Operation Battle of Rendova Island

The 'Battle of Rendova Island', often called the 'Landing on Rendova Island', was fought between US and Japanese forces for the island of Rendova in the New Georgia group of the Solomon islands chain (30 June/4 July 1943).

The small Japanese garrison was quickly destroyed by US troops, but the island was then heavily attacked by Japanese aircraft over a period of several days. The landings were some of the first Allied amphibious undertaking of of the 'Toenails' campaign to take New Georgia and were successful in securing the island and providing a base from which the Allies could support the subsequent invasion of New Georgia island and the eventual capture of Munda airfield early in August 1943.

An island of approximately rectangular shape with an area of some 159 sq miles (411 km˛), Rendova is about 25 miles (40 km) long, with a south-western tip extending toward Tetepare island, and to its north and east are New Georgia and Vangunu islands. Rendova is of volcanic origins, with a central cone 3,440 ft (1050 m) high. The island is prone to frequent earthquakes. The island is surrounded in some places by a coral reef. The climate on Rendova is wet and tropical, and the island is often battered by cyclones.

At the time of the battle, the island’s significance lay in its proximity to Munda Point on the western coast of New Georgia island, where the Japanese had established an airfield. In the wake of the 'Watchtower' campaign for Guadalcanal island, which had ended in February 1943, the Allies formulated the 'Cartwheel strategic plan to advance through the central section of the Solomon islands groups toward Bougainville, in conjunction with further operations in New Guinea, as part of the effort to reduce the main Japanese base area around Rabaul on Nw Britain island.

The 'Toenails' campaign to take New Georgia involved initial landings to secure staging areas and an airfield in the southern part of New Georgia, to support the movement of troops and supplies from Guadalcanal to Rendova, which would be built up as base for further operations in New Georgia designed to take and hold the airfield at Munda. Rendova island’s beaches were well suited for development for use as assembly points for landing craft, and the high terrain in the island’s centre offered good fields of observation. The harbour could be used to support PT-boat operations against Japanese barge traffic operating in the area, and artillery emplaced on the island could support actions on the western coast of New Georgia.

The Japanese garrison on Rendova was small and comprised between 120 and 290 men of two companies of the Kure 6th Special Naval Landing Force and the 229th Regiment. The two companies constituted part of Major General Minoru Sasaki’s 'Nanto' Detachment, which was headquartered at Munda. Colonel Genjiro Hirata was in command of the 229th Regiment, based on New Georgia. These troops had arrived on New Georgia between February and May 1943 as part of Japanese efforts to reinforce the sector following the Guadalcanal campaign.

The US landings were timed to take place in conjunction with the similar 'Postern' operation at Nassau Bay in New Guinea, and the 'Chronicle' landings on Woodlark and Kiriwina islands. After departing Guadalcanal on 29 June, the Allied landing force, Task Force 31, was hampered by rain and fog. The main ground combat element of this force was Major General John H. Hester’s 43rd Division. The task force’s approach was covered by night patrols of Consolidated PBY Catalina twin-engined flying boats through the Blanche Channel. In the hours before the break of day, at about 02.25, the US destroyers Talbot and Zane detached from the main force to land Fijian and Tongan commandos of a New Zealand-trained unit and Companies A and B of the US 169th Infantry on Sasavele and Baraulu islands. These were quickly secured, although as a result of poor visibility Zane ran aground on a reef, on which she remained stuck until the afternoon. These islands were tactically significant as they are located just off the coast of New Georgia and control the entrance to Roviana Lagoon from the Blanche Channel.

Task Force 31 was commanded by Rear Admiral Richmond K. Turner, flying his flag on the attack transport McCawley, and comprised four transports and two supply ships screened by eight destroyers. A small advance party of two companies of the 172nd Infantry was sent ashore around Rendova Harbour guided by a British officer, Major Martin Clemens and Lieutenant Frederick Rhoades of the Royal Australian Navy. Along with a small group of local police constables, the advance party intended to link with an Australian coastwatcher, Flight Lieutenant Dick Horton, who would assist them in establishing the beach-head before the main landing came ashore. Strong winds pushed the advance party off course, however, and ultimately it did not make contact with Horton until the first wave was making its run to the shore. After arriving at the correct beach, Clemens and Rhoades led their men in a quick attack on a house in Rendova Plantation, behind the beach, killing two Japanese.

By 06.00, the main Allied landings on Rendova, delivering troops of Major General John H. Hester’s 43rd Division, had begun, albeit chaotically. The US Marine Corps' official history describes the initial landing as 'hurried…[and having] all the appearance of a regatta rather than a coordinated landing' and 'chaotic in the extreme'. Nevertheless, men of the 103rd Field Artillery Battalion, along with marines of the 9th Defense Battalion and 'Seabee' construction troops of the 24th Naval Construction Battalion secured the beach despite the fact that they were hampered by sporadic sniper fire. The appearance of a Mitsubishi G4M 'Betty' twin-engined medium bomber, which circled the landing zone but did not attack, also slowed progress. The Japanese defenders reported back to their commanders that 'a a result of the tenacious interference by enemy fighter planes, a decisive blow could not be stuck against the enemy landing convoy' and that the landings were an 'absolutely miraculous' and 'speedy disembarkation of the enemy'.

Following the first echelon, the 43rd Division’s assistant commander, Brigadier General Leonard F, Wing, and Admiral William F. Halsey, the commander-in-chief of the South Pacific Area and in overall command of 'Toenails' to secure New Georgia, waded ashore under sniper fire after their boat became grounded about 50 yards (46 m) from the beach. The 2/172nd Infantry established a defensive perimeter around the beach-head, but encountered difficulty digging-in as a result of the heavily waterlogged nature of the ground. Eventually, the Americans troops were forced to move their defensive lines to higher ground. As the landing progressed, US supplies crowded the beaches as infantry pushed the Japanese defenders inland. The 9th Marine Defense Battalion, in addition to skirmishing with Japanese forces, began to secure and clear their predefined artillery position objectives and the 'Seabees' began clearing an encampment for a medical aid station. The work of the 'Seabees' was hampered by sniper fire, while the heavy rain quickly turned the ground to mud which immediately disrupted the movement of vehicles and the heavy tractors tasked with dragging the heavy artillery pieces into position.

In response to the landing, Japanese artillery batteries on Bangaa island and around Munda started to shell four US destroyers which were steaming through the Blanche Channel off the landing beach. This shelling damaged the destroyer Gwin, killing three men and wounding seven, before two other ships from the screen, Farenholt and Buchanan, began to engage the shore batteries even as the damaged Gwin obscured the transports with smoke. A force of 27 Mitsubishi A6M Reisen 'Zero' single-engined fighters of Vice Admiral Jinichi Kusaka’s 11th Air Fleet swept over the beach-head just before 12.00, delaying the unloading of the US transports; Allied fighters engaged the Japanese aircraft, of which four were shot down.

Although initially chaotic, the assault successfully landed 6,000 US troops on Rendova. These men came ashore largely unopposed as the island’s small garrison had been taken by surprise and were unable to man their defences before the US troops arrived. The Japanese initially assembled in a coconut plantation behind the landing beach and sought to establish radio contact with Munda, while undertaking minor skirmishing and laying down harassing fire from machine guns in the nearby plantation. During the initial fighting, the Japanese lost about 12 men killed before withdrawing into the hinterland. Men of the 172nd Infantry pursued the withdrawing Japanese, shooting several snipers and destroying several machine gun positions as they advanced slowly toward the Pengui river. There, the Americans came under sustained fire, but after gaining fire superiority with mortar support and establishing a firm base along the river bank, attacked. By the end of the day between 50 and 65 Japanese had been killed, including the Japanese commander. Four US soldiers had also been killed, and another five wounded, including the 172nd Infantry’s commander, Colonel David Ross.

At about 15.00 on June 30, the transport vessels weighed anchor and began to depart. Some 30 minutes later, Japanese air attacks began in earnest after Kusaka had ordered an attack by 25 G4M torpedo bombers, escorted by 24 A6M fighters. Despite interception by 16 Vought F4U Corsair single-engined fighters of Marine Fighter Squadron 221, and coming under heavy anti-aircraft fire, one G4M was able to release a torpedo, which struck McCawley, killing 15 sailors and wounding eight others. While under tow by the attack cargo ship Libra, McCawley again came under attack, this time by Aichi D3A 'Val' single-engined dive-bombers, which formed part of a larger air attack comprising 21 A6M fighters, nine D3A dive-bombers and 13 Mitsubishi F1M 'Pete' single-engined reconnaissance floatplanes. This attack was repulsed without Allied loss, as the Japanese air attacks on the landing zone were successfully beaten off by US fighters as well as land-based and shipborne anti-aircraft guns. Allied aircraft began to bomb Japanese positions around Villa and Munda, and by 17.00 105-mm (4.13-in) artillery of the 103rd Field Artillery Battalion had been established in the harbour and began registering targets on the mainland.

Air and naval losses on the first day are disputed. The Japanese claimed to have shot down 50 Allied aircraft, although the Allies reported the loss of only 21 aircraft. Additionally, the Japanese claimed to have sunk a cruiser and a destroyer, and damaging two more destroyers and eight transports; Allied reported shipping losses as one destroyer damaged and one transport sunk. The Allies claimed to have shot down 106 Japanese aircraft, but Japanese figures support only 30 losses.

During the night, McCawley, having rendezvoused with the tug Pawnee, was mistakenly sunk by US PT-boats, being struck by two torpedoes at 20.23. By this time, Turner had transferred his flag to the destroyer Farenholt. Meanwhile, during the same night, a Japanese naval attempt to attack the US beach-head failed when five Japanese destroyers appeared off the west coast of Rendova island but could not attack because of a violent squall. After the lightly contested landings on June 30, the bulk of the surviving Japanese forces retreated to Munda Point on nearby New Georgia, moving back via canoe. Men of the 172nd Infantry expanded the beach-head on 1 July, with patrols securing half the island, while the 3/103rd Infantry landed around the Poco Plantation.

In the harbour, unloading had been hampered by poor planning and a failure to allocate adequate personnel for beach control and unloading duties. To clear the beach-head and distribute combat stores, infantrymen were detailed to carry out the work. When the second transport echelon arrived, many of the boats grounded offshore and had to be unloaded manually by chains of men. Heavy rain continued to slow the distribution of stores and movement of heavy equipment. The second echelon also landed the heavy artillery of the 192nd Field Artillery Battalion and one battery of the 9th Defense Battalion. With their arrival, the US forces constructed artillery positions on Rendova island and were able to bring 155-mm (6.1-in) 'Long Tom' guns into action, firing across the 9.33-mile (15-km) wide Blanche Channel onto the Japanese positions at Lambeti plantation and Munda airfield. The 192nd Field Artillery Battalion established its positions on Kokorana island, where the strong coral substratum offered natural hard standing for its heavy guns. Six PT-boats under the command of Lieutenant Commander Robert B. Kelly also reached Rendova island early on 1 July; it was this force which had accidentally sunk McCawley during its passage through the Blanche Channel.

On 2 July, the US infantry on Rendova began preparations to re-embark for operations on New Georgia island. That afternoon, a Japanese air attack, comprising 24 G4M bombers and 44 fighters, bombed the US beach-head from the south. US fighters had been withdrawn at the time of the attack as a result of the poor weather conditions, and the Japanese aircraft were unopposed. The bombing was accurate and the unsuspecting US troops had no time to react. As a result of the attack a gelignite dump exploded on a peninsula thereafter known as 'Suicide Point', killing 64 men and injuring at least 89 more. A few hours after this first raid a follow-up raid was made by 25 Japanese fighters. These were intercepted by US fighters aircraft, and in the ensuing air battle six Japanese and three US aircraft were shot down.

During the night of 2/3 July the Japanese light cruiser Yubari and nine destroyers attempted a bombardment of the beach-head on Rendova island, but bad weather and the beach-head’s small size caused all the Japanese fire to fall harmlessly into the surrounding jungle. Meanwhile, on the same night, small groups of US infantry were transported in LCMs across the Strait to New Georgia’s offshore islands in the opening phase of the drive on Munda Point. A Japanese sortie of 35 Mitsubishi Ki-21 'Sally' twin-engined medium bombers and somme fighters tried to attack positions on Rendova, but were intercepted by US fighters, which claimed to have downed 11 Japanese aircraft for the loss of three of their own number. In the afternoon a large flight of US and New Zealand aircraft bombed Munda Point and reported causing much damage.

On 4 July, Rendova was reported secure by the US commanders. Shortly after this, the Japanese launched a heavy air attack on the island. The US garrison had been strongly reinforced with anti-aircraft guns and radars, and a potent fighter screen had been established to protect unloading operations in Rendova Harbour. A force of more 80 Japanese aircraft, comprising 17 bombers and 66 fighters, subsequently attacked the island from the east. At least 11 Japanese aircraft were shot down, although US losses and claims remain uncertain, with the Japanese claiming to have shot down a large number defending fighters and sunk several transport ships. Ultimately, according to the US Marine Corps, as a result of the heavy anti-aircraft fire, the Japanese abandoned large-scale air attacks on Rendova, although minor air raids continued into August.

The Allied forces fought off this stream of Japanese air-raids in the months following the landings. The raids caused human and matériel losses, but never seriously threatened the US foothold and bases on the island. As a result, Rendova was usefully employed as an artillery base during the subsequent stages of the New Georgia campaign, covering a crossing of the Blache Channel to the mainland on 2 July, as US troops of the 169th Infantry and 172nd Infantry landed around Zanana. This was followed by a westward drive on Munda Point and the eventual capture of the airfield early in August.

Base development around Rendova began shortly after the landings, with the 24th Naval Construction Battalion undertaking road construction work, including the creation of corduroy roads to facilitate movement of heavy vehicles and artillery in the prevalent muddy conditions. Three bulldozers were destroyed in this effort, and 20 men were killed. The beach was extended using coral fill, while Marston matting was also laid in an effort to combat the mud, but the weight of this material combined with that of the heavy vehicles employed to move the 155-mm (6.1-in) artillery to cause the roads to sink into the mud. The 118th Engineer Regiment attempted to drain the area around the eastern landing beach, but this proved fruitless and the area was ultimately abandoned in favour of some of the barrier islands, which were used as staging areas.

The 'Seabees' were also employed in stevedore work, unloading stores and equipment from the transport ships. The movement of the entire 24th Naval Construction Battalion to Rendova was not completed until 1 August, but in the middle of the month the battalion was moved to Munda. After the capture of Munda Point the artillery was redeployed to Munda and during October 1943, the 20th Naval Construction Battalion built a PT-boat base, camp area and warehouses on Bau island. During March 1944, the 73rd Naval Construction Battalion added an engine warehouse, additional roads and fuel lines to the facility.