The Solomons Campaign, Chapter 14: Munda
By the evening of June 13th all Japanese opposition in Munda had been eradicated and the runway had almost been repaired. 24 hours earlier the place had been awash with thunder and fire as no less than 5 on Japan’s main battleline pounded the soldiers on Munda. The actual battle had started a few days ago with both the Pennsylvania and the South Dakota claiming 3 light cruisers that had tried to disrupt the landings. Despite the loss of the old carrier Long Island, Nimitz was relatively pleased with the news. Especially when USAAF and USMC planes flying from Rossell Island and Lunga kept the skies clear, other than the Betties that did the Long Island. Losses were light and the Army’s 27th Regiment was ashore with three tank battalions for support.
The second day of the battle saw the second wave hit the beaches and, in a master class of amphibious landing deposited all support units that included the 14th Marine Defence Battalion and two artillery regiments before the arrival of Japanese carrier planes. Yet further to the south 5 transports of the first wave were savaged by a pack of enemy submarines. The brave merchant mariners had done their job in the teeth of the enemy only to robbed of life by submarines so close to home. The first aerial attacks were easily defeated and nearly 40 enemy planes were reported shot down. But these were just a first wave to exhaust our CAP. Catalina’s and PBY’s, who’d been savaged in an attack over enemy carriers, landed on Lunga at midday with reports that the sea to the north of Green and Island and Shortlands was a grey mass of Japanese shipping. Indeed Japan had brought the mass of the Combined Fleet to bear, amid a carpet of submarines as 25 subs were moving against them. Against it Nimitz had the CVE Sangamon! Orders to depart Munda were given but landings were to continue. The Arizona and her battle group were sent north from Guadalcanal to add their AA batteries to the defence.
Providence however smiled on the USN. As morning turned to afternoon a very heavy weather front came in from the West. According to Japanese sources some of their carriers could not launch their planes and this may have averted a major disaster. The weather however also affected our CAP. Thunderbolts and Corsairs were grounded at Lunga while Lightnings got lost in the weather. The only fighters to meet the IJN crews were the Hellcats of the Sangamon and a battered flight of Marine F4F-4’s from Rossell. As it was they did a sterling job of engaging the enemy fighters who suffered heavier losses than we did. Yet numbers told and 6 ships were sunk by the enemy carrier bombers, the heaviest a destroyer escort. The Arizona, whose guns blazed until they glowed from the effort, took 8 bombs from Vals and Judys but it stood proudly at sundown to escort the now fleeing transports south.
Day three dawned bright and by 8:15 50 Thunderbolts and 16 Corsairs were flying LRCAP over Munda and several task forces. Today however it was time for revenge. USMC Dauntless bombers and USAAF A-24’s and B-25’s were shocked to receive news that Japanese cruisers were within range and without top cover. Though the battlewagons that had hit Lunga were long gone three enemy light cruisers and one destroyer would not get home. Plane after plane dove and swooped down on the Japanese ships as bomb after bomb tore into their structures. As the sun settled over the horizon oily plumes marked the resting place of sunk Japanese ships. The days action were complete when VMF-214 reported its arrival at Munda. The only sour note on Nimitz’s desk was the report from the skipper of the SS Gurnard that had attacked and missed an Akagi class carrier with a spread of 6 torpedoes. Though the loss of the transports and one submarine were hard to take, Japan was six cruisers down while America had hundreds of transports waiting to join the fight.