New Georgia Islands, Solomon Islands June 21, 1943

On this date in 1943, the U.S. kicked off Operation Toenails, as the New Georgia cam­paign was called, with unopposed landings by the elite 4th Marine Raider Bat­talion followed the next day by the Army’s 43rd Infan­try Divi­sion. The year before, in Octo­ber, the Japa­nese had recon­noitered New Georgia, one of six major islands and many smaller ones, in the 500‑mile-long Solo­mon chain, with the intent of building suit­able air­fields to support their com­bat action 150 miles to the south on Guadal­canal, in the south­eastern reaches of the Solo­mon Islands chain. Within weeks the Japa­nese Navy was operating out of air­fields and bases at Munda Point on New Georgia’s north­western tip and Vila on nearby Kolom­ban­gara Island, both at the approx­i­mate center of the Solo­mons (see map below). Starting on Decem­ber 2, 1942, the two air­fields incurred the wrath of mas­sive and con­stant U.S. air strikes (medium and heavy bombers and fighters) and later naval shelling.

Having successfully evacuated the last members of their Guadal­canal garri­son in early February 1943 after six months of hor­rific ground, air, and naval com­bat, the Japa­nese were deter­mined to rein­force their defenses on the New Georgia group of islands. Despite the Guadal­canal set­back, the Solo­mons remained a crucial part of Japan’s southern defen­sive peri­meter because the islands were obvious stepping stones north­ward to the Japa­nese home­land. Thus in Febru­ary and May 1943, the Japa­nese rein­forced New Georgia Island with more equip­ment, soldiers (many were Guadal­canal vet­er­ans), and marines, making a total of 10,500 defenders and setting the scene for one of the most grueling battles of the Pacific War.

Just over a week after U.S. Marines and soldiers had stormed ashore on the south shore of New Georgia, Amer­i­can forces landed on nearby Ren­dova Island, which was secured on July 4, 1943. Ren­dova sat across a watery expanse from the Munda air­field. Amphib­i­ous landings were made else­where on New Georgia and on smaller islands, bringing troop strength to 32,000 men, but the main focus was on neu­tral­izing the Munda air­field, defended by 200 Japa­nese. On August 5 Amer­i­can forces moved unop­posed into Munda, which had been evac­u­ated two days earlier by the enemy. But the con­quest of Munda did not come easily. Some 1,200 re­in­force­ments from the Japa­nese strong­hold of Rabaul on New Bri­tain rode down The Slot on the “Tokyo Express.” In a series of land and naval oper­a­tions between early July and August 4, 1943, Japa­nese forces sty­mied and bloodied Amer­i­can units approaching from the north and east of the air­field. On July 17, in their last offen­sive against Amer­i­can lines, Japa­nese infan­try unsuc­cess­fully attacked U.S. beach­heads but over­ran the 43rd Infan­try Divi­sion’s com­mand post. On August 3 the once-tena­cious enemy—now exhausted, dis­ease-ridden, reduced in num­bers and fire­power, and having lost com­mu­ni­cations with Rabaul head­quarters—vacated the Munda area. Ten days later, after Navy See­bees had repaired the badly damaged airstrip, the first U.S. aircraft landed at Munda.

With the 2-week battle of Munda Point lost, the Japa­nese aban­doned New Georgia entirely and rede­ployed to adja­cent Kolom­ban­gara Island and Vila, Munda’s satel­lite air­field. The Kolom­ban­gara gar­ri­sion, enlarged by 3,400 sur­vivors from New Georgia, lay pros­trate under con­tin­ual U.S. air strikes and inter­dic­tion. Over 10,000 troops were evac­u­ated piece­meal by Japa­nese destroyers, assault boats, and barges between late September and early or mid-October 1943. On Septem­ber 25, 1943, a few U.S. soldiers landed on Kolom­ban­gara and estab­lished a defense peri­meter around Vila air­field. Funnily enough, in January 1944 a fresh vegetable farm was planted on the abandoned airstrip.

Marching Through the New Georgias: The New Georgia Campaign, June 21 to October 7, 1943

New Georgia Campaign: Map of landings, summer 1943

Above: At 45 by 35 miles in size, New Georgia Island is the largest of 11 main islands in the Cen­tral Solo­mons. The terrain of the New Georgia group of islands is typical of many South Pacific islands, with thick, track­less rain forests covering vol­canic cores. Inlets, lagoons, and chan­nels dot the coast­line. Landing beaches suit­able for LCIs (landing craft, infantry) are few. A dif­fi­cult climate, torren­tial rain­fall, and tena­cious mud plagued the com­bat­ants. The Japa­nese had built a well-camou­flaged air­field and base at Munda Point, site of a coco­nut plan­ta­tion on New Georgia Island’s north­western tip (center of map), and a second­ary air­strip, Vila, on near­by Kolom­ban­gara Island. The New Georgia Cam­paign was con­cerned chiefly with seizing Munda air­field, a refueling sta­tion for Japa­nese air­craft on their way to and from Japan’s main base north of the Solo­mons at Rabaul on New Britain Island in Papau New Guinea. After a two-month cam­paign in the summer of 1943, the resource­ful but heavily out­num­bered, out­gunned, and battle-scarred Japa­nese were forced to retreat from New Georgia Island. (Map source: Salmaggi and Pallavisini, 2194 Days of War, 1988, p. 381.)

New Georgia Campaign: Beach landingNew Georgia Campaign: U.S. Marines defend beachhead

Left: Riding in assault craft, soldiers and medics of the U.S. 43rd Infantry Division land on a New Georgia beach, to be met by native guides.

Right: U.S. Marine Raiders fire at enemy snipers hidden in the dense foilage at one of New Georgia’s landing beaches. The Japa­nese extracted a high price for every yard of ground lost to the enemy and vice versa. Added to the high number of wounded and missing casual­ties during the New Georgia cam­paign were 1,195 Amer­i­cian dead (6 per­cent loss rate) against 1,671 Japa­nese dead (16 per­cent). Marine Raiders suffered a dispro­por­tionate 20 per­cent casual­ty rate due to negligible air and inaccurate artillery support.

New Georgia Campaign: Marines Raiders cross a stream near Enogai PointNew Georgia Campaign: Marine flamethrower targets enemy pillbox

Left: Marines Raiders cross a stream during their advance on Enogai Point, New Georgia Island. The collapse of Eno­gai’s defenses on July 10, 1943, pre­vented the enemy from heavily rein­forcing the Munda area from neighboring Kolom­ban­gara Island. How­ever, a short­age of rations and drinking water, extreme heat, humid­ity, dis­ease, near contin­uous jungle com­bat, and a stub­born, well-camou­flaged enemy in hardened posi­tions took a heavy toll on American troops everywhere on New Georgia.

Right: A soldier of the U.S. 43rd Infantry Division uses an M2 flame­thrower against a Japa­nese pill­box during fierce fighting near Munda air­field on New Georgia Island. Enemy machine-gun positions were impervious to light infantry weaponry. Japa­nese soldiers and marines fought skill­fully, for a time forcing a stalemate at the airfield.

New Georgia Campaign: 155mm gun fires on enemy-held Munda airstripNew Georgia Campaign: M3 light tanks mop up resistance near Munda airfield

Left: A U.S. Army 155mm “Long Tom” gun on Rendova Island bom­bards enemy posi­tions in and around the Munda air­strip. This photo shows smoke from an exploding bomb dropped by a Japa­nese fighter operating out of Rabaul that just missed hitting the U.S. artillery piece.

Right: Three Marine M3 “Stuart” light tanks, working along­side Army infantry­men, per­form mop-up duties near Munda air­field, August 6, 1943, one day after Amer­i­cans finally took their main objec­tive. Munda’s defenders, ordered by the Japa­nese Impe­rial Staff in Tokyo to defend the air­field to the last man, knocked out sever­al tanks before being over­run them­selves. Some enemy soldiers resorted to holing up in caves; others joined the retreat to Kolom­ban­gara Island. Major ground fighting on New Georgia ceased on August 23.

New Georgia Campaign, 1943: Rendova Island to Munda Airfield