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Nations at war
Gailey, Harry A. Bougainville: The Forgotten Campaign, 1943-1945. Lexington, KY: University of Kentucky Press, 2003
Introduction; photos; maps; Glossary; Notes; Bibliography; Index
While in fact there were many exceptions, battles in the Pacific are generally remembered as short, bloody amphibious landings that concluded within a few days or weeks. So it seems all the more remarkable when Harry Gailey reminds readers that the battle for Bougainville lasted nearly two years. In fact, combat on Bougainville didn't end until after the bombing, many thousands of miles away, of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Nor was the battle a narrow, one-dimensional affair. It encompassed numerous air, land, and sea actions, and it involved not just Japanese and American forces, but also Australians, New Zealanders, and Fiji islanders. Because the campaign on Bougainville involved so many separate forces, the history has mostly been told piecemeal in the past, in books devoted to just the part played by the Marines, or just the role of the US Army, or just the Aussie brigades, and so on. Gailey has taken the opportunity to integrate all the separate threadsair, land, and seaand all the different nationalities into one comprehensive history, and with Bougainville: The Forgotten Campaign, as with his books about the campaign in New Guinea and the liberation of Guam, he has succeeded in bringing the entire picture into sharp focus at the strategic, operational, and tactical levels.
After tracing the early course of the war and highlighting the strategic importance of the island of Bougainville in relation to the Japanese fortress at Rabaul in the first chapter, Gailey devotes his second chapter to a general survey of the planning for the Elkton III and Cartwheel operations to deal with Rabaul. He also examines operations on New Georgia in some detail and the landing on Vella Lavella. With Admiral William Halsey in the South Pacific forced to coordinate with (and submit to) General Douglas MacArthur in the Southwest Pacific, planning for the Bougainville operation evolved through several permutations. In any event, it was always apparent to the planners that Bougainville was an important objective not because the island had any inherent value, but simply because it was needed as part of the larger plan to isolate and deal with Rabaul. The ongoing shortages and relative lack of experienced troops and leaders in the South Pacific also caused some difficulties in getting the operations off the ground. Among other problems, the invaders had to deal with a change in command at the last minute when General Charles Barrett died in an accidental fall and was replaced by General Alexander Vandegrift. The plannersand later the troops on the groundalso suffered from completely inadequate maps of the island.
The opening stage of the Bougainville operation involved a landing by 8th New Zealand Brigade on the Treasury IslandsStirling and Monooff the coast of Bougainville on 27 October 1943. Over 7500 ground troops (including supporting US forces) and thirty-one APDs, LCIs, LSTs, LCMs, LCTs, and APCs, plus covering DDs, were earmarked for the two islands, one of which was ungarrisoned and the other (Mono) held by 150-200 Japanese troops. After minor skirmishing, NZ and US forces began constructing a radar installation and airfield at the cost of 52 killed and 174 wounded.
A much smaller but in many ways more interesting diversionary operation involved approximately 750 men of the 2nd Battalion, 1st Marine Parachute Regiment who landed by sea on Choiseul Island, southeast of Bougainville, on 28 October and spent several adventurous days patrolling, destroying enemy facilities and supplies, ambushing elements of a much stronger Japanese garrison, and generally trying to attract attention to themselves before being successfully evacuated.
During those preliminary operations, intensified air strikes began the process of softening up the Japanese air forces. From General Kenney's 5th Air Force in New Guinea, bombers repeatedly raided the Japanese bases at Rabaul. Meanwhile, Airsols, flying from Guadalcanal, New Georgia, and Vella Lavella, struck airfields on Bougainville. On 1 November, Halsey's naval forces bombarded the same bases. And, on the first two days of November, Halsey's carriers, operating for the first time within range of Bougainville, carried out missions to further destroy Japanese air strength.
Also on 1 November 1943, under cover of naval gunfire, 9th Marines, 3rd Marines, 2nd Marine Raider Battalion, and supporting forces conducted the main landing on Bougainville along Empress Augusta Bay, just north of Cape Torokina while 3rd Marine Raider Battalion landed on Purutata Island offshore. Although Japanese aircraft from Rabaul struck shortly after the landings began, eventually amounting to some 120 planes in three waves, they inflicted little damage and few casualties. Greater difficulty was caused by heavy surf. For the units landing closest to Cape Torokina, however, the single Japanese field gun managed to hit six landing craft, caused numerous casualties, and disrupted the landing. In this area Marines also came under machine gun and mortar fire as soon as they hit the beach. The attackers gradually reduced the enemy bunkers one by one.
By afternoon the beach was secure and later waves were bringing in artillery, AA guns, and reinforcements including 3rd Marine Defense Battalion. Before all the transports could be unloaded, however, they were ordered to depart the area immediately.
What led to this precipitous departure? Japanese intelligence discovered Halsey's task force had sailed from Guadalcanal, and the naval staff, mistakenly expecting the Yanks to head for the Shortland Islands, sent a force of cruisers and destroyers to engage them. The Japanese force missed Halsey's warships and returned to Rabaul after a fruitless search, only to sortie again when alerted to the invasion at Empress Augusta Bay. This time the strengthened IJN force brought along five old destroyers packed with additional ground troops for Bougainville. As a smaller force of light cruisers and destroyers under Admiral Aaron Merrill moved to screen the amphibious landing force, Admiral Omori sent his troop-laden destroyers back to Rabaul, out of harm's way, and the stage was set for a major naval battle.
In a classic surface engagement, the Japanese, despite outnumbering and outgunning Merrill, suffered greater losses. However, thinking he had seriously damaged the Americans, Omori turned for home, leaving the USN to be attacked by an air strike launched from Rabaul. Again, the Yanks suffered only light damage. This was the final major naval engagement in the Solomons, and it was a clear American victory over a stronger Japanese task force. When Omori withdrew, the American transports returned to Bougainville and unloaded their cargo for the Marines.
Still determined to crush remaining American seapower in the northern Solomons and isolate the landing at Torokina, the Japanese transferred their 2nd Fleet south from Truk. Halsey, expecting the heavy cruisers to pause at Rabaul to refuel before heading toward Bougainville, risked his precious carriers by moving them within range of Japanese land-based aircraft so they could strike Rabaul on 5 November. Despite the riskiness, the American aircraft suffered only light losses while damaging the Japanese heavy cruisers so badly they withdrew to Truk. Reinforced by a carrier group from the central Pacific, Halsey raided Rabaul again on 11 November. Damage from this raid was lighter than on 5 November, but only because so few Japanese warships remained there. When the Japanese launched their own strike against the American carriers, almost every single bomber was shot down in exchange for little more than a few near misses. Indeed, during the naval-air actions at the beginning of November, of the Japanese air units "temporarily" transferred from IJN carriers in the central Pacific for land-based action against the Solomons,
more than half of all aircraftand nearly half the aircrewswere lost.
By the time Admiral Arleigh Burke administered one final defeat on the IJN on 25 November in a destroyer vs. destroyer action, the Japanese fleet could no longer threaten American naval control of the northern Solomons and the Torokina beachhead.
After covering all those naval operations, Gailey returns to the Marines on the beach.
The marines on the narrow beachhead adjacent to Cape Torokina were
totally unaware of the crucial naval and air battles that did so much to
secure their operations. They were, almost to a man, tired and wet and
still apprehensive that the Japanese were ready to launch a counterattack in great force against the shallow perimeter. Such fears as the
ordinary marine might have had were not shared by the higher command. General Vandegrift was so certain of the ultimate success of the
operation that he relinquished command of the troops ashore to
General Turnage and returned with Admiral Wilkinson to Guadalcanal. Until 9 November, when General Geiger assumed command of IMAC, Turnage was for all practical purposes in charge of operations on Bougainville.
He had two main interconnected problems. The first was the need
to expand the beachhead inland to give the marines enough depth to
check any major Japanese attack. The second problem concerned the
need to sort out the supplies landed haphazardly on the beach. This
would be no easy task, given the nature of the terrain and the lack of
any usable roads leading into the interior.
General Turnage decided to realign his two combat regiments,
shifting the 3d Marines, whose units had suffered the most casualties,
to the left sector of the beachhead and moving the relatively fresh 9th
Marines to the right, where he believed the Japanese would not mount
any serious counterthrust. The beachhead was so crowded that he had
to make these changes piecemeal. Some of the troops had to be
transported to their new locations by amphibian tractors. After two
days, most of the elements of the two regiments had been moved and
the 3d and 9th Marines had changed places. Despite the many logistical difficulties, the marines were able to move swiftly largely because of the lack of any Japanese opposition. Some small-arms fire had
been directed at the beach from Torokina Island. On 3 November the
small-caliber guns of the 3d Defense Battalion and one 105-mm battery of the 12th Marines fired directly at the island for approximately fifteen minutes. Marines of the 3d Raider Battalion followed up the barrage but discovered that all the Japanese who had been there were
either dead or had fled the island.
On 6 November, the day after Halsey's air raid on Rabaul forced withdrawal of the surviving Japanese cruisers, the 21st Marines arrived on Bougainville. Two days afterwards, the 148th Regimental Combat Team of the 37th Infantry Division arrived (with the remainder of the division arriving a few days later), welcomed by a Japanese air strike. On the same day, 800 Japanese soldiers landed from destroyers just north of the American perimeter and attacked the 3/9 Marines. After two days of sporadic fighting and commitment of American reserves, the Japanese force was destroyed and the survivors dispersed in the jungle. During the same period, the Americans defeated a Japanese attack on the southern portion of the perimeter.
On 18 November the Marines began advancing to extend the perimeter, with a broader advance beginning on 21 November. The battle for Piva Forks drove off the Japanese 23rd Infantry and killed over 1100 defenders at the cost of 115 Marines killed. These actions, according to Gailey, broke the back of the Japanese defense. By mid-December the Marines had captured the positions required to defend a secure perimeter around the beachhead and the ground where airfields were being carved out of the jungle. After covering that combat, Gailey turns his attention to medical facilities, malaria control, supply and logistics, road and bridge building, airfields (including the home of Pappy Boyington's VMF-214), and the PT base.
During December and January, the Americal Division replaced 3rd Marine Division, which was withdrawn from Bougainville to prepare for operations elsewhere. With two infantry divisions under control of General Oscar Griswold's XIV Corps, the Americans steadily improved their positions, patrolled constantly, and prepared defensive works. The Americans were joined by a battalion of Fijians who promptly proved their value in the jungle. By March 1944, the Americans still owned only a relatively small enclave on Bougainville, but their positions seemed very strong despite the continued presence of approximately 40,000 Japanese soldiers (and another 20,000 sailors) holding the bulk of the island. The Yank airfields were in constant use for bombing Rabaul, and the Green Islands were captured by the 3rd New Zealand Division, essentially isolating the Japanese on Bougainville from Rabaul and depriving them of all air and naval support. Rabaul itself had been smashed, cut off, and effectively neutralized. "[Rabaul] did not even receive mail from Japan after February." But General Hyakutake's forces on Bougainville were not yet ready to thrown in the towel.
General Hyakutake's offensive began early in the morning of 8 March
with the bombardment of parts of the beachhead and the Piva airstrips. The Japanese artillery concentrated its fire on Piva Yoke instead
of the forward areas of the perimeter, which would be the main initial
point of attack. Even this artillery fire was delivered spasmodically
and with poor coordination despite the high vantage points from
which the Japanese surveyed the central segment of the American
positions. American corps and division artillery countered immediately, the 37th Division guns firing on the suspected hills to the
northeast and the Americal howitzers concentrating on those to the
east. The 6th Field Artillery Battalion and the 129th Infantry's cannon
company were so situated that they could fire directly at the gun
flashes. All other guns were directed by forward observers or spotter
planes. Destroyers in Empress Augusta Bay also fired counterbattery
missions. By midmorning marine dive and torpedo bombers were
flying neutralization missions against Hills 250 and 600. Then in the
afternoon fifty-six SBDs and thirty-six TBFs, guided by artillery
smokeshells, struck the main concentrations on and around hill 1111.
The Japanese artillery did little damage considering the number of
guns involved. One B-24 bomber at Piva Uncle and three fighters at
Piva Yoke were destroyed and nineteen others damaged before the
planes from the Piva strips were evacuated to New Georgia. Among
aviation personnel, one man was killed and a dozen more wounded.
Later shelling during the evening wounded ten others. In addition, a
number of tanks and one 155-mm howitzer were damaged. The barrage merely confirmed what the intelligence sections had warned. The
Japanese were in force immediately to the front of the perimeter and
were preparing a general attack.
Although the Americans were alerted to expect a general attack,
all during 8 March the Japanese did nothing more than move troops
forward and make a few probes. Their activity seemed but a continuation of what had transpired during the few previous days. The
Japanese had sent out units to cut wire in front of the 145th's defenses
and there had been continuous patrol contacts from 6 March onward.
While the artillery duel and air attacks were going on, there were fire
fights between patrols all along the perimeter. The probable reason for
the delay in the main Japanese attack was that the troops were not yet
in assault positions. The fierce counterbattery fire and air attacks must
have caused some disruption also. Scouts reported by late morning a
concentration of Japanese directly in front of Hill 700. The 37th's
artillery, the cannon company, and the regiment's 4.2-inch mortars
fired concentrations into the reported area approximately twelve hundred yards wide and two thousand yards deep. By the evening of 8
March the advance elements of the Japanese 23d Regiment were in
place and parties of the 2d Battalion had reconnoitered Cannon Hill, a
rise slightly lower than and to the west of Hill 700. They were massed
for the attack only three hundred yards in front of the barbed wire
guarding the perimeter of Hill 700.
Throughout the remainder of the month of March, approximately 10,000 increasingly hungry troops from Hyakutake's 17th Army attempted to pierce the American perimeter, overrun the airfields, and get their hands on the American supply dumps. Although the initial attacks enjoyed some success, poor planning, uncoordinated assaults, and suicidal banzai tactics in the face of massed firepower meant that the offensive soon ran out of steam. Gailey estimates over 5000 Japanese were killed during the operations and another 3000 wounded. American casualties were far lighter. By the end of March, the Japanese had withdrawn from the perimeter and the American positions were restored and strengthened.
At this point, with Bougainville isolated from Rabaul, Rabaul isolated from Japan, and the war receding, Admiral Halsey was transferred to the central Pacific and Bougainville became a backwater of lessening importance.
The task of General Griswold's forces, which would continue to
operate on Bougainville until later in the year, remained the same as
before the Japanese offensive in March. The perimeter had to be
strengthened and manned at all times since Griswold fully expected
the Japanese to launch another major offensive. The enemy had to be
kept off balance by continual patrolling and by establishing strong-
points at strategic locations far removed from the main defense lines.
Senior American officers never seriously considered offensive operations designed to capture the entire island, believing that they would
be a needless waste of men and equipment. Constant air, land, and sea
observation could keep track of the main Japanese forces in the north
and south. As long as they remained quiescent they were no threat to
the perimeter, and certainly any action by General Hyakutake could
have absolutely no bearing on the war's outcome. The Americans
decided to allow the Japanese space since they could now do little
The living conditions of the Japanese soldiers, never good under
the best of circumstances, became increasingly desperate. Added to
the dangers that forward troops always faced, such as contact with
large American combat patrols, was the growing specter of starvation.
Sealed off from regular supplies from New Ireland or New Britain,
Hyakutake's army had to depend entirely on its own labors to acquire
food. The normal rice ration of 750 grams of rice for each soldier was
cut in April 1944 to 250 grams, and beginning in September there was
no rice ration. A large portion of the available army and naval personnel had to be put to work growing food. Allied pilots took delight in
dropping napalm on these garden plots whenever possible. The native
workers who had been impressed into service were the first to defect,
but soon many soldiers also just walked away from their units, taking
the chance of surviving in the jungle on what could be gathered. After
the failure of the March attack, morale in most units became deplorably low. There were instances, normally unimagined in the Japanese
army, of open insubordination and even mutiny. Although General
Hyakutake dreamed of a midsummer offensive, it became obvious that
no operations as large as that smashed in March could be undertaken
for months, if ever. General Hyakutake gradually lost the respect of his
junior officers, who blamed him and the older officers for their repeated defeats. This situation became so bad that a number of them
were relieved of their commands in February 1945. Perhaps as a result
of this challenge to his authority, Hyakutake in April 1945 suffered a
stroke, which paralyzed his left side. General Kanda succeeded him
in command of the 17th Army, and he was replaced as divisional
commander by Lieutenant General Tsutomu Akinage, who had been
the army's chief of staff. Perhaps to the dismay of the junior officers,
Kanda continued the cautious defensive policies of his predecessor.
From a rational, realistic point of view, he could do nothing else.
Given the situation on Bougainville and greater American needs elsewhere in the Pacific, Australian units began arriving in October 1944 to relieve Griswold's corps. The Yank divisions departed in December and January to take part in the campaign in the Philippines. The Australians took an entirely different approach to the situation on Bougainville. Instead of continuing Griswold's policy of patrolling and containing the starving Japanese garrisons, General Savige's brigades began offensive operations designed to capture the entire island. This campaign continued for six months, gradually forcing the defenders into smaller and smaller enclaves in the south, along the east coast, and in the far north. Thousands of Japanese, already weakened from hunger, died as they waged a determined but hopeless defense. On 11 August, following the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the Soviet invasion of Manchuria, General Savige finally called a halt to the offensive.
On 21 August 1945, the Japanese on Bougainville formally surrendered. Out of some 65,000 men who had been on the island when the Marines landed in 1943, approximately 20,000 survived to lay down their arms. Gailey points out that approximately 18,000 Japanese deaths occurred during the Australian offensive, along with 500 Aussies killed and another 1500 wounded, when the situation on the island had long since become completely irrelevant to the war's outcome.
In his final chapter Gailey discusses the inquiry by the Australian government into the wisdom of Savige's offensive, and that's just one of many threads that makes this such an interesting campaign and such a fascinating book. Most of one chapter studies the employment of the African American troops of the 93rd Infantry Division, and Gailey exposes the disgraceful manner in which the black soldiers were deemed unsuitable for combat operations for the remainder of the war. The war at sea, the New Zealand operations, and the Fiji troops also receive a full measure of scrutiny. While the author focuses on Bougainville's place in the overall strategy of the war in the Pacific and the tactics of jungle warfare on the island, he never forgets that the campaign was fought by young men who had to deal with heat and exhaustion and disease as well as a dangerous enemy. Even so, Gailey avoids falling into the kind of cliche-ridden, melodramatic prose that mars some other books about very similar topics, such as Into the Shadows Furious: The Brutal Battle for New Georgia by Brian Altobello.
Bougainville ends up being another very successful book from Harry Gailey: readable, informative, and highly recommended.
Available from online booksellers, local bookshops, or directly from University Press of Kentucky.
Thanks to UPK for providing this review copy.
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Reviewed 4 May 2003
Copyright © 2003 by Bill Stone
May not be reproduced in any form without written permission of Stone & Stone