Operation Blissful

This was the US landing and subsequent operations on Choiseul island in the central section of the Solomon islands by Lieutenant Colonel Victor H. Krulak’s 2nd Marine Parachute Battalion as a diversion for ‘Cherryblossom’, and was otherwise known as 'Raise Hell' (28 October/3 November 1943).

About 120 miles (195 km) long on its north-west/south-east main axis and 20 miles (32 km) in maximum width with an area of 1,147 sq miles (2971 km²), Choiseul is located in the Solomon islands group to the north of the New Georgia group and to the east of Bougainville. The island possesses nothing of significant military importance, lacking useful anchorages or suitable sites for airfields, and is the most rugged of the Solomon islands with thick jungle, rocky spurs jutting out from the central mountain range right to the coast. This last makes movement along the coast very difficult.

The coastwatchers Charles J. Waddell and Sub-Lieutenant Carden W. Seton were based on Choiseul, and provided invaluable intelligence on Japanese ship movements during the Guadalcanal campaign. The island also became a significant Japanese staging area for barges evacuating troops from Kolombangara after it was island bypassed by the Allies, and Seton estimated that 4,000 Japanese had passed through and another 3,000 were still on the island by a time late in 1943.

The Japanese used Choiseul island only for the location of supply dumps, troop transit camps, and barge staging bases to support operations in the central part of the Solomon islands chain, and then to support their evacuation to Bougainville island, and built no airfields. The Allies initially considered Choiseul island as a primary target for their north-westward move into the northern part of the Solomon islands chain, and at this stage of Allied planning the island was envisaged as suitable for the establishment of airfields, a staging base and a PT-boat base for the support of operations on Bougainville island. This plan was cancelled in September 1943 when the Allies decided to concentrate their efforts on Bougainville, a larger island just to the north-west of Choiseul.

As with all other islands in the Solomon islands, intelligence about Choiseul was scanty. Three reconnaissance patrols were sent to the island during September and early in October 1943, and as a result Choiseul Bay on the island’s north-western end came to be seen as the best site for airfields and a naval base. The patrols and coastwatchers reported that the Japanese operated barge staging bases at Choiseul Bay and Kakasa on the central part of the south-west coast. Almost 1,000 Japanese service troops and between 2,000 and 3,000 troops in transit from New Georgia island were located at Kakasa on the central part of the island’s south-western side, 300 at the village of Sangigai some 20 miles (32 km) to the south-east of Choiseul Bay, and about 200 at Choiseul Bay.

Then in mid-October the Allies decided to land a small force on Choiseul to create a division for the ‘Cherryblossom’ landing on Bougainville island, scheduled for 1 November. The intelligence apparatus of Lieutenant General Alexander A. Vandegrift’s I Marine Amphibious Corps, earmarked for ‘Cherryblossom’, estimated that they might be as many as 4,000 Japanese troops on Choiseul, mostly dispersed in small camps along the coast awaiting withdrawal to strengthen the garrison of Bougainville. The Japanese supply situation was apparently poor, although planners believed they still had most of their weapons, including mortars and light artillery.

The plan was for the 2nd Marine Parachute Battalion, reinforced to a strength of 655 men by a heavy weapon company and other support elements, to land by sea at an undefended area near Voza, conduct raids along the north-west coast, select a site for a possible PT-boat base, and withdraw after 12 days if the US Navy decided it did not need to establish the PT-boat base. The battalion was also to try to convince the Japanese that it was a force somewhat larger than it actually was, and was in fact trying to seize Choiseul. To strengthen the battalion’s firepower, the I Marine Amphibious Corps attached a platoon of machine guns from the regimental weapons company and an experimental rocket-launcher platoon. Four landing craft would remain with the force to provide the battalion with coastal mobility, and a Consolidated PBY flying boat landed off Choiseul to fly out Seton, the island’s Australian coastwatcher, to accompany the battalion and ensure that it received the full local support.

As noted above, the reinforced battalion numbered 655 men, and Krulak planned a night landing at 01.00 on 28 October. Early in the evening of 27 October, four fast transports (conversions of old destroyers) and the destroyer Conway arrived off Vella Lavella, farther to the south-east along the Solomon islands chain, and the 2nd Marine Parachute Battalion, which already had half its supplies pre-loaded in landing craft, finished its loading in less than one hour. The small convoy had a short but eventful trip to Choiseul, as an unidentified aeroplane dropped bombs close aboard one of the troop-carrying destroyer conversions. The ships arrived early off Voza and the small force of US Marines was completely ashore by 01.00. In the course of the landing, a Japanese floatplane unsuccessfully attacked the Conway. Shortly after the ships had left, another Japanese aeroplane appeared, circled the landing beach, and dropped two bombs which landed in the water close to the shore.

One platoon accompanied the landing craft to Zinoa island, just off Voza, and camouflaged them as the rest of the battalion made a short move inland to the mountain location selected as the patrol base. The paratroopers also built a dummy supply dump of empty boxes on a beach 2 miles (3.2 km) to the north to decoy Japanese attentions. To back the diversion, on 30 October Admiral William F. Halsey’s South Pacific Area command released to the press news of the invasion by paratroopers.

During the afternoon a small marine patrol moved to the west along the coast to investigate possible sites for a PT-boat base. Two patrols of Choiseul natives, moving farther away from Voza, provided Krulak with information on the nearest Japanese positions. About 200 Japanese were guarding a barge station at Sangigai in the south-east, while another force was 18 miles (29 km) north-west beyond the Warrior river. Krulak decided to attack Sangigai on 30 October, and on 29 October sent several patrols, including one he himself led, to reconnoitre the objective. Krulak’s reinforced squad encountered 10 Japanese unloading a barge near Sangigai and killed seven of them. Later in the day an outpost drove off a Japanese platoon and killed seven of its men. Some of the patrols saw a moderately large volume of barge traffic moving along the coast. On 30 October, two companies reinforced by machine guns and rockets moved toward Sangigai. Company E continued down the beach trail while Company F moved inland to take the base from the rear. Early in the morning, an air attack by 12 Grumman TBF Avenger bombers struck the Japanese positions just outside Sangigai. When Company E approached the same area at 14.30, it executed a bombardment with its mortars and 36 of the experimental rockets.

The Japanese retreated inland, apparently to occupy prepared defensive works, reaching their destination at the same time that Company F was approaching the area. The marines, still in single file, were almost as surprised as the Japanese, but the paratroopers’ lead platoon reacted very rapidly and immediately attacked as the next platoon moved out to flank the Japanese left. The Japanese occupied their positions and responded with rifle, machine gun and light mortar fire. After 15 minutes of heavy fighting the paratroopers were making slow progress when the Japanese suddenly launched a Banzai attack, which was destroyed by US machine gunfire. Company F’s 3rd Platoon then moved out to the left to cut the Japanese line of retreat, but the Japanese ran headlong into the 2nd Platoon instead and lost yet more men. About 40 escaped the net, but the Japanese left 72 dead.

While that fighting continued in the jungle, Company E entered Sangigai unopposed and destroyed supplies, defensive positions and one barge. Captured documents included a chart pinpointing the minefields off Bougainville. The company then linked with the attached landing craft and made it back to base that evening.

Casualties slowed the movement of Company F through the dense jungle and it spent the night near the coast before being collected by boat and brought back to Voza on the following day. The cost of the victory to the Americans was six dead, one missing and 12 wounded, the last figure including Krulak, who suffered wounds in his face and arm from fragments. A flying boat evacuated the severest casualties and picked up the invaluable minefield charts.

On 1 November, Major Warner T. Bigger, the battalion’s executive officer, launched an operation in the other direction with the goal of destroying barges in Choiseul Bay and bombarding Japanese installations on Guppy island off Choiseul’s north-west coast. Bigger and the reinforced Company G moved by landing craft to the Warrior river, where they left their sole radio and a security team before moving overland toward their objective. Then things started to go wrong. The native scouts were unfamiliar with the area and the patrol soon found itself going in a circle. The reinforced company camped for the night, but Bigger sent one squad back to the Warrior river to make a report to battalion by radio.

At dawn on 2 November, the squad and radio team awoke to find a Japanese platoon in the immediate vicinity. The marines broke contact after a brief firefight and met the landing craft, waiting along the coast at Nukiki. On the way back to Voza the US force spotted eight Japanese barges at Moli island, a fact which indicated there was an even larger Japanese force between the two wings of the 2nd Marine Parachute Battalion. Concerned that Bigger’s force might he cut off, Krulak requested air and PT-boat support from the I Marine Amphibious Corps and ordered the landing craft to return to the Warrior river. Company G had moved out for Choiseul Bay at 06.30 and met a local who guided the Americans to the coast. Here the marines found an occupied bunker on the beach and killed five Japanese, then set up their 60-mm (2.36-in) light mortars and fired 142 rounds onto Guppy island. The bombardment started several blazes, one obviously a burning fuel dump, and the Japanese responded with ineffective machine gun fire from the island and a point farther up the coast.

Bigger and his main body returned to the Warrior river at 16.00, expecting to meet the landing craft but not finding them there. Unaware of the fact that the radio team had departed, Bigger’s group tried to cross the river but came under Japanese fire. After 90 minutes three boats appeared, with the marines on board firing their weapons. The Japanese fire died down in the face of this new opposition and Company G embarked in heavy rain and high seas. One of the landing craft struck a reef after pulling back from the beach and began to take on water. Then its engine died and it drifted toward the Japanese-held beach. Two PT-boats arrived and recovered the men. Three aircraft appeared at the same time and covered the operation by strafing the shore. The combat patrol had killed 42 Japanese in several firefights and inflicted more casualties and damage with its mortar fire. The marine losses were two killed, one wounded and two missing.

While Bigger was operating in the north-west, Krulak dispatched platoon-strength patrols to the south-east in the direction of Sangigai. Two of them made contact with small Japanese units on 1 November, and killed at least 17 Japanese at the cost of one marine killed. Intelligence gathered by marine and native patrols indicated that the Japanese were moving from both directions to recapture Voza, in the process securing their barge lines and the important coastal track, which was the only trail for movement to the north-west.

There were an estimated 1,800 Japanese troops to the south-east and possibly as many as 3,000 to the north-west. Krulak assumed that the Japanese were becoming aware of the strength and limited mission of his force in the aftermath of the marine withdrawals from Sangigai and Choiseul Bay. On the afternoon of 2 November, Krulak informed the I Marine Amphibious Corps of developments and stated that his battalion could handle the Japanese for a week, though the increasing scale and scope of Japanese activity would hamper marine patrol operations. In the meantime, he took steps to strengthen his defences with a platoon-size outer guard on each flank of Voza, put his demolition platoon to work laying mines, and requested that PT-boats patrol the coast to hinder the approach of Japanese forces by barge.

The staff of the I Marine Amphibious Corps had considered expanding the operation on 30 October by inserting the rest of the parachute regiment, but now asked Krulak for his frank assessment of whether or not his 2nd Marine Parachute Battalion should be evacuated on the following night as its mission had been accomplished. Krulak responded that he expected a strong Japanese attack within 48 hours and recommended withdrawal as, two days after the ‘Cherryblossom’ landing on Bougainville, it must have become clear to the Japanese that the west coast of Bougainville was the main target and Choiseul only a diversion. Thus during the afternoon of 3 November the battalion moved to the beach at Voza and established a perimeter pending the nocturnal arrival of four infantry landing craft, one of them a gunboat version to provide covering fire. The demolition platoon placed hundreds of booby traps on the various avenues of approach.

As darkness fell, native scouts reported that the Japanese were moving closer, and Japanese patrols began to reach the Voza area near midnight, as evidenced by the explosion of booby traps. The three LCI transports arrived just before that time and had beached by 01.30. The paratroopers embarked in less than 20 minutes and were back on Vella Lavella by 08.00.

In overall terms, for the loss of nine dead, 11 wounded and five missing (of whom were later declared dead), the 2nd Marine Parachute Battalion claimed to have killed a minimum of 143 Japanese, destroyed a staging base, sunk two barges, destroyed supply dumps, and seriously disrupted the movement of Japanese forces from Choiseul to destinations farther to the north up the island chain. The minefield chart also provided valuable assistance to naval operations in the northern part of the Solomon islands. Halsey ordered mines laid in the clear channels and they eventually sank two Japanese ships. The I Marine Amphibious Corps may have staged the operation too late and with too small a force to serve as a fully effective diversion, but ‘Blissful’ did exercise some effect on the actions of the Japanese, who shuttled some troops from the Shortland islands to Choiseul and on 1 November sent a heavy bomber raid to attack the task force they assumed would be located off the Voza beach-head. In any case, the raid kept the Japanese high command guessing for a time and certainly must have given them reason to be concerned about the prospect of future attacks of a similar nature.

Early in 1944 a patrol of the Special Operations Australia organisation was landed on the island and, with the support of aircraft of the Royal New Zealand Air Force, began a programme of harassing the island’s Japanese garrison, by now reduced to some 700 men, and this was evacuated to Bougainville in mid-1945.