Battle of Bairoko, 20 July 1943

The battle of Bairoko (20 July 1943) was the second major operation carried out by the Northern Landing Group on New Georgia, and ended in a rare Japanese victory after the poorly coordinated American attack was repulsed.

Colonel Harry Liversedge's Northern Landing Group had landed at Rice Anchorage on 5 July. He had three main objectives. The first was to capture the Japanese coastal guns at Enogai Point. Second was to cut the main trail between Bairoko and Munda and prevent the Japanese from reinforce the troops defending Munda. The third was to capture the barge base at Bairoko.

Map of Allied Invasions, Solomon Islands
Solomon Islands:
Allied Invasions

The attack on Enogai Point ended in success on 10-11 July. The Bairoko to Munda trail was also cut, and a Japanese counterattack defeated on 10-12 July, but after that the Japanese disappeared from the trail. On 16 July Liversedge ordered Schultz to abandon the block. On 17 July Schultz moved his force (the 3rd Battalion, 148th Infantry Regiment) back to Triri, a village half way down Enogai Inlet.

Soon after the fall of Enogai Liversedge had asked for reinforcements, and on 18 July he was joined by the 4th Marine Raider Battalion (Lt. Col Currin). Liversedge now had two raider battalions and two infantry battalions at his disposal, although the reinforcements really only brought his force back up to its original strength. This gave him around 3,000 men for the attack on Bairoko.

The exact number of Japanese troops at Bairoko is unknown. The garrison consisted of the 2nd Battalion, 45th Infantry, 8th Battery, 6th Field Artillery and part of the Kure 6th Special Naval Landing Force. This force was split between the eastern and western sides of the harbour. The Japanese had a line of outposts on higher ground east of the harbour, and a last line of defence close to the water.

Bairoko Harbour and Enogai Inlet are separated by the Dragons Peninsula. Liversedge decided to make a two pronged attack across the peninsula. The Marine Raiders would advance along the coast, which was lined by Leland Lagoon. One platoon was cross to the 50 yard wide sandbar on the western side of the lagoon while the main attack would advance along the eastern side of the lagoon. Further inland Schultz would lead the 3rd/148th across country to reach the southern end of Bairoko Harbour. It would then turn north and hit the Japanese forces on the east side of the harbour from the flank. The main problem with this plan was that nobody was sent against the Japanese troops on the western side of the harbour.

New Georgia Campaign
New Georgia Campaign

The attack took place on 20 July 1943. Liversedge had hoped to arrange an air attack to take place at 9.00am, but his communications with the outside world were poor. His request reached Guadalcanal too late on 19 July for an attack to be arranged, or for news of that failure to reach him.

Often on New Georgia attacks were delayed due to the difficulty of movement, but on this occasion the Marines were in place on time. They waited for 45 minutes in case the air attack was late, but finally decided to attack. The 1st Battalion was in front, with two reinforced companies (Wheeler's Company B in the lead with Kemp's Company D second). A demolitions platoon was next, followed by Currin's 4th Battalion and then the regimental command post. Once contact with the enemy was made Wheeler was to deploy to the right, next to the lagoon, while Kemp moved left.

The first Japanese soldiers were spotted at 9.55, and the first shots came at 10.15, when the defenders of a Japanese outpost opened fire. Wheeler and Kemp's companies deployed into their attack formations overran the outpost and continued to advance.

At 10.40 the Marines came under fire from several machine guns in the hidden Japanese defensive lines. As was normal for New Georgia the Japanese had constructed an impressive network of bunkers, with interlocking fields of fire, supported by snipers. At 10.45 the Japanese opened a heavy fire on the Americans and the battle had truly begun.

Wheeler on the right and the Marine platoon on the sand bar were unable to make any progress, but on the left Kemp did manage to advance slowly. He was reinforced with the demolitions platoon, and by 11.05 every available man from the 1st Battalion was in combat.

By noon the first Japanese line had been breached, but the 1st Battalion had suffered heavy losses and Liversedge was forced to commit the 4th Battalion to the fight. After two further hours of fighting the Americans reached the top of a ridge and were now only 500 yards from the harbour, but they could see another set of Japanese defences. The Americans had made progress on both flanks, but not in the centre.

The Japanese were hard pressed, but they still had one trick up their sleeves. At around 14.45 a number of 90mm mortars on the opposite side of the harbour opened fire. The Americans had nothing to reply with, and under heavy fire Kemp's company was forced back by a Japanese counterattack. The Japanese were also suffering, and Kemp was able to retake his advanced positions. Part of the 4th Battalion was also able to make progress on the American left, and by 16.00 the Japanese were pinned back into a 300 yard wide and 800 yard bridgehead with their backs to the harbour. The Marines launched yet another attack on this Japanese position, but it was quickly repulsed.

The only hope for an American victory now rested with Schultz and the 3/148, but the Army had run into more Japanese troops. Schultz had set off on time, but made slow progress over difficult trails. About three and a half miles from Triri his men ran into Japanese light machine gun fire and were forced to take shelter off the trail. It took some time to prepare for an attack, and it wasn't ready until 15.30. When the attack did go in it soon ran out of steam. At 16.00 Liversedge managed to get in direct touch with Schultz on the field telephone and asked if his men could reach Bairoko by nightfall. Schultz had to say no, an opinion that was apparently supported by the executive officer of the 1st Raider Battalion, who arrived soon afterwards.

This left Liversedge with no choice but to withdraw. Just after 17.00 the Marines began to fall back from the ridges overlooking the harbour and that night they camped with their backs to the lagoon. The Japanese made one light attack on the marine perimeter but by the end of the next day the Americans were back at Enogai and Triri.

This ended the battle for Bairoko. Over the next month Liversedge send patrols into the Dragons peninsula, and there were frequent skirmishes, but no further attempt to capture the harbour. The Marines had lost 46 dead and 200 wounded, the Army on 3 dead and 10 wounded. Japanese losses are unknown.

Bairoko was finally captured after the fall of Munda. Major General J Lawton Collins was given the task of clearing south-west New Georgia of the remaining Japanese troops. Many of them managed to escape onto neighbouring islands, but others headed towards Bairodo. Contact was finally established between Liversedge's men and Collins' men on 9 August. Over the next week the 161st and 27th Infantry Regiments, both from the 25th Infantry Division, moved into place in preparation for a fresh attack, but the Japanese had already decided to evacuate. On the nights of 20, 21 and 22 heavy barge traffic was detected, and on 24 August troops from the 3rd/ 145th entered Bairoko without opposition. 

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (1 May 2013), Battle of Bairoko, 20 July 1943 , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/battles_bairoko.html

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