U.S. LAUNCHES NEW GEORGIA CAMPAIGN IN SOUTH PACIFIC

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 landing New 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 Point New 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 tough, 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 airstrip New 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, Part of Operation Cartwheel: Rendova Island to Munda Airfield (First 4 Minutes)