The Capture Of Munda

By Capt Charles Mathieu, Jr. - Originally Published November 1943

Almost a year-to the day-after U. S. Marines captured Henderson Field on Guadalcanal, American forces seized Japanese-built Munda airfield on New Georgia.

Actually the enemy had no chance to use Henderson Field as perfect timing took it away from them just a few days before it was scheduled to be completed. Once captured, the field remained in our control.

Munda airdrome was never used by the Japs for anything more than an emergency landing field. Continual bombing and harassing by American bombers from Guadalcanal kept Munda virtually inoperative since last December.

The seizure of Munda involved a good deal more fighting than the capture of Henderson Field. For months on end while Americans fought to hold Guadalcanal, Japanese built strongholds around Munda runway.

Once secured, Guadalcanal became a stepping-off stone for further attacks northward in the Solomons.

Ships laden with supplies anchored off Lunga Point, and ammunition, food, equipment and troops were placed ashore at Guadalcanal.

Attacking Jap planes, sometimes in flights as large as 100 dive bombers and fighters, did their best to damage shipping and supply areas on Guadalcanal, but seldom did they penetrate protecting American fighters.

In February, American forces occupied Japanese evacuated Russell Islands between Guadalcanal and New Georgia. Ammunition and supplies also were stored on the Russells-approximately sixty-five miles from Henderson Field on line with Munda. Fighter strips were built there: increasing the range of our planes that much more.

Advantage was taken of all opportunities.

On the night of June 29-30, American Naval forces converging off Guadalcanal headed northward.

Employing the important element of surprise, American soldiers and Marine jungle fighters at dawn rushed ashore at three strategic locations on New Georgia.

The main landing was made on Rendova Island, only seven miles across an inlet from strong Japanese positions on Munda Point.

Army patrols the next day were already on the mainland of New Georgia, establishing a beachhead where reinforcements could land and ultimately push down the coastline to close in on the Jap built airfield.

Again, the enemy brought into play his bombers and fighters to destroy our installations and again our fighters prevented their potential effectiveness.

Marine Raiders landed at Rice Anchorage to the North of Munda and worked their way toward the field despite extremely difficult undergrowth and rough terrain. This move closed off enemy supply routes to Vila, on Kolombangara, later to be abandoned by the Japs and occupied by American troops.

This writer spent days on the front lines, witnessing the hardships and difficulties encountered during this fierce battle.

Our forces employed every type of modern weapon to quicken the pace, but jungle warfare must be fought inch by inch.

For months our planes had bombed and strafed these enemy positions and they continued to do so until the last day of the fight.

Batteries of huge guns poured round after round of high explosives into the area. On several occasions naval ships had blasted Munda with salvos of shells.

However, the Japanese had spent months on fortifications which had to be knocked out one by one.

Usually these strongholds were called pillboxes and were constructed of coconut logs and coral blocks. Some of the stronger built pillboxes were two stories deep. If they were being bombed or shelled the Japs would drop through a trap door into the lower level, about fifteen feet underground. Pillboxes of this type will stand anything but a direct hit.

On the front lines at one of our heavy machine gun positions, I saw five of these pillboxes still occupied by the enemy in one area alone.

The machine gun was located on a hill that was taken earlier in the day and the position offered an excellent observation point. The terrain to the immediate front dropped sharply and levelled off leading into the Lambeti coconut plantation.

Japanese-held Munda Airfield was approximately 3,000 yards to the front.

Our mortars, dreaded by the Japs, were constantly pouring shells into the enemy in the valley ahead.

Occasionally individual Japs could be seen moving through the bushes and the machine gunner would let go a burst, keeping the enemy pinned down.

Marine light tanks proved very successful against these strongholds during the entire operation.

The constant roar of artillery and mortars made it impossible to sleep at night. In addition the Japs used night harassing tactics.

Most of the night fighting was done with knives and machetes. Muzzle blast from rifle fire at night gave away positions and locations of troops.

During the night, men rested in foxholes three or four feet deep. Usually there were four men in a foxhole, sometimes less.

Japs sneaked in pairs towards the foxholes. One would often jump into the middle of our men and try to stab them. The other stood by to see the outcome.

Sometimes the Japs would jump in the foxhole, and then jump out quickly, hoping our troops would become excited and stab each other.

"They must have springs on their feet," one soldier said.

Men lived on cold rations for days at a time while they were fighting. I talked to some on one occasion who were enjoying hot coffee and doughnuts, the first hot food they had in twelve days.

Their food consisted mainly of C rations (canned meat, biscuits, candy, powdered coffee or lemonade) and D ration (chocolate bar).

The division responsible for capturing the field closed in from all sides.

When I reached the front shortly after noon on August 5th, ten Marine tanks were just moving out of their bivouac area, toward the field.

Kokengolo Hill, in the center of the field and commanding the area, was still in Japanese hands.

The hill itself is solid coral and some of the strongest Japanese fortifications were found there. Tunnels burrowed in the side of the hill stood direct hits from our large bombs. These tunnels had as much as thirty feet of coral over them for protection.

I climbed to the top of steep Bibilo Hill, at the foot of the strip and witnessed the entire action.

The tanks lined up at the bottom of Kokengolo Hill and pounded the Japs with 37mm. shells and machine guns.

Puffs of smoke rose from the side of the hill as the tank shells hit their targets. The cackle of Japanese heavy machine gun fire echoed across the field.

After each Marine tank had emptied 110 rounds of 37mm. shells into the Jap positions, Army infantry units rushed up the side of the hill.

In a matter of minutes the hill was secured.

I worked my way down the side of Bibilo Hill and headed for Kokengolo, only a few hundred yards distant.

As I walked down the center of the bomb-battered strip, a soldier approached from the opposite end riding a Jap bicycle.

It was a strange sight, dead Jap bodies lying on the field, the sound of machine gun and mortar fire in the distance, and this soldier riding a bike down the center of the strip.

Japanese planes of every type were strewn along the side of the field and in revetments. They were battered and punctured by thousands of bomb and shell fragments.

On approaching the hill I noticed a group of soldiers standing at the entrance of a tunnel. Six Japs were still inside and refused to surrender. Sticks of dynamite were used and the Japs were blown to bits.

One soldier approached me with a Japanese light machine gun.

"I had a tough time taking it away from the Jap, but I finally got it," he said.

Still excited from battle he was anxious to demonstrate the Jap weapon to me, but couldn't make the magazine fit in its proper place.

Four of our P-40 Warhawks zoomed the field; a sign of victory.

Within a few days a Seabee construction battalion had worked the field over well, filling in large 2,000 pound bomb craters with bulldozers and packing it down with heavy rollers.

Let the Japs build more Henderson and Munda airdromes-we'll use them.