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 Coconut Grove Battle

On D plus 10, 11 November, a new operation order was issued. "Continue the attack with the 3d Marine Division on the right (east) and the 37th Infantry Division on the left (west)." An Army-Marine artillery group was assembled under IMAC control to provide massed fire, and Marine air would be on call for close support.

The first objective in the renewed push was to seize control of the critical junction of the Numa-Numa Trail and the East West trail. On 13 November a company of the 21st Marines led off the advance at 0800. At 1100 it was ambushed by a "sizeable" enemy force concealed in a coconut palm grove near the trail junction. The Japanese had won the race to the crossroads, and the situation for the lead Marine company soon became critical. The 2d Battalion commander, Lieutenant Colonel Eustace R. Smoak, sent up his executive officer, Major Glenn Fissell, with 12th Marines' artillery observers. They reported the situation as all bad. Then Major Fissell was killed. Disdaining flank security, Smoak moved closer to the fight and fed in reinforcing companies. (By now a lateral road across the front of the perimeter had been built.)

(click on image for an enlargement in a new window)

The next day tanks were brought up and artillery registered around the battalion. Smoak also called in 18 torpedo bombers. The reorganized riflemen lunged forward again in a renewed attack. The tanks proved an ineffective disaster, causing chaos at one point by firing on fellow Marines on their flank and running over several of their own men. Nevertheless, the Japanese positions were overrun by the end of the day, with the enemy survivors driven off into a swamp. The Marines now commanded the junction of the two vital trails. As a result, the entire beachhead was able to spring forward 1,000 to 1,500 yards, reaching Inland Defense Line D, 5,000 yards from the beach.

One important result of this advance was that the two main airstrips could now be built. The airfields would be the work of the Seabees. The 25th, 53d, and 71st Naval Construction Battalions ("Seabees") had landed on D-Day with the assault waves of the 3d Marine Division — to get ready at once to build roads, airfields, and camp areas. (They had a fighter strip operating at Torokina by December). Always close to Marines, the Seabees earned their merit in the eyes of the Leathernecks. Often Marines had to clear the way with fire so a Seabee could do his work. Many would recall the bold Seabee bull dozer driver covering a sputtering machine gun nest with his blade. Marines on the Piva Trail later saw another determined bulldozer operator filling in holes in the tarmac of his burgeoning bomber strip as fast as Japanese artillery could tear it up. Any Marine who returned from the dismal swamps toward the beach would retain the wonderment of the "Marine Drive." It was a two-lane asphalt highway, complete with wide shoulders and drainage ditches. It lay across jungle so dense that the tired men had had to hack their way through it only a week or so before.

Marine Drive sign
"Marine Drive" constructed by the 53d Naval Construction Battalion enabled casualties to be sent to medical facilities in the rear and supplies to be brought forward easily. Photo courtesy of Cyril J. O'Brien

Meanwhile, back on the beach, the U.S. Navy had been busy pouring in supplies and men. By D plus 12 it had landed more than 23,000 cargo tons and nearly 34,000 men. Marine fighters over head provided continuous cover from Japanese air attacks. The Marine 3d Defense Battalion was set up with long range radar and its antiaircraft guns to give further protection. (This battalion also had long-range 155mm guns that pounded Japanese attacks against the perimeter.)

By now, the 37th Infantry Division on the left was on firm ground, facing scattered opposition, and able to make substantial advances. It was very different for the 3d Marine Division on the right. Lagoons and swamps were everywhere. The riflemen were in isolated, individual positions, little islands of men perched in what they sarcastically called "dry swamps." This meant the water and/or slimy mud was only shoe-top deep, rather than up to their knees or waists, as it was all around them. This nightmare kind of terrain, combined with heavy, daily, drenching rains, precluded digging foxholes. So their machine guns had to be lashed to tree trunks, while the men huddled miserably in the water and mud. They carried little in their packs, except that a variety of pills was essential to stay in fighting shape in their oppressive, bug-infested environment: salt tablets, sulfa powder, aspirin, iodine, vitamins, atabrine tablets (for supressing malaria), and insect repellent.

Navajo Code Talkers

Marines who heard the urgent combat messages said Navajo sounded sometimes like gurgling water. Whatever the sound, the ancient tongue of an ancient warrior clan confused the Japanese. The Navajo code talkers were busily engaged on Bougainville, and had already proved their worth on Guadalcanal. The Japanese could never fathom a language committed to sounds.

Originally there were many skeptics who disdained the use of the Navajo language as infeasible. Technical Sergeant Philip Johnston, who originally recommended the use of Navajo talkers as a means of safe voice transmissions in combat, convinced a hardheaded colonel by a two-minute Navajo dispatch. Encoding and decoding, the colonel then admitted, would have engaged his team well over an hour.

two Navajo code-talkers

When the chips were down, time was short, and the message was urgent, Navajos saved the day. Only Indians could talk directly into the radio "mike" with out concern for security. They would read the message in English, absorb it mentally, then deliver the words in their native tongue — direct, uncoded, and quickly. You couldn't fault the Japanese, even other Navajos who weren't codetalkers, couldn't understand the codetalkers' transmissions because they were in a code within the Navajo language.

Colonel Frazer West, who at Bougainville commanded a company in the 9th Marines, was interviewed by Monks 45 years later. He still remembered painfully what constantly living in the slimy, swamp water did to the Marines: "With almost no change of clothing, sand rubbing against the skin, stifling heat, and constant immersion in water, jungle rot was a pervasive problem. Men got it on their scalps, under their arms, in their genital areas, just all over. It was a miserable, affliction, and in combat there was very little that could be done to alleviate it. The only thing you could do was with the jungle ulcers. I'd get the corpsman to light a match on a razor blade, split the ulcer open, and squeeze sulfanilamide powder in it. I must have had at one time 30 jungle ulcers on me. This was fairly typical." Corpsmen painted many Marines with skin infections with tincture of merthiolate or a potassium permanganate solution so that they looked like the Picts of long ago who went into battle with their bodies daubed with blue wood.

The Marines who had survived the first two weeks of the campaign were by now battlewise. They intuitively carried out their platoon tactics in jungle fighting whether in offense or defense. They understood their enemy's tactics. And all signs indicated that they were winning.


painging of corpsmen tending to soldier
Painting by Kerr Fby in the Marine Corps Art Collection

Less than one percent of battle casualties on Bougainville died of wounds after being brought to a field hospital, and during 50 operations conducted as the battle of the Koromokina raged and bullets whipped through surgeons' tents, not a patient was lost.

Those facts reflect the skill and dedication of the corpsmen, surgeons, and litter bearers who performed in an environment of enormous difficultly. Throughout the fight for the perimeter, the field hospitals were shelled and shaken by bomb blasts, even while surgical operations were being conducted.

Every day there was rain and mud and surgeons practiced their craft with mud to their shoe laces. Corpsmen were shot as they treated the wounded right at the battle scene; others were shot as the Japanese ignored the International Red Cross emblem for ambulances and aid stations.

Bougainville was the first time in combat for the corpsmen assigned to the 3d Marine Division. Two surgeons were with each battalion and, as in all other battles, a corpsman was with each platoon. Aid stations were as close as 30-50 yards behind the lines. The men from the division band were the litter bearers, always on the biting edge of combat.

Many young Marines were not aware until combat just how close they would be to these corpsmen who wore the Marine uniform, and who would undergo every hardship and trial of the man on the line. The corpsman's job required no commands; he was simply always there to patch up the wounded Marine enough to have him survive and get to a field hospital.

Naval officers seldom had command over the corpsman. He was responsible directly to the platoon, company, and battalion to which he was assigned.

Ashore on D-Day with the invading troops, Pharmacist's Mate Second Class Andrew Bernard later remembered setting up his 3d Marines regimental aid station, just inland in the muck off the beach beside the "C" Medical Field Hospital. Later, as action intensified, Bernard saw 15 to 20 wounded Marines waiting at the hospital for care, and commented, "this was when I noticed Dr. Duncan Shepherd . . . . The flaps of the hospital tent went open, and there was Dr. Shepherd operating away, so calm, so brave, so courageous — as though he was back in the Mayo Clinic, where he had trained."

On 7 December, the Japanese attacked around the Koromokina. The official history of the 3d Marine Division described the scene:

The division hospital, situated near the beach, was subjected to daily air raids, and twice to artillery shelling . . . . Company E of the 3d Medical Battalion, which was the division hospital under Commander R. R. Callaway, USN, proved that delicate work could be carried on even in combat. During the battle the field hospital was attacked, bullets ripped through the protecting tent, seriously wounding a pharmacist's mate.

painting of corpsmen transporting wounded
Painting by Franklin Boggs in Men Without Guns (Philadelphia: The Blakiston Company, 1945

Hellzapoppin Ridge was the most intense and miserable of the battles for the corpsmen of Bougainville, according to Pharmacist's Mate First Class Carroll Garnett. He and three other corpsmen were assigned to the forward aid station located at the top of that bloody ridge. The two battalion surgeons were considered indispensable and discouraged from taking undue risks. Regardless, Assistant Battalion Surgeon Lieutenant Edmond A. Utkewicz, USNR, insisted on joining the corpsmen at the forward station and remained there throughout the entire battle. The doctor and his four assistants were often in the open, exposed to fire, and showered with the dust thrown up by mortar explosions.

The corpsmen's routine was: stop the bleeding, apply sulfa powder and battle dressing, shoot syrette of morphine, and administer plasma. The regular aid station was located at the bottom of the ridge where the battalion surgeon, Lieutenant Commander Horace L. Wolf, USNR, checked the wounded again, before sending them off in an ambulance, if available, to a better equipped station or a field hospital.

Corpsmen (and Marines) were in deadly peril atop the ridge. Corpsman John A. Wetteland described volunteers bringing in a wounded paramarine who was still breathing when he and the medical team were hit anew by a shell. One corpsman was killed, another badly wounded, and Wetteland was badly mauled by mortar fragments, though he tried, he said, "to bandage myself."

Dr. Wolf later painted a grim picture of the taut circumstances under which the medics worked:

Several of my brave corpsmen were killed in this action. The regimental band musicians were the litter bearers. I still remember the terrible odor of our dead in the tropical heat. The smell pinched one's nostrils and clung to clothing . . . . During combat in the swamps, about all one could do to try to purify water to drink was to put two drops of iodine solution in a canteen. Night was the worst, when we could not evacuate our sick and wounded. But, if one could get a ride to the air strip on the jeep ambulance to put the sick and wounded on evacuation planes, one could see a female (Navy or Army nurses) for the first time in many months.

155mm guns of the Marine 3d Defense Battalion
The 155mm guns of the Marine 3d Defense Battalion provided firepower in support of Marine riflemen holding the Torokina perimeter. National Archives Photo 111-5C-190032

Marines slogging through mud
Just getting to your assigned position meant slow, tiring slogging though endless mud. Department of Defense Photo (USMC) 68247

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