World War II Pacific Island Territories: The Solomons


Figure 1.--The Solomon Islanders were essentislly a stone-age people when the Europeans arrived. They did not know quite what to think of the British and Australians. Many were Christisnized. Note the Christian crosses. They quicjky decided when the Japanese arrived, as a result of their brutality, that they did not like them.

The Solomon Islands campaign was one of the major campaigns of the Pacific War. It was in the Solomons and the waters and around the Solomons that the Japanese offensive begun at Pearl Harbor was first stopped and then reversed. The Solomons located just east of New Guinea were virtually unknown before World War II. The Germans had briefly occupied the islands north of the Solomons during their colonial outreach and naval building time. These islands since World war I had been admistered by the British and Austrlaians. The Solomons had few resources. What they did have was a strategic location. The Japanese landed and occupied several areas in the British Solomon Islands and Bougainville, in the Territory of New Guinea (early 1942). A Japanese naval task force to take Port Moresby was turned back by American carriers in the battle of the Coral Sea fought southeast of the Solomans (May 1942). The Japanese continued, however, to occupy the Solomons and began the construction of several naval and air bases. They had three objectives. First to protect the flank of opperations in New Guinea. Second to establish a security barrier for the huge naval and air base at Rabaul on New Britain. Third to provide bases for interdicting supply lines between the United States and the principal remaining Allied outposts in Australia and New Zealand. After the devestating Japanese losses at Midway (June 1942), the Japanese Imperial Fleet no longer had the naval force to sever the sea lanes between America abd Australia. Air bases in the Solomons, however, could help with that effort. The Solomons thus became the scene of some of the most furious battles of the War. It was here that American Marines conducted the first Allied offensive in the Pacific and the Japanese Imperial Fleet and American Pacific Fleet fought a series of desperate naval battles. Unlike the subsequent naval actions in the Pacific, the Japanese Imperial Fleet still had the advantage of superial naval forces, but no longer overwealming air superiority. The Japanese at first considered the Solmons a side show to New Guinea and belatedly came to see the importance of the struggle. Despite the initial syperior firces deployed in the area, especially superior naval forces, the Japanese were unable to convert their material advantage into a victorious military campaign.

The Archipelago

The Solomons located just east of New Guinea were virtually unknown before World War II. They are a twin chain of volcanic islands streaching 900 miles in a parallel arangement north and south. The water area between the two chains came to be called the Slot. The volcanic islands are mounatenous and heavily covered with tropical vegetation. There are also small coral atols. There are about 1,000 islands and atolls. The major islands included the British Protectorates of Guadacanal, Malaita, New Georgia, Santa Cruz Isles (group), Choiseul, Santa Isabel, San Cristobal, and Shortland. Bougainville and Buka in the north were administered by Australia as aprt of the New Guinea Mandate. The main exports were copra and timber. The Solomons had few resources. What they did have was a strategic location.

History

Archeologists believe that people reached the Solomon Islands (about 2000 BC. Europeans first reached the Solomons in the 16th century. The Spainard Alvaro de Mendana first mentiined the islands (1568). There was initially little interest in colonizing the islands. Britain and Germany divided the islands between them (1886). The British placed the southernn solomons under a protectorate (1893). This wasc extended to the Eastern Solomons (1898). The Germans briefly occupied New Guinea and the northern Soloons during their colonial outreach and naval building effort. The Germans transferred the northern Solomons (except Bougainville and Buka) by treaty to Britain (1900). The British and Austraklians seized the German possessions during World war I (1914-18). The islands since World war I were thus admistered by the British and Austrlaians.

Japanese Landings

The Japanese landed and occupied several areas in the British Solomon Islands and Bougainville, in the Territory of New Guinea (early 1942). Their major military commitment was at Rabaul. And they prepared a major offensuve to take New Guinea, The commitment to the Solomons was more limited. They landed a small force on Tulagi and built a sea plane base there. This was easier to do than buildung an air field. They subsequently landed on Guadalcanal. The Japanese did not land in force on Guadalcanal, but began building an air field using Korean labor. Tulagi and Guadalcanal were at the southern extrene of the Solomons. Air bases there could extend the reach of Japanese air power to impeded the sea lanes between America and Aystralia. Combined with Japanese submarines, it posed a serious threat to American efforts to save Australia,

Coast Watchers


Battle of the Coral Sea (May 1942)

A Japanese naval task force to take Port Moresby was turned back by American carriers in the battle of the Coral Sea fought southeast of the Solomans (May 1942). The American lost the carrier Lexington while sinking only a smallJapanese carrier. The two most powerful Japanese fleet carriers Zoikaku and Suikaku, however, were put out of actionand were thus unavailable for the Midway operation. The American carriers had been deployed in the Cora Sea because code breakers on Pearl had broken the Japanese naval code. The Japanese did not pursue the question of why the American carriers suddenly appeared in the Coral Sea. Th fact that they has sunk Lexington and they thought Yorktown apparently was a factor in not throughly assessing the battle. The Japanese Army decided to take Port Moresdy in an overland offensive.

Japanese Strategic Goals

The Japanese continued, however, to occupy the Solomons and began the construction of several naval and air bases. They had three objectives. First to protect the flank of opperations in New Guinea. Second to establish a security barrier for the huge naval and air base at Rabaul on New Britain. Third to provide bases for interdicting supply lines between the United States and the principal remaining Allied outposts in Australia and New Zealand.

Battle of Midway (June 1942)

The Japnese were shocked when the American carriers syddently appeared unexpectedly again. The result was the loss of four of the six fleet carriers of the Imperial Fleet. This significantly altered the naval balance in the Pacific. After the devestating Japanese losses at Midway (June 1942), the Japanese Imperial Fleet no longer had the naval force to sever the sea lanes between America abd Australia. Thus the previously little-regarded Solomon Islands began to take on much greater importance. Without carriers, the Japanese decided they could projrct air power by building island air bases. Air bases in the Solomons, however, could help with that effort. The Solomons thus became the scene of some of the most furious naval and air battles of the War.

Guadalcanal (August-December 1942)

Guadalcanal was the southern-most island in the Solomons chain. nd itwas here that American Marines conducted the first Allied offensive in the Pacific. Allied coast watchers reported the Japanese were building an air strip on Guadalcanal. From that base, the Japanese could threaten the sea lanes to Australia. The United States to defend communication and supply lines to the South Pacific decided it was important to prevent the Japanese from completing an air base on Guadacanal. A great deal was at stake. The Allies were building up forces in Australia and clinging on to Port Moresby along the southern coast of New Guinea. The forces in Australia were to be used to take New Guinea and destroy the Japanese base at Rabaul. American Marines landed on Guadalcanal (August 1942). Guadalcanal at the time was a virtually unknown in the Solomons. The Marines did not know what to expect. They found Guadalcanal and nearby Tulagi nearly undefended. Japanese planners had not prepared for such an early offensive. The Japanese had concluded that an American offensive was several months away, probably in mid-1943. A marine invasion force was rapidly assembled. It was a risky operation from the onset. Although dealt a serious blow at Midway, the Imperial Navy still dominatd the Pacific and outnumbered the American Pacfic fleet in virtually every class of warship--including carriers. The Japanese were completely surprised. While they responded quickly, they were not at first aware of the dimensions and capabilities of the American force. The U.S. Navy got the Marines ashore, but Japanese air strikes and fleet movement prevented them from lsnding much of their supplies. The Marines rapidly completed the air strip and named in Henderson Field. The resulting Cactus Air Force proved critical in the fight for the island. The Japanese iltimately did respond in force, but the infantry tactics used by Japanese commanders anxious for victory included suisidal mass wave attacks against machine gun impacements and artillery. The result was that the Japanese disipated their strength until the U.S. perimters was too well established to penetrate.

Naval Campaign (August-October 1942)

The Japanese Imperial Fleet and American Pacific Fleet fought a series of desperate naval battles. Unlike the subsequent naval actions in the Pacific, the Japanese Imperial Fleet still had the advantage of superial naval forces. The initial important naval battles were carrier battles. It was in the Solomon Islands that the U.S. Navy surface fleet first came to grips with the Imperial Navy. The Pacific Fleet with its battleships devestated at Pearl Harbor faced a far superior naval force. The Japanese after seizing the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia) took the Solomon Islands (mid-1942). Allied inteligence detected the construction of an airbase on Guadalcanal. This was a step of considerable importance as an airbase on Guadacanal would assist the Japanese in cutting off American troops and supplies fromn reaching Australia. Unlike the Americans, Japanese construction methods were slow, giving time for the Americans to prepare its first major offensive action of the Pacific War. The First Marine Division still training in New Zealand under Alexander Van der Grip dispatched in great secrecy. They reacged Guadalcnal undected by the Japanese. The Marines took Tulagi, a small island off Guadalcanal on Augut 7. They also landed on Guadalcanal and quickly seized the unfinished Japanese airfield, naning it Henderson Field after an aviator killed during the Battle of Midway. The surprised Japanese on Guadalcanal reorganized inland and counter attacked. The Japanese sent a force of seven cruisers and one destroyer from their base ar Rabal. The route traveled was "The Slot", a slot-like channel formed by the parallel configuration of the Solomons. In a night action off Savo Island they destroyed the Allied cruisers covering the landing (August 9). The Allied landing force was forced to withdraw without unloading all of the Marines' supplies and snuck into the waters. This left the Japanese with air and naval supperority over the Marines that had landed. The Japanese came down the Slot daily to bomb and shell the Marines. Their main target was the airstrip which the Marines rushed into operation. Despite the American victory at Midway, the Japanese still had superior carrier and naval forces. The Japanese did not at first appreciate the importance of the American action. Henderson Field thus played a major role in proecting the Marines from Japanese air strikes and naval bombardment. American fighters fought off Japaneseplanses and made it impossible for the Japanse Navy to direct intense naval bombardment. American bombers launched strikes on Japanese bases in the northern Solomons. The Marines were helped by friendly Melanisian natives which the Japanese had uickly alienated when they arrived. Continuing Japanese pressure began to ground down the Marines. Nimitz transferred overall command to Admiral Bull Halsey who pledged the Navy would intensify support. This was a dangerous commitment at a time when the Japanese still had superior carrier and naval forces. The Japanese launched a major force to destroy American naval forces supporting the Marines. The Battle of Santa Cruz occured when the Japanese found Hornet which was badly damaged (October 26). Hornet was left dead in the water and had to be scuttled. Santa Cruz was a victory for the Japanese, but they did not press their victory. The Americans on Guadalcanal relieved the hard-pressed Marines with fresh Army units. The Japanese had managed to buildup a sizeable force on the island, but were unable to keep them supplied because of the American fighters on Henderson Field. Finally Guadalcanal was declared secure (February 9, 1943). The Americans had retaken the first island on the long road to Japan.

Air Operations

The Japanese also had superior air forces in the initial phase of the Solomons campaign, but no longer overwealming g air superiority. The Japanese at first considered the Solmons a side show to New Guinea and belatedly came to see the importance of the struggle. Despite the initial syperior firces deployed in the area, especially superior naval forces, the Japanese were unable to convert their material advantage into a victorious military campaign.

New Guinea


Moving up the Slot

Australia with British assistance seized New Guinea, the Bismarck Archipelago, and the Solomons from Germany durung World War I (1914). The Japanese occupied Tulagi, completeing their conquest of the British Solomon Islands (March 1942). Responding to the Japanese construction of an airfield on Guadacanal, U.S. Marines launch the first American offensive of the Pacific Wear land land on Tulagi and Guadacanal (August 1942). The Americans and Japanese sluged it out on Guadacanal and the surrounding waters for several months. Japanese counter-attacks failed (November 1942). The Americans and Australians then begin operations to retake New Guinea ans and neutralize Rabaul. At first plans involved seizing Rabaul--Operation Cartwheel. Eventually MacArthur and Nimitz decide thast would be too costly and that Rabaul could be neutalized at much less cost. then begin to move up the Solomons Slot. The Guadacanal landings initiated a series of combined-arms battles on and off Guadacanal and the southern Solomons. After Guadacanal was secured. The U.S. Marines and Army began moving north. There were several battles in the central and northern Solomons, on and around New Georgia. These battle took on the character of isolated land battles as at the end of the 1942 the Imperial Navy withdrew from the Solomons and ceased fleet actions to oppose the American landings. They hoped that the powwerful air forces based in Rabaul could precent the Americans from moving up the Slot. Rabaul became the principal American target.

New Georrgia (June-October 1943)

The American advance up the Solomons Slot was directed by Admiral Halsey. It becanme from Guadalcanal where the United States could project air power from Henderson Field. The first major step north was against Munda on New Georgia where the Japanese had built an air field after losing Guadacanal. New Georgia was about 200 miles north og Guadacanal. Marine landed on New Georgia (June 20, 1943). Army units lnded the following day at Segi Point and drove overland to take Viru Harbor (July 1). Other landings followed, but the principal effort from the beginning was the Munda airfield which could be used to hammer Rabaul. The effort to take Muna becan on Rendova, vedry near to Munda (June 10). After securing Rendova, Marine and Army forces crossed over to New Georgia and began the drive on Munda. The Japanese lacked the mobility of the Americans and thus found it difficult to block the advanncing forces, but put up a stout defense. The Americans finally took Munda (August 5). They next seized the Bairoko Harbor, 8 miles north of Munda, (August 25). The Japanese expected a major fight for Kolombangara another island in the New Georgia group. They thus garrisoned the island heavily and braced for an American assault. Instead U.S. Army and Marine forces along with New Zealand troops landed on Vella Lavella and the Arundel Islands. This essentially cut off the Japanese on Kolombangara, making a cosrly invasion unecessary. In addition to the Allied invasions there were extensuive air and naval action. With growing American naval power and improved aircraft, the Japanese lost a substantial numbers of ships and planes as they attempted to respnd to the American invasions, reinforcing ed and then evacuated their vasrious island positions. The Americans finally secured New Guinea and began to pound Rabaul. This was an important step as Munda was not only much closer to Rabaul than Hernderson Field on Guadacaznal, but had facilities for additional azir groups.

Bougainville (November 1943-March 1944)

A month after Pearl Harbor attack, the Japanese occupied Rabaul and attacked Buka Island just north of Bougainville (January 1942). The Australians withdraw from Bougainville and the other islands, but leave in place coast watchers who provide valuable reports on Japanese movement during the naval Battles in the Slot and around the Solomons. After securing New Georgia (October 1943), the Allies began to target Bougainville where another airfield coukld be built. This was preceeded landings at Mono and Stirling in the Treasury Islands (October 25-27). A Marine division landed then landed on the west coast of Bougainville at at Torokina on Empress Augusta Bay (November 1, 1943). An Army division landed to support them. Annoter Army division replsced the Marines (December 1943). The Marines an Army secured the beachhead at Empress Augusta Bay (Late-November). It provided the area needed for an airfield. The Americans did not attempt to seize the entire island. American air power destroyed Japanese planes and the airfield in the north. American air and sea power isolated the substantial Japanese garrison. Taking the Green Islands made it impossible for the Japanese to resupply Bougainville (February 14, 1944). The Japanese mustered their forces and launched a surprise offensive (March 1944). They suffered substantial losses and used up most of their supplies. as a result, the Allies succeed in isolating the Japanese forces on Bougainville-Buka who without supplied do not have the capacity to contest control of the island. They spent the rest of the War primarily attempting to obtain food. The American position on Bougainville also isolated all remaining Japanese forces in the Solomons. The air base on Bougainville gave the United States the ability to further intensify the pounding of Japanese air and naval facilities at Rabaul. Australia taken over occupation of Torokin (October-December 1944). After the Emperor announced the Japanese surrender, the isolated Japanese forces on Bougainville-Buka who were starving surrendered to the Australians (August 1945).

New Britain (December 1943-August 1945)

New Britain is a crescent-shaped island north east of New Guinea. It is not part of the Solomons, but rather the Bismarck Archepeligo. It was located just north of the Solomon's chain nd thus the landings there were the culmintion of the Solomon's campaign. New Britain is about 600 kilometres (370 mi) long and from 30-110 km (2070 mi) wide. There is a small central peninsula. The Japanese stronghold od Rabaul ws the capital, but located at the extrene easterm point of the island. The rest of the island was lightly defended and the area beyond Rabaul was virtually inpenetrable jungle, meaning tht the Japanese without air and sea mobility coupd not use the forces at Rabaul to effectively defend the rest of the island, especially the western are of the the island. Thus Operation Cartwheel planners decided to invade at Cape Glouster s part of the ring being constructed around Rabaul. Air bases at Cape Glouster could support air groups to join in in the bombing of Rabaul. Allied forces landed at Cape Glouster (December 26, 1943). This was the initial landing on New Britain which helped to secure beachheads within which air bases were built. While the Japanese forces were outmatched, as elsewhere in the Pacific, they fought with great ferocity. [McEnery] Some 1,300 U.S. Marines were killed or wounded. Other battles of the New Guinea campaign included: Battle of Arawe, Battle of Talasea, Battle of Gasmata, Battle of Wide Bay, Landing at Jacquinot Bay, and Battle of Open Bay. MacArthir's initial objective was to complete the conquest of New Britaun by seizing Rabaul. By the time that the Cape Glouster landings took place, the Allies had decided to simply cut off Rabaul and bomb it into impotenmce. As result the New Britain campaign continued until the Japanese surrender at the end of the War.

Rabaul

The Jappanese garisoned some 100,000 men on New Britain and a smaller nearby island, New Ireland.. The vast majority were seployed around Rabaul. This was the headquarters of the Eighth Area Army. This consisted of the 17th Division (11,429 personnel at the end of the war); the 38th Division (13,108); the 39th Brigade (5,073); the 65th Brigade (2,729); the 14th Regiment (2,444); the 34th Regiment (1,879) and the 35th Regiment (1,967). The Japanese dug into the hills surronding Rabaul with well prepared defensive positions. Thee preparations were largely unknown at the time, but an Allied assault on Rabaul would have meant a massive blood letting.

Sources

McEnery, Jim with Bill Sloan. Hell in the Pacific: A MArine Riflemn's Journey from Gudalcanal to Peleliu (2012), 320p.





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Created: 6:42 AM 8/29/2008
Last updated: 8:23 PM 7/9/2012