Marines in World War II Commemorative Series
Two Secondary Landings
MacArthur's Marines
The Japanese in Western New Britain
Establishing the Beachhead
The Capture of the Cape Gloucester Airfields
Clearing the Shores of Borgen Bay
The Mopping-up Begins in the West
The Landings at Volupai
Final Combat and Relief
Maj. Gen. William H. Rupertus
Special Subjects
The Fortress of Rabaul
The Jungle Battlefield
Rain and Biting Insects
An Improvised Air Force
New Weapons in the Division's Arsenal

Cape Gloucester: The Green Inferno
by Bernard C. Nalty

The Landings of Volupai

By coincidence, 6 March was the day chosen for the reinforced 5th Marines, now commanded by Colonel Oliver P. Smith, to land on the west coast of the Willaumez Peninsula midway between base and tip. The intelligence section of division headquarters believed that Japanese strength between Talasea, the site of a crude airstrip, and Cape Hoskins, across Kimbe Bay from Willaumez Peninsula, equaled that of the Smith's command, but that most of the enemy troops defended Cape Hoskins. The intelligence estimate proved correct, for Sakai had been preparing a last-ditch defense of Cape Hoskins, when word arrived to retreat all the way to Rabaul.

To discover the extent of Japanese preparations in the immediate vicinity of Volupai, a reconnaissance team landed from a torpedo boat at Bagum, a village about nine miles from Red Beach, the site chosen for the assault landing. Flight Lieutenant G. H. Rodney Marsland of the Royal Australian Air Force, First Lieutenant John D. Bradbeer—the division's chief scout, who had participated in three similar reconnaissance patrols of the Cape Gloucester area before the 26 December invasion—and two native bearers remained ashore for 24 hours and learned that Red Beach was lightly defended. Their sources, principally natives who had worked at a plantation that Marsland had operated in the area before the war, confirmed Marine estimates of Terunuma's aggregate force—some 600 men, two thirds of them located near Talasea, armed with mortars and artillery.

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Bristol Beauforts of the Royal Australian Air Force based at Kiriwina Island bombed the Volupai Talasea region for three days and then conducted a last-minute strike to compensate for the absence of naval gunfire. Smith's force, designated Landing Team A, loaded into a small flotilla of landing craft, escorted by torpedo boats, and set out from Iboki Point. Lieutenant Colonel Robert Amory, Jr., an Army officer in command of an engineer boat unit, took command of the collection of small craft, some of them manned by his soldiers and the others by sailors. A storm buffeted the formation, and after the seas grew calm, the boat carrying the Army air liaison party broke down. Major Gordon D. Gayle, the new commander of the 2d Battalion, 5th Marines, who already was behind schedule, risked further delay by taking the disabled craft in tow. Gayle felt that Combat Team A's need for the liaison party's radio equipment justified his action.

At 0835 on 6 March, the first of the amphibian tractors carrying the assault troops clawed their way onto Red Beach. During the movement shoreward, Sherman tanks in Army LCMs opened fire with machine guns and stood ready to direct their 75mm weapons against any Japanese gunner who might oppose the landing. Aside from hard-to-pinpoint small-arms fire, the opposition consisted mainly of barrages from mortars, screened by the terrain from the flat-trajectory cannon of the tanks. When Japanese mortar shells began bursting among the approaching landing craft, Captain Theodore A. Petras, at the controls of one of the division's Piper Cubs, dived low over the mortar positions and dropped hand grenades from the supply he carried on all his flights. Natives had warned Marsland and Bradbeer of a machine-gun nest dominating the beach from the slopes of Little Mount Worri, but the men of the 1st Battalion, 5th Marines, leading the way, found it abandoned and encountered no serious opposition as they dug in to protect the beachhead.

Meanwhile, Gayle's Marines pressed their attack, with four medium tanks supporting Company E as it tried to push farther in land. One of the Shermans bogged down almost immediately in the soft sand of Red Beach, but the other three continued in column. The tank in the lead lost momentum on a muddy rise, and two Japanese soldiers carrying land mines burst from cover to attack it. Riflemen of Company E cut down one of them, but the other detonated his mine against the vehicle, killing himself and a Marine who tried to stop him. The explosion jammed the turret and stunned the crewmen, who were further shaken, but not wounded, when an antitank grenade exploded against the armor. The damaged Sherman got out of the way; when the other two tanks had passed, it returned to the trail only to hit a mine that disabled it.

Despite the loss of two tanks, one temporarily immobilized on the beach and the other out of action permanently, Gayle's battalion continued its advance. During the fighting on the approaches to the Volupai coconut plantation, the body of a Japanese soldier yielded a map showing enemy dispositions around Talasea. By mid-afternoon, Smith's regimental intelligence section was disseminating the information, which proved valuable in future operations.

At Volupai, as on Cape Gloucester, sand, mud, and land mines—sometimes carried by Japanese soldiers who detonated them against the sides of the vehicle—could immobilize even the Sherman M4 medium tank. Department of Defense (USMC) photo 79868

While Company E of Gayle's battalion followed the trail toward the plantation, Company G kept pace, crossing the western shoulder of Little Mount Worri. Five Army Air Forces P-39s from Airfield No. 2 at Cape Gloucester arrived overhead to support Gayle's attack, but the pilots could not locate the troops below and instead bombed Cape Hoskins, where there was no danger of hitting the Marines. Even without the aerial attack, the 2d Battalion, 5th Marines, overran the plantation by dusk and dug in for the night; the unit counted the bodies of 35 Japanese killed during the day's fighting.

On D-Day, Combat Team A lost 13 killed and 71 wounded, with artillery batteries rather than rifle companies suffering the greater number of casualties. The 2d Battalion, 11th Marines, set up its 75mm pack howitzers on the open beach, exposed to fire from the 90mm mortars upon which Petras had ineffectually showered his hand grenades. Some of the corpsmen at Red Beach, who went to the assistance of wounded artillerymen, became casualties themselves. Nine of the Marines killed on 6 March were members of the artillery unit, along with 29 of the wounded. Nevertheless, the gunners succeeded in registering their fires in the afternoon and harassing the enemy through out the night.

While the Marines prepared to renew the attack on the second day, Terunuma deployed his troops to oppose them and keep open the line of retreat of the Matsuda Force. In doing so, the Japanese commander fell back from his prepared positions on the fringes of Volupai Plantation—including the mortar pits that had raised such havoc with the 2d Battalion, 11th Marines—and dug in on the northwest slopes of Mount Schleuther, overlooking the trail leading from the plantation to Bitokara village on the coast. As soon as he realized what the enemy had in mind, Gayle sent Company F uphill to thwart the Japanese plan, while Company E remained on the trail and built up a base of fire. On the right flank of the maneuver element, Company F, the weapons platoon burst from the undergrowth and surprised Japanese machine gunners setting up their weapon, killing them and turning the gun against the enemy. The advance of Company F caught the Japanese in mid-deployment and drove them back after killing some 40 of them. Gayle's battalion established a nighttime perimeter that extended from Mount Schleuther to the trail and embraced a portion of both.

75mm gun
Cpl Robert J. Hallahan, a member of the 1st Marine Division band, examines the shattered remains of a Japanese 75mm gun used in the defense of Mount Schleuther and rigged as a booby trap when the enemy withdrew. Department of Defense (USA) photo SC 260915

The action on 7 March represented a departure from plan. Smith had intended that both Barba and Gayle attack, with the 3d Battalion, 5th Marines, commanded since 12 January by Lieutenant Colonel Harold O. Deakin, assuming responsibility for the defense of the beachhead. The landing craft that had carried the assault troops departed from Red Beach during D-Day, some of them carrying the seriously wounded, in order to pick up the 3d Battalion at Iboki Point and bring it to Volupai. The day was waning by the time enough landing craft were on hand for Deakin's battalion. For the reinforcements to arrive in time for an attack on the morning of 7 March would require a dangerous nighttime approach to Volupai, through uncharted waters studded with sharp outcroppings of coral that could lay open the hull of a landing craft. Rupertus decided that the risks of such a move outweighed the advantages and canceled it at the last moment. No boat started the return voyage to Red Beach until after dawn on 7 March, delaying the arrival of Deakin's battalion until late afternoon. On that day, therefore, Barba's 1st Battalion had only enough time to send Company C a short distance inland on a trail that passed to the right of Little Mount Worri, enroute to the village of Liappo. When the trail petered out among the trees and vines, the Marines hacked their way forward until they ran out of daylight short of their objective.

On 8 March, the 1st Battalion, 5th Marines, resumed the advance, Companies A and B moving on parallel paths leading east of Little Mount Worri. Members of Company A, peering through dense undergrowth, saw a figure in a Japanese uniform and opened fire. The person was not a Japanese, however, but a native wearing clothing discarded by the enemy and serving as a guide for Company B. The first shots triggered an exchange of fire that wounded the guide, killed one Marine, and wounded a number of others. Afterward, the advance resumed, but once again the formidable terrain—muddy ravines choked with brush and vines—slowed the Marines, and the sun set with the battalion still on the trail.

Meanwhile, Gayle's 2d Battalion probed deeper into Terunuma's defenses. Patrols ranged ahead on the morning of 8 March and found the Japanese dug in at Bitokara Mission, but the enemy fell back before the Marines could storm the position. Gayle's troops occupied Bitokara and pushed as far as Talasea, taking over the abandoned airstrip. Other patrols from this battalion started up the steep slopes of Mount Schleuthen and collided with Terunuma's main strength. Fire from small arms, a 90mm mortar, and a 75mm field gun killed or wounded 18 Marines. Rather than press his attack in the gathering darkness, Gayle pulled back from the mountain and dug in at Bitokara Mission so artillery and mortars could hammer the defenses throughout the night, but he left one company to defend the Talasea airstrip.

winching tractor
Marines struggle to winch a tractor, and the 105mm howitzer it is towing, out of the mud of New Britain. The trails linking Volupai and Talasea proved as impassable for heavy vehicles as those on Cape Gloucester. Department of Defense (USMC) photo 69985

On the morning of 9 March, Company G of Gayle's battalion advanced up Mount Schleuthen while Companies B and C from Barba's command cleared the villages around the base. Company G expected to encounter intense opposition during its part of the coordinated attack, but Terunuma had decamped from the mountain top, leaving behind one dead, two stragglers, and an artillery piece. The enemy, however, had festooned the abandoned 75mm gun with vines that served as trip wires for a booby trap. When the Marines hacked at the vines to examine the weapon more closely, they released the firing pin and detonated a round in the chamber. Since the Japanese gun crew had plugged the bore before fleeing, the resulting explosion ruptured the breech block and wounded one of Gayle's men.

Besides yielding the dominant terrain, Terunuma chose not to defend any of the villages clustered at the base of the mountain. The 5th Marines thus opened a route across the Willaumez Peninsula to support further operations against Matsuda's line of retreat. Since 6 March, Colonel Smith's force had killed an estimated 150 Japanese at the cost of 17 Marines killed and 114 wounded, most of the casualties suffered on the first day. The final phase of the fighting that began on Red Beach consisted of securing Garua Island, abandoned by the Japanese, for American use, a task finished on 9 March.

The results of the action at the base of the Willaumez Peninsula proved mixed. The grass airstrip at Talasea lacked the length to accommodate fighters, but the division's liaison planes made extensive use of it, landing on either side of the carcass of a Japanese aircraft until the wreckage could be hauled away. The trail net, essentially a web of muddy paths, required long hours of hard work by Company F, 17th Marines, and Army engineers, who used a 10-ton wrecker to recover three Sherman tanks that had become mired during the fighting. By 10 March, the trails could support a further advance. Two days later, elements of Deakin's 3d Battalion, 5th Marines, having moved inland from the beachhead, provided a guard of honor as Colonel Smith and his executive officer, Lieutenant Colonel Henry W. Buse, raised over Bitokara the same flag that had flown over Airfield No. 2 at Cape Gloucester.

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Commemorative Series produced by the Marine Corps History and Museums Division