Marines in World War II Commemorative Series
The Munda Drive and the Fighting Ninth
Milk Runs and Black Sheep
A Joint Pattern for Victory
Special Subjects
Troop List
Individual Combat Clothing and Equipment
The 'Green Dragon' Landing Ship, Tank
The 'Long Tom' 155mm M1A1 Gun
Field Medicine
Flight Clothing and Equipment
The Douglas R4D 'Skytrain'

UP THE SLOT: Marines in the Central Solomons
by Major Charles D. Melson, U.S. Marine Corps (Ret)

The Munda Drive and the Fighting Ninth

On 1 August, a Japanese air raid hit the torpedo boat mooring basin at Rendova. Nearby on Tombusolo was Edwin Jakubowski with 9th Defense Battalion Special Weapons, firing at the attacking aircraft. "A PT Boat was strafed and blew up next to my little island. Plywood flying all over me and one of its torpedoes went by," he recalled. Captain Theron A. Smith, commanding Battery F, had just inspected his Number 3 Searchlight Section when the attack occurred and later wrote "some Sunday, alerts and [Condition Reds all last night and most of the day. Attacked by two dive bombers and Zeros (estimated 50) about 1600. Two PTs destroyed, another sunk and beyond salvage." In a footnote to the campaign, Lieutenant (jg) John F. Kennedy's PT 109 was rammed and sunk early the next morning while operating from the Rendova base.

defense battalion detachment
Another defense battalion detachment went to Laiana, where this emplaced 40mm gun of 1stLt Colin J. Reeves' battery merges with the dense jungle growth backdrop. Department of Defense Photo (USMC) 60096

Kokengolo Hill
The high ground at Munda airfield fell on 5 August 1943. This picture is taken at the site of the former mission on Kokengolo Hill looking towards Biblio Hill to the north. Department of Defense Photo (USMC) 57564

Field artillery firing missions against the New Georgia area continued to be conducted by Battery B until 3 August. The tank platoon of the 10th Defense Battalion, reinforced by five tanks from the 11th Defense Battalion and the surviving tank of the 9th Defense Battalion, led the assault on Kokengolo and Biblio Hills on 4 and 5 August. After two days of heavy fighting, they routed the defending forces. The Marine tanks then cleared the way to the principal objective of the entire New Georgia campaign, the Munda airfield, which was captured and occupied by XIV Corps Army troops on 5 August 1943. Regiments of the 25th Infantry Division pursued the Japanese as they withdrew north from Munda Point. On the night of 6 August a naval battle was fought in Vella Gulf, where Japanese destroyers and barges bringing in supplies and reinforcements were turned back.

wreckage and debris, Munda airfield
Wreckage and debris were soon pushed aside in the rapid progress to open the field for American use. The captured airfield included aircraft, in this case a Zero fighter in a coconut and coral enclosure, that could not take off after the American landing. Marine Corps Historical Collection

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The engineering effort pushed forward and built upon the Japanese construction that remained. The work was completed within 10 days after the airfield was captured. Department of Defense Photo (USMC) 60460

The battle for Munda airfield over, the Zanana Beach and Laiana Beach detachments moved on 6 August to participate in the Munda defenses. The detachments destroyed 12 enemy planes while at these locations. A day later, the 9th Defense Battalion began moving to the Munda area. The moves were so organized that there was no more than a quarter of the battalion's weapons out of action at any one time. The battalion was transported largely by various types of landing craft, which made the displacement a slow, laborious process. Captain Well's Battery B of the 155mm Group moved to Kindu Point on New Georgia on 8 August and was assigned the mission with its large guns of guarding the western approaches to Blanche Channel. On landing, Battery B and an Army antitank platoon cleared the area of remaining Japanese stragglers.

At Munda Airfield, immediately after the area was cleared of Japanese, construction units moved in to repair and enlarge the "emergency" field built by the enemy. By the evening of 13 August, this work had progressed sufficiently to permit four Army Curtiss P-40 Warhawks to make an unscheduled landing and to "christen" the field with a brief fly-over. This was soon followed by the arrival of Marine air units, including VMF-123 and -124. Other Marine squadrons soon arrived, including the VMF-214 "Black Sheep" of Major Gregory Boyington, who became a grudging admirer of the 9th's antiaircraft marksmanship and a source of entertainment with his radio transmissions while flying over Munda.

Instead of attacking the main Japanese force on Kolombangara at Vila, the American force isolated the enemy by landings on nearby Vella Lavella on 15 August. Admiral Halsey did not want another slugging match like Munda. A landing force was built around the uncommitted Army 35th Regimental Combat Team, commanded by the 25th Infantry Division's assistant commander, Brigadier General Robert B. McLure, and supported by the Marine 4th Defense Battalion. The Japanese resisted in the air and sea, but enemy ground forces were too busy withdrawing to put up a determined resistance. The 4th Defense Battalion, led by Lieutenant Colonel Harold S. Fassett, defended the beachhead against 121 attacks and downed 42 Japanese planes. The Allied occupation of these positions and pressure from Arundel and New Georgia put Vila on Kolombangara in a precarious position. In many ways, this was a prelude to the Marine Bougainville campaign as it brought I Marine Amphibious Corps and new units not involved in the fighting into the New Georgia area. American fighter cover came from the Munda and Segi Airfields.

Seabees clear a Japanese tunnel at the base of Kokengolo Hill for use in the face of the still present Japanese menace. This threat made the discomfort of the cave, filled with refuse and corpses, seem a small price to pay for the security of overhead cover from artillery and air attack. Marine Corps Historical Collection

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Commander Aircraft New Georgia, BGen Francis P. Mulcahy, expanded airfield operations on Munda with the construction of more secure shelters than those the Japanese left behind. A heavily sandbagged sickbay is on the left and the personnel office is in the center. The frame of a prefabricated Quonset hut is being assembled to the right rear. Department of Defense Photo (USMC) 71745

By 15 August, the 9th Defense Battalion was set up and emplaced in new dispersed positions. Three days later, another major naval surface action occurred off Vella Lavella as the U.S. Navy combatants intercepted destroyers and barges attempting to evacuate Japanese troops. From 16 through 19 August, Japanese artillery on Baanga Island shelled Munda Airfield and Kindu Point causing several casualties and some minor damage. Friendly aircraft and artillery operated against these elusive cannon and finally silenced them. The battalion suffered no casualties from this shelling, though one gun crew's tent was demolished by a direct hit and there were several hits on other positions. The 9th's antiaircraft guns were now fully placed to protect the airfield. Enemy air attacks on the Munda area, carried out at night or in the early morning, continued throughout the rest of the month. Captain Ervin's three Battery G 40mm positions seaward of the airfield were straddled by a string of Japanese bombs that managed to just miss everyone.

fighter plane
The first fighter plane to land on Munda was a VMF-215 Corsair flown by Maj Robert G. Owens, Jr., on 14 August 1943. Flight operations began immediately to cover the Vella Lavella landings. Department of Defense Photo (USMC) 60270

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Marine with tank
The Munda drive moved into a final phase with attacks on 4 and 5 August 1943, again using Marine tanks in the lead. Tank commander Capt Robert W. Blake examines some of the improvised antitank weapons faced by his unit — a Molotov cocktail and a magnetic mine. Marine Corps Historical Collection

The landing and occupation of Arundel Island, on 27 August, further tightened the noose around Kolombangara. Army troops were supported by Captain Blake and tanks from the 9th, 10th, and 11th Defense Battalions. Major General Collins, commanding the 25th Infantry Division carrying out this assignment, commended the Marines "for the whole-hearted co operation and assistance rendered this division" during the operations against the Japanese in the Arundel Island campaign. They performed all assigned tasks "in a splendid manner in support of the 27th Infantry, in its action...."

Captain Reichner's Battery A moved to Piru Plantation on 29 August and two days later began shelling the Vila area of Kolombangara. The move was made by landing craft and foot. Recalled Captain William T. Box, with the artillery group's advance party, "we hiked up from Munda using a native guide. I remember we hiked through jungle most of the way. I remember I was scared. I remember I was glad to see that open area with the supply parachutes" left by the Army. Soon afterwards, Battery B moved to Piru and on 2 September participated in the shelling of Vila. A Japanese defender there with the 8th Combined Special Naval Landing Force wrote in his diary, with "the situation as it is, one just can't help but distrust the operational plans of the Imperial Headquarters."

9th Defense Battalion SCR268
An essential element in the defensive air war was the use of radar by the Americans for surveillance, target acquisition, and ground-controlled intercepts. This is one of the 9th Defense Battalion's SCR268s installed on New Georgia.

air defense
Close-in air defense around the airfield was accomplished by regrouping defense battalion assets from Rendova, Laiana, and Zanana, This "Twin-Twenty" is at Munda, and is on one of several types of mobile mounts at New Georgia. Marine Corps Historical Collection

dead Japanese soldier
Dead at his post, this Japanese soldier lies by a smashed 37mm antitank gun near the airfield. As the tanks broke through, the infantry followed and the fighting continued until the positions were overrun or buried in the rubble. Marine Corps Historical Collection

The artillery group used the services of spotter aircraft, but because of enemy gunfire, switched from the light observation planes to Grumman TBFs because their armor plating gave the pilots greater protection. First Lieutenant Donald V. Sandager and Sergeant Herschel J. Cooper flew these missions over Kolombangara. "We both volunteered to a request from Major Hiatt. When we reported to Munda Airfield we had no parachutes and were told each flier had to have his own," recalled Sandager. "The pilots were inexperienced and flew up from Guadalcanal each morning and we had to direct them to find the battery and Kolombangara. Radio communication with the battery was bad." Admiral Halsey noted the artillery group and Lieutenant Colonel O'Neil's ability to "utilize air spotting and the accuracy of their fire which stood out above other more experienced groups."

Japnese 25mm gun
Other Japanese defenses included this 25mm automatic dual-purpose twin-barrelled gun in position on the airfield approaches. These proved to be deadly against both American air and ground forces. Department of Defense Photo (USMC) 69975

The peak of enemy air activity over Munda Airfield occurred the night of 14-15 September when enemy planes kept gun crews at battle stations all night. The 90mm group expended 3,378 rounds, downing one plane and causing most of the enemy planes to jettison their bombs over the jungle or the sea. At Vila, a Japanese commander reported, "it had become very difficult to fire the antiaircraft guns as the enemy places their artillery upon our position immediately after we commence firing upon the aircraft." At Piru, Japanese counter-battery fire hit the artillery group throughout September and the first two days of October. A number of the enemy artillery projectiles failed to detonate and there were no casualties from the shelling.

On 15 September, General Sasaki was ordered to evacuate his remaining 12,400 men from Kolombangara. The next month on 3 October, while flying his assigned air spotter missions, Lieutenant Sandager reported Vila evacuated; the Japanese had pulled out. Lieutenant Colonel Scheyer was pleased to state that for the "first time in this war the enemy had been driven from his base by bombing and artillery fire." He concluded that at Kiska it was bombing and ship's gunfire, at Kolombangara it was naval gun fire, bombing, and artillery fire that turned the tide. The final action of the campaign was a sea battle on 6-7 October when U.S. Navy destroyers intercepted Japanese evacuation ships during the Battle of Vella Lavella.

The Japanese air effort slackened considerably in October, and came to an abrupt halt in November 1943. While at Munda Airfield, the 9th Defense Battalion accounted for eight more enemy planes. Numerous alerts, conditions red, and general quarters stand-tos that began an hour before dawn and an hour after sunset, had occurred daily for all gun crews. In early November, Battery A moved to Nusalavata Island and Battery B to Roviana Island where the 155mm guns covered Munda Bar and the eastern approach to Blanche Channel respectively. Lieutenant Colonel Scheyer remained in command of the 9th until 3 November, when he was assigned to I Marine Amphibious Corps and the command was turned over to Lieutenant Colonel Archie E. O'Neil.

bombing attack
This 1 August 1943 bombing attack struck Marine positions on Rendova, only wounding one Marine, but destroying a height finder with flying coral. Department of Defense Photo (USMC) 58411

On 22 November, the 9th Defense Battalion was attached to VI Corps Island Command for occupation duties. On 31 December, the battalion, with the exception of one radar crew and two search light sections, was relieved of the Munda Airfield defenses by the Army 77th AAA Group. The 9th Defense Battalion spent several weeks in camp in the Munda area waiting for transportation. These weeks were not idle as central camps for the several groups had to be set up and improved. Training schedules, begun in the later stages of the campaign, were carried out. Transport ships were available for the trip to the Russell Islands beginning on 13 January 1944 and continued until the entire battalion move was completed on 25 February.

Flight Clothing and Equipment

Flight clothing was considered naval aviation equipment rather than a purely Marine Corps uniform and was strictly functional. Basic items included leather boots, leather gloves, goggles, a cloth helmet that contained headphones, and a one-piece cotton khaki flying suit. Captain John M. Foster, flying from Munda, stated he wore a flying suit and then slung a "leather shoulder holster containing my 45-caliber automatic over my neck and buckled the belt, strung with my hunting knife, first-aid kit, extra cartridges and canteen, around my waist." He also wore a baseball cap and carried his flying helmet, goggles, and gloves. In addition, the pilots carried 65 pounds of parachute, rubber raft, and " jungle pack."

sketch of pilot
Drawing by Kerr Eby, U.S. Navy Combat Art Collection

The fighting by the 9th Defense Battalion contributed considerably to the victory of the land forces on New Georgia, and demonstrated the value of advance base defense. The 9th was in action against Japanese aircraft on 59 different days, for a total of 159 fire missions and 249 alerts, with 46 enemy planes downed. Not counted in these statistics were aircraft damaged or diverted from their intended targets and forced to under take less accurate nighttime bombing missions. The fire of 155mm guns destroyed a number of enemy artillery positions and troops on Munda, Baanga, and Kolombangara. Numerous pill boxes and machine gun positions were destroyed and enemy troops killed by the tank platoon on New Georgia Island. Although the firing batteries and tanks were the most active elements of the battalion, other components of the battalion were deeply involved in the fighting also. The battalion also destroyed a machine gun position and killed three Japanese on Rendova and killed another 22 enemy and captured two prisoners at Zanana.

Battalion losses throughout the campaign were remarkably few: 13 dead, l missing, over 50 wounded in action, and other non-battle casualties. Malaria caused a number of the Marines to be evacuated. General Griswold summarized the battalion's performance by concluding that every "officer and man of the organization has reason to feel proud of its accomplishment." The I Marine Amphibious Corps commander, Lieutenant General Alexander A. Vandegrift, said "how proud I am to belong to the same outfit as they do."

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