Solomon Islands

By mid-1942, the Japanese expansion in the Pacific Theater had been blunted at the naval battles of the Coral Sea and Midway. To reverse the course of Japanese conquest, the strategists of the U.S. Navy focused on the Solomon Islands, lying east of New Guinea and northeast of Australia, where the gargantuan effort on the road to Tokyo would begin.

Undated photo (1943?) of Marine mapping party working on a road in the jungles of the Solomon Islands
Marine mapping party working on a road in the jungles of the Solomon Islands. Undated photo, probably 1943.

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General Strategy of the Campaign in the Solomon Islands

Solomon Islands Geographical Location
Solomon Islands Geographical Location.

Solomon Islands Chain
Solomon Islands Chain.

In the spring of 1942, Japanese offensives tried to sever the Allied lines of communications to Australia and to expand their perimeter in the Pacific. They pushed southeast from Rabaul, on New Britain Island, to Guadalcanal and Tulagi in the Solomons, and seized Attu and Kiska in the Aleutians. But they failed in their main effort to take Midway Island, northwest of Hawaii, and in the naval battles of the Coral Sea and Midway in May and June they lost the bulk of their best naval pilots and planes. Midway was the turning point, for it redressed the naval balance in the Pacific and gave the Allies the strategic initiative. The Japanese, with the mobility of their carrier striking forces curtailed, abandoned plans to cut the Allied South Pacific life line and turned instead to strengthening their defensive perimeter, planning to wage a protracted war of attrition in the hope of securing a negotiated peace with the Allies.

For the Americans, the urgent requirement was to block the Japanese and to seize bases on the periphery of the Japanese dominated areas as the first step in pushing the Japanese back to their home islands. A three stage campaign was planned for Rabaul:

The campaign in the Solomons carried out the first two steps of the plan. The move northwest from Guadalcanal up the Solomon Island chain toward Rabaul was named Operation Cartwheel, the strategic responsibility of the Army and General Douglas MacArthur. Naval forces were under the general supervision of Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, whose vast Pacific Ocean Areas command included the North, Central, and South Pacific Areas as subtheaters. After November 1942, the South Pacific Area subtheater was under Admiral William F. Halsey. Southwest Pacific forces were under General MacArthur.

Three Phases of the Solomons Campaign

Air reconnaissance and intelligence showed the Japanese were building an airfield on Guadalcanal, located at the southeast end of the Solomon Islands Chain. To prevent the Japanese from completing this airfield, which would allow them to dominate the seas in the area and threaten Australia, an Allied offensive began on 7 August 1942, when the 1st Marine Division landed on Guadalcanal and nearby islands in the southern Solomons, Phase I of the campaign.

After Guadalcanal, Phase II of the Solomons campaign began in late June 1943, in the Central Solomons. There Admiral Halsey's South Pacific forces, operating under MacArthur's strategic direction, landed on New Georgia, about 200 miles northwest of Guadalcanal, with the main objective seizure of the Munda airfield and driving the Japanese from New Georgia and the surrounding islands. The invasion of New Georgia in June 1943 signaled a new phase of the war, the beginning of a sustained American strategic offensive. The capture of Munda airfield on 5 August still left many Japanese on New Georgia, as well as on the surrounding islands of Arundel, Baanga, Gizo, Kolombangara, and Vella Lavella. These were taken or neutralized by the end of September.

Many of the Japanese who had survived Guadalcanal, New Georgia or other Solomon Islands were evacuated to Bougainville as their positions fell to the Allies or were bypassed and cut off. By early October 1943, the Japanese had approximately 37,500 troops on Bougainville and nearby islands. Phase III, the final battle of the Solomons campaign, was the struggle over Bougainville, only 225 miles from Rabaul. A landing 1 November established the Allies on the western side of Bougainville and fighting over the next two months expanded that beachhead and protected the construction of a major airfield that could support the American invasion of the Philippines in October 1944.

The Americans had no intention of fighting the Japanese for all of Bougainville, instead waiting for the Japanese to come to them. A powerful Japanese counterattack starting on 9 March 1944 and a series of battles through 23 March were serious failures for the Japanese who sustained losses exceeding 5,000 men. Thereafter, the remaining Japanese were incapable of offensive action and were slowly mopped up.

The ring of island bases that completed the isolation of Rabaul also included Green Island, at the northern end of the Solomon Islands, considered a part of the Australian Territory of New Guinea. On 15 February 1944, an Allied force landed with little opposition. By 19 February, Seabees were laying an airfield on the island.

Fighting continued on Bougainville as gradually the Japanese were ground down. During October-December 1944, the U.S. ground forces were replaced by the Australian II Corps. A series of actions into the Spring of 1945 forced the Japanese into the Bonis Peninsula in the north. Allied attempts to finish off the Japanese on Bougainville did not succeed prior to the surrender of the Japanese government. The surrender of Japanese forces on Bougainville took place on 21 August 1945.

Recommended Books about the Solomons Campaign

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