The Battle for Vella Lavella

The Battle for Vella Lavella

The Allied Recapture of Solomon Islands Territory August 15-September 9, 1943

Reg Newell

McFarland & Company Inc., Publishers, Jefferson, North Carolina, 2015, 277 pages

Book Review published on: May 17, 2019

Combat operations on and around the island of Vella Lavella in the Solomon Islands generally do not get much more than a footnote in World War II history. For example, the U.S. Army official history declares, “There was never was any real ground combat on Vella Lavella because the Japanese stragglers were more interested in escaping than fighting.” The Battle for Vella Lavella: The Allied Recapture of Solomon Islands Territory August 15-September 9, 1943 lays that myth bare. Through exhaustive research, Reg Newell brings to life the complexities of the struggle for Vella Lavella on land, sea, and air that involved a true joint and multinational force of the U.S. Army, Navy, and Marine Corps, as well as Australian and New Zealand ground combat units.

By March of 1942, the Joint Chiefs of Staff redesignated the Pacific Theater of Operations as a combined British-U.S. command. Within the Pacific Theater of Operations, Gen. Douglas MacArthur assumed command of operations as the commander in chief of the South West Pacific Area with the first landing at Guadalcanal in August of 1942, eight months after the attack on Pearl Harbor. MacArthur’s forces made seventy-eight landings during the war, and the Battle for Vella Lavella (15 August-6 October 1943), as part of the Solomon Islands Campaign, was MacArthur’s eighth landing. Up to that point, islands were targeted for their existing airfields, but Vella Lavella demonstrated a tactical shift to seize less-contested islands capable of building an airfield on. It also serves as a perfect example of the leapfrogging strategy that the Allied forces used to bypass enemy strongholds and build up operational and logistics capabilities from the ground up.

The Vella Levella chapter opens on 5 July 1943 with a significant naval surface engagement where the USS Helena, a light cruiser that was part of a shore bombardment group, was intercepted and sunk by a raiding party of Japanese destroyers. Ground combat commenced when the 35th Division assaulted the island on 15 August 1943, with the objective of building an airfield that was operational in thirty days.

In the intervening fifty-two days, U.S. and New Zealand army forces fought many small-unit actions in dense jungle conditions against a stubborn, well-trained Japanese garrison force, of which Newell gives great analysis and many first-hand accounts. Meanwhile, aerial combat raged in the skies all around Vella Lavella. Almost daily, the Japanese launched raids from nearby Rabaul, a Japanese air and sea stronghold with formidable numbers of fighters and bombers flown by well-trained and seasoned pilots. The Americans scraped together what they could, mostly Marine F4U Corsair fighters. One marine, 1st Lt. Kenneth Walsh, shot down seven enemy aircraft in two separate actions and, at one point, faced fifty enemy aircraft. For his actions, he was awarded the Medal of Honor.

The battle concluded on 6 October 1943 with another naval surface engagement. A group of three U.S. destroyers intercepting a larger Japanese destroyer force sent to evacuate a Japanese garrison of nearly six hundred troops. Once again, the Japanese claimed victory by sinking one destroyer, heavily damaging the other two, and fully evacuating their garrison under the noses of the Allied forces, a maneuver they consistently used early on the war in the face of defeat or surrender in order to maneuver forces back onto key terrain to fight again. (Later, the Battle of Peleliu, 15 September–27 November 1944, marked a major shift in the Imperial Japanese Army’s tactics with well-constructed defensive tunnel and bunker networks throughout the depth of the island with the purpose of conflicting maximum casualties and dragging the fight out to the last man in order to buy time.) Thus, the loss of life on Vella Lavella was not as great as in other island battles, but Newell argues that the fighting was no less intense.

The Battle for Vella Levella is well illustrated with an abundance of photographs mostly drawn from the New Zealand war archives, and it contains several maps and sketches. Newell provides additional detail with a timeline, chronology, and index. His inspiration for the book grew out of his interest in the 3rd New Zealand Division, which was the center of his research for his dissertation. He soon discovered that this battle had a much wider backstory and was fiercely contested on land, sea, and air by many heroes from every service. His logically arranged assemblage of first-hand accounts and his arduous effort to arrange and connect his admirable research into an accurate interpretation of the operational framework of the battle in all domains makes this book a worthwhile study of an early battle in the Pacific, where the odds for both sides were still pretty even.

Book Review written by: Ronald T. Staver, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas