Marines in World War II
The Jump into Parachuting
Rendezvous at Gavutu
Edson's Ridge
Recuperation and Reevaluation
The Closing Shock
Special Subjects
Overseas Models
Marine Parachute Pioneers
Marine Corps Airborne Doctrine
Air Transport
Training Centers
Tables of Organization
Parachute Accidents

SILK CHUTES AND HARD FIGHTING: US. Marine Corps Parachute Units in World War II
by Lieutenant Colonel Jon T. Hoffman (USMCR)


The Allied campaign in the Central Solomons had as its ultimate objective the encirclement and neutralization of the major Japanese air and naval base of Rabaul. As the South Pacific command contemplated its next step toward that goal, it initially focused on the Shortland Islands, hut these were too heavily defended in comparison with the available Allied forces. Planners then turned their attention to Choiseul Island. Once seized, air bases there would allow U.S. airpower to neutralize enemy airfields on the northern and southern tips of Bougainville. General Douglas MacArthur, the Southwest Pacific commander, wanted to short-circuit the process and move directly to Bougainville which would allow American fighter planes to effectively support bomber attacks on Rabaul. Admiral William F. Halsey's South Pacific command had too few transports and Marines to make a direct assault on the strongly garrisoned airfields on the northern and southern tips of Bougainville so he decided to seize the Empress Augusta Bay region midway up the western side of the island and build his own air bases. Defenses there were negligible and Bougainville's difficult terrain would prevent any rapid reaction from enemy ground forces located elsewhere on the island.

D-Day for the Empress Augusta Bay operation was 1 November 1943. Two regiments of the 3d Marine Division, two raider battalions (organized as the 2d Raider Regiment), and the 3d Defense Battalion formed the assault echelon for the landing. The division's third regiment, the Army's 37th Infantry Division, and assorted other units would arrive later to reinforce the perimeter while construction troops built the new airfields. The I MAC staff slated the 1st Parachute Regiment as the reserve force.

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The 2d Parachute Battalion sailed to Guadalcanal in early September and then moved forward to a staging area at Vella Lavella on 1 October. New Zealand and U.S forces already had secured part of that island, but the Japanese still were contesting control of the air overhead and small hands of soldiers were roaming the jungle. Enemy planes struck the parachute battalion's small convoy of three APDs and an LST as it unloaded and put two bombs into the tank landing ship just as it was preparing to beach. It sank in shallow water, which allowed most of the troops to make it ashore. But 14 paratroopers died and the battalion lost most of its supplies and unit equipment. Once established in camp, the parachutists conducted patrols to search for Japanese stragglers on the island. The rest of the regiment arrived in Vella Lavella during the latter part of October.

As the final planning for Bougainville progressed, the I MAC staff grew concerned that preliminary operations might make it obvious to the Japanese that an invasion was in the offing. To address that problem, in mid-October Major James C. Murray, staff secretary, advanced the idea that a raid on Choiseul might make the enemy think that it was the next objective. Even if that did not dissuade them about Bougainville it might cause them to suspect that a U.S. landing on Bougainville would come on the east coast, since Choiseul would be a move in that direction. On 20 October, Vandegrift brought Lieutenant Colonel Krulak, the 2d Battalion commander, to Guadalcanal for a conference with I MAC staffers, who outlined the scheme. The corps issued final orders on 22 October for the 2d Parachute Battalion to begin the raid six days later. Intelligence indicated there were up to 4,000 Japanese on the island, most of them dispersed in small camps along the coast awaiting transportation for a withdrawal to Bougainville. Their supply situation supposedly was poor, although planners believed they still had most of their weapons, to include mortars and light artillery.

The 2d Parachute Battalion's mission was to land at an undefended area near Voza, conduct raids along the northwestern coast, select a site for a possible PT [patrol torpedo] boat base, and withdraw after 12 days if the Navy decided it did not want to establish a PT boat facility. The parachutists were to give the enemy the impression that they were a large force trying to seize Choiseul. To beef up the battalion's firepower, I MAC attached a platoon of machine guns from the regimental weapons company and an experimental rocket platoon. (The latter unit — a lieutenant and eight men — had 40 of these fin-stabilized, 65-pound weapons. They were not very accurate, hut their 1,000-meter range and large warhead gave the lightly armed battalion a hefty punch.) A detachment of four landing craft would remain with the force and give it some mobility. A Navy PBY also landed at Choiseul and brought out an Australian coastwatcher, Carden W. Seton, who would accompany the raid force and ensure it received the full support of local natives. Altogether the reinforced battalion numbered about 700 men. Krulak planned a night landing at 0100 on 28 October. His order emphasized the nature of the operation: The "basic principle is strike and move; avoid decisive engagement with superior forces."

Early in the evening of 27 October, four APDs and the destroyer Conway (DD-507) hove to off Vella Lavella. The 2d Battalion, which had half its supplies already pre-loaded in landing craft, completed debarkation in less than an hour. The small convoy had a short but eventful trip to Choiseul, as an unidentified aircraft dropped bombs close aboard one of the APDs. The ships arrived early off Voza and the small Marine force was completely ashore by 0100. In the course of the landing, a Japanese float plane unsuccessfully attacked the Conway, again missing the target by a narrow margin. Shortly after the ships departed, another Japanese plane appeared, circled the landing beach, and dropped two bombs that landed just off shore. One platoon accompanied the boats to Zinoa Island and camouflaged them, while the rest of the battalion made an early morning move less than a mile inland to a mountain hideout that would serve as its patrol base. Local natives had already blazed a trail through the jungle and now provided hearers to assist in moving supplies. The parachutists created a dummy supply dump of empty boxes on a beach two miles to the north to invite enemy attention to the landing. To back up the diversion, on 30 October Halsey's command released to the press news of the invasion by paratroopers. At least one newspaper illustrated the story with fanciful drawings of parachutists floating down from the sky.

In the afternoon a small Marine patrol moved west along the seacoast to investigate possible sites for a PT base. Two other native patrols working farther away from Voza provided the battalion with information on the nearest Japanese dispositions. Approximately 200 enemy were guarding a barge station at Sangigai to the southeast, while another force was 18 miles to the northwest beyond the Warrior River. Krulak decided to attack Sangigai on the 30th. On the 29th he sent out several patrols and personally led one to reconnoiter the objective. Krulak's reinforced squad encountered 10 Japanese unloading a barge near Sangigai and killed seven of them. Later in the day an outpost drove off a Japanese platoon and killed seven more enemy soldiers. Some of the patrols observed considerable barge traffic moving along the coast.

On 30 October, two companies reinforced by machine guns and rockets moved overland toward Sangigai. Company E continued down the beach trail while Company F split off and moved inland to take the base from the rear. Early in the morning, a prearranged air strike of 12 torpedo bombers had hit identified enemy positions just outside Sangigai. When Company E approached the same area at 1430, it executed a bombardment with its mortars and 36 of the experimental rockets. The Japanese retreated to the interior after being hit by the barrage, with the apparent intent of occupying prepared defensive works located there. They arrived at their destination at the same time that Company F was approaching the area. The Marines, still in a single-file approach formation, were almost as surprised as the enemy; they received only the briefest warning from the accompanying native scouts. The lead platoon of parachutists reacted immediately and attacked; the next platoon in line moved out to the right of the route of march to flank the Japanese. The enemy occupied their positions and responded with rifles, machine guns, and knee mortars. After 15 minutes of heavy fighting the parachutists were making slow progress, when the Japanese suddenly launched a Banzai-style attack. Marine machine guns cut them down and stopped the charge in short order. Company F's 3d platoon then moved out to the left to cut off the enemy's retreat, but the Japanese ran headlong into the 2d Platoon instead and lost yet more men. About 40 escaped the net, but they left 72 dead on the battlefield.

Lieutenant Robert Leonard
Navy Lieutenant Robert Leonard, a parachute-qualified doctor, poses with a Johnson light machine gun at Camp Elliott in February 1943. Paratroopers preferred the Johnson family of weapons due to their accuracy and reliability, but they were never produced in adequate numbers to fully equip Marine jump units. Department of Defense Photo (USMC) 127-GC-248-35436

While that fight raged in the jungle, Company E entered Sangigai unopposed. It destroyed supplies, installations, defensive positions, and one barge. Captured documents included a chart pin pointing minefields off Bougainville. The company then linked up with landing craft and made it back to base that evening. Casualties slowed the movement of Company F through the dense jungle and it ended up spending the night near the coast before getting boated back to Voza the next day. The cost of the victory was 6 dead, 1 missing, and 12 wounded, the last figure including Krulak, who suffered wounds in his face and arm from fragments. A flying boat evacuated the severest casualties and picked up the invaluable mine charts.

On 1 November, Major Warner T. Bigger, the battalion executive officer, launched an operation in the other direction with the goal of destroying barges in Choiseul Bay and bombarding enemy installations on Guppy Island. Major Bigger and a reinforced Company G (less one rifle platoon) rode landing craft to the Warrior River, where they left their sole radio and a security team before moving overland toward their objective. Things began to go wrong thereafter. The native scouts were unfamiliar with the area and the patrol soon found itself going in a circle. Bigger and his force bivouacked for the night, but he sent one squad back to the Warrior River to make a report to battalion by radio.

At dawn on 2 November, the squad and radio team awoke to find a Japanese platoon in the immediate vicinity. After a firefight, the Marines broke contact and joined up with the boats, which were waiting along the coast at Nukiki. On the way back to Voza they observed eight Japanese barges at Moli Island, which indicated there was an even larger enemy force between the two wings of the 2d Battalion. Concerned that Major Bigger's force might he cut off, Krulak requested air and PT support from I MAC and ordered the landing craft to return to the Warrior River. Company G had moved out for Choiseul Bay at 0630 and met up with a local native who guided them to the coast. They encountered an occupied hunker on the beach and killed five Japanese, then set up their 60mm mortars and fired 142 rounds onto Guppy Island. (To obtain a clear area to fire the mortars, the Marines had to set up their weapons in the sea with only the upper half of the tubes projecting above the surface of the water.) The bombardment started several blazes, one obviously a burning fuel dump. The enemy replied with ineffective machine gun fire from the island and farther up the coast.

Major Bigger and his main body returned to the Warrior River at 1600. They expected to meet the landing craft there, but found none. When they attempted to cross the river to reach the radio team (unaware that it was gone) they came under fire from Japanese forces. After 90 minutes of fighting, three boats appeared, with Marines on board firing their weapons. The Japanese fire died down in the face of this new opposition and Company G embarked in the midst of heavy rain and high seas. One craft hit a reef after retracting from the beach and began to take on water. Then its engine died and it drifted toward the enemy-held beach. Two PT boats, one commanded by Lieutenant (jg) John F. Kennedy, finally came on the scene and took aboard the men on that boat. Three aircraft appeared at the same time and covered the operation by strafing the shore. The combat patrol had killed 42 Japanese in several firefights and inflicted undetermined casualties and damage with its mortar fire. Marine losses were 2 killed, 1 wounded, and 2 missing (natives later recovered the bodies of these two men).

 Marines trailing out of a transport plane
A stick of Marines trails out of a transport plane over Camp Gillespie in California. It was often hard to obtain aircraft to make tactical jumps; in this case, the parachutists were putting on a demonstration for visiting senior officers from the Army and Navy. Photo courtesy of Cunningham PC1305

While Major Bigger operated to the northwest, Krulak dispatched platoon-size patrols to the southeast toward Sangigai. Two of them made contact with smaller enemy units on 1 November. They dispatched at least 17 Japanese at the cost of one Marine killed. Intelligence gathered by Marine and native patrols indicated that the Japanese were moving from both directions to recapture Voza and secure their barge lines and the important coastal track (the only trail for movement to the northwest). There were an estimated 1,800 enemy troops to the southeast and possibly 3,000 in the opposite direction. Krulak assumed that the Japanese were becoming aware of the strength and limited mission of his force given the Marine withdrawals from Sangigai and Choiseul Bay. On the afternoon of 2 November, he informed I MAC of developments and stated that his battalion could handle the enemy for a week, though increasing Japanese activity would hamper Marine patrol operations. In the meantime, he took steps to strengthen his defenses. He placed a platoon-size outguard on each flank of Voza, put his demolition platoon to work laying mines, and requested that PT boats patrol the coast to hinder the approach of Japanese forces by barge.

The corps staff had considered expanding the operation on 30 October by inserting the rest of the parachute regiment. Now they radioed Krulak and asked him for his "frank suggestion whether we should remove your outfit tomorrow night." The message ended with the straightforward assessment — "Feel your mission accomplished." The parachute commander responded that he expected a strong Japanese attack within 48 hours and recommended withdrawal in light of I MAC's view that nothing further could be gained by continuing operations. Two days into the Empress Augusta Bay landing, it must have been obvious to the Japanese that the west coast of Bougainville was the main target and Choiseul was a diversion.

In the afternoon of 3 November, the battalion moved to the beach at Voza and established a perimeter pending the nighttime arrival of four LCIs (one of them a gunboat version to provide covering fire). The demolition platoon placed out hundreds of booby traps on avenues of approach, to include a rocket suspended in a tree and double-edged razor blades worked into palm trunks (to discourage snipers from clambering into their habitual perches). As darkness fell, native scouts reported that Japanese forces were moving closer and enemy patrols began to reach the Voza area near midnight, as evidenced by exploding booby traps. The three transport LCIs arrived just prior to that and beached by 0130. The parachutists were completely loaded in less than 20 minutes and were back at Vella Lavella by 0800. As the battalion marched to its camp, coastwatchers were reporting the occupation of Voza by the enemy, who still were having difficulty with the varied devices left by the Marines.

At a cost of 11 dead and 14 wounded, the 2d Battalion had killed a minimum of 143 Japanese and seriously disrupted the movement of enemy forces from Choiseul to points northward. The minefield chart also provided a valuable assist to naval operations in the northern Solomons. Halsey ordered mines laid in the clear channels and they eventually sank two Japanese ships. In retrospect, I MAC may have staged the operation too late and with too small a force to serve as a good diversion, though it did have some effect on Japanese actions. The enemy apparently shuttled some troops from the Shortlands to Choiseul and on 1 November sent a heavy bomber strike to attack the task force they assumed would be located off the Voza beachhead. In any case, the raid kept the Japanese high command guessing for a time and certainly must have given them reason to be concerned about the prospect of future attacks of a similar nature. Lieutenant Colonel Williams later would call the Choiseul operation "a brilliant little bit of work."

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