The costly New Georgia Campaign of July and August 1943 had made the South Pacific Theater commander, Admiral William F. Halsey, reluctant to assault the nearby and strongly defended Kolombangara. But Vella Lavella, which lay beyond Kolombangara, was only lightly held by the Japanese and offered superior prospects as an Allied air base. Because it was only some 35 nautical miles from the recently captured Munda Airfield on New Georgia, planes from the latter could easily provide air cover for a landing on Vella Lavella.
A small U.S. landing party reconnoitered Vella Lavella in late July and found, at Barakoma on the southeast coast, suitable sites for both a landing beach and an airstrip. Several days before the scheduled invasion on 15 August, an advance landing party of about 100 men slipped ashore with orders to mark the landing beaches. Most of the few Japanese troops on the island proved to be emaciated refugees from the New Georgia fighting.
The main landing on 15 August was executed by Task Force 31, commanded by Rear Admiral Theodore S. Wilkinson. Once the landing was completed, overall command of the Vella Lavella force passed to Major General Oscar W. Griswold, commander of XIV Corps and the New Georgia Occupation Force. A Marine defense battalion was included, but the principal ground component was the army's 35th Regimental Combat Team (RCT), led by Brigadier General Robert B. McClure, assistant commander of the 25th Division. Overall, the landing force totaled about 4,600 soldiers, Marines, and Seabees.
Confronted with such a strong invasion force, General Imamura Hitoshi, commander of the Eighth Area Army at Rabaul, decided not to mount a counterlanding at Vella Lavella. Instead, he would fight a delaying action in order to evacuate as many men as possible northward to Bougainville. Thus, most of the fighting in and around Vella Lavella—and most of the 198 Allied casualties in the operation—resulted from Japanese aerial attacks against the landing force and its supporting ships. Ground combat was essentially limited to patrolling and skirmishing.
On 18 September, McClure and his American troops turned over their operation to elements of Major General H. E. Barrowclough's 3rd New Zealand Division. While American Navy Seabees completed the Barakoma Airfield, the New Zealanders worked their way up both the east and west coasts of the island. Although they failed to trap the escaping Japanese, the island was fully in Allied hands by 7 October. The Allies also failed to prevent the withdrawal of nearly 10,000 Japanese from bypassed Kolombangara. Nevertheless, the air bases at Barakoma and at Munda and Ondonga on New Georgia brought all of Bougainville within the combat radius of Allied fighters and greatly facilitated the landings that began there on 1 November.
Richard G. Stone
Miller, John, Jr. The United States Army in World War II: Pacific Theater—Cartwheel, the Reduction of Rabaul. Washington, DC: Office of the Chief of Military History, Department of the Army, 1959.; Morison, Samuel Eliot. History of United States Naval Operations in World War II. Vol. 5, The Struggle for Guadalcanal, August 1942–February 1943. Boston: Little, Brown, 1949.; Shaw, Henry I., Jr., and Douglas T. Kane. The United States Marine Corps in World War II. Vol. 2, Isolation of Rabaul. Washington, DC: Historical Branch, G-3 Division, Headquarters, U.S. Marine Corps, 1963.