New Georgia Campaign
Coordinates: The New Georgia Campaign was a series of land and naval battles of the Pacific campaign of World War II between Allied forces and the Empire of Japan. It was part of Operation Cartwheel, the Allied grand strategy in the South Pacific. The campaign took place in the New Georgia group of islands, in the central Solomon Islands from 20 June through 7 October 1943.
- 1 Background
- 2 Allied Planning
- 3 Conquest of New Georgia Island
- 4 Outlying Islands
- 5 Notes
- 6 References
- 7 External links
The Japanese had captured New Georgia in 1942 and built an airbase at Munda Point which began operations in December 1942 to support the Guadalcanal offensives. As it became clear at the end of 1942 that they could not hold Guadalcanal, the Japanese commanders guessed that the Allies would move toward the Japanese base at Rabaul on New Britain, and that the central Solomon Islands were logical steps on the way.
The Imperial Japanese Army believed that holding the Solomon Islands would be ultimately unsuccessful and that it would be better to wait for an Allied attack on Bougainville which would be much less costly to supply and reinforce. The Imperial Japanese Navy preferred to delay the Allied advance for as long as possible by maintaining a distant line of defence. With no effective central command, the two Japanese services implemented their own plans: the navy assumed responsibility for the defence of the central Solomons and the army for the northern Solomons.
In early 1943, Japanese defenses were prepared against possible Allied landings on New Georgia, Kolombangara and Santa Isabel. By June 1943, there were 10,500 troops on New Georgia and 9,000 on Kolombangara, all under the command of General Minoru (Noboru) Sasaki, well dug in and waiting for an Allied attack.
Choice of New Georgia
By early 1943, some Allied leaders—notably the supreme commander in the neighboring South West Pacific Area command, General Douglas MacArthur—had wanted to focus on capturing Rabaul, but Japanese strength there and lack of landing craft meant that such an operation was not practical in 1943. Instead, on the initiative of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, a plan known as Operation Cartwheel was developed, which proposed to envelop and cut off Rabaul without capturing it, by simultaneous offensives in the Territory of New Guinea and northward through the Solomon Islands.
The Allied base at Guadalcanal continued to suffer from Japanese bombing raids even after the island was declared secured on 9 February 1943. The Japanese airfield at Munda made these raids easier by giving Japanese planes a convenient place to refuel on the way to and from their main base at Rabaul. The Allies attempted to neutralize Munda with repeated bombing raids and naval shelling, but the Japanese were always able to repair the airfield in short order. The Allied command thus determined that Munda had to be captured by ground troops. Since the New Georgias lay within the South Pacific Area, the operation would be the responsibility of Admiral William F. Halsey, headquartered at Nouméa on New Caledonia.
Capture of the Russells
The Russell Island group, lying between Guadalcanal and the New Georgia group, had served as a troop staging base for the Japanese during the fight for Guadalcanal, and Admiral Halsey, Commander South Pacific Force (renamed US Third Fleet on 15 March 1943), determined to capture it in preparation for the main action in the New Georgias. In early February, he instructed Rear Admiral Richmond Kelly Turner, formerly his Deputy Commander and now his Commander Amphibious Force, to undertake Operation Cleanslate.
Beginning 21 February, Admiral Turner landed the 43rd Infantry Division (Army) under Maj. Gen. John H. Hester and the 3rd Marine Raider Battalion under Lieutenant Colonel Harry B. “Harry the Horse” Liversedge on the Russells, a total of approximately 9,000 troops and their equipment. These landings were totally unopposed because, unbeknownst to the Allies, the Japanese had evacuated the Russells soon after leaving Guadalcanal. In fact, the men landing on nearby Banika Island were greeted by two coastwatchers with the offer of a cup of tea.
Preliminaries to the New Georgia Landings
Alarmed that the Allies were working their way up the Solomons chain, the Japanese bombed the new American base in the Russells and began strengthening their own airfields at Munda and at nearby Vila on Kolombangara Island. In their turn, the Americans continued attempting to subdue Munda field with naval shellings of dubious effectiveness. During the course of one of these overnight bombardment sorties, on the night of 6–7 March 1943, an American force consisting of three light cruisers and three destroyers under the command of Rear Admiral A. Stanton “Tip” Merrill encountered the Japanese destroyers Murasame and Minegumo as they were returning up Kula Gulf from delivering food and supplies to the garrison at Vila. In the ensuing action, known as the Battle of Blackett Strait, both Japanese destroyers were sunk.
The Americans next attempted to interdict the Japanese supply lanes by mining the ocean approaches to Vila and Munda. This proved as ineffective as bombardment had been, since the Japanese were able to sweep up the mines readily.
The Allies had plenty of time to plan Operation Toenails, as the invasion of the New Georgias was called. The plan called for simultaneous landings on 30 June at four places. From southeast to northwest, these were: (1) Wickham Anchorage on the southeast coast of Vangunu Island; (2) Segi Point on the southeastern tip of New Georgia; (3) Viru Harbor on the southwest coast of New Georgia, just a few miles up from Segi; and (4) Rendova Harbor on Rendova Island just across Blanche Channel from Munda, placing the latter Japanese base well within range of land-based artillery.
During the entire New Georgia Campaign, the resolution and resourcefulness of the British Commonwealth coastwatchers proved invaluable to the Allied cause. District Officer Donald G. Kennedy, a New Zealander, set the tone in a message he had had delivered to every native village when occupation by the Japanese was imminent: “These islands are British and they are to remain British. The government is not leaving. Even if the Japanese come, we shall stay with you and in the end they will be driven out.” In the event, it was the prospect of District Officer Kennedy being killed or captured that led Admiral Turner to move up the first Allied landings by nine days. He sent two companies of the 4th Marine Raider Battalion to capture Segi Point on the morning of 21 June, where Kennedy and his native comrades were rescued.
Conquest of New Georgia Island
Main Landings: 30 June – 2 July
A force consisting of portions of the 4th Marine Raider Battalion and of the 103rd Infantry Regiment (Army) landed at Oloana Bay on the south coast of Vangunu Island. From there they marched overland to Vura village which overlooked Wickham Anchorage, the first of the objectives of the original plan. By 12 July, Vura was secured and garrisoned.
A force also consisting of portions of the 4th Marine Raider Battalion and portions of the 103rd Infantry Regiment (Army) landed at Viru Harbor, the third of the original plan’s objectives. The Japanese were driven off and by 9 July the area was secured and garrisoned.
The landings in the area around Munda were obviously the most important of the four. Admiral Turner personally commanded this portion of the invasion fleet from his flagship, the attack transport McCawley, which after being damaged by a Japanese air-launched torpedo that afternoon, was mistakenly sunk by an American PT boat that night. The 172nd Infantry Regiment (Army) landed at Rendova Harbor while Companies A and B of the 169th Infantry Regiment along with a commando unit of 130 South Pacific islanders took three vitally placed islets in Blanche Channel. These were to provide staging areas for the main event, the siege of Munda, the ultimate goal that eventually would prove far more arduous to attain than anticipated.
On 2 July, the Americans were ready to make a landing in the Munda area. Laiana beach was closest, being only two miles from Munda, but as it was heavily defended, it was rejected in favor of Zanana beach, more than three miles farther east. Zanana would prove to be an unfortunate choice.
Landings in Kula Gulf
Halsey's counterparts at Rabaul, Vice Admiral Jinichi Kusaka and Lieutenant General Hitoshi Imamura, had no intention of allowing New Georgia to fall the way Guadalcanal had. They loaded 4,000 troops on destroyers, brought them down The Slot on the night of 4–5 July and landed them at Vila on the southeast coast of Kolombangara Island. From there, the men would be ferried across Kula Gulf on barges to Bairoko on the northwest coast of New Georgia, from where they would follow the eight-mile jungle trail to Munda.
The Allies also carried out an amphibious operation in Kula Gulf that night. Admiral Halsey had dispatched transports carrying 4,600 troops under Colonel Liversedge to Rice Anchorage on the northwest coast of New Georgia. Covering these troopships was a force of three light cruisers and four destroyers commanded by Rear Admiral Walden L. “Pug” Ainsworth. One of Ainsworth’s destroyers, the Strong, was torpedoed and sunk by the Japanese as the latter were retiring up the Gulf from their reinforcement mission to Vila.
Liversedge’s men were tasked with moving down the coast and capturing Bairoko, thereby interdicting the trailhead used by the Japanese to reinforce Munda. They were successfully landed at dawn, but made only five miles’ progress through the heavy jungle the first day. After three days, they had covered all of seven miles.
The night (5–6 July) after the Kula Gulf landings, the opposing naval forces engaged in a full scale battle in the waters northeast of Kolombangara Island, an action that came to be called the Battle of Kula Gulf. The Americans lost light cruiser Helena and the Japanese lost destroyers Niizuki and Nagatsuki, as well as Rear Admiral Teruo Akiyama.
Debacle at Munda
The Army troops’ advance from Zanana to Munda was completely stymied. General Hester tried to break the stalemate by sending the 172nd Infantry Regiment around to the north to take the Japanese position in the rear, while the 169th Infantry would continue the frontal assault. Historian Samuel Eliot Morison had this to say about the decision:
This was perhaps the worst blunder in the most unintelligently waged land campaign of the Pacific war (with the possible exception of Okinawa). Laiana should have been chosen as the initial beachhead; if it was now required, the 172nd should have been withdrawn from Zanana and landed at Laiana under naval gunfire and air support. Or Hester might have made the landing with his reserves then waiting at Rendova. As it was, General Sasaki interpreted the move correctly and by nightfall had brought both advances to a standstill.
The American ground troops on New Georgia were thus halted in both the north and the south. The Japanese brought reinforcements over by barge from Vila to Bairoko, and 1,200 more troops were loaded onto four destroyer-transports at Rabaul and sent down to be landed at Vila on the night of 12–13 July. These ships were escorted by a light cruiser and five destroyers. Admiral Ainsworth was sent to intercept this flotilla with three light cruisers and ten destroyers. He encountered the Japanese force in The Slot in the waters north of Kolombangara Island. The ensuing Battle of Kolombangara resulted in the sinking of the American destroyer Gwin, the Japanese light cruiser Jintsu, and the death of Rear Admiral Shunji Izaki.
Changes in Command and the Capture of Munda
Major General Oscar W. Griswold, commander XIV Army Corps and General Hester’s immediate superior, visited New Georgia to assess the situation and determined that it was indeed dire. He radioed that at least another division was needed to break the stalemate. At Nouméa, Admiral Halsey had had no conception of how bad things were. He sent Lieutenant General Millard F. Harmon, USAAF, to the front to straighten the matter out. Harmon thoroughly investigated the situation on New Georgia and gave field command to Griswold so that Hester could concentrate on leading his own division. (A long-anticipated change in naval command took place at the same time, when Rear Admiral Theodore Stark Wilkinson took over leadership of the amphibious forces from Admiral Turner on 15 July.)
General Sasaki took advantage of the disorder on the American side. Samuel Eliot Morison described it this way:
Darkness came to the jungle like the click of a camera shutter. Then the Japanese crept close to the American lines. They attacked with bloodcurdling screams, plastered bivouacs with artillery and mortar barrages, crawled silently into American foxholes and stabbed or strangled the occupants. Often they cursed loudly in English, rattled their equipment, named the American commanding officers and dared the Americans to fight, reminding them that they were “not in the Louisiana maneuvers now.” For sick and hungry soldiers who had fought all day, this unholy shivaree was terrifying. They shot at everything in sight – fox fire on rotting stumps, land crabs clattering over rocks, even comrades.
The Japanese learned to apply close assault tactics to American tanks, rendering armor even less effective in the jungle than usual. On the night of 17 July, the Japanese actually succeeded in overrunning the command post of the 43rd Division near Zanana. Eventually, however, Sasaki’s troops became sick and exhausted; also, he had lost communications with Rabaul. He ordered a retreat from the Munda area on 3 August. General Griswold had his men sweep around Munda to the northwest and on 5 August plastered the remaining Japanese with artillery fire. That day, the Americans moved unopposed into Munda, finally achieving the campaign’s most important goal.
Capture of Bairoko
On the northern front, Colonel Liversedge had been reinforced by 700 Marines and made plans to capture Bairoko village, which sits on the eastern side of Bairoko Harbor, on 20 July. His Army detachment was to attack the village from the southeast while his Marines converged from the northeast, a classic pincer movement. The Japanese defensive positions were so well designed, however, that neither force could make progress, and casualties began to mount. Just before dawn on 22 July, Liversedge called for air strikes to cover his withdrawal. Perhaps with a view to compensating for failures in land-based air cover following previous such requests, what followed was the heaviest aerial bombardment of the campaign so far.
On the night of 1–2 August, while patrolling Blackett Strait west of Kolombangara, PT 109 was cut in two and sunk by destroyer Amagiri. The boat’s commander, Lieutenant John F. Kennedy, later served as 35th President of the United States.
Beginning 3 August, Liversedge tried again, first establishing a battalion of the 148th Infantry at a blocking position on the Munda trail. Two days later he relieved these men with a combined Army/Marine force and moved the 148th to a dominant position overlooking the entire area. On 10 August Liversedge picked up another battalion of GIs and renewed the direct attack on Bairoko. After two more grueling weeks, the Americans entered Bairoko unopposed on 24 August.
Securing New Georgia
Admiral Kusaka and General Imamura at Rabaul made a final, disastrous attempt to bring reinforcements to General Sasaki. Under the protection of a single destroyer, 940 troops and 700 naval personnel were loaded aboard three destroyer-transports and sent down under the command of Rear Admiral Kaju Sugiura to Kolombangara on the night of 6–7 August. Admiral Wilkinson, thinking such a movement likely on that night, sent a force of six destroyers under Commander Frederick Moosbrugger to intercept them. The American destroyer sailors were jubilant that at last they would be free of the combat doctrine that required them to stick close to the cruisers; on this night, they would be able to apply their own tactics. In the resulting Battle of Vella Gulf, fought in the waters northwest of Kolombangara, the American destroyers took the Japanese completely by surprise. The three ships carrying passengers, Arashi, Hagikaze, and Kawakaze, were torpedoed and sunk, and the escort ship, Shigure, did not linger to search for survivors.
Following this major reversal, General Sasaki moved his headquarters to Kolombangara on 8–9 August, leaving behind a token force to defend the west coast of New Georgia. His mission now was simply to hold the remaining islands of the New Georgia group as long as possible, giving the Japanese a chance to reinforce the northern Solomons. US Army forces moved along the west coast of New Georgia, wiping out the 200 Japanese remaining in the Zieta area, and capturing the islet of Baanga to silence the enemy artillery there by 20 August. Under the noses of U.S. patrols, the last Japanese troops on New Georgia were barged from Bairoko Harbor over to Kolombangara on the night of 23 August. This marked the end of ground combat on New Georgia.
General Sasaki played his delaying role to the hilt. When the US 172nd Infantry landed on Arundel Island, just west of New Georgia, on 27 August, he allowed them to come ashore unopposed and establish a beachhead. Just as the Americans were feeling the occupation would be easy, Sasaki counterattacked in multiple places, tying the Americans down and forcing them to call for reinforcements. He carried out a particularly determined attack on 15 September, bringing the whole Allied effort on Arundel to a halt, and with far fewer troops than his opponents. General Griswold ordered a full-scale effort, including Marine Corps tanks, to drive the Japanese off the island. After vicious fighting on 17 & 18 September, the Japanese abandoned Arundel for good on the night of 20–21 September.
Admiral Halsey had earlier seen the wisdom of bypassing the heavily fortified island of Kolombangara and invading Vella Lavella instead, the latter island lying closer to Bougainville and Rabaul and being less well defended. Thus, a month before New Georgia was secured, a reconnaissance party was landed on Vella Lavella to gain information about Japanese strength and dispositions as well as about suitable landing sites. These men and their native guides managed to explore the island for a full week, completely avoiding contact with the Japanese. On 31 July, they returned to Guadalcanal with thorough intelligence about the target. The village of Barakoma near the island’s southeastern tip was selected as the landing place.
The invasion force consisted of seven destroyer-transports, three LSTs, two submarine chasers and twelve destroyers under the personal command of Admiral Wilkinson aboard one of the destroyers. Embarked were about 6,500 ground troops led by Major General Robert B. McClure. Japanese planes attacked multiple Allied bases on the night of 14 August, but completely missed this fleet headed for Vella Lavella. The next morning, disembarkation began at Barakoma.
The Japanese high command in Tokyo had already decided that no more troops would be wasted in the central Solomons. Rather than reinforce and defend Vella Lavella, it was to be used merely as a way station for the evacuation of the troops on Kolombangara that had been bypassed by the Allies with this new landing. Horaniu on the northeast coast was selected as a barge staging point and on the night of 17–18 August two Army companies and a Navy platoon were landed there. The covering force of four destroyers was met in The Slot by an American force, also made up of four destroyers under Captain Thomas J. Ryan, that had been sent to disrupt the operation. In the ensuing Battle off Horaniu, no ships of either side were lost and the Japanese succeeded in establishing a barge base.
The Allies decided to squeeze the remaining enemy ground forces on Vella Lavella into a pocket in the northwest corner of the island and wipe them out. The 3rd New Zealand Division, under the command of Major General Harold E. Barrowclough, was given this assignment. The New Zealanders began their pincer movement on 21 September, but the Japanese resisted so fiercely that it took until 5–6 October to bottle them up.
On the night of 6–7 October, Rear Admiral Matsuji Ijuin led a force consisting of three destroyer-transports and twelve small craft to take the 600 remaining ground troops off Vella Lavella. Ijuin personally commanded a group of six destroyers sent to cover the operation from American naval interference. Admiral Wilkinson hurriedly rerouted two groups of three destroyers each to attempt to disrupt the evacuation. Only the first group, under the command of Captain Frank R. Walker, arrived in time to engage in combat. In the resulting Battle of Vella Lavella, the US destroyer Chevalier and the Japanese destroyer Yugumo were lost. Ijuin succeeded in keeping the American ships from interfering in the evacuation. As a result, General Barrowclough’s men entered the evacuated area unopposed. The New Georgia Campaign was complete.
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