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The Bougainville campaign basically resembled that of Guadalcanal: it had a limited objective --- the capture and defense of a strategic airfield site. The acquisition of a base on Bougainville was part of the overall plan of isolating the highly strategic Japanese naval and air base of Rabaul on the island of New Britain. The initial landing on Bougainville was intended primarily as a Marine Corps operation. Once a beachhead was secured the Marines were to be withdrawn and replaced by Army troops.

The task of seizing the Cape Torokina region on the island was assigned to the I Marine Amphibious Corps, commanded by Lieutenant General Alexander A. Vandegrift and later by Major General Roy S. Geiger. For this operation IMAC included the -following assault units: 3d Marine Division, Major General Alan H. Turnage; 37th Infantry (Army) Division, Major General Robert S. Beightler; 2d Marine Raider Regiment (Provisional), Lieutenant Colonel Alan Shapley; 1st Marine Parachute Regiment, Lieutenant Colonel Robert H. Williams and 8th New Zealand Brigade Group, Brigadier R. A. Row.

The New Zealanders and one battalion of the parachutists were assigned special missions directly -related to the Bougainville operation, yet not connected with the actual landing. On 27 October 1943, four days before D-Day the brigade along with some U. S. elements made an assault on the enemy-held Treasury Islands, some 65 miles southeast of Empress Augusta Day. This had a dual purpose: to serve as a feint to distract the enemy from the main thrust and to neutralize a potential threat to the American lines of communication. The New Zealanders met considerable resistance in the difficult terrain but succeeded in securing the entire area by 12 November.

Another feint was made by the 2d Parachute Battalion, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Victor H. Krulak, on the island of Choiseul on 27 October. The Marines stormed ashore destroying all enemy installations within reach. Believing that a much larger force had landed, the Japanese counterattacked but were repulsed with numerous losses. After seizing their limited objectives, the Marines withdrew to rejoin the main force that had landed on Bougainville having 'Lost only 11 men killed and 14 wounded. No other American forces returned to the island, as Choiseul became one of the many enemy-held island's left behind in the backwash of war.

At 0645 on 1 November 1943, the first wave of the assault force moved ashore on Bougainville. The initial landing was made by the 3d Marines, 9th Marines, and 2d Raider Regiment, less one battalion. Despite prior bombardment by both ships and planes, the invasion force met heavy fire from the defenders. Although this shore fire did not prevent the landing, it did cause much confusion. The situation was further complicated by a heavy surf. As a result, squads, platoons, even companies landed far out of position and in sectors assigned to other units. The dense jungle, moreover, did nothing to facilitate reorganization.

Because of the difficult terrain the beachhead was not expanded very rapidly. Three days after the landing the perimeter was only an average of 1,500 yards from the beach. Following the initial resistance the advance had been unopposed. The Marines now faced another enemy; the jungle and the swamps. Any advance inland was a matter of clawing, hacking, and wading one's way foot by foot.

From the initial landing until the end of the Marine participation in the campaign, the story of Bougainville is one of a beachhead expanding slowly, inexorably against nature and the Japanese. Behind the perimeter engineers and Seabees struggled to construct air facilities on one of the most unpromising pieces of real estate in the entire Pacific.

The Japanese for the most part dug into the jungle and the ridges and waited for the Americans to carry the fight to them. Not until months after the Marines had left did they make a determined effort to oust the invader and by then it was too late. Only once did the Japanese attempt to throw out the Marines. During the night of 6/7 November, the enemy made an abortive counter landing at Atsinima Bay, some distance beyond the Marines, left flank, then anchored on the Koromokina River. In the meantime, the Japanese attempted an attack on the perimeter by infiltrating forces down the Piva Trail.

This two-pronged attack was ineffectual. The amphibious landing force was too small to really disrupt the American hold on the perimeter. More important, American naval and air forces thwarted any enemy attempt to send reinforcements to their beleaguered troops. Despite a determined resistance by the Japanese landing force (approximately 500 men, it was practically annihilated after three days of heavy fighting. The attack via the Piva Trail was also stymied after three days of heavy fighting. By 10 November, two battalions of the 9th Marines reached Piva Village and found that the Japanese had withdrawn. From then on the Japanese operated strictly on the defensive against the Marines and Army units which were gradually building up their strength on the island. The enemy 4 7 from his well-placed positions now began utilizing the tactics of counterattack, sniping, and infiltration, with an occasional Banzai charge to enliven proceeding. in country which gave the defenders every advantage, this made for some bitter and bloody fighting. The Japanese inability to commit sufficient troops for the task at hand, however, insured their ultimate failure.

One particular bloody engagement was the Battle of Piva Forks which began on 19 November and ended seven days later. This was a rather bitter and difficult battle in which units of the 3d Marines bore the brunt of the fighting. After engaging the Americans in very close combat, the Japanese broke off the fight, leaving behind more than 1,200 dead, and withdrew into the hinterland. There they set about the preparation of strong defensive positions beyond the range of American artillery. Clashes between Marine patrols and Japanese forces continued for some time. One such action merits special mention.

The last major battle for the Marines on Bougainville was the engagement at "Hellzapoppin Ridge," where some of the toughest fighting of the campaign occurred. The Japanese were dug in on the steep slopes and crest of the ridge. After the discovery of the Japanese positions, it was found that the only way to dislodge the enemy was by a frontal assault. Between 12 and 18 December the Marines, primarily the 21st Marines, struggled to gain the ridge. Time and again they would get a foothold, only to be forced to abandoned it a little later. After a series of air strikes on the last day of the battle, the Marines were able to reach the crest. Over 200 of the defenders had died by the time struggle ended.

Toward the end of December Army units began replacing Marine Corps personnel and shortly after the first of the New Year most Marines were redeployed elsewhere. Their mission was completed; a precious beachhead had been secured on which American naval and air bases were rapidly being constructed. The price paid by the Marine Corps for the seizure of the Bougainville base sites was 732 killed and 1,259 wounded. The valor and courage displayed by the Marines demonstrated by the fact that three Marines received the Medal of Honor: Private First Class Henry Gurke, Sergeant Robert A. Owens, and Sergeant Herbert J. Thomas; all posthumously.

From the advance bases on Bougainville, American forces disrupted the vital Japanese lines of sea and air communications in the Southwest Pacific. As a result thousands of Japanese troops were cut off from their sources of supplies. By early 1944, the enemy's offensive capability in this area of the Pacific had been effectively neutralized, thus enabling American forces to advance along the northern coast of New Guinea and into the Philippines. The seizure of potential base sites on Bougainville by the Marines had assured other American troops of easier going in the Pacific war.

Bougainville D-Day: Nov. 1, 1943

Admiral William F. Halsey, Commander South Pacific, ordered Task Force 39 (which included four cruisers and the eight destroyers of Captain Arleigh Burke's Destroyer Squadron 23), under Rear Admiral A.S. Merrill, to bombard airfields on Buka and Bonis northwest of Bougainville. He intended the bombardments to keep the enemy off-balance and prevent air harassment of the landing force. The task force then steamed more than 200 miles to strike at the Shortland Islands, while Rear Admiral F.C. Sherman's Task Force 38 took over the bombardment of Buka, eliminating the threat from those airfields.

The actual landing by the 3rd Marine Division at Empress Augusta Bay took place at dawn Nov. 1. The bay, located at some distance from the heavily defended airfields at either end of the island, had what appeared to be the most suitable beaches for a landing. The plan was to establish a beachhead, then bring in supplies and equipment to build a landing strip for fighters. Invasion forces consisted of 14,321 troops (including the 1st Marine Dog Platoon with their 24 Dobermans and German shepherds) in 12 transports, preceded by a minesweeper group. Destroyer Squadron 45, four minelayers and two salvage tugs provided further support.

The landing met with several obstacles. The Japanese defense of the beaches was stronger than anticipated. The 40,000 troops on the island had been reported stationed mainly around the airfields, and aerial reconnaissance photos did not reveal the extensive system of bunkers in the jungles above the beaches. The Marines who landed west of the mouth of the Koromokina River encountered steep slopes and shoals on which more than 80 of their amphibious craft foundered. Those landing east of the Koromokina were caught in crossfire from machine guns on the offshore islet of Puruata and on Cape Torokina east of the beach. A small contingent of Marines knocked out the gun emplacement on the cape after it had destroyed or damaged 14 landing craft; the 3d Marine Raiders captured Puruata.

The landing force drove away the rest of the Japanese defenders, while the dog platoon, moving ahead of the main body, sniffed out snipers along the trails of the bog-ridden jungle. In spite of the resistance, and two Japanese air assaults launched from Rabaul bases during the day (which were driven off by AirSols fighters), the Marines succeeded. By nightfall, all 14,000 troops, together with 6,200 tons of fuel, rations, and ammunition, were landed along a 200-yard perimeter.

Battle of Empress Augusta Bay

The evening of the landing, Army reconnaissance aircraft reported that a large Japanese surface force was heading for Bougainville. Task Force 39 intercepted it about 2:30 the following morning 45 miles west of Empress Augusta Bay. The American ships, executing maneuvers at breakneck speeds in the darkness to avoid Japanese long-range torpedoes, sank two enemy ships after three hours of heavy fire. With two other ships damaged in collisions while trying to avoid American torpedoes, the scattered Japanese chose to retreat. The American force had only two ships hit, both of which sustained moderate damage.

The Japanese Response

The initial Japanese reaction to the Bougainville landing was to send a force of 19 ships to strengthen Rabaul. However, a Nov. 5 air attack from Task Force 38 heavily damaged seven cruisers and two destroyers, prompting the withdrawal of the cruisers and eliminating worries about surface attacks on the Bougainville amphibious forces.

Even so, the night of Nov. 6-7, four Japanese destroyers eluded the Americans and landed 475 troops west of the Marine beachhead. The Japanese hoped to catch the Marines between them and the other troops on the island, but the enemy forces never coordinated their actions. The Marines routed out the counter-landing detachment after two days of artillery barrages.

Fewer than 100 Japanese escaped into the jungle; the rest were killed. The Marines sustained under 50 casualties. Another punishing attack from Task Force 38 on Rabaul Nov. 11 cost the Japanese 68 fighters and three ships. Nevertheless, Japanese carrier air groups from Rabaul made repeated attacks on the American landing force and the Navy ships, which continued to ferry in reinforcements, supplies and munitions.
The strikes did little damage to the American forces, but the Japanese lost so many planes--121 out of 173--that the remaining carrier-based squadrons were withdrawn Nov. 13.

Courtesty Sandy Donellan

The 3rd Marine Division Association

History of the 3rd Marine Division