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)

Hand Grenade Hill

The lead for the next assault on 25 November was given to the fresh troops of Lieutenant Colonel Carey A. Randall, who had just taken over the 1st Battalion, 9th Marines. They were joined by the 2d Raider Battalion under Major Richard T. Washburn. Randall could almost see his next objective from the prime high ground of Cibik Ridge. Just ahead rose another knoll, like the ridge it would be the devil to take, for the Japanese would hold it like a fortress. It would soon be called "Hand Grenade Hill" for good reason. Two of Randall's companies went at it with Washburn's raiders. But the Japanese gave a good account of themselves. Some 70 of them slowed the Marine attack, but one company got close to the top. The Marines were from five to 50 yards away from the Japanese, battling with small arms, automatic weapons, and hand grenades. The enemy resisted fiercely, and the Marines were thrown back by a shower of hand grenades. One Marine observed that the hill must been the grenade storehouse for the entire Solomon Islands.

It was on Hand Grenade Hill that Lieutenant Howell T. Heflin, big, memorable, one of Alabama's favorites, son of a Methodist minister, snatched up a BAR (Browning Automatic Rifle) and sprayed the Japanese positions. He pried open a way for his platoon almost to the hilltop, but could not hold there. He was awarded the Silver Star Medal, and later he went on to become Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court and then the senior U.S. Senator from Alabama.

Marines in swamp
Concealed in the heavy jungle growth, these men of Company E, 2d Battalion, 21st Marines, guard a Numa Numa Trail position in the swamp below Grenade Hill. National Archives Photo 127-N-69394

At the end of the action-filled day, the Marines were stalled. In the morning of 26 November surprised scouts found that the Japanese had pulled out in the darkness. Now all of the wet, smelly, churned-up terrain around the Piva Forks, including the strategic ridgeline blocking the East-West Trail, was in Marine hands.

There now occurred a shuffling of units which resulted in the following line-up: 148th and 129th Infantry Regiments on line in the 37th Division sector on the left of the perimeter. 9th Marines, 21st Marines, and 3d Marines, running from left to right, in the Marine sector.

The Koiari Raid

As a kind of final security measure, IMAC was concerned about a last ridge of hills, some 2,000 yards to the front, and really still dominating too much of the perimeter. Accordingly, on 28 November, General Geiger ordered an advance to reach Inland Defense Line Fox. As a preliminary, to protect this general advance from a surprise Japanese attack on the far right flank, a raid was planned to detect any enemy troop movements, destroy their supplies, and disrupt their communications at a place called Koiari, 10 miles down the coast from Cape Torokina. The 1st Parachute Battalion, just in from Vella Levella under Major Richard Fagan, drew the assignment, with a company of the 3d Raider Battalion attached. While it had never made a jump in combat, the parachute battalion had been seasoned in the Guadalcanal campaign.

evacuating wounded
Evacuation of the wounded was always difficult. These men are carrying out a casualty from the fighting on Hill 1000. National Archives Photo 127-N-71380

Carried by a U.S. Navy landing craft, the men in the raid were put ashore at 0400, 29 November, almost in the middle of a Japanese supply dump. Total surprise all around! The Marines hastily dug in, while the enemy responded quickly with a "furious hail" of mortar fire, meanwhile lashing the beachhead with machine gun and rifle fire. Then came the Japanese attacks, and Marine casualties mounted "alarmingly." They would have been worse except for a protective curtain of fire from the 155mm guns of the 3d Defense Battalion back at Cape Torokina. With an estimated 1,200 enemy pressing in on the Marines, it was painfully clear that the raiding group faced disaster. Two attempts to extricate them by their landing craft were halted by heavy Japanese artillery fire. Now the Marines had their backs to the sea and were almost out of ammunition. Then, about 1800, three U.S. destroyers raced in close to the beach, firing all guns. They had come in response to a frantic radio signal from IMAC, where the group's perilous situation was well understood. Now a wall of shellfire from the destroyers and the 155s allowed two rescue craft to dash for the beach and lift off the raiding group safely. With none of the original objectives achieved, the raid had been a costly failure, even though it had left at least 145 Japanese dead.

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Commemorative Series produced by the Marine Corps History and Museums Division