Operation Straw

'Straw' was the US geographical rather than operational designation, later 'Peon' and finally 'Apothecary', of the Samoa islands group in the Pacific Ocean (1941/45).

Samoa is a group of 15 islands with a land area of 1,170 sq miles (3030 km˛). Located in the central part of Polynesia, about 2,300 miles (3700 km) to the south-west of Pearl Harbor in the Hawaiian islands group and 2,400 miles (3860 km) to the north-east of Sydney in eastern Australia, the Samoan islands group was divided in 1941 between New Zealand (the German western islands taken in 1914) and the USA. The US islands to the east of 171° W are American Samoa and include Tutuila with its excellent anchorage at Pago Pago, while the New Zealand islands are western Samoa and include Upolu with its poorer anchorage at Apia, and Savai’a.

The USA had embarked on the development of military facilities on Tutuila during 1940 as part of a chain of bases from the west coast of the USA to the Philippine islands group via Australia. The naval governor from 8 August 1940 was Captain Lawrence Wild, and as a result of the deteriorating international situation in the Pacific Ocean, from 15 May 1941 no unauthorised vessels or aircraft were permitted within 3 miles (4.8 km) of Tutuila island or nearby Rose atoll. As on other of the USA’s Pacific territories, limited work was begun to improve the Naval Station Tululia during the summer of 1940, this effort including a US Marine Corps airfield at Tafuna some 4 miles (6.4 km) to the south of Pago Pago. The airfield was partially complete in April 1942 and fully operational in June, and eventually had two runways, one of 6,000 ft (1830 m) and the other of 3,000 ft (915 m). Most of the construction effort was intended to provide facilities for the incoming Marine defence force. Later in the same year a bomber airfield, with a runway of 6,000 ft (1830 m), was completed at Leone on the island’s south-western plain 7 miles (11.25 km) from Pago Pago, in whose harbour a seaplane base was created.

On 15 March 1941, the 7th Marine Defense Battalion arrived at Pago Pago as the first element of the US Marine Corps' unit to serve in the South Pacific and the first such unit to be deployed to defend an island. The battalion’s guns were emplaced at Blunt’s and Breakers Points to cover the harbour of Pago Pago. The battalion also undertook the training of the 1st Samoan Battalion, US Marine Corps Reserve, which became the only marine reserve unit to serve on active duty in World War II, was mobilised after the Japanese 'Ai' attack on Pearl Harbor and remained active until absorbed into the new Marine Barracks, Naval Station, Tutuila, Samoa Islands, in January 1944.

The attack on Pearl Harbor led the the end of the construction of station facilities to the creation of defensive works.

The 2nd Marine Division formed the 2nd Marine Brigade Reinforced, on the basis of the 8th Marines, in California, and this initial wartime expeditionary brigade departed San Diego, California, to reach Pago Pago on 19 January 1942 in 'Picador'.

The only action expe­rienced in the islands was a shelling of the harbour of Pago Pago by a Japanese submarine on 11 January 1942, but this caused no damage and the only casualty was a naval officer, who was slightly wounded.

The first elements of Marine Aircraft Group 13 arrived on 11 March to provide air support. A US Navy patrol flying boat detachment was attached to the group, and thus was thus the first instance of a US Navy flying unit being subordinated to a marine unit. The brigade’s commander was Brigadier Gen­eral Henry L. Larsen, who became the military governor of American Samoa. The ships which delivered the brigade returned to the continental USA with the dependents of the naval station’s and defence battalion’s units. The brigade’s plan to hold Tutuila scattered its units in small detachments around the island at locations in which they would probably have been defeated in detail had the Japanese not canceled their 'Fs' plan to take New Caledonia and the Fiji and the Samoa island groups in July 1942: the Japanese unit allocated to this task was Major General Kiyotake Kawaguchi’s 'Kawaguchi' Detachment with the 41st Regiment and 124th Regiment.

The 2nd Brigade and MAG-13 came under the command of the Defense Force, Samoan Group, on 29 April. This group was the equivalent of a division, and was commanded by Major General Charles F. B. Price, who also controlled marine units in Western Samoa. Between August 1942 and September 1943 the Defense Force supported the occupation of the Ellice islands group some 600 miles (965 km) to the north-west.

The first naval construction troops reached Tutuila in July 1942 to replace the contractors, but this 'Seabee' unit was then forwarded to Espíritu Santo. Some contractors volunteered to remain and continue to work on projects with the support of native labour until another the arrival of another 'Seabee' unit in August.

The 8th Marines departed for Guadalcanal in October 1942 and was replaced by the 3d Marines. The 2nd Brigade was disbanded in March 1943, but the 3d Marines remained on Tutuila until May. Seven Marine replace­ment battalions, raised on the east coast of the USA, were trained and acclimatised between December 1942 and July 1943 at the Replacement Training Center, Tutuila. The Defense Force, Samoa Group was disbanded in December 1943.

Tutuila’s significance declined steadily as the Pacific War moved beyond the Solomon islands group, and the dismantling of a number of facilities was ordered in February 1944 in an operation completed in August, and by January 1945 only a small garrison remained to secure a naval station used only for emergency aircraft landings and communications. The marine barracks were deactivated in August 1945.

Farther to the west, in the part of the group administered by New Zealand, Upolu island was codenamed 'Strawhat' (later 'Hour'), and Savai’i island was 'Strawman' (later 'Trap' and finally 'Lapover'. These islands lie to the west and east of the Apolima Strait, which is 8 miles (12.9 km) wide, and Tutuila island in American Samoa is 36 miles (58 km) to the east-south-east of Upolu island.

Western Samoa comprises the two large islands of Upolu and Savai’i ('Strawhat' later 'Hour', and 'Strawman' later 'Trap' and finally 'Lapover'), two much smaller islands, and five islets with a total area of 1,133 sq miles (2934.5 km˛) and extending along a west-north-west/east-south-east axis. All of the islands are mountainous, and their volcanic origins have left them with very fertile soil. The islands are covered with dense tropical forest and underbrush, but co­conut palms are cultivated in large plantations on both Upolu and Savai’i, in general on the coastal plains, which are between 3 and 4 miles (4.8 and 6.4 km) wide. While abundant on the two large islands, water is scarce on the smaller islands. The islands' rainy season is from October to March, and March is the hottest month and July and August the coolest.

Upolu island is 47 miles (71.5 km) long on its east/west axis and 15 miles (24 km) wide with an area of 434 sq miles (1125 km˛), and its highest peak reaches 3,607 ft (1099 m). Many streams descend from the central moun­tain range, most of them toward the south. The coast is largely fringed with coral reefs. Many villages are scattered along the coast, most of them on the island’s north-western side. The capital of Western Samoa and the largest town, Apia is located on the north central coast around the small Apia Harbour, and the largest village is Salani on the south-east coast. A road extended from Apia round the island’s western end, and a dirt track followed the rest of the coast around the island. A narrow-gauge railway extended inland some 4 miles (6.4 km) from Saluafata Harbour, 11 miles (17.7 km) to the east of Apia, to serve coconut plantations. A second railway extended 2 miles (3.2 km) inland from a point 2 miles (3.2 km) to the east of the village of Faleofo near the island’s western end. There were no airfields existed on the islands before World War II.

The four islets lying off the island’s eastern end are Fanuatapu, Namu’a, Nuutele and Nuulua, and another islet is Nuusafee off the south central coast. There are two islands lie in the Apolima Strait: the smaller is Apolima, about mid-way between Upolu and Savai’i, and the larger is Manono is about 3 miles (4.8 km) off Upolu’s western end.

Savai’i island is 43 miles (69 km) long on its east/west axis and 28.5 miles (46 km) miles wide with an area of 654 sq miles (1694 km˛). Extending along the island’s length is a mountain chain dominated by the 6,096-ft (1858-m) Mt Silisili in its centre. There are three extinct volcano craters on the range’s northern slopes. A few streams flow off the mountains to the south coast, and smaller number to the north coast. There are coral reefs fringing the north coast, eastern end and the south-western side. A few villages are scattered along the island’s coasts. The main village is Fagamalo on the north central coast near Matautu Bay, and a dirt track followed the island’s coast.

When US forces arrived in Western Samoa during 1942, the islands had a population of 400 New Zealanders and Europeans, 3,000 persons of mixed European and Polynesian birth, 61,000 Samoans, and a few Chinese and Melanesians. The island’s fertile plantations produced copra, cocoa, rubber and bananas, the last two introduced in the 1920s and 1930s because of the falling demand for copra.

After the 2nd Marine Brigade arrived to defend American Samoa in January 1942, it co-ordinated with New Zealand authorities for permission for the USA to assume the responsibility for the defence of Western Samoa and Wallis island, a French possession. Up to this time Upolu was protected by only 157 New Zealand-led local troops of the New Zealand Defence Force. In March, the 7th Defense Battalion deployed from Tutuila to Upolu and the New Zealand Defence Force was attached to it. In the meantime the 3rd Marine Brigade was formed round the 7th Marines by the 1st Marine Division in North Carolina, and this reached Upolu on 8 May. Company G (Reinforced), 2/7th Marines was detached to occupy Savai’i on 30 May. The 7th Marines deployed to Guadalcanal in September and the brigade was placed under the command of the Defense Force, Samoan Group. Arriving at the end of July 1942, the 22nd Marines were assigned to the 3rd Brigade and based at Apia. The 22nd Marines were relieved from the 3rd Brigade in May 1943, but remained at Apia under the direct command of the Defense Force until the time of its departure in the middle of November.

The US Army’s 147th Infantry (Separate) was attached to the 3rd Marine Brigade from May 1943 after completing operations on Guadalcanal and New Georgia, and remained with the brigade until the latter was disbanded on 8 November. Reinforcing army units included two anti-aircraft artillery battalions, one on Upolu and the other on Savai’i.

Seabee construction troops reached Upolu on 1 April 1942 to develop a naval air station and supporting port, and by July an airfield with a 4,000-ft (1220-m) runway had been constructed at Faleolo near the island’s north-western end, and seaplane base was also established nearby. By a time early in 1943 the runway had been lengthened to 6,000 ft (1830 m). The air facilities on Upolu were intended primarily for local defence, but also served as a way station between Tutuila and Wallis islands to the west and the Fiji islands group to the south-west.

Other than minimal facilities for the modest defence forces, no military installations were constructed on Savai’i. The closure of the base was ordered in February 1944 but not completed until November of the same year.