IV: The Capture of Green Islands
IV: The Capture of Green Islands
The Green Islands Group, a coral atoll lying midway between Rabaul and Buka and only four degrees south of the Equator, served as a staging depot for Japanese barge traffic operating between those two bases to maintain the enemy garrison contained on Bougainville. It consisted of Nissan, the largest island (and one by which the group is generally known) and two smaller ones, Barahun and Sirot, these three forming an oval of hard coral enclosing a deep, sheltered lagoon to which there are only two navigable entrances, both very narrow. Hon, a wooded dot of coral, sits in the middle of this lagoon, and lying north of the group is another atoll named Pinipel. Except for two coconut plantations, a deserted mission station and a few native clearings, the islands are clothed in dense forest. There are no streams and no supplies of fresh water, but heavy rain falls at some time almost every day. Along the outer coast of Nissan Island, inside the reef, boulder-strewn beaches rise to coral cliffs in places sixty feet high and often pitted with deep caves. Inside the lagoon, forest trees overhang much of the shelving coastline, which rarely rises to more than a few feet but provides only a few easily accessible beaches.page 169
The Japanese command in Rabaul, 8 Area Army, realised that the loss of the Green Islands Group would provide the Allies with an excellent site for an airfield from which to attack Rabaul and their other bases in New Britain and New Ireland, but beyond giving orders to a small garrison of twelve naval lookouts and an army unit of eighty all ranks to maintain a strict watch, the commander did nothing to fortify the group. Barges using it as a staging base sheltered in the lagoon by day, moving only by night on the journey between Rabaul and Buka.
Although another island base was required by the South Pacific Command to keep the attack rolling forward and contain Rabaul, the decision to occupy the group was not reached without some difference of opinion. In March 1943 the Joint Chiefs of Staff had revised their orders of 2 July 1942 and directed that all operations against Rabaul by both the South and South West Pacific forces would be conducted under the supervision of MacArthur, whose directives were to be followed in all related tasks. From then on, therefore, Halsey had set about neutralising enemy airfields north and south of Bougainville as his forces thrust upward through the Solomons, until they were established on Bougainville itself.
During a conference at Port Moresby on 20 December 1943 with members of Halsey's staff, MacArthur, eager then to complete the encirclement of Rabaul and move on to the Admiralty Group, suggested the seizure of the Green Islands as a base on which airfields could be constructed. Wilkinson, mindful of the Joint Chiefs of Staff indication in their directive to neutralise Kavieng, on the northern tip of New Ireland, favoured Borpop, on the mainland of New Ireland, or Boang Island, 60 miles north-west of Green Islands, since they were both closer to the objective though more difficult to cover by land-based aircraft from established airfields. On the advice of Colonel W. E. Riley, his war plans officer, Halsey overruled Wilkinson's suggestion in favour of the occupation of Green Islands, because a landing there could be supported by aircraft operating from airfields inside the perimeter at Empress Augusta Bay and the Stirling field in the Treasuries. The group was also within easier reach of Rabaul, only 117 miles to the west. Halsey was also eager to establish motor torpedo boat bases to sever the Japanese supply lines to their remaining isolated garrisons in Bougainville, and the Green Islands appeared to offer the better facilities. He therefore directed Wilkinson to proceed with tentative plans for the seizure and occupation of the group and suggested that the New Zealand Division be used for the task.
Barrowclough, accompanied by Brooke and Bennett, attended a conference at Wilkinson's headquarters on Guadalcanal on 31 page 170 December, when the objectives of the operation were outlined, given the code name of Squarepeg, and the date of the landing provisionally fixed for 25 January.
The task involved a difficult amphibious landing and, as soon as the group was occupied, the construction of two airfields, the establishment of a naval and motor torpedo boat base, and the installation of radar stations. Operational command was vested in Barrowclough who, after the landing was consolidated, would become island commander. He decided to employ 14 Brigade and strengthen his force by including 144 Independent Battery and the Tank Squadron, neither of which had been employed in action since their arrival on Guadalcanal some months earlier. Information concerning the Green Islands Group, however, was too unreliable and insufficient on which to base a hazardous expedition. Most of it was taken from air photographs. Former resident were scattered, and no coastwatchers had been hidden on this isolated group. Nothing was known of the Japanese garrison, and a native population of 1500 was thought, quite wrongly as events proved, to favour the enemy. This vital lack of information was to be overcome by sending in a strong reconnaissance party at least ten days before the landing. Harmon, who was present at the initial conference, promised to intensity both air and naval cover over the group during the period between the reconnaissance and the invasion should the Japanese garrison, alarmed by Allied activity, call for reinforcements from Rabaul.
After issuing a warning order to Potter, Barrowclough returned to Vella Lavella by air on New Year's Day and that evening discussed the forthcoming operations at a conference with the brigade commander, the divisional staff, and heads of services. Potter assigned 30 Battalion for the reconnaissance which, for security reasons, was described as a commando raid. The following day the divisional commander flew to the Treasuries, informed Goss that his brigade would be in reserve for the forthcoming operation, presented decorations won during the seizure of the Treasury Group, and returned to Vella Lavella that afternoon in readiness to move to Guadalcanal on 3 January. Only by the use of aircraft was Barrowclough able to cover such engagements throughout his scattered command or periodically visit New Caledonia, as he did the following week to discuss hospital construction and problems of administration with Dove.
Although the Green Islands operation followed the pattern of the division's two former tasks, it was much larger in scope than either of them and required an immense amount of detailed planning, much of it based on incomplete knowledge of conditions likely page 171 to be encountered. In the early stages it was hampered by changes in the invasion date, which affected not only the army planners but also the naval and air force units with which the whole operation was so closely co-ordinated. On 4 January Barrowclough was informed that the operation had been postponed until 1 February, which meant a corresponding postponement of the raid, since only ten days were to elapse between the two events. The following day a further postponement put the operation back to 15 February. Even this was in doubt until Halsey issued an order on 24 January confirming both the date and the locality.
Divisional Headquarters on Vella Lavella closed on 5 January and moved back to Guadalcanal to be within easy working distance of Wilkinson's headquarters during the planning period, since constant consultation between the three services on final details was essential to success. Heads of services and skeleton staffs also moved back to Guadalcanal over a period of weeks as each came into the picture, command of Vella eventually passing to the Sixth (US) Island Command on 19 January. Meanwhile, working from air photographs, preliminary planning for both the raid and the landing were started by 14 Brigade, which remained at its old site in Gill's plantation. The first really accurate information which paved the way for the raid was obtained on the night of 10 January, when a special naval party in two American motor torpedo boats surveyed without detection the two lagoon entrances and found that the southern channel between Barahun and Nissan Islands was sixteen feet deep and forty to fifty feet wide. It would therefore take the larger landing craft, including heavy LSTs.
The Green Island landing, a model of accurate and detailed planning by a divisional staff now experienced by former operations, avoided former faults and deficiencies. It was freely admitted that for once in military operations the A and Q department played a more important part than G, with whom there is inevitably a little professional rivalry. ‘From conception to completion I consider that the Green Island project was a remarkably fine operation,’ Halsey afterwards recorded in the report on the seizure of the group. Primarily the operation became a supply and engineering problem in distributing men, supplies, and great quantities of heavy machinery and equipment over a modest armada of landing craft, and so arranged that if one was destroyed its loss would not endanger or menance the success of the whole undertaking.
Conditions were exacting and complicated the planning, since units and their equipment had to be uplifted from islands hundreds of miles apart—American units from Tulagi, the Russells, and Ondonga, a base in the New Georgia Group; New Zealand units page 172 from Guadalcanal, Vella Lavella, and the Treasury Group. A total of 5806 officers and men (New Zealand 4242; USA 1564) and 4344 tons of supplies and equipment, including a special reserve of 2000 tons of fresh water in tins and five days' supply of food for 1500 natives, were distributed over eight APDs, thirteen LCIs, seven LSTs, and six LCTs. Numbers and quantities were worked out meticulously for each landing craft, some of which carried bulldozers for the construction of vehicular ramps to the shore should difficulties be encountered on the beaches. Others carried trestle bridges as a further precaution should deep water prevent the bulldozers from reaching land. Navy also provided a tug to pull landing craft off the coral banks should they block the channel, and two repair ships, one for motor torpedo boats and another for the landing craft, to moor in the lagoon and avoid returning any breakdowns to distant bases.
Navy planned the movement of groups of landing craft so that the faster APDs carrying the assault troops overtook and passed through the slower craft to arrive off the island at dawn, the second wave in the LCIs half an hour later, the third wave in LSTs an hour after the assault troops, and a fourth wave in LCTs early in the afternoon. This arrangement of echelons enabled ships to disembark their complements with the greatest speed and depart from the area without confusion. All this separate movement was co-ordinated by the responsible United States navy and air representatives, since each element of the assaulting force required protection en route—seventeen destroyers for the landing craft and APDs, with a cruiser screen beyond, and air cover working in relays from Munda, Stirling, and Empress Augusta Bay as the convoys passed those island bases. Barrowclough and his senior staff officers maintained the closest liaison with their opposite numbers on the headquarters of Task Force 31, working to simplify on paper the mass of essential detail. The greatest amity existed between both commanders and staffs from the beginning to the end of the operation, despite problems which included the production of almost bi-lingual administrative orders containing such un-New Zealand paragraphs as those dealing with ‘pest control’ and ‘housekeeping’. Despite the use of the same language, the planners discovered that interpretation could be vastly different.
To cope with the increased volume of work a planning committee was established under Bennett, which consisted of his assistant, Gibbons, Williams (the DAAG), Captain H. M. Denton (staff captain, Q Branch), Silk—brought in from 8 Brigade because of his familiarity with intricate loading tables—and Captain H. J. W. Hewin, with Warrant Officer M. H. Henderson as their chief clerk.page 173
Until precise information became available three plans were devised, each of them sufficiently fluid to enable any two to be discarded in favour of one selected at the last moment. Under the direction of Murray,1 the CRE, engineers of 37 Field Park, working from available data, constructed large-scale models2 of the group, with toy landing craft placed in the lagoon landing beaches when they were finally selected. This was only one indication of the attention given to detail by planners of all branches. Indeed, these models were much praised by the American command, which afterwards developed the idea and used it for their subsequent operations. A sand-table model on a scale of 1:3000 inches was also produced by the intelligence staff of 14 Brigade Headquarters and used in explaining the operation to the men of the assaulting battalions. At the conclusion of practice manœuvers on the beach at Ruravai, every man was as familiar with the territory and his own particular task as maps, models, photographs, and instruction could make him.
Nothing, however, could be finalised until the information obtained during the boldly executed raid by 30 Battalion, decided for the night of 30–31 January, was collated and made known to the planners. Cornwall trained his men, 322 of them, on the Mumia and Juno River beaches, making them throughly conversant with their task of protecting groups of specialists and technicians—27 Americans and 11 New Zealanders—who were to report on the suitability of sites for airfields, landing beaches and approaches, naval and torpedo boat bases, and radar stations, as well as the rise and fall of the tides and the depth of the lagoon—all of which was to be gathered in the twenty-four hours allowed ashore. A member of the British Solomon Islands Administration, Lieutenant F. P. Archer, a former plantation owner from Buka Island who had avoided capture by hiding in the jungle until he was rescued by an American submarine, accompained the raiders to interrogate the natives concerning the Japanese garrison and its activities. He spoke that curious language known as ‘pidgin’ and had been a visitor to the plantations of Nissan Island in pre-war days.
2 Scaled models for impending operations were extensively used by 2 Division in the Middle East, the first in November 1941 in preparation for the Libyan campaign. The first model to assist New Zealanders in battle was a large one prepared for the Battle of Messines in France in 1917.
Special precautions were taken to ensure direct communication with this expedition, moving far beyond the most northerly bridgehead in the Solomons, by the addition of a detachment from Divisional Signals under Second-Lieutenant R. H. C. Crawley. At first light on Sunday 30 January, the little convoy departed from Vella Lavella, moving via Gizo Strait and shepherded by four destroyers, one of which, USS Fullham, carried the Brigadier and his liaison officer, Captain D. M. Young. Two motor torpedo boats, for the protection of the landing craft in the lagoon, joined the convoy off Empress Augusta Bay, where the Fullham remained until the raid was over.
On the stroke of midnight the landing craft from the APDs passed through the entrance to the lagoon, shrouded in a night so dark it might have been prepared for such an undertaking. A rising sea had not hindered disembarkation in the open roadstead, but many of the men were sick. One of the motor torpedo boats led them in—twelve small landing craft in single file. With a sound like a deep sigh they slid up on the sandy beach of the Pokonian Plantation, a few hundred yards to the right inside the entrance to the lagoon, to await the dawn and form a defence perimeter inside which Cornwall established his headquarters. In thirty minutes everyone was ashore and digging foxholes as silently as the sound of vigorously employed shovels hissing through the sand would permit.
Before seven o'clock next morning the technicians and specialists left on their missions, each group protected by its armed screen. Major A. B. Bullen1 commanded the party which crossed the lagoon to investigate airfield sites in the Tangalan Plantation, Lieutenant F. R. Allen2 that which examined the Barahun Island beaches, and Captain F. R. M. Watson those who reported on the Pokonian area. Natives came forward with information for Archer that enemy strength was between fifty and sixty, but there was no opposition to the technical parties as they gathered and recorded their information in a silence broken only by the soft chugging of landing craft.
1 Lt P. O'Dowd; born NZ 11 Apr 1920; died of wounds 31 Jan 1944.
Later that afternoon, when all the reconnaissance parties returned to the perimeter, the area was strafed with mortars and a counter-attack planned, using a platoon from Bullen's company on each flank with Smith leading a frontal attack from landing craft. Although the men had been landed in the flank, the attack was frustrated by six Japanese aircraft which strafed and bombed the landing craft just as Smith began to move in to land. Machine guns, one of them manned by Private W. T. A. Aylward,2 drove off the attacking enemy planes. Reports obtained long afterwards disclosed that seventeen Japanese were killed by mortar fire during the strafing. Fearing that enemy aircraft might return and bomb the beach, Cornwall decided to withdraw his raiders and shelter the barges along the coast of Barahun Island until the midnight rendezvous with the APDs. Only one mishap marred the return journey. A 10-foot swell made the transfer from landing craft to APDs most difficult, taking hours to accomplish in the darkness, and an American officer was crushed between barge and ship as he embarked. By 4 p. m. the following day the raiding party returned to Vella Lavella, its mission successfully completed with the loss of four killed (one New Zealander, three Americans) and five wounded (two New Zealanders, three Americans).page break
A 25 pounder damaged by enemy mortar fire, Falamai
A Landing ship(Tank) beached at Mono Island
Marsden matting helps unloading operations
Foxholes in a bivouac area at malsi village, Mono Island
The raiders were not observed by the Japanese garrison until their landing craft began moving across the lagoon to Tangalan Plantation. South East Area Headquarters in Rabaul received the information at 9 a. m. on 31 January that Allied forces had landed on Nissan, and ordered an immediate attack by six bomber-equipped fighter aircraft and a counter-attack by an amphibious force transported in two submarines, but constant air raids on Rabaul, as promised by Harmon, made the preparation of these counter measures extremely difficult. The air attack, which was not pressed with any great determination, took place late in the afternoon, just as Smith was moving his landing craft into attack near the scene of the morning ambush. The Japanese claimed to have sunk ‘one of six motor torpedo boats on the lagoon’ and set two others on fire. However, no craft were lost by the raiders though several were badly shot up.
That evening, while Cornwall's men were sheltering off Barahun, the Japanese garrison despatched another message asking for reinforcements, stating that they were under attack and that their losses were heavy. They proposed to burn their code books that night. The following night the garrison fled north to the Feni Islands, using three landing barges which had been reported by a New Zealand reconnaissance aircraft flying over the island on the day of the raid. Meanwhile two submarines, carrying 123 members of the Wada Company, left Rabaul at midday on 1 February and arrived off the north-east coast of Nissan Island at midnight, but the rising storm which hindered the embarkation of Cornwall's raiders made the task of disembarkation so difficult that only 77 members of the Wada Company reached the shore over the coral reef. The remainder returned to Rabaul. When some of the original garrison returned from the Feni Islands on 5 February, after concluding that the group had not been occupied, the two parties joined and made their headquarters in caves south of the Pokonian Plantation, later moving most of the garrison to the mission area. At that time the garrison numbered 102, but was increased by a small undetermined reinforcement from Rabaul before the actual seizure of the group.
Once possessed of accurate information gathered during the reconnaissance raid, which was quickly disseminated to all commanders, the final preparations were planned with confidence during the next fortnight. Engineers made the landing plan still more precise by attaching to their model of Green Islands small accurately numbered miniatures of the craft on each beach for which they were destined on D-day.page 178
After his plans had been approved by Wilkinson's headquarters, Barrowclough issued his final operation order on 4 February. This was followed on 5 February by Wilkinson's operation order 2–44, an immense document defining the tasks and organisation of all navy, army and air units taking part, not only for the seizure of the group but for all subsequent echelons. In accordance with American procedure, the orders of subordinate commanders were incorporated in detail in those of the higher command, a system which hampers to some degree any last-minute changes dictated by tactical necessity. Then, on 7 February, Barrowclough flew to Vella Lavella for final discussions on Potter's operational plan for the assault. This involved landing three battalions of his brigade to occupy and consolidate the two plantation areas on Nissan Island, establish blocks each night from coast to coast, and successively clear sectors each day until the whole island was free of the enemy. The 30th Battalion, already familiar with the locality, was assigned to the Pokonian Plantation and the southern tip of Barahun Island, thus securing the entrance to the lagoon; 35 and 37 Battalions were to cross the lagoon and land simultaneously in the Tangalan Plantation—the 35th on the right flank, the 37th on the left—and clear that area before the arrival of the LSTs carrying radar and earthmoving equipment.
1 There were good reasons for the employment of so heavy a force in both the raid and this operation. The Green Islands lay some hundreds of miles beyond areas held by the Allies and were close to Rabaul; a large number of specialists, working alone in small separate groups, had to be protected; very little information was available about these islands, as no intelligence parties had been put ashore from submarines to make preliminary investigations; and a desire to avoid any unnecessary waste of life.
Divisional Headquarters closed on Guadalcanal on 13 February when Barrowclough and his personal assistant, Lieutenant J. T. Collin, embarked in USS Halford, in which Wilkinson and his staff also travelled. They watched the rehearsal off the coast the following day before joining the last convoy. By this time, after a voyage devoid of incident, groups of slower craft had joined off the west coast of Bougainville, ready to make the rest of the journey together under cover of darkness and reach the rendezvous off the entrance to the Green Islands lagoon at dawn, synchronising their arrival with that of the slow APDs.
The following units landed on Nissan Island on 15 February:
Divisional Commander (Maj-Gen H. E. Barrowclough)
GSO 1 (Col J. I. Brooke)
AA & QMG (Lt-Col P. L. Bennett, MC)
3 Defence and Employment Platoon (Capt W. G. Rutherford)
Divisional Signals (Lt-Col D. McN. Burns)
Headquarters Company (Maj G. W. Heatherwick)
No. 2 Company (Capt T. C. Eady)
No. 3 Company (Capt G. M. Parkhouse)
Divisional Artillery (Brig C. S. J. Duff, DSO)
Detachment 37 Field Park (Lt L. G. Taylor-Cannon)
16 MT Company (Maj C. McL. Brown)
Detachment 10 MT Company (Maj N. C. Moon)
Malaria Control Section (Maj R. G. S. Ferguson)
10 Mobile Dental Section (Capt J. B. Muir)page 180
14 Brigade Headquarters (Brig L. Potter)
Brigade Major (Maj L. E. Pithie)
Staff Captain (Capt G. C. C. Sandston)
Brigade Carrier Platoon (Capt J. F. B. Stronach)
Under command were American services and units, the principal of which were a navy base and units commanded by Captain H. A. Rochester, USN; three naval construction battalions under Commander C. H. Whyte, USNR; an air centre and units commanded by Brigadier-General Field Harris; and 967 US Anti-Aircraft Battalion commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel J. E. Moore, afterwards made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire.
Dawn in the tropics is invariably a spectacle which fades as quickly as it flowers; 15 February was no exception. Piles of rosetinted clouds mounted in a jade sky, and along the horizon heavier cloud banks were slashed with shining gold. As the light strengthened, the ships of the force were revealed over the calm sea, spreading out for miles inside the circle of screening destroyers, with two task forces, one commanded by Rear-Admiral W. L. Ainsworth and the other by Rear-Admiral A. S. Merrill, still farther out. Nissan Island lay like a dark smudge on the water. Coming in at high speed, the APDs passed through the slower ships to rendezvous off the tip of Barahun. Behind them the great silver bellies of captive balloons, trailed by the LSTs as a protection against dive-bombers, glinted as they caught the first beams of the sun. High overhead an umbrella of aircraft from Vice-Admiral Aubrey Fitch's command held off the Japanese attack, though a few machines did break through because of some confusion of the ships' radar screens.
Japanese headquarters in Rabaul were informed of the approach of the invasion force by a reconnaissance aircraft, which picked it up off the coast of Bougainville at dusk on the evening of 14 February, and reported that ‘a large convoy of thirty transports and eighteen cruisers and destroyers’ was heading north. Thirty-two Japanese aircraft were ordered to maintain an attack through the night, in relays, but the main attack did not develop until dawn, when LST 466 received slight damage from a bomb and the United States cruiser St. Louis, one of the screening cruisers, received a direct hit. These were the only two ship casualties, neither of them serious. As usual the Japanese claims were excessive—one transport sunk, two cruisers, one destroyer, and three transports damaged by near misses. The Japanese command recorded the loss of twelve page 181 of their aircraft, including the reconnaissance plane which shadowed the convoy through the night.
While the Japanese attempted to press their air attack on the widespread target of landing craft, the lagoon, so still that any movement shirred great stretches of rain-grey water, became the setting for activity it had never previously known. First to break the morning calm was a minesweeper at 6.10 a. m., after clearing the narrow entrance channel. At 6.41 a. m. the assault troops were down the nets of the APDs, and the first flight of thirty-two landing craft, led by a motor torpedo boat and an LCI gunboat, all in single file since they could move in no other formation, were on their way to the beaches. Circling above them was a special liaison aircraft, used for the first time that day, to acquaint the task force commander in Halford of the progress of the landing and, if necessary, direct gunfire against opposition. Not a shot was fired.
In two hours perimeters had been established with the perfection of a well-timed and executed manœuvre. Potter and his staff went ashore in the second wave of assault troops and established advanced brigade headquarters in the Tangalan Plantation. As soon as the battalion patrols established their block lines beyond the bridgeheads, the LCIs beached, then the LCTs and finally, in the afternoon, the LSTs. Men and materials poured ashore as each wave of craft was cleared and retracted from the beaches to make way for the next. Carrying parties, 100 from each battalion, removed materials as they came ashore to prevent congestion on the beaches. By half past ten that morning Divisional Headquarters was established in the Pokonian Plantation, a dank site under the palms, made worse when seeping tide water turned it into a bog. The whole landing had been completed without hindrance or confusion. It was disturbed by only one outbreak of firing when a too-imaginative officer, examining the lagoon coast from the deck of an LCI, picked up the two barges destroyed during the 30 Battalion raid. All the armament from the LCI was turned on to them, to the bewilderment of 30 Battalion patrols working their way slowly through the jungle nearby.
On that first day the landing craft disgorged 58 jeeps, 67 trucks of various kinds, 44 guns (both field and anti-aircraft), 7 tractors, 8 bulldozers, 2 compressors, 10 radar installations of various types, 12 water-distilling plants ready for operation, 10 trailers, 2 wireless vans, 8 Valentine tanks, 426 tons of petrol in drums, 2000 gallons of fresh water in tins, and 267 tons of rations, in addition to vast quantities of personal and unit equipment. So smooth was the programme that the last of the LSTs was on its way back to Guadalcanal by 5.30 that afternoon, though some of the LCIs had page 182 departed as early as 9.35 o'clock that morning. No raiding aircraft came to hinder this dawn to dusk activity.
Beginning at eight o'clock that morning New Zealand aircraft, as part of the South Pacific Air Command, assisted in maintaining a continuous cover over the island. No. 14 Squadron, RNZAF, commanded by Squadron Leader S. G. Quill,1 and No. 18 Squadron, commanded by Squadron Leader J. A. Oldfield, between them kept eight aircraft continuously over the island until dusk, flying sorties from the airfields at Empress Augusta Bay.
The intense activity on the beaches was reflected elsewhere as patrols pushed through the jungle, and by nightfall more than the original programme had been accomplished. Artillery regiments went to their allotted sites, in many instances along swathes cut through the undergrowth by bulldozers, and guns, both field and anti-aircraft, were ready for action by eleven o'clock in the morning. The only action, however, fell to 144 Independent Battery, which shot up some Japanese barges on the shore of Sirot Island. Immediately on landing Signals established a report centre in Tangalan area, linking by wireless the station at Divisional Headquarters on the opposite side of the lagoon. By two o'clock that afternoon Captain K. H. Barron2 had established wireless communication with Guadalcanal, the Treasuries, and Vella Lavella and, through that network, to New Zealand. Before nightfall all unit headquarters on the island were linked up and six miles of underwater cable had been laid across the lagoon. Engineers, both New Zealand and American, drove their earth-moving equipment straight off the landing craft to their appointed tasks, improving the landing beaches, gun and radar sites. When night came seven miles of road had been formed—rough but capable of taking trucks and jeeps. Jungle and palms toppled as the shining blades exposed reeking earth to the burning sun. When a few Japanese aircraft raided the island from Rabaul that night, they were picked up by radar installed only a few hours previously. The only casualties from this haphazard bombing were natives in a village near Tangalan Plantation. A briefer raid attempted the following night was driven off by anti-aircraft fire. Among the ground troops there was some indiscriminate shooting during the first few nights, provoked in the darkness by herds of marauding pigs, but there was no sign of the Japanese garrison.
Late on the afternoon of the second day, natives reported that an unspecified number of Japanese had taken refuge on the densely wooded island of Sirot, and the task of clearing the island was assigned to B Company, 30 Battalion, commanded by Captain D. Dalton.1 Since such skirmishes could never be taken lightly in the jungle, his unit was strengthened by the addition of No. 1 Platoon of the Machine Gun Company under Lieutenant E. H. Ryan,2 14 Brigade Defence and Employment Platoon under Lieutenant E. G. Taylor,3 and 4 Field Security Section under Captain D. Lawford.
Later that afternoon No. 8 Platoon, under Sergeant N. Goodall,1 replaced Taylor's badly shaken men, and the whole area was searched. They found six more dead Japanese. During the action some consternation was caused by a wounded and dazed member of Taylor's platoon who had wandered away from the fight, happily in the right direction, telling the passing barge which picked him up on the beach that there were 150 Japanese on Sirot. Fortunately, by the time this information reached headquarters the engagement was over.
On 18 February 37 Battalion patrols reached the northern tip of Nissan Island and reported it clear. On the same day 35 Battalion had cleared south to the outskirts of the mission area, where only a narrow, unsearched tract of jungle separated them from 30 Battalion patrols moving from Pokonian. Except for single individuals and small groups, there was no sign of the enemy garrison. Before the mission area was searched on 19 February it was shelled by 17 Field Regiment, but the only evidence of occupation was a hastily vacated bivouac area and some equipment, including six 20-millimetre guns, two mortars (one of them a new type), six machine guns, 150 rifles, two radio sets, and 150,000 rounds of ammunition—sufficient armament to have damaged the single line of landing craft entering the lagoon on the morning of the 15th. Considerable quantities of rice, used later to supplement the ration for the natives, and cases of dried fish, two supply items dumped in any Japanese-held area, were also found.
The locality in which the remaining garrison was finally unearthed on 20 February, quite accidentally since it had been declared clear by patrols, was along the coast near a few deserted native huts passing as the village of Tanaheran on the map. Stronach,1 with 27 men of his carrier platoon, arrived there at 11 a.m. during a reconnaissance for a new site for 14 Brigade Headquarters, and halted for lunch in drowsy heat disturbed only by the chatter of parakeets and crackling cicadas. Patrols working farther south drove the Japanese towards him, though he was unaware of it at the time. Earlier that morning a small 35 Battalion patrol under Sergeant H. L. Nelson,2 working to the south, returned to Brigade Headquarters after killing a Japanese. Lieutenant R. P. Clouston's3 platoon, despatched to the same locality in the afternoon for a more intensive search, withdrew when it came within reach of the flying metal from an action already in progress, but remained in the area and prevented the Japanese from escaping south again, since the enemy was now confined by Stronach's men along the cliff among thickets of pandanus roots, vines and trees, and broken coral rock.
Action began with an unexpected rifle shot from one of these thickets. When Sergeant A. T. Bartlett4 took his section to investigate, a fusilade of bullets from the undergrowth greeted them and two men were wounded. Stronach immediately formed a cordon round the area with the men available, these including Ryan's machine-gun section which was fortunately in the vicinity. The section took the right flank of the perimeter. There was nothing except noise to indicate the strength of the enemy, the first estimate of which was five or six, but after two unsuccessful attempts to rescue one of his wounded men, Stronach realised he was opposed by considerable numbers and sent a message to 30 Battalion headquarters for assistance. Because of broken signal lines this did not reach Cornwall until after two o'clock in the afternoon, via Driver C. F. Broomhall, of the ASC, and the battalion adjutant, Captain G. H. Biss.page 186
Cornwall immediately ordered D Company, under Bullen, and the mortar platoon, under Lieutenant G. R. Hamilton,1 to the scene of action, with instructions to Bullen to relieve Stronach. Meanwhile two tanks, one commanded by Lieutenant T. K. Evans2 and the other by Sergeant R. H. H. Beetham,3 were despatched to the scene on receipt of a message from Captain L. F. Brooker,4 the liaison officer who accompanied Stronach on his reconnaissance. They had been ferried across the lagoon the previous day to reconnoitre the mission site, which they had been unable to reach overland because of crevices in the coral. Soon after two o'clock Stronach put them in on his left flank. Their first task was the rescue of Private R. Stannard,5 who had been lying under a coverlet of leaves and branches, lopped off by bullets, since 11.15 o'clock in the morning. He was able to clamber onto the rear of Beetham's tank and lie there while it backed him to safety. Both tanks then sprayed the trees with canister and machine-gun fire, aiming only at movement among leaves and branches. Not one Japanese had been seen.
Fifty-one dead Japanese were counted among the trees along the edge of the cliff. Eight others were picked off by a patrol from No. 16 Platoon under Corporal L. G. Ratcliffe,3 as they tried to escape to the caves in which they had been hiding. Rather than be taken prisoner, the only survivor among the tree roots killed himself with a grenade. Of those who escaped during the action, all were accounted for next day. Two were killed in caves, and three were intercepted on a raft off the south of the island on receipt of information from an air patrol. Despite their hopeless plight, those trying to escape by sea refused to surrender but opened fire on a motor torpedo boat which was sent to pick them up. Two were killed; the other, a husky fellow who had fallen over the cliff during the fighting, was taken prisoner. The total New Zealand casualties during the action at Tanaheran were three killed, including Adams who fell in the final assault, two died of wounds, and seven wounded. Up to that time 30 Battalion, in its various skirmishes, had accounted for 102 Japanese.
By the end of February 120 Japanes had been killed, each one checked since that was the only accepted official recording of enemy dead during the Pacific campaign. A final note to the Japanese operational record of their Solomons campaign stated that conditions on Green Islands were unknown after receipt of the radio message on 19 February. It ended naively, ‘The fact that the aerial interception battle over Rabaul kept us so busy that we could not deal a smashing blow to the enemy landing forces on Green Islands, only a short distance away, was a source of great chagrin.’ But Rabaul was almost immobilised by this time. Two days after the landing, motor torpedo boats from a base quickly established in the inner shore of Barahun Island, hunted the sea lanes as far a field as Rabaul and Buka and the coast of New Ireland.
Five days after the landing, Halsey, accompanied by Vice-Admiral A. W. Fitch and Rear-Admiral Robert Carney, his chief of staff, arrived by flying boat for a conference with Barrowclough. Their visit coincided with the action at Tanaheran and the arrival of the second echelon of 21 ships under Rear-Admiral G. H. Fort, who had taken 8 Brigade to the Treasury operation. Because of food shortages and congestion on the island, 1147 natives from Nissan were returned to Guadalcanal on landing craft of the second echelon, the voyage being enlivened by the birth of a native child on the way. Every fifth day after the seizure of the group an escorted echelon arrived from Guadalcanal pouring the necessary men and materials ashore to build up the force to full strength and ensure adequate reserves. By 17 March seven such echelons had arrived, bringing a total of 16,448 all ranks, both New Zealand and American, and 43,088 tons of food, petrol, supplies, and equipment. More than three million dollars worth of mechanical equipment went forward in the first two echelons, most of it for airfield construction work.1
1 The force was built up between 15 Feb. the day of the landing, and 17 Mar in echelons as under:
|Echelon||Landing Craft||Personnel||Supplies and Equipment|
|First||8 APDs, 13 LCIs, 7 LSTs, 6 LCTs||5,806||4,344 tons|
|Second||8 APDs, 2 LCIs. 11 LSTs||4,715||6,315 tons|
|Third||10 LSTs, 3 LCIs||2,577||6,668 tons|
|Fourth||10 LSTs, 1 LCI||1,048||5,477 tons|
|Fifth||10 LSTs, 1 Cargo||1,127||9,147 tons|
|5 LSTs, 3 Cargo||1,175||11,137 tons|
This extract from Barrowclough's report to the New Zealand Government on the seizure of the Green Islands Group is a fair indication of the conditions under which the men worked unloading supplies:
New Zealanders and Americans toiled through the steaming days and stifling nights unloading and transporting thousands of tons of supplies of every description. It is impossible to overestimate the magnitude of the work involved in unloading this cargo. Some of it came in LSTs which could enter the lagoon and drop their ramps on the ramps on the various beaches. No sooner had the huge bow doors opened than men swarmed into the cavernous holds and in sweating teams dragged out vehicles and loose cargo through oceans of mud to the dumps ashore. Most of the cargo, however, arrived in larger ships which could not enter the lagoon. These had to be unloaded into smaller landing craft, which pitched and tossed alongside the larger ships in the heavy ocean swell that was usually running. The agility and skill of the soldiers in performing this dangerous task would have done credit to experienced sailors. All services of both nations worked with most commendable zeal.
This subjection of natural obstacles was one of the features of the Green Islands operation. To overcome the lack of fresh drinking water, which was acute during the first two days but happily relieved by the proximity of untold quantities of green coconuts, sixteen massive condensers, each ready for immediate operation, went forward and were speedily installed. Each plant condensed 4000 gallons of sea-water a day, holding it in 1200-gallon canvas ‘S’ tanks, which were afterwards replaced by large wooden tanks, each with a capacity of 5000 gallons. Water from these condensers was used exclusively for drinking and cooking. Bathing presented no difficulty, as all camps were sited on either the lagoon or ocean beaches, and rain-water was trapped in drums from tents, using lengths of bamboo for guttering. Because of the danger of poisoning from coral or a particular kind of fish, men bathed in parties of never fewer than three and were ordered to wear canvas shoes while in the water.
By the time Divisional Headquarters moved to its new site in the former mission station at the south of the lagoon on 23 February, the construction programme was well advanced. Nothing hindered the work of consolidation, which went ahead through March and April until Nissan Island became another highly organised base in the Pacific and a port of call for distinguished visitors who arrived and departed like migratory birds and were facetiously referred to as ‘visiting firemen’. Permanent camp sites were established as dictated by tactical necessity and joined by a main highway, which the engineers constructed through the jungle over pratically the whole island. Signals used 70 miles of underwater cable linking up the island's communications. Timber for camp and airfield page 190 buildings came from a sawmill established in the jungle north of Tangalan Plantation, labour being shared by New Zealand engineers of 37 Field Park sawmill platoon and American engineers. A fleet of 26 small landing craft provided a taxi service from beach to beach on the lagoon, running to a strict timetable and using, with a few heavier craft to carry supplies, an average of 2300 gallons of petrol a day. Outdoor cinemas were constructed under the trees; a rest camp was established on the southern coast by B Company, 22 Field Ambulance, and the AEWS went into action. Every effort was made to provide as much diversion as possible. Two members of the Tank Squadron, seeking unauthorised adventure beyond the limited resources of a now peaceful island, accompanied an American bombing expedition to an island group north-west of Trunk and had to be brought back from Emirau when the damaged Liberator crash-landed there. They willingly paid their fines.
But the health of the troops was excellent. A furry caterpillar, dropping from the trees, caused a maddening skin irritation which cleared up when the insects disappeared. An outbreak of hookworm among members of 30 Battalion was a temporary worry, removed by the drastic treatment of the suspected sufferers. There were no epidemics of any kind, and the mosquito nuisance was lessened by the removal of large areas of trees and undergrowth.
As on every other island occupied by the division, the natives were given medical attention, which they sorely needed. When most of them were evacuated to Guadalcanal, a few hundred ablebodied men and boys were retained as a labour corps under Archer. Two hundred other natives on Pinipel, their tropical diseases aggravated by years of neglect, received regular treatment from Major W. W. Hallwright,1 Deputy Assistant Director of Medical Services, and officers of the field ambulances. A diet of army rations, including some of the more despised dehydrated items, soon restored the gloss to their ebony skins.
By 3 March a mile-long lane of coral gleamed between the remaining avenues of palms, and in areas close beside them machine and repair shops, pilot and staff quarters, control tower underground fighter-control station, and a tank farm capable of holding 350,000 gallons of petrol were in various stages of construction. Blackout restrictions were no longer necessary. Rabaul had been thrashed into such impotence that no raiding aircraft came after the first two nights. When darkness fell rows of huge electric arc lights, fitted to the highest palms on either side of the strip and visible for miles, lit up the fantastic scene of men clad only in boots, hat and shorts, directing and controlling the procession of machinery.
Rain, which fell almost daily at some hour and often all day, scarcely hindered the work of construction. At night in the artificial light the huge palm fronds, quivering under the deluge of water, resembled nothing so much as green ostrich plumes. There was some anxiety on the night of 5 March when a soft patch refused to firm up, but a broiling sun the following day and additional loads of coral made it sufficiently dry to take the incoming aircraft. By 7 March that strip had become the terminal for a regular air service linking every island airfield south to Guadalcanal, and another base to cover further forward operations. A bomber strip running parallel with it was started on 6 March and completed 25 days later, working with the same urgency. From it Liberators bombed Truk and other Japanese arsenals in the Carolines. Expressed in terms of petrol alone, March was a busy month on Nissan Island. When it ended, army and construction vehicles were using 8000 gallons a day, aircraft 20,000 gallons, and the motor torpedo boats 15,000, all of it brought forward from rear bases in drums and put ashore by manpower. By the middle of April, however, the Nissan airfields had served their purpose as the campaign moved over the Equator and reverted to secondary importance as a base for purely local operations. Its fulfilment coincided with the withdrawal of 3 Division from the Pacific, the orders or first news for which were announced on 7 April. Men were on the way home before April ended.
With the announcement of the virtual completion of the South Pacific campaign, except for mopping up and starving out operations, I can tell you and tell the world that no greater fighting team has ever been put together. From the desperate days of Guadalcanal to the smooth steam-rollering of Bougainville and the easy seizure of Green and Emirau, all United States-Allied services put aside every consideration but the one goal of wiping out Japs. As you progressed your techniques and team work improved until, at the last, ground, amphibious, sea and air forces were working as one beautiful piece of precision machinery that crushed and baffled our hated enemy in every encounter. Your resourcefulness, tireless ingenuity, co-operation and indomitable fighting spirit form a battle pattern that will everywhere be an inspiration, and a great measure of credit for the sky-blazing, sea-sweeping, jungle-smashing of the combat forces goes to the construction gangs and service organisations that bull-dozed bases out of the jungle and brought up beans and bullets and supplies. You never stopped moving forward and the Jap never could get set to launch a sustained counter-attack. You beat them wherever you found them and you never stopped looking for them and tearing into them. Well done. Halsey
The official dates of the division's three actions were declared to be:
Vella Lavella: 21 September to 9 October 1943
Treasury Group: 25 October to 26 November 1943
Green Islands: 15 February to 27 February 1944