The direction of World War II completely changed in 1943 in favour of the Allied Forces. The Battles of Stalingrad and Guadalcanal, at the beginning of 1943, drew to a close. In May, Americans and British combined forces pushed the Axis powers out of North Africa. Optimism prevailed as well in Europe and the Pacific in the Allied camps as the Axis forces went on the defensive. It was during this transition period that the Russell Islands, a small archipelago in the Solomon Islands, played an important role in the Allies’ ultimate victory in the South Pacific and the history of the American 1st Marine division.
Importance of the Russell islands
As the Battle of Guadalcanal wound to its end in late January 1943, the Americans gave their approval for Operation Cleanslate, the seizure and transformation of the Russell Islands into a forward operating base. They saw the capture of these islands as the first step in the conquest of the rest of Solomon Islands.
Ultimately, success in the Solomons would provide one element in the isolation of the Japanese stronghold at Rabaul on New Britain to seize parts of New Guinea and New Britain and to capture strategic bases in the Solomons.
Even though Allied control of the Russell Islands was not indispensable to achieving success in the Solomons, the islands proved very valuable as an air base, staging area, and training center.
The next major target in the Solomons after the capture of Guadalcanal was New Georgia, located 170 miles further north. That’s why the Russells had an advantageous position – at only 25 miles from Guadalcanal.
Furthermore, once in U.S. possession, the Russells offered potential airfields, PT boat bases, and staging areas for future operations. The airfields became particularly important.
Finally, the Allies faced the potential danger that the Japanese would occupy the islands and pose a threat to Guadalcanal and American operations to the north.
On the 21st of February 1943, the 3rd Marine Raider Battalion and the 43rd Army Infantry Division landed and successfully secured the northern coast of Pavuvu and 2 separate locations on Banika. The only real danger was that the Japanese would detect the invasion force and either attack the invasion fleet or land a garrison on the islands. Neither of the possible threats materialised, so the invasion was over in a mere six hours, without the enemy engaging.
Once the islands had been occupied, the leaders of Operation Cleanslate immediately switched their focus from occupation to the monumental task of transforming the islands into a usable base. Of the two islands, Banika was definitely the better choice for the main base facilities: shore areas, deep water, and protected harbors.
Quickly, engineers began to transform parts of the islands by constructing roads, a PT boat base, housing, hospital facilities, and airfields. The Russells soon became a boomtown. The United States started to use the Russells as training center as well and staging area for future operations. Operation Cleanslate proved to be a success and many valuable lessons had been learned:
- In terms of initial stages of the operation, military planners learned how important it was to practice loadings and landings, perform thorough inspection, supply sufficient numbers of logistical support troops as well as combat forces, and improve an adequate road system.
- After the initial occupation, success depends upon the ability to deliver safely not only the first, but also the succeeding echelons of troops, engineers, auxiliary units, equipment as well as upkeep replacements and supplies.
The next step in the conquest to Rabaul was the seizure of the New Georgia Islands, which are located about 120 miles northeast of the Russells. Operation Toenails, as it was called, was based out of the Russells in order to cut down the time and distance. In preparation to Operation Toenails, the Russells were used as a training center and staging area. Furthermore, thanks to the Russells, it was possible for the first time to send fighter escort, with bombing missions to the northern Solomons, thus permitting daylight bombing of targets which had previously been accessible only to night attack. The completion of the Bougainville campaign and final isolation of Rabaul in early 1944 in many ways completed the mission of the Russells as a base of air combat operations. After those operations, the metamorphosis of the Russells continued. From then until early 1945, the Russells served five major purposes:
- Provide naval base facilities, PT boat squadron, destroyers in transit, and cargo ships.
- The airfields were used primarily for transportation purposes.
- Additional hospitals were built to expand the Russells’ capabilities in this area.
- A supply base.
- A staging area for the 1st Marine Division for its operations against Peleliu and Okinawa. In fact this division was one of the most famous in WWII and served in several major Pacific campaigns.
The Russells gradually lost military importance as American forces advanced beyond the Solomons. The departure of the 1st Marine Division for the Okinawa invasion marked the end of the Russells as a significant base, only one airfield was kept open for emergency purposes. The shutting down of the Russells in 1945 occurred without ceremony; in fact, everything was dumped into the sea!
Although the Russells are only one small group of islands that played this role, and operations from here didn’t directly change the outcome of the war, they were still important:
- American campaigns in the central and northern Solomons would have been much more difficult without the Russells.
- Operation Cleanslate provided invaluable experience in amphibious operations, air missions and support, as well as bombing missions for operations against New Georgia, Bougainville, and Rabaul.
- The Russells were important as supply and training area.
So next time you dive the Russell islands, especially White Beach, remember their great history!