Central Solomons

Following the successful campaign to take the southeastern Solomons island of Guadalcanal (7 August 1942 - 21 February 1943), United States forces began a slow northwest advance up the Solomon Islands chain leading toward Rabaul, the Japanese major naval and supply base on New Britain. Rabaul was the Japanese anchor point for their domination of the Solomons and planned expansion into New Guinea, Papua, and Australia.

LST carries Marines ashore on Rendova Island, just off New Georgia to the south opposite Munda Point.  It sails The LST is traversing the narrow Renard Entrance with Rendova Peak in the background, 30 June 1943
LST carries Marines ashore on Rendova Island, just off New Georgia Island to the south opposite Munda Point. It sails The LST is traversing the narrow Renard Entrance with Rendova Peak in the background, 30 June 1943.

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Background to the Campaign in the Central Solomons

On 21 February, an amphibious force landed on the Russell Islands, sixty miles northwest of Guadalcanal and secured the islands after a strong battle. A forward airbase was built on the Russells for the second stage of the offensive against Rabaul. The purpose of this operation was to reoccupy the remainder of the Solomons and the northern coast of New Guinea as far as Lae and Salamaua. MacArthur's forces landed on islands off eastern New Guinea and on the New Guinea coast northwest of Buna where they were to make contact with an Australian division which was already fighting near Salamaua.

As MacArthur's Sixth Army troops began their offensive, Admiral Halsey's South Pacific forces, operating under MacArthur's strategic direction, landed on New Georgia in the Central Solomons, about 200 miles northwest of Guadalcanal. The objectives of the New Georgia campaign were to seize the Munda Point airfield and drive the Japanese from New Georgia, Kolombangara and the surrounding islands of the Central Solomons. The June 1943 invasion of New Georgia signaled not only the beginning of the Central Solomons campaign but also a new phase of the war, a sustained American strategic offensive.

Invasion of New Georgia Island

Soldiers and Marines build fortifications to consolidate their position on the Dragons Peninsula of New Georgia after the attack on Bairoko. The physical demands of the New Georgia jungles are clear in the photo
Soldiers and Marines build fortifications to consolidate their position on the Dragons Peninsula of New Georgia after the attack on Bairoko. The physical demands of the New Georgia jungles are clear in the photo.

With air support based on Henderson Field on Guadalcanal, the operation against New Georgia, code-named TOENAILS, started on 20 June 1943 when Marines, followed by Army forces the next day, landed at Segi Point on Vangunu Island, adjacent to New Georgia to the southeast. There were other preliminary landings, made at Wickham Anchorage on Vangunu, at Viru Harbor, and the Bairoko Harbor areas of New Georgia. The principal effort, with Munda as its objective, began on 30 June 1943 with a landing on Rendova Island, just off New Georgia to the south opposite the airfield on Munda Point. The Rendova landing was necessary because New Georgia itself was protected by hazardous reefs preventing an assault without preparation and protective support, which could be provided by artillery from Rendova Island.

On 30 June the 4th Marine Raider Battalion marched overland from Segi Point, wading through knee-deep mud and fighting Japanese during their trek, and seized Viru Harbor on the western coast of southeastern New Georgia. At Wickham Anchorage on Vangunu Island, however, operations required four days to overcome weather, terrain and the Japanese.

The first phase of TOENAILS succeeded by 5 July, overcoming light Japanese resistance (due to surprise) plus wretched weather and disorganization to put the full landing force onto Rendova and nearby islands and secure the territory. Furious Japanese air attacks on the Rendova landing resulted in 121 Japanese planes shot down. From Rendova, artillery pounded Munda and two prongs of Marine and Army infantry crossed to New Georgia between 2 July and 6 July to begin the campaign against Munda including placing troops to interdict the Japanese supply line to Munda and prevent Japanese troops on nearby Kolombangara from reinforcing Munda.

Progress was slow. The difficult terrain, the absence of tactical intelligence regarding Japanese defenses, and the physical depletion of the troops all hindered the advance. Weighted down with equipment and ammunition, the men forded rain-swollen river and streams. Between waterways, they slogged through mangrove swamps, struggling to stay upright while trying to find their way without accurate maps. Soldiers in the lead platoons had to cut their way through the tangles of rattan vines that knotted the jungle. Narrow trails forced units to advance in single-file columns, churning the trails into mud and allowing a few hidden Japanese to slow the advance.

Naval Battles during the Central Solomons Campaign

The Japanese attempted to reinforce New Georgia and Kolombangara which brought them into conflict with Allied naval power in the waters of the Central Solomons. At Kula Gulf and Vella Gulf during July and August, Japanese and American ships fought resulting in the loss of a Japanese cruiser and three destroyers while the Americans lost the cruiser USS Helena (CL 50) and one destroyer with others damaged. While there was no clear victor in these battles, they reduced Japanese support of their forces fighting the American invasion and eventually led to the evacuation of the islands.

Fall of Munda on New Georgia, Central Solomons

American units gradually developed methods to overcome the obstacles. The supply situation was improved, landings at additional points outflanked Japanese positions and made up for a lack of roads, and new tactics were developed to defeat the prepared Japanese positions in buried log bunkers with overlapping fields of fire. The Marine and Army units slowly moved forward and closed in on Munda, reaching the airfield's perimeter and encircling it on 3 August to trap the troops there. On 4 August the heavily defended Japanese positions on nearby Bibilo Hill fell. The next day, 5 August, the Americans overran Munda town, killing or driving off the remaining Japanese from their bunkers, tunnels, and pillboxes. "Munda is yours at 1410 today" was the radio message from the field to Maj. Gen. John R. Hodge, ground commander.

During the drive on Munda, the Japanese staged air attacks daily, causing them the loss of another 350 planes, while Allied air losses were about 100 aircraft. Within two weeks of its capture, Munda's 6,000-foot runway was operational, soon becoming the most-used airfield in the Solomons.

Aftermath of the Capture of Munda

The capture of Munda airfield on 5 August was only one phase of the New Georgia campaign. There were still Japanese on New Georgia, as well as on the surrounding islands of Arundel, Baanga, Gizo, Kolombangara, and Vella Lavella. Many of the Japanese on New Georgia had escaped and had been evacuated to these nearby islands. They had to be taken or neutralized before the Americans could continue up the Solomons chain.

A second Japanese strong point on New Georgia, at Bairoko Harbor, 8 miles north of Munda, fell on 25 August. The fighting on Arundel during the first three weeks of September was described as the most bitter combat of the New Georgia campaign, after which, once again, remaining Japanese troops withdrew at night, this time to reinforce positions on Kolombangara Island, just northwest of New Georgia.

The strong Japanese position on Kolombangara was not assaulted directly, but was bypassed by the success on Arundel and with the 18 September 1943 landing of Army, Marine, and New Zealand troops on Vella Lavella, fifteen miles northwest of Kolombangara, between New Georgia and Bougainville. Here an airfield closer to Bougainville, the final objective in the Solomons, was taken with far less effort than Kolombangara would have required. During three nights between 28 September and 3 October, more than 9,000 Japanese troops escaped to southern Bougainville in a well-organized evacuation effort. Operation TOENAILS was completed by 22 September 1943, with the occupation by U.S. troops of all important islands in the New Georgia group, fully secured by the end of October.

Casualties of the New Georgia Campaign

Many types of military units were involved at various locations of the islands on which the fighting took place in the Central Solomons. For the first 17 days of the campaign, no more than 8,000 infantrymen fought on New Georgia, but by 25 July this infantry force had increased to 15,000 men and the total strength of all U.S. forces involved in the New Georgia campaign was approximately 35,000. Casualties numbered 5,000 including 1,100 deaths with 95 percent of these losses occurring during the first five weeks.

There was considerable air and naval action during the campaign, in which the Japanese suffered heavy losses of ships and planes as they first reinforced and then evacuated their island positions, while American losses were far less, especially in planes. The Japanese could not replace their losses, while Amereican production and manpower was increasing.

Recommended Book about the Central Solomons Campaign

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