Tags: Solomon Islands Campaign Blog Project
Like a broken strand of pearls, the Solomon Islands form an open and extended chain from the Santa Cruz Islands in the south-east to the larger islands of Bougainville and New Britain in the west. Further to the south-east lie the New Hebrides. The islands, primarily volcanic in origin with outer coral barriers, are lushly populated with rain forests and mangrove swamps. Prominent, wide-open and level terrain is rare. What little there is, is densely vegetated. Temperatures tend to the steamy with a prolonged wet season and drier months and “cooler” temperatures in the June through August period. Rainfall on average, is about 120 inches per year.
Human habitation is generally ascribed to have begun around 30,000 years ago with Papuan-speakers arriving from the islands of current day New Guinea. Later settlers arrived from the Austronesian areas (present day Indonesia and environs) via outrigger around 2500 – 3000 years ago. But it wasn’t until the 16th century that the first European explorer, a Spaniard navigator by the name of Álvaro de Mendaña de Neira, discovered and charted the islands. Settlement by Europeans in the Solomons was scattered and consisted mostly of missionary work beginning the middle of the 19th century. Because of a surge in violence against settlers in Australia and Fiji (a reaction to the colonists’ labor practices that relied on kidnapping and trickery), the British epanded a protectorate over the southern Solomon islands in 1893. More islands were added in 1898 and 1899 with the entirety incorporated by 1900, most of that consisting of islands formerly claimed by the Germans, save Buka and Bougainville which remained Germany’s until the outbreak of WW1 when Australia occupied them.
Positioned across the strategic approaches to Australaisa (including Australia, New Zealand and New Guinea) the islands provide an ideal means of either insulating the lands to the south, or, alternately, the best point to invade or exercise control over the sea and air approaches, isolating those lands from distant allies. Early in the 20th century, a survey of the area for naval basing purposes was undertaken by the Royal Navy with a deep water harbor in Tulagi (across from Guadalcanal) receiving particular attention. Little came of it though as the British viewed the enterprise as being too costly. Further to the west, on the island of Rabaul (present day New Britain), where volcanic activity at the north end had formed a deep, protected harbor , the Germans sought to establish a significant presence, but lost the territory to Australia following WWI. Following the war, Australia continued the expansion of the facilities as part of the British Commonwealth, until a devastating earthquake in 1937, killed 507 people and destroyed the city, forcing reconsideration of the whole endeavor (note that even today, volcanic activity in the region continues to exact a major toll on life and property). Rather than re-build there, the Australians moved the territorial capitol to a safer location on Lae. In the interim, Rabaul remained pretty much uninhabited until the advent of WWII when the Japanese invaded and occupied the island, turning it into a major naval and air-base to secure and extend their position in the region. Underscoring the challenges of operating forces in the Pacific, the Solomons lie over 3100 nm from Pearl Harbor and 2900 nm from Tokyo. Allied presence in Port Moresby and northern Australia was an aid, but at this point of the war, forces would have to come from the west coast of the US or from Hawaii.
Next week we pick up with the post-Midway review of US forces, as provided by AT1 Charles Berlemann, Jr. then UltimaRatioRegis weighs in with a series that will cover the rationale for WATCHTOWER, the status of the IJN Combined Fleet and the first part of the invasion of Guadalcanal over subsequent weeks. – SJS