SOLOMON ISLANDS DURING WORLD WAR II
In 1942, Japan invaded Solomon Islands (a scattered archipelago west of New Guinea). The American and Allied forces counterattacked. Significant battles between the Japanese and Allied forces during the Guadalcanal Campaign proved a turning point in the Pacific war.During World War II, most planters and traders were evacuated to Australia. The Japanese occupied the islands during the war, and they were almost constantly a scene of combat. World War II destroyed large parts of Solomon Islands. Abandoned war equipment littered the islands, some of which remains today.
The Solomons was the site of some of the most bitter fighting of World War II in Pacific. After Japanese troops invaded and occupied Guadalcanal in 1942, they set up an airfield on the island's northern coast — later known as Henderson's Field. From May 1942, when the Battle of the Coral Sea was fought, until December 1943, the Solomons were almost constantly a scene of combat.
Allied Forces led by Adm. Chester Nimitz captured the Solomon Islands in fierce fighting characterized by island-hopping amphibious landings. The campaign kept New Guinea and the Solomon Islands out of Japanese hands. This denied the Japanese of a staging area for a land invasion of Australia and gave the Americans a foothold in the southern Pacific to advance their island hopping strategy.
Although U.S. forces landed on Guadalcanal virtually unopposed in August 1942, they were soon engaged in a bloody fight for Henderson Field. It was captured by US Marines on August 7, 1942. One of the most brutal sea battles ever fought took place off Savo Island, near Guadalcanal, also in August 1942. Allied forces occupy Guadalcanal in February, 1943. Japanese evacuate in December though Japanese forces remained elsewhere in the Solomons until 1945.
Over 7,000 Americans and 21,000 Japanese died. By December 1943, the Allies were in command of the entire Solomon chain. Widespread destruction, social dislocation and loss of life also hit the local peoples during the war. The large-scale American presence toward the end of the war, which dwarfed anything seen before in the islands, triggered various millennial movements and gave impetus to the development of a pro-independence nationalist movement in Malaita known as the Marching Rule. [Source: “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Nations”, Thomson Gale, 2007; “Countries of the World and Their Leaders Yearbook 2009"]
Island Hopping in the Pacific
The main purpose of the campaign in the Solomon Islands was stop the Japanese advance towards Australia but also played a part in the U.S. and Allied island hopping strategy. The American strategy of "island hopping" was simple: to attack and capture Japanese-held islands in the Pacific between Hawaii and Japan and hop scotch from island to island until Allied forces were close enough to make an attack on Japan. Once an island was captured, it was used a staging area for the attack on the next one. The strategy was devised by Admiral Chester Nimitz, Commander in Chief of American naval forces in the Pacific.With the exception of a few major sea battles such as Coral Sea and Midway and the Solomon Island campaign, there was relatively little action in the two years that followed the attack on Pearl Harbor. During that time Japan dug itself in and the U.S. poured its resources into arming itself and preparing for a major offensive against the Japanese. Islands that weren’t necessary were skipped. MacArthur said “let them wither on the vine.”
Fighting in the islands followed a similar patter. American landed on the beaches with landing crafts similar to those used during the D-Day invasion of Normandy. The Japanese defenses at the landing points were relatively weak. Instead they hid in caves and bunkers on the islands and made the advancing American soldiers pay for every yard they gained.
The Americans took relatively few Japanese prisoners because the majority of Japanese soldiers chose to fight to the death or committed suicide rather than surrender. Many Japanese civilians on some islands were also killed. The goal of the Japanese was not to win but prolong the defeat.
Fighting in Guadalcanal
The first serious American counterattack of World War II, using ground forces, took place on Guadalcanal, an island at the southernmost end of the Solomon Islands, where the Japanese Navy was building an air base and trying to establish a frontline for operations to divide U.S. and Australian forces.
American Marines landed on Guadalcanal on August 7, 1942. After fighting for six months, and enduring leeches, crocodiles, rain, poor food and disease, they prevailed and took the island and seized its all important airfield. About 31,000 Japanese soldiers were sent to the island to recapture the airport, but their supply lines were cut because of U.S. aerial superiority. About 21,000 troops died before Japan pulled out of the island, mainly due to hunger and malaria. The last Japanese units were wiped out on February 8, 1943.
Admirals Nimitz and Halsey are credited with ending the deadlock at Guadalcanal. Admiral Richmond Kelly “Terrible” Turner supplied the Marines at Guadalcanal. The Japanese wrongly predicted when the U.S., attack would be launched and failed to have enough forces and supplies on hand and ultimately gave up on their drive to oust the U.S. Marines from the Solomon Islands. The victory gave the Americans their first stepping stone on their long drive towards Japan. It was followed up the taking of New Georgia on August 6, 1943, and the invasion of Bougainville on November 1, 1943.
Guadalcanal was a turning point because it showed the Americans could capture a heavily-fortified enemy island. The battles gave U.S. Marines a chance to perfect landing tactics that would serve them well later in the war. The assaults consisted of landing elite troops supported by ground-attack aircraft and naval gunfire. They were followed by the Seabees, construction battalions that built docks, roads and airstrips, sometimes while being fired at.
James R. "Rube" Garrett, a Marine who participated in the battle, wrote: “Both sides lost more than 10,000 sailors, most in the bloody 30 minute naval and air battle off Guadalcanal . The Japanese lost two battleships, a cruiser, three destroyers and ten Maru transports. They also lost 106 planes. The Americans lost two cruisers and seven destroyers along with 27 aircraft. The Naval Battles of Guadalcanal were among the last of the great naval battles in which warships would attack each other on the surface firing at virtually point blank range, so close that torpedoes thudded harmlessly off the hulls - they had no time to arm themselves. As a result of engagements off Guadalcanal, there are 48 ships on the bottom at Iron Bottom Sound - 24 of them are American and 24 Japanese.” [Source: “A Marine Diary: My Experiences on Guadalcanal” by James R. "Rube" Garrett nettally.com ]
Fighting in New Guinea
The Japanese invaded New Guinea from New Britain in August 1942 and came within 30 miles of the Allied base Port Moresby on September 12, 1942 after hiking across New Guinea on the Kokoda Trail, a jungle foot path through the inhospitable, mountainous, rain-forest-covered interior of New Guinea.
MacArthur and Adm. W.F. "Bull" Halsey directed much of the Allied fighting in New Guinea. B-17 bombers were used to airlift troops to New Guinea. Most of the troops were Australians because supplies and manpower were slow in coming from the U.S. Navy. The Papuan troops were affectionately nicknamed the “Fuzzy Wuzzy Angles.”
In heavy fighting in jungles and swamps in "the green hell" Japanese troops failed to capture Port Moresby and were driven back on the Kokoda Trail. They retreated to their landing sites at Buna and Gona, where they were defeated by Australian and U.S. troops, ending Japan's offensive on Australia in January 1943. The Australians in New Guinea were better equipped than the Japanese. Some Japanese soldiers shot their own officers as they sought to retreat.
Between June 1943 and July 1944, the Allies leapfrogged along the northern coast of New Guinea and advanced to within 1,300 miles of Japan, in the process by passing 135,000 Japanese troops in southwest Pacific, At this point the Allies were ready to move on the Philippines.
Describing the fate of a famous Japanese mangaka, Tom Baker wrote in the Daily Yomiuri: “Shigeru Mizuki was barely into his 20s when he got drafted by the Imperial Japanese Army during World War II and was deployed to Rabaul, in what is now Papua New Guinea. There, he lost an arm...If it were not for his injuries, Mizuki would have been part of a unit that was sent on a suicide charge. Amazingly, they survived. But their commanding officers did not welcome this news. "Since the men's 'glorious death' had already been reported to headquarters, [they were] sent back to the front with orders not to return alive." [Source: Daily Yomiuri, April 29, 2011]
Action in New Guinea on the Japanese Side
Naotsugu Naiki saw action on the battlefields of New Guinea as an Imperial Japanese Army 2nd lieutenant. He lost his left leg in a battle in what is now the Indonesian part of New Guinea. The Yomiuri Shimbun reported: Naiki was conscripted in December 1941 at the age of 20. He was sent to China, Palau and then New Guinea. In June 1944, his left leg was shattered by a mortar shell fired by the Allied forces. In the jungle, a military doctor amputated his leg at the thigh using a saw. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, February 10, 2015 |+|]
“The logistics unit, which housed those who were injured or sick, had no medicine and only hardtack for food. After spending countless nights there, he heard the blasts of grenades: They were grenades set off by soldiers committing suicide. On many occasions, he said that he, too, had thought to himself, “Even death would be better than this.” His suffering did not end even after the war. After returning to Japan, Naiki was hospitalized for two years for tuberculosis and malaria. He was fitted with a prosthetic leg. “I lost my comrades in the war and I experienced only suffering from injuries and illness. Why did I survive?” said Naiki, recalling his immediate postwar life marked by despair. |+|
“But his life changed after he got married and had a son. His family became his reason to live. While helping out with the family business, Naiki attended university classes at night. After turning 50, he set up his own business as a notary public. He cut back on his sleeping hours to work, despite the pain from old injuries that he periodically reexperienced during the cold months of winter.” |+|
Although the Japanese abandoned a plane to invade Australia they wanted to keep the Australian military tied up by setting up a base in Port Moresby on the southern coast of New Guinea. They first planned to take Port Moresby with an amphibious assault but these plans were scuttled after their fleet was damaged in the Battle of the Coral Sea. The alternative plan was to take the port through a overland assault after landing in north of New Guinea.
The Kokoda Track, a 98-kilometer-long single-file footpath through the Owen Stanley Mountains, was used by the Japanese to bring supplies from northern New Guinea to the south. The terrain was unforgiving, The trail was rough, slippery and steep. There were leeches and malarial mosquitos. The Japanese fought a series of battles against a combined force of American, Papuan and Australian soldiers. Both armies had supply problems and lost as many men to disease and starvation as to bullets and bombs. There were stories that the Japanese ate their own dead and corpses of the enemy
In October 1942, Japanese forces army and Australian forces fought a fierce battle at Eora Creek on the Kokoda trail . The Japanese were forced to flee into the jungle after sustaining hundreds of casualties. The Australia dead numbered 99. The battle was significant in that it kept the Japanese from reaching Port Moresby, which would have put them in striking range of northern Australia. At the site of the battle today weapons and war dead have been left exactly as they fell, engulfed by rain forest vegetation. Until recently only members of the local Alolo people knew about it. They called it their “village secret” and periodically performed rituals there for the dead.
The Japanese got within 48 kilometers of Port Moresby when their supply lines reached their limits and they were steadily driven back by the Allies in a tactical retreat the Japanese called an “advance to the rear.” After a bitter fight to dislodge the Japanese from the northern coast of northern New Guinea, the Allies eventually abandoned their effort and focused their attention on moving towards mainland Japan.
Australians refer to the campaign as the battle that saved Australia, or Australia’s Thermopylae. Among the heros were Captain Sam Templeton, who temporarily held hundreds of Japanese marines with a few dozen Australia and Papuan soldiers before being killed.
Charles Lindbergh in Action Over New Guinea in 1944
In 1944 Charles Lindbergh, the famous aviator who crossed the Atlantic, took part in over 50 combat missions in the South Pacific. He participated in numerous bombing and strafing attacks and shot down one Japanese aircraft. Describing the mission that brought down that plane “an attack on a Japanese airfield on an island near New Guinea by a squadron of p-38s in July 1944'Lindbergh wrote in his diary: We jettison our drop tanks, switch on our guns, and nose down to the attack. One Jap plane banks sharply toward the airstrip and the protection of the antiaircraft guns. The second heads off into the haze and clouds. Colonel MacDonald gets a full deflection shot on the first, starts him smoking, and forces him to reverse his bank. [Source: The Wartime Journals of Charles A. Lindbergh, 1970] “We are spaced 1,000 feet apart. Captain [Danforth] Miller gets in a short deflection burst with no noticeable effect. I start firing as the plane is completing its turn in my direction. I see the tracers and the 20's [20mm. cannon] find their mark, a hail of shells directly on the target. But he straightens out and flies directly toward me. I hold the trigger down and my sight on his engine as we approach head on. My tracers and my 20's spatter on his plane. We are close - too close - hurtling at each other at more than 500 miles an hour. I pull back on the controls. His plane zooms suddenly upward with extraordinary sharpness.
“I pull back with all the strength I have. Will we hit? His plane, before a slender toy in my sight, looms huge in size. A second passes - two three - I can see the finning on his engine cylinders. There is a rough jolt of air as he shoots past behind me. By how much did we miss? Ten feet? Probably less than that. There is no time to consider or feel afraid. I am climbing steeply. I bank to the left. No, that will take me into the ack-ack fire above Amahai strip. I reverse to the right. It all has taken seconds.
“My eyes sweep the sky for aircraft. Those are only P-38's and the plane I have just shot down. He is starting down in a wing over - out of control. The nose goes down. The plane turns slightly as it picks up speed-down-down-down toward the sea. A fountain of spray-white foam on the water-waves circling outward as from a stone tossed in a pool-the waves merge into those of the sea-the foam disappears - the surface is as it was before.
“My wingman is with me, but I have broken from my flight. There are six P-38's circling the area where the enemy plane went down. But all six planes turn out to be from another squadron. I call 'Possum 1,' and get a reply which I think says they are above the cloud layer. It is thin, and I climb up through on instruments. But there are no planes in sight, and I have lost my wingman. I dive back down but all planes below have disappeared, too. Radio reception is so poor that I can get no further contact. I climb back into the clouds and take up course for home, cutting through the tops and keeping a sharp lookout for enemy planes above. Finally make radio contact with 'Possum' flight and tell them I will join them over our original rendezvous point (the Pisang Islands).
“The heavies are bombing as I sight the Boela strips; I turn in that direction to get a better view. They have started a large fire in the oil-well area of Boela - a great column of black smoke rising higher and higher in the air. The bombers are out of range, so the ack-ack concentrates on me-black puffs of smoke all around, but none nearby. I weave out of range and take up course for the Pisang Islands again. I arrive about five minutes ahead of my flight. We join and take up course for Biak Island. Landed at Mokmer strip at 1555. (Lieutenant Miller, my wingman, reported seeing the tracers of the Jap plane shooting at me. I was so concentrated on my own firing that I did not see the flashes of his guns. Miller said the plane rolled over out of control right after he passed me. Apparently my bullets had either severed the controls or killed the pilot.)"
Allied Offensive to Retake Indonesia
In early 1944, the Allied forces under General MacArthur, launched an operation from what is now Papua New Guinea to liberate the Dutch East Indies from Japanese occupation. Much of the fighting took place in and along the north coast of what is now Irian Jaya and in caves on the nearby island of Biak. People knew little about Irian Jaya until then.
The first objective of the operation was to capture Hollandia (Jayapura) which was achieved with the help of more than 80,000 Allied troops in what was the largest amphibious operation of the war in the southwestern Pacific. The second objective, the capture of Sarmi, was achieved despite heavy Japanese resistance. The third and primary object was the capture of Biak to gain access to its airfields. Allied intelligence underestimated the Japanese presence in the area and a series of bloody battles was the result. Fighting also took place along the souther coast of Irian Jaya. The Allies captured Merauke, which they thought the Japanese might use to launch an attack on Australia.
The move into Indonesia’s islands was part of the island hopping operation to free the Philippines. After Biak was captured the airfields and bases were used to capture islands between New Guinea and the Philippines. The Americans captured the Japanese air bases on Morotai, an island near Halmahera, in the northern Moluccas and used that airfield to bomb Manila. A Japanese soldier hide out on Morotai island until 1973 not realizing the war was over.
Image Sources: YouTube, National Archives of the United States; Wikimedia Commons; Gensuikan;
Text Sources: National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, The Guardian, Yomiuri Shimbun, The New Yorker, Lonely Planet Guides, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wikipedia, BBC, “Eyewitness to History “, edited by John Carey ( Avon Books, 1987), Compton’s Encyclopedia, “History of Warfare “ by John Keegan, Vintage Books, Eyewitness to History.com, “The Good War An Oral History of World War II” by Studs Terkel, Hamish Hamilton, 1985, BBC’s People’s War website and various books and other publications.
Last updated September 2023