Vella Lavella  Invasion

Approximately 3,700 troops of the Division made the first landing on Vella Lavella.(see map)   They travelled north in a convoy consisting of six LSTs, six APDs, and six LCIs, escorted by five destroyers, and carrying with them large supplies of ammunition, petrol, equipment, stores and transport.

At dawn on 18 September, after two uneventful days at sea during which the men exercised their parliamentary vote, the landing craft lay off the beaches, with Japanese held Kolombangara, looking rather like a larger and bluer edition of Rangitoto, behind them across the narrow channel.   High overhead an umbrella of fighters, many of them flown by New Zealand airmen, buzzed comfortingly in the clear morning sunshine as the craft came in and disembarkation began at selected beaches where officers who had gone ahead a few days previously awaited their units to act as guides to bivouac areas.

Men and supplies poured from the landing craft.   As the ramps of the LSTs came clattering down vehicles rolled out and bumped into the enveloping jungle and mud, for the narrow track skirting the beaches was feet deep in slush.    If a ramp fell into water or at a site which vehicles could not negotiate, a lumbering bulldozer made a noisy exit.   Palms shuddered, swayed, and finally crashed before the force of these powerful machines as their shining blades scooped and pushed earth and coral and all that grew thereon to form a runway between beach and ramp.   Meanwhile long chains of men, often waist deep in water, passed boxes of supplies and equipment from ship to shore, clearing the landing craft as quickly as possible.    They knew that Japanese planes might arrive at any moment for the whole operation could be observed from enemy lookouts on Kolombangara, only l7kms across the water, and and landing craft were too valuable to be wasted.    Soon after midday the attack came, but by that time disembarkation was completed.   Landing craft lay far out in the channel, herded by destroyers in preparation for the return journey to Guadalcanal to load another cargo of personnel and equipment.     Men and supplies had been swallowed up by the jungle, and the few whose duty kept them guarding dumps disappeared with incredible speed.  High in the blue planes zoomed and droned,  their machine guns spitting viciously.    It seemed as if that sky were made of cloth which was being violently torn to shreds by giant invisible hands. Anti-aircraft guns joined in, barking all along the beaches from behind revetments of cocoanut logs.  Like many such attacks it ended quickly, but not before seven Japanese planes were destroyed, most of them falling into the sea.   Fragments of anti-aircraft shells came down like swarms of angry bees, zipping through the leaves

General Barrowclough took over command of the island and its defences on 18 September and became, in American military language, Commanding General Northern Landing Force or, more briefly, CGNLF, such abbreviation being necessary to save time and space on signals

Between 500 and 700 Japanese, mostly naval personnel of good physique, were being held by American troops, supported by Fijian scouts along the northern area of the island  where the coast was deeply indented and mangrove swamps added to transport and communication difficulties.    The main enemy force had its headquarters at Timbala Bay, where a radio station and lookout had been established, with smaller groups holding scattered posts along the coast on both flanks; The Brigades task was to relieve the Americans and clear the island as quickly as possible

Brigadier Potter's plan of operation entailed the use of two combat teams, the 35th Battalion on the left flank, and the 37th Battalion on the right.  The 30th Battalion was held in the rear as a reserve.    Each combat team had its engineers from the 20th Field Company, medical units from the 22nd Field Ambulance, and supply personnel from the 16th MT Company, with artillery working in support

The method of attack was to employ a pincer movement, bringing each battalion in from a flank and ultimately trapping the Japanese garrison when the two battalions effected a meeting. By 21 September beach-heads had been established by the 35th Battalion at Mundi Mundi River on the north-east coast, and by the 37th Battalion at Paraso Bay on the north coast

Brigadier Potter established an advanced headquarters at Matu Soroto for the duration of the engagement.   American units withdrew as the New Zealanders took over, and with them went the Fijian scouts.    Then, from their beach-heads, units moved in bounds round the coast in small landing craft, so many of which had been detailed from a boat pool for the use of each combat team.    Patrols crept through the jungle and swamps along the coasts, paving the way for the main advance of each battalion as the enemy was driven back on his main base

Conditions were harsh and difficult.   Rain fell, drenching the men and soaking their equipment and stores and turning the jungle into a bog.    Progress was slow, amounting to only 300 to 600 metres a. day during contact with the enemy, and a company front was rarely more than 100 metres wide.   The men moved along narrow tracks in single file, hindered by tree roots and clutching vines and always on the alert against ambush or enemy traps.   The construction of roads was impossible and would have taken months of work with bulldozers.   Every noise was suspect, for the Japanese, hidden among the roots of trees and up the trees themselves, held his fire until  patrols came within five or ten metres.    The New Zealanders learnt to take the enemy seriously and with extreme caution.   At night perimeters were formed and not a man moved beyond the spot where he lay and secured himself as darkness fell.    Eyes and ears strained in an inky darkness made more fantastic by night noises such as crabs scuttling over coral and roots and the patter of rain among the leaves.   Every metre of ground had to be searched thoroughly, and when it was declared clear by the patrols, other troops followed around tihe coast in landing craft, establishing bases at sites dictated by openings in the reefs for the next probe forward.

By 25 September the pincer movement was progressing favourably though slowly, for in the jungle the advantage was always with the defenders, and weather conditions could not have been worse.  Loyal native guides, one of whom was named 'Bamboo', warily moved with the New Zealand patrols.   Without them many more lives would have been  lost and progress would have been even slower.   Those natives had an acute sense of smell and seemed to possess the ability to sniff out the Japanese, who left a curious odour behind him.    'No go there - Jap' , they often said, tapping a squat nose with a finger.    Bivouac areas were frequently raided by night, one of the worst attacks came on 25 September, when twenty Zeros and twenty dive bombers plastered advanced Headquarters at Matu Soroto, killing five men and wounding fifteen.   The Japanese garrison was running short of supplies and often their planes dropped food by parachute, some of which fell in the battalion areas and was gladly retrieved by the New Zealanders.

A day to day account of this slow, searching progress simply became a repetition of jungle-suited men, bearded and muddy, inching forward among trees and vines, squelching through mud and mangrove swamps, their eyes tired and strained by gazing into the mottled wall of greens and browns and occasional blobs of sunlight which confronted them, their nerves sharpened and taut to the. noise of every snapping twig.   Occasionally bursts of machine-gun fire from cunningly concealed nests among the the splaying roots or the crack of a sniper's rifle revealed the enemy, for only noises disclosed his position.   Then a sharp engagement followed as a nest of Japanese was eradicated before the patrols moved on.

If hand grenades were used they could be thrown only with the greatest care, for they frequently bounced back from vine and branch. Torrential rain hampered all movement and made observation difficult adding to the trials of the artillery, a battery of which covered the advance of each battalion.   Food supplies could be transported only by men slithering and sliding along the sodden tracks from dumps established on the beaches.   A shortage of small landing craft added to the difficulties of the advance, several of the boats having been lost on the reefs.

By 27 September a patrol of the 37th Battalion had reached Tambama and, by a clever rnanoeuvre, captured a large and well armed enemy barge hidden in a lagoon.   One section of the patrol surrounded a party of fourteen Japanesn members of the crew and annihilated them. The booty included considerable quantities of rations and much valuable enemy equipment and charts.   Unfortunately souvenir hunters made excessive inroads into this material before it reached headquarters for examination by American born Japanese interpreters who were always attached to a Division in action, but the battalion named the barge 'CONFIDENT' and used it for the transport of supplies.    That same day, also, began a detached action which was typical of the whole enterprise in heroism and self sacrifice.    On the left flank the 35th Battalion had stubbornly found its way forward to Marquana Bay and was closing in on the main Japanese position, to which enemy patrols had retreated.  A strong patrol consisting of a platoon commanded by Lieutenant J.W. Beaumont and another commanded by Lieutenant J.S.Albon was ordered to cover a track running up a ridge behind Marquana Bay and thus prevent an enemy escape into the interior when the final assault was made on the garrison

Some idea of the density of the jungle may be imagined by the fact that those men had to watch over a hundred Japanese pass within six feet of them along the track.   The party was divided at the time and it was thought unwise to attack as the New Zealanders were on either side of the track.   Later, when they tried to rejoin their battalion, the Japanese bad surrounded them and escape was impossible.    By this time both platoons had joined up.  They formed a small perimeter to meet the enemy as he came into attack with hand grenades, rifles, and machine guns.   Scurrying from tree to tree the Japanese yelled and shouted, sometimes in English, as they hurled their grenades.   A burst of machine gun fire put the ambushed party's wireless set out of action and wounded the signaller, who was trying to get a message through to headquarters.

The New Zealanders held their fire, shooting only when a target revealed itself among the leaves, for they were hopelessly outnumbered. Rations were short, as much equipment and all food and water had been discarded by Lieutenant Albon's men when they crossed the track to join the other platoon to meet.and repulse the original attack.   By nightfall the enemy had been beaten off and their officer killed. He screamed the loudest and was easily identified.   Then, tired, wet, and hungry this little garrison prepared for its night ordeal. What little food remained was divided among the men and rain water was trapped in the men's capes

Next day the Japanese attacked again and again, but the weary garrison drove them back each time.   They held them off for nearly a week under that eerie jungle canopy.   By 30 September the men were showing signs of weakness, but only because they were short of food and water,  morale was still high.   That day Lieutenant Albon and two men escaped through the encircling Japanese and went for help. Lieutenant Beaumont remained with the men.   A small party tried to retrieve the discarded rations and water, but without success. The following day Lieutenant Beaumont decided that they must make their way to the beach, l000 metres away, for the men in that tiny perimeter, which measured 20 metres by 30 metres, were growing too weak to last much longer and the wounded were suffering from privation and exposure.

Not a man complained.    They buried their dead and made stretchers f6r the six wounded men from vines and branches.    Private R.J. Fitzgerald, who had done excellent work and kept up morale, was himself wounded, but he lead the injured men while Lieutenant Beaumont and others covered their escape.   Fifty one of those men reached the beach on 1 October and formed a perimeter there until they were rescued the following night.   While they waited on the beach Private C.T.J. Beckham sought out and destroyed a Japanese mach-ine-gun with grenades.

Great courage was displayed by those who went to the rescue of Lieutenant Beaumont and his men.   A barge carrying Lieutenant M.M.Ormsby, Second-Lieutenant C.D.Griffiths, and others of the reconnaissance party from battalion headquarters picked up signals from the weary men waving from the shore, so they gently moved their craft in until it grounded on the coral.   All was quiet and rescue seemed at hand.   Lieutenant Ormsby and Sergeant W.Q.McGhie slipped into the water and began to swim ashore with a line.   A burst of machine gun fire stuttered from the leafy barrier facing them.   Lieutenant Ormsby was killed, but the sergeant reached the shore and three men were hauled with difficulty back to the barge.

Their reports that the wounded men in the jungle were seriously in need of attention prompted the remainder to try to effect an immediate rescue, despite the fact that enemy eyes watched every movement.   In the meantime another barge arrived, with Lieutenant D.G.Graham in charge.   Between them they had nine machine-guns and artillery was now covering Lieutenant Beaumont's perimeter.   Using lifebelts as floats but hindered by jagged under-water coral the party courageously tried to get another line ashore.   Halfway between barge and beach bursts of machine-gun fire sadly thinned the ranks of the rescuers.   Lieutenant Griffiths, WO R.A.Roche, Privates S.Hislop and W.M.Pratt were killed, and later Private Fitzgerald, who had survived the agony of those days in the jungle, fell to a sniper's bullet.   Immediate rescue was impossible.   The attempt was abandoned until nightfall, when the remainder of the men on the beach were taken off in a rubber boat and a native canoe, an undertaking which occupied three and a half hours.

During the whole action these men had killed forty Japanese and wounded many more.   They themselves had lost six killed and eight wounded, but none of the injured had been abandoned.   Fortunately food dropped by an enemy parachute fell inside the New Zealand perimeter on the beach.   It was good and nourishing and consisted of fish, fruit, and cereals.   Water had been obtained from holes scooped in the mud and from waterproof capes.   In spite of their great thirst, for fear and privation dried their mouths, those men only sipped that precious liquid, saving most of it for the wounded.   Such was the spirit which existed throughout that grim week.   It was that spirit, also, which was exemplified by Padre G.C.Faloon, who helped to bring in their fallen comrades from the reef.

Meanwhile the two battalions were closing the gap between them, the 37th Battalion moving more quickly than the 35th.   During the occupation of Warambari Bay, Lieutenant D.M.Shirley, of the 37th Battalion, had a difficult time clearing out a nest of snipers and machine guns, between two of which part of his patrol was pinned down.   It was here, too, that Private A.McCullough, although wounded in both hands and one leg, acted swiftly to save his own and other lives when he picked up a Japanese grenade and threw it back into an enemy patrol before it had time to explode. The following day Lieutenant O.Nicholls was killed by a sniper while leading a patrol.   Corporal N.L.Dunlea, who was a fine example to his men, went out with Private Barbour and brought in  the body.   That was only one of the many acts of bravery, not the least of which was Private R.Armour's exploit in swimming out to sea round the enemy's flank during operations by the 35th Battalion at Timbala Bay and delivering important messages to his headquarters.   Six American airmen whose aircraft had crashed some time previously were rescued at Tambama Bay on 7 October.

By 5 October the enemy garrison had been forced back into an area between Warambari and Marguana Bays and was under fire from two batteries of 17th Field Regiment as well as New Zealand machine gun and mortars.   Torrential rain fell and enemy aircraft kept up a constant patrol over the area so that the New Zealand guns were unable to maintain a prolonged bombardment.   The following night, while the two battalions were preparing for a final assault, the encircled Japanese numbering about 500 were evacuated by barge to destroyers which were waiting off the north of the island. But the enemy did not escape successfully.   The distant thunder of gunfire at sea could be heard by the men waiting in the sodden jungle.   They did not know until later that three American destroyers attacked the Japanese convoy and sunk many of the barges which had evacuated the men from Vella Lavella.   Seventy seven of the enemy were fished out of the sea the following day.  Those destroyers had been guarding a convoy bringing troops and supplies from Guadalcanal and were detached for the engagement, leaving the convoy to shelter at Munda.   By 9 October, when patrols from the two battalions met at l0.33am and made a final reconnaissance of the area, all Japanese. resistance was considered at an end   Except for diminishing night bombing and strafing of the beaches.

If you have read this far, consider buying Ray Munoro's book.

Page posted 9, October, 2000, 57 years after the end of the Vella Lavella action.

Addition 1st January 2003.  Mike Smith has drawn my attention to heavy casualties, 27 dead and 43 wounded,  suffered by the the 29th Light Antiaircraft Regiment on 1st October 1943 when enemy aircraft attacked LST's bring up supplies at Ruruwai on the east coast of the island.  A short account of these events is in the section of Ray Munro's book that I have not yet scanned.   Ray's book mentions a total of 52 dead which probably includes men from other services and may include Americans.

Mike has sent me copies of two pages from  a book called "2NZEFIP - THE GUNNERS"   no Author mentioned. Published by Reed's in 1948.    I have included a section from this book below that sums up the tragic events of 1st October 1943 on the beaches of Eastern Vella Lavella.

During the last few days of September, enemy air activity was increasing and on 1st October the main body of the 209th Battery arrived from Guadalcanal in a large convoy which proved irresistible bait to the Japanese.   Despite the curtain of fire put up by the guns on the ships and ashore, the Japs made persitent attacks on the landing craft when most of the 209th guns were still mounted on the decks of the LST's on which they had travelled.   A detachment from K Troop, under Sergeant L.A. Donovan, distinguished itself by getting smartly back into position after it had been scattered by the blast of a near miss and shooting down one of the attacking planes.  Then occurred the most tragic event in the history of the regiment when a bomb landed directly on another LST, killing Sereant M.J. Healy, of M Troop, his whole detachment and several Americans.   Several others were wounded, the gun and much equipment destroyed and the ship was set on fire by the explosion. In the resulting confusion Battery Sergeant-Major W.D. Campbell and Gunner W.G. Donnelly-to mention only two- played a gallant part in getting wounded personnel off the ship.and salvaging equipment.  Later in the day another gun crew had a miraculous escape when a bomb crashed through the deck alongside them and failed to explode.   Some 207th Battery guns on the beach had a busy day and "B2" gun claimed a probable kill but it could not be credited to them for certain as no wreckage could be discovered.  The 209th got ashore without further incident and the victims of the raid were buried the following day.   A monument was later erected to their memory by members of the battery and it was unveiled on 28 November at Nairovai by Major G.H. Turner in the presence of Major-General Barraclough, who praised the good work done by both batteries in the Vella Lavella engagement.

In Sept 2005 I was emailed the following first hand account of 1943 events from a USN sailor who was unloading an LST when bombed on the 1st October, see other accounts above. (when he says the USS Argonne was a "tin can tender" that is slang for submarine. The USS Argonne has a rich history and is searchable in Google.
 My name is Robert D. Soule, Seaman First Class, attached to Advance Naval Base 338. On July 10th, 1943 I shipped out on the Liberty Ship the SS Dashing Wave from Port Hueneme, Calif.. On July 23rd I celebrated my eighteenth birthday on board ship
We landed in Noumea, New Caledonia and stayed at the Naval Receiving Station. On August 5, 1943 I shipped out on a tin can tender, the USS Argonne (AG-31) and landed at Tulagi Island August 13, 1943 May it be noted that the USS Argonne was at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. I had my first air raid that night and over at Guadualcanal the transport USS John Penn (APA-23) was sunk. The next day, we were shipped to Guadualcanal and landed at Koli Point. We were told to wrap our navy uniforms up and they shippid them home for us. I was issued a helmet, combat shoes, a gas mask,a set of OD utilities (Olive Drab), and a Remington bolt action 30-06 rifle.
We left the canal by LST and headed north to Vella Lavella. I stay top side that night and was awaken by gun fire. I saw a Jap plane drop a bomb and it landed off our port side, he missed and so did our gunners as he flew off.
On September 25, 1943; I went up the island to help clear the jungle for a radar site installation. while there I found three Japanese soldiers , dead. I found a diary on one of soldiers later identified as Iwaaki Ikeshita and brought it home with me. Forty years later, the diary was returned to his wife and a daughter that had been born after he left for war. In the diary he mentions that on January 12, 1943 we passed near New Zealand ( is this possible ? the large IJN aircraft carrying submarine I10 was around NZ waters that month, detected by radio in Cook Strait. The diary might refer to New Ireland, WSH), we had a heavy shower. We are schedule to land in La vella on January 13th.
When trhe fighter strip was completed at Barakomas, one of the first squadons to land was VMF-214, This was the famous Black Sheep Squadron commanded by Major Gregory (Pappy) Boyington.
On March 10, 1944 we had two ships burn and sink,Submarine Chaser (SC-700) and Yard Oiler Barge (YO-44). YO-44 was also at Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941.
I almost forgot that one day the New Zealanders brought quite a few Jap prisoners to our base and they put them in a large air raid shelter and they set up a machine gun infront of the entrance. One of the prisoners started to come out and they shot him.
I was stationed at Biloa Mission, assigned to ANB 338 in August 1943. One night we had a show that was held at Barakomas fighter strip by some New Zealanders. The show was called The Kiwi Concert Party and they sang one song that I remember today. It was as follows: Down in New Zealand were men are men, a chicken  never lays until shes a hen. Think of what your missing, your missing kissing and the rest of the game. I still have the programme of the show.
      On October 1 , 1943 I was assigned to a working party to unload an LST. While unloading it, we came under a bombing attack fron the Japs. A plane coming for our LST was shot down and crashed in the jungle. The LST 448 which was two LSTs from ours, got hit by a bomb from another plane. The next day two other men and myself went back to LST 448 to see if we could salvage anything for our base. Top side there were still men at their guns and dead. We went below and saw that the elevator had fallen down from the explosion and there were dead men lying around it, most of them were burn't. I was wondering if this is the same LST that is mentioned at the end of article ( Invasion of Vella Lavella ) ?
       While your troops were still at Vella Lavella I needed a pair of shoes. It seems the Navy ran out of shoes so I was sent over to your supply man. I got a pair of black leather shoes that had metal on the soles.

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