress Augusta Bay. But it is unlikely that it would have had any real effect on the final outcome of the war.
SOURCE: Cartwheel: Reduction of Rabaul; By John Miller Jr. (United States Army Center of Military History)