Chapter 3: Order of Battle
Fleet Marine Force1
By 30 April 1943, the Fleet Marine Force in the Pacific had reached formidable strength in comparison to the few battalions and squadrons that had been its aggregate at the outbreak of war. Over 110,000 Marines and sailors were serving in three divisions, three air wings, and a wide variety of supporting units positioned at Allied bases along a broad, sweeping arc from Midway to Australia. The majority of combat troops were located in the South Pacific under Admiral Halsey’s command, where the highest Marine ground echelon was Major General Clayton B. Vogel’s I Marine Amphibious Corps (IMAC). The senior Marine aviator Major General Ralph J. Mitchell, wore two hats as commander of a newly established area headquarters, Marine Aircraft, South Pacific (MASP), and of its principal operating component, the 1st Marine Aircraft Wing (1st MAW). Neither IMAC nor MASP had any substantial tactical function; both commands were organized primarily to serve as administrative and logistical headquarters.
From his command post at Noumea, General Vogel controlled the 2nd and 3rd Marine Divisions, then in training in New Zealand, as well as a strong body of supporting troops either attached to the divisions or encamped in New Caledonia, the lower Solomons, and the New Hebrides. General Mitchell’s units, all temporarily assigned to the 1st Wing, were stationed at airfields from New Zealand to the Russells. Guadalcanal was the focal point of air activity as a steady rotation of squadrons was effected to maintain maximum combat efficiency in the forward areas. Also part of MASP was Headquarters Squadron of the 2nd MAW, newly arrived in New Zealand to prepare for a command role in future operations.
In addition to the troops assigned to IMAC and MASP, there was still another sizeable body of FMF units in the South Pacific—those units which were part of the garrisons of American and British Samoa, Wallis Island, and Funafuti in the Ellice Group. American bases on these islands were all included in Major General Charles F. B. Price’s Samoan Defense Command. For ground defense, Price
had two rifle regiments, one (3rd Marines) under orders to join the 3rd Division, and four defense battalions. In special combat training centers were two replacement battalions learning the fundamentals of jungle warfare.2 Price also had operational control of the squadrons of Marine Aircraft Group 13 (MAG-13), which was administratively part of the 4th Marine Base Defense Aircraft Wing (4th MBDW).
The remaining squadrons of the 4th Wing were stationed in the Central Pacific, on Oahu, and at the outpost islands, Midway, Johnston, and Palmyra, that guarded the approaches to the Pacific Fleet’s main base. Ground garrisons for these outposts were furnished by Marine defense battalions administered from a headquarters at Pearl Harbor. The remaining major unit of the FMF in the Pacific, the 1st Marine Division, was in Australia assigned to General MacArthur’s command, and just beginning to feel fit again after its ordeal on Guadalcanal.
There was no single headquarters, operational or administrative, for all FMF organizations in the Pacific, although Marine air units did have an administrative headquarters on Oahu—Marine Air Wings, Pacific under Major General Ross E. Rowell. Senior ground commanders, like Vogel and Price, had to consult the Commandant directly on many organizational, administrative, and logistical matters that could well have been handled by a type command at the fleet level. As the FMF grew in size, and its components’ missions in complexity, the lack of a higher Marine headquarters to support and coordinate the activities of the air-ground team was to be felt more acutely. The lessons to be learned in the fighting in the Solomons and Bismarcks and on the atolls of the Central Pacific would have to be absorbed before such a headquarters was established.
Most Fleet Marine Force activity in the States was concentrated in a complex of neighboring bases on each coast. In the east, the major ground training center was Camp Lejeune at New River, North Carolina, a site incorporating thousands of acres of tangled, stream-cut forest backing 11 miles of dune-topped beaches. The sprawling Marine Corps Air Station at Cherry Point, less than 40 miles north of Lejeune, controlled a number of smaller airfields scattered throughout the Carolinas. On the west coast, most ground training was carried on at Camp Elliott, a relatively small area just outside San Diego, or at Camp Pendleton, which stretched north from Oceanside for 18 miles along the coastal highway—a vast area of rolling hills, steep-sided canyons and arroyos, and frequent thickets as dense as tropical jungle. A network of air stations and auxiliary fields, the largest being El Toro near Los Angeles, housed the squadrons training for Pacific duty.
These bases, like the Marine Corps itself, were feverishly building at the same time they performed their function of readying men for combat. The 1st Marine Division developed the New River area for amphibious training, and when it shipped out in April 1942 it left behind cadres which
formed the nucleus of the 3rd Marines, organized in June. In like manner, the 2nd Marine Division, which gave Camps Elliott and Pendleton their baptism as combat training areas, furnished the cadres for most of the units of the 3rd Division, which was activated at Elliott on 16 September 1942. The 4th Marine Division was not scheduled for formal activation until August 1943, but its major components were in being by midyear, again by the process of building on a skeleton of veteran officers and enlisted men.
On the air side, the picture of experienced cadres forming the core of new units was much the same as with ground organizations. In contrast to the division and the regiment, however, the Marine aircraft wing and group were essentially task forces shaped to the job at hand and constantly changing their make-up. The 1st MAW, for example, joined a number of squadrons of the 2nd Wing during the air battles over Guadalcanal, while the 2nd MAW operated largely as a training command in the States. When the 2nd Wing left California for the South Pacific in January 1943, its training functions were taken over by Marine Fleet Air, West Coast—a subordinate command of Marine Air Wings, Pacific, in Hawaii. Additional squadrons tentatively assigned to the wings already overseas were in training at every Marine air base in California in 1943.
On the east coast, the 3rd MAW was activated in November and its component units grew up with the new airfields then building. Nearly a year’s forming and training time was needed before the first of the wing’s squadrons was combat ready.3
The overall growth of the Marine Corps matched the rapid swelling of the ranks of the FMF. Although the lion’s share of new officers and men ended up in FMF units, thousands of Marines were needed for sea duty, guard assignments, and the supporting establishment. Beginning in February 1943, a steady stream of young women entered the Corps to free men for combat by taking over a host of administrative and technical jobs in non-FMF units. Their performance of duty as Marines “proved highly successful in every way.”4 The enlisted strength of the Marine Corps rose from 222,871 at the start of 19435 to 287,621 within six months; on 30 June the number of officers had reached 21,384. Projected total strength for the end of the year was more than 355,000 officers and men,6 a far cry from the 66,000-man Marine Corps that existed on 7 December 1941.7
The second year of fighting saw a cherished tradition of the Marine Corps, its all-volunteer composition, become a war casualty. A Presidential executive order of 5 December 1942 put an end to voluntary enlistment of men of draft age in any of the services. The intent of the directive was to give manpower planners in Washington a greater measure of qualitative control over the influx of men into each service in keeping with the quantitative control already exercised through a quota system. Starting with the intake of February 1943, the recruit depots at
Parris Island and San Diego saw only a sprinkling of men (mainly draft-exempt 17-year-olds) who did not come in through the Selective Service System. It was still possible, however, for many draftees who anticipated their call-up to enter the service of their choice. The Commandant, Lieutenant General Thomas Holcomb, assigned liaison officers to state governors and draft boards to encourage the deferment of those men who wanted to be Marines until they could fit into the Corps’ quota.8 This program, which was quite successful, resulted in the seeming paradox that most of the draftees in Marine uniforms were still volunteers, in fact if not in name.
The intangible but clearly evident atmosphere of a volunteer outfit was retained by the Marine Corps throughout the war. This spirit was especially evident in the units of the Corps’ striking arm—the Fleet Marine Force—where officers and men alike were intolerant of anyone attempting to get by with a marginal performance. The prevailing attitude was that every man had asked to be a Marine and no complaints were expected when the going got a little rough. Each Marine assigned to a unit earmarked for the impending Central Solomons operations seemed quietly determined to equal, even if he could not better, the fighting record of his fellows on Guadalcanal.
The Battle Lines Are Drawn9
ComSoPac anchored his ELKTON attack against enemy positions in the Solomons on a trio of islands, New Caledonia, Espiritu Santo, and Efate. On each there grew up a complex network of port installations, air bases, supply depots, and salvage and repair facilities geared to operate at a pace that meshed well with Halsey’s aggressive offensive philosophy. Like the tactical task forces which actually closed combat with the Japanese, the logistic organizations formed an integrated whole in which the various services cooperated to solve supply and support problems. All units were under orders to “consider themselves as part of the same team rather than Navy, Army, or Marine services in a separate and independent sense... .”10
The hustling bases in the New Hebrides and at Noumea fed a growing stream of supplies forward to the Guadalcanal area to meet the immediate needs of the garrison and to build a stockpile for future operations. In combat training camps scattered throughout the South Pacific, the interservice exchange and cooperation characteristic of the logistic agencies was repeated. A sense of impending action was high; there was a distinct “get the job done” atmosphere.
At this stage of the war—spring of 1943—no Allied position in either the South or Southwest Pacific could yet be considered a “safe” rear area. As a consequence, large ground garrisons, kept
strong in tribute to Japan’s offensive capabilities, were immobilized at key points well away from the prospective center of conflict: e.g., Samoa, Fiji, Tonga. Adding to this drain of offensive strength was the slow recovery of battle-tested units from the debilitating effects of sustained jungle warfare. The troops available for an offensive, therefore, were quite limited in view of the considerable job at hand. In all, MacArthur and Halsey could count on having only 14 divisions, both veteran and untried, ready for offensive action by mid-year.11 Of this total the SoPac share was six divisions, four Army and two Marine.
Although the manpower squeeze brought on by the shipping demands of the two-front war set a low ceiling on Pacific ground forces, Allied plane and ship strength were on the upswing. American war production made the difference. Over 2,000 combat aircraft would be available for the campaign against Rabaul,12 a fair match for anything the Japanese could put up against them. At sea, the Pacific Fleet was rapidly approaching a position of absolute superiority over the Japanese as new ships of every type, including the carriers and landing craft vital to amphibious operations, reported to CinCPac for duty.13 The naval elements of Halsey’s and MacArthur’s area commands, now designated Third Fleet and Seventh Fleet respectively,14 could be reinforced from Nimitz’ mobile striking force as strategic requirements dictated.
Japanese preparations to meet the offensive that they knew was pending in the Solomons began to take shape concurrently with the evacuation of Guadalcanal. The Southeast Area Fleet set naval defense troops to building bases on New Georgia, Kolombangara, and Santa Isabel. In March, the first of several reinforcing units from the Eighth Area Army was added to the naval forces in the New Georgia Group. On Buka and Bougainville in the Northern Solomons, the 6th Division was moved in from Truk to provide the bulk of the garrison.
A steady build-up of defenses, with troops and supplies brought in by barge and destroyer, took place despite the incessant and telling attacks of Allied planes and submarines. Enemy air stayed north of New Georgia except for occasional raids on Guadalcanal; enemy combat ships stuck close to Truk and Rabaul waiting for the opportune moment to strike.
Defense of the Solomons took second place in Japanese plans to measures for continued retention of the Lae-Salamaua region of New Guinea. On 22 March, the Army and Navy staffs in Tokyo agreed on a new directive for operations in the Rabaul strategic area, replacing the one that had governed during the Guadalcanal withdrawal. The new order spelled out the primacy of defensive efforts in New Guinea, but its general tenor was the same as that of its predecessor. In emphatic language, the senior commanders in the field, General Imamura and Admiral Kusaka, were enjoined to hold all the positions that their troops then occupied.
Although the Japanese retained a dual command structure in Rabaul under the
22 March directive, Imamura and Kusaka were told to cooperate closely and elements of both services were ordered to “literally operate as one unit.”15 In the field, the senior Army or Navy ground commander in an area would take charge of the operations of troops of both services. Until the first Allied assault force attacked, those operations consisted, in the main, of constructing defensive positions skillfully wedded to the terrain. Although Japanese soldiers and sailors were deeply imbued with an offensive spirit, they seemed to have a special affinity for defensive fighting where the pick and shovel often rated equal with the rifle. On New Georgia, South Pacific forces were due to get their first real taste of the burrowing, grudging, step-by-step advance that characterized the later stages of the Pacific War.