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Bougainville Campaign - November 1943 - Unitd States

The original intent of U.S. and Allied operations in the Solomon Islands chain in 1942–43 was to advance and capture the heavily fortified Japanese stronghold at Rabaul, on the island of New Britain, just northwest of the Solomons. The advance took longer than anticipated due to a shortage of resources and the ferocity of Japanese resistance in the central Solomon Islands. By mid-1943, senior Allied commanders had agreed that trying to capture Rabaul would be too time-consuming and costly, opting instead to occupy locations around Rabaul and bomb, isolate, and starve it into submission, and essentially bypass it under an umbrella strategy termed Operation Cartwheel.

A key to Operation Cartwheel was to land and establish airfields on the island of Bougainville, at the northwest end of the Solomon Islands chain, which would put Rabaul within range (about 200 miles) of fighters and tactical bombers. The challenge was that the Japanese already had four airfields and a seaplane base on Bougainville or small islands close to it, as well as about 40,000 combat troops of the Seventeenth Army and 20,000 construction troops.

The landings on Bougainville were in the Southwest Pacific Area of Operations and under the overall command of General Douglas MacArthur. However, MacArthur delegated planning and operational authority for the operation to Admiral William F. Halsey, Commander of the U.S. Third Fleet.

In order to confuse the Japanese and reinforce their expectation that the United States would land at the southeastern end of Bougainville, Allied forces conducted two deception operations. One involved landing and occupying the Treasury Islands (a small island group just southeast of Bougainville) with New Zealand troops doing most of the land fighting. However, this landing was also the origin of the famous scene in the John Wayne movie The Fighting Seabees, in which an LST was under actual heavy fire on the beach when a Seabee raised the blade on a bulldozer as a shield, drove off the LST’s ramp, and bulldozed and buried the Japanese fighting positions along with their occupants. The second operation, “Blissfull,” was intended to be a diversionary landing and raid on the large island Choiseul, to the southeast of Bougainville, using a force of Marine paratroopers (who went in by landing craft).

This operation also involved future President John F. Kennedy. The movie, PT-109, and most accounts of future President John F. Kennedy’s wartime experience in the Pacific in World War II, end following his and his crew’s rescue after PT-109 was rammed and sunk by the Japanese destroyer Amagiri on 2 August 1943. Kennedy’s war wasn’t quite over, as he declined an opportunity to return to the United States to recuperate. After rescue, he was given command of PT-59, which was converted to a gunboat.

On November 1, 1943, the Allies attacked, going ashore at Empress Augusta Bay. The 60,000 Japanese troops, concentrated in the southern half of the island, did not want a repeat of Guadalcanal. Although the western part of Bougainville was left relatively undefended by the Japanese, the Allies concentrated on attacking from the sea and the sky. The Japanese responded with a naval and air flotilla from Rabaul, but were repulsed with heavy casualties. Four days later, on November 5, Halsey sent a carrier air strike against Rabaul, destroying many Japanese planes and forcing the naval forces to flee to the open ocean. By November 12, Halsey's 3rd Marine Division, soon to be reinforced by the 37th Infantry Division, had secured the beachhead. Bougainville, however, would be the site of some of the fiercest battles of the Second World War before the Japanese ceased counterattacking in March 1944.

The capture of Bougainville (and eventually Buka, too) brought Rabaul within range of land-based Navy and Marine fighters and tactical bombers, and frequent strikes by these aircraft commenced 17 December 1943. The Japanese finally called off Operation Ro after claiming to have sunk five battleships, ten carriers, 19 cruisers, and seven destroyers. The actual tally was one destroyer-transport sunk (McKean) and several other cruisers, destroyers, and other ships damaged. Of the Japanese carrier aircraft (the 3rd Air Fleet) that deployed to Rabaul, 121 of 173 aircraft were lost, with 82 of 193 aircrew dead or missing.

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Page last modified: 17-03-2021 18:03:23 ZULU