By 1942 it had become obvious that Rabaul, on the island of New Britain, would have to be conquered or neutralized. The Japanese had made it one of their most important bases. Situated at Rabaul were the 8th Army Headquarters commanded by General Hitoshi Imamura and the headquarters of the Southeastern Fleet under Admiral Jinichi Kusaka.
General Douglas MacArthur began to consider plans for eliminating its threat. His strategy was known as the Elkton Plan which was developed in three stages, all quite similar. The plan aimed at the eventual capture of Rabaul. Army forces would advance westward along the coast of New Guinea and then across the Vitiaz Strait and Dampier Strait to Cape Gloucester and Cape Merkus on western New Britain. Forces under Admiral William F. Halsey would move westward through the Solomons chain, capturing Guadalcanal, New Georgia and Bougainville. This would complete the encirclement of Rabaul, the final target. However, plans for the assault on Rabaul were not finalized.
At the beginning of 1943, the Army’s Chief of Staff, General George C. Marshall, began to consider MacArthur’s Elkton Plan. The Joint Chiefs of Staff debated the plan for four months before finally coming to a decision. Part of the problem lay in British pressure to keep the European theater as the focus of Allied effort. MacArthur’s plan required the shifting of Army manpower from Europe to the Pacific, a strategy that found little support from the British. A second problem with the plan was that it put MacArthur solely in command of both Army and Navy forces for the capture of Rabaul. This did not sit well with Admiral Ernest King, Chief of Naval Operations. King wished to keep a certain amount of flexibility in the use of naval forces in the Pacific. While he was willing to work with MacArthur, he did not want to see all forces in the southwest Pacific under one command. The point, however, was moot. The capture of Rabaul in 1943 was out of the question; sufficient forces could not be brought to the area. MacArthur’s plan quickly morphed into a new operation, code named Cartwheel. The overall strategy was enunciated in the General Headquarters Southwest Pacific Area Warning Instructions #2 of 6 May 1943.
The general scheme of maneuver is to advance our bomber line towards Rabaul; first by improvement of presently occupied forward bases; secondly, by the occupation and implementation of air bases which can be secured without committing large forces; and then, by the seizure and implementation of successive hostile airdromes.
By destructive air attack soften up and gain air superiority over each attack objective along the two axes of advance. Neutralize with appropriate aviation supporting hostile air bases and destroy hostile naval forces and shipping within range. Prevent reinforcement or supply of objectives under attack. Move land forces forward, covered by air and naval forces, to seize and consolidate each successive objective. Displace aviation forward onto captured airdromes. Repeat this process to successive objectives of immediate attack. The entire movement will be covered by air attack on Japanese air and sea bases along the general perimeter BUKA-RABAUL-KAVIENG-WEWAK, with the objective of denying supply and reinforcement of objectives under attack.1
This map is adapted from Major General Hugh J. Casey, Chief Engineer. Office of the Chief Engineer, General Headquarters Army Forces Pacific. Engineers of the Southwest Pacific 1941–1945. Volume 1. Engineers in Theater Operations(Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1945), facing p. 38.
By June 1943, Japanese forces were well established in the Southwest Pacific area. Chart reproduced from John Miller, Jr., Cartwheel: The Reduction of Rabaul (Washington, DC: Office of the Chief of Military History, Department of the Army, 1959), p. 33.
MacArthur’s plan had focused on the eventual capture of Rabaul, but at that point in the war, the emphasis was on the European theater, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff did not want to commit the number of Army troops needed to carry out MacArthur’s strategy. Allied forces would have to secure bases in the Solomons chain and along the northeastern shores of New Guinea from which to mount an offensive. The struggle for Guadalcanal in the Solomons and Japanese resistance on New Guinea slowed the process. After the capture of Guadalcanal and increasing successes along the coast of New Guinea, as well as the capture of other islands in the Solomons chain, further progress could be made. A final strategy had been worked out, which began with the capture of the Treasury Islands, a diversionary attack on Choiseul Island and, finally, landings on Bougainville. Airfields on Bougainville, along with others in the area, would provide a means by which Rabaul could be attacked. The two major islands in the Treasury group were Mono Island and Stirling Island. Mono Island was larger but mountainous, while the smaller Stirling Island was flat and held the promise of a good air field. Blanche Harbor separated the two islands and was an excellent site for a naval base. From there Navy ships could patrol off Bougainville and American aircraft could attack Japanese bases.
The Cartwheel Operation was designed to surround and neutralize the Japanese base at Rabaul on New Britain. As each island was taken, airfields were built or repaired to serve as new bases from which to attack the Japanese stronghold at Rabaul. Finally, the encirclement of New Britain left the Japanese troops at Rabaul isolated without air or naval protection. It was bypassed using the “island hopping” tactics of the Allied forces. Map redrawn from Map III in Louis Morton’sUnited States Army in World War II: The War in the Pacific Strategy and Command: The First Two Years (Washington, DC: Center of Military History United States Army, 1989).
By July 1943 it had been determined that the actual capture of Rabaul would be too costly. The Joint War Plans Committee had other recommendations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff. They felt that the occupation of western New Britain would commit too many troops to the operation and that this was unwarranted. It would be far better to control Rabaul by cutting it off and destroying its air and naval forces and facilities than it would be to occupy it. Bypassing the Bismarck Archipelago would free the 1st and 2nd Marine Divisions for service elsewhere.2 Accordingly, the Joint Chiefs of Staff directed MacArthur to neutralize it so that it could be dealt with at lesser expense. This would permit MacArthur’s forces to concentrate on the Philippines.
Japanese forces in the Solomons were divided between Army troops and naval forces. The 37,500 Army troops were part of the 17th Army under the overall command of Lieutenant General Seikichi Hyakutake, headquartered in the Shortland Islands. The bulk of Hyakutake’s forces, about 25,000 men, were in the Buin-Shortlands area. Enemy presence around Empress Augusta Bay was considered to be light.3
On the southern part of Bougainville, Lieutenant General Masatane Kanda’s 6th Division with 15,000 men held control at Buin in the south, while the 38th Independent Mixed Brigade had 5,000 stationed at Buka Island in the north. Nearby Kieta Airfield had another 5,000. Special Naval Landing Forces numbering approximately 6,800 men were stationed in the south near Buin, defending the area’s two airfields at Kara and Kahil. Offshore islands in the Shortlands also had detachments of men. Ballale Island, for example, was home to a naval airfield.
The estimated 20,000 Navy personnel in the area were under the overall command of Vice Admiral Tomoshige Samejima, Commander of the 8th Fleet. They consisted of the 87th Garrison force near Buka and two units in the south: the 6th Sasebo Special Naval Landing Force and the 7th Kure Landing Force. Rear Admiral Isamu Takeda was in command of the Japanese naval forces centered in southern Bougainville.
The Japanese had stationed only a couple of hundred troops in the Treasury Islands, mostly on Mono Island, with lookouts stationed on Stirling Island. Although Blanche Harbor was about three miles long, it was only about a thousand yards wide, making the use of larger ships, such as destroyers, impractical. Entrance to Blanche Harbor was usually from the west end, with the proposed landing beach (Orange) near the town of Falami, at the eastern end of the harbor. This would require that the assault ships travel about two miles into Blanche Harbor, placing them at risk from enemy gun emplacements on Mono’s shore. It would be a good place for the new LCI gunboats to test their abilities. Three additional landing beaches, Purple 1, 2, and 3 were on Stirling Island, although no opposition was expected there.
LCI(L) 24 loads New Zealand troops at Kukua Beach, Guadalcanal, for the attack on Mono Island. This photograph was taken on 25 October 1943. A few weeks later, on 16 November 1943, she departed for Noumea, New Caledonia, to be converted to a gunboat. NARA 80G 200623.
Task Group 31.1 under Rear Admiral George H. Fort was assigned to attack Mono and Stirling Islands. The destroyers Cony DD 508, Saufley DD 465, and Waller DD 466, minesweepers Adroit AM 82, Conflict AM 85, and Daring AM 87, and LCI(L)s 24, 61, 67, 69, 222, 330, 334, and 336were in the initial landings with a last minute addition were two of the newly converted LCI gunboats, the 22 and the 23.
From early to mid–October 1943, LCI(L)s 21, 22, 23, and 70 had been at Noumea, New Caledonia, being converted into gunboats. The four ships, hereafter referred to as LCI(G)s, barely made it back in time for the operation, arriving at Hutchinson Creek, Florida Island in the Solomons on 23 October. An inspection of LCI(G) 23, at that time referred to as an “LCI(L) gunboat,” revealed her new armament:
(a) One 3"/50 BLR mounted on platform above and between forward bulwarks; one 40 MM replacing 20 MM on house deck; six 50 cal. machine guns mounted along bulwarks, 3 on each side; the 20MM’s formerly mounted on bow and on house deck, relocated on main deck, one on each side of conning station; the two 20MM’s on fantail remained.
(b) Radar equipment installed.
(c) Crew complement increased from 23 men and 3 officers, to 45 men and 4 officers. Ship’s draft increased 9 inches; speed reduced one knot; troop carrying capacity reduced by 50.4
The first use of an LCI gunboat in action and also in an amphibious assault took place in the Treasury Islands on 5 November 1943. LCI(G)s 22 and 23 participated in the operation. The above map was taken from the action report of LCI(G) 22and shows the target and landing areas. U.S.S. LCI(L) No. 22, Action Report, November 5, 1943, Enclosure (A).
These LCIs would no longer transport troops; their new mission would be to provide close-in fire support as the troop carriers landed soldiers and Marines.
A simultaneous landing at Choiseul Island, to the east of the southernmost tip of Bougainville Island, was planned to divert the attention of the Japanese. Lieutenant Colonel Victor H. Krulak’s 2nd Marine Parachute Battalion landed near the village of Voza in the evening of 27 October and immediately began to make its presence known. This made it appear as though the Allied forces were setting up for an attack on their bases in the Shortlands Islands just off the southern tip of Bougainville. As the Japanese prepared to counter the invasion at Choiseul, the main Allied force landed in the Treasury Islands. The major benefit of this maneuver was to keep the Japanese close to their base in the Shortlands, only twenty-two miles away, so that they would not send reinforcements to the Treasuries.
Troops and supplies destined to participate in the attack on the Treasuries had loaded at Rendova, Guadalcanal, and Vella Lavella in the days preceding the assault. Brigadier R. A. Row of the New Zealand Army commanded the landing force. The landing operation commenced at 0543 on 27 October 1943 with the shelling of the Mono Island beaches by the destroyers. About ten minutes later, LCI(G)s 22 and 23, the newly converted gunboats, arrived at the western entrance to Blanche Harbor to lead the LCPs to the beaches. At 0558, the 22 found her first target. Marine raiders had scouted the islands in August and again a few days prior to the landings and identified the locations of machine gun nests on Mono Island. Small in size, they had escaped shelling by the destroyers.
As the landing craft entered Blanche Harbor, LCI(G) 22 began to pound the gun emplacements along the southern shore of Mono Island with a combination of 3"/50, 40mm, 20mm and .50 caliber fire between 0558 and 0623. Right behind her, LCI(G) 23 was firing on the targets. No return fire was encountered from the enemy machine guns along the shore. At 0633 the OTC, on LCI(L) 222, gave the order for the LCI(L)s to enter the harbor. The landing craft spotted several gun emplacements along the shore and opened fire but received no return fire. As the troops landed, two enemy pill boxes only sixty and eighty yards off the beach opened fire and the LCI(L)s soon put them out of action. Within an hour or two enemy mortars began to zero in on the landing craft and ships. LCI(L)s 24 and 222 had some near misses from mortar fire. Shortly thereafter, LST 399took a mortar hit on her tank deck. The mortars were located at a position of five to seven hundred yards up the mountainside with another about three hundred yards above it. LCI(G) 22 fired on both and they ceased to operate. Later in the day, at about 1230, LST 399 again came under mortar fire from positions on the mountainside, and both the 22 and 23 combined their firepower to put them out of action. Charles Ports, first loader on the 23’s 3"/50, later wrote: “We were close enough to the beach that small arms fire was ricocheting off our structure and on our strafing; one could see bodies falling from the trees.”5 The gunboats secured the beaches and patrolled the harbor, covering LSTs and other vessels operating inshore. The day, however, was not over. The Japanese had been caught off guard by the landings at Mono Island, having assumed that Choisuel and the Shortlands were the primary targets.
Dead Australian soldiers lie on the beach as troops move ashore on Mono Island in the Treasuries. LCI(L) 24 is beached in the background. It was her last troop delivery prior to being converted to a gunboat. NARA 80G 200633.
Japanese air attacks began around 1520. At 1525 a Zeke dove on LCI(G) 22 and dropped a small bomb off its starboard quarter. The bomb missed by about fifty yards, and the suddenness of the attack and the plane’s position made it difficult for the ship’s gunners to get off more than a few rounds of AA fire. Other ships in the area also came under attack. At 1531 LCI(G) 22 was again a target as a Val dove on her and was taken under fire. The gunboat scored a number of hits on the enemy plane which flew away smoking. The anti-aircraft action was listed as a probable kill for the 22. Within minutes American aircraft appeared and drove off the attacking Japanese planes. The Treasuries were in Allied hands.
A second echelon, with coverage by LCI(G)s 21 and 70, landed more troops and equipment on 30 October and the two gunboats relieved the 22 and 23, which returned to Guadalcanal. LCI(G)s 21 and 70 were then assigned to Commander Naval Base Treasury for duty.
With their first combat experience completed, the gunboats assessed their performance. In his action report for the day, Lieutenant B. A. Thirkield, Commanding Officer of the LCI(G) 23, recommended:
(a) That support gunboats accompany assault waves all the way to the beach, turning away only in time to avoid beaching themselves. This would provide flank cover for the assault wave to the last possible moment, instead of exposing the flank as occurred in this action when this vessel turned astern of the LCP’s at point (A).
(b) That support gunboats, whenever possible, be free of troops, in order that they may retain complete mobility throughout the operation.
(c) That liaison be established between gunboats and shore fire control parties to enable gunboats to provide intelligent supporting fire after landings.6
Additional recommendations called for training in the use of the newly installed 3"/50 gun. The ship had been placed in action with little preparation, and prior target practice would have been beneficial. Thirkield’s early experience with amphibious gunboats would prove of value to the Navy. At Okinawa he served as LCS(L) Commander Group Nine, Flotilla Three.
Rear Admiral T. S. Wilkinson CTF Thirty-One, in his endorsement to Thirkield’s Action Report of LCI(L) 23, noted the value of the new gunboats:
1. Forwarded. The LCI(L) 23 along with the LCI(L) 22 were the first two LCI Gunboats to be employed in combat in this area. Both ships proved highly effective as support vessels for this particular operation, and, it is believed, can be gainfully employed in future amphibious operations.
2. As a result of the performance of these two LCI gunboats in this operation four additional LCI’s are now being converted to gunboats and will be employed not only as support boats for landing operations but also for supporting PT boats in coordinated anti-barge missions.7
Bougainville was the next target of the Allied forces. As a part of the campaign to isolate Rabaul, it was necessary to cut off the Japanese forces residing on Bougainville. Capture of the entire island was not necessary, but the establishment of an air base on the western side of the island was. This landing helped to destroy enemy air potential at Rabaul while bypassing their major troop concentrations. The bypassed Japanese troops could be isolated and confined to the islands by use of continued air and sea patrols. In the matter of sea patrols, PT boats, coupled with LCI(G)s and occasionally destroyers, could keep barge traffic at a minimum and prevent the resupply or reinforcement of the Japanese.
It became obvious to the Japanese that the attack on Bougainville Island was imminent. It began on 1 November 1943. The beaches and terrain on the northeast side of the island were the logical landing place for American forces, however, the area was well-defended. Far too many American troops would be tied up there attempting to oust the Japanese from the island. This was to be a variation of the “island hopping” strategy, with the Americans landing on the western side of the island and establishing a strong perimeter. Airfields and naval bases built inside the perimeter would permit them to attack the Japanese on the eastern and southern parts of the island, as well as Buka Island to the north. Japanese installations at Rabaul would also be within reach. The LCI gunboats, active just to the south at the Treasury Islands, did not take part in the invasion of Bougainville, but mortars mounted on three LCTs were used successfully in the first experiment with these weapons. However, within a short time, the LCI gunboats assumed regular patrol duties operating out of their base at the Treasuries, as well as the base at Puruata Island near Cape Torokina, Bougainville. Their use was crucial in keeping the Japanese from reinforcing their troops via barge and attacking the perimeter of the American lines.
With the invasion of the Treasuries a success, the gunboats turned to routine patrol and escort duties. Additional gunboats were needed and on 16 November, LCI(L) 24 was ordered to Noumea for conversion.
It had been assumed by the Japanese that the Americans would follow a logical stepping stone pattern toward Rabaul. They anticipated landings first on the Shortland Islands, then at Choiseul Island, and finally on southern Bougainville. Accordingly, their forces were marshaled in the southern part of Bougainville where they expected the landings.
Cape Torokina was on the north end of Empress Augusta Bay with a major concentration of Japanese forces situated to its south. Other Japanese Army units were just off the southern shore on the Shortland Islands. Prior to the landing the airfields on Bougainville, Buka, and Rabaul underwent heavy bombing designed to prevent Japanese air attacks against the invading troops. Bougainville alone had five airfields, all of which could be used against the invasion force. Runways were cratered and grounded aircraft were destroyed in the attack by units of the 5th Air Force flying from New Guinea. Airsols (Air Command Solomons) and Rear Admiral Frederick C. Sherman’s TF 38 carriers also participated in these missions. Forces opposing the landing at Cape Torokina were small in number, totaling about 270 in all. A single platoon held Puruata Island in the southern part of Empress Augusta Bay. This became the base for PTs and LCI gunboats.
In what had become standard practice in any landing, cruisers and destroyers from Rear Admiral A. Stanton Merrill’s TF 39 spent several days bombarding the landing area in combination with air attacks. It could be said that the 6,421 Marines landing at Cape Torokina simply overwhelmed the 270 Japanese defenders. This was not a reason to celebrate, however, since the bulk of the Japanese forces were not far away. With numerous Japanese units scattered in force through the northern part of the Solomon Islands, it was obvious that the PT boats and the LCI(G)s would have a great deal of work. American, and later Australian forces, held a tenuous hold on the area around Empress Augusta Bay and were primarily interested in maintaining a perimeter around the airfield they had built there. For the Japanese it was a matter of continually launching attacks against the Allied forces in order to prevent both the expansion and operation of the airfield. Supplies for the Japanese forces moved along the coast in barges which were concealed during the day and continued their transport duties at night. Combating them were teams of torpedo boats and LCI(G)s. Air support was available from the airfield on Bougainville and Allied fields in other parts of the Solomons. Nighttime support was rendered by night fighters and PBYs flying cover for the gunboats and PTs.
LCI Gunboats were first used in the capture of the Treasury Islands on 5 November 1943. After the Bougainville landings had been made at Cape Torokina in November 1943 the gunboats were active in the area, using Puruata Island as a base. The Treasury Islands were home to another gunboat base. LCI(G)s regularly patrolled the coast of Bougainville and extended their patrols through the Buka Passage and as far as New Ireland and Rabaul in 1944.
The activity on Bougainville had not gone unnoticed by the Japanese. The Japanese naval force at Rabaul had just been increased by the arrival of Vice Admiral Sentaro Omori whose Cruiser Division 5 had escorted a convoy to the island base. Orders from Fleet Admiral Mineichi Koga, commander of the Combined Fleet at Truk, were sent down to Rabaul, and Vice Admiral Tomoshige Samejima, Commander of the 8th Fleet, gave Omori his sailing orders. On 31 October, Omori’s ships got under way to engage Rear Admiral Merrill’s ships which had been spotted in the slot and were assumed to be heading for the Treasury Islands. Omori did not know that Merrill’s destination was Buka Passage to bombard the area’s airfields and that an invasion was underway. He cruised offshore and headed for the Treasury Islands thinking that he would find Merrill’s force there, but missed it entirely. Upon his return to Rabaul he was notified that Cape Torokina had been invaded.
Immediate plans were laid for an attack on the ships still in harbor, as well as the Marines ashore. If the Americans were caught between the guns of the Japanese Navy and its Army ashore, the American landing would be a failure. Samejima organized a counter-force to wipe out the Americans at Cape Torokina. One thousand men were loaded on five transports and sent out with Omori as a covering force. Omori was assigned an additional four destroyers, giving him two heavy cruisers, two light cruisers, and six destroyers. He set out with his landing force on 1 November at 1700 hoping to catch the Americans off guard. Within hours the Japanese force was spotted by an American sub and shortly thereafter was bombed by a lone PBY. Omori realized that if he was slowed by his own transports he would not be able to catch and destroy the American transports in Empress Augusta Bay. They were sent back and Omori advanced at flank speed. Merrill had been alerted about the Japanese force heading his way. His force consisted of four cruisers and eight destroyers.
The opening shot of the Battle of Empress Augusta Bay was not a shot at all, but a bomb dropped by an American plane. It closely missed the heavy cruiser Haguro, opening plates in her side and slowing down the Japanese advance. Japanese scout planes spotted minelayers at work in the bay and assumed that they were the transports. The Japanese changed course to head in their direction. Merrill’s force intercepted them at 0227 on 2 November, twenty miles west southwest of Cape Torokina, and the battle was soon on. When it finally ended around 0500, the Japanese had lost the cruiser Sendai and the destroyer Hatsukaze. American ships had suffered hits from guns and a torpedo, with Denver CL 58, Spence DD 512, and Foote DD 511 sustaining damage. However, they would undergo repairs and fight again.
With the sea battle over, the American force had to contend with a one hundred plane strike from the airfields at Rabaul. The enemy planes began to appear about 0800 and were taken under fire by the ships and by American and New Zealand aircraft sent to intercept them. Light damage was sustained by Montpelier CL 57, but the ships came through without significant damage. Between the ships and the small number of American aircraft sent to aid them, the enemy lost about thirty planes.
The American presence on Bougainville continued to be of great concern to the Japanese at Rabaul. Additional naval raids against the beach areas at Torokina were planned. Fortunately for the Marines on Bougainville, these attempts at sending troops and supplies to Rabaul were continually intercepted by American bombers and fighters, and the potential force was weakened. Finally, aircraft from the carriers Saratoga CV 3 and Princeton CV 37 caught the newly assembled Japanese task force at anchor in Rabaul’s harbor on 5 November and seriously damaged a number of their ships, including the heavy cruisers Maya, Takao, and Atago, along with the light cruisers Agano and Noshiro. A follow-up strike on the airfield at Rabaul by Lieutenant General George C. Kenney’s B-24 Liberators and P-38 Lightnings found the airfields empty, so they bombed the base’s infrastructure. The Japanese aircraft were away on a mission to attack the Americans at Empress Augusta Bay.8
LCI(G) 70 had been on patrol off Cape Torokina, Bougainville, and was returning to the Treasury Islands along with LCT 68 and PT 167 in the evening of 5 November when the ships came under air attack. At 1915, lookouts on the 70 spotted a flight of twelve Japanese Kate torpedo bombers to starboard. As the formation turned toward the ships, they split into two groups of eight and four aircraft, with the four commencing a run at LCI(G) 70. The first Kate was hit by 40mm, 20mm and .50 caliber fire and was in flames as it passed over, crashing into the sea 2,500 yards past the ship. Kate number two met the same fate and the gunboat had two kills within a few minutes. At 1920 the two remaining Kates attacked the ship from opposite angles, and a torpedo dropped by one of them struck the ship between frames 91 and 96. Good luck was with her as the torpedo did not explode. It lodged itself in the engine room where the warhead fell off. This plane was hit repeatedly and crashed close off the starboard quarter. Its companion also made a torpedo run on the ship but its torpedo missed. It was hit by 20mm fire but did not crash. A fifth plane made a run on the ship and was also shot down. LCI(G) 70 had been a lucky ship. She had dodged three torpedoes, and the one that hit her did not explode. In the action she shot down four enemy planes and damaged two others. One man had been killed and one injured by the entry of the torpedo in the engineering spaces.
Small fires had started in the engine room but they were quickly extinguished. The entry of the torpedo had sheared off the engine controls and the gunboat was dead in the water. Commanding Officer Lieutenant (jg) H. W. Frey ordered the crew to stand by to abandon ship, but subsequent inspections revealed that the torpedo was probably not going to explode. PT 167 had been fortunate as well. One of the Kates had narrowly missed the ship, clipping the radio antenna as it passed over and crashed nearby. The crew felt a shock but did not realize that their boat had been hit by a torpedo which passed through the bow and kept going. Fortunately the hole was just under the deck and the boat was able to continue operating. A second Kate fell under her guns a few minutes later. Ensign Theodore Berlin, her CO, maneuvered his ship alongside LCI(G) 70 and transferred most of her crew to LCT 68. A skeleton crew remained on board the gunboat and the LCT towed her back to Bougainville. They arrived off Cape Torokina about 0845. The little convoy had shot down six enemy planes and damaged three.
Although LCI(G) 70 was incapacitated and at anchor off Cape Torokina, her adventures were not over. At dawn on 7 November, her lookouts sighted a barge at a distance of two and one-half miles. Unable to determine if it was American or Japanese, the gunboat contacted the PT base at Puruata Island at 0630 and asked that they intercept it. By 0715, two PT boats were attacking the barge and were under fire from its guns. Each time they were in the clear, LCI(G) 70 fired its 3"/50 gun at the barge in an attempt to knock it out. After a number of near misses the barge drifted out of range. A few hours later two Dauntless dive bombers finally sank it. Lieutenant (jg) Frey reported his frustration. Had the gunboat been operable it would have made short work of the enemy vessel.
The Nakajima B5N2 Navy Type 97 Carrier Attack Bomber Model 12 was the Japanese Navy’s most important torpedo bomber with a top speed of 235 miles per hour at 12,000 feet. It could carry either a 1,764 pound bomb load or a torpedo of the same weight. The Allied code name for this aircraft was “Kate.” NARA 80G 427153.
This sketch from the action report of LCI(G) 70 shows the attack by Japanese aircraft on 5 November 1943. USS LCI(L) 70 No Serial, Report of Anti-Aircraft Action of 5 November 1943, 30 November 1943, Enclosure “C.”
On the following day, 8 November, the 70 was again in peril. At 1145 enemy planes were reported in the area and Task Unit 31.5.4, which had been unloading at Cape Torokina, got underway and out of the harbor. At 1215 a group of Vals, Bettys and Lilys were sighted and began to attack the transports. The destroyers took them under fire. At 1225 two Lilys made a bomb run on the gunboat and a nearby PT boat. Its bomb missed LCI(G) 70, and the gunboat shot it down about 1,000 yards to port. Although the gunboat escaped unscathed, little more than twelve hours would elapse before the next attack. At 0100 on 9 November, an enemy plane again dropped a bomb which missed the ship. As the 70 fired on the plane, another attacked from astern, dropping a bomb which also missed the ship. The 70 had escaped destruction again.
LCI(G) 22 was on a mission on 20 November when she came under air attack. She had departed from the PT Base with several PT boats for a patrol of the Atsinima Bay area west of Bougainville when they were strafed by two Zekes. One dropped a bomb which missed, but a round from its machine guns hit two of the 40mm clips in the gun tub causing a fire. GM 3/c R. T. Whalon quickly extinguished the fire with a life jacket, saving the ship and its crew from exploding ammunition. Although no one had been killed, eleven men were wounded and the planes escaped undamaged. The 22 headed back to harbor and transferred her wounded.
The Marines held an expanding perimeter at Empress Augusta Bay but faced many threats. In order to protect the right flank of the perimeter, Major General Roy Geiger ordered the 1st Marine Parachute Battalion, under Major Richard Fagan, to join with Company M of the 3rd Raider Battalion and conduct a raid against the Japanese. The landing site was to be ten miles to the south of Cape Torokina and was scheduled for 29 November 1943. The Marines landed at 0325 but soon found themselves the victims of faulty intelligence. They immediately encountered stiff opposition and were forced to withdraw. The Japanese put up a heavy volume of fire and the Marines were pinned down. Geiger requested Navy help and soon had several destroyers pounding the enemy positions as the Marines prepared their withdrawal. A convoy of 27 LCVPs and LCMs headed for the beach area between the May River and the Reini River to pick them up. Accompanying them were LCI(G)s 21 and 23 and PT 187.
At 1555 the gunboats spotted a yellow smoke bomb indicating the Marines’ position on the beach, and they turned toward shore. As they were heading in, four Dauntless dive bombers bombed and strafed enemy positions to the northwest of the Marines. A curtain of enemy mortar fire dropped in the water between the beach and the landing boats, driving them off. LCI(G) 23 positioned herself on their left flank and LCI(G) 21 positioned herself on their right. Unsure of the Marine and enemy positions, the gunboats held their fire until 1619, at which time they identified targets and used their 3"/50 guns. Mortar rounds fell in front of and abeam of LCI(G) 21 but did not hit her. At 1640 six more Dauntless dive bombers came over and attacked the enemy positions. The landing craft and gunboats retired to a point two miles off the beach to await reinforcements which arrived at 1740 in the form of the destroyer Fullam DD 474 and four Corsairs. The destroyer shelled the beach as the aircraft bombed and strafed the enemy. At 1825 the landing craft and the gunboats headed back in with both gunboats firing on the beaches to keep the enemy at bay. The landing craft picked up the Marines and withdrew from the area with the gunboats covering their retreat. LCI(G) 23 fished a Marine out of the water and then patrolled the area looking for stragglers. LCI(G) 21 found an LCM towing a damaged LCVP. The gunboats were back at Puruata Island by 2330.
In his endorsement to the action reports of the two gunboats, Rear Admiral T. S. Wilkinson noted:
The LCI(L) gunboats, converted in the South Pacific according to design by Commander Service Squadron Third Fleet, continue to prove their value as a supporting craft for Amphibious and PT operations in this Area.9
Patrols in Empress Augusta Bay continued throughout November and December, with LCI(G) 22 imperiled again on 11 December. Regular patrols were carried out by the gunboats both to the north and south of their base at Puruata Island off Cape Torokina. While on patrol the night of 11-12 December, they moved in close to shore to investigate unknown targets, possibly three Japanese barges. The sighting proved to be negative but, at 2130, a Japanese float plane passed over the ship at about 1,500 feet. The gunboat held fire and slowed speed so that she didn’t leave a wake in the hope that she had not been spotted. To port the sky was dark and cloudy, hiding the plane from sight. To starboard the moon was bright, illuminating the ship. Within minutes, the plane was spotted diving on the ship from dead ahead. The gunboat went to flank speed and opened up with all her guns. The plane dropped a bomb which hit the water about ten feet off her starboard side. Fragments from the blast wounded eleven men in the gun crews. The enemy plane circled around for a second pass. Its next bomb exploded under the ship, shaking it and knocking the crew off their feet. Fire from the 22 hit the plane and its ammunition began to explode. It crashed in flames nearby.
The force of the explosion had damaged the 22 and she began taking water in her #2 troop compartment. Within minutes she was down by the bow. Handy Billies were put to use to slow the flooding as the ship headed back to base at Puruata Island. PT boats came to the rescue and took off the wounded men, and the gunboat began to list to starboard. The gunboat arrived back at Puruata Island at 2250. With her bow settling fast and the ship listing heavily to starboard her skipper, Lieutenant (jg) H. C. Cobb, ran the ship up on the beach on the north side of the island in order to save her. His quick thinking and the work of his crew had saved the 22.
Even though the ship was under repair, it was still not out of danger. A few days later, on 18 December, while she was anchored off Cape Torokina, she again came under aerial attack. At 0149, two Japanese twin-engine bombers flew over at about 18,000 feet. They dropped a stick of bombs which marched across the water toward the ship. A small anti-personnel bomb hit the ship and wounded one man. Because of the extreme altitude of the planes, the anchored ship was unable to fire on it and was a sitting duck. By the time the raid was over, sixteen enemy aircraft had bombed the area, but none of the larger bombs caused any damage to the 22. Although the planes had been caught in the searchlights of the shore installations, none of the anti-aircraft guns in the area were able to shoot them down.
The Allied plan had never aimed at capturing the entire island of Bougainville; rather its purpose was to control a section of it. Their perimeter expanded for the first two months, however, it was constantly under attack by Japanese forces seeking to break through. In order to thwart future attacks, the 132nd Infantry planned to advance on the enemy near Mavavia Village, to the east of Cape Torokina. The Navy ships assisted the advance by firing on enemy forces near the shoreline. Ideally suited for this task were the LCI(G) gunboats, and the 24 and 68 were set up as a Task Unit to support the Army’s advance on 25 June 1944.
Around 0800 the two gunboats began their shelling of the shore areas which had been identified by Army smoke mortars. For the next forty-five minutes they delivered a variety of gunfire on the beaches and nearby village. Returned enemy mortar fire passed over the ships with no effect. By 0945 the two gunboats had moved to a new position and fired on suspected targets to the north and west of the village. LCI(G) 68 headed back to Puruata Island at 1030 and the 24 remained in the area for another hour and one-half before returning.
The Allies desired another airstrip closer to their target as they advanced toward Rabaul. The Green Islands, situated approximately thirty-seven miles north northwest of Buka Island, seemed to fit the bill. They were lightly defended by the Japanese and were a suitable location for an airfield. Landing there on 15 February 1944 was the 14th Brigade Group of the 3rd New Zealand Division, supported by U.S. Navy Seabees. LCI(G)s and PTs patrolled nearby islands and atolls, such as Pinipel, during the invasion. Two serviceable Japanese barges were found at Pinipel and destroyed by fire from an LCI(G).
Within a few days the Allied forces had overrun the small contingent of Japanese and begun building a 6,000 foot bomber airstrip that was finished by the end of March. The PTs established a base there for one squadron on Barahun Island, and the LCI(G)s added the area to their patrols.
LCI gunboats and PT boats were assigned to TF 31 while in the Solomons. By February 1944, LCI(G)s 21, 22, 23, 24, 67, 68, 69 and 70 were operating in the island chain, primarily around the Treasury Islands and in Empress Augusta Bay. Two PT squadrons were based at Cape Torokina on Bougainville and two others at Blanche Harbor, Treasury Islands. Standard missions at that point usually involved two to six PTs, with an LCI(G) along for heavier firepower. In many cases a second LCI(G) would be added to the mission depending on the situation. At Bougainville, as in other locations, the LCI gunboats were frequently teamed with the torpedo boats to combat barges. The PTs could get closer to shore and could also get to the barges faster than the LCI(G)s, but the gunboats had heavier firepower with a longer range. It was an ideal combination. Japanese barge traffic continued to move around the island near shore, usually at night. During the day the barges were camouflaged near shore or up small streams. On 25 February 1944, LCI(G) 24 teamed with PTs 245 and 249 for a patrol from Gazelle Harbor to the Jaba River. The gunboat arrived off Matsunkei Village at 2115 and immediately came under fire, but the rounds fell short. Inside Gazelle Harbor tracer fire could be seen as the PTs had discovered some Japanese barges and taken them under fire. The PTs requested that the gunboat fire star shells to illuminate the harbor area. That would provide a better chance of hitting the barges, but the gunboat was too far away to get there quickly. When it finally arrived, it fired eight rounds before its star shell supply ran out. The gunboat headed into Gazelle Harbor at flank speed to assist the PTs and came under fire from shore. PT 251 had run aground on a reef only 200 yards offshore. Under fire from shore, it was in dire straits and in need of assistance. However, the gunboat could not find it in the dark, and its close proximity to the beach made it difficult for the LCI(G) to get to it. Other PTs came in close but found it impossible to pass a line to it in order to pull it free. LCI(G) 24 remained nearby waiting for the chance to assist. The PTs spotted barges in a nearby river and took them under fire. The gunboat joined in the attack with its 3"/50 gun. Within ten minutes the Japanese had spotted LCI(G) 24 and a coastal defense gun, estimated to be 5 inch in size, fired on her. She was bracketed with shells but not hit. Other PTs came under fire from the beach and had to retreat.
Many of the Japanese guns were not fixed in position. To protect their barges the Japanese had a number of mobile field places that could be moved to the scene of a battle such as this. One arrived at the beach and began to fire on PT 251 which was still grounded on the reef. The first two rounds fired by the artillery piece bracketed the torpedo boat, and the third was right on target. The PT exploded in a ball of fire. Other PTs nearby opened fire on the guns and were then ordered out as the enemy was too well prepared at this point. A sweep of the area the following day picked up three survivors. The patrol had been successful, but it had been costly. Based on the experiences that evening Lieutenant (jg) Olin Taylor, CO of LCI(G) 24, concluded in his action report:
A. The Japs have set up temporary M/G posts and heavy gun emplacements along the shore to guard their barge convoys.
B. Usually these guns will not fire unless their barges are moving in the immediate area or; our forces are firing on them. They usually fire irregularly and it makes spotting more difficult.
C. For additional protection to their barge routes it is likely that they are using mobile Army field guns. These can be readily moved along the beach or trails to any position where they need fire-support.10
The conversion of LCI(L)s into gunboats continued. LCI(G) 66 came into existence at Espiritu Santo when her conversion was completed on 1 April 1944. As with previous conversions in the area, she was furnished with a 3"/50 gun forward, a 40mm aft her conning tower mounted on top of the deck house, and eight .50 caliber machine guns. She was designed as a barge destroyer. Her patrols ranged from the base at Sterling Island in the Treasuries to the far northern end of Bougainville.
Gunboats belonging to Group Thirteen, Flotilla Five, continued to patrol the waters around Bougainville, New Ireland, and New Britain until the fall of 1944. Typical of the patrols near Cape Torokina was the one undertaken by LCI(G)s 23 and 69 from 29 to 31 May 1944. Although the area was nominally under control, it was still possible to find enemy gun emplacements and barge traffic in the area. The two gunboats left their base at Torokina and headed south to Gazelle Harbor. Nearing Marawaka Point they spotted two Type A barges on the beach and attacked them. Several other Japanese barges were near the beach on the north side of the point and they were taken under fire. This was ample justification for fitting the first gunboats with 3"/50 guns. Their firepower was sufficient to destroy such vessels. LCI(G) 69 led the assault and the 23 followed. Japanese shore batteries, situated a hundred yards inland, began to fire on them and they returned fire. A nearby PBY was contacted and dropped some bombs in the area. The Japanese, under attack from sea and sky, ceased fire. Two barges had been destroyed and several others were damaged. On 31 May the two gunboats were at the nearby Tokissi River to support a troop landing which was uneventful.11
Particularly dangerous was the patrol between New Britain and New Ireland. Although the Japanese had been isolated, they had not been defeated and still maintained their combat readiness. A patrol of four gunboats, LCI(G)s 21, 24, 66, and 70 set forth from their base at Torokina at 0400 on 1 July 1944. Their mission was similar to others that they had undertaken. Japanese movement through the islands was still possible and primarily dependent on barges. The Japanese forces on New Ireland had been bypassed, and as long as they could be contained on New Ireland, they were no threat. Patrols of this sort usually ran up the coast during the night hours and then retired seaward out of sight during the day. Nighttime raids were most successful as the Japanese could not easily see them coming. In between the nighttime raids the gunboats anchored in the Green Islands.
On 2 July LCI(G)s 66 and 70 were heading for their station off Dunup Plantation on New Ireland when they picked up a radar contact about a mile and quarter away. At that point they were twenty-six miles west of Chinese Plantation on New Ireland. They headed toward the radar contact to investigate and discovered a barge which they destroyed with gunfire. It was last seen with its decks awash and settling rapidly. The two gunboats continued on to their station near Dunup Plantation, picking up additional radar contacts near shore. As they approached they came under heavy fire from the objects which were assumed to be barges. They returned fire and silenced the guns. Several instances of fire directed against the ships from shore installations occurred a few hours later with the gunboats returning fire and silencing it. The Japanese had been cut off, but they were still a potent fighting force.
About the same time, LCI(G)s 21 and 24 were on patrol to the north. At 2355 they exchanged fire with the Japanese near Chinese Plantation. A dark object, assumed to be a barge, occupied their attention an hour after midnight and they poured gunfire into it. A large white house south of Dunup Plantation was their next target and their 3"/50 guns caused significant damage to the house. With daylight approaching, the ships moved offshore and out of sight.
At 2103 on 3 July, 21 and 24 were off Chinese Plantation once again. Three barges were sighted at 2155 moving south near the shore and LCI(G) 21 hit one amidships with 3"/50 fire, breaking the back of the eighty foot long barge. Star shells were fired by LCI(G) 24 and illuminated three additional Type A barges. Fire from the two gunboats blasted all three and put them out of commission. An hour and one half later the ships were shelling Matakan Plantation. Moving further down the coast to Nakudukudu Bay, they investigated additional objects near shore and came under intense automatic weapons fire. They responded, suppressed the fire, and moved out of the area.
Meanwhile LCI(G)s 66 and 70 arrived at Dunup Plantation at 2140. They proceeded south, hitting a few targets on the beach and rendezvousing with LCI(G)s 21 and 24 off Tambaker Point. They then headed south. Daybreak found the four gunboats off Hunter Point where they opened fire on beach targets. A steering failure on LCI(G) 70, along with the presence of mines in the area, brought an abrupt halt to their campaign and they had to retreat from the area and head back to their base.12 Such patrols continued for the duration of the war. Although Choiseul, Bougainville, and the Shortland Islands were bypassed, there was always the potential for problems if the Japanese managed to get supplies to their forces on them.
Once Japanese air and sea power at Rabaul had been neutralized, the problem of cut-off Japanese forces on the Solomon and Bismarck islands still remained. In order to keep them from one another and limit their resupply, it was necessary to constantly patrol the waters around the islands. The area between the Japanese base at Rabaul and their forces on New Ireland was of primary importance. LCI gunboats, along with PTs and PGMs, were constantly on patrol in the St. George’s Channel. Such patrols usually lasted several days with the ships starting out from their bases at Cape Torokina or in the Treasuries. PT bases in the Green Islands or at Emirau Island were used for layovers or resupply during the days, and patrols usually took place during the night.
Not all danger came from shore batteries or barges. On 30 July LCI(G) 66 was patrolling two miles off the west coast of New Ireland near Huro Point when she was nearly torpedoed. At 0115 her lookouts spotted a torpedo wake as it passed by the ship. Since the gunboats had no sonar or depth charges, they could do little but report the incident to their base. The only possibility they had for destroying an enemy submarine was to catch it on the surface and shell it or call in larger ships or aircraft.
Arawe and Cape Gloucester
The encirclement of Rabaul required advancement along the coast of New Guinea in a northwestward direction. Once a position on New Guinea was reached that was due west of the tip of New Britain, it was necessary to hop across the two straits to land on the western shores of the island. Huon Peninsula lay directly across from the western tip of New Britain, separated by a single body of water and divided by several islands. To the south of the islands was Vitiaz Strait, and to the north was Dampier Strait. One of the great concerns of the Allied forces operating on New Guinea was that the two straits might provide an easy access to the Solomon Sea for the Japanese Navy. Such a force might endanger Allied forces ashore and any preliminary landing on New Britain. The purpose of the Allied advance was to acquire airfields that might be used against Rabaul and other Japanese strongholds in the area, as well as against any Japanese naval force transiting the straits.
Japanese barges were often spotted by aircraft. These camouflaged barges were discovered by airmen flying their 5th Air Force B-25 off the coast of New Britain. In the area between Bougainville, New Britain, and New Ireland, barges fell victim to aircraft, PT boats and LCI gunboats. Aircraft were able to destroy them during the daylight hours, and nighttime hours were left to the gunboats to hunt them. Photograph by 5th U.S. Air Force.
The Rocket Ships Go into Action
As Allied forces proceeded toward Rabaul along the chain of islands in the Solomons, additional progress was being made along the coast of New Guinea. After the Allies captured Finschafen in New Guinea, they were poised to attack the western end of New Britain in the Cape Gloucester area. As a stepping stone toward Cape Gloucester, the VII Amphibious Force landed the 112th U.S. Cavalry Regimental Combat Team under Brigadier General Cunningham at Arawe on 15 December 1943. The Arawe Islands lay just off Cape Merkus, New Britain, and were at the entrance to a good, but small harbor off Alamut Plantation on a small peninsula. During the landings, rubber boats carrying the troops encountered unexpected fire from the Japanese ashore and many were sunk. Fire from the accompanying destroyer Shaw DD 373 silenced the enemy guns as further troop landings were attempted. At this point a new weapon came into use, the ship-launched rocket. In this preliminary attempt to use rockets to fire on shore installations prior to a landing, two DUKWs fitted with rockets proved effective against Japanese defenders on shore.13 Having demonstrated the worth of rockets just prior to the landing phase of the assault, it was only a short time before rockets mounted on LCIs would be put into action.
Although the landing at Arawe had given the Allied forces a foothold on New Britain, it was not of much use. Its airfield was not developed further, as other fields were more useful. It did, however, distract the Japanese forces from the landing at Cape Gloucester.
By early December of 1943, the conversions of LCI(L)s 31 and 34 to rocket ships had been accomplished. According to Vice Admiral Daniel E. Barbey, “The effect of the rocket tryout on a small island near Milne Bay was devastating. The rain forest was cut as with a giant scythe.”14 With this test run, the stage was set for the first use of the LCI(R)s at the invasion of Cape Gloucester, New Britain.
At 0600 on Christmas Day 1944, the LCI(L)s, including the newly converted 31 commanded by Lieutenant (jg) Thomas J. Morrisey) and 34 commanded by Lieutenant (jg) Joseph F. Keefe, got underway from Cape Sudest, New Guinea, to their rendezvous off Buna. Once having assembled at Buna, they departed for Cape Gloucester. Included in the ships gathered for the attack were thirteen destroyers, nine APDs, and three sub-chasers. Overflights of P-47s, P-38s, and P-40s passed over the ships. By late in the day, they had been joined by other destroyers and the cruisers H. M. A. S. Australia, H. M. A. S. Shropshire, Nashville CL 43, and Phoenix CL 46, as well as other LCI(L)s. At 0600 on 26 December the invasion began. The landing craft started their trip to the beach after the cruisers and destroyers pounded it in traditional fashion. Over the beach B-25s made a final strafing and bombing attack on enemy positions. LCI(R) 31 fired 288 4.5 inch rockets at Yellow Beach just ahead of the landing craft. As with all rocket attacks, the volley tore great gaps in the covering foliage and decimated enemy positions near the shoreline. LCI(R) 34 did not fire during this landing for reasons not covered in the official reports. The two LCI(R)s were designated Task Unit 76.1.33 under Commander Day. The 1st Marine Division under Major General William H. Rupertus landed on the beaches. Green Beach 1 at Tuali was also hit by rocket fire from DUKWs. The pre-landing bombardment by ships, aircraft, and finally the amphibious gunboats, had put an end to any Japanese resistance, which was later determined to be light. The Japanese had thought that the landings were to be further south in Borgen Bay and had concentrated their troop strength in that area. From this point forward additional LCI(L)s were converted to carry rockets and were be an essential part of any beach assault.
Shortly after the attack on Cape Gloucester, the Associated Press released an article about the new use of rocket gunboats. It read:
Rockets that swish through the air and disintegrate everything within range of their explosion were used effectively in the allied amphibious operations at Arawe and Cape Gloucester, New Britain, and at Saidor, New Guinea.
American Sixth Army forces landed at Arawe Dec. 15 and at Saidor Jan. 2; marine veterans invaded Cape Gloucester, Dec. 26.
An Army spokesman said today rockets fired from landing craft and small vessels blasted brush and trees along the beach before troops landed, and smashed Japanese gun positions on the Cape Gloucester airstrips before the marines moved in for close fighting.
At Saidor, landing craft and sub-chasers moved in close to the beach, firing rockets directly over the Higgins boats carrying the assault waves. The rockets made a peculiar suction-like sound going overhead. A hundred yards offshore, the concussion from the explosions made pants legs whip against skins of men crouched in the boats.
On land, the rockets were used to blast Japanese from caves and deeply dug pillboxes. In one cave on the first day of Arawe battle, six Japanese were killed in one rocket shot.15
To complete the encirclement of Rabaul, the capture of the Admiralty Islands was planned for 1 April 1944. The two main islands in the group, Manus and Los Negros, were suitable for use as air bases. However, their configuration was such that the two islands encompassed a very useful body of water, Seeadler Harbor. Plans were put forth to make this a major naval base that would both cut off Rabaul completely and serve as a major fleet base. Last minute political considerations by MacArthur advanced the invasion date by several days and his orders were to land a “reconnaissance in force” on the islands no later than 29 March. Because of the short notice, the troops had to be carried to the islands on high speed transports and destroyers and landed in small boats. LCI(L)s, LSTs, and slower amphibious ships were left behind. As a result the LCI gunboats were not able to participate, even though their use would have been quite important. The landings took place piecemeal and nearly failed. By a stroke of good luck and poor Japanese strategy, the troops managed to hang on and overcome the resistance.16
For the LCI gunboats this would become an important base. Numerous gunboats were converted there or repaired. The Admiralty Islands became a staging area for further campaigns.
Saidor, Toem, Wadke, Biak, Noemfoor
The VI Army established a beachhead at Cape Gloucester but needed an airstrip from which to fly cover for the landing zone. A suitable one existed at Saidor on New Guinea, which was assaulted on 2 January 1944. Again LCI(R)s 31 and 34 were active in the attack. The next appearance of the rocket gunboats was at Toem, New Guinea. In this landing the newly converted LCI(R) 73 joined them for the assault on 17 May. The use of the rocket gunboats for call-fire and other missions had not yet been developed. The three rocket gunboats continued to be active in regional landings, participating in the assaults on Wadke on 17 May, Biak, 27 May and Noemfoor Island on 2 July 1944. At this point MacArthur’s eyes were on a landing in the Philippines. Numerous LCI gunboats and rocket ships began to assemble at various locations near New Guinea, while others began to undergo conversions that would put them in the first assault waves at Leyte. By the end of September and into early October, most of the LCI(G)s and LCI(R)s headed for the invasion at Leyte. Still others were converted to mount 4.5 inch mortars, which were first used at Peleliu on 15 September 1944. All three gunboat types were active in the invasion at Leyte. The final versions of the LCI gunboats, the LCS(L)s were just being launched and their crews were still in training. They would not appear in the war zone until after the Lingayen landings in early 1945.
General MacArthur’s forces had advanced along the coast of New Guinea to the Vogelkop Peninsula at the western end of New Guinea. He had to consider both his next step, as well as his final destination. With a landing in the Philippines as his next objective, MacArthur had to find a way to advance his forces toward the Philippines and, at the same time, minimize Japanese interference with those forces. The use of air power from New Guinea against targets in the Philippines was impractical as the distance was too great. In addition, Japanese airfields on the large island of Halmahera might provide the Japanese with bases from which to interfere with American shipping and aircraft. An American airfield was needed part way between the Vogelkop and the island of Mindanao in the Philippines.
The first consideration for a more advanced base was Halmahera, situated about half way between Vogelkop Peninsula and the island of Mindanao. It was quickly ruled out as the Japanese Army force there numbered around 30,000, and the island was large enough that routing them out would take a major effort. The troops there were primarily from the 32nd Division of Lieutenant General Fusataro Teshima’s 2nd Army. They were supplemented by the 1st Field Base Unit, the 10th Expeditionary Unit and the 26th Special Base Force. Of the 30,000 Japanese there, only about one-third were actual combat troops. Nonetheless, they could be considered formidable opposition.
Landing on the northernmost coast of Halmahera was considered, however, it would leave the landing forces subject to continual attacks from the Japanese on the island. The situation would be similar to that existing on Bougainville and would be a constant drain on Allied resources. A better choice was the island of Morotai, just fifty miles off the northern tip of Halmahera and lightly defended. The island of Halmahera was placed on the list of islands to be bypassed as MacArthur leapfrogged his forces past a number of Japanese held islands and left the Japanese on them cut off from support. Bombing of the airfields on Halmahera by Army air force planes flying from Sansapor had reduced the number of available Japanese aircraft on the island from 140 to only fifteen. This negated the possibility that an invasion force heading for Morotai would be bombed. The only way for the Japanese to reinforce the small garrison on Morotai would be to transport them fifty miles by barge from Halmahera to Morotai, a dangerous undertaking. Swift PT boats, LCI gunboats, and aircraft would make short work of barges attempting the transit. Morotai would be the next landing.
The island of Morotai is approximately forty-four miles long from north to south and twenty-five miles wide. It is primarily mountainous jungle terrain, suitable for strong defense had the Japanese placed a small number of troops there to defend it. As it stood, there were only about 500 Japanese on the island. They had recently been formed into the 2nd Provisional Raiding Unit, a commando group led by Major Takenobu Kawashima. Of major interest to the Americans was a partly finished airstrip at Pitoe on the southernmost coast of the island. A peninsula, running to the south from the area around Pitoe, was suitable for expansion of the field and would also serve as a good landing point for the invasion. A small harbor was near Pitoe and several small offshore islands would prove usable as bases for gunboats and PTs. Once the airfield was expanded, the island would be a perfect steppingstone to the Philippines. The landing at Pitoe was scheduled for 15 September 1944 at two beaches, Red and White, situated on either side of the airfield.
Assaulting the beach was the 31st Infantry Division under Major General John C. Persons. It consisted of the 124th, 155th, and 167th Infantry Regiments. The 126th Infantry Regiment, 32nd Infantry Division was held in reserve. In addition to these infantry troops were support units of various kinds, bringing the immediate invasion force to around 28,000. To build the airfields and service them, another 28,000 personnel were transported to the island.
Assigned to transport the assault force were various elements of the VII Amphibious Corps, under Rear Admiral Daniel E. Barbey. Barbey would handle the White Attack Group and the Red Attack Group would be under the command of his subordinate, Rear Admiral William M. Fechteler. Three American light cruisers, two British heavy cruisers, and ten destroyers under Rear Admiral R. S. Berkey, would provide heavy fire support. The Japanese airfields on Halmahera, the Celebes, Mindanao, the Palaus, Yap, and Ulithi were bombed continuously during the week preceding the landing at Morotai by aircraft from the 5th Air Force and the fast carriers of the Pacific Fleet. Six days before the assault, Rear Admiral Thomas L. Sprague supplied six escort carriers for anti-submarine patrol. His planes also flew combat air patrols, although the severe bombing of the Japanese airfields during the week gave them little to look at besides the blue seas beneath their wings.
Transporting the troops to Morotai were five APDs, 45 LSTs, 24 LCIs, 20 LCTs, and an LSD. Screening the transports were twenty-four destroyers, four frigates, eleven LCI gunboats, six PCs, four minesweepers, and two PCs.
The above sketch from the Action Report of LCI(G) 65 shows the area attacked by LCI(G)s 64 and 65 at Morotai on 15 September 1944. USS LCI(G) 65 No Serial, Commanding Officer USS LCI(G) 65 Action Report Morotai Operation, 18 September 1944, p. 11.
LCI(G)s 23, 64, 65, and 69 provided close-in fire support for the landing at Red Beach. White Beach was covered by LCI(G)s 68 and 70. The troops landed on time, with the gunboats providing ample fire on the beaches to bolster the pre-invasion bombardment of the larger ships. The troops accomplished the landing with no resistance.
Having delivered their troops to the beach, the gunboats turned to coastal patrols. LCI(G)s 23, 64, and 65 skirted the coast and checked the nearby islands. Near Cape Wajaboela, about eighteen miles north of the landing beaches, they spotted anti-aircraft fire coming from a village and directed at one of the Navy planes covering the area. They directed their fire at the village, setting it on fire and silencing the gun battery. The area remained ablaze for the next day.17
The island of Morotai proved to be an ideal location for airfields that could reach the Philippines and other strategic areas. It was taken on 15 September 1944. From Hugh J. Casey, Major General. Engineers of the Southwest Pacific 1941–1945 Volume I, Engineers in Theater Operations (Washington DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1947), p. 188.
LCI(G)s 65 and 64 attack the area between White Beach and Red Beach at Morotai, 15 September 1944. National Archives photograph NARA 80G 181441 courtesy Dean Reid.
LCI(G)s head for the beach at Morotai on 15 September 1944. LCI(G) 65 is in the foreground. National Archives photograph NARA 80G 181445 courtesy Dean Reid.
There was some concern that the Japanese on Halmahera might send barges with reinforcements to the landing area. During the night hours, the gunboats patrolled the strait between Halmahera and Morotai until the arrival of PT boats, which would continue the patrols from that point on.
Additional landings were made in the southern area of Morotai. On 17 September an Army assault unit and a radar team landed at Posi Posi to establish a radar station there. LCI(G) 23 covered them as they landed to no opposition. That same day a similar landing was effected at Cape Tilei with LCI(G) 70 covering the landing, again with no resistance. On 19 September, uncontested landings were made at Padangi and Cape Sopi with LCI(G)s 23 and 69 covering the landings respectively. Some evidence of the Japanese was found at Cape Sopi, and Ringold DD 500 shelled the area for good measure. Another landing at Cape Gorango was completed on 20 September and covered by LCI(G)s 65 and 70. Enemy troops were in the area and the ships shelled the jungle behind the landing beaches. The purpose of these landings was to set up radar stations at various locations along the coast. Some minor fighting occurred here between the assault force and the Japanese after the gunboats left the area, and on 23 September LCI(G) 69 reported to the area to evacuate some wounded Army radar team members.
Nearby Raoe Island seemed to be a good site for another radar installation, and a landing on the southern part was made on 21 September covered by LCI(G) 69. Natives on the island greeted the troops and informed them that there were no Japanese on the island.
The U.S. Army did not see the need to chase the few Japanese around the island to eliminate them. It was too large an area to cover and the cost far outweighed the effort. The Japanese retreated to the hills and were left in peace until the war ended. With the end of threats from the Japanese on the island, the gunboats returned to Humboldt Bay, New Guinea, departing Morotai on 24 September.
An LCI(G) fires rockets at Morotai on 15 September 1944. NARA 80G 181442.
Mapia and Asia Islands
The Mapia Islands lie approximately 130 miles northwest of Biak and 360 miles east southeast of Morotai. Although the war had passed them by, the islands were of value to the American forces as observation posts and weather stations. Their unique position between the Palaus and New Guinea made them valuable in that regard. Additionally, there was no reason to leave them in the hands of the approximately 400 Japanese remaining on the Asia Islands who would be in a position to report any American movements to their own headquarters. Plans to capture the islands corresponded with the invasion of Luzon, which was sure to occupy the efforts of the Japanese and draw them away from the smaller islands to the south.18
Overall command of the Task Group 78.14 was held by Captain Lord Ashbourne, D.S.O. Royal Navy in his flagship H.M. S. Ariadne. Ariadne was an Abdiel Class fast minelayer cruiser and had been in action in the Pacific since mid–1944. The close Support Unit TU 78.14.31 was divided into two sections, one to attack Red Beach at Pegun Island in the Mapias and the other to attack White Beach at Igi Island in the Asia group. Gunboats assigned to Red Beach at Pegun Island were LCI(G)s 567(F) 568, 580, and 407under the overall command of Lieutenant Commander J. D. Starkus. LCI(G)s 461, 439, 462, and 467 provided supporting fire at White Beach. LCI(G) 373 had originally been assigned to the assault but damaged a screw and was replaced by LCI(G) 467. The Task Group staged from its base at Morotai.
The first group of islands to be invaded was the Mapia Islands. Of the three islands in the group, Pegun was the location of the Japanese main force. Twelve-hundred American troops from the 167th Infantry Regiment, along with several smaller units, landed on Red Beach at Pegun Island on 19 November 1944. Bombardment by the destroyers Shaw DD 373 and Caldwell DD 605, destroyer escort Willmarth DE 638, and PC 1122, along with that of Ariadne, pounded the small island and drove the Japanese off. They waded across the reef to neighboring Bras Island with as much equipment as they could take and were able to offer some light anti-aircraft fire against B-25s that bombed them later in the day.
At 0615 on 15 November the LCI(G)s opened fire on Red Beach on Pegun Island with rocket barrages, 40mm and 20mm fire. The troops landed with no opposition as the bulk of the Japanese force had left earlier for Bras Island. The bodies of thirteen Japanese who had committed suicide were found on Pegun Island. The gunboats then turned their attention to the southernmost tip of Bras and hit it with rockets and automatic weapons fire. They received a few mortar shells in return. Troop landings were made on Bras the following day with the gunboats supplying a standard assault barrage. On 18 November Finaldo was taken and the Mapia Islands were conquered. Light machine gun fire and a few mortar rounds were directed at the gunboats, but their counter fire soon ended the enemy resistance.
The Asia Islands were assaulted on 19 November. Task Unit 78.14.32 gunboats LCI(G)s 461(F), 462, 467, and 439 under Lieutenant H. F. Godbout led the assault. Standard rocket barrages and strafing were used against White Beach on Igi Island but the Japanese had withdrawn.19
With the end of Operation Cartwheel, American objectives had been obtained. Rabaul was no longer a viable and useful base for the Japanese. Her harbor was filled with the hulks of damaged and sunken ships and her airfields were out of commission. Any aircraft attempting the flight to Rabaul’s airfields would have found them cratered. Constant coverage of the area by American aircraft would have resulted in certain death for any Japanese pilot attempting to land. The Japanese high command was forced to abandon its military forces on New Britain as the Allied forces surrounded, cut off, and bypassed the island. Its garrison had to fend for itself without the possibility of launching any offensive action against the Allies who would now move toward other prizes.
The decision to neutralize and bypass Rabaul was a good one. Capture of the island and the elimination of the Japanese defenders would have been exceptionally costly. Several years after the war, Marine Corps historians wrote:
When the order came for the Japanese to cease fighting, Eighth Area Army had about 57,000 men and Southeast Area Fleet about 34,000 on Gazelle Peninsula, with an additional 7,700 Army and 5,000 Navy troops a night’s barge trip away on New Ireland. These men, as part of the amazing display of national discipline evident throughout the Pacific, accepted the Emperor’s surrender order without incident.20
By the middle of 1944, the United States Navy had developed and put to use two entirely new weapons, the LCI(G) and the LCI(R). Both had proven their worth during Operation Cartwheel and had gone from leading the invasion forces to the beach to bombarding shore installations and destroying barge traffic. Their value having been demonstrated, numerous LCI(L)s would be sent to rear areas for conversion to gunboats and new LCI(L)s back in the states would undergo conversion prior to heading west to the combat zone.