Marines in World War II Commemorative Series
Planning the Operation
Diversionary Landings
Battle at Sea
Action Ashore: Koromokina
The Battle for Piva Trail
The Coconut Grove Battle
Piva Forks Battle
Hand Grenade Hill
The Koiari Raid
Hellzapoppin Ridge
Bougainville Finale
Major General Allen H. Turnage
Special Subjects
3d Marine Division
The Coatwatchers
37th Infantry Division
War Dogs
Navajo Code Talkers

TOP OF THE LADDER: Marine Operations in the Northern Solomons
by Captain John C. Chapin, USMCR (Ret)

Diversionary Landings

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 airstrips.

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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 bunkers.

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 station.

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 at Bougainville.

LtCol Victor H. Krulak
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 rest.

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 Day, 1943.

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 commenced. ..."

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 call.

The Coastwatchers

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 Rabaul.

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 U.S. warplanes.

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 one.

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 real invasion.

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 target.

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 sank.

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.

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Commemorative Series produced by the Marine Corps History and Museums Division