On Up the Solomons

The Guadalcanal campaign drew rapidly to a close in February. The Japanese made one more major rescue attempt after February 1, sending down another force of twenty destroyers that was heavily punished by marine and navy dive bombers and torpedo planes both going and coming. Then they left the rest of their people on Guadalcanal to die, again pulled all their heavy ships out of the Solomons, and poured air reinforcement to their air bases at Munda, Vila, Buin, Faisi, Rekata Bay, Kahili, Kieta and Buka.

At the same time the American task forces that had been operating south of the islands withdrew to our rear bases. The late-January, early-February maneuvering was the first time during the Solomons campaign that both fleets had been at sea in force without a meeting. We had only the Enterprise and Saratoga operating in the area along with several smaller converted carriers that had yet to prove their mettle.

As a whole our fleet was stronger. Our heavy cruiser divisions had been riddled, but the battleships and the light cruisers that had been sent down had more than made up for the losses. Destroyer losses had been replaced, and some of the jobs they previously had been doing, such as off-harbor antisubmarine patrol, were taken over by the PC boats. The PT squadrons were being augmented and assigned to offensive patrol against Japanese barge concentrations.

When the marines landed on Guadalcanal the only amphibious equipment in the South Pacific was the Higgins boats, small tank lighters, and a few amphibious tractors. Men of the force had been reading in the magazines about the wonderful new equipment that was being built, the LSTs, LCIs, and the others; but they hadn’t seen any. In the early months of 1943 these also began to move south. Most of the captains of these smaller vessels were inland tug captains or harbor sailors who knew nothing about navigation. For the long ocean voyage from the West Coast to Australia or the Solomons, they sailed in squadrons using follow-the-leader tactics. Men who could navigate were put on one ship. The rest tagged along.

Before moving against Munda and Vila, which were almost two hundred air miles from Henderson Field, our Solomons forces needed a closer fighter base, so the Russell Islands were occupied in mid-February and an airfield was built there.

The Japanese had used the Russells as a staging base during the Guadalcanal campaign, but they withdrew after the evacuation of the Guadalcanal officers, and the American move was made without opposition. It was several days before the Japanese even sent an air strike against the American ships that filled the narrow, dangerous waters of the anchorage off Pavuvu Island. Completion of the airstrip on the Russells put American fighter planes sixty miles nearer Munda.

Both air and surface units were used in the softening up of the Japanese positions on New Georgia and Kolombangara. Dive bombers, torpedo planes, Flying Fortresses and Liberators subjected the Vila and Munda camps to almost daily bombardments, the PBYs kept them awake at night with nuisance raids, and task forces of light cruisers and destroyers made several runs up “the slot” to bombard them.

During this period the Japanese were striking back by air, but not as hard as the Americans were pounding them. They had taken such heavy punishment from the American fighter planes in the daylight attacks that they had almost abandoned such sorties and started paying only nocturnal visits. Although they lost few planes they also did little damage. Night bombing by small units against combat positions has little value except to keep the garrisons awake.

I was still riding the Nicholas during the early phases of the softening-up process. She had returned to base to have the holes in her side patched and her No. 5 gun, which had been temporarily disabled the afternoon of February 1 by a bomb fragment, put back in first-class shape. Then she had rejoined the squadron. The OBannon previously had rejoined, after getting her engine repaired. Once more there were four destroyers in the squadron.

While there, word had come of the final investment of Guadalcanal. The force we had sent ashore to the south of Cape Esperance on February 1 met the main body driving west on February 10. All organized resistance had ended a day or two before. In a few days the last remaining Japanese on the island were either captured or killed.

When we rejoined the squadron we found it attached to another task force under the command of Rear Admiral Ike Giffen. He had his flag on one of the 8-inch-gun cruisers. Under Admiral Giffen was a division of lights. Their division commander was Rear Admiral A.S. (Tip) Merrill, who had only recently been promoted to flag rank. Our old friend Commander Bill Brown, the former skipper of the Nicholas, was Admiral Merrill’s operations officer.

While waiting for the force to start north to cover the Russell Islands occupation, the Nicholas did two days’ patrol off the harbor entrance. The second night we had what seemed to be a good submarine contact and made two attacks. There was no wreckage around the next morning, so if it was a submarine he must have escaped with only a jolting.

The visit to the base was a complete washout. We arrived the day after its officers’ club, set up in a former plantation owner’s home, ran out of fluid stock. No one had had a drink for so long; abstinence was getting to be a habit. At the last minute of our call at another base I had finagled a case of gin, but we had pulled out so suddenly we hadn’t had an opportunity to attack it.

On February 20 we ran up to Tulagi with the light cruisers to cover the Russell Islands occupation, but when it became obvious that the Japanese surface forces were not going to interfere we went back south to rejoin Admiral Giffin’s heavies.

For several days the force did squads left and right, and right about, wearing out the book on maneuvers for practically any contingency of day or night fighting that could be imagined.

The Nicholas was glad to escape for two days to escort a light cruiser back to port. When she left the cruiser outside the harbor and headed back to rejoin the force everyone on the ship felt as though on vacation. She had been operating under a commodore or admiral for so long, Andy Hill could hardly believe he was on his own, if only for a day.

Even the weather was propitious, sunny and cool, as the Nicholas turned north. We spent the morning firing at a target the First Lieutenant had made and that afternoon had an unofficial fireworks show, shooting off some pyrotechnics that had been condemned. One of the flares misfired when it was being shot and landed in the whaleboat just under the bridge. While the rest of us were ducking for cover Lou Snider skinned down the ladder, jumped into the boat and threw the bomb over the side. It exploded as it hit the water, only a fraction of a second after it had left his hand. Lou will get no medal for his act, but it took plenty of courage.

When we rejoined the force we found plans had been made for a double-barreled night raid on Munda and Vila, which lie only twenty miles apart. The plan was for the light cruisers and destroyers to go in from the north, through the Kula Gulf, and hit Vila while Captain Briscoe took his four cans off Munda Bar to plaster the Munda airstrip.

The destroyers refueled from the cruisers on March 3 (one cruiser sent the Nicholas some walnut ice cream while the oil was being pumped) and we shoved off and headed north. After the loss of the Chicago the heavy cruisers never again went in range of the Japanese air arm around the Solomons.

While in port the Nicholas’s doctor, Doctor Doyle, was transferred to the hospital. He had contracted what he had diagnosed as a slight case of cat fever but which developed into pneumonia. For several days he was running a fever of 104 degrees in a climate that was almost as hot. When the Nicholas left for the strike au Munda, she had no physician aboard. Although any one of the young doctors at the navy hospital would have jumped at the chance to see some action, none of them could be spared. Few wounded patients were being received from up the line, but the hospital was filled with sick marines and sailors. Pneumonia cases especially were increasing among the men of the ships, debilitated by the long watches they had to stand and the terrific heat.

The afternoon of March 4 the force headed north. This was getting to be a milk run for the Briscoe squadron. The ships passed through Sealark Channel without slackening speed, having to change course for a fleet of LCTs headed for Tulagi who never got out of anyone’s way, and headed out past Savo at dusk.

The sunset was one of the most gorgeous the tropics ever had put on display. There was not a cloud in the sky. That night, for one of the few times of the many I had watched, I saw the green streamers shoot up across the sky just as the sun went down. Seen through binoculars, it rivals the aurora borealis for splendor.

Soon after sunset the force separated. Admiral Merrill led his group up “the slot.” Captain Briscoe turned the destroyer squadron southwest through the passage between the Russells and New Georgia, to head up past Tetipari and Rendova for the attack on Munda. The night was moonless and cloudless, and the heavens were crowded with stars. There was the usual play of heat lightning along the horizon.

The squadron was in column. The squadron leader set the course and the speed. The others followed, running in her wake. On nights when it was difficult to see the bulk of the ship ahead the white phosphorescent wake was always visible.

The American ships, mere shadows in the night, slipped past Tetipari and then Rendova, which is shaped like Humpty Dumpty, a fat body with one leg sticking out toward Tetipari.

As we drew abreast of Baniana Point two planes came into view. The commodore turned out to sea, to give the squadron more room to maneuver, but they must have been friendly, for they turned away, apparently on sighting us. We knew there were to be PBYs over the enemy airfields to watch the bombardment and spot for the cruisers.

When no attack developed, the commodore turned back on the course, starting in past Rendova toward the firing course paralleling the Munda Bar, a sand-topped coral reef that lay some two miles off the beach.

The squadron was half an hour from the firing course when we heard Admiral Merrill order his ships to commence fire and we saw, across the low-lying southwestern tip of Munda, our cruisers engaged in Kula Gulf. The enemy cruisers had chosen to defend Vila.

The flash from the 6-inch guns of our own cruisers was unmistakable. It was obvious they had gotten in the first licks. They must have had two or three salvos in the air before there was any return fire from the two enemy ships, and then it was in small volume compared to the hurricane of shells pouring in from the turrets of the American cruisers.

The action had not been under way five minutes when there was a great explosion, then another smaller one from the area where the enemy ships had been seen firing. The smaller explosion was followed by a fire that waxed and waned. The American ships ceased firing.

Captain Briscoe continued to lead the squadron in to do the job assigned, and promptly at 1:30 the squadron leader turned on the firing course and opened fire. An instant previously we saw the cruisers open up again and their shells arching across the sky toward the Vila target. Counting the flashes, we could see the force still intact.

Following the squadron leader the other three destroyers turned on the firing course and opened on the Munda airstrip. There was no immediate answering fire from the beach, although the engagement between the two enemy vessels and the American cruisers in Kula Gulf had destroyed any element of surprise. The whole area must have been alerted.

Lieutenant Mitchell, the new gun boss, was firing the Nicholas guns in full salvo, and soon the destroyer was rocking back and forth from the recoil of the five 5/38s going off in unison. The South Pacific fleet did not then have flashless powder, and the blinding flash of the four destroyers’ guns blinded those of use who were watching from the bridge. The only way to see at all, we found, was to count the seconds between salvos and close our eyes just as Mitch pushed the firing button. That way it worked out very well.

Methodically and at a sedate speed the squadron moved along on its firing course, rocking its salvos back and forth across the enemy airstrip from one end to the other. (An air strike that followed up at daybreak said Munda airstrip had been so torn with shells it was unusable; and no planes were attempting to operate from there when the American bombers arrived over the field.)

There was still no answering fire from the shore as the four American destroyers completed their run and turned southwest for the haul back home. The Radford was slow to turn out after the other three ships, and the commodore ordered sharply:

“Join up. Let’s get the hell out of here.”

After the flaming ten minutes of bombardment the night seemed twice as black as all hands strained their eyes watching for enemy torpedo boats supposedly operating in protection of the Munda Beach. The sea was glassy calm, without a ripple showing, and we could have seen the wake of a PT for five miles. If there were any around they never got close.

Carl Pfeiffer, the OBannon’s chief engineer, had been having trouble with his repaired engines; and before we had gone in that night Doc MacDonald had reported to the commodore that he would not be able to make top speed. Remembering that, the commodore held the squadron leader to the speed of the OBannon as we started the retirement.

The squadron had put about six miles between it and the beach when the Japanese finally climbed out of their dugouts and fired a pattern of star shells in our direction. They were two or three thousand yards short, but they acted like a shot in the arm for the OBannon. She was just astern of us in column when we saw her start to move up. We were running in the squadron leader’s wake at her speed, and the OBannon was almost up on our fantail before she discovered she had closed the interval. She turned out just in time to avoid ramming, and shot past the Nicholas as though the latter had been tied.

The commodore saw her moving several knots faster than Carl had said she could make, so he stepped up the squadron leader’s speed and soon the whole squadron was hightailing it a maximum speed.

As we were retiring we saw the cruisers open up again on the enemy ship they had hit when going in for their run. They had left her burning behind them, made their run and then worked her over again on their way out. We saw the American shells pouring in on the enemy vessel. Then the fire disappeared. We heard the next morning, when we were refueling back in Tulagi, that the American force had met the two enemy ships coming out of Kula Gulf after apparently having made a sweep of the lower end in search for the American ships. Admiral Merrill opened fire and hit both of them before they had fired a gun. One blew up and sank almost immediately. They left the other burning and dead in the water, went on in for their firing run, and then sank her on the way out.

The bombardment had been so effective that not an enemy plane got off either field, and the force returned to base without an attack. One of our own planes came over Rendova as we cleared Baniata Point, but he quickly got out of our way when the Radford fired a few shells at him. After the Nicholas’s experience west of Savo the night of January 26 and the loss of the De Haven, the squadron was under orders to fire at night on any plane that came within range without identifying itself.

Several weeks later I saw Dick Tregaskis of International News Service at a rear base, and learned that Dick was in the PBY the Radford fired on. He had flown up from Guadalcanal to watch the bombardment. The shells burst all around the plane and gave them quite a shaking up, Dick said, but did not injure or kill anyone and did little damage to the plane. It was entirely too accurate shooting for their comfort, though.

When we returned to base I said goodbye to the Nicholas and to the squadron, which now had a new commodore, and started what developed as a long and laborious trip to the Aleutians.

The Battle of the Solomons was not over, but it was the beginning of the end. In seven months Guadalcanal had been seized and built into a major air base and a staging island for further moves up the chain. The Japanese had withdrawn their badly battered fleet, and although they continued to feed in planes to Rabaul and Munda, Vila and Bougainville air bases, the United Nations held control of the sea and the air.

On June 30 an invasion force of the army landed on Rendova Island, from where Munda airstrip could be brought under artillery fire, and after two months of heavy fighting cleared it and all of New Georgia of the enemy. Shortly thereafter the Japanese, outflanked by another American landing at Vella Lavella, began withdrawing their forces from Kolombangara, abandoning their now useless base at Vila.

General Vandegrift, promoted to a Lieutenant Generalcy and placed in charge of the first amphibious corps of marines, sent them ashore November 1 at Empress Augusta Bay on Bougainville.

On the second anniversary of Pearl Harbor, the only question remaining was how long it would take to complete the conquest of all the Solomons, an outcome that was as certain as the course of the sun and the moon and the stars.

The Japanese navy made only three ineffectual efforts to interfere by sea with the American advance from Guadalcanal. On July 6 and 12, while the battle for Munda still raged, forces of American cruisers and destroyers defeated light Japanese flotillas in the Kula Gulf, with loss of the light cruiser Helena and the destroyer Gwin; and in November an American surface force turned back an attempted surface strike from Rabaul at the Empress Augusta Bay bridgehead.

The pincers were closing on Rabaul, the principal target of the American drives through New Guinea and up the Solomons.

General Vandegrift’s prophecy in his farewell to his command on Guadalcanal in December—“‘tide what may’ I know that you, as brave men and men of good will, will hold your heads high and prevail in the future as you have done in the past”—was being gloriously fulfilled.