TOP OF THE LADDER: Marine Operations in the Northern Solomons
by Captain John C. Chapin, USMCR (Ret)
The Battle for Piva Trail
Captain Conrad M. Fowler, a company commander in the
1st Battalion, 9th Marines, later recalled how an attack down the trails
was expected: "They had to come our way to meet us face-to-face. The
trails were the only way overland through that rainforest." His company
would be there to meet them. He was awarded a Silver Star Medal.
(click on image for an enlargement in a new window)
MajGen Roy S. Geiger assumed command of IMAC on 9
November 1943. Department of Defense Photo (USMC) 52622
With just such a Japanese attack anticipated, General
Turnage had dispatched a company of the 2d Raider Regiment up the
Mission (Piva) trail on D-Day to set up a road block just up from
the old Buretoni Catholic Mission (still in operation today). At first
the raiders had little business, and by 4 November elements of the 9th
Marines had arrived to join them. The enemy, the 23rd Infantry up
from Buin, struck on 7 November. Their attack was timed to coincide with
the Koromokina landings. The raiders held, but "the woods were full of
Japs, dead . . . . The most we had to do was bury them."
At this point General Turnage told Colonel Edward A.
Craig, commanding officer of the 9th Marines, to clear the way ahead and
advance to the junction of the Piva and Numa-Numa trails. That mission
Craig gave to the 2d Raider Regiment under Lieutenant Colonel Alan B.
Shapley. The actual attack would be led by Lieutenant Colonel Fred D.
Beans, 3d Raider Battalion, just in from Puruata Island and would
include elements of the 9th Marines and weapons companies.
The Japanese didn't wait for a Marine attack; they
came in on 5 November and threatened to overrun the trailblock. It soon
became a matter of brutal small encounters, and battles raged for five
days. They were many brave acts. Privates First Class Henry Gurke and
Donald G. Probst, with an automatic weapon, were about to be
overwhelmed. A grenade plopped in the foxhole between them. To save the
critical position and his companion, Gurke thrust Probst aside and threw
himself on the grenade and died. He was awarded the Medal of Honor
posthumously; Probst, the Silver Star Medal.
Mortars and artillery dueled from each side. The
Japanese would creep right next to the Marine positions for safety.
Marines had to call friendly fire almost into their laps. On the narrow
trail, men often had to expose themselves. The Japanese got the worst of
it, for suddenly, shortly after noon on 9 November the enemy resistance
crumbled. By 1500, the junction of the Piva and Numa-Numa trails was
reached and secured. Some 550 Japanese died. There were 19 Marines dead
and 32 wounded.
William E. Halsey (pith helmet) and MajGen Geiger ("fore and aft" cover)
watch Army reinforcements come ashore at Bougainville. National Archives Photo
In an interview with Captain Wilcie O'Bannon long after
the war, Captain John Monks, Jr., gained an insight into one of the least
known aspects of Marine tactics. It was an added asset that the official
Marine history called "invaluable": war dogs. O'Bannon, the first patril
leader to have them, related:
One dog was a German Shepherd female, the other was
a Doberman male, and they had three men with them. The third man handled
the dogs all the time in the platoon area prior to our going on patrol
petting the dogs, talking to them, and being nice to them. The other two
handlers one would go to the head of the column and one would go to
the rear with the female messenger dog . . . If the dog in front received
enemy fire and got away, he could either come back to me or circle to the back
of the column. If I needed to send a messenge I would write it, give it to
the handler, and he would pin it on the dog's collar. He would clap his
hands and say, "Report," and the dog would be off like a gunshot to go to
the third man in the rear who had handled him before the patrol.
The war dogs proved very versatile. They ran telephone
wire, detected ambushes, smelled out enemy patrols, and even a few machine
gun nests. The dog got GI chow, slept on nice mats and straw, and in mud-filled
foxholes. First Lieutenant Clyde Hnderson with one of the dog platoons recalled
how the speed and intelligence of dogs was crucial in light of the abominable
communications in the jungle, where sometimes communications equipment was
not much better than yelling.
Under such circumstances, a German Shepherd named "Caesar"
made the difference between life and death for a least one company. With all
wires cut and no communication, Caesar got through repeatedly to the battalion
command post and returned to the lines. One Japanese rifle wound didn't stop
him, but a second had Caesar returned to the rear on a stretcher. A memorable
letter from Commandant Thomas B. Holcomb described how Caesar another time
had saved the life of a Marine when the dog attacked a Japanese about to throw
a hand grenade. The Commandant also cited in letters four other dogs for their
actions on Bougainville.
Sergeant William O. McDaniel, in the 9th Marines, remembered,
"One night, one of the dogs growled and Slim Livesay, a squad leader from Montana,
shot and hit a Jap right between the eyes. We found the Jap the next morning,
three feet in front of the hole."
One Marine said that what Marines liked most was the
security dogs gave at night and the rare chance to sleep in peace. No
enemy would slip through the lines with a dog on guard.
There were 52 men and 36 dogs in K-9 company on
To consolidate the hard-won position, Marine torpedo
bombers from Munda blasted the surrounding area on 10 November. This
allowed two battalions of the 9th Marines to settle into good defensive
positions along the Numa-Numa Trail with, as usual, "aggressive" patrols
immediately fanning out. The battle for the Piva Trail had ended
The key logistical element in this engagement
and nearly all others on Bougainville was the amtrac. There were
vast areas where tanks and half-tracks, much less trucks, simply could
not negotiate the bottomless swamps, omnipresent streams, and viscous
mud from the daily rains. The amtracs proved amazingly flexible; they
moved men, ammunition, rations, water, barbed wire, and even radio jeeps
to the front lines where they were most needed. Heading back, they
evacuated the wounded to reach the desperately needed medical centers in
bloody encounter on 14 November at the junction of the Numa Numa and
Piva Trails: Marine infantrymen had been stopped by well dug-in and
camouflaged enemy troops. Five Marine tanks rushed up and attacked on a
250-yard front through the jungle. Department of Defense Photo (USMC)
Other developments came at this juncture in the
campaign. As noted, the 37th Infantry Division was fed into the
perimeter. At the top of the command echelon Major General Roy S. Geiger
relieved Vandegrift as Commanding General, IMAC, on 9 November and took
charge of Marine and Army units in the campaign from an advanced command
post on Bougainville.
The Seabees and Marine engineers were hard at work
now. Operating dangerously 1,500 yards ahead of the front lines, guarded
by a strong combat patrol, they managed to cut two 5,000foot
survey lanes east to west across the front of the perimeter.