“All Hell Broke Loose”

The U.S. Army and OPERATION TOENAILS


Angry Staff Officer is a first lieutenant in the Army National Guard. He commissioned as an engineer officer after spending time as an enlisted infantryman. He has done one tour in Afghanistan as part of U.S. and Coalition retrograde operations. With a BA and an MA in history, he currently serves as a full-time Army Historian. The opinions expressed are his alone, and do not reflect those of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.


Few people, save avid students of the U.S. war in the Pacific, have ever heard of the small island group called New Georgia. Yet, in the summer of 1943, the island was the scene of some of the most brutal fighting of the entire war. It was on New Georgia where the 43rd Infantry Division experienced the highest number of cases of “neuropsychiatric” (variably known as “combat fatigue,” “shell shock,” “war neurosis,” or post-traumatic stress disorder) casualties in any division during one operation in the entire war. For two of the three Army divisions on New Georgia, it was their “baptism of fire, and one that they would never forget. While the capture of New Georgia was vital to the strategic and operational success of the Solomon Islands Campaign, the battle itself is a supremely interesting study in small-unit tactics, joint Army-Navy operations, logistics operations, and the trials of a joint command.

Situation

Situated to the northeast of Australia in the South Pacific, New Georgia is part of the Solomon Island chain. Soft sandy beaches lead to lush jungles growing out of coral rock; a veritable island paradise. In 1943, this paradise had been turned into a military stronghold by the forces of the Empire of Japan. The ensuing U.S. offensive to take the Solomon Islands gave us the more well-known battles of Guadalcanal, Bougainville, and New Guinea. These victories ensured that the Japanese would no longer threaten the allied nations of Australia and New Zealand. They also opened the way for General Douglas MacArthur to make good on his promise to return to the Philippines in 1945. From the Philippines, the Allied forces would be knocking at the door of the Japanese home islands.

United States Marine Corps map of the New Georgia Group

Directly in the middle of the Solomon Islands is the New Georgia cluster, made vitally important by its airfield on Munda Point. In the war for the South Pacific, air superiority was key. Landing troops on hostile beaches was made next to impossible when those troops were under constant attack from Japanese fighter-bombers. Therefore, each new offensive needed to be covered by U.S. air power to rid the skies of enemy planes. U.S. air superiority also meant that the Japanese would not be able reinforce, resupply, or withdraw from their positions on the Solomon Islands without suffering heavy losses at sea.

These operations were hampered significantly by the lack of available resources in manpower and equipment. President Franklin Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill had decided that the defeat of Germany was the greatest priority for the Allies, and that they would concentrate the majority of their forces in Europe while holding a strategically defensive but operationally offensive posture in the Pacific (offensives with the limited aims of protecting Allied nations and degrading Japan’s offensive capabilities). The U.S. and Allied forces in the Pacific Theater would have to make do with what they had.

Leadership

By the very nature of the war in the Pacific, the Army was dependent on the Navy for transportation and protection. However, the Navy could not seize the land masses required under the Joint Chiefs of Staff command plan for the Pacific in 1943 with the Marine Corps alone. Therefore, command was divided: Army General Douglas MacArthur would be the Allied commander in the Southwest Pacific, while Navy Admiral Chester W. Nimitz had command of the Pacific Ocean Area. Both men had strong personalities and would butt heads all the way to the end of the war. Each believed that their organizations, the Army and the Navy, should be given complete control of the entire war in the Pacific. Admiral William “Bull” Halsey was given command of the South Pacific Area, operating as kind of a buffer between MacArthur and Nimitz. MacArthur and Halsey worked well together, fortunately, since each would command one of the two drives in OPERATION CARTWHEEL in the South Pacific. Although MacArthur was in overall command, Halsey had strategic command of his own wing of the drive through the Solomon Islands in OPERATION TOENAILS while MacArthur invaded New Guinea. The dual command structure led to confusion among Army and Navy commanders which could have been alleviated by a unified command. Similarly divided commands continued at the lower level, including Army and Navy logistics.

U.S. Forces

The first large island in the Solomons, Guadalcanal, had been taken by U.S. forces by February of 1943, allowing for the concentration of the invasion forces. The main effort in the invasion of New Georgia was to be the 43rd Infantry Division, a National Guard organization from New England (Connecticut, Maine, Rhode Island, and Vermont). The 37th Infantry Division of the Ohio National Guard was the primary reserve force. Both divisions were similar in make-up: three infantry regiments, four artillery battalions (a mix of 105mm and 155mm guns), and divisional support troops (engineers, signal corps, reconnaissance, and medical services). The 43rd was reinforced by elements of the 1st Marine Raider Regiment, 9th Marine Defense Battalion, elements of the 37th Division, naval construction battalions, and elements of the 70th Coast Artillery Battalion (antiaircraft). The Navy provided significant support with nine cruisers, twenty-nine destroyers, and three escort carriers, with a strong contingent (over 500 aircraft) of both Army and Navy aircraft. The landing force was commanded by Major General John Hester, 43rd Division commander. He would have control of all land, air, and naval forces operating around New Georgia upon commencement of the operation, a significant task for a National Guard commander. Therefore, his headquarters was augmented by staff officers from the corps level. The 25th Infantry Division was held as the secondary reserve force on Guadalcanal but was not expected to be needed.

Opposing Forces

The Japanese forces had encountered a significant setback at Guadalcanal, losing approximately 25,000 troops. The Deputy Chief of Staff for the Imperial Army, Torashirō Kawabe, wrote, “As for the turning point, when the positive action ceased or even became negative, it was, I feel, at Guadalcanal.” This did not mean, however, that they had given up. The Japanese high command dictated an ironically similar strategy of active defense/aggressive offense of the Solomon Islands that mirrored that of the Allies. The Japanese 8th Fleet had overall command of the New Georgia Area, reinforced by army units of the Southeastern Detachment. As of June 30, 1943, U.S. intelligence estimated (correctly, it turned out) approximately 10,500 Japanese troops dug in on New Georgia.

The real threat came from the air. Japanese airpower was still significant enough (300–400 aircraft in the South Pacific) to allow massive air campaigns against U.S. and Allied footholds in the Solomons, particularly around Guadalcanal. These attacks targeted Allied shipping and troop positions. Japanese air successes in March and April reinforced the Allied belief that the airfields on the Solomons would need to be taken to allow Allied supply ships freedom of movement.

Gaining a Foothold

The Solomon Islands, as one Army historian writes, were one of the worst places to have to fight a war. All the islands were hot, wet, mountainous, covered in jungle, rife with malaria, and entirely without good roads. Also absent were the established ports, docks, and quays which would be necessary for offloading equipment and supplies. The Allies would have to build everything from scratch.

The island of New Georgia itself is about forty-five miles long and thirty miles wide. The terrain around the island made landing forces particularly difficult, as there were only three good anchorages for the landing craft and support ships. Reefs and islets made navigating the channels around the island difficult, which would restrict access for the Navy’s firepower. Still, cruisers and destroyers were able to target the airfield on Munda in the days running up to the invasion on June 30, making it difficult for the Japanese to keep planes there.

The attack was to hinge on three points: seizure of the island of Rendova for division headquarters, the Western Task Force landing near Munda Point to drive for the airfield, and the Eastern Task Force taking the three vital anchorages at Segi, Wickham, and Viru. D-day was set for June 30.

Source: United States Army in World War II, the War in the Pacific; Cartwheel: The Reduction of Rabaul

Upon intelligence that the Japanese were moving reinforcements to Segi Point, operations were kicked off early, as elements of the 4th Marine Raider Battalion and two companies of the 43rd’s 103rd Infantry (Maine National Guard) were quickly dispatched to seize the point. On June 21, the forces had successfully taken Segi and Seabees began construction of an airfield that would be completed by July 6. The rest of the Eastern Task Force (elements of the 4th Marine Raider Battalion and the 103rd Infantry) took Wickham Anchorage and Viru Harbor on June 30, and had consolidated their gains by July 4.

In bad weather and confusion about which beach was the designated landing zone, elements of the 169th (Connecticut National Guard) and 172nd Infantry (Vermont National Guard) landed on Rendova Island in the early morning hours of June 30. Opposed by about 120 surprised Japanese soldiers of the 229th Infantry, the U.S. troops came under fire once they had moved inland from the beach. However, the Japanese quickly took casualties, including their commander, who was shot in the face by a burst from a Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR). Resistance collapsed and they fled, losing at least half their force. Having taken very light losses (although the commander of the 172nd was wounded), 6,000 U.S. troops occupied Rendova Harbor, established a command post, and began unloading supplies. The 103rd Field Artillery Battalion established a fire base and began interdiction fires against New Georgia.

The invasion of Rendova had been a complete surprise to the Japanese command. They had thought the troop movements were merely reinforcements for Guadalcanal and so had no air support on hand to counterattack until much later in the day. Their first and second air sorties were largely pulverized by Navy aircraft and Army ground fire, although they managed to put a hole in the operation’s flagship. A worse enemy was rain. As the 43rd Division attempted to offload supplies, a heavy rain began to fall, turning the ground into a morass. The roads disappeared as the rain continued. The engineers of the 24th Naval Construction Battalion attempted to build corduroy roads out of coconut logs but they sank to into the mud. One bulldozer got so stuck that it practically disappeared from sight. Still, landing operations continued.

On July 2, the Japanese took advantage of worsening weather conditions in the rear areas of the Allied advance that had grounded all U.S. aircraft, and sent a strong sortie of over sixty aircraft. They caught the supply dump at Rendova completely unawares, killing thirty men and wounding over 200. This temporary setback did not stop the main invasion force against Munda. On July 1–2, elements of the 172nd and 169th Infantry made landings at Zanana Beach and established a defensive position. They were supported by three battalions of artillery that had been set up on surrounding islands which offered excellent fields of fire against the mainland. By July 6, all the remaining Soldiers of the 169th and 172nd Infantry had been landed at Zanana. Three infantry battalions from the 37th Division with Marine Corps support landed at Rice Anchorage on the north side of the island and were preparing to move inland. Despite foul weather and Japanese air attacks, the 43rd Division made ready for the drive on Munda Airfield.

Trail near Zanana Beach, New Georgia, showing the difficult terrain (Source: Cartwheel: the Reduction of Rabaul)

The Munda Trail

The Japanese were not idle. As they realized the major Allied stroke against New Georgia was taking place, they began mobilizing troops to reinforce the island. They did not wish to weaken their strength on New Guinea, but they did free up 4,000 more troops to reinforce their commander on New Georgia, Major General Noboru Sasaki. It was a far cry from the 11,000 he had requested, but it would be enough to dent the enthusiasm of the attackers.

On July 5, the force at Rice Anchorage set out to move inland to establish a blocking position on the Munda Trail, the only semi-navigable road that drove through the middle of the island. Going was slow, only about five miles a day as troops struggled through the dense jungle. By July 8, the blocking position was in place, but the U.S. troops had made contact with enemy patrols and their presence was now known. Running jungle battles with small pockets of Japanese troops continued as the U.S. troops moved in on the Enogai Inlet. Fighting hunger and exhaustion as well as the Japanese, the U.S. troops of the Northern Landing Group captured the Inlet and established a defensive posture, where they could also be resupplied.

The Southern Landing Group also began its forward movement. The 169th and 172nd Infantry Regiments were to move overland from Zanana Beach towards a line of departure along the Barike River, a distance of just over two miles. From here, it was a mere two and a half miles to Munda Airfield. General Hester and his deputy commander, Brigadier General Wing, did not expect these two regiments to meet any serious opposition on their way to the line of departure. Elements of these units began patrols out to the Barike River on July 4, where they first ran up against small groups of very stubborn Japanese defenders. It took two days of combined attacks from elements of the 172nd and the 169th to clear the 172nd’s jumping off position. The main body of the 169th Infanty set off on the morning of July 6 down the crude Munda Trail, towards a known Japanese roadblock. It was here that the first critical error was made.

Men of the 172nd Infantry ford a stream on New Georgia. (Cartwheel: the Reduction of Rabaul)

Although all units of the 43rd Division were rookies when it came to jungle fighting, they had been trained in the principles of patrolling and taking up defensive postures. The 172nd, for example, had established a strong defensive perimeter when it landed at Zanana Beach, complete with barbed wire, entanglements, and systems designed to warn sentries when enemies were trying to sneak into the perimeter. They tied their foxholes together closely to give good supporting fires at all points. The 3rd Battalion of the 169th (3–169th Infantry) however, apparently did nothing more than dig foxholes when they stopped for the night, short of the Japanese roadblock. Their foxholes were more than six feet apart, making it easy for an enemy to slip past men who were sleeping. Which is exactly what happened. Small Japanese patrols, only a few men in each, began harassing the men of 3–169th as soon as darkness fell. They moved around, shouted English phrases, sometimes calling out the names of the men in the unit or American catchphrases such as “come out and fight,” fired randomly, threw hand grenades, and other such tactics. Combined with the normal sounds of the jungle, which the frightened men turned into imagined terrors, the 3–169th passed a sleepless night.

They were opposed by just over a platoon of Japanese soldiers. Unlike the Americans, they had prepared their defensive position well, clearing fields of fire, marking fire limits, and preparing bunkers made of coconut logs and concealed by the natural undergrowth. They were in a good overwatch position of their obstacle blocking the Munda Trail. When the 3–169th Infantry ran up against this position, they were met by sustained machine gun and rifle fire. Their heavy weapons company was slow to deploy and when they did, they did not initially clear their fields of fire and so their rounds were not even making it to their targets. Visibility at more than ten yards was practically non-existent and so American troops blindly walked into well-concealed ambushes. Company K’s commander was killed in one of these ambushes and the Americans were unable to break the Japanese line. At length, a company from the 172nd was able to deploy 81mm mortars effectively against the Japanese position, but darkness fell before any progress could be made.

Night brought the same terrors to the exhausted men of the 3–169th Infantry. They reported the same harassing patrols, the same constant firing and explosions, and many said that they Japanese were jumping into foxholes and stabbing Americans quietly and withdrawing. Any noise was met by a fusillade of bullets and grenades from the Americans, but in the morning there were never any dead Japanese left as an indicator that anyone had been there.

The morning of July 8, 1–169th Infantry was brought up from reserve and both battalions assaulted the roadblock, saturating it with mortar rounds and overrunning it. Although the roadblock was reduced, 3–169th and many of the other American units were operating on no sleep and shattered nerves. Their objective was less than three miles away but the American troops were now beginning to understand that one mile in the jungle was like ten miles over normal terrain.

Casualties being evacuated from New Georgia (Source: National Archives)

July 9 was D-Day for the main effort against Munda. Allied artillery and naval gunfire opened at 0530, dropping over 8,000 rounds on suspected Japanese positions. Allied aircraft dumped another seventy tons of high explosives before the infantry were slated to step-off at 0630. The plan was a good one. The 172nd and 169th would occupy two two-battalion fronts, with each battalion occupying no more than 200 yards of frontage for command and control. Movement would be conducted by bounding successively forward 200 yards at a time with pauses to ensure that each unit maintained contact to their right and left. Like all good plans, it fell apart quickly. The Barike River, to their front, was flooded and the area around it was swampy. Battalion fronts quickly collapsed as units chose to move down the few more open paths, which clumped columns together in the thick jungle. A few Japanese could fire harassing shots that would halt whole battalions. By the end of the day, the 172nd had advanced maybe 1,100 yards. The 169th had advanced barely 200 and was dangerously close to collapsing.

The night previous to the all-out advance, the 169th had again been targeted by Japanese harassers. The Connecticut National Guardsmen were beyond jumpy having had no sleep since the operation began, and as such, had fertile imaginations. Even the natural rustle of the jungle brought a hail of bullets. Men waking suddenly in the hot darkness in a fit of panic thought their foxhole mate was a Japanese soldier and lashed out with knives or bayonets. When morning dawned, the 169th had casualties; nearly all of them caused by American edged weapons and grenades. The night of July 9 was worse. Men armed themselves with knives, grenades, and .45 pistols, knowing what the night would bring. Many linked arms, with the idea that if they awoke suddenly, they would know the man next to them was their friend. Still, men slashed and cut their friends, shot them with .45's, or threw grenades that bounced off trees into other foxholes. 360 neuropsychiatric casualties were evacuated from the front lines the next day, along with more Soldiers bearing the now-familiar knife wounds of their friends’ night terrors.

By July 11, both regiments were making forward progress covered by intense artillery fire, but were outpacing their supply lines. The 118th Engineers were clearing and leveling the Munda Trail, but supplies could not be brought up fast enough and were mingling with the growing number of wounded who were coming out. The 172nd was ordered to move south to establish a position at Laiana beach where supplies and reinforcements could be landed. It took two days of heavy fighting for the 172nd to take the beach. Reinforcements from 3–103rd Infantry and the Tank Platoon of the 9th Marine Defense Battalion arrived on the beach on July 14.

Meanwhile, the 169th was battering away at positions to their front, particularly along one stubborn ridge line. After multiple attacks, they seized the ridge and held it against Japanese counterattacks. By July 17, both the 169th and 172nd were up against the main enemy line of resistance and had received the reinforcements mentioned already, as well as 1–145th Infantry from the 37th Division.

Reinforcements were badly needed. While about ninety men had been killed in action, over 600 had been wounded. Even more men were suffering from malaria, diarrhea, dysentery, and skin fungus. But the worst cases were from “war neurosis.” The division surgeon gave this graphic description of the symptoms:

At least 50% of these individuals requiring medical attention or entering medical installations were the picture of utter exhaustion, face expressionless, knees sagging, body bent forward, arms slightly flexed and hanging loosely, hands with palms slightly cupped, marked coarse tremor of fingers. . ., feet dragging, and an over-all appearance of apathy and physical exhaustion. About 20% of the total group were/highly excited, crying, wringing their hands, mumbling incoherently, an expression of utter fright or fear, trembling all over, startled at the least sound or unusual commotion, having the appearance of trying to escape impending disaster. Another 15% showed manifestations of the various types of true psychoneurotic complexes. The remaining 15% included the anxiety states, and those with various bizarre somatic disturbances. These were the individuals whose symptoms were of insidious onset, starting with insomnia, vague digestive symptoms, bad dreams, frequency of urination, irritability, diminished ability to concentrate, and a generally reduced efficiency in the performance of assigned duties.

Over 1,500 cases came from the three infantry regiments of the 43rd Division and these constituted 62% of the overall psychoneurotic casualties on New Georgia. There were a number of factors for these numbers: poor unit-level leadership, poor discipline, and sustained days on the line. The 169th was the worst affected, with the 172nd coming far behind, and the 103rd with only half of the 169th’s numbers. The 43rd was badly battered and they had not even struck the main line of defense.

U.S. Army Private Lloyd Culuck of A Company, 1st Battalion, 172nd Infantry, July, 1943. The hollow-eyed look, rotting clothes, and attitude of paranoia mixed with exhaustion was a common site on New Georgia. (Source: National Archives)

Munda Airfield

This was not lost on high command. Admiral Halsey appointed General Griswold, the XIV Corps commander, to head up the operation, leaving Hester to the command of his division only. On July 14, Halsey ordered the remainder of the 37th Division to New Georgia and put one regimental combat team from the 25th Division on notice to be ready to move to New Georgia on order.

On July 19, the Northern Landing Force, consisting of four battalions of Marines, began operations to move inland and take Munda Airfield from the north. However, the four battalions lacked heavy weapons or significant fire support and in three days of heavy fighting were chewed down to skeletons of their former size. By July 21, their offensive had stalled and they moved back to their beachhead to resume patrols.

Beginning on July 15, the 169th and 172nd Infantry began efforts to make limited gains in their sector. Griswold had recognized that the 43rd Division alone could not take the island, and so issued instructions that units make small advances to probe the enemy lines and establish better positions as he planned for a larger offensive. The 172nd made use of three M-3 Stuart tanks from the Marines to blast apart some Japanese pillboxes that stood in their way. The constrictive terrain made the tanks vulnerable to Japanese anti-tank weapons, however, and the tanks were sitting ducks when not accompanied by infantry. The infantry and tankers lacked any type of communication device to talk back and forth and so joint operations were limited to a case-by-case basis. The 169th had taken a relatively high knoll that they named “Kelley Hill” after one of their officers who was killed taking it but found themselves relatively cut off from their main lines. The newly arrived Japanese 13th Infantry attempted to envelop the hill and overrun 1–169th Infantry on the morning of July 18, but successive results failed to dislodge the Americans, who killed 102 Japanese fighters. Other Japanese offensives that morning were aimed at cutting American supply lines and destroying command posts. Most were easily brushed aside by the prepared defenders, but one group got into the 43rd Division’s command post. They were only driven off by the 43rd’s artillery liaison officer calling in fires on his own command post. The effective box barrage was successful and the Japanese retreated.

Source: Cartwheel: the Reduction of Rabaul

By July 24, most of the 37th Division had arrived and General Griswold could begin his corps offensive. The 169th was relieved from its position by the 172nd Infantry and the 103rd Infantry took over the 172nd’s axis of advance along the coast. The 37th Division’s 145th Infantry was to the north of the 43rd Division’s lines and the 25th Division’s 161st Infantry (Washington National Guard) held the 145th’s right flank. The 148th Infantry was placed on the extreme right to protect the corps’ flank. All positions were designated individual supply points and a depot was established offshore. Rest camps were established in the rear areas for those suffering from “war neurosis” and medical evacuation points were set up to speed the wounded to the rear. A 105mm artillery battalion was assigned to each infantry regiment for direct support, while division and corps artillery offered general support. Griswold’s plan called for the 43rd to continue on its same axis of advance towards the airfield while the 37th would swing north and envelop the Japanese position. The essence, Griswold dictated, was speed. Small enemy positions were to be bypassed, contained, and reduced by follow-on forces.

A battery of the 152nd Field Artillery Battalion providing direct support on New Georgia (Source: National Archives)

The Japanese had conducted a strong line of mutually-supporting pillboxes, entrenchments, and rifle pits that crossed over several ridges and gullies along the entire front of Griswold’s proposed advance. Japanese General Sasaki had three infantry regiments at his disposal, as well as miscellaneous artillery, engineer, and anti-aircraft units. Sasaki had actually intended to attack the American lines but Griswold struck first.

The corps attack began on July 25, preceded by massive naval gunfire and air strike preparations. The 43rd attacked all along its front, making small gains here and there. Company E, 103rd Infantry broke through the enemy lines in the center but the division was unable to exploit this gap even though the bloodied 3–169th was sent to support. The 37th was similarly unable to generate much forward movement. The next day, an experiment was tried on the 103rd’s front. Knowing that the Japanese liked to move up close to U.S. lines when they received artillery fire (to try to create the perception that the U.S. artillery was firing short), the 152nd Field Artillery put over some smoke on the 103rd’s position. Covered by smoke, the 103rd pulled back a hundred yards. Then the 152nd put over a strong concentration onto the Japanese lines. As suspected, the Japanese moved forward to the 103rd’s old lines, where the 152nd pounded them with high explosives. They lifted fire back onto the Japanese pillboxes allowing the 103rd, reinforced by tanks and a flamethrower detachment from the 118th Engineer Battalion, to advance in force. Under the cover of the infantry’s rifle fire, the flamethrower teams approached each pillbox and destroyed it. By 1700, the 103rd had advanced 800 yards and destroyed seventy-four pillboxes. Repeating this process over and over, the 43rd fought its way forward until by the end of July it was close to the long sought-after airfield.

Examining a Japanese pillbox on Munda (Source: U.S. Army Signal Corps Photos)

Meanwhile, the 37th was slogging through the high ground towards the middle of the island, trying to exploit any gap in the strong Japanese defenses. Because of the dense jungle and undulating terrain, the 37th was unable to duplicate the tactics of the 43rd. Tanks were frequently bogged down or unable to navigate the ravines and became prime targets for Japanese anti-tank units. Accompanying infantry and flamethrowers were then easily gunned down by concealed Japanese machine guns. The 161st Infantry was able to infiltrate the northern flank of the Japanese lines and made some gains there. The 148th Infantry moved quickly, brushing aside opposition, but soon lost contact with the 161st Infantry. In the days of fighting, this gap increased and was exploited by Japanese patrols that struck at American supply dumps and support positions. By July 29, General Beightler, commander of the 37th Division, ordered that all units cease forward movements and make contact with each other across their lines. Rain added to the confusion on July 30, as the 161st and 148th desperately tried to close their lines with each other in the face of growing Japanese opposition. The 148th soon realized that they were cut off. On July 31, they destroyed their heavy equipment and began to fight their way back to the main lines of the 37th Division. Fighting their way along a trail, the advance was held up by machine-gun fire. Wounded Private Rodger Young spotted the gunner and crawled forward. He was again wounded but closed to within grenade range. He was struck in the face, fatally, as he threw his grenade, which destroyed the machine gun position completely. For his heroism, he was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor. August 1 found the unit completely without food and water. Colonel Baxter, commander of the 148th, ordered a bayonet charge to clear the way back to the main lines. It worked. The beleaguered 148th passed through the American lines and into division reserve.

Source: Cartwheel: the Reduction of Rabaul

August 1 was also a good day for the 43rd Division. Each regiment was on the front line and was able to advance nearly unopposed. As each regiment radioed back their progress, General Griswold theorized that this advance indicated a Japanese withdrawal. Therefore, at 1500, he gave orders for a general advance by the entire corps. By nightfall, the entire line had advanced over 1,000 yards and the 103rd Infantry was sitting on the outer edges of Munda Airfield. The reason for the rapid Japanese withdrawal was unclear at first to the Americans, but it was for the simple reason that they had been mauled to a force that was barely capable of holding part of the airfield. The continuous bombardment from the Navy, Air Corps, and artillery had made resupply and medical evacuation nearly impossible.

Source: The History of the 43rd Infantry Division, 1941–1945, Joseph E. Zimmer

Successive days of continuous advances by the now-veteran troops of the 43rd and 37th drove the Japanese from the secondary positions. On August 5, the men of the 103rd and 172nd took possession of the entire airfield. When Admiral Halsey received the news from General Griswold, he reportedly replied with “a custody receipt for Munda…Keep ‘em dying.” The key objective had been reached and majority of fighting on New Georgia, save for mopping up operations, was over.

Conclusion

Looking back on the operation, it would seem to have been a mixed success. What was originally supposed to have been a two-week operation with one division had turned into a brutal month-long slug-fest with two and a half divisions. The 37th Division’s infantry regiments were down to 5, 200 men out of 7,000 authorized. Out of the 8,000 authorized men in the three infantry regiments of the 43rd Division, there were only 4,536 men on hand after Munda. Disease, the jungle, and the enemy had accounted for nearly half the division. Of that number, 1,500 were psychoneurotic cases. Just as Allied daylight bombing in Europe was showing, Munda demonstrated that the American fighting man had a breaking point. It had taken over 26,000 men to take the small island. Just short of 1,100 had been killed in action or died of wounds. Over twice that number of Japanese were reported killed.

However, the New Georgia Campaign had brought about several very successful results for the Allies. First, the Japanese force on New Georgia had, at its strength, been about 14,000 men. Current Army ground policy is to have a 3–1 ratio for offensive operations. The U.S. forces were successful with just over half of that. The victory confirmed MacArthur and Halsey’s suspicions that they could continue offensive operations with smaller forces. And because of this and the successive victories in the Solomons, they were allocated even more forces than they had expected. They were also able to replicate the New Georgia model on the rest of the Solomons and bypass or reduce all enemy possessions in the island chain. The victory gave the American fighting man the proof that the Japanese soldier was not an invincible mythical jungle creature that could not be defeated.

Secondly, the U.S. troops on New Georgia had all been green on June 30. By August 5, they were tough veterans, well-versed in the art of jungle warfare. The Army had realized that the World War I-era tactic of attacking behind a rolling barrage did not work in the thick jungles of the Pacific. Small unit combined arms tactics integrated with direct artillery support were key. Establishing fire superiority with tanks, mortars, and heavy machine guns and then reducing defenses with flamethrowers became the signature for successive campaigns. The successful use of tanks in the jungle allowed for more armor to be moved to the Pacific, where the M4 Sherman, specifically the flamethrower version, was used to great effect.

Third, the campaign showed gaps in the Allied command and control system. It reinforced the need for a unified command that was eventually established under Halsey and reflected in his appointment of Griswold as the overall operational commander. The Allies would continue to hone their command and control model in order to bring their air, land, and sea forces into great coordination. Much of this was done through the task organization of Army and Navy units into different task forces with assigned and distinct areas of operation. New Georgia had taught all components that victory could only come through working closely with each other.

Fourth, the victory brought greater Japanese attention to the Solomons. While this would at first seem to be a negative point, it must be remembered that the Japanese ground forces were considerably smaller than what the Allies could bring to the field. Therefore, strengthening one area weakened another. The Japanese decision to hold the Solomon Islands meant that they pulled troops from other areas, such as the Central Pacific, to reinforce Bougainville and New Guinea. This allowed Admiral Nimitz’s Central Pacific force to seize the Mariana Islands which were to become the site of long-range bombers that could reach the Japanese homeland. The troops allocated for the Solomons and New Guinea were doomed to fall to the forces of MacArthur and Halsey in the fall of 1943 and through 1944.

Last, New Georgia taught the lengths to which the American serviceman could go in combat. After the initial push from June 30-July 25 had resulted in far more cases of “war neurosis” than physical casualties, command had recognized that jungle warfare was far more injurious to morale than anything previously encountered. This resulted in regular rotations of battalions off the front lines to rear areas where they could rest without worry of attack, get a hot shower, hot food, clean clothes, and shake off the terrors of the jungle. No other campaign would see the catastrophic number of psychoneurotic cases in such a short time, although the phenomenon never disappeared. Confident of victory over the vaunted Japanese jungle fighters, the U.S. Army would advance from island to island until final victory in 1945.


Further Reading:

The Pacific War and Contingent Victory: Why Japanese Defeat was not Inevitable by Michael W. Myers

The 43rd Infantry Division: Unit Cohesion and Neuropsychiatric Casualties by Major K. Graham Fuschak

The United States Army in World War II: The War in the Pacific; Cartwheel: the Reduction of Rabaul by John Miller, jr.


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