New Georgia: Russell Islands
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.
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.