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Russell Islands

(1-pp25-270)

Halsey’s planners initially focused on New Georgia, a large island located on the southern flank of the Slot about halfway up the Solomons chain. By December 1942, the Japanese had managed to complete an airstrip on New Georgia’s Munda Point. Seizure of the island would thus remove that enemy threat and advance Allied aircraft one-third of the way to Rabaul. However, the South Pacific command also was worried about enemy activity in the Russell Islands, located 30 miles northwest of Guadalcanal’s Cape Esperance. The Russells had been a staging point for the enemy Is reinforcement and subsequent evacuation of Guadalcanal. Strong Japanese forces there would be a thorn in the side of an operation against New Georgia and possibly a threat to Guadalcanal itself. Halsey thus decided to seize the Russells prior to action elsewhere in the Solomons. As an additional benefit, American fighter planes stationed in the Russells would be able to provide more effective support to the eventual assault on New Georgia.

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The landing force for Operation Cleanslate (the codename for the Russells assault) consisted of the 43d Infantry Division and the 3d Raider Battalion. The Army division would seize Banika Island while the Marines took nearby Pavuvu. The APDs of Transdiv 12 carried the raiders from Espiritu Santo to Guadalcanal in mid-February. Four days prior to the 21 February D-day, a lieutenant and a sergeant from the raiders scouted both objectives-they found them empty of the enemy. The 3d Raiders thus made an unopposed landing in their first offensive action. The 159th Infantry followed them ashore and assisted in the occupation of the island.

The greatest challenges the Marines faced on Pavuvu were logistical and medical. Due to the Navy’s legitimate concern about an enemy air and naval response, the landing plan relied on a rapid offload and quick withdrawal of the transports. The Higgins boats of the APDs were pre-loaded with raider supplies, while the men went ashore in their rubber boats. A rash of outboard motor failures played havoc with the landing formations, and Liversedge’s after action report noted that this could have resulted in “serious consequences’ ” Once ashore, the light raiders suffered from their lack of organic transport as they struggled to man handle supplies from the beach to inland dumps. During the battalion’s subsequent four-week stay on Pavuvu, the diet of field chow and the tough tropic conditions combined to debilitate the troops. Fully one-third developed skin problems, all men lost weight, and several dozen eventually fell ill with malaria and other diseases. Although it was not entirely the fault of planners, the hard-hitting capabilities of the Marine battalion were wasted on Cleanslate. Only the two-man scouting team had performed a mission in accordance with the original purpose of the raiders.