Operation Toenails - the invasion of New Georgia (30 June-5 August 1943) - was the first major Allied offensive in the Solomon Islands after Guadalcanal was declared to be secure. The invasion was part of Operation Cartwheel, a series of Allied attacks designed to isolate the important Japanese base at Rabaul and both protect Australia and clear the way for further campaigns.
The Solomon Islands consists of two main chains of large islands, separated by a long sound (known to the Allies as the 'slot'. At the north-western end of the group is Bougainville. The southern chain then continues with the New Georgia islands, Guadalcanal and San Cristobal. The New Georgia group is made up of several larger islands - Vella Lavella in the north-west, then Kolombangara, New Georgia itself (with Rendova off its south-west coast) and Vanguni in the south-east. These major islands were surrounded by a large number of smaller islands and tiny islets. None of the islands were well mapped, their populations were small and most of the land was covered by thick jungle.
New Georgia was an obvious target for the Americans. The Japanese had a major base at Munda, at the western tip of New Georgia island, where they had built an airfield. They also had a base at Vila, on the south-western shore of Kolombangara. The Japanese used destroyers and fast transports to reinforce the islands, travelling at night in what the Americans called the 'Tokyo Express' and in the months before the invasion greatly strengthened their garrison.
In early March Rear-Admiral Minoru Ota was sent to New Georgia to speed up work on the defences. When he arrived the garrison was mainly provided by the Navy's Special Naval Landing Forces, but in March and April they were joined by troops from the 38th and 51st Divisions.
At the end of May a new South-East Detachment was formed, to command both the Army and Navy elements on New Georgia. General Noboru Sasaki, commander of the 38th Division, was placed in charge. By the end of June Sasaki had around 11,000 men under his command, half from the army and half from the navy. The navy provided the Kure VI SNLF, Yokusuka VII SNLF and a number of 140mm 120mm and 80mm coastal guns. The army provided two infantry regiments, a mountain artillery battery, a field anti-aircraft battalion, a searchlight battalion, some anti-aircraft machine gun companies and two Pioneer units.
The Japanese troops were concentrated in a small number of locations. Their main bases were at Munda, at the western end of New Georgia and at Vila, on the southern coast of Kolombangara. Another force was at Enogai, on the coast north of Munda, where the Japanese had placed some of their naval guns. Smaller garrisons were placed on Rendova Island, at Viru (towards the eastern end of the southern coast of New Georgia) and on the south-east coast of Vangunu Island, at the south-eastern end of the island chain.
The Japanese believed that Operation 'I' (April 1943) had seriously weakened the Americans. They observed an increase in shipping in mid-June, but this dropped off from 26 June and the Japanese believed that no invasion was imminent. They pulled most of the remaining aircraft in the Solomons back to Rabaul. On 30 June the naval forces at Rabaul only consisted of 1 cruiser, 8 destroyers and 8 submarines, supported by 66 bombers and 83 fighters. The Japanese were thus very badly positioned to repulse the upcoming landings.
Active American preparations began before the fighting ended on Guadalcanal. On the night of 4-5 January Admiral Ainsworth led a force of cruisers and destroyers in a bombardment of Munda. On 21 February the Russell Islands were occupied (Operation Cleanslate), and two airfields were quickly constructed on those islands (between Guadalcanal and New Georgia). On 6 March Rear Admiral A.S. Merrill shelled Vila and Munda and clashed with Japanese surface forces. Two Japanese destroyers were sunk (action of Kula Gulf, 6 March 1943). Three days later, on 9 March, a series of heavy air strikes on Munda began. Over the next three months Munda and Kolombangara were attacked every day, but work continued on the airfield.
On the night of 6-7 May the Americans attempted to disrupt the Tokyo Express by laying mines in the Blackett Strait, at the south-western entrance to Kula Gulf. On the following night four Japanese destroyers entered the new minefield and three struck mines. One sank immediately and the other two were sunk by American aircraft early on 8 May. Admiral Ainsworth repeated the mining effort on the night of 12-13 May, and also bombarded Munda and Vila, but without the same effect.
The Japanese responded to these Allied efforts with a series of air raids of their own, targeting the invasion fleet massing around Guadalcanal. The first raid came on 7 June, and saw the Japanese lose 23 aircraft while shooting down 9 Allied aircraft. This was the most successful of three raids. On 12 June the Japanese lost 31 aircraft and shot down 6. Finally on 16 June they launched a larger attack with 120 aircraft. This time two warships and a transport were damaged, but the raid ended in disaster for the Japanese when nearly 100 of their aircraft were lost. The Allies only lost six aircraft in this raid. In the three attacks the Japanese shot down 21 Allied aircraft and inflicted minor damage on shipping, but at the cost of 152 aircraft.
Halsey's headquarters issued the general instructions for the invasion on 3 June. Although Munda was the main target of the attack, it would be left alone during the first wave of attacks. The Western Landing Force would land on Rendova Island, to the south of Munda. A smaller Eastern Landing Force would occupy Viru Harbour, where the Japanese had a barge base, Segu Plantation, where the Americans planned to build an airfield and Wickham anchorage, at the southern end of the island group, seen as a suitable site for a naval base. Once these first targets had been secured the Americans would then cross from Rendova to New Georgia and advance on Munda. A Northern Landing Group, under Colonel Harry Liversedge, was to land at Rice Anchorage on 5 July and capture the Japanese positions at Enogai and Bairoko, where the Japanese had a coastal gun battery and a barge base linking Munda to Kolombangara.
The invasion force was built around the Army's 43rd Infantry Division. It was supported by two battalions of US Marine Raiders, the 1st Commando Fiji Guerrillas, a field artillery battalion and the Marine Corps 9th Defence Battalion. The land forces were lead by Major-General John H. Hestor, the commander of the 43rd Infantry. Vice Admiral A.W. Fitch commanded the land based air support and Rear Admiral R.K. Turner was in overall command of the operation.
On 16 June detailed plans for the preliminary lands were issued, but they soon had to be modified. Segi Point was the base of Donald G. Kennedy, one of the most active coast-watchers, a dedicated group of men who had been deliberately left behind when the Japanese invaded. Kennedy led a group of guerrillas who kept the Japanese away from his base, helped Allied patrols on and off the island and even provided support for a survey team that had selected a suitable site for an airfield. General Sasaki was aware that someone was operating from Segi, and in early June he decided to eliminate the threat. Japanese reinforcements arrived at Viru on 17 June, and on 18 June Kennedy asked for help. Admiral Turner didn't want to lose his foothold on the island, and so on 21 June most of a Marine Raider company landed at Segi. On the following day they were followed by two US army companies and an airfield survey party. The Seabees began work on an airstrip on 30 June and within two weeks it was ready for emergency landings.
On the night of 29-30 June Rear Admiral Meriil shelled the Vila area on Kolombangara, Buin on Bougainville and the Shortland Islands. Mines were also dropped off the Shortland Islands. This raid was designed to distract attention from the fleet heading towards New Georgia and also make it harder for the Japanese to intervene if they wanted to.
D-Day for the landings, 30 June 1943, began with two setbacks. The attack on Viru was delayed (see below). The first landings on Rendova were to be made by the 'Barracuda' scouting groups from the 172nd Infantry, but they were landed in the wrong place and were unable to secure the main landings beaches.
Things soon got better on Rendova. The Japanese only had 250 men on the island, and the main landing force was able to establish a secure bridgehead without many problems. The Japanese at Munda were unable to do much to interfere as their coastal defence guns were sited to protect against a landing on New Goergia itself. The landing was complete by 15.00 and the transport fleet began to withdraw. The Japanese finally managed to launch an air strike as the fleet was moving out, damaging the transport McCawley. She survived the initial attack but was later accidently sunk by American PT boats who believed her to be Japanese. The survivors of the Japanese garrison on Rendova were either hunted down by Fiji Commandoes or escaped by canoe to Munda.
In order to capture Wickham Anchorage the Americans landed a mixed army and marine force at Oloana Bay, on the south coast of Vangunu Island. This force then advanced towards Vura and Kaeruka villages, where they clashed with the small Japanese garrison. After four days of jungle fighting the area was secured on 3 July, allowing the Americans to use the anchorage. It never developed into a major base, but did become a refuge for small craft.
The attack on Viru was delayed until 1 July. The Marines had attempted to march from Segi, but despite leaving on 28 June they were unable to arrive in time for the planned attack on 30 June. The naval contingent did appear outside the harbour and waited for six hours before moving on to Segi. The Marines arrived outside Viru on 1 July, caught the Japanese by surprise and soon forced them out of the villages on either side of the harbour entrance. The second naval echelon was able to land later in the day, and Viru was soon secured. It turned out not to be a good site for a PT base, but it did become a repair base for small landing craft.
The final American attack was made by the Northern Landing Group (Liversedge). This force landed at Rice Anchorage, on the north-west coast of New Georga, on 5 July. On the following day the NLG's naval escort fought the battle of Kula Gulf, 6 July 1943. Both sides lost ships but the Japanese were still able to land fresh troops on Kolombangara.
The NLG had several tasks - the capture of the Japanese gun batteries at Enogai, to cut the road from the barge base at Bairoko to Munda and to capture Bairoko. Enogai was secured by 11 July, but the attack on Bairoko on 20 July ended in failure.
The battle for Munda was much more costly than the Americans had expected. In order to avoid the Japanese defences at Laiana beach, two miles from Munda, they decided to land at Zanana, a further three miles to the east. The first few American troops landed at Zanana on the night of 2-3 July, and large scale landings started on 3 July. The initial plan was to reach the Barike River in time to begin a general attack on 8 July, but slow movement speeds and unexpected Japanese resistance meant that the attack had to be delayed until 9 July.
The first attack was preceded by a naval bombardment, then an artillery bombardment and finally by an air attack, but the Americans didn't really know where the Japanese defences were, and little damage was done. When the attack began results were disappointing, and by 11 July General Hester decided to change his plans. He ordered one of his regiments to turn south to capture Laiana Beach, in order to shorten his supply lines. Once again the Japanese resisted fiercely, but the Americans reached the coast near Laiana on 13 July. The Japanese were forced to pull out and on 14 July the Americans began to land reinforcements at Laiana.
The Japanese were still managing to get reinforcements into New Georgia. On the night of 12-13 July the Americans attempted to intercept a Japanese naval force carrying fresh troops, but the resulting naval battle of Kolombangara (12-13 July 1943) was a clear Japanese victory, with all three of the Allied cruisers involved in the battle badly damaged and the reinforcements safely landed.
The American reinforcements were soon thrown into the battle, but progress was still slow. Things got worse on the night of 17-18 July when the Japanese launched their only major counterattack of the campaign. The newly arrived 13th Regiment attacked from the north, got behind the American lines and reached their supply beaches. The 43rd Division headquarters came under attack, but the Japanese were driven off by concentrated artillery fire from guns mounted on nearby islands. On the following morning the Japanese withdrew.
The Americans responded by rushing reinforcements to New Georgia. By 25 July they had elements of five infantry regiments in the line, forming 14th Corps (General Griswold). The final American attack at Munda began on 25 July, with another heavy bombardment. This time progress was slow but steady, and on 1 August the first American troops reached the edge of Munda airfield. Although the Japanese attempted to defend the western side of the airfield, their last stand didn't last long. The last serious fighting came on 4 August and by 14.10 on 5 August Munda Airfield was declared to be secure.
On the following day the Japanese made one last attempt to get reinforcements to the New Georgia Islands, but the resulting naval battle of Vella Gulf (6 August 1943) was a major American victory
It took another two months of fighting to fully secure New Georgia and the nearby small islands. The first task was to clear away the Japanese troops nearest to Munda and try and prevent them escaping to Kolombangara. The Americans sent troops in two directions - north towards the Japanese barge base at Bairoko and north-west along the coastline.
Major General J Lawton Collins was given the task of clearing south-western New Georgia. By 18 August his men had joined with Liversedge's Northern Landing Group and isolated Bairoko. The Japanese destroyed all of their equipment and evacuated nineteen barge loads of troops to Vila on Kolombangara. Late on 24 August American troops finally made an unopposed entry into Bairoko.
The 2nd and 3rd Battalions, 27th Infantry Regiment had the task of clearing the coastline north-west of Munda. They captured the village of Zieta on 15 August after overcoming some unexpectedly fierce Japanese resistance. On the following day advancing US troops found an embarkation dock and some abandoned ships in a nearby river, and on 23 August they reached Hathorn Sound, between New Georgia and Arundel Island.
These two operations ended the fighting on the mainland of New Georgia, but there was also some heavy fighting on islands to the north-west of Munda.
The Japanese were still present on some of the smaller islands close to New Georgia. On 11 August they were discovered on Baanga Island, just to the north-west of Munda. A first attempt to land their on 12 August was repulsed, and a larger scale landing with two infantry battalions took place on 14 August. Another two battalions joined the battle on 16 August, and after a week of hard fighting the Japanese evacuated the remaining troops to Arundel Island. Baanga Island was secured by 22 August.
The first American troops landed on Arundel Island on 27 August. The resulting battle lasted until 20 September, when the last Japanese troops were evacuated from the northern coast of the island. By now Kolombangara had been effectively bypassed by the American invasion of Vella Lavella, and at the end of September the Japanese began to evacuate Kolombangara. The central Solomons were now secure and the focus of the fighting was about to move west to Bougainville.