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)

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
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.

Halsey, Geiger with troops
Adm William E. Halsey (pith helmet) and MajGen Geiger ("fore and aft" cover) watch Army reinforcements come ashore at Bougainville. National Archives Photo 127-N-65494

War Dogs

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.

war dogs

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 Bougainville.

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 victoriously.

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 the rear.

Marine infantrymen
A 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) 65162

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 5,000—foot survey lanes east to west across the front of the perimeter.

Next Page Document Cover Next Page
MARINES The Few. The Proud.
Back to Top
Commemorative Series produced by the Marine Corps History and Museums Division