Some people claim that Americans are insufferably arrogant—but it may not be accurate except for Texans. But even if it were true, American arrogance doesn’t hold a candle to the haughtiness of the Japanese. In the First World War, the Empire of Japan aligned itself with the Allied powers; in World War II, they joined the Axis powers. Given their history through the 1920s, the Japanese sense of superiority was second to none. By 1930, the Imperial Japanese Army Staff was convinced that their island nation of 130 million people could conquer Korea, China, the Philippines, Indochina, and Burma — with a subsequent eye on India — and, while doing it, could also defeat the world’s two most powerful nations: the United Kingdom and the United States.
The result was inevitable. Japanese arrogance led militarists to underestimate the industrial capacity and willfulness of the Allied powers while overestimating their own. Until the Second World War, the Japanese had gotten away with their “sneak attacks” on China and Russia. At a time when the United Kingdom had its hands full in Europe, the United States had only just begun to mobilize its armed forces. The Japanese decided that the time was right to initiate another series of lightning assaults — and did so at Pearl Harbor, Singapore, Hong Kong, the Philippines, and Guam. By late 1941, the Japanese scored victory after victory. The success of these operations convinced the Japanese that their army, navy, and air forces were invincible.
Their first snag occurred on 8 December when the Japanese tangled with a battalion of 450 Marines at Wake Island. It took the Imperial Japanese Navy fifteen days to take the island away from those Marines. Japanese losses included two destroyers, one submarine, two patrol boats, 30 destroyed or damaged aircraft, and 551 men. American casualties included 94 Killed or wounded Marines, 433 captured, twelve aircraft destroyed, 70 civilian construction crew killed, and 1,104 civilians interned (180 of whom died in captivity).
The Japanese might have learned something important from this misadventure were it not for their arrogance — but by then, they were already committed to a course of action that would become a disaster for the Japanese people. Elsewhere, the Japanese seized the Netherlands Indies, and Malaya for much-needed oil. Moreover, beyond their desire for self-sufficiency, Japan needed to consolidate its hold over Asian Pacifica.
Consolidation meant setting up an Imperial defense structure — a line along which the Japanese could thwart any Allied effort to encroach into these new Japanese territories. It was a very long defense line — looping from the Kuriles through Wake to the Marshall Islands, the Gilbert Islands, westward to the Bismarck Archipelago, Timor, Java, Sumatra, Malaya, and Burma. The task of defending such a large area was far more than the Japanese military could handle. By the time senior Japanese officers came to this realization (in the spring of 1942), it was already too late to change the game plan. In any case, Japanese culture would not allow senior officers to acknowledge their errors. Japanese arrogance hastened their ultimate defeat.
The Japanese Target Rabaul
In January 1942, Japanese troops overpowered an Australian garrison at Rabaul, located on the southwest Pacific Island of New Britain (now part of New Guinea). Having taken Rabaul, the Japanese wasted no time transforming it into a significant base and anchorage and garrisoning the island with more than 100,000 troops.
Eighteen months later, the Imperial Japanese Staff ordered a withdrawal of their land forces back toward the home islands. Within that time, allied forces thwarted the Japanese from taking Alaska, defeated the Imperial Navy in the Coral Sea, and sank four Japanese aircraft carriers during the Battle of Midway. These losses were unrecoverable. At Midway, Japan lost most of its experienced combat pilots. The losses were substantial enough to cause Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto to question his ability to engage the British and Americans head-on.
By seizing Rabaul, the Japanese painted a giant target on their backs. The Allied commanders adopted an aggressive counteroffensive that called for a series of amphibious assaults on selected Japanese-held islands as part of a drive toward the Philippines and the Japanese home islands. It was an island-hopping strategy that counted on the belief that isolating Japanese defensive forces (such as those at Rabaul) would be as effective as destroying them in combat — as far less costly to Allied troops.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed General Douglas MacArthur to serve as Commander, Southwest Pacific Area, and directed him to generate a plan to deal with Japanese objectives in that theater of operations. While MacArthur was working up his battle plan, Fleet Admiral Ernest J. King, then serving as the Chief of Naval Operations, began working on a plan of his own. General MacArthur saw the task as suitable for an Army operation; King disagreed. Island hopping would require the overall command of a Navy admiral. Both officers petitioned the President for his approval.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt had already signaled his preference that the United States prioritize military and naval efforts against Nazi Germany. He turned to the Army Chief of Staff, General of the Army George C. Marshal, to solve the problem. Marshal developed a compromise plan involving three stages. The first stage would be the responsibility of the Navy’s Pacific commander, Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, and the other two would proceed under MacArthur’s direction.
Allied leaders agreed that Japanese naval and military strength at Rabaul made New Britain a priority. However, at this early stage in the war, the United States lacked sufficient amphibious landing craft and was still in the process of building combat divisions. Taking Rabaul was simply not immediately feasible. Instead, the Allies agreed to surround and cut off Rabaul through amphibious operations with limited objectives. The effort became known as Operation Cartwheel and involved New Guinea and the Solomon Islands.
Stage One was Operation Watchtower — a naval campaign against Tulagi, Guadalcanal, and the Santa Cruz Islands. The commander of Watchtower was Vice Admiral William F. Halsey. MacArthur’s task was to capture the northeastern coast of New Guinea and the central Solomon Islands and, once accomplished, destroy, or disrupt Imperial Japanese forces at Rabaul and outlying air bases. At this stage in the war, both Halsey and MacArthur competed for men and material adequate for their several tasks.
Guadalcanal turned into a long engagement (7 August 1942 – 9 February 1943), but the fighting wasn’t over when the Japanese withdrew. Another long, grueling campaign opened in New Guinea and several islands in the Solomon Chain.
Dislodging the Japanese from New Guinea became a monumental task involving the combined efforts of the army and naval forces of the United States, Australia, and New Zealand. These tasks would last through late August 1945.
One crucial step in this process would be the capture of the New Georgia island group — and the most vital objective on New Georgia was the Japanese airbase at Munda Point, located on the main island’s southwest tip. What made this a monumental battle was that most of the Allied land forces experienced combat for the first time.
Marine Raiders seized the Russell Islands on 21 February 1943, and although the Marines landed unopposed, the landing itself prompted the Japanese to begin fortifying their advanced bases by sea.
To counter the Japanese reinforcement effort, General MacArthur ordered air assaults against Japanese shipping and aircraft — known as the Battle of the Bismarck Sea (early March 1943) (see map). Japanese losses in both men and material were significant.
Admiral Yamamoto countered by initiating Operation I-Go, an ongoing series of air attacks against Allied airfields and anchorages at Guadalcanal and New Guinea. Isoroku Yamamoto was a distinguished graduate of the Imperial Japanese Naval Academy. He was a wounded combat veteran of the Russo-Japanese War, a graduate of Harvard University, and served two tours of duty as a naval attaché in the United States. His English was impeccable.
Admiral Yamamoto was not someone the Allies wanted to contend with. Unbeknownst to the Japanese, high-ranking Allied commanders regularly read Japan’s coded radio signals. When MacArthur became aware that Yamamoto was organizing a command liaison visit to Bougainville, having first obtained presidential authorization, he ordered the Army Air Corps to locate Yamamoto’s aircraft and shoot it down. This was accomplished on 18 April 1943. Yamamoto’s death was a massive blow to the Imperial Japanese Staff. The only senior Japanese naval officer who came close to Yamamoto’s capabilities was Admiral Mineichi Koga.
Vice Admiral Halsey’s task of capturing dozens of islands was a complicated undertaking — for a wide range of reasons. While stateside commands and Pacific Area Commanders pushed forward the men and materials needed for the Solomon Islands campaign, it fell upon Halsey to protect these ships until off-loaded. Moreover, shipping channels around the islands involved in the operations were narrow, making Halsey’s ships vulnerable to Japanese shore batteries, aerial attacks, and submarine operations. Sub-surface coral reefs and barrier islands also impeded Navy operations.
Admiral Halsey decided to begin his assault by launching amphibious operations against smaller (outlying) islands before landing troops on the main island of New Georgia — the focus of which was to capture the Japanese airfield at Munda Point. Munda Point would play a critical role as an Allied air base supporting ongoing operations toward Bougainville and Rabaul.
The campaign against secondary islands began on 30 June 1943. The assault on mainland New Georgia started a few days later. With Marine Corps attachments, the U.S. 43rd Infantry Division landed on the southern shore on 2 July. The 1st Marine Raider Battalion, working with two battalions of the U.S. 37th Infantry Regiment, landed on the island’s northwestern coast on 5 July.
Both amphibious landings were successful, but simultaneous drives inland quickly bogged down. The island’s terrain was rugged, with natural obstacles impeding progress. Infantry, artillery, and logistical support troops fell prey to the tropical heat, malaria, ringworm, fungal infection, dysentery, and beriberi. It wasn’t long before these young fighters became exhausted. Japanese soldiers steadfastly resisted every foot of the Allied advance. At night, when the Allied forces collapsed into the defensive fighting positions, endless Japanese banzai attacks shattered their morale, exhausted them even more, and the ever-present smell of death became a constant reminder of the horror of war.
In one incident involving the U.S. 43rd Infantry, crafty Japanese tactics terrorized the American soldiers and confused them to the extent of fighting and killing their own men, both by shooting them and stabbing them to death with their bayonets. In one report, a regimental commander stated, “Some men knifed each other. Men threw hand grenades blindly, often in the wrong direction. Some grenades hit trees and bounced back and exploded among the Americans. In the morning, there was no trace of dead Japanese — but dozens of dead and wounded Americans.” The Allied advance bogged down even more as these troops exhibited shell shock and combat fatigue.
U.S. Army Lieutenant General Oscar Griswold, Commanding General XIV Corps, arrived on New Georgia Island on 11 July. His assessment was depressing. The U.S. 43rd Infantry Division was “shot.” Shortly after receiving his report, Griswold was ordered to take over land operations in New Georgia. His first act was to pull his men back for much-needed rest and resupply. The delay was operationally justified but also gave the Japanese time to refine their defensive positions.
Griswold’s renewed attack began on 25 July 1943 with the U.S. 43rd Division, U.S. 25th Division, and U.S. 37th Division working as a team to provide mutual support. U.S. Marine Sherman tanks, artillery, naval gunfire, and air support aided in the advance until the corps ran into heavily fortified Japanese bunkers. As the Allies maneuvered for field advantages, Japanese snipers picked off soldiers carrying flamethrowers, and isolated tanks were overrun and destroyed. Japanese night operations continued to play havoc among the American combat divisions during the advance.
But the Americans soon learned how to fight the Japanese and began to give as well as they received. Young combat leaders learned how to coordinate their operations with adjacent units and became more efficient in delivering artillery and mortar fire. It was a rapid (and deadly) learning curve. In only four days, the Japanese began to pull back to their final defensive line before Munda Point.
The Japanese refused to give up anything without a massive fight, which the Americans gave them between 29 July and 5 August. Within two weeks of the final battle, Allied aircraft were using Munda Point against Japanese forces at other locations in the Solomon Islands.
As the fight for Munda Point was going on, other Allied troops made amphibious landings in the northern portion of New Georgia at Viru Harbor (on the south coast), Wickham Anchorage (on Vangunu Island and Rendova). Additional fighting erupted on Arundel Island in August and September. After U.S. and New Zealand troops landed on Vella Lavella, the Allied Commander was able to terminate the operation on 7 October 1943.
It is not known when the Japanese realized that they could not hold on to their line of defense for the home islands, much less the Solomons, but what became readily apparent in short order was that the Pacific War campaigns became battles of attrition. It may have been Yamamoto who first came to that conclusion. The Japanese could not replace their war dead — and it was only a matter of time before Imperial Japan collapsed upon itself. After the Solomon Islands campaign, the Japanese embarked upon a new defensive strategy: defense in depth. The Japanese were willing to sacrifice everyone and take with them as many Allied soldiers, sailors, and airmen as possible.
Soon enough, Admiral Yamamoto’s replacement, Admiral Mineichi Koga, would fall back to the island of Bougainville, where it would be easier to reinforce and resupply. There were several problems with this Japanese thinking. First, to briefly return to the arrogance problem, the Japanese had difficulty admitting to mistakes — especially those of high magnitude. Second, after having embarked upon this ruinous course of action, there was no way to reverse course and “save face.” Third, Admiral Koga was no Yamamoto.
In fairness to Admiral Koga, the entire Solomon Islands fight was overwhelming to the Japanese, whose industrial production was inadequate to the military’s demand. In comparison, American shipyards were producing one Liberty ship per day. Additionally, geography didn’t favor the Japanese strategic plan. The Solomon Island chain included six major islands and dozens of smaller ones. The distance of the chain was five-hundred miles. North of Guadalcanal lay eleven “main islands” of the Central Solomons. New Georgia was the largest of these. Bougainville was the northernmost island in the chain, some 300 miles distant. Bougainville is 130 miles long and 30 miles wide — and this is where Koga decided to fight.
Given his seniority, Admiral Koga was no student of warfare — or history. In earlier decades, the Japanese were fascinated by the German war machine — and yet, the Imperial Japanese Staff seemed unaware of the lessons taught by Carl von Clausewitz. The Japanese didn’t concentrate their limited forces on land or sea and suffered the consequences. In this case, the effects were two massive atomic explosions at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But even then, the fighting on Bougainville continued from November 1943 until mid-August 1945.
Note: For a treat in the history of the Pacific War, visit Pacific Paratrooper.