D day for the seizure and occupation of Green Islands was at dawn on 15 February 1944, but preparations began several weeks earlier for this burst forward, the longest hop undertaken by the 3rd Division. These islands, only four degrees below the equator, lay north-west of Bougainville and only 232 kilometres from Rab-aul. Their capture was to assist in completing the Allied ring around New Britain and New Ireland, and it disrupted all traffic between Rabaul and Kavieng and Bougainville and Buka. It was also virtually the end of the Solomons campaign.
Nissan, the largest island in the Green Group, was a perfect atoll, never more than two kilometres wide and in some places only a few hundred metres from coast to coast. It was almost a complete oval of solid coral, cut by two small islands between which shallow and narrow openings only three metres deep lead from the ocean into a deep lagoon. Except for two coconut plantations and some native clearings the whole island was clothed in dense jungle. An officer's batman, in a letter home, gave a brief but admirable description of Nissan: 'Dear Mother,' he wrote, 'The island I am now on is like a very, very big park surrounded by thick plantations of big trees except in the middle, which ought to be grass, but it is all water. The overall dimensions of the 'big park' were approximately 12 kilometres long by six and a quarter kilometres wide. In a few weeks those 'plantations' housed a population of over 17,000 New Zealanders and Americans with all their multitudinous materials of war.
The only inhabitants of the group were natives, missionaries having long since departed, most of them living on Nissan, where their primitive villages were sited along the inner and outer coasts. Others lived on Pinipel, a smaller atoll lying to the north, where heavy rollers coming down from the equator hit against the low, undercut coral cliffs to send plumes of water feathering high in the air in a series of continuous fountains which were visible for kilometres. Sirot and Barahun, two smaller islands, guarded the two entrances to the lagoon, in the centre of which sat a dot of an island called Hon.
In 1944 the Japanese were using Nissan as a barging station for traffic between Rabaul and their bases on Buka and Bougainville, the barges sheltering by day under overhanging trees fringing the lagoon and continuing the journey by night. A more vital reason for the seizure of the group was the need there for airfields from which pressure could be maintained on bases in New Britain and New Ireland and from which heavy bombers could attack Truk and other Japanese strongholds in the Caroline Islands. Events began to move swiftly, and the seizure of Green Islands kept the attack rolling forward at a time when it threatened to slacken.
Although the fighting preceding the occupation of the Green Islands
was not unduly severe, the engagement was important because of its perfection
of planning and execution. Thousands of troops and technical personnel
and many thousands of tonnes of heavy equipment were landed on the first
day to a schedule which worked with clock like precision. It was a model
landing. 'From conception to completion I consider that the Green Island
project was a remarkably fine operation', Admiral Halsey afterwards reported.
On the a bove map arrows indicate where 14th Brigade units landed on Nissan and established lines from coast to coast on the first day ashore. All landing craft entered the lagoon in single file through the only gap which would take them.
Early in January, General Barrowclough moved back to Guadalcanal taking his senior officers with him to assist in planning and organising the move forward. Divisional Headquarters was established there on 5 January. Soon afterwards the commanders of services, artillery, engineers, medical, signals, ordnance, and ASC also moved to Guadalcanal so that any details required by the planning committee could be obtained immediately and all organisations coordinated. These officers worked with their opposite numbers from Admiral T.S.Wilkinson's staff, the whole forming a combined planning organisation which embraced Army, Navy, and Air Force. Admiral Wilkinson commanded the whole of the amphibious operations; General Barrowclough the whole of the land forces, both New Zealand and American.
Because of the lack of accurate information concerning landing beaches, three alternative plans were produced, and from these the various branches of the service worked out their own details, making them sufficiently fluid to be able to change from one to the other as the situation demanded. Divisional engineers staff constructed large models of Nissan, complete in every known feature and these were used for working out the intricate details of the landing and for training the assaulting battalions of the 14th Brigade on Vella Lavella.
The proximity of New Britain suggested that air attacks could be expected, for Green Islands lay midway between two strongly held enemy territories. Bougainville and Buka, which were then garrisoned by 20,000 enemy troops, would be bypassed, though American forces were firmly established at Empress Augusta Bay and were then operating two airfields constructed inside their perimeter. Air strikes from those two airfields, as well as from others in New Guinea and the Treasuries were delivering regular blows at enemy bases in preparation for the move. There were now sufficient airfields to cover the landing and maintain overhead protection during the hours of daylight on the day of the occupation and after.
As a preliminary to the attack 300 officers and men of the 30th Battalion, carried out a reconnaissance in strength on Nissan, landing there at midnight on 30/31 January. This action was prompted by the necessity for accurate information concerning enemy strength, the suitability of landing beaches, areas for the construction of airfields, and a site for a motor torpedo base. Air photographs disclosed that the only beaches suitable for a landing were inside the lagoon, the entrances to which were too shallow to take anything but small landing craft. The outer coast of the island consisted for the most part of low cliffs pitted with caves and in many places protected by an outer reef which made landing there impossible. Little was known of the Japanese garrison.
Working in darkness from the beach at Vella Lavella, Lieutenant-Colonel Cornwall's units practised their 'commando raid', as the men called it, until every officer and man was familiar with his task and the whole tactical plan. Twenty-five specialists from Admiral Wilkinson's headquarters, as well as ten officers from the New Zealand artillery, engineers, and ASC units, accompanied the raiders. Captain H.M.Denton, from the staff of Division, and Lieutenant F.P.Archer, a plantation owner then attached to the British Solomon Island Islands Administration, were also attached, Lieutenant Archer's task being the interrogation of natives, as he was an expert in pidgin English.
Three APDs protected by four American destroyers and two motor torpedo boats carried the 30th Battalion to its task, leaving Vella Lavella at six o'clock on the morning of 30 January. Just before midnight the little convoy lay off Nissan. Nothing broke the eerie silence except the creak and rustle of men going over the side. Soon the landing craft were moving into the lagoon in single file, lead by one of the torpedo boats.
Without opposition the raiders landed on the beach at Pokonian Plantation, a few hundred metres inside the entrance to the lagoon forming a perimeter where Lieutenant Colonel Cornwall established his headquarters for operations. Captain F.R.M.Watson commanded the party at Pokonian; Major A.B.Bullen that which crossed the lagoon at first light the following morning to investigate the Tangalan Plantation area where the airfields were to be sited. Working quickly the specialists made their investigations and landing craft chugged around the lagoon from beach to beach, examining those best suited for a landing and consolidation. Everything was going according to plan. Some erratic enemy sniping from the jungle broke the silence but did not injure anyone. While returning from a reconnaissance of a deserted mission station, a barge party led by Lieutenant P.O'Dowd noticed some enemy craft hidden under trees overhanging the water of a small bay and moved in cautiously to investigate. Suddenly the concealed Japanese opened fire, killing the American coxswain and gunner and another gunner who tried to take his companion's place. Lieutenant O'Dowd was wounded.and died later.
In a sharp exchange the enemy was silenced mainly by Private J.W. Jefferis with his Bren gun and the barge was able to withdraw. Later these enemy craft were put out of action by mortar fire and seventeen of their crews destroyed. Private W.T.A.Aylward displayed commendable initiative during this action when six enemy dive-bombers attacked the New Zealand landing craft and he manned a machine-gun after the American gunner was killed. Fearing that other aircraft might return to the attack, all reconnaissance parties were recalled to the perimeter at dusk and the raiders embarked in their landing craft, moving out into the lagoon to wait there until they could board the APDs at midnight.
This was a difficult operation in the darkness, for a strong wind had risen and outside the lagoon a three metre swell tossed the little craft against the sides of the old destroyers. It took hours to get the men aboard. During the raid Brigadier Potter awaited the result from the United States destroyer ‘FULLAM’, which stood off Empress Augusta Bay.
Late on the afternoon of 1 February the raiders disembarked at Juno Beach, Vella Lavella, with their valuable information, which was immediately conveyed to the General and other senior officers on Guadalcanal. Two of the three projected plans were abandoned, and during the intervening fortnight all the information gathered by the specialists was incorporated in completing details of the final scheme.
Morning in the tropics was invariably a spectacle 15 February 1944 was no exception. Piles of rose tinted cloud towered against a pale jade sky, deepening to blue as the light strengthened. Nissan lay like a dark smudge on an oily sea over which, for kilometres, the landing craft moved slowly awaiting their turn to enter the lagoon. Captive balloons, trailed by the LSTs, rose in the air, their silver bellies gleaming when the light became stronger. Overhead a screen of aircraft circled at great speed anticipating the enemy, a few of which broke through and dropped their bombs, badly shaking one LST. Six Japanese planes took a final plunge into the ocean as the allied fighters swept them from the skies, where bursts from antiaircraft shells hung for a moment like dusky mushrooms and then dissolved. Far out on the horizon was the cordon of destroyers.
Brigadier Potter's plan of attack was designed so that his three battalions would occupy and consolidate the two plantation areas, from which patrols were then to move out after establishing their defence lines and comb the remainder of the island. The 30th Battalion was to occupy the Pokonian Plantation and the southern tip of Barehun Island thereby covering the entrance to the lagoon; the 37th Battalion was to move into the left of the Tangalan Plantation and the 35th Battalion the right, these last two battalions each taking with them a troop of tanks.
In the opalescent light of early dawn the assault troops entered the lagoon, landing craft moving in single file as the raiders had done a fortnight before. The Brigadier and his staff went with them so that air and naval support could be called up by wireless if the Assaulting troops were held up. In less than two hours the landing was complete. There was no opposition. Patrols declared their areas clear and established their defence lines from coast to coast. It was all rather like a perfect battle practice. The Japanese garrison had gone to earth.
Soon the beaches resembled hives of bees disturbed by some intruder as the heavier landing craft came in from the ocean and deployed across the tranquil lagoon, on which some curious regatta then seemed to be in progress. Succeeding waves of big clumsy craft (for they did look cumbersome) moved to their appointed beaches, pouring men and material ashore and moving out again so that others could take their place.
On red, blue, and green beaches the same picture of intense activity was repeated, for those landing craft, during the day, disgorged fifty four jeeps, sixty six trucks of various.kinds, fifty two guns both field and antiaircraft, seven tractors, eight bulldozers, two compressors, four radars, one carryall, nine trailers, two wireless vans, eight Valentine tanks, ammunition, 426 tonnes of petrol in drums, 2,000 gallons of fresh water in tins, 267 tonnes of food, and an unspecified quantity of unit and personal equipment. The guns, vehicles, and tanks bumped off and into the undergrowth; equipment and rations lay in disorderly piles.
Bulldozers went into immediate action, shearing off trees and palms and improving the landing beaches. Earth which had not known the sun for unnumbered years reeked as it dried in the heat. By the afternoon the landscape of Nissan was vastly changed, as though a tornado had torn bits of it away. Trees and palms had toppled everywhere. Guns of the 17th Field Regiment; the 144th Independent Battery commanded by Major G.R.Powles; and the 29th Light Ack Ack Regiment were ready for action and areas cleared of vegetation to give arcs of fire. Signals personnel were linking up headquarters and units as they strung their lines from tree to tree and laid ten kilometres of underwater cable across the lagoon.
In twenty-four hours Captain K.H.Barron had a wireless station working with Guadalcanal, nearly 650 kilometres away. Engineers turned their machinery into the jungle and began to push it violently aside. Nine kilometres of rough road had been completed by night fall in the two plantation areas. Each arm of the service fulfilled its appointed task in that closely co-ordinated scheme. Field Ambulances sited and established their hospitals; Major Brunette was performing operations on wounded natives the following day. ASC companies organised dumps for food and supplies, for which they were responsible for everyone on the island. American units hauled their valuable radars and air control trucks ashore and into position.
Fresh water was a problem. Not a drop was to be had on Nissan, except when rain fell, which was every other day. The difficulty was overcome by the use of twelve large condensers, massive pieces of machinery, which each distilled an average of 16,000 litres a day from sea water. The milk from green coconuts provided the principal beverage on D day; every palm was stripped as it fell.
Divisional Headquarters was established in the Pokonian Plantation, remaining there for some days before moving across the lagoon to a site in a vacated Roman Catholic Mission. But much was to happen before then. Raiding aircraft came the first night, spilling their bombs haphazardly and wounding a number of natives.
At dawn on the morning of 16 February the men roused themselves from foxholes and beds of rough coral to begin another day of sweating activity. Patrols felt their way through the jungle, meeting with little or no opposition. Three 20 millimetre anti tank guns, which could have caused untold casualties on the day of the landing were included among the booty left behind by the Japanese. Tanks with the 35th and 37th Battalions made excellent tracks as they crashed through the undergrowth, thereby greatly assisting the carrying parties.
Intelligence reports revealed that an unknown number of Japanese had taken refuge on Sirot, one of the islands at the entrance to the lagoon. The task of clearing them was allotted to B Company, 30th Battalion, and attached troops from the 14th Brigade Defence Platoon. It developed into a sharp and bitter action lasting for some hours, fought out in intensely thick jungle. The Japanese, armed with machine guns and grenades, were well sited and so hidden that for a time it was impossible for the New Zealanders to pinpoint them. Corporal P.A.Davidson, of Lieutenant E.G.Taylor's platoon, was in command of a section which was on a flank and made first contact with the enemy. His second name was 'Anzac'. During that little engagement he controlled his section with admirable skill after it had been cut off from the restof the platoon, killed seven Japanese and put a machine-gun out of action with a grenade. Five of the New Zealanders were killed and several injured in few minutes when the two small forces met. When the island of Sirot was cleared twenty Japanese had been accounted for.
During that same afternoon patrols from the other battalions, covered by artillery fire, moved in on the Mission area, which was known to be the Japanese headquarters, but the enemy had fled when the area was investigated on the following day. The 37th Battalion combed the northern part of Nissan and declared it free from Japanese. By 19 February jeeps were bumping over an extremely rough and muddy track between Pokonian Plantation and the Mission area and along ten kilometres of better road skirting the lagoon opposite the Tangalan Plantation.
The disappearance of the enemy garrison was something of a mystery, though hiding places were legion. The 20 February, however, proved to be a memorable day. The second echelon arrived early in the morning, bringing another 4,715 officers and men and 6,315 ton-nes of equipment and supplies. Admiral Halsey, Vice-Admiral A.W. Fitch, Rear-Admiral Carney, and other senior American officers came by flying boat to confer with General Barrowclough, whose discussions were held up momentarily when a native stalked into the conference tent and demanded most definitely ‘Me wantum pipe’. Then, just before midday, the last of the Japanese garrison was uncovered and wiped out in a bitter engagement which lasted until sundown and was fought near the deserted village of Tanaheran.
The beginning of this action was typical of jungle warfare in that it broke with startling swiftness. No one was prepared for it, but the situation was in hand in minutes. For some days the hunted Japanese, evidently hidden in caves and among dense thickets in the jungle, eluded the probing patrols which searched the area. Brigadier Potter and his staff officers and senior officers from Divisional units had only that morning bumped over the rocky track in their jeeps, unaware that the Japanese were secreted a few metres away. Captain J.F.B.Stronach, commanding the 14th Brigade Carrier Platoon, was making a reconnaissance of the area with the object of using it for a new Brigade Headquarters. It was lunch time. All was quiet except for the chattering parrots and the restless surge of rollers on the reef below the cliff. The men had removed their equipment and were resting among the tree roots in the enervating heat. Some were swimming. A sudden shot electrified everyone. Two sergeants went to investigate. They were met by a hail of bullets.
Captain Stronach quickly gathered the available men, twenty-eight in all, and enclosed the area in a thinly held perimeter, holding the Japanese against the cliff. Soon after midday Lieutenant E.H. Ryan, of the Brigade Machinegun Company, came on the scene and sprayed the area, but enemy mortar fire pinned the machine gunners to the ground. Although the Japanese were only fifteen to twenty metres away not one could be seen behind their dense jungle barricade. A signal for assistance brought the tanks and the area was bombarded. One tank went in and rescued Corporal R.Stannard, who was wounded earlier in the day and remained hidden under a coverlet of leaves and branches.
It was the tanks first action on the island. Their employment helped to hold the Japanese inside the perimeter and to drive snipers to earth from their leafy vantage points. Later in the afternoon 14 and 15 platoons of D Company, 30th Battalion, took up the battle, relieving Captain Stronach and his men. The enemy strength was still unknown, but the noise from machine guns, grenades, and rifles indicated that it was considerable. As the men closed in Major Bullen had some difficulty in controlling their eagerness. Corporal G.B.Ironside, who was wounded, continued to bring up ammunition; Private R.T.Richards threw grenades even when one thumb was snipped off by a bullet.
Sergeant G.H.Reesby took over command of No.14 Platoon and displayed initiative in leading it. Captain P.R.W.Adams, officer commanding No.15 Platoon, was killed just before the final assault, which was made in fading daylight. The attackers created their own barrage with a shower of grenades and then dashed forward, firing as they avoided trees and vines. Among the spreading roots of pandanus and lumps of coral rock fifty one Japanese lay dead. One blew himself up with a grenade rather than be taken prisoner. Eight others were destroyed by a picket under Corporal Ratcliff and two more were picked off by snipers as they tried to escape along the coast.
Three days later a small force from 35th Battalion cleared the island of Sau, killing fourteen Japanese who had taken refuge there. This tiny island lay inside the lagoon of Pinipel to which the attackers were conveyed by landing craft. That was the last of any organised resistance, though odd Japanese were found in the jungle for months afterwards.
These active operations did not interfere with the progress of engineering works nor with the establishment of camps. Divisional Headquarters and units moved to their new sites around the Mission area on 23 February and the 14th Brigade moved a little later to a delightful site on the ocean coast at South Point. Radars were in position and operating within a few days of landing and a fleet of twenty six small boats and several heavy craft then cut the waters of the blue lagoon as they ran their regular taxi service from beach to beach, working from a boat pool at Pokonian.
But the greatest achievement of the Nissan operation was in the speedy construction of the airfields and the roads. The completion of two airfields, a fighter strip and a bomber strip, and the quantities of material used in their making was a perfect example of the part machinery and engineering play in amphibious warfare. Over three million dollars' worth of mechanical equipment was used by the American construction battalions, most of it going forward in the first two echelons. Commander C.A.Whyte, an American engineer was in charge of the construction work. Two days after landing the survey of the first air strip was completed and bulldozers went into action, shearing off avenues of palms with the ease of clipping grass with scissors.
By 3 March an impressive white lane 1.5 kilometres long gleamed between the palms, where machine and repair shops, a control tower, and a fighter control station were constructed, and a start was made on a tank farm which was ultimately to hold 1,400,000 litres of aviation petrol, or ‘avgas', as the Americans called it. By 6 March, a fortnight after the work began, sixteen aircraft piloted by New Zealanders from their headquarters on Bougainville landed there before going on to attack Rabaul. Three Scat machines followed, bringing with them one lone American nurse to whom seven official photographers devoted hundreds of metres of film. She was the first white woman to land there and it certainly was her day.
The strip was then 1,600 metres by 100 metres, with revetment areas and taxi ways measuring 2,000 metres. Night and day work never ceased during that fortnight. New Zealand engineers from the 20th and 26th Field Companies aided the Americans. As the bulldozers pushed palms and topsoil aside, scoops, graders, and rollers followed them and a ceaseless stream of trucks carried coral from nearby pits for surfacing and runways. Those trucks carried 100,000 loads of coral. Eight and ten tonne rollers crushed the lumps as they were dumped on the strip, while graders, scoops, spreaders, and more rollers worked on the surface until it resembled a huge tennis court.
When night fell powerful electric lights, fixed high up in the few remaining palms on either side of the strip, threw their brilliant beams on a scene more fantastic than any stage setting, lighting up machinery and men who moved like robots. When torrential rain fell in the warm velvety night, palm fronds quivered under the weight of water like giant green ostrich plumes, while the dull rumble of machinery and generators and the regular bursts of explosions of the coral pits provided an orchestra as unreal as the setting.
Before the end of March Liberators were bombing Truk from the Nissan airfield. A 2,000 metre bomber strip, running parallel with the other, was started on 6 March and completed twenty five days later. At one time over 200 aircraft were parked on an area which only two months previously had been a mass of vegetation so dense that scarcely a metre of ground was visible from the air. By the end of March over 17,000 men and 43,000 tonnes of supplies, including bombs for dumping on enemy bases, had been landed on Nissan without a hitch.
Army and construction vehicles were using 32,000 litres of petrol a day and aircraft 80,000 litres. The motor torpedo base was established and requiring 60,000 litres each day for raiding craft. All that petrol was dumped ashore in drums by manpower. Two sawmills were operating in the jungle, producing daily 2,000 board metres of timber.
A two way road linked up units scattered over most of the island, much of it graded and surfaced. The need for Nissan as part of the Pacific strategy was then visualised. This was why the New Zealanders had landed there (and on Vella Lavella and the Treasuries); this was why Army, Navy and Airforce commanders had spent so many hours planning and co-ordinating their schemes. Yet in a few weeks those airfields were too far behind the advance to be of any great tactical importance and the same effort had to be expended on other islands.
Slowly through March and April 1944 units of the 3rd Division ebbed back to a routine existence. Coral roads cut through the camps from which all growth except the largest trees was removed. A convalescent depot was sited on the seaward plane. Picture shows were set up among the trees and provided entertainment in the evenings. The Divisional Band came up, and the Divisional Concert party, all by air.
Major W.W.Hallwright made periodical trips to the island of Pinipel, where he gave much needed attention to over 200 natives who had been.neglected for years. He had rendered the same service to the natives of Simbo, an island off Vella Lavella. Over 1,000 natives on Nissan were evacuated to Guadalcanal in a convoy made historical by the fact that a child was born during the voyage.
Early in April, General Barrowclough issued his first memorandum concerning men to be returned to New Zealand for essential industry (see Chapter Eleven), and by the end of the month transports departed from both Nissan and the Treasuries taking the first drafts back to New Caledonia. It was the beginning of the end for the 3rd NZ Division. On Nissan, the Treasuries and Guadalcanal serious attention was given to packing stores and material and checking before handing over to relieving American units. Brigadier A.E.Conway, the Adjutant General, visited Nissan by air on 4 May to discuss with General Barrowclough questions concerning the Division's return. Admiral Halsey arrived on 25 May to say goodbye. Then, at midnight on 29/30 May 1944, command of the Green Islands passed to incoming American Units. Brigadier Goss similarly handed over command of Mono and Stirling. The capture of one last Japanese in the jungle came as a culminating gesture as several units departed from Nissan on 30 May.
As transports became available units of the Division moved back to New Caledonia, where they were medically boarded, and from New Caledonia to New Zealand. It was a slow and rather melancholy process of disintegration. That the 3rd Division's losses were not unduly heavy was due, principally, to the high standard of its training and the thorough detailed planning for each operation.
No Division left a better record behind it in the Pacific. From 20 October 1944, the 3rd NZ Division ceased to exist.
If you have read this far, consider buying Ray Munoro's book.
I have posted photos of the airstrips, see near bottom of photographs page.
Posted 20, May, 2002
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