Tags: Solomon Islands Campaign Blog Project
Today — part 2 of CINCLAX’s articles on the Bougainville Campaign…
Battle of Empress Augusta Bay (the “short version”)
While the 3rd Marines were settling for their first night ashore, a critical sea battle was brewing offshore. As they had immediately responded in the air, the IJN was quick to counter attack by sea. In Rabaul, ADM Samejima (8th Fleet) ordered newly arrived ADM Omori (CO Crudiv 5, Nachi & Haguro) to sea with every other fighting ship he could conscript from Simpson Harbor with orders to attack the American transports
It was a bad decision. Omori had never exercised with any of the other ships in his scratch force (two heavy cruisers, two light cruisers and six destroyers), while “Tip” Merrill’s force, TF 39 (4 light cruisers, eight destroyers), were by now old hands at night actions.
Sighting Omori on radar at 0229 on November 2nd, Merrill separated his ships into independent groups, while Omori began a series of S-turns designed to buy time until his floatplanes gave him more information, especially as it was a dark, moonless night. It was another bad decision, as multiple collisions ensued while light cruiser Sendai was smothered by American gunfire. Omori tried to bring his heavies into action, but only succeeded in getting a single hit on Denver. Destroyer Hatsukaze, her bow torn off in a collision with Myoko, was left adrift and finished off by American gunfire.
Incredibly, Omori believed he had inflicted serious damage on the Americans, so he retired to Rabaul without making an attempt to attack the beachhead—his original assignment. He had lost two ships and had three others damaged. For the Japanese, the Battle of Empress Augusta Bay had been a complete fiasco. For the Americans, the beachhead was saved and there would be no repeat of Savo Island.
Sherman’s Raid on Rabaul
ADM Koga Mineichi, C-in-C Combined Fleet, reacted strongly to the American landings at Empress Augusta Bay by immediately sending seven heavy cruisers, one light cruiser and four destroyers under ADM Kurita Takeo to reinforce ADM Samejima’s 8th Fleet in Rabaul. Fortunately for the Americans, AirSols eyes were almost everywhere these days, and Halsey and Wilkinson soon learned of their arrival on November 4th. At the moment, only RADM Frederick Sherman’s carriers of TF 38 were available as urgently needed reinforcements. If Kurita’s force got into the landing area on Bougainville, it could be October 1942 at Guadalcanal all over again, as Merrill had only his four light cruisers and eight destroyers to stop them.
Trouble was, at the moment Sherman’s carriers, Saratoga and Princeton, were refueling in the Rennell Islands, about 160 miles south of Guadalcanal. Immediately Sherman headed north up the Slot at 27 knots. Just southwest of Cape Torokina, they launched a 97-plane strike that caught the Japanese completely by surprise around 1110 on the morning of the 5th.
Because of its geography, Rabaul was perhaps the most difficult harbor to attack in all the Pacific. Simpson Harbor, the inner anchorage, and its outer roadstead, Blanche Bay were surrounded by mountains on three sides, so the flak from the numerous AA batteries was intense. (see Part II)
Despite a 70-plane CAP, the Americans burst through and wound up seriously damaging heavy cruisers Takao and Maya, plus lightly damaging four other cruisers, two light cruisers and two destroyers. Kurita’s fleet had been badly knocked about and would never threaten Bougainville again. The Americans lost 10 planes, but recovered his 87 others to turn around and head south unscathed by 1300.
To add to Japanese woes, 27 Fifth Air Force B-24s and 67 P-38s from Dobodura arrived around noon. Finding no enemy planes on the ground (all were out hunting for Sherman), they bombed Rabaul town and the Simpson Harbor warves.
No story about Sherman’s raid would be complete without including the Japanese response. TF 38 had been finally located and some 18 unescorted Kate torpedo planes sent out to attack. Radio Tokyo would later claim “One large carrier blown up and sunk, one medium carrier set ablaze and later sunk, two heavy cruisers and one cruiser and destroyer sunk.”
It was one of the most egregious pieces of distorted propaganda in the war, and what the Japanese would tout as the “Air Battle of Bougainville.” In fact, the Kates had come across LCI(G)-70, PT-167 and LCT-68 on their way back to the Treasuries—hardly Sherman’s carriers! The LCI suffered a single hit only because the torpedo had porpoised up into the hull but failed to explode. The LCI survived and returned to Torokina under tow.
Counterlanding at Koromokina Lagoon
Meanwhile, back on Bougainville. Around 0600 on November 7th the Japanese caught the Americans by surprise in a counter landing. Four Japanese destroyers hove to in Atsinima Bay, having just made the approximately 200-mile run from Rabaul. In the half-light of dawn, a force of some 475 Japanese troops debarked into 21 boats and barges, landing on a front of about 2500 yards. Fortunately for the Marines, because the enemy landed over so wide a front, his full strength could not be concentrated quickly, he had to decide whether to lose the initial advantage of initiative, or to attack piecemeal with portions of his force. Characteristically, he chose to attack at once. In effect, this was something of a suicide mission and reminiscent of Col. Ichiki’s attack at Guadalcanal.
Example: Two Japanese boats, containing an estimated 40 to 50 men, landed with the initial wave only about 400 yards to the west of the U.S. perimeter, in rear of the 9th Marines’ combat outpost. This group immediately launched an attack on the positions occupied by the 9th Marines Weapons Platoon. They were cut down in large numbers and the survivors retired into the swamp to possibly regroup for further attack.
In the late hours of the day a coordinated and overwhelming counter attack was planned. It began early on November 8th, with a 20-minute preparation by five batteries of artillery assisted by machine-guns, mortars and anti-tank weapons. There was virtually no opposition to this advance, and a stillness settled over the jungle after the artillery fire lifted; over 300 enemy had been killed in an area approximately 300 by 600 yards. Marine losses for the battle were 17 killed and 30 wounded; 377 Japanese bodies were found on the battlefield.
Establishment of the Perimeter
Establishment of the perimeter, which formed the second phase of the operation, took most of November. Five major actions (one defensive and four offensive) were fought during this period as the Marines pushed northward towards the junction of the Numa Numa and East-West Trails in the vicinity of Piva Village, now intended as the location of two additional airstrips. Most of the Japanese troops had to travel some 50 miles overland on the East-West Trail from the Buin area in the south, so they usually arrived exhausted and with little heavy equipment.
17th Army Commander, GEN. Harukichi Hyakutake had little choice in moving his men. Continual AirSols surveillance from several points, plus strong LCI gunboat protection of the beachhead flanks made the old Daihatsu landing barge operations impossible. Several times the Japanese tried infiltrating men in small numbers from barges on the east side of the Marines perimeter, but they were usually shot to pieces.
Battles up the Numa Numa Trail, with names like Piva Roadblock, Coconut Grove and Piva Forks were short, sharp engagements in which the Marines usually prevailed. Making their task far easier was the innovative use of LVTs (amtracs) in moving men and supplies across the many swampland areas. Able to move at 10-15 mph on land, each LVT could carry about 20 men or about 4500 lbs. or cargo. Largely disdained by RADM Kelly Turner at Guadalcanal—he claimed they threw their tracks too easily, Wilkinson knew a winner when he saw it. After all, the Roebling-designed amtrac had been built to cope with Everglades swamps, so Bougainville swamps presented few obstacles.
TOROKINA BEACHHEAD—As of November 7th
Marine non-combatant activity included the building of a network of roads, construction of a fighter strip, survey for a bomber field, location of supply dumps. For the time being, Japanese opposition was minimal. By November 30 the various objectives–fighter strip, projected bomber field and advance naval base–were defended by well-anchored lines. Construction of the Torokina fighter strip was well underway, and the strong Marine defense line ran from the Koromokina River to the north and Piva Village to the east.
In the midst of the action at the Piva Trail road block, on November 9th, MG Roy Geiger relieved LTG Vandegrift as Commanding General, IMAC, and simultaneously assumed command of Allied forces on Bougainville. Vandegrift returned to Washington to become Commandant of the Marine Corps.
Air Strikes of November 11th
On November 8th Halsey finally received the second carrier group he’d been requesting for months; RADM (TG 50.3) Montgomery brought along the brand new Essex and Bunker Hill, plus the light carrier Independence. An attack was scheduled for November 11th, combined with one from “Ted” Sherman’s group coming from a different direction—the Green Islands, about 220 miles east of Rabaul.
Sherman’s attack was hampered by foul weather and achieved few results, but Montgomery’s group did some real damage with their 185-plane attack: light cruiser Agano lost her fantail to a torpedo, destroyer Suzunami was dive bombed and blew up, destroyer Naganami was torpedoed and left dead in the water.
ADM Kusaka’s 11th Air Fleet responded quickly, sending out a strike of 67 Zeroa, 27 Vals and 14 Kates, followed by a flight of G4M Betty bombers. A furious air battle ensued, but the Japanese scored no hits while losing all 14 Kates, 17 Vals, 2 Zeros and several Bettys. American fighters and anti-aircraft gunnery had made great strides, while the flower of the IJN’s pilots had once again been decimated.
At this point Kusaka sent his remaining warships, two heavy cruisers and three destroyers, north to the relative safety of Truk, some 760 miles distant. Never again would Rabaul present a surface threat to the Americans on Bougainville—or anywhere else, for that matter. The Third Fleet carrier planes which had been sent to reinforce 11th Air Fleet suffered 50% losses before they were returned to their carriers at Truk.
Still, Rabaul could be a dangerous opponent. From 8-13 November 8th to 13th the 11th Air Fleet staged three major anti-raids at Cape Torokina
As usual they made wildly exaggerated claims of sunken American battleships and carriers, when in fact the worst damage was two bomb hits and a torpedo hit on light cruiser Birmingham, and a torpedo hit on one of the engine rooms of light cruiser Denver, which forced her to retire to Purvis Bay at slow speed. AirSols was not asleep, however, and these modest results cost the Japanese 121 out of the 173 carrier aircraft transferred to Rabaul on November 1st.
On November 17th the Japanese had their biggest success. Snoopers had spotted an American reinforcement echelon on the way to Cape Torokina. It was a fairly large fleet, composed of eight LTS, eight APDs with six escorting destroyers. Only 22 miles from their destination, the old four-piper McKean (APD-5) was struck by an aerial torpedo; her after magazines blew up, along with her depth charges, sending flaming fuel oil over her aft section.
52 of the 185 Marines embarked were lost, as were 64 officers and men of her crew. In Rabaul, the Japanese propaganda machine claimed three carriers and two cruisers sunk, calling it the “Fifth Air Battle of Bougainville.”
The Battle of Cape St. George, November 25th
Called “the perfect battle” by ADM Pye, President of the Navy War College, Cape St. George would be the last surface engagement of the Solomons Campaign.
The Pearl Harbor codebreakers reported to Halsey that Kusaka (8th Fleet in Rabaul) was about to send a reinforcement run of destroyer-transports to Buka Island (just north of Bougainville). Apparently the Army insisted that the Americans were about to invade the area and wanted reinforcements on the ground. But because the Allies had no such intentions, they made no effort to stop the 920 soldiers getting into Buka, where they would be marooned for the duration of the war. However the opportunity to pick off a few enemy destroyers was too good to pass up.
Burke had five DDs, divided into two divisions; the Japanese of CAPT Kagawa also had five DDs, three of them transports, two in the screen. Burke divided his force into three destroyers under his direct command and two others under Bernard L. Austin. In separate columns, they raced west to get between the enemy and their home port of Rabaul, then turned north to cut them off. It was a moonless night with heavy cloud cover, so visibility was at a premium.
Burke made radar contact at 0140 almost as soon as he had his force in position. Then he headed directly for the Japanese and launched some 16 torpedoes. At this point Austin requested he be permitted to head for the enemy’s opposite bow; Burke’s response was monosyllabic: “Nuts!”
Unfortunately for CAPT Kagawa in the screen, the American torpedoes had been in the water for four minutes before he spotted Burke’s destroyers. Kagawa had only seconds to maneuver, and he did nothing. Onami went up in a massive explosion and Makinami was crippled by a hit amidships.
Around this sametime, Austin sighted the destroyer-transports. Burke ordered Austin to finish off Makinami and went after the second column himself. After a long stern chase he caught up with the Japanese, then crippled and sank Yugiri with gunfire.
Having lost contact with the other two destroyer-transports, and with dawn fast approaching, Burke raced back east. The battle was over. DesRon 23 had sunk three new 2000-ton Japanese destroyers without suffering a single hit.
The Army Arrives
Elements of the 37th Infantry Division were now beginning to arrive in strength at Bougainville to replace the Marines, as planned. The first of these, the 148th Infantry, reinforced, arrived on November 8th and was attached to the 3d Marines until 1200, November 14th, when it reverted to 37th Division command. The 129th Infantry, reinforced, arrived on November 13th, while the 145th Infantry, reinforced, arrived on November 19th.
Main attention of the Corps was now directed to patrolling, development of supply routes through extremely difficult swamp, and extension of the beachhead in both Division sectors to include proposed airfield sites already selected by ground reconnaissance.
As elements of the 37th Division continued to arrive, the beachhead was extended inland with the 37th Division occupying the left (west) flank and the 3d Marine Division occupying the right (east). Extension of the 3d Marine Division beachhead had been particularly slow due to:
• Enemy resistance in force throughout the entire Piva Forks area.
• Extremely swampy ground, unsuitable for continued occupation, located east of the Piva River, and south of the East-West Trail.
• Great difficulties encountered in road construction and travel through swamps for supply and evacuation routes. Special care had to be exercised lest troops advance beyond a means of maintaining them.
Locating the Piva Strips
Shortly after the occupation of Piva Village, CDR William Painter, CEC, USNR, and a small party of Seabee personnel moved out with covering infantry to make a reconnaissance for airfield sites. A suitable area was located, but it was well north of the perimeter. Nevertheless Painter, set about cutting two 5,000 foot lanes destined to become the Piva bomber strips.
Subsequent patrols up the Piva Trail, beyond the coconut grove near the East-West Trail junction, failed to establish contact with the Japanese. However, due to tremendous difficulties encountered in movement and supply through the swamps, it was impossible to advance the perimeter of the beachhead far enough to cover the proposed airfield site selected by CDR Painter. It was therefore decided to establish a strong outpost at the junction of the Numa Numa and East-West Trails, one capable of sustaining itself until the lines could be advanced to include it the strips.
Nevertheless the two Piva strips were eventually completed, the fighter strip on December 10th, the bomber strip on December 25th; thus the initial phase of the Bougainville campaign was over.
The Japanese attempted a land counterattack against the perimeter, beginning with infiltration of troops, but it was for naught. A more serious problem for the Allies was the emplacement of Japanese artillery on “Hellzapopin’ Ridge”, which overlooked the eastern perimeter on high ground. Without motorized transportation, moving these field pieces overland from Buin was a Herculean effort for GEN Hayakutake’s men.
On December 14th -15th a series of TBF Avenger sorties attempted to bomb the Japanese positions, but the initial attacks with contact fuses were ineffective. A final flight of six Avengers with delayed fused bombs was more successful, and the ridge fell to the Marines on Christmas Day. For the 3d Marine Division, the war was over on Bougainville.
Meanwhile, on December 15th MG Oscar Griswold (commander, XIV Corps) had relieved Geiger, and the Americal Division under MG Hodge had begun to replace 3rd Marine Division on the easrtern perimeter.
Wilkinson’s landing force had seized the beachhead, destroyed or overcome the enemy, and won the ground for three vital airfields. Now the Marines prepared to leave, as the airfields were being readied to reduce Rabaul and its environs.
The campaign had cost the Marines 423 killed and 1,418 wounded. Enemy dead were estimated at 2,458, with only 23 prisoners captured.
- The Pacific War Online Encyclopedia (http://pwencycl.kgbudge.com/) © 2006-2009 by Kent G. Budge
- Bougainville, 1943-1945: the Forgotten Campaign, Harry Gailey, University of Kentucky Press, 1949
- General Kenney Reports, George C. Kenney USAAF, Duell, Sloan & Pearce, Inc., 1949
- Breaking the Bismarcks Barrier, Vol. VI of History of U.S. Naval
- Operations in World War II, by Samuel Eliot Morison, Little, Brown, 1950
- Bougainville and the Northern Solomons, MAJ John N. Rentz, USMCR,
- Historical Branch, Headquarters, U.S. Marine Corps, 1946
- The Siege of Rabaul, Henry Sakaida, Phalanx, 1996
(crossposted at steeljawscribe.com)