Operation Dogeared

This was the US semi-official designation of the seizure of Vella Lavella island in the Solomon islands group (15 August/9 October 1943).

Lying some 40 miles (65 km) to the north-west of Munda Point, the north-western tip of New Georgia island taken in ‘Toenails’, Vella Lavella is the most north-westerly of the New Georgia islands group. It is 26 miles (42 km) long and 12 miles (19 km) wide, mountainous with a peak elevation of 2,651 ft (808 m) and covered in jungle, and without a good harbour. The island is separated from Kolombangara, off the north coast of New Georgia island, by the Vella Gulf. The island has well-drained and relatively flat ground, suitable in World War II for the construction of airfields, in its southern corner near the main settlement of Barakoma, but the island was completely undeveloped in 1941.

The difficult struggle for Munda had been a significant setback for the Allied forces of Admiral William H. Halsey’s South Pacific Area command. The Japanese had fought tenaciously to hold Munda while preparing a new line at Kolombangara, and if the Japanese were allowed to create a determined defence of each island while creating their next defensive strongpoint on the next island to be targeted, they might well have been able to force the Allies to a compromise peace. The separate Allied commanders arrived at the solution independently and at about the same time: they would replace the process of direct assault on the next in a linear sequence of target islands and locations with a process of encirclement, leapfrogging major Japanese strongpoints rather than trying to take them directly. This was an operational method which had already been applied successfully, if unintentionally, in the ‘Sandcrab’ and ‘Cottage’ landings on Attu and Kiska islands in the Aleutian islands group.

On 12 July 1943 the Allies therefore decided that once Munda Point had been secured, the nearby Kolombangara island would be bypassed, as it was garrisoned by 10,000 well-prepared Japanese troops.

Allied attention was now focussed on Vella Lavella, the next island beyond heavily defended Kolombangara. Vella Lavella is the most north-western island of the New Georgia islands group. It is 26 miles (41.8 km) long and 12 miles (19.25 km) wide. Mountainous and covered with jungle, the island has no good harbour, and is separated from Kolombangara by the Vella Gulf. There was well-drained, relatively flat ground suitable for airfields in the south-eastern corner of the island, near the main settlement of Barakoma, but the island was completely undeveloped in 1941.

The Japanese had very few troops on the island (in fact some 250 marooned sailors in scattered groups), and on 21 July 1943 Rear Admiral Theodore S. Wilkinson’s South Pacific Amphibian Forces landed a mixed reconnaissance force by PT-boat on the island. Aided by coastwatchers, the force explored the island for six days and encountered not one Japanese soldier. The reconnaissance force determined that Barakoma, on the south-east coast of the island, was the most favourable location for a landing, and this was approved for 15 August 1943.

On 13 August an advance party landed to mark the beaches and collect prisoners.

The Northern Landing Force, under Brigadier General Robert B. McClure, the assistant divisional commander of Major General J. Lawton Collins’s 25th Division, was assembled on Guadalcanal island and in the Russell islands group. The Northern Landing Force was built around the 35th RCT strengthened from 4,600 to 6,600 men by the addition of the 64th Field Artillery Battalion, 4th Marine Defense Battalion, 25th Cavalry Reconnaissance Troop, 58th Naval Construction Battalion and a Naval Base Group.

Task Group 31, a major element of Wilkinson’s 3rd Amphibious Force, was the Northern Landing Force and comprised the Advance Transport Group with the US converted destroyer fast transports Stringham, Waters, Dent and Talbot (Transport Division 12), and Kilty, Ward and McKean (Transport Division 22), the Second Transport Group (12 infantry landing craft) and Third Transport Group (three tank landing ships). These carried the 6,600 men and 8,700 tons of equipment and supplies to Vella Lavella in the central part of the Solomon islands group.

Cover and fire support were provided by the US destroyers Nicholas, O’Bannon, Taylor, Chevalier, Cony and Pringle for the Advance Transport Group, Waller, Saufley, Philip and Renshaw for the Second Transport Group, and Conway and Eaton, as well as two submarine chasers, for the Third Transport Group.

The Japanese were not caught entirely by surprise, as analysis of US radio traffic had warned them of an impending Allied move. However, they did not guess the objective, and on 12/13 August 1943 a group of three PT-boats was able to land a scouting party at Barakoma. A fourth PT-boat was damaged by air attack. Another group of four PT-boats arrived on 14 August with reinforcements. The only Japanese opposition was from scattered and poorly armed survivors of the Battle of Vella Gulf. The main Allied force arrived on 15 August. Om this day Cony and LST-395 were damaged by near-misses when TG31, which had left Guadalcanal on 14 August, came under Japanese air attack. The first US troops started to come ashore on Vella Lavella without opposition at 06.24 on 15 August on the southern side of the Barakoma river near the island’s south-eastern end. The second wave was attacked by Japanese aircraft, and from this time the number of Japanese air attacks increased through the operation, more than 100 air attacks being delivered, but the US casualties were light.

The first Japanese air response had arrived over Vella Lavella at 07.41 with an attack by six Aichi D3A 'Val' dive-bombers and 48 Mitsubishi A6M Reisen 'Zero' fighters, which scored only near misses while losing at least three D3A and six A6M warplanes to anti-aircraft fire and the defending Vought F4U Corsair fighters. A second attack shortly after 12.00 by 11 D3A and 48 A6M aircraft was equally unsuccessful, losing five D3A and at least two A6M machines. A weak attack late in the day was ambushed while landing at Kahili and lost another aeroplane.

On 17 August Japanese small craft landed reinforcements on the north coast. Nicholas, O’Bannon, Taylor and Chevalier were deployed against Rear Admiral Matsuji Ijuin’s covering force, which comprised the fleet destroyers Sazanami, Hamakaze, Shigure and Isokaze. The US destroyers avoided 31 Japanese torpedoes before setting off in pursuit of the Japanese ships as they retired, but managed to inflict only slight damage on Hamakaze and Isokaze, though the submarine chasers Ch-5 and Ch-12 were sunk.

On the same day the US destroyers Waller and Philip were damaged in a collision while defending a supply convoy bound for Vella Lavella, and on the following day LST-396 was sunk as a result of an accidental explosion.

The Japanese had meanwhile been considering a counter-landing in an effort to expel the US forces from Vella Lavella island, but the required transport capability was unavailable for the two brigades which the Japanese thought would be needed for the task. Instead the Japanese established a barge staging base at the village of Horaniu at Kokolope Bay on Vella Lavella’s north-eastern side in the course of 18 August, and also strengthened a small outpost on Ganongga island off Vella Lavella island’s southern tip. The Japanese also sent a reinforced battalion to hold Gizo as an outer defence for Kolombangara. The Horaniu barge staging base was defended by two rifle companies and one platoon of a special naval landing force, a force of some 400 troops augmented by collected stragglers.

On 20 August the destroyer Pringle, on passage to Vella Lavella, was damaged by a near-miss and strafing from Japanese aircraft, as too were LST-354 and LST-398. On 25 August TG4.9, a minelaying force covered by four destroyers, laid a field off Kolombangara, but after this the minelayers Montgomery and Preble collided and were badly damaged.

The US build-up on Vella Lavella continued at a slow pace, and it was not until 28 August that a US battalion started to move to the north along the coast in the direction of Horaniu, which was not secured until 14 September. The Japanese then pulled back to Warambari Bay on the north-western end of the island.

To the south, the US forces had started work immediately after their initial landing on a fighter airstrip at Barakoma, and the 4,000-ft (1220-m) long runway was operational by 27 September. Aircraft from this field and from that at Munda attacked the southern defences of Kolombangara, supplementing the efforts of artillery fire from the north-eastern tip of New Georgia island and Arundel island.

On 18 September Major General H. E. Barrowclough, commanding the New Zealand 3rd Division, assumed control of operations on Vella Lavella island. Departing Guadalcanal island, Brigadier L. Potter’s 14th Brigade Group of this division landed on the north-east and north-west coasts of Vella Lavella during 25 September, and began to leapfrog along both coasts toward Warambari Bay. On the same date 900 marines of Lieutenant General Alexander A. Vandegrift’s I Marine Amphibious Corps landed in the centre of the south-east coast between the mouths of the Juno and Ruravai rivers. This base force was designated the Corps Forward Staging Area, Vella Lavella, and had deployed from Guadalcanal to establish a base to support future operations on Bougainville island. Air attacks on this base force resulted in almost as many casualties as suffered by the US Army.

The New Zealanders closed on the Japanese holding the island’s north-western cape, but 589 Japanese were evacuated by submarine chasers during the night of 6/7 October.

To achieve this task the Japanese had despatched from Rabaul Vella Lavella Evacuation Force under Ijuin’s command. This comprised two elements in the form of the Support Group with the destroyers Akigumo, Isokaze, Kazagumo, Yugumo, Shigure and Samidare, and the Destroyer Transport Group with the destroyers Fumizuki, Matsukaze and Yunagi. A separate Submarine Chaser Transport Group departed Buin with four submarine chasers, four torpedo boats and four landing craft.

Wilkinson received reports of the approaching Japanese force from search aircraft during the afternoon. The only force in the immediate area was a group of three destroyers (Selfridge, Chevalier and O’Bannon) under the command Captain Frank R. Walker. Wilkinson ordered a second group of three destroyers (Ralph Talbot, Taylor and La Vallette) to be detached from convoy duty to the south to join Walker but, steaming up the west coast, this group was unlikely to rendezvous with Walker’s group before the Japanese did.

Walker knew that his three destroyers were up against nine Japanese destroyers, and that Japanese reconnaissance aircraft had sighted his force. He nevertheless pressed on to intercept, dodging into a squall at one point in an unsuccessful attempt to elude the enemy air search. At 22.31 the US destroyers sighted the Japanese force, and Walker steered toward it at full speed, uncertain as whether or not Ijuin would break off when challenged, as he had in previous engagements.

This time Ijuin chose to fight, though not before he had ordered his destroyer-transports to withdraw. His force was divided into a column of four destroyers from his Support Force and a second column of two destroyers which had been escorting the Transport Force and were racing to join up. Ijuin sighted the US destroyers at 22.35, but was uncertain whether this was the US force or his own submarine-chaser group.

Walker ordered torpedoes fired at a range of 7,000 yards (6400 m), then ordered gunfire a few seconds later. He continued on course, a dangerous move in the face of possible Japanese torpedoes. However, Ijuin was poorly placed to fire his own torpedoes, since Yugumo had charged off to meet the US ships and thereby fouled the Japanese line of fire. Ijuin hauled the other three destroyers in his column to the south and evaded the US torpedoes, but Yugumo, hit by shells and a torpedo, was left adrift and burning, and was sunk by a torpedo at about 23.10.

The Japanese destroyer was swiftly avenged. As Chevalier attempted to close with the submarine-chaser group, she was hit by one of Yagumo's torpedoes, which detonated her forward magazine. Moments later, as she veered off course, she was rammed by O’Bannon in her after engine room. Meanwhile Selfridge charged ahead and into a spread of Japanese torpedoes, one of which wrecked the forward part of the ship at 23.06.

At this point the three destroyers sent to reinforce Walker erupted into the fight from the south. The Japanese reconnaissance aircraft reported them as cruisers, and Ijuin decided he had had enough. His parting salvo at Walker’s crippled ships failed to connect. Selfridge managed to get away, but the cripplied Chevalier was sent to the bottom by a torpedo from La Vallette at about 03.00.

The battle had been a Japanese tactical victory, although only a marginal success considering the 3/1 odds in favour of the Japanese. It was widely regarded at the time as a moral victory for the US Navy.

The Japanese thus completed their evacuation mission, in the process bringing to an end the second phase of ‘Cartwheel’ with the Allies holding the central part of the Solomon islands group after a three-month campaign that cost the Allies six ships and the Japanese 16 ships.

The land fight for Vella Lavella island was costly for neither side: the US forces lost 58 men killed and 166 wounded, the New Zealand forces lost 32 men killed and 321 wounded, and the Japanese about 250 men killed.

Vella Lavella was not the only Japanese island evacuation of this period. In mid-August the Japanese had directed that the central part of the Solomon islands group was to be held, and as a result Bougainville island was reinforced, and New Georgia and adjacent islands were evacuated at the end of September or early in October. Based on Kolombangara island, the senior Japanese commander of the Nanto Force in the central part of the Solomon islands group, General Major Noboru Sasaki, was not informed of this decision and continued to fight.

After the Allied capture of Munda, the evacuation of all remaining Japanese forces in the central Solomons was ordered on 15 September.

The battalion on Gizo island, the remaining troops on Arundel island and the seaplane base at Rekata Bay on Santa Isabel island were evacuated around 21 September.

With their grip on Vella Lavella secure and a new airstrip operational at Barakoma from 24 September, the Allies attempted to impose a close blockade on Kolombangara island. This was not very successful, and the Japanese were able to evacuate large numbers of men by barge in spite of heavy losses to Allied aircraft. On 28/29 September four Japanese destroyer transports escorted by nine destroyers evacuated 2,115 men from Kolombangara. A repeat on 29/30 September resulted in an inconclusive long-range engagement between Japanese and Allied destroyer forces. Similar inconclusive engagements took place on the next three nights. By 4 October the Japanese had completed their evacuation, rescuing 9,400 men, including Sasaki, by barge (5,400 men) and destroyer (4,000 men). In the process, the Japanese lost about a third of their barges and about 1,000 men to attacks by US destroyers and PT-boats.