By Colonel James G. Pierce, Army Heritage and Education CenterFebruary 27, 2009
The Allied Southwest Pacific Area Command stopped the Japanese advance at Guadalcanal in 1942 and began driving them out of the Solomon Islands. In the following year, it ordered the U.S. Marine 3rd Division, supported by the U.S. Army 37th Infantry Division, to conduct an amphibious forcible entry operation at Cape Torokina on the Empress Augusta Bay, Bougainville, in the Solomons on November 1, 1943. Unlike at Guadalcanal and New Georgia, the limited tactical plan for Bougainville called for U.S. forces to secure and hold a small (six-square mile) lodgment to allow for the construction of three strategic airfields. From there, continuous bombarding of the major Japanese land, air, and sea fortress at Rabaul, New Britain, 250 miles away could be conducted. Bougainville was a fetid, jungle covered, mountainous island, 125 miles long by 48 miles wide. Its six enemy airfields were defended by an estimated 40,000 Japanese soldiers of the 17th Army.
The initial landing of the U.S. Marine 3rd Division met limited resistance, and by the end of the day a solid beachhead had been secured. Over the next several days the beachhead was expanded, and by November 8, 1943, elements of the U.S. Army 37th Infantry Division began landing and securing the western portion of the beachhead with the Marines to the east. By December 15, 1943, the beachhead was approximately seven miles wide on the bay, and the perimeter had been expanded to a depth of approximately five miles inland, running semicircle for approximately 13 miles. Command of the operation rested with Major General Oscar W Griswold, Commanding the Army XIV Corps. By mid January 1944 all elements of the ArmyAca,!a,,cs Americal Division had been landed and had relieved all remaining U.S. Marine units on the perimeter. The defense of the Cape Torokina lodgment was now totally an Army operation with the 37th Infantry Division defending the western half of the perimeter and the Americal Division defending the eastern half.
From the initial U.S. landings on November 1, the Japanese were preparing to conduct a bitter, bloody, and costly, cross-island battle. However, by mid January, 1944, it became apparent to General Harukichi Hyakutake, commanding the Japanese 17th Army, that the Americans would not conduct offensive operations but would focus on defending their small lodgment with their fully operational airfields. Under pressure from the Japanese High Command, General Hyakutake prepared for offensive operations against the U.S. Army perimeter, code named Aca,!A"Operation TA.Aca,!A? The plan called for 15,000 Japanese, to attack the thin defensive perimeter held by Americans. Three separate attacks were planned, beginning on March 8, 1944, with the largest attack directed against the far right sector of the 37th Infantry Division perimeter, centering on a key terrain feature known as Hill 700. The second prong of the Japanese attack was to strike the center of the Americal Division sector, and the third prong was to attack the center of the 37th Division sector. General Hyakutake was so confident of victory that he planned to conduct a ceremony for the unconditional surrender of the Americans, to include the exact spot where General Griswold would stand to Aca,!A"surrender his sword.Aca,!A?
At 0630 on March 8, 1944, the Japanese initiated the attack with an artillery barrage on the 145th Regiment sector. Throughout the day artillery fire continued to rain down on the three U.S. airfields and in support of Japanese probes of the 37th Infantry Division positions. In the early morning hours of March 9, covered by heavy rain and darkness, the Japanese fanatically attacked the 37th Infantry Division lines, massing as much as one battalion against a platoon front. Soldiers from the 2nd Battalion, 145th Infantry refused to yield and lived or died in place. The close quarter combat was vicious and desperate and fought with mortars, Browning Automatic Rifles, rifles, hand grenades, and knives. The Japanese onslaught eliminated one U.S. strongpoint after another. The line buckled but never gave way. By morning, the Japanese controlled the key terrain on Hill 700. The 37th Infantry Division committed its reserve for a counterattack, and forward observers told their supporting artillery to fire as close to their positions as possible. By the evening of the 10th the main line of resistance had been reestablished except for a 30 to 40 yard gap. In the early morning hours of the 11th, units of the Japanese 6th Division defiantly re-attacked Hill 700 in frenzied waves. The 37th Infantry Division Soldiers held their ground and annihilated the Japanese onslaught. Over the next sixteen days the right and left prongs of the Japanese attack were decisively destroyed by the Americal Division and the remainder of the 37th Infantry Division. During this nineteen-day struggle the XIV Corps lost 263 soldiers killed in action while killing an estimated 6,354 Japanese. In the words of Major General Robert Beightler, commanding the 37th Infantry Division, the American soldiers at Bougainville had Aca,!A"out-scouted, out-maneuvered, out-fought, and above all out-lived the best the Japanese had been able to throw against them.Aca,!A?
ABOUT THIS STORY: Many of the sources presented in this article are among 400,000 books, 1.7 million photos and 12.5 million manuscripts available for study through the U.S. Army Military History Institute (MHI). The artifacts shown are among nearly 50,000 items of the Army Heritage Museum (AHM) collections. MHI and AHM are part of the: Army Heritage and Education Center (AHEC), 950 Soldiers Drive, Carlisle, PA, 17013-5021.