Land Battle of Vella Lavella

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The Battle of Vella Lavella was fought from 15 August – 6 October 1943 between Japan and the Allied forces from New Zealand and the United States. Vella Lavella, an island located in the Solomon Islands, had been occupied by Japanese forces early during the war in the Pacific. Following the fighting around Munda Point, the Allies recaptured the island in late 1943, following a decision to bypass a large concentration of Japanese troops of Kolombangara.

After a landing at Barakoma on 15 August, US troops advanced along the coasts, pushing the Japanese north. In September, New Zealand troops took over from the Americans and they continued to advance across the island, hemming the small Japanese garrison along the north coast. On 6 October, the Japanese began an evacuation operation to withdraw the remaining troops, during which the Naval Battle of Vella Lavella was fought. Following the capture of the island, the Allies developed it into an important airbase which was used in the reduction of main Japanese base at Rabaul.


The fighting on Vella Lavella took place following the Battle of Munda Point, which was fought in the aftermath of the Japanese evacuation from Guadalcanal as the Allies began advancing to main Japanese at Rabaul under the Operation Cartwheel plan. After the loss of the airfield at Munda Field to US forces, the Japanese had withdrawn to Kolombangara, where they established a 10,000-strong garrison under Major General Noboru Sasaki. Initial US plans following Munda Point had envisaged an assault on Kolombangara, but the US commander, Admiral William Halsey, decided to bypass Kolombangara and land forces around Barakoma on Vella Lavella instead where they were to capture the Japanese airfield and develop a naval base.[7]

Map of the Solomons area

Situated 35 nautical miles (65 km; 40 mi) northwest of Munda, Vella Lavella was the most northern island in the New Georgia chain, and offered a stepping stone for future operations against Japanese forces on the Shortland Islands and on Bougainville. It also offered better prospects for base development than At the same time, it was close enough US airbases at Munda and Sergei Point to afford the required air support that would be necessary to defend against Japanese air attack.[8]

In late July, a small reconnaissance party was dispatched to Vella Lavella, linking up with an Australian Coastwatcher, a New Zealand missionary and several natives to gather intelligence on Barakoma and the southeast coast. On 12 August, an advanced party, consisting of naval and military personnel and a small group of troops from the 103rd Infantry Regiment, was sent from Guadalcanal and Rendova to Barakoma aboard four torpedo boats. En route, the boats were subjected to aerial attack which resulted in several casualties, but their crews were able to continue on to their destination where they were met by a small group of natives in canoes. As reports were received about a larger-than-expected Japanese force near the landing beach, on 14 August this force was reinforced by more troops from the 103rd Infantry, which was tasked with marking and holding the beachhead for the assault force, and for securing Japanese prisoners in the vicinity. They subsequently captured seven Japanese.[9]

As of 15 August, 250 Japanese personnel were present on Vella Lavella. These men were a mix of soldiers evacuated from New Georgia and sailors who had been stranded on the island.[10]


Destroyers forming part of the escort screen protecting the US invasion force, 15 August 1943

The initial landing on Vella Lavella was undertaken by around a landing force of around 4,600 (rising to 5,800) US troops under Brigadier General Robert B. McClure, with the main maneuver elements coming from the 35th Regimental Combat Team,[11] which was drawn from XIV Corps, under Major General Oscar Griswold. These troops landed on 15 August as part of an expeditionary force designated Task Force 31 under the command of Rear Admiral Theodore S. Wilkinson.[12] This expeditionary force consisted of a variety of vessels including APD high-speed transports, LSTs and LCIs, escorted by a destroyer screen, while P-40 and Corsair fighters patrolled the air above.[13]

The Japanese dispatched a large number of Zero fighters and Val dive-bombers in response to the landing. The Japanese attacked the LSTs around noon, only to be driven off by massed anti-aircraft fire. A further attempt was spoiled late in day, with the returning Japanese aircraft being attacked by US Marine Corsairs undertaking a strafing mission around Kahili. In the early evening, a small group of Japanese torpedo aircraft unsuccessfully attacked the LCIs, while several seaplanes attacked the LSTs around midnight. Losses during these attacks were light for the Americans, with no ships being sunk and only two defending US aircraft being shot down, against Japanese losses of between 17 and 44 aircraft lost.[14]

Casualties during the initial landing amounted to 12 killed and 50 wounded for the Americans. After the initial fighting, the Americans established a beachhead and began resupply operations. Meanwhile, the Japanese decided against a counterattack, instead deciding to evacuate the island. In this regard, a barge depot was to be established at Horaniu on the northeast coast of the island. A group of destroyers – Sazanami, Hamakaze, Shigure, and Isokaze – under Rear Admiral Matsuji Ijuin sailed from Rabaul while a group of reinforcements was dispatched to secure Horaniu.[15] These consisted of two companies of the 13th Infantry Regiment, which had a combined strength of 390 soldiers, and a platoon of Special Naval Landing Force troops.[3][10]

New Zealand soldiers land at Baka Baka, Vella Lavella to relieve US troops on 17 September 1943.

In response, four US destroyers – Nicholas, O'Bannon, Taylor and Chevalier sailed from Purvis Bay under the command of Captain Thomas J. Ryan. Throughout 18 August, during the Battle off Horaniu, US and Japanese destroyers engaged each other off Horaniu, during which two Japanese destroyers were damaged and several smaller vessels destroyed. Throughout 18 August, the Japanese barges camouflaged themselves around the north coast, before landing at Horaniu on 19 August. While the Japanese worked to establish their barge depot, two more echelons of US troops and supplies were dispatched for Barakoma, on 17 and 20 August respectively. These were subjected to further Japanese air attacks, during which LST-396 was lost and several other ships were damaged, including the destroyer Philip which accidentally collided with Waller.[16] Gordan Rottman has written that the Japanese force on Vella Lavella eventually reached 750 men.[10] Jon Diamond provides a higher figure, stating that 1,000 Japanese served on the island.[3]

The US troops ashore subsequently began a two-pronged advance along the east and west coasts of the island, supported by native guides and a small group of Fijian scouts. As the troops from the 35th Infantry pushed beyond their beachhead, a battalion of the 145th Infantry Regiment arrived from New Georgia to hold the perimeter.[17] The Marine 4th Defense Battalion also provided defensive support.[18] Several small actions were fought between US patrols and Japanese troops, but by 14 September, Horaniu had been captured by the Americans,[19] and the Japanese troops began concentrating between Paraso Bay and Mundi Mundi.[18]

4th Marine Defense Battalion artillery at Barakoma Airfield.

In mid-September, the Americans were relieved by New Zealanders from Major General Harold Barrowclough's 3rd Division.[20] The New Zealand 14th Brigade, consisting of around 3,700 men under Brigadier Leslie Potter,[21] then used a series of amphibious operations and cross-country marches to advance through the coastal areas, utilizing a pincer movement with two infantry battalions – the 35th and 37th – to trap the 600-strong Japanese garrison, while the 30th Infantry Battalion was held in reserve.[22] The New Zealanders fought a series of minor actions throughout September as the 35th Infantry Battalion advanced up the western coast, while the 37th moved up the east, landing artillery which then had to be dragged ashore to support the infantry. By early October, the 35th had reached Marquana Bay, while the 37th was around Mende Point, and New Zealand artillery was falling upon the Japanese that were hemmed in around Marziana Point.[23] The Japanese began evacuating Koolombangara on 28 September and by 3–4 October this had been completed. They subsequently sought to rescue the force on Vella Lavella, which was withdrawn on the evening of 6–7 October.[24]


Early on the morning of 6–7 October, the Japanese were able to evacuate 589 personnel by sub chasers and transports from Marziana Point in Marquana Bay, while a large naval battle subsequently took place north of Vella Lavella as a group of six US destroyers engaged Ijuin's covering force.[6] These troops were subsequently withdrawn to Buin on Bougainville.[25] For the loss of one destroyer, the Japanese transports were successful in evacuating the ground troops from Vella Lavella, while the US lost one destroyer sunk and two heavily damaged.[26] Casualties during the fighting around Vella Lavella during this phase of the campaign amounted to 150 US and New Zealand naval and military personnel killed.[4] The postwar New Zealand official history stated that Japanese casualties were estimated at between 200 and 300.[6] In contrast, Rottman has written that "less than 150" Japanese were killed.[5]

In the aftermath, New Zealand field engineers and several US Naval Mobile Construction Battalions were later sent to the island to develop it as a base for future operations. They subsequently worked to improve the road system on the island and built several bridges. Barakoma Airfield on Vella Lavella later became an important Allied airbase from which they were able to project air power towards Rabaul. It was later the home base of Major Gregory Boyington's VMF-214, as well as several other units.[27] A naval base was also established at Lambu Lambu and it was subsequently used as a base for motor torpedo boats interdicting Japanese sea lanes of communication around the Shortland Islands and Choiseul. The fighting on Vella Lavella was followed by operations to secure the Treasury Islands and the landings at Cape Torokina, on Bougainville.[28]


  1. ^ Miller, Cartwheel, p. 176; Gillespie, The Pacific, p. 128. Ground forces included 5,888 U.S. and 3,700 New Zealanders.
  2. ^ Gillespie, The Pacific, pp. 128 & 139.
  3. ^ a b c Diamond, The War in the South Pacific, p. 90.
  4. ^ a b Gillespie, The Pacific, p. 142. Includes ground force and naval support personnel.
  5. ^ a b Rottman, US Marine Corps World War II Order of Battle, p. 290
  6. ^ a b c Gillespie, The Pacific, pp. 138–139.
  7. ^ Miller, Cartwheel: The Reduction of Rabaul, pp. 172–175.
  8. ^ Miller, Cartwheel: The Reduction of Rabaul, p. 173.
  9. ^ Miller, Cartwheel: The Reduction of Rabaul, pp. 174–175.
  10. ^ a b c Rottman, Japanese Army in World War II, p. 68
  11. ^ Morison, Breaking the Bismarcks Barrier, p. 229; Miller, Cartwheel: The Reduction of Rabaul, p. 176.
  12. ^ Miller, Cartwheel: The Reduction of Rabaul, pp. 175–178.
  13. ^ Morison, Breaking the Bismarcks Barrier, pp. 228–230.
  14. ^ Morison, Breaking the Bismarcks Barrier, pp. 231–232.
  15. ^ Morison, Breaking the Bismarcks Barrier, pp. 233–234.
  16. ^ Morison, Breaking the Bismarcks Barrier, pp. 234–238.
  17. ^ Miller, Cartwheel: The Reduction of Rabaul, p. 183.
  18. ^ a b Gillespie, The Pacific, p. 126.
  19. ^ Morison, Breaking the Bismarcks Barrier, pp. 233–239.
  20. ^ Crawford, Kia Kaha, p. 150.
  21. ^ Gillespie, The Pacific, p. 127.
  22. ^ Gillespie, The Pacific, p. 130.
  23. ^ Gillespie, The Pacific, pp. 130–138.
  24. ^ Morison, Breaking the Bismarcks Barrier, pp. 229–243.
  25. ^ Morison, Breaking the Bismarcks Barrier, p. 251.
  26. ^ Morison, Breaking the Bismarcks Barrier, pp. 244–245.
  27. ^ Newell, The Battle for Vella Lavella, pp. 208–209.
  28. ^ Gillespie, The Pacific, p. 142.


  • Crawford, John, ed. (2000). "A Campaign on Two Fronts: Barrowclough in the Pacific". Kia Kaha: New Zealand in the Second World War. Auckland: Oxford University Press. pp. 140–162. ISBN 978-0-19-558455-4. 
  • Diamond, Jon (2017). The War in the South Pacific. Barnsley, South Yorkshire: Pen & Sword. ISBN 978-1-4738-7064-2. 
  • Gillespie, Oliver (1952). The Pacific. The Official History of New Zealand in the Second World War, 1939–1945. Wellington: War History Branch, Department of Internal Affairs. OCLC 491441265. 
  • Miller, John, Jr. (1959). Cartwheel: The Reduction of Rabaul. United States Army in World War II: The War in the Pacific. Office of the Chief of Military History, U.S. Department of the Army. Retrieved 20 October 2006. 
  • Morison, Samuel Eliot (1958). Breaking the Bismarcks Barrier. History of United States Naval Operations in World War II. VI. Edison, NJ: Castle Books. ISBN 978-0-7858-1307-1. 
  • Newell, Reg (2016). The Battle for Vella Lavella: The Allied Recapture of Solomon Islands Territory, August 15 – September 9, 1943. Jefferson, NC: McFarland. ISBN 978-0-7864-7327-4. 
  • Rottman, Gordon L. (2002). US Marine Corps World War II Order of Battle: Ground and Air Units in the Pacific War, 1939–1945. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press. ISBN 978-0-313-31906-8. 
  • Rottman, Gordon L. (2005). Duncan Anderson, ed. Japanese Army in World War II: The South Pacific and New Guinea, 1942–43. Oxford: Osprey. ISBN 978-1-84176-870-0. 

Further reading

  • Craven, Wesley Frank; Care, James Lea. The Pacific: Guadalcanal to Saipan, August 1942 to July 1944. The Army Air Forces in World War II. IV. U.S. Office of Air Force History. Retrieved 20 October 2006. 
  • Lofgren, Stephen J. Northern Solomons. The U.S. Army Campaigns of World War II. United States Army Center of Military History. CMH Pub 72-10. Retrieved 18 October 2006. 
  • Melson, Charles D. (1993). Up the Slot: Marines in the Central Solomons. World War II Commemorative Series. History and Museums Division, Headquarters, U.S. Marine Corps. p. 36. Retrieved 26 September 2006. 
  • McGee, William L. (2002). "Occupation of Vella Lavella". The Solomons Campaigns, 1942–1943: From Guadalcanal to Bougainville—Pacific War Turning Point. Amphibious Operations in the South Pacific in WWII. 2. Santa Barbara, CA: BMC Publications. ISBN 978-0-9701678-7-3. 
  • Rentz, John (1952). Marines in the Central Solomons. Historical Branch, Headquarters, U.S. Marine Corps. Retrieved 30 May 2006. 
  • Shaw, Henry I.; Kane, Douglas T. (1963). Isolation of Rabaul. History of U.S. Marine Corps Operations in World War II. II. Retrieved 18 October 2006. 

External links

  • Hughes, Warwick; Ray Munro. "3rd NZ Division in the Pacific". Archived from the original on 15 October 2006. Retrieved 18 October 2006. 
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