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Bougainville Campaign 1943
Written By: Steven P. Rakow, Esq.
*Click images below to view larger versions.
Bougainville Campaign 1943
Bougainville Campaign 1945
Bougainville Campaign 1943
Gen. Roy S. Geiger
Bougainville Campaign 1943
Sgt. Robert A Owens
Bougainville Campaign 1943
Major-General Allen H. Turnage
Bougainville Campaign 1943
US Admiral Aaron Merrill
Bougainville Campaign 1943
Masatane Kanda (left seated) surrenders Japanese forces on Bougainville to Allied commanders on September 8, 1945.

    Bougainville Island is the largest island in the Solomon Islands Chain in the South Pacific. This 130-mile long by 30-mile wide island lies 600 miles northeast of Australia and about 300 miles due east of Papua, New Guinea. Bougainville Island lies at the western end of New Georgia Sound, otherwise known in World War II as “The Slot”, with Guadalcanal Island on the opposite, or eastern end of “The Slot”. The population of Bougainville Island hovered around 54,000 in 1942, when the Empire of Japan invaded the Solomon Islands to further their conquest of the South Pacific and to protect their main base at Rabaul on New Britain Island about 150 miles to the east of Bougainville.
    The Japanese Empire invaded the lightly defended island of Bougainville in March 1942. At the time, the island was only defended by a small contingent of Australian troops and coast watchers, who were easily overrun. The mountainous island of Bougainville favors the defender and the Japanese would use this terrain and dense jungles along the coastal plains to great defensive advantage.
    On their initial landing, the Japanese captured Buka airfield with its 2300-foot runway. The Japanese would build four more airfields throughout the island. Once fully reinforced, Bougainville was home to 25,000 soldiers of the Japanese Seventeenth Army and twelve thousand sailors of the Imperial Japanese Navy.
    By mid-1942, with the Japanese forces strengthening their foothold in the South Pacific, it became apparent to the US planners that the only way to defeat the Japanese and turn the tide of the war would be an island-hopping campaign designed to cut off key strong points, such as Rabaul.  The other goal of the island-hopping campaign was to eventually capture islands that would provide advance airfields so that US bombers could attack Japan’s home islands. The start of this campaign in late 1942 was the Battle of Guadalcanal, which ran from August 1942 to February 1943. Bougainville became the next focus of effort for US forces.
    Operation Elkton, the beginning of the Battle for Bougainville, was led by Admiral William “Bull” Halsey’s fleet and the I Marine Amphibious Corps, commanded by General Roy Geiger. Gen. Geiger had recently commanded the 1st Marine Aircraft Wing on Guadalcanal during that campaign, where he was awarded his second Navy Cross. Gen. Geiger would later be awarded the Distinguished Service Medal for his command of the I Marine Amphibious Corps during the Bougainville Campaign. The Operation began with a full bombing campaign to destroy the airfields on Bougainville, which was completed in October 1943. Plans included diversionary attacks on neighboring Choiseul Island by 725 men of the 2nd Marine Parachute Battalion and on Treasury Island by the 8th New Zealand Brigade.
    Following the successful diversionary attacks, the main attack on Bougainville commenced at 7:26 am on Nov 1, 1943. The 3rd Marine Division, led by Major-General Allen H. Turnage, was given the mission to attack and seize the area of Cape Torokina on Bougainville’s western side. By 9:30 am, more than 8,000 Marines had landed at Cape Torokina on the north end of Empress Augusta Bay on the western side of the island. Subordinate units of the 3rd Marine Division included the 3rd Marine Regiment, 9th Marine Regiment, 21St Marine Regiment, and 2nd Raider Regiment, supported once again by the 1st Marine Aircraft Wing and Navy cruisers and destroyers.
    Overall resistance was fairly light near Cape Torokina. The Japanese fought back with a single 75mm gun near the Cape, sinking six landing craft making their approach to the beach. The Marines lost fourteen men from this action. Ordered to silence the gun, Sgt. Robert A. Owens led an attack to take out the Japanese 75mm gun. The attack cost him his life yet secured the victory for the Marines during that brief, but intense, encounter. For his bravery, Owens received the Medal of Honor.
    By early evening on November 1st, the Marines had 14,000 men ashore along with 6,200 tons of supplies. While the 270 Japanese defenders in the area of Cape Torokina were killed, the Marines lost 78 killed that first day on Bougainville.
    The Japanese response to the US landings on Bougainville led to the Battle of Empress Augusta Bay, which began in the early morning hours of November 2nd. In a strike to support a Japanese landing and counterattack, the Japanese sent four cruisers and six destroyers from Rabaul to attack the US fleet and bombard the Marines. Japanese Admiral Omori led his ships in a desperate run against US Admiral Aaron Merrill’s Task Force 39, consisting of four cruisers and eight destroyers. In a fierce, day-long battle, the Japanese lost one cruiser, one destroyer, and retreated to Rabaul with heavy damage to all remaining ships. The US’s Task Force 39 sustained damage to two cruisers and two destroyers, but continued to provide support and protection to the Marines ashore. The battle delayed the Japanese plans to land their troops.
    By November 5th, the Marines had expanded the beachhead inland by 2,000 yards. As the Marines continued to push inland and build up their supplies, the Japanese Imperial Army and Imperial Marines had plans of their own.
    On November 7th, the Japanese were finally successful in landing some troops to support their beleaguered comrades. Some 850 troops from the 17th Division landed at Koromokina Lagoon near Empress Augusta Bay on the north end of Cape Torokina and on the left of the Marine perimeter. While the Japanese made it ashore, on November 8th, the Marines fired a massive artillery barrage killing over 300 Japanese. At the same time, the Marine 2nd Raider Battalion held the north end of the US perimeter and flank against attacks from the Japanese 23rd Regiment. This short-lived battle ended in another Japanese defeat.
    Between November 8th and 13th, the Japanese continued to sortie cruisers and destroyers out of Rabaul to attack US shipping near the beachhead at Cape Torokina. The raids, however, failed to prevent the US from landing the US Army’s 37th Division on November 9th.
    Around November 14th, the Marines of 2nd Battalion, 21st Marines engaged the enemy as the Marines attacked north out of recently captured Piva Village. This action, known as the “Battle of Coconut Grove,” ground to somewhat of a halt as the terrain became nearly impassable and amphibious vehicles took a tremendous beating from the swamps and enemy action.
    The Marines settled in for the next week, engaging the enemy in small skirmishes and patrols, while continuing to build up supplies and organizing for a major assault. That assault took place on November 21st led by the 3rd Marines. Their fierce fighting enabled the 9th Marines and 21st Marines along with the US Army’s 129th Infantry Regiment, 37th Division, to move into new positions without opposition. Despite these US victories, the Japanese would fight on in what would become known as the four-day “Battle of Piva Forks.”
    One of the notable leaders during this battle was Marine Lieutanant Steve Cibik, whose platoon held a key ridgeline for four long days under fierce and repeated Japanese attacks. “Cibik’s Ridge”, as it became known, was essential for protection of the Marine perimeter and to success of the overall Marine advance. For his bravery and leadership throughout the six-day Battle of Piva Forks, Lt. Cibik was awarded the Silver Star Medal. Once the dust settled, more than 1200 Japanese had been killed during the “Battle of Piva Forks” with 333 Marine casualties.
    The heavy jungle fighting would continue throughout the end of November and through most of December. One final, multi-day battle found the 21st Marines attacking a known Japanese strongpoint on Hellzapoppin Ridge on December 9th. The Marines were driven off the ridge on December 12th, but returned and finally defeated the Japanese on December 24th.
    As more US Army troops arrived on the island, the Marines turned the campaign over to the Army on December 15th. By the end of 1943, the Marines had withdrawn the 3rd Marine Division to Guadalcanal, which was now a rear area.
    For his leadership of the 3rd Marine Division during the Bougainville Campaign, Maj Gen. Turnage received the Navy Cross. Part of his citation read: “[l]eading his command with intrepidity and daring aggressiveness, Major General Turnage frequently exposed himself to heavy enemy gunfire throughout the landing and operations essential to the attainment and consolidation of the final beachhead line at Empress August Bay, Bougainville Island.”
    While the entire island of Bougainville would not be captured until the end of the war, US forces would operate from numerous airfields on the island and continue to battle with the Japanese defenders. The US handed over control of military operations to Australian troops in late 1944. It is estimated that US forces killed over 8,000 Japanese troops during the period of November 1st to December 25th, 1943, while ensuring another base of operations for US forces to continue their attacks on the Japanese stronghold of Rabaul.


About the Author: Steven W. Rakow has been practicing law since 1996 and is currently an Assistant State’s Attorney for Worcester County. Mr. Rakow is a retired Marine Corps Reserve lieutenant colonel and 1987 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis. In 1989, while on deployment in the Western Pacific, then Lieutenant Rakow served as a forward observer for Company B, 1st Battalion, 9th Marines, which is one of the units that fought on Bougainville.
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