TOP OF THE LADDER: Marine Operations in the Northern Solomons
by Captain John C. Chapin, USMCR (Ret)
There was another key element in the American plan:
diversion. To mislead the enemy on the real objective, Bougainville, the
IMAC operations order on 15 October directed the 8th Brigade Group of
the 3d New Zealand Division to land on the Treasury Islands, 75 miles
southeast of Empress Augusta Bay. There, on 27 October, the New
Zealanders, under Brigadier R. A. Row, with 1,900 Marine support troops,
went ashore on two small islands.
One was named Mono and the other Sterling. Mono is
about four miles wide, north to south, and seven miles long. It looks
like a pancake. Sterling, shaped like a hook, is four miles long, narrow
in places to 300 yards, but with plenty of room on its margins for
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In a drizzly overcast, the 29th NZ Battalion
(Lieutenant Colonel F. L. H. Davis) and the 36th (Lieutenant Colonel K.
B. McKenzie-Muirson) hit Mono at Falami Point, and the 34th (under
Lieutenant Colonel R.J. Eyre) struck the beach of Sterling Island off
Blanche Harbor. There was light opposition. Help for the assault troops
came from LCI (landing craft, infantry) gunboats which knocked out at
least one deadly Japanese 40mm twin-mount gun and a couple of enemy
A simultaneous landing was then made on the opposite
or north side of Mono Island at Soanotalu. This was perhaps the most
important landing of all, for there New Zealand soldiers, American
Seabees, and U.S. radar specialists would set up a big long-range radar
3d Marine Division
With Japan's initial conquests spread over vast
reaches of the Pacific, it quickly became obvious that additional Marine
divisions were needed. Accordingly, a letter from the Commandant on 29
August 1942 authorized the formation of the 3d Marine Division.
There was the 3d Marines, which had been activated
first on 20 December 1916 at Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic.
Deactivated in August 1922, the regiment was again brought to life on 16
June 1942 at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, and strengthened by boots
from Parris Island. Its commander, Colonel Oscar R. Cauldwell, soon led
to it to Samoa, arriving there in September 1942. Intensive training in
jungle tactics and practice landings took place there. Then, in March
1943, it received a substantial number of reinforcing units and became a
full-fledged regimental combat team, beefing up its strength to 5,600.
Finally, in May 1943, it sailed for New Zealand, where the 3d Marine
Division would come together.
Also with World War I roots, the 9th Marines was born
20 November 1917 at Quantico. Virginia, and was sent to Cuba. From there
it moved to Texas, before being deactivated at the Philadelphia Navy
Yard in April 1919. Reactivated on 12 February 1942 at Camp Elliott,
California, under Colonel Lemuel C. Shepherd, Jr., it underwent training
at the new Camp Pendleton. Similarly reinforced, by 1 January 1943 it
was ready as a regimental combat team with 5,500 men. Movement overseas
brought it to New Zealand on 5 February 1943.
The third infantry regiment that would make up the
division was the 21st Marines. It was formed from a cadre of
well-trained men from the 6th Marines, who had just returned from duty
in Iceland. Arriving at Camp Lejeune on 15 July 1942, the cadre was
augmented by boots from Parris Island and officers from Quantico.
Colonel Daniel E. Campbell assumed command and the training began.
Moving to join the other elements, the regiment arrived in New Zealand
11 March 1943.
The reinforcing of the infantry regiments to make
them into self-sustaining regimental combat teams drew heavily on their
two complementary regiments: the 12th Marines and the 19th Marines. The
12th Marines was a salty old unit, led by Brigadier General Smedley D.
Butler in China in the 1920s. It's antecedent was a small provisional
contingent sent to protect American interests in China and designated
the 12th Regiment (infantry), 4 October 1927. The 12th was reactivated
at Camp Elliott on 1 September 1942 for World War II as an artillery
regiment under command of Colonel John B. Wilson. Concluding its
training, the regiment arrived in New Zealand on 11 March 1943.
The 19th Marines was different. It was made up of
Seabees, engineers, bakers, piledrivers, pioneers, paving specialists,
and many old timers from the 25th Naval Construction Battalion at the
U.S. Naval Advance Base, Port Hueneme, California. It, too, was formed
at Camp Elliott and its birthday was 16 September 1942. This was the
regiment with pontoons for bridges, power plants, photographic
darkrooms, bulldozers, excavators, needles, thread, and water
purification machinery. No landing force would dare take an island
without them. Colonel Robert M. Montague took command of the unit in New
Zealand on 11 March 1943.
The division's first commander was Major General
Charles D. Barrett, a veteran of World War l. He assumed command in
September 1942, but left a year later to take charge of IMAC and the
planning for the Bougainville operation.
His assistant division commander had been Brigadier
General Allen H. Turnage, and, upon Barrett's death, he was promoted to
major general and given command of the division which he would soon lead
LtCol Victor H. Krulak was commander of the Choiseul
operation. Department of Defense Photo (USMC)
The Japanese soon reacted to the Soanotalu landing
and hurled themselves against the perimeter. On one occasion, 80-90
Japanese attacked 50 New Zealanders who waited until they saw "the
whites of their eyes." They killed 40 of the Japanese and dispersed the
There was unexpected machine gun fire at Sterling.
One Seabee bulldozer operator attacked the machine gun with his big
blade. An Army corporal, a medic, said he couldn't believe it, "The
Seabee ran his dozer over and over the machine gun nest until everything
was quiet . . . . It all began to stink after a couple of days."
Outmanned, the Japanese drew back to higher ground,
were hunted down, and killed. Surrender was still not in their book. On
12 November, the New Zealanders could call the Treasuries their own with
the radar station in operation. Japanese dead totaled 205, and the
brigade took only eight prisoners. The operation had secured the seaside
flank of Bougainville, and very soon on Sterling there was an airfield.
It began to operate against enemy forces on Bougainville on Christmas
A second diversion, east of the Treasury Islands and
45 miles from Bougainville, took place on Choiseul Island.
Sub-Lieutenant C. W. Seton, Royal Australian Navy and coastwatcher on
Choiseul, said the Japanese there appeared worried. The garrison troops
were shooting at their own shadows, perhaps because American and
Australian patrols had been criss-crossing the 80-miles-long
(20-miles-wide) island since September, scouting out the Japanese
positions. There were also some 3,500 transient enemy troops on
Choiseul, bivouacked and waiting to be shipped the 45 miles north to
Buin on Bougainville, where there was already a major Japanese garrison
force. Uncertainty about the American threat of invasion somewhere was
enough to make the Japanese, especially Vice Admiral Jinichi Kusaka,
Commander, Southeast Area Fleet, at Rabaul jittery. It was he who wanted
much of the Japanese Seventeenth Army concentrated at Buin, for,
he thought, the Allies might strike there.
General Vandegrift wanted to be sure that the
Japanese were focused on Buin. So, on 20 October, he called in
Lieutenant Colonel Robert H. Williams, commanding the 1st Parachute
Regiment, and Lieutenant Colonel Victor H. Krulak, commanding its 2d
Battalion. Get ashore on Choiseul, the general ordered, and stir up the
biggest commotion possible, "Make sure they think the invasion has
It was a most unusual raid, 656 men, a handful of
native guides, and an Australian coastwatcher with a road map. The Navy
took Krulak's reinforced battalion of parachutists to a beach site near
a hamlet called Voza. That would be the CP (command post) location for
the duration. The troops slipped ashore on 28 October at 0021 and soon
had all their gear concealed in the bush.
By daylight, the Marines had established a base on a
high jungle plateau in the Voza area. The Japanese soon spotted the
intruders, sent a few fighter planes to rake the beach, but that did no
harm. They did not see the four small landing craft which Krulak had
brought along and hidden among some mangroves with their Navy crews on
It was on Bougainville, as well as on other islands
of the Solomons chain, that the Australian coastwatchers played their
most decisive role in transmitting vital advance warnings to Allied
forces in the lower Solomon Islands. Japanese war planes and ships
summoned in urgency to smash the beachhead at Guadalcanal had to pass
over Bougainville, the big island in the middle of the route from
Paul Mason, short, bespectacled, soft spoken, held an
aerie in the south mountains over Buin, and dark, wiry W. J. "Jack" Read
watched the ship and aircraft movements of the Japanese in and around
Buka in the north. One memorable Mason wireless dispatch: "Twenty-five
torpedo bombers headed yours." The message cost the Japanese Imperial
Navy every one of those airplanes, save one. Read reported a dozen or
so Japanese transports assembling at Buka before their trip to
Guadalcanal, with enough troops loaded on board to take the island back.
All of the transports were lost or beached under the fierce attack of
In 1941, as the war with Japan commenced, there were
100 coastwatchers in the Solomons. There were 10 times that number as
the war ended, later including Americans. Assembled first as a tight
group of island veterans in 1939 (although there had been coastwatchers
after World War I) under Lieutenant Commander A. Eric Feldt, Royal
Australian Navy, their job was to cover about a half million miles of
land, sea, and air.
The very first moves of the Japanese on Guadalcanal
were observed by coastwatchers in the surrounding hills. The
coastwatchers could count the Japanese hammer strokes, almost see the
nails. When the Japanese began the airfield (later to be called
Henderson Field), the report of the coastwatchers went all the way up
the American Joint Chiefs of Staff and across the desk of Admiral Ernest
J. King, Commander-in-Chief, U.S. Fleet.
Later, General Alexander A. Vandegrift on Guadalcanal
banked heavily on the intelligence coming in from the radios of the
coastwatchers. The attacks on the Treasuries and Choiseul were based on
the information provided them. On New Georgia, long before Americans
decided to take it, a coastwatcher had set up a haven for downed Allied
pilots. And if the Americans needed a captured Japanese officer or
soldier for interrogation, the local scouts were often able to provide
The key to coastwatching was the tele-radio or
wireless, good to 600 miles by key, 400 by voice. Cumbersome, heavy,
the set took more than a dozen men to carry it an indication of
how much the Allies depended upon the local natives.
The risks were great. Death would come after
torture. But Mason recalled the risk was worth it, seeing the sleek,
orderly formations heading for Guadalcanal, then limping back home with
gaping holes in their hulls. Mason and Read were highly decorated by
both the Australians and Americans for their vital services.
Krulak then outlined two targets. Eight miles south
from their CP at Voza there was a large enemy barge base near the Vagara
River. The Australian said some 150 Japanese were there. The other
objective was an enemy outpost in the opposite direction, 17 miles north
on the Warrior River. Then Krulak took his operations officer, Major
Tolson A. Smoak, 17 men, and a few natives as scouts, and headed for the
barge basin. On the way, 10 unlucky Japanese were encountered unloading
a barge. The Marines opened fire, killing seven of them and sinking the
barge. After reconnoitering the main objective, the barge basin, the
patrol returned to Voza.
The following morning, Krulak sent a patrol near the
barge basin to the Vagara River for security and then to wave in his
small landing craft bringing up his troops to attack. But, back at Voza,
along came a flight of American planes which shot up the Marines and
sank one of their vital boats. Now Krulak's attack would have to walk to
the village of Sangigai by the Japanese barge basin. To soften up
Sangigai, Krulak called in 26 fighters escorting 12 torpedo bombers.
They dropped two tons of bombs and it looked for all the world like a
Krulak then sent a company to attack the basin from
the beach, and another company with rifles, machine guns, rockets, and
mortars to get behind the barge center. It was a pincer and it worked.
The Marines attacked at 1400 on 30 October. What the battle didn't
destroy, the Marines blew up. The Japanese lost 72 dead; the Marines, 4
killed and 12 wounded.
All was not so well in the other direction. Major
Warner T. Bigger, Krulak's executive officer, had been sent north with
87 Marines toward the big emplacement on Choiseul Bay near the Warrior
River. His mission was to destroy, first the emplacement, with Guppy
Island, just off shore and fat with supplies, as his secondary
Bigger got to the Warrior River, but his landing
craft became stuck in the shallows, so he brought them to a nearby cove,
hid them in the jungle, and proceeded on foot north to Choiseul Bay.
Soon his scouts said that they were lost. It was late in the day so
Bigger bivouacked for the night. He sent a patrol back to the Warrior
where it found a Japanese force. Slipping stealthily by them, the patrol
got back to Voza. This led Krulak to call for fighter cover and PT boats
to try to get up and withdraw Bigger.
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But Bigger didn't know he was in trouble, and he went
ahead and blasted Guppy island with mortars, because he couldn't get to
the main enemy emplacement. When Bigger and his men barely got back to
the Warrior River, there were no rescue boats, but there were plenty of
Japanese. As the men waited tensely, the rescue boats came at the last
moment, the very last. Thankfully, the men scrambled on board under
enemy fire. Then two PT boats arrived, gun blazing, and provided cover
so Bigger's patrol could get back to Voza. One of the PT boats was
commanded by Lieutenant John F. Kennedy, USN, later the President of the
United States, who took 55 Marines on board when their escape boat
Krulak had already used up all his time and luck. The
Japanese were now on top of him, their commanders particularly chagrined
that they had been fooled, for the big landing had already occurred at
Empress Augusta Bay. Krulak had to get out; Coastwatcher Seton said
there was not much time. On the night of 3 November, three LCIs
rendezvoused off Voza. Krulak gave all his rations to the natives as the
Marines boarded the LCIs. They could hear their mines and booby traps
exploding to delay the Japanese. Within hours after the departure, a
strong Japanese pincer snapped shut around the Voza encampment, but the
Marines had gone, having suffered 9 killed, 15 wounded, and 2 missing,
but leaving at least 143 enemy dead on Choiseul.