Battle of Munda, 2 July-5 August 1943

Introduction
Preliminary Operations
The First Assault, 9 July
The Japanese Counterattack
American Reorganisation
The Corps Offensive
The Battle for the Airfield
Aftermath

Introduction

The battle of Munda (2 July-5 August 1943) was the most important and most costly part of the wider American assault on New Georgia and saw them capture the main Japanese base and airfield on the island after a hard-fought month long campaign.

The New Georgia campaign was part of Operation Cartwheel, a wider spread of operations designed to capture Japanese bases in the Solomon Islands and New Guinea and isolate the major Japanese base at Rabaul. 

New Georgia was the next major island to the west of Guadalcanal in the southern chain of the Solomon Islands. The Japanese had an airfield at Munda, at the western end of New Georgia, and another base at Vila, on nearby Kolombangara Island.

US Cruiser bombards Munda, New Georgia
US Cruiser bombards Munda, New Georgia

The Americans decided to launch a two-stage invasion of New Georgia. On 30 June they landed at Rendova, to the south of Munda, and prepared to use it as a base for the main invasion. Other forces occupied Segi and Viru, at the eastern end of the island.

Map of Allied Invasions, Solomon Islands
Solomon Islands:
Allied Invasions

The initial American assault at Munda was carried out by the 169th and 172nd Infantry Regiments of the 43rd Division. These regiments were fresh, well equipped and had undergone several weeks of jungle training on Guadalcanal, but they had no combat experience and the dense jungle terrain of New Georgia would prove to be a ghastly shock.

Munda was defended by the 229th Regiment and the 8th Special Naval Landing Force, commanded by General Sasaki. Once the battle began reinforcements were sent across every night from Kolombangara, with a focus on machine gunners, anti-tank gunners and artillery men and their equipment.

US 155mm Gun M1 (Long Tom) on Rendova Island
US 155mm Gun M1 (Long Tom) on Rendova Island

The Americans looked at two possible landing points. Laiana Beach was two miles east of Munda but it was heavily defended and was within range of the major coastal guns. Zanana Beach was three miles further to the east, but was undefended. General Hester decided to land at Zanana, underestimating the difficulties that would be caused by the thick jungle of New Georgia jungle. The Japanese would prove to be very adept at defending the jungle, while it would greatly slow down the flow of American supplies. 

Preliminary Operations

The first stage in the operation took place early on 30 June when soldiers from Companies A and B, 169th Infantry, landing on the small islands at one entrance to Roviana Lagoon. Small scouting forces then landed at Zanana and spread out into the area between the beach and the Barike River, marking all of the key points in the area. The scouts also ran into Japanese troops from the 5th Company, 2nd Battalion, 229th Regiment and defeated them in an ambush. This same company was ordered to defend its position east of the Barike River and created a strong point on one of the few trails in the area.

New Georgia Campaign
New Georgia Campaign

Admiral Halsey officially approved the landings on 2 July. On the night of 2-3 July the first elements of the 1st Battalion, 172nd Infantry, landed on Zanana Beach. The 43rd Division's forward command post moved to Zanana on 3 July, and the first anti-aircraft battery was in place on 4 July. By the end of 5 July the 172nd and 169th Infantry Regiments were both ashore at Zanana.

On 6 July the two regiments began to advance towards the Barike River, with the 172nd on the left (south) and 169th on the right (north). The 169th ran into the Japanese trail block, and went into camp well short of the river.

During the night of 6-7 July some Japanese troops infiltrated into the American positions, taking advantage of the loose perimeter set up by the 169th. The nervous American defenders opened fire on shadows, but when dawn broke no Japanese dead were to be found (that doesn't mean they weren't present as the Japanese often attempted to retrieve their dead). Plenty of American casualties had been caused by friendly fire and the 169th Infantry's reputation suffered a long term blow.  

On 7 July the 169th resumed its advance, but was once again stopped by Japanese troops and only made slow progress. The 172nd was already in place on the Barike, but it was clear that the general attack that was planned for 8 July would have to be postponed for a day. After another day of hard fighting the 169th finally reached the Barike during the afternoon of 8 July.

American raid on Munda
American raid on Munda

The First Assault, 9 July

The delayed assault was preceded by a massive bombardment of the area beyond the Barike River. This began with a naval bombardment that started at 5.12am and saw four destroyers fire 2,344 5in rounds. This was followed by an artillery bombardment fired by two 155mm howitzer battalions, one 155mm gun battalion and two 105mm howitzer battalions. Another 3,450 shells were fired during this bombardment. Finally 52 torpedo bombers and 36 scout bombers joined the attack. This was an impressive display of firepower, but the Americans had little idea where the Japanese defences were actually located and the bombardment did little real damage.

The infantry advance began at 9am with the 172nd Infantry on the left (south) and 169th on the right (north). After the impressive bombardment the infantry advance was disappointingly slow. By the end of 10 July the Americans had run into the main Japanese defences, an overlapping line of strong points in the higher ground to the east of the airfield. The Americans was also suffering from a lack of supplies, as even the slow advance soon outran the struggling engineers.  

On 11 July General Hester decided that he needed to capture Laiana Beach. This would give him a landing beach that was much nearer to Munda, and help solve some of the supply problems. The 172nd was ordered to attack south-west towards the coast, while the 169th extended its lines to guard against any Japanese counterattack. On the same day the commanding officer of the 169th was replaced by Colonel Temple Holland

US Soldier firing on New Georgia
US Soldier firing on
New Georgia

The Japanese put up a stubborn resistance as the Americans advanced south-west, but finally on 13 July the 172nd reached the coast. The Japanese defenders of Laiana were now exposed to attack from their rear, and pulled back into Munda.

On 14 July the Americans were able to land reinforcements at Laiana. The 3rd Battalion of the 103rd Infantry and the tank platoon from the 9th Defence Battalion were the first to arrive.

While the 172nd had been advancing south, the 169th had resumed its own westwards offensive. The new attack began on 12 July, but no advance was made that day. On 13 July twelve scout bombers attacked the Japanese positions, before the regiment attacks. This time the 3rd Battalion, on the regiment's left, managed to capture a small hill 600 yards ahead of the original line. Over the next two days the 3rd Battalion held on despite repeated Japanese counterattacks. The 1st Battalion launched its own attack on 15 July only to find that the Japanese had abandoned their positions and retreated back towards Munda.

At midnight of 14-15 July the Americans made two changes to their senior command. On land General Griswold's 14th Corps was given command of all land forces, while General Hester returned to command of the 43rd Division. Reports had suggested that Hester's HQ was struggling to handle both roles at once. The change at sea had been planned for much longer. Rear Admiral Turner was to return to Pearl Harbor to take command of all amphibious forces in the Central Pacific, while Rear Admiral Theodore S. Wilkinson replaced him in New Georgia.

15 July also saw the first use of American tanks when six Marine tanks joined the 172nd for a renewed attempt to push past the strong Japanese defences that had quickly been built west of Laiana. The tanks knocked out a series of Japanese pillboxes and allowed the 172nd to make its first significant advance since reaching the coast. More progress was made on 16 July. That night the 2nd/ 172nd was relieved by the 3rd/ 103rd and another attack was planned for the 17th. This third attack was less successful, and one of the tanks was disabled (although it was towed to safety).

The Japanese Counterattack

On the night of 17-18 July the Japanese launched their only coordinated counterattack of the entire campaign on New Georgia. Sasaki had been planning this attack for several days, and had received reinforcements in the shape of the 13th Regiment under Colonel Tomonari. His plan was to attack around the northern flank of the American lines, get into their rear areas and inflict as much damage as possible.

Although some of the Japanese troops were spotted by a reconnaissance troop on the American right their attack still came as a surprise. Just after dark the Japanese attacked the American rear and even reached the beaches. The medical collecting station, engineer bivouacs, beach defences and the 43rd Division Command Post all came under attack. The command post was only saved by skilfully directed gunfire from nearby islands. This artillery fire broke up the cohesion of the Japanese force, and although hard fighting continued all night the Japanese were unable to coordinate their attacks. By the morning of 18 July Tomonari was forced to order a retreat and the Japanese counterattack ended in failure.
 
American Reorganisation

In the aftermath of the Japanese counterattack the Americans moved reinforcements onto New Georgia. The 148th Infantry landed on the morning of 18 July, expecting to have to fight the Japanese infiltrators.

The 145th Infantry, which was already in reserve, was moved up to the front, arriving on 20 July. The 169th Infantry was relieved, although Colonel Holland, who had originally come from the 145th, returned to command his original unit. The 37th Infantry Division (Major General Robert S. Beightler) took over command on the American right.

On 21 July the 161st Infantry landed on New Georgia. On 21 and 22 July all but the 1st battalion of the 103rd Regiment joined the 3rd battalion. At the end of this process the Americans had the 103rd, 145th, 148th, 161st and 172nd Infantry in the front line, holding a line than ran for 4000 yards north from Laiana.

General Hester's 43rd Division was on the left. He had the 103rd Infantry on the coast with the 172nd Infantry on his right.

General Beightler's 37th Division was on the right. The 145th Infantry was on his left (next to the 172nd), with the 161st in the centre and the 148th on his right. The 148th also had to protect the right rear.  The Americans were still 4,500 yards away from the airfield.

On the Japanese side the 13th Regiment pulled back to a position north-east of Munda, while the battered 229th Regiment occupied another strong defensive line in the hills east of Munda. Sasaki was reinforced by 400 men from the 230th Regiment and he posted them around Kokengola Hill, where they would form a final line of defence for the airfield.

The Corps Offensive

General Griswold decided to launch an attack along the entire line on 25 July. This was preceded by a series of attacks on 24 July that were designed to straighten the American lines. These met with little success, but the plans for the main attack continued anyway.

The corps offensive began with another major bombardment. Once again the navy started the action, this time with seven destroyers. One hundred and seventy one Aircraft followed - first heavy bombers with 500lb, 300lb and 120lb bombs and then torpedo and scout bombers, which dropped larger 1,000lb and 2,000lb bombs. A key target was a U-shaped hill in the centre of the Japanese line, which was given the name Horseshoe Mountain. Finally the artillery battalions opened fire.

The attack on 25 July made some progress. On the left the 43rd Division managed to advance into an area of plantations west of Laiana. On the right the 37th Division the 151st Infantry was held up by the defenders of Horseshoe Mountain, but on the fire right the 148th managed to advance around 600 yards.

On 26 July the 43rd managed to advance again, but on the right the 37th made some progress against the Horseshoe, but despite the introduction of flamethrowers into the fight for the first time the Japanese managed to hold on. Once again the 148th managed a significant advance, so the American line was now bowed, with a Japanese salient in the centre.

On 27 July little progress was made. A tank attack in the south ended in disaster when all five tanks involved were damaged and forced out of the battle.

28 July was a mixed day. On the left the 103rd, supported by four tanks, managed to break through the Japanese defences and captured a key Japanese gun emplacement. On the right the 161st managed to capture a key ridge, but the 148th infantry advanced too far. Japanese troops managed to get into the gap between the 161st and 148th, and attacked the 148th's rear area. This effectively took the 148th out of the attack for a few days as it fought to regain control of its own rear areas.

The Japanese defences finally began to crack on 30 July when the 172nd captured a ridge to the south-east of Horseshoe Mountain. On 31 July the 169th, now reintroduced to the fight, pushed the Japanese out of the southern part of the Horseshoe, although most of it remained in Japanese hands.

The Battle for the Airfield

On 1 August the 43rd Division finally reached the outer taxiway at the eastern end of the airfield. This put them behind the last line of Japanese defences. The Japanese defences on the Horseshoe finally collapsed, as Sasaki prepared to make a final stand on the airfield.

The main runway at Munda ran east-west alongside the coast. Sasaki chose to try and defend two hills at the western end of the airfield. The 230th Regiment was posted on Kokengola Hill, nearest to the runway. The 229th Regiment was posted on Bibolo Hill, a little to the north-east. The 13th Regiment was posted on the far left of the line. Sasaki knew that he wasn't going to receive any more reinforcements, and he had been ordered to fight to the last.

2 August saw an intense battle for the airfield break out. By the end of the day the 43rd Division had secured the low hills to the east of the airfield, while the 37th Division was approaching from the south.

Munda Airfield soon after being captured
Munda Airfield soon after being captured

On 3 August the fighting reached the airfield itself. The 43rd Division captured the southern part of Bibolo Hill and the 37th moved around to the north-west of the air field. Japanese troops were now trying to flee from the area, but at least one force was intercepted on the trail to Bairoko.

On 4 August the 43rd Division concentrated its efforts against the few defenders left on Kokengola, while the 37th Division headed towards the coast north-west of the airfield. Most of the Japanese troops in that area attempted to escape to nearby islands (including Baanga Island, which had to be cleared in fighting that lasted from 12-22 August 1943).

On 5 August the final Japanese resistance at Munda was crushed. Marine tanks drove across the airfield five times to draw out Japanese fire. They were fired on from Kokengola Hill., but these last few defenders were soon eliminated. At 14.10 the airfield was officially declared to be secured.

Aftermath

US Airbase at Munda, New Georgia
US Airbase at Munda, New Georgia

The Japanese suffered one more blow on 6 August. The Japanese commanders on Bougainville decided to send two more infantry battalions to New Georgia, but the ships carrying them were intercepted and three Japanese destroyers sunk (battle of Vella Gulf). Only 300 of the 1,800 men on the ships survived the battle.

A period of mopping up operations followed on New Georgia and nearby islands. Baanga Island was cleared by 22 August and Arundel Island by 20 September. By that time the last Japanese troops on New Georgia had escaped, and fighting on that island was over by the end of August.

The battle of Munda was the most costly part of the wider invasion of New Georgia, which was itself the most costly American offensive in the Solomon Islands. In order to avoid a similar costly battle on Kolombangara the Americans skipped west and instead invaded Vella Lavella. When this island fell the Japanese base on Kolombangara was isolated, and its garrison was quickly evacuated.

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (pending), Battle of Munda, 2 July-5 August 1943 , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/battles_munda.html

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