THE TREASURY ISLANDS CAMPAIGN

From the time of its arrival on Guadalcanal in mid September 1943 the 8th Brigade embarked on a series of battle exercises, paying particular attention to the use of artillery and mortars in close country. Day after day the dull crunch of explosions and the sharp crack of artillery in action echoed across the hot landscape as unit commanders worked out problems of attack and defence over grassy ridges and forest filled gullies behind the camps. Here, also, the bazooka made its first appearance during experi-mental shoots by units of the American 37th Division, then train-ing for the Bougainville show.

When the Brigade's task, the capture of the Treasury Islands, was announced early in October the plan of attack was rehearsed on the beaches on the island of Florida, which faced Guadalcanal across Sealark Channel. Landing craft placed at the disposal of the brigade by the American authorities enabled Brigadier Row to work out his plan of attack as it would take place on the day of the landing. Units to be thus employed loaded and unloaded their landing craft and dashed ashore on the torrid Florida beaches to overwhelm imaginary enemy defences. They were hot, exhausting exercises, but there was always time off for swimming in water super heated by a tropic sun and for sunbathing on white coral sand which had rarely known the imprint of a human foot.

There was one diversion for some of the men. A patrol of the 29th Battalion flew to the island of Choiseul and remained there from 30 September to 12 October, covering the activities of an American unit engaged in making astronomical observations. They were transported by Catalina flying boat, slow aircraft compared with the more modern machines but of great value in the Solomons, as they were able to land on the water to rescue airmen who had been forced down when returning from raids or reconnaissance tasks. At that time there were between 4,000 and 5,000 Japanese on Choiseul, many of them refugees who had escaped from Kolombangara and New Georgia, but the patrol did not encounter any trouble.

That is one of the many bizarre features of island warfare, partly because of the protection afforded by the jungle. Quite frequently reconnaissance and coast watching patrols visited Japanese occupied islands, landing from canoes at night and remaining there for several days during which they contacted friendly natives from whom they obtained any desired information. The 29th Battalion patrol carried food, clothing, and tobacco, gifts for the natives, who had been deprived of such commodities since the advent of the Japanese.

Whenever New Zealand troops visited any island in the Solomons, whether on active operations or not, they took with them such gifts, always including a supply of clay pipes, which were in great demand. Medical officers frequently accompanied the patrols, as they did to Gizo, and ministered to the needs of the neglected natives. In return the generous Solomon Islanders showered gifts of fruit and nuts on the New Zealanders and entertained them with native song and dance.

Scat planes were operating a regular air service between Vella Lavella and Guadalcanal, so that General Barrowclough was able to fly down in a few hours to discuss any tactical or supply problems with the Brigadier. Preparations for an assault landing required thorough and comprehensive organization. Although New Zealand troops did the actual fighting they were always accompanied by considerable numbers of American specialist units, in this instance all of them under the command of Brigadier Row. Brigade Headquarters staff was therefore increased to assist in handling the immense amount of detailed work involved in such an operation.

The capture of the Treasuries was vitally necessary for the establishment of a Radar station to assist in the assault on Bougainville, as well as an airfield and a motor torpedo base from which to maintain pressure on remaining Japanese bases in the north. This group, which consisted of the islands of Mono and Stirling with Blanche Harbour studded with tiny palm clad isles dividing them, provided ideal sites and also a barging station in sheltered waters. The Treasuries were discovered and named by Lieutenant Shortland, a British naval officer  in 1788. They lie some kilometres off the south of Bougainville, and only twenty-four kilometres from the Shortland Islands, which were known to be strongly fortified by the Japanese and from which a counterattack could have been expected.

Brigadier Row planned in infinite detail for this opposed landing, the first by New Zealand troops since the landing on Gallipoli in 1915. The convoy, which loaded from beaches on Guadalcanal consisted of thirty one landing craft, twenty one of them carrying personnel and supplies, the remaining ten being filled with cargo only. This loading required much planning for any amphibious operation.  Landing craft were detailed to go ashore in waves at certain beaches, each beach being designated by a colour such as red or blue, green or orange or purple. Into each ship went personnel, equipment and supplies required for that particular beach, with strict attention to the order in which they were to disembark or be unloaded.

The first wave, of course, carried the assault troops only and the immediate equipment they would require; the second carried supplies and heavy equipment and rear personnel, and so on until the final wave reached the shore. No detail was forgotten, and the staff officers who formed the planning committees worked out the numbers, quantities, and weights for each landing craft and the times at which they arrived at the various beaches. For the Treasury operation much heavy equipment such as bulldozers and vehicles had to be taken forward for use immediately the assaulting troops were established ashore.

Guns of the 38th Field Regiment as well as heavy anti aircraft guns of an American unit were ready for action once they were sited on the beaches. The first landing craft were loaded and dispatched with their destroyer escort on 23 October, the final and speedier ones on 26 October, the whole movement being planned so that they would rendezvous off the islands before dawn on the morning of the attack.

While such planning proceeded, every available item of intelligence information, including large air photographs of the proposed assault areas, was obtained and distributed to commanders of units. Much of this information for the Treasuries had been obtained by Sergeant W.A. Cowan, a member of the Brigade Intelligence staff who was an expert bushman. Accompanied by other intelligence personnel and taking natives to act as guides and interpreters he flew to Vella Lavella and from there was transported by motor torpedo boat, landing on Mono Island late on the night of 22 October. The sergeant soon made contact with the local natives and gathered an accurate estimate of the strength of the Japanese garrison, the site of its headquarters, principal machinegun posts, lookouts, and lines of communication. Then, armed with this information, Sergeant Cowan met the torpedo boat at a prearranged rendezvous the following night and returned to Vella Lavella, bringing with him three American airmen who had been hidden in the jungle and tended by the natives when their machine crashed in the sea during operations.

The above diagrammatic map indicates how the 8th Brigade made its assault on Mono and Stirling Islands. The principal landing by the 29th and 36th Battalions took place at Falamai. Stirling became an airfield.

Many airmen, both New Zealand and American, were saved in this way by Solomon Islanders, whose loyalty never wavered despite the fact that they were short of food and deprived of all medical attention. On the day of the landing Sergeant George Leoni, a New Zealand airman, was found in a hut at Soanotalu. He had been hidden there for five weeks.

It was originally intended that the seizure of the Treasuries should coincide with a large scale American assault on Empress Augusta Bay, on Bougainville, but this plan was altered at the last moment and the New Zealand landing was advanced by five days. This was to enable a Radar station to be installed on the northern coast of Mono Island and have it operating ready to assist the landing on Bougainville.

Brigadier Row therefore had to work to D minus five days. This D day (or X or Y or Z day) meant the day of the actual assault, the zero hour the actual time the action was to begin. D day for the Treasuries, for which everything was in readiness, was 27 October.

Japanese headquarters was established at Falamai, a native village on a tiny peninsula jutting out into Blanche Harbour, and Brigadier Row's plan of action was to land on sandy beaches in that locality, at the same time sending other troops on to Stirling. While this attack was in progress a small separate force commanded by Major G.W.Logan, and known as 'Loganforce', was to land on the northern coast of Mono at Soanotalu and establish a radar station there with the utmost possible speed. On the night of 26 October, Sergeant Cowan again landed with a small patrol and was ready to cut the Japanese telephone lines connecting their headquarters with lookout posts at Laifa Point and to organise native guides on the morning of the landing.

In the vague light of breaking day the convoy lay off the entrance to Blanche Harbour. Rain squalls came down, blotting out the small ships as the sluggish swell moved them, and the assault troops scrambled over the sides of the APDs into their landing craft. Mono Island was a nebulous green mound of forest wreathed in trailing mist. Then the guns of the covering destroyers crashed into action, shattering the silence as they threw salvoes of shells in to Falamai and its beaches from the open seas.

Objectives were still hidden behind intervening islands in Blanche Harbour, one of which prevented many of the shells from reaching their target when it caught them in flight. Meanwhile small gunboats entered the harbour and begun their bombardment of Japanese emplacements in and around the village. Bursts of flame from the guns and the yellow and red flight of coloured tracer shells glowed luridly in the half light. Landing craft followed behind the gunboats and were met by machinegun fire from the defenders. Two minutes after the naval bombardment ceased the New Zealand troops leaped ashore. It was twenty six minutes past six on the most memorable morning in the history of the 8th Brigade.

The immediate beaches were soon cleared and by 10.30am the 29th Battalion penetrated 350 metres into the jungle behind the village. One enemy strongpost was overcome when Private E.V.Owen crept up and demolished it with grenades. The enemy, who had retired to rising country behind Falamai in the direction of the Saveke River, were now plastering the beaches with mortar and mountain guns and sweeping them with bursts of machinegun fire. One 90 millimetre antiaircraft gun of an American battery was hit and completely destroyed by mortar fire, as well as a Bofors gun and a large quantity of ammunition, unit equipment and medical stores. A 25-pounder gun was also put out of action.

One ASC truck belonging to the 4th MT Company, which was loaded with ammunition, received a direct hit and blew up, pieces of the truck wrapping themselves round a palm trunk 10 metres away. Then a Japanese dump under the native church received a direct hit and blew up, setting alight many of the reed and bark huts of the village. Despite exploding dumps and flying metal, unloading parties stuck to their urgent tasks, for only a limited time was allowed for for each landing craft on the beach and, no matter what, happened, supplies and equipment had to be unloaded to schedule.

But the activities of those enemy mortars and machine guns were soon to cease. On the left flank the 36th Battalion was clearing all opposition as it probed into the dense forest which clothes the whole of Mono Island. One platoon was fighting its way through heavy undergrowth and up the steep ground to which the Japanese had retreated. The platoon commander rushed one enemy position capturing two 75-millimetre mountain guns, the barrels of which were still hot, and then led a section of his men 500 metres far-ther up the hill to capture a 90-millimetre mortar. Ten of the gun crew were killed; the others fled. By midday tired battalions formed a perimeter far in the jungle and awaited the night.

Several snipers were dislodged from trees inside the perimeter, but others were still alive. All through the night there was some indiscriminate shooting, for the men were not yet able to distinguish between those confusing and disturbing jungle night noises and the noise of the enemy, who sometimes imitated them. Next day units strengthened their defences and cleared the perimeter of snipers. Under cover of darkness the Japanese tried to infiltrate through the infantry in an attempt to reach their abandoned food and supply dumps near the Saveke River, and enemy aircraft fed the confusion by dropping between thirty and forty bombs on the 29th Battalion area. One of the raiders fell to the guns of the 208th Light Anti Aircraft Battery. By the third day the enemy picked up his dead and wounded and retired to the high country in the middle of the island.

While the fighting continued there was no cessation of activity on the beaches and in the village or overhead where, for the first time during the campaign, New Zealand fighter planes covered a New Zealand landing. Engineers of the 23rd Field Company got their bulldozers ashore and started immediately with the construction of roads and tracks which were vitally necessary for the unloading and protection of stores, ammunition, and equipment. Despite the explosions around him, Sapper J.K.Duncan operated his bulldozer near the unloading beaches, ignoring bullets which ricocheted off his machine.

The task of the artillery was a strenuous one. Batteries of the 38th Field Regiment went in with the first landing and ferried their guns across Blanche Harbour to Stirling Island, and were in action by nightfall on 27 October. Guns were hauled ashore over rough coral by man power and the overhanging trees and palms chop-ped down to give arcs of fire from selected sites along the coast of Stirling facing Mono. Artillery observation officers remained with the infantry in the jungle, sending back information which enabled the guns to drop their shells on enemy dumps and concentrated areas. Two batteries of the 29th Light Anti  Aircraft Regiment were also in action on the first day.

Because of the dispersed state of the Brigade, with units scattered over both islands, communications presented many problems, though they were not as difficult to overcome as those on Vella Lavella. Captain G.M.Parkhouse, Brigade Signal Officer, established one signal centre on Mono itself and laid underwater telephone lines across the harbour to Stirling, where Brigadier Row had established his headquarters. Artillery signals personnel laid similar lines connecting their units and the two islands. Dry coconuts were used as floats to prevent the rough coral from cutting the cable as it ran on to the land. That was only one example of ingenuity required during these operations. Wireless worked well and advanced units were rarely out of touch, though heavy thunderstorms created the usual disturbances.

By 31 October units had consolidated and patrols began to sweep the island, routing out nests of Japanese who had taken refuge in the interior. Mono Island rose abruptly from the sea to a cone some hundreds of metres high, with rivers cutting through it, and in that dense jungle were many caves and creeper -covered cliffs. Here the enemy hid until he was probed out, a slow and trying task which took days to accomplish. Two companies cleared the country between Falamai and Malsi, the 23rd Field Company later constructing a road between those two areas. Nine days after the landing a patrol of the 36th Battalion killed eleven Japanese during an action in which Corporal F.A.Armstrong distinguished himself by following a wounded Japanese over a cliff and tossing grenades into a cave.

The Japanese were still machine-gunning the beaches when the above photograph was taken of an LST near Falamai, Mono Island.  Equipment and supplies were taken ashore as quickly as possible. Marsden matting, much used.in unsuitable country for emergency airfields, roads and runways, lay among the undergrowth.
Three days later a 29th Battalion patrol killed twelve Japanese in a cave near Soanotalu where earlier twelve others had been routed out and destroyed. Other patrols probed out scattered and isolated Japanese as they came across them in the jungle. Proof of the Brigade's excellent training was revealed by the fact that on all this patrol activity the New Zealanders lost only one man killed and four wounded.

Meanwhile �Loganforce� was creating its own brief history at Soanotalu. Major Logan landed his small force consisting of a company of the 34th Battalion, a section of machineguns, radar personnel, and American CBs, without opposition and established the Radar station, which operated by 31 October. As patrols scoured the island and retreating Japanese fell back on Soanotalu and on the night of 1 November the enemy tried to break through the �Loganforce� perimeter and seize landing craft lying on the beach. One party did succeed in penetrating the defence line but was destroyed by a detachment under Captain H.J.Kirk, who died later from wounds. During this action, which lasted for five hours, Private J.E.Smith led the defenders after Captain Kirk and his staff sergeant had been wounded. Despite the loss of forty killed and many wounded the enemy came again the following night only to be driven off, after which the New Zealand patrols mopped up the scattered remnants of the attacking force.

By 15 November a known total of 217 Japanese had been killed on the Treasuries and seven prisoners taken. The New Zealand losses were not unduly heavy, but the sick and wounded, both New Zealand and American, kept the 7th Field Ambulance very busy right from the day of the landing. After receiving attention at advanced dressing stations as many of the wounded as possible were evacuated by landing craft to Guadalcanal. Serious cases were treated and cared for at the Field Hospital which had been quickly organised on Stirling Island on the day of the landing. Here Major G.E. Waterworth, commanding the 2nd Field Surgical Unit, attended to those who required urgent operations.

Units of the Brigade settled down in their defence areas as soon as the island was declared free of opposition, though patrolling went on for some weeks afterwards. The expected counterattack never eventuated. Camps were organized and the undergrowth cleared from the immediate vicinity. Soon these areas became busy and carefully laid out communities sheltered by tall trees and within easy reach of good beaches. Engineers completed their roading schemes, despite the mud, and built landing jetties. As on Vella Lavella, the anti malarial squads went into action, spraying stagnant water with oil and cleaning up areas which were obviously breeding places for mosquitoes. Never once during the campaign did this important duty cease. On Stirling Island, for example, the whole area surrounding Soala Lake was cleared of rotting growth and sprayed until it became almost as mosquito proof as a mesh  covered hut.

By 1 November the Union Jack once more waved over the charred ruins of Falamai when it was raised by Major D.C.C.Trench, a member of the staff of the Solomon Islands Administration who had gone forward with the 8th Brigade. Captain K.E.Louden, 36th Battalion, whose company had captured the Japanese headquarters, commanded the guard of honour for that historic occasion.

Rumours, of course, never ceased, but they gave zest to the days of January 1944, a month of violent thunderstorms, though days of excessive heat gave the sunbathers a deeper tan. Then rumours gave way to truth. Another action was pending. The 14th Brigade was assigned the task of capturing the Green Islands, over 400 kilometres north and within easy bombing range of Rabaul.

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

Posted 20, May, 2002

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