Part II: Bougainville: a first venture into combat

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By Ron Van Stockum

From June 30 through mid-August 1943, the Third Division was transported from its 22 camps in New Zealand to Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands.

Guadalcanal, captured by the First Marine Division in an amphibious attack the previous August, was now available as a staging area for further assaults.

The 1st Battalion established a tent camp in a cocoanut grove not far from the beach.  Here we were in an area infested by anopheles mosquitoes, which carried malaria and were especially active after sundown.  At dusk an alarm would be sounded to warn all marines to use head or bed netting to prevent exposure.

Our training intensified and became a little more realistic, for we conducted patrols to hunt down Japanese soldiers, who, refusing to surrender, were striving to survive in the jungle.

An occasional Japanese bombing plane, that we called "washing machine Charlie" because of its unsynchronized twin engines, would harass us at night.  These raids inflicted no damage of significance and, in those days, there were no surface-to-air missiles to intercept them, and night-fighter aircraft were not available.

On Sept. 27  we were informed that The Third Marine Division would land in the vicinity of Cape Torokina, Empress Augusta Bay, Bougainville, and seize and defend a beachhead 2,250 yards deep between the Torokina and Laruma rivers.

Bougainville, another one of the Solomon Islands, was only 400 or 500 miles "up the slot" to the northwest.  This was another objective in the "island hopping" strategy of U.S. forces.  The capture of Bougainville would bring American bombers within easy range of Rabaul, New Britain, an enemy stronghold only 250 miles to the north, which could then be bypassed.

Bougainville, half again as large as Guadalcanal, with thick, nearly impenetrable swamps and jungle, was occupied by 40,000 Japanese troops.  Though  such terrain was a challenge to an invading force, it also presented difficulties to the enemy, restricting his capability to reinforce his defenders at the chosen invasion site.

Assault of Bougainville

On D-Day for our mission, Nov. 1, 1943, the other regiments of the Third Marine Division, the 9th Marines and the 3rd Marines, landing in assault, overran the beach defenses and moved inland toward the force beachhead line,  some 2,000 to 2,500 yards from the beach, which was a designated line which that would deny the enemy the opportunity to deliver observed artillery fire on the invasion beach.

A few days later the 1st Battalion, 21st Marines debarked into landing craft from high-speed transports, actually old converted destroyers, and landed on the beach.

My thoughts, as I faced infantry combat for the first time, were mixed.  Though anxious to prove myself, I was apprehensive about the uncertainties ahead and, in my inner thoughts, hoped to find the battle won and the island secured. 

Had I not been so absorbed, I would have realized that such thoughts were not exclusively my own. The faces of my companions reflected similar doubts.

Not that the men of the First Battalion lacked courage.  They were largely volunteers whose patriotic impulses had driven them to the colors shortly after Pearl Harbor.   They were just young Americans with a distasteful job to do, anxious to get it done quickly in order to expedite their return home.

They did not relish danger, but they would not shirk when duty called.

Any secret hopes of finding the battle won were rudely shattered by the confusion that pervaded the humid atmosphere of the beach.

The elements had teamed with the enemy to make the assault costly - costly in boats for the regiment, which had landed through the treacherous surf on the left, and costly in men for the regiment that had stormed well-defended Torokina Point on the right.  Overcoming these initial obstacles, the attacking troops had discovered the terrain inland to be largely swamp.  It had proved to be penetrable only by marines on foot and "alligators" on track, that amphibious team of men and metal that was to demonstrate its worth in later beach assaults.

The amphibious tractor was developed by the Marine Corps and used in many of its landings.  This vehicle, also known as the LVT (Landing Vehicle, Tracked) or Amtrack, was a personnel or supply carrier with tank-like tracks that allowed it to "swim" ashore, clamber over reefs, move through the surf, and deposit marines and cargo on the beach.

Supplies had been unloaded at the waterline, and some were being lapped by the waves. Seventy boats had broached, i.e., driven sidewise along the shore by wave action, on D-Day.  Dozens were still awash and filled with sand as evidence of the toll taken by the elements.

The exact position of our front lines and the location of the remaining enemy were equally beclouded by the lush foliage of the jungle, which hung like the night, obscuring all signs of activity inland from the beach.

Such was the situation encountered by the First Battalion as it crossed the beach en route to a previously designated assembly area.  The battalion's first missions were those of setting up a beach defense against an anticipated counter-landing and of protecting the division hospital against the threat of attack.

Initial contact with the "enemy" was with imaginary snipers in trees.  The Jap's propensity for tying himself in a treetop to snipe at unsuspecting marines below, exaggerated in early combat reports, caused every man to consider defense in three dimensions.

Every treetop that contained matted foliage - and many did - was regarded with suspicion and not infrequently swept by fire.  One platoon leader, engaging in such a one-sided duel, maintained at that time (and no doubt to this day) that it supported a Jap sniper.  One is reminded of Don Quixote, tilting at windmills!

The term "Jap" today, for unknown reasons, is considered to be a racial slur.  This term was universally used in referring to our enemy in the Pacific in World War II, but all of us facing the Japanese gained a healthy respect for their skill and courage.

After the war, while stationed in Japan, I got to know the Japanese people as being intelligent, hard-working, and scrupulously honest, especially those encountered outside the heavily populated areas.

The first night was quiet, although it was later maintained that the hospital had been the object of a determined Japanese attack.  If any Japs had in fact filtered through the lines, they had surely passed through a cordon of jittery young Marines.

Next day the battalion received orders directing its movement at dawn by boat to the threatened left flank of the precarious beachhead.  Upon landing, the battalion was attached to the 9th Marines, the left-flank regiment and guided to assembly areas in preparation for an attack the following morning.

We learned that a Japanese force of an estimated two battalions, perhaps 500 in all, had made a counter-landing to the west of our lines.  This report had been attributed to "coast-watchers," usually Australian military men or administrators, who had sought refuge with the native population when the Japanese had occupied the Solomon Islands.

However, the accuracy of such reports leads me to believe today that this information may have been obtained from deciphered Japanese radio messages.

Several months before our landing, Naval intelligence services had decoded an intercepted message regarding the plans of Admiral Yamamoto, Commander of the Japanese Combined Fleet, to visit three bases near Bougainville.  The information provided was so exact that April 18, 1943, the 339th Fighter Squadron of Army P-38's, based on Henderson Field, Guadalcanal, was able to intercept and destroy his plane.

Thus perished the brilliant Japanese naval officer who had planned the attacks on Pearl Harbor.

Retired Judge Henry Meigs of Louisville was a member of this squadron at the time. Although he did not participate in this raid, he later became a fighter "Ace," by shooting down six enemy aircraft.

On Nov. 8, the First Battalion found the route to its attack positions cluttered with stragglers, the flotsam and jetsam of war.  Some were the wounded, quietly making their way back, as best they could.  Others ejected loud, dire predictions about the fate in store for the reinforcing troops.

Remarks such as "they look confident now; wait 'til they run into those forty machine guns," magnified the doubts of a thousand untested troops as they approached combat. 

Reaching their final assembly areas, immediately behind the front lines, the men of the First Battalion quietly assumed their frequently-rehearsed combat-imminent formation and quickly dug shallow slit trenches.  Then they rested.

Promptly at 9:55 a.m., the shells of supporting artillery commenced their welcome shrieks overhead.  This is it, I thought, as the chatter of machine guns joined the crescendo to signal two minutes to go.  Just like a Hollywood war!

I made a quick visual check of my weapon and equipment, being unconsciously joined in this by a thousand tense, serious and determined men.   As I glanced at my watch, the minute hand seemed to race toward 10 o'clock.

An enormous silence signaled H-Hour, the time of our attack.

PART III: Jungle attack