In 1942, the Solomon Islands formed the stepping stones toward Rabaul, the main base of Japanese operations in the South Pacific, and the Allies primary objective. The stunning defeat of Japanese forces at the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal in November marked the turning point in the war against Japan and the start of an offensive in the Central Solomons aimed at New Georgia. New Georgia: The Second Battle for the Solomons tells the story of the land, sea, and air battles fought there from March through October 1943. Making careful and copious use of both Japanese and Allied sources, Ronnie Day masterfully weaves the intricate threads of these battles into a well-crafted narrative of this pivotal period in the war. As Day makes clear, combat in the Solomons exemplified the war in the Pacific, especially the importance of air power, something the Japanese failed to understand until it was too late, and the strategy of island hopping, bypassing Japanese strongholds (including Rabaul) in favor of weaker or more strategically advantageous targets. This multifaceted account gives the fighting for New Georgia its proper place in the history of the drive to break the Japanese defensive perimeter and bring the homeland within range of Allied bombers.
About the Author
Ronnie Day (1939–2014) was Professor in the Department of History at East Tennessee State University. He is editor of South Pacific Diary, 1942–1943.
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The Second Battle for the Solomons
By Ronnie Day
Indiana University PressCopyright © 2016 Ronnie Day
All rights reserved.
The Japanese Occupation
When Europeans were evacuated from the Solomon Islands following the fall of Rabaul on the island of New Britain in January 1942, the Reverend John Metcalfe stayed at the Kokenggolo Methodist Mission at Munda Point. He was certain that New Georgia had nothing of value to the Japanese. But on the stormy night of 13 November 1942, the Reverend Metcalfe was forced to set out on his escape route up the trail to Bairoko Harbor when the destroyer Hakaze began landing an airfield surveying party and a detachment from the Sasebo 6th Special Naval Landing Force (SNLF) to secure the area.
Even on the run, Metcalfe was still puzzled about the Japanese motives until he learned on 17 December that they had built an airfield in the plantation. On the one hand he was surprised; on the other he immediately saw the implications. "I've wondered why the Yanks gave so much attention to Munda, now I know," he wrote in his diary. "The prospect is not pleasant though, since it may mean the Y's [Yanks] using it after the J's [Japanese] which will mean a prolonged battle ground and make this a rather dangerous spot."
The Japanese move into New Georgia was driven by events on Guadalcanal and mirrors the Japanese situation there, which was going from bad to disastrous. At Imperial General Headquarters (IGHQ) in Tokyo, New Georgia was first planned as a forward air base for a new attack on Guadalcanal, then as an intermediate base to help supply the starving troops there, and finally, as the forward base in the defense against a renewed Allied drive up the Solomons.
THE JAPANESE AT MUNDA
The Japanese surveying party completed its work and returned to Rabaul on 17 November. During the three days it had worked among the palms, the situation in Southeast Area had altered drastically in favor of Allied forces. In Papua, New Guinea, General Douglas MacArthur had initiated his attack on the Japanese bases at Buna-Gona, while off Guadalcanal the Imperial Navy had lost a series of surface and air engagements – the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal – in an attempt to force through a large convoy. Ten of the eleven transports were lost and with them desperately needed rations and ammunition for Lieutenant General Hyakutake Harukichi's beleaguered Seventeenth Army. Both sides realized that this was a turning point in the four-month struggle, and historians have since agreed. "It was the decisive battle for the campaign," historian Richard B. Frank has written, "and in retrospect, it became clear that it was decisive for the Pacific War as a whole."
Too late, the Japanese finally recognized that they were locked in a two-front war in Southeast Area, one in which the Allied forces on each front possessed superior forces. Nonetheless, IGHQ went ahead with plans to hold eastern New Guinea and to make another attempt to retake Guadalcanal. The Imperial Army dramatically increased its commitment. Until mid-November, the Japanese had three commands in Southeast Area – the army's Seventeenth Army (Hyakutake), 11th Air Fleet (Vice Admiral Kusaka Jinichi), and 8th Fleet (Vice Admiral Mikawa Gunichi). Now, with the army committed to bringing in additional infantry divisions as well as an air division, Lieutenant General Imamura Hitoshi activated Eighth Area Army at Rabaul. The Seventeenth Army on Guadalcanal would come under this command, as would the new Eighteenth Army, which had been created to defend New Guinea. Since the Japanese practice in joint operations was to maintain parallel headquarters, in late December Southeast Area Fleet was formed with 11th Air Fleet and 8th Fleet, which came under the command of Kusaka. Kusaka, however, retained direct command of the 11th Air Fleet (Base Air Force).
As the Japanese realized, any hope of success hinged on gaining air superiority over their convoy routes in order to get reinforcements and supplies to Guadalcanal. To this end, the Army Air Service was to reinforce the 11th Air Fleet, and both services were to cooperate in building the necessary airfields. Four fields were to be built immediately: Rapopo, near Rabaul, for the army; Munda for the navy; Vila, on Kolombangara, for joint use; and Ballale Island, off the Shortland Islands, for the navy. Munda, which a Japanese army/navy reconnaissance team had selected over Rekata Bay on Santa Isabel, was 120 miles from the Japanese airfield at Kahili and 180 miles from the American airfields at Lunga. This would be an ideal base, therefore, from which to provide convoy protection.
The Japanese faced three obstacles in their move into Munda. The first was logistical. The barrier reef enclosing Roviana Lagoon guarded Munda Point, and the only direct access from the sea was by way of the Munda Bar – and this only for small vessels with experienced pilots who were familiar with local landmarks. Consequently, men, materiel, and equipment had to be off-loaded into barges for the three-mile trip through the lagoon reefs. The second obstacle was American intelligence. Coast-watcher stations had been in operation on both Choiseul and Vella Lavella since October, and the chances of approaching the Munda Bar undetected were not good. The third obstacle was sure to arrive from Guadalcanal – if the Japanese were spotted and if weather permitted – in the form of an Allied air strike. The Cactus Air Force – Cactus was Guadalcanal's code name – was made up of marine, navy, Army Air Forces, and New Zealand aircraft flying under the command of 1st Marine Air Wing (from late December, 2nd MAW). Munda was well within range of all the assorted Cactus aircraft.
Nonetheless, taking advantage of darkness and/or bad weather, the Japanese managed to evade air strikes during the November and December transport runs. While some ships were forced to return only partially unloaded, none were lost and only two slightly damaged. On 28 November, B-17s damaged the steering of the empty Chihaya Maru off Mono Island during its return trip, and on 16 December, a Marine Douglas SBD Dauntless dive bomber pilot dropped a flare to illuminate Japanese destroyers off the Munda Bar and then damaged Kagero's stern with a near miss. Submarines, however, drew blood. On 10 December, Wahoo torpedoed Kamoi Maru off Buka Island, and, a week later, Grouper sank Bandoeng Maru in the same area. Both were small army freighters, but both were carrying munitions, and the loss was keenly felt at Rabaul.
The November transports brought in the occupation force and the construction units. On the night of the 20th–21st, Kamo Maru landed Major Sato Giichi's 2nd Battalion, 229th Infantry, 38th Division, and two batteries of 75mm guns of the 41st Antiaircraft Battalion. Within the week the navy's 22nd Construction Unit and part of the 4th and the army's 10th Construction Unit followed. Captain Iwabuchi Sanji, who had lost the battleship Kirishima in the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal, took command of the base. Altogether, the construction units numbered 2,500 men, equipped with hand tools, a few trucks, and eleven rollers. "Japan had bulldozers and other earthwork machines, but had not thought about using them for airfield construction," the Army Air Service historians wrote. This was a serious weakness, especially in the tropical forest of the Southeast Area. But the Kokenggolo Mission plantation offered an excellent site with level terrain and a solid coral base, and while the Japanese had no tanks to push over the palms, which was their usual practice when tanks were available, the palms could be blasted out. To avoid detection for as long as possible, they left the palms standing and worked around them, hurrying the construction because of fear of an American preemptive landing like that at Guadalcanal. But there was no hiding the work from the scouts of the coast watchers, and on 5 December, a Marine PB4Y photographic plane confirmed that an airfield was taking shape beneath the palms. Five days later, eighteen B-17s unloaded on the plantation, damaging eight of the rollers. Thereafter, the Japanese worked under continual air attacks; so many bombs hit Kokenggolo Hill that the Japanese named it Bomb (Bakudan) Hill.
By 15 December, a rough 3,300 by 130–foot field with thirty revetments was operational, and the next night the December transports began bringing in antiaircraft units of Colonel Shiroto Shunichi's 15th Field Antiaircraft Regiment, aviation gasoline, and base personnel. On 23 December, twenty Zeros of the 252nd Kokutai (air combat group) under the command of Lieutenant Suho Motonari flew in, immediately touching off an air battle; in fact, the 252nd lost one Zero to Cactus fighters before sunset. On Christmas Eve morning, the SBDs arrived early and caught a dozen Zeros on the eastern end of the field, and as the Marine Scout Bomber Squadron VMSB-142 War Diary recorded, "bomber pilots dove immediately on this spectacular target." Suho recalled that five planes were lost on the ground and others damaged, while in the air two pilots were killed and three wounded. The 252nd never recovered from the Christmas Eve battles. By 28 December, only three of the original twenty Zeros, plus four or five replacements, were flyable, and Base Air Force sent three Mitsubishi G3M "Nell" medium bombers to take out the pilots. A barge-hunting P-39 fighter shot down one of these. The other two G3Ms, with the surviving pilots, and the three flyable Zeros returned to Rabaul. Ground personnel were left behind.
Sending in well-trained pilots and good aircraft to fight from such an inadequate base was meaningless, Suho noted after the war. Apparently, Base Air Force drew the same conclusion, for it never again tried to use the airfield on a permanent basis. The Army Air Service's 12th Hikodan (air division) used the airfield on and off during the Guadalcanal evacuation, and it served as an emergency landing field right up until marine 155mm guns, emplaced on Rendova, brought it under fire. But judged by its objective, building the airfield at Munda had been a futile effort – the first of a number of setbacks in New Georgia as the Japanese expanded into Vila, Kolombangara, and Wickham Anchorage.
THE MOVE INTO KOLOMBANGARA
Kolombangara is a volcanic island some fifteen miles northwest of Munda. The tallest of its four peaks has an elevation of just over 5,800 feet, and the island would be perfectly round were it not for Vila Point, which juts out into Blackett Strait like the tab on a can lid. The Vila River empties into Blackett Strait at the point, and the largest expanse of level terrain on the island runs north and south on each side of the river. Here, Lever Brothers operated three plantations, Stanmore on the north side and Vila and Lady Lever on the south, and here the Japanese planned to build an airfield and a shipping base. The airfield was to be built in Vila Plantation, while the base facilities and supply dumps would be located in Stanmore and on north to Jack Harbor. Blackett Strait narrows to 1,200 yards at Vila before connecting to Kula Gulf, but the channel is deep, and transports and destroyers could unload into barges 300 to 400 yards from shore. Ringgi and Vavohe Coves provided excellent bases for the barges on which Japanese interisland logistics depended. Since the Japanese were lacking in heavy construction equipment, Vila provided the only solution available to the logistical problem posed by the Munda Bar. (Later, after Munda changed hands, the Navy Seabees solved the problem by first blowing a channel through the bar for LSTs and then dredging it for use by small tankers.)
The Japanese scheduled the last December transport for the 2nd Roadstead, as they called Vila. Nankai Maru, carrying construction materials, was to depart Rabaul on Christmas Day, followed two days later by Kagu Maru, carrying the 17th Naval Construction Unit. All that could go wrong did. Nankai Maru and Uzuki sailed at 1500, and at 1930 Seadragon torpedoed Nankai Maru, flooding the two forward holds. Twenty-five minutes later, the wildly maneuvering Uzuki collided with the transport. While Nankai Maru was able to make it back to Simpson Harbor under its own power, Ariake, scheduled to escort Kagu Maru, had to be sent to tow Uzuki. Early the next morning, three of MacArthur's Fifth Air Force B-24s flying from Port Moresby scored a near miss on Ariake, damaging the hull and killing twenty-six men and wounding forty. If that was not enough, in the early hours of 27 December, Fifth Air Force sank a transport and inflicted serious damage on Kagu Maru, which had suffered some slight damage from the bombing early on Christmas morning. The Japanese canceled the shipments, while in Truk a disgusted Vice Admiral Ugaki Matome, Chief of Staff, Combined Fleet, wrote in his diary: "That should be called a case of going into the forest to cut wood and coming back shorn." The construction at Vila was delayed for two weeks.
THE MOVE INTO WICKHAM ANCHORAGE
The occupation of Wickham Anchorage on the southeast tip of Vangunu Island was part of a plan to supply Guadalcanal using small cargo ships of 500 tons or so, which the Japanese called sea trucks. This was a joint army/navy operation that originated at the very top of the Southeast Area command in Rabaul, and the army units involved reported directly to Imamura. The plan called for the sea trucks to move by stages at night, while hiding out by day along "the secret course" from Rabaul to Kamimbo Bay on the western tip of Guadalcanal. The hideout bases were planned for the Shortland Islands, Wickham Anchorage, and the Russell Islands.
Perhaps reflecting the desperate situation on Guadalcanal, the army sea trucks Iwami Maru and Takashima Maru (one was towing a large barge) set out on the secret course before the main occupation force went to Wickham Anchorage. They were loaded with compressed, dehydrated rations and sealed drums of rice. A machine-gun section and a signal unit were also on board, most likely intended for Wickham Anchorage. In any case, the two units ended up at Wickham. Unknown to the Japanese, Wickham Anchorage was in the backyard of the coast watcher at Segi, Major Donald Kennedy, BSIPDF (British Solomon Islands Protectorate Defence Force). A radio message to Guadalcanal was all that it took. As the sea trucks neared the entrance to the anchorage on 26 December, Cactus dive-bombers literally split them open. For days thereafter, Kennedy's scouts raced the Japanese in recovering the rations and drums of rice that floated ashore; the scouts brought back an estimated five tons of rice and an equal amount of rations, while the Japanese recovered about 900 cases. The starving troops on Guadalcanal would have greeted this food as a gift from the gods.
Despite this setback, the Japanese persisted, and the next night, six destroyers of the 8th Fleet Reinforcement Force (what the Americans called the "Tokyo Express") boarded the 1st Battalion, 229th Regiment, at Buin and landed it without incident at Wickham. The following night, 28 December, two sea trucks, Azusa Maru and Kiku Maru, arrived with a SNLF detachment, one army battery of heavy antiaircraft guns, along with ammunition and supplies. But they were spotted, and again, Kennedy radioed Guadalcanal. The next morning, Cactus dive-bombers sent both to the bottom and with them two of the four heavy guns, all of the observation instruments, most of the ammunition, and all of the supplies. On 30 December, the Marine SBD Dauntless dive-bombers returned to sink four large barges sent down from Vila and damaged another, leaving the Wickham Occupation Force with only five that could be used.
Excerpted from New Georgia by Ronnie Day. Copyright © 2016 Ronnie Day. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
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Table of Contents
A Note from the PublisherPrefaceAcknowledgmentsList of MapsList of American and Japanese AircraftJapanese Air Force OrganizationsFrequently Used Acronyms Chapter 1. The Japanese OccupationChapter 2. SOPAC: Bases and LogisticsChapter 3. SOPAC's Air and Naval OffensiveChapter 4. The Japanese Air Counter-OffensivesChapter 5. Plans and PreparationsChapter 6. The LandingsChapter 7. The First Battle for MundaChapter 8. Battles in the Dragons PeninsulaChapter 9. Battles with the Tokyo ExpressChapter 10. The Second Battle of MundaChapter 11. The Vella Lavella OccupationChapter 12. The "Clean Up" in New GeorgiaChapter 13. The Japanese EvacuationChapter 14. The Bomber Offensive against BuinEpilogue. TOENAILS ConcludedNotesBibliographyIndex
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A detailed, up-to-date, integrated air-land-sea history of the middle Solomons campaign from both the American and Japanese perspectives.
A detailed, up-to-date, integrated air-land-sea history of the middle Solomons campaign from both the American and Japanese perspectives.