The Solomon Islands campaign began with the taking of Guadalcanal in December 1942. In February 1943 the Russell Islands fell, and the New Georgia group followed in August 1943. At the end of 1943, the campaign reached its goal when American troops gained a solid foothold on the island of Bougainville. The Russells, New Georgia and Bougainville were objectives because of their value as air bases.
Objective: Isolate Rabaul
The objective of the Solomon Islands campaign was to cut off Japan’s major forward air and naval base at Rabaul, on the island of New Britain. Rabaul was the hub of Japanese air power in the south Pacific – a stopping point for planes coming from New Guinea in the southwest and Truk, the home of the Japanese Combined Fleet, in the south central Pacific. Bougainville was key to neutralizing Rabaul.
The first attack on Bougainville occurred on 15 August 1943. Eight Corsairs from Marine Fighter Squadron 214 (later known as the Black Sheep) flew up from the Russell Islands to strafe the Kahili airfield during American amphibious landings on the island of Vella Lavella. The lightning strike, a surprise so complete the Japanese did not have time to shoot back, damaged aircraft and refueling equipment on the ground and forestalled a night attack on the American amphibious force.
The Solomon Islands Air Defenses (AirSols), including units from the Navy, Marine Corps, Army and Royal New Zealand Air Force, made many air strikes in October on Bougainville and nearby islands. Although some strikes were designed to keep the enemy guessing as to the Marines’ intended landing point, most were planned to reduce air opposition to the Bougainville landings when they finally occurred.
Two diversionary amphibious landings were made the night of 27-28 October: the 2d Marine Parachute Battalion landed on Choiseul; and New Zealand’s 8th Brigade, together with Navy Seabees (U.S. Naval Construction Battalions), made an unopposed landing on the Treasury Islands on 27 October. Both operations served their primary purpose of drawing Japanese troops away from Bougainville, but the positions gained in the Treasuries, including valuable Blanche Harbor, were held and strengthened to provide staging for the landings on Bougainville. The Marines left Choiseul by landing craft after a week of harassing Japanese troops and damaging barge and supply bases.
D-Day: 1 November 1943
Admiral William F. Halsey, USN, Commander South Pacific, ordered Task Force 39 (which included four cruisers and the eight destroyers of Capt Arleigh Burke’s Destroyer Squadron 23), under RADM A.S. Merrill, to bombard airfields on Buka and Bonis northwest of Bougainville. He intended the bombardments to keep the enemy off-balance and prevent air harassment of the landing force. The task force then steamed more than 200 miles to strike at the Shortland Islands, while RADM F.C. Sherman’s Task Force 38 took over the bombardment of Buka, eliminating the threat from those airfields.
The actual landing by the 3d Marine Division at Empress Augusta Bay on Bougainville took place at dawn on 1 November. The bay, located at some distance from the heavily defended airfields at either end of the island, had what appeared to be the most suitable beaches for a landing. The plan was to establish a beachhead, then bring in supplies and equipment to build a landing strip for fighters.
Invasion forces consisted of 14,321 troops (including the 1st Marine Dog Platoon with their 24 Dobermans and German Shepherds) in 12 transports, preceded by a minesweeper group. Destroyer Squadron 45, four minelayers and two salvage tugs provided further support.
The landing met with several obstacles. The Japanese defenses of the beaches were stronger than anticipated. The 40,000 troops on the island had been reported to be stationed mainly around the airfields, and aerial reconnaissance photos did not reveal the extensive system of bunkers in the jungles above the beaches. The Marines who landed west of the mouth of the Koromokina River encountered steep slopes and shoals on which more than 80 of their amphibious craft foundered. Those landing east of the Koromokina were caught in crossfire from machine guns on the offshore islet of Puruata and on Cape Torokina east of the beach. A small contingent of Marines knocked out the gun emplacement on the cape after it had destroyed or damaged 14 landing craft and the 3d Marine Raiders captured Puruata. The landing force drove away the rest of the Japanese defenders, while the war dog platoon, moving ahead of the main body, sniffed out snipers along the trails of the bog-ridden jungle.
In spite of the resistance, and two Japanese air assaults launched from Rabaul bases during the day (which were driven off by AirSols fighters), the Marines succeeded. By nightfall, all 14,000 troops, together with 6,200 tons of fuel, rations, and ammunition, were landed along a 200-yard perimeter.
Battle of Empress Augusta Bay
The evening of the landing, Army reconnaissance aircraft reported that a large Japanese surface force was heading for Bougainville. Task Force 39 intercepted it about 2:30 the following morning 45 miles west of Empress Augusta Bay. The American ships, executing maneuvers at breakneck speeds in the darkness to avoid Japanese long-range torpedoes, sank two enemy ships after three hours of heavy fire. With two other ships damaged in collisions while trying to avoid American torpedoes, the scattered Japanese chose to retreat. The American force had only two ships hit, both of which sustained moderate damage.
The Japanese Response
The initial Japanese reaction to the Bougainville landing was to send a force of 19 ships to strengthen Rabaul. However, a 5 November 1943 air attack from Task Force 38 heavily damaged seven cruisers and two destroyers, prompting the withdrawal of the cruisers and eliminating worries about surface attacks on the Bougainville amphibious forces.
Even so, the night of 6-7 November, four Japanese destroyers eluded the Americans and landed 475 troops west of the Marine beachhead. The Japanese hoped to catch the Marines between them and the other troops on the island, but the enemy forces never coordinated their actions. The Marines routed out the counter-landing detachment after two days of artillery barrages. Fewer than 100 Japanese escaped into the jungle; the rest were killed. The Marines sustained under 50 casualties.
Another punishing attack from Task Force 38 on Rabaul 11 November cost the Japanese 68 fighters and three ships. Nevertheless, Japanese carrier air groups from Rabaul made repeated attacks on the American landing force and the U.S. Navy ships, which continued to ferry in reinforcements, supplies and munitions. The strikes did little damage to the American forces, but the Japanese lost so many planes, 121 out of 173, that the remaining carrier based squadrons were withdrawn 13 November.
By that time, the Americans had landed nearly 34,000 troops and over 23,000 tons of cargo on Bougainville; widened the beachhead 7,000 yards; and moved 5,000 yards inland through dense, difficult mangrove swamps.
Even though two airfields were under construction and the Marines were expanding their perimeter in search of a site to build a bomber strip, the Japanese army commander on Bougainville still believed that the landing was a feint. He continued to think that the primary targets were Buka to the north and the Buin section of the island to the southeast. Thus, no Japanese forces were withdrawn from either end of the island to root out the American invasion, and the American had the opportunity to solidify their positions.
Holidays in the Solomons
On Thanksgiving Day, 25 November 1943, Commodore Burke’s Destroyer Squadron 23 fought the Battle of Cape St. George, sinking three Japanese vessels out of five sent with troops to reinforce Buka. The American ships suffered no hits at all. The same day, the Marines pushing inland along the Piva River virtually destroyed the Japanese’s 23rd Imperial Infantry in the Battle of Piva Forks. This was the last major Japanese ground resistance on Bougainville.
On Christmas Day, the Army’s Americal Division arrived on Bougainville to relieve the 3d Marine Division. Marine MajGen Ralph J. Mitchell, Commander of AirSols, moved his headquarters to Bougainville to direct the final air campaign against Rabaul, only 220 miles away. Within a month, the base at Rabaul was of no further use to the Japanese.
American troops continued to occupy Bougainville and contain dwindling Japanese troops, until relieved by Australian II Corps troops in late 1944. The Australians attempted to clear the entire island of Japanese, incurring heavy casualties. The end of the Pacific war brought an end to action on Bougainville.
The Bougainville campaign remains one of the most resounding successes of the war in the Pacific in terms of the smooth coordination between the Navy and Marine Corps. The capture of Bougainville successfully isolated Rabaul and caused the Japanese to expend more of their air units than they could afford to lose.
Also, the Bougainville airstrips constructed at Torokina and Piva by Seabees and engineers made fighter-escorted bomber attacks against Rabaul possible, as well as attacks on other Japanese bases on New Ireland and New Britain. In December 1943, AirSols began a massive attack on Rabaul. The ensuing two months of constant air strikes, only made possible by the possession of Bougainville, caused the Japanese to withdraw.
The capture of Bougainville resulted in 423 Marines dead and 1,418 wounded.
Taken from the WWII 50th Anniversary Fact Sheet Prepared by
JO1 Lorraine Ramsdell, USN
Gailey, Harry A. Bougainvile. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 1991.
Morrison, Samuel Eliot. History of United States Naval Operations in World War II. Vol VI. Breaking the Bismarcks Barrier. Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1950.
Simmons, Brigadier General Edwin H., USMC (Dec). The United States Marines: The First Two Hundred Years. New York: Viking Press, Inc., 1976.
Shaw, Henry I., Jr., and Major Douglas T. Kane. History of U.S. Marine Operations in World War II. Vol. I. Isolation of Rabaul. Historical Branch, Headquarters, U.S. Marine Corps, 1963.
Van der Vat, Dan. The Pacific Campaign: World War II, The U.S.-Japanese Naval War, 1941-1945. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1991.