The fall of Guadalcanal on February 8, 1943, ended the first phase of the Solomons campaign. Geographically, this was the southern phase; militarily, it was the defensive phase. The second phase, which would be fought in the Central Solomons and fought offensively, opened on February 21, when we made an unopposed landing on the Russell Islands, •55 miles northwest of Henderson Field. The purpose of our move was to establish an airfield that much closer to the enemy's base at Munda on New Georgia. Munda was blocking our path to Bougainville, Bougainville was blocking our path to Rabaul, and Rabaul was the keystone of the whole Japanese structure in the southern Pacific.
Rabaul's peacetime blessing, a magnificent natural harbor at the entrance to the Solomon Sea, was its wartime doom. The Japanese had overwhelmed the small Australian garrison only seven weeks after Pearl Harbor and immediately had begun to develop the town into a major base. They built five airfields, fortified the surrounding mountains, and poured in troops and supplies. By the end of the year, Rabaul had become a bastion second in strength and importance only to Truk, •700 miles northward. It dominated both my area and General MacArthur's, and until we captured it or neutralized it, our part of the war would be deadlocked.
The problem was this: Rabaul was •436 miles from MacArthur's base at Port Moresby, on New Guinea, and •515 miles from the Russells — too far for our fighter planes to provide adequate cover p154 for our heavy bombers. Munda was •125 miles closer than the Russells. We would have to capture it eventually, since it was one of the few sites in the Solomons that permitted construction of a bomber field, but it was too heavily defended for quick seizure, and we were eager to step up our attacks on Rabaul as soon as possible. However, halfway between Munda and Port Moresby, in the center of the south Solomon Sea, lay Woodlark Island, only •300 miles from Rabaul, and •just over 200 from Bougainville. Fighters based there could hit Rabaul, Bougainville, or Munda, as we pleased.
One obstacle prevented my moving in the. Woodlark's longitude was 153 degrees East, which meant that it was in General MacArthur's area, and the protocol and punctilio of command forbade me to collaborate with him directly. I had to outline my plan in a dispatch to COMINCH, through CINCPAC, with a request that he submit it to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and not until they approved it, with MacArthur's concurrence, could I take a positive step. This consisted of sending him the 112th Cavalry Regiment as an occupation force, some Seabees as a construction force, some shore-based Navy to organize and administer the port facilities, and some fighter planes.
Meanwhile, we were building two airfields in the Russells, amassing stock piles of fuel and ammunition, and training troops for the eventual assault on New Georgia. This, too, was SOWESPAC territory — the Russells marked SOPAC's extreme western limit — but whereas the over‑all strategy of the whole area was in MacArthur's hands, the Joint Chiefs of Staff had put tactical command of the Solomons subarea in mine. Although this arrangement was sensible and satisfactory, it had the curious effect of giving me two "hats" in the same echelon. My original hat was under Nimitz, who controlled my troops, ships and supplies; now I had another hat under MacArthur, who controlled my strategy.
To discuss plans for engineering with him, I requested an appointment at his headquarters, which were then in Brisbane, Australia, and I flew across from Nouméa early in April. I had never met the General before, but we had one tenuous connection: my father had been a friend of his father's in the Philippines more than forty years back. Five minutes after I reported, I felt as if we p155 were lifelong friends. I have seldom seen a man who makes a quicker, stronger, more favorable impression. He was then sixty-three years old, but he could have passed as fifty. His hair was jet black; his eyes were clear; his carriage was erect. If he had been wearing civilian clothes, I still would have known at once that he was a soldier.
The respect that I conceived for him that afternoon grew steadily during the war and continues to grow as I watch his masterly administration of surrendered Japan. I can recall no flaw in our relationship. We had arguments, but they always ended pleasantly. Not once did he, my superior officer, ever force his decisions upon me. On the few occasions when I disagreed with him, I told him so, and we discussed the issue until one of us changed his mind. My mental picture poses him against the background of these discussions; he is pacing his office, almost wearing a groove between his large, bare desk and the portrait of George Washington that faced it; his corncob pipe is in his hand (I rarely saw him smoke it); and he is making his points in a diction that I have never heard surpassed.
He accepted my plan for the New Georgia operation, and L Day was set for May 15, to coincide with his own advances in New Guinea and his occupation of Woodlark and the Trobriand Islands. The combined operation on both fronts was known as ELKTON.
May 1943: Solomon Islands
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I returned to Nouméa in time to sit in on an operation that was smaller but extremely gratifying. The Navy's code experts had hit a jack pot; they had discovered that Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, the Commander in Chief of Imperial Japanese Navy, was about to visit the Solomons. In fact, he was due to arrive at Ballale Island, just south of Bougainville, precisely at 0945 on April 18. Yamamoto, who had conceived and proposed the Pearl Harbor attack, had also been widely quoted as saying that he was "looking forward to dictating peace in the White House at Washington." I believe that this statement was subsequently proved a canard, but we accepted its authenticity then, and it was an additional reason for his being No. 3 on my private list of public enemies, closely trailing Hirohito and Tojo.
Eighteen P‑38's of the Army's 339th Fighter Squadron, based p157 at Henderson Field, were assigned to make the interception over Buin, •35 miles short of Ballale. Yamamoto's plane, a Betty, accompanied by another Betty and covered by six Zekes, hove in sight exactly on schedule, and Lt. Col. Thomas G. Lanphier, Jr., dove on it and shot it down in flames. The other Betty was also shot down for good measure, plus one of the Zekes.
When the news was announced at my regular conference next morning. Kelly Turner whooped and applauded. I told him, "Hold on, Kelly! What's so good about it? I'd hoped to lead that scoundrel up Pennsylvania Avenue in chains, with the rest of you kicking him where it would do the most good!"
We bottled up the story, of course. One obvious reason was that we didn't want the Japs to know we had broken their code. The other reason was for Lanphier's personal sake. His brother was a prisoner of war, and if the Japs had learned who had shot down Yamamoto, what they might have done to the brother is something I prefer not to think about. I have in mind the nuns they caught on Guadalcanal and raped for forty-eight hours before cutting their throats; and the two Marines whom they vivisected; and they young girl on New Guinea whom they forced to watch her parents being beheaded, before her own turn came; and the execution of General Doolittle's pilots; and the Marine pilot in a parachute, whose feet were chopped off by the propeller of a Zeke.
Unfortunately, somebody took the story to Australia, whence it leaked into the papers, and no doubt eventually into Japan. (The usual route was via a broadcast from South America.) But Japs evidently did not realize the implication any more than did the tattletale; we continued to break their codes, and Lanphier's brother received only routine mistreatment.
About two weeks after the ELKTON conference, MacArthur notified me that he could not meet the date for L Day, and directed its postponement to June 1, and later to the thirtieth. This made little difference to us. Our plans, and even our preliminary attacks, had been under way since December, when we began bombing Munda's newly discovered airfield. It was shelled for the first time on January 4/5 by Rear Adm. "Pug" Ainsworth's light cruisers and destroyers; on March 5/6 by Capt. Robert P. Briscoe; and on May 12/13 by Capt. Colin Campbell. Across Kula Gulf from p158 Munda was the supporting area of Vila-Stanmore, on Kolombangara Island. This, too, was frequently shelled — on January 23/24 by Ainsworth; on March 5/6 by Rear Adm. Aaron S. Merrill, who sank two Jap destroyers on the way to his firing position; on March 15/16 by Comdr. Francis X. McInerney; and on May 12/13 by Ainsworth again. Between shellings, our bombers worked over both areas, and on the four days immediately preceding L Day, they pounded Munda with special ferocity. Even the heaviest air or surface bombardment will render a coral airfield unusable for no more than a few hours, but it tears up planes, destroys supplies, and kills, cripples, or unnerves personnel. In addition, these operations served notice on the enemy that we were now strong enough to move aggressively, and not merely defensively as before.
As soon as the Japs realized that we were mounting a major attack, they tried to beat us to the punch, with cruisers, destroyers, submarines, and planes. On June 16, they sent against Guadalcanal a strike of more than 120 planes, half of them fighters, the rest bombers. We launched around 100 fighters to meet them — Army, Navy, and Marine — and when the air had cleared, our pilots had shot down 107 enemy planes at a cost of six of ours. One hundred and seven for six!
Five months before, in Auckland, I had told the reporters, "When we first started out against them, I held that one of our men was equal to three Japanese. I have now increased this to twenty."
I seem to have been slightly off in my estimate. The actual ratio was 1 to not quite 18. The only comparable air battle in the Pacific was the "Turkey Shoot" that prefaced the Battle of the Philippine Sea, when fighters from Pete Mitscher's carriers shot down 402 Japs at a cost of twenty-seven, or 1 to not quite 15.
Our preparations for ELKTON also included thorough close reconnaissance by trained scouts. We had learned during the Guadalcanal campaign that though the coast watchers and the natives were bold and willing, they did not have the military background necessary to providing all the information we needed: type of defenses, caliber of guns, equipment of units, and so on. Accordingly we organized a combat reconnaissance school on Guadalcanal with experienced Marine and Army personnel as instructors. About 100 men took the course; teams were chosen; and going p159 with ELKTON, we never made a forward move without their help.
The curtain raiser to ELKTON was a landing on June 21 at Segi Point, •40 miles from Munda, on the opposite end of New Georgia. Two companies of the 4th Marine Raider Battalion occupied it without squeezing a trigger; the Army reinforced them next day; construction of a fighter strip was started on the thirtieth, and on July 11 planes took off from what had been virgin jungle only eleven days before. The officer in charge of this project was Comdr. William Painter, "the Henry Kaiser of the Solomons." We would give Bill a piece of level ground, a coral quarry, and a bulldozer. He would do the rest.
On the night of June 29, Rear Adm. Merrill led an attack covering force of light cruisers, destroyers, and mine layers up the Slot, past New Georgia, and into the Buin-Shortland area, •200 miles farther. Two of the destroyers dropped off and turned into Kula Gulf, to shell Vila-Stanmore; the mine layers set their traps across the southern entrance to Bougainville Strait, to seal it against raids on our Munda forces; and the other ships blasted the enemy's anchorages and installations at Shortland, Faisi, Poporang, and Ballale.
The commander of MacArthur's Fifth Air Force, Lt. Gen. George C. Kenney, had promised to cover "Tip" Merrill' retirement with a heavy strike against Rabaul and Buin-Shortland. (The Japs had a float-plane base at Faisi and airstrips at Ballale and Kahili.) However, the weather thickened that night and grounded his planes. It also grounded the Japs', and Tip wasn't bombed, but if Kenney had been able to carry out his promised strike, he might have saved us some grief on the afternoon of the landing.
L Day dawned with low, scattered clouds that soon burnt away. Coast watchers and air reconnaissance had warned us that Munda was protected by an impassable barrier of reefs, so we had picked Rendova Island, •7 miles offshore, as a staging point for our troops and a site for our artillery. Two hours after our six transport planes began unloading, our 105‑millimeter howitzers had been emplaced and were exchanging counterbattery fire with the enemy. The landing proceeded smoothly under an umbrella of thirty‑two fighters from Guadalcanal and the Russells, which beat off attempted attacks p160 twice during the morning. The transports completed unloading by 1500 and were standing down Blanche Channel, on their way back to Guadalcanal, when the third attack came in — between twenty-four and twenty-eight torpedo planes. Ships' fire and the combat air patrol shot down every one of them, but not before a torpedo plane had smashed into the transport McCawley, formerly the Grace liner Santa Barbara and now Kelly Turner's flagship.
She was taken under tow and survived another attack an hour later, but continued to settle by the stern and was ordered abandoned. Suddenly, three more torpedoes struck her, and she slid under in thirty seconds. Rear Admiral Theodore S. Wilkinson, who would relieve Kelly in a few days, had stayed aboard her. "Ping" Wilkinson was afraid that a submarine had sneaked through his screen. It hadn't. A PT skipper had mistaken the poor old "Wacky Mac's" silhouette for an enemy's.
Following is an extract from Radiotokyo's account of the landing:
"The enemy, when discovered by Imperial air units, was attempting to force a landing on the northern shore of Rendova Island. . . . Swinging into action at once, our air units in gigantic formations pierced the enemy's defense line to attack the transports and escort vessels. The results accomplished, as announced by Imperial Headquarters, are either the sinking or heavy damage of six transports, three cruisers, and one destroyer. . . ."
The main body of our invasion force went ashore on Rendova: the 43rd Infantry Division, reinforced, plus a Marine antiaircraft battalion. Two lesser landings were made at the same time: units of the 169th Infantry occupied Sasavele and Baraulu Islands, 6 miles east Munda, just offshore; and two more companies of the 4th Marine Raider Battalion occupied the vicinity of Wickham Anchorage, off Vangunu Island, to establish a staging refuge for small craft operating between Munda and Guadalcanal. A fourth landing was made the following morning at Viru, •8 miles up the coast from Segi.
On L‑plus‑2, we were ready to close in. Scouts found a good beach on the mainland at Zanana, directly opposite Sasavele and Baraulu, and landing craft began ferrying our troops across from Rendova. A line was established along the Barike River, and at p161 dawn on L‑plus‑9, the 43rd moved forward on a 1,300‑yard front, behind a bombardment from four of our destroyers in Blanche Channel. Our advance gained •more than a mile the first day but slowed almost to a standstill when it reached the enemy's main defense, a series of formidable, concealed pillboxes.
The jungle was so thick that it isolated every man from the man beside him. The rain was incessant. Most important, the 43rd was not only unblooded, but certain units were feebly led. Two of its regiments, each commanded by a colonel of the regular Army, were composed of troops from the same part of the United States. One colonel's brother was killed in front of his eyes, and he was wounded twice himself. Nevertheless, he accepted only emergency medical attention and pressed forward with his determined men. The accompanying regiment sent 360 men back to Guadalcanal as "war nerves" casualties after one day's fighting. General Harmon met them there, promptly returned 300 of them to the combat zone, and relieved their colonel on the spot. From then on they fought magnificently.
The ground forces' real weakness, however, was not in the lower echelons. This became evident as day succeeded day, yet our advance was measured in yards instead of miles. We controlled the air and the sea; we outnumbered the enemy 4 or 5 to 1; we bombed his positions every day and supported our troops with ships' fire on request. Rugged as jungle fighting is, by now we should have been within reach of our objective, the airfield. Something was wrong, so I sent Miff Harmon up with authority to take such steps as he saw fit. On the fifteenth, he replaced the commanding general of the ground forces with Maj. Gen. Oscar W. Griswold, the commanding general of the XIV Corps, and presently the advance gathered momentum again. (Even before the campaign started, I had had to recommend the relief of the major general commanding the I Marine Amphibious Corps. Our original plan allotted 15,000 men to wipe out the 9,000 Japs on New Georgia; by the time the island was secured, we had sent in more than 50,000. When I look back on ELKTON, the smoke of charred reputations still makes me cough.)
May 1943: New Georgia
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Meanwhile, on July 5, two battalions of infantry from the 37th Division, and the 1st Marine Raider Battalion, had been put ashore p163 at Rice Anchorage, on the north coast of New Georgia, with orders to occupy the Bairoko-Enogai area and thereby prevent the enemy garrisons on Kolombangara from reinforcing the Munda garrison. A task force being commanded by Pug Ainsworth, and consisting of the light cruisers Honolulu, Helena, and St. Louis, and the destroyers Nicholas, O'Bannon, Strong, and Chevalier, smoothed the way with a bombardment of positions on both sides of Kula Gulf. Although the return fire was accurate, Pug's only loss, the Strong, was caused by a "mystery" torpedo; no one in the task force knew what type of craft had fired it.
Pug's cruisers and his remaining destroyers — except the Chevalier, which had ripped her bow in going alongside the sinking Strong — were steaming home next afternoon when they were ordered to turn back at full speed and intercept a run of the Tokyo Express. The enemy force could not be itemized in the darkness, but it seemed to comprise nine ships, all destroyers, or destroyers with one or two light cruisers. The Battle of Kula Gulf lasted four hours and resulted in our loss of the Helena to a torpedo, and the enemy's loss of two destroyers and damage to four others.
A week later, Pug caught the Express again, in almost the same waters at almost the same hour. This time he had six additional destroyers — the Taylor, Ralph Talbot, Buchanan, Gwin, Maury, and Woodworth — and the Australian light cruiser Leander had replaced the sunken Helena. Although it was again impossible to be certain of the number and type of enemy ships, most observers agreed on one light cruiser and five destroyers. The Battle of Kolombangara was comparatively short, but it was long enough for the Gwin to be sunk and our three cruisers damaged, all by torpedoes, whereas the enemy escaped with the loss of only his cruiser.
These two engagements were expensive, but they served to protect our landings on the northwest coast of New Georgia, and to deny the Japs further use of Kula Gulf as a supply route to their garrisons.
Let me return to the Strong for a moment. About three-fourths of her company were rescued by the Chevalier, but nearly all the rest were lost — some to the torpedo and to hits by shore batteries, p164 others to her own depth charges when she sank, still others by drowning. Six men, however, drifted ashore four days later on an island between New Georgia and Kolombangara. One died of his injuries on the tenth, and another on the thirteenth; and by the fifteenth, the only officer left, Lt. Hugh Barr Miller, Jr., a former All‑American quarterback from the University of Alabama, had become so weak from internal bleeding caused by the depth charges that, convinced he was going to die, he gave most of his clothes and equipment to the three bluejackets and ordered them to try to make their way to our lines.
It is hard to imagine a more desperate plight than that of a seriously injured man, naked except for a jacket, unarmed except for a broken pocket knife, and alone in a hostile jungle, but Miller survived. In fact, he did far more than survive. A heavy rain on the seventeenth gave him a flicker of strength. Two days later he split open a coconut and he was able to retain its meat — the first solid food he had kept down since the Strong sank. Next he found a dead Jap and took his grenades, rations, and uniform. The stripped corpse tipped off Miller's presence, but the first Jap patrol that approached him, on August 5, he annihilated with a grenade — all five men. By the time he was finally picked up by a amphibious plane, after forty-three days, he had not only killed at least twenty-five more Japs but had amassed a large amount of valuable intelligence material.
This is, of course, only the skeleton of Miller's heroic story, as I heard it from him in a hospital at Nouméa, but it is enough to show that he deserved the Navy Cross for which I recommended him, and that as long as America continues to breed boys like him, she can never be beaten.
Between L Day and July 31, we funneled 28,748 men into New Georgia through Rendova alone: three Army divisions — the 43rd, 37th, and 25th — plus Navy and Marines. On August 5, I received from General Griswold the dispatch we had been waiting for: Our ground forces have wrested Munda from the Japs and present it to you as the sole owner × our Munda operation is the finest example in all my experience of a united all‑service all‑American team.
I replied, Consider this a custody receipt for Munda and for p165 a gratifying number of enemy dead × Such teamwork and unrelenting offensive spirit assures the success of future drives and the implacable extermination of the enemy wherever we can bring him to grips × Keep em dying.
I was watching the operation from my headquarters at Nouméa. Two days after the fall of Munda, another piece of good news came to me — my son Bill. The Saratoga had put into Havannah Harbor at Efate, and Bill, her Aviation Supply officer, had been sent down to pick up some spare parts. He spent the night with me and started back the next afternoon, August 8, as a passenger on a flight of three of the Sara's torpedo planes.
Bill had hardly left when an attack of flu put me to bed. I must have been sicker than I realized, because not until the tenth was my Operations officer, Capt. H. Raymond Thurber, allowed to tell me, "Admiral, we have had three torpedo planes missing for two days."
I knew at once, "My boy?"
Ray described the searches being made, then asked if I could suggest any additional measures.
I told him, "My son is the same as every other son in the combat zone. Look for him just as you'd look for anybody else."
Another day passed, and another, with no word of the planes. Usually I shared my problems with my staff, but this was personal, and I kept it to myself. I didn't give up hope, but I knew that hope was a double-edged sword. When the families of missing men begged me to hold out hope of their return, I always refused. I considered it too cruel. I would tell them frankly, "Only a miracle can bring him home."
By the afternoon of the twelfth, four days after he had disappeared, this was my feeling about Bill. That evening, though, a search plane reported spotting several rubber rafts ashore on the island of Eromanga, between New Caledonia and Efate, and next day all ten men were recovered, suffering from nothing worse than fleabites, diarrhea, and sore feet. It turned out that they had missed their course and had been forced to make a water landing.
The day they were picked up was Friday, August 13. From then on — for awhile — I spit in the eye of the jinx that had haunted me p166 on the thirteenth of every month since the Missouri's turret explosion thirty-nine years before.
A fresh anxiety arose within a week. I was informed that Mrs. Roosevelt was making an air tour of the South and Southwest Pacific, and would reach Nouméa on the twenty-fifth. Among an area commander's worst problems are the politicians, admirals and generals, "special" correspondents, and "do‑gooders" who present themselves in the assurance that their visit is a "morale factor," or that they are entitled to "see it from the inside." Mrs. Roosevelt I classed as a do‑gooder, and I dreaded her arrival.
This opinion was strictly COMSOPAC's, not Bill Halsey's. I had known Mrs. Roosevelt for many years and had always liked and admired her; but I could find no excuse for her entering my area and monopolizing planes, crews, and fuel that were needed for military purposes. Secondly, large delegations from the Australian government and from General MacArthur insisted on coming over to give her an official welcome, and Nouméa had no accommodations for them. Thirdly, a series of contradictory messages were pouring into my headquarters, announcing, canceling, and changing her future itinerary, and it was impossible for me to arrange transportation for her until her schedule crystallized. Lastly, I'd have to wrench my attention from New Georgia, put on a necktie, and play the gracious, solicitous host. I had no time for such folderol, yet I'd have to take time.
She was wearing a Red Cross uniform when she stepped from her plane. I asked her at once if she would tell me her plans.
"What do you think I should do?" she asked.
"Mrs. Roosevelt," I said, "I've been married for thirty‑odd years, and if those years have taught me one lesson, it is never to try to make up a woman's mind for her."
We decided she should stay in Nouméa for two days, then fly over to Australia, and spend two more days with us on her way home. I had begun to breathe more easily when she handed me a letter from the President, requesting permission for her to go to Guadalcanal, if I considered the trip feasible. That set me back on my heels. I told her rather curtly, "Guadalcanal is no place for you, Ma'am!"
"I'm perfectly willing to take my chances," she said. "I'll be entirely responsible for anything that happens to me."
p167 I said, "I'm not worried about the responsibility, and I'm not worried about the chances you'd take. I know you'd take them gladly. What worries me is the battle going on in New Georgia at this very minute. I need every fighter plane I can put my hands on. If you fly to Guadalcanal, I'll have to provide a fighter escort for you, and I haven't got one to spare."
She looked so crestfallen that I found myself adding, "However, I'll postpone my final decision until your return. The situation may have clarified by then."
This cheered her up, and we drove into town.
I billeted her in Wicky-Wacky Lodge, where she would be more comfortable and would have more privacy than in our other quarters adjoining. Of course, we had a cordon of MP's around the house the whole time she was there. That night I gave a small reception and dinner for her (I put on a tie), and early next morning she started her rounds. Here is what she did in twelve hours: she inspected two Navy hospitals, took a boat to an officers' rest home and had lunch there, returned and inspected an Army hospital, reviewed the 2d Marine Raider Battalion (her son Jimmy had been its executive officer), made a speech at a service club, attended a reception, and was guest of honor at a dinner given by General Harmon.
When I say that she inspected those hospitals, I don't mean that she shook hands with the chief medical officer, glanced into a sun‑parlor, and left. I mean that she went into every ward, stopped at every bed, and spoke to every patient: What was his name? How did he feel? Was there anything he needed? Could she take a message home for him? I marvelled the her hardihood, both physical and mental; she walked for miles, and she saw patients who were grievously and gruesomely wounded. But I marveled most at their expressions as she leaned over them. It was a sight I will never forget. (At one hospital, I arranged for her to pin the Navy Cross and two Purple Hearts on my "one‑man army," Lieutenant Miller of the Strong.)
The New Georgia campaign was finished by the time she returned from Australia, and I consented — though with misgivings — to her visiting Guadalcanal. When I saw her off, I told her that it was impossible for me to express my appreciation of what she had done, and was doing, for my men. I was ashamed of my original p168 surliness. She alone had accomplished more good than any other person, or any group of civilians, who had passed through my area. In the nine months left to me as COMSOPAC, nothing caused me to modify this opinion.
Incidentally, my misgivings about her Guadalcanal trip were very nearly warranted. The night before her plane arrived, the enemy sent his first bombing attack against the island in two months, and sent another the night after her departure. I was there at the time, on a tour of our northern positions, and again I wondered if our team was the only one with code-breakers.
My reluctance to let Mrs. Roosevelt junket through my area at the expense of aviation fuel and a fighter escort reminds me of the similar trouble I had with correspondents. An essential part of their job is, of course, seeing the battle zone and describing it for their readers. I realized this, but I too had a job — to fight the war — and where my job conflicted with theirs, mine took precedence. The point of conflict was air transportation to the front. At one time during the Guadalcanal campaign, we had only 3,500 gallons of aviation fuel on the island, or enough for only two ten‑plane strikes. Ammunition was also low; so were bombs, torpedoes, food, and medicine. When the situation reached the stage where even a dribble of supplies was vital, we grounded all passengers, took over the transport planes, loaded them until they were bowlegged, and flew them up the line. (The combat pilots were glamor boys, but save a cheer for the transport pilots who hauled fuel and live ammunition in unarmed planes, without escort, and landed them under fire!)
Those critical weeks were naturally the weeks that the correspondents wanted to cover. Miles Browning usually had the unpleasant duty of refusing their requests for a flight, but occasionally one would elude Miles and appeal to me. I always asked, "How much do you weigh?" and when he told me, I said, "I'd like to send you up, but I feel that an equivalent weight of gas, bombs, and mail is needed more at this moment than you are. If you are willing to go by ship, we can arrange it, but we can't book you on a plane."
Most of them took my refusal in good part and were of a character too high to let resentment color their stories. This group includes Frank Morris, of Collier's; Frank Tremaine, of the United Press; Joe Driscoll, of The New York Herald-Tribune; Bob Trumbull, p169 of The New York Times; and a great many others. One, however, was a conspicuous exception. The first I knew of his duplicity was when I received a dispatch from the Secretary of the Navy requesting permission, on this man's behalf, to quote a tribute I had paid his article about a night surface engagement off Guadalcanal, which he had witnessed (he said) from a foxhole on the beach, and which I was supposed to have acclaimed as "not only superb, but breathless, and marvelously accurate" — or something equally extravagant.
I was astonished. Far from having made any such statement, I had never even seen the story. I sent for it, read it, and replied to the Secretary, Prior to receipt of your message I had not read article in question × Have now done so and find it little of factual value × I will not endorse it.
Here the scoundrel was merely presumptuous. In the New Georgia campaign, he became vicious. One of his stories declared, among other brazen lies, that we were burying our casualties without bothering to make sure that they were dead! Julian Brown sent for him at once and asked his authority for such an accusation. Having none, he took refuge behind a screen of equivocation about his "duty to educate the American public in the psychology of jungle warfare."
Julian interrupted him with what I am afraid was an ugly word and went on to suggest that his true motive was quite different — yellow sensationalism and nothing else.
"I resent that!" the man shouted.
"I hoped you would," Julian said, and took off his blouse.
There was no fight. The correspondent's yellowness extended to his back.
An arrant fabrication like this was so remote from the honest stories our other correspondents filed, so shameless and dangerous, that we requested Public Relations headquarters at CINCPAC to reexamine his credentials, and returned him there under guard. While he was en route, we were informed that a camera and some photographs had been discovered in his gear, although he had pledged himself, as had all correspondents, not to bring films or a camera into our area. Now there was no further doubt about his sincerity. His credentials were revoked, and he never annoyed us again.
Inevitably, we were pestered with freaks as well as knaves. p170 I recall a lieutenant colonel of Marines — the former secretary of a Congressman, I believe — who paraded around Nouméa wearing two identical rows of ribbons, although no one else wore any ribbons at all. What he had done to earn them, if anything, I have no idea, but I know that we infuriated Julian Brown by acclaiming this creature as representing the highest type of Marine officer.
Then there was the lieutenant commander sent me by General Donovan's Office of Strategic Services — a wild-eyed young professor who was an authority on Tibet and therefore, presumably, indispensable to the South Pacific campaign. He was so wrapped in his cloak-and‑dagger role that he whispered even in my office, and I had great difficulty learning why he was there. I finally gathered that he was promoting a one‑man collapsible rubber submarine. When I asked him to describe it, he whispered, "I'd rather not. It's highly confidential."
I assured him that he could trust my discretion, and finally he admitted, "The fact is, we haven't got one yet, but I'll tell Washington to develop it."
I told him, "Get out of here!"
Another hour was shot to hell.
(I don't mean to discredit the OSS. It did a splendid job in Europe and elsewhere, but there was simply no place for it in our part of the world.)
Isolated pockets on New Georgia continued to resist until August 25; after that, the whole island was ours. We had not waited for the extermination of the last Jap. We had already picked our next handhold on the ladder of the Solomons. The nearest island north of New Georgia, Kolombangara, had a fighter strip at Vila-Stanmore and — as confirmed by a combat reconnaissance team — a garrison of 10,000 troops dug into positions as nearly impregnable as Munda's. The undue length of the Munda operation and our heavy casualties made me wary of another slugging match, but I didn't know how to avoid it. I could see no victory without Rabaul, and no Rabaul without Kolombangara. Besides, ELKTON called for the capture and occupation of Kolombangara, the Shortland Islands, and Kahili airfield on Bougainville.
It was here that my staff first suggested the by‑pass policy — p171 jump over the enemy's strong points, blockade them, and leave them to starve. We looked at our charts. Next above Kolombangara is Vella Lavella, •35 miles nearer the Shortlands and Kahili. According to coast watchers, its garrison numbered not more than 250, and its shore line would offer at least one site for an airstrip. That was all we needed. On July 12, I canceled Kolombangara from ELKTON and wrote in Vella Lavella.
Ten days later, a PT boat landed a combat reconnaissance team of six Army, Navy, and Marine officers on Vella's southeast coast. When we took them off a week later, they reported finding a potential airstrip along the beach at Barakoma and another beach near by suitable for a PT base. The enemy garrison, they added, was concentrated on the northwest coast, so we could expect little or no resistance.
By L Day, August 15, this garrison had been swelled to 700 by refugees from Kolombangara and by the few Jap survivors of the Battle of Vella Gulf, on the night of the sixth, when six of our destroyers — the Dunlap, Craven, Maury, Lang, Sterett, and Stack — under Comdr. Frederick Moosbrugger, waylaid four of the enemy's, carrying supplies and 950 Army troops to Vila-Stanmore, and in a short, brilliant action sank three of them and damaged the fourth without damage or casualties of their own. However, the only opposition to our landing came from the air, and this was ineffective. Planes from Kahili made four attacks that resulted in fewer casualties for us than for the enemy's pilots and aircrewmen.
By sunset of L Day, Ping Wilkinson, my new Amphibious Forces Commander, had put ashore 4,600 troops, under Brig. Gen. Robert B. McClure of the Army. The Seabees began work on the airstrip at once; the site was cleared by September 3, and planes were operating from it by the twenty-seventh. Meanwhile, on the eighteenth, the Army troops on Vella had been relieved by elements of the 3rd New Zealand Division, whose commanding officer, Maj. Gen. H. E. Barrowclough, then became Island Commander — the first time in my area that Americans served under any but American officers. We had already expanded our perimeter until Vella was free of Japs except on its northwest coast, and Barrowclough set about eliminating these last forlorn few hundreds. By the night of October 6, he had them penned on a narrow strip of p172 beach. At dawn his New Zealanders rushed in for the kill. The only Japs they found were dead ones.
What had happened is worth explaining in some detail. In July and August, the enemy's main concern was reinforcing and supplying Kolombangara. In September, his concern was evacuating it. Almost nightly he sent barges to sneak out his men by fifties and hundreds, and almost nightly our destroyers and PT's chopped them up and sank them. What our surface craft left, our aircraft scuttled in the morning. On September 9, Corsairs alone sank nine barges. On the fourteenth, PT's sank five. The hunt intensified as the month turned. On the twenty-eighth, our destroyers sank four; on the twenty-ninth, we sank three; on the thirtieth, six. The nights of October 1 and 2 were moonless, so the enemy redoubled his efforts. On the first, we sank twenty barges; on the second, twenty more; on the fourth, sixteen. These last sixteen brought our total up to 598 barges sunk in three months, and 670 believed seriously damaged. We have no way of knowing how many Japs were killed by gunfire or were drowned, but our estimate is between 3,000 and 4,000. It was rich, rewarding, beautiful slaughter.
Intelligence warned us that on the night of October 6/7, the Tokyo Express would probably make a final attempt to rescue the troops cornered on Vella or to complete the evacuation of Kolombangara. Three of our destroyers — the Selfridge, Chevalier, and O'Bannon, under Capt. Frank R. Walker — at once stood north and presently engaged ten of the enemy's, in the night Battle of Vella Lavella. Early in the action, the Chevalier was mortally torpedoed and, out of control, was rammed by the O'Bannon. Five minutes later, the Selfridge lost her bow to another torpedo. Although the enemy had also lost a ship, his proportionate strength was now far greater; yet instead of pounding our cripples to pieces, he broke off and fled toward Rabaul. The New Zealanders discovered the explanation next morning: under cover of the engagement and the flight, barges had crept in and evacuated the Vella garrison.
Our occupation of this important offensive base was now complete. The central Solomons campaign was finished. Vella had cost us fewer than 150 dead and had abundantly justified our strategy of by‑passing. The next campaign, the northern Solomons, would see this strategy win us the war in the South Pacific.
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