How the Marines Lured the Japanese Away From a Key Target—and How “the Brute” Got Some Help from JFK
Fall 2010, Vol. 42, No. 3
By Greg Bradsher
On November 2, 1943, Navy Lt. John F. Kennedy, commander of PT-59, a motor patrol torpedo boat converted into a gunboat, pulled out of Lambu Lambu Cove on Vella Lavella Island in the Solomon Islands.
His assignment was a rescue operation, and Kennedy knew something about rescue operations. In early August 1943, Kennedy's PT-109 had been rammed by a Japanese destroyer and sunk. Kennedy and the surviving crew members were rescued by another PT boat six days later.
Now, Lieutenant Kennedy and the PT-59 went to the aid of marines under the command of Lt. Col. Victor H. Krulak, who had been surrounded by Japanese forces on Choiseul Island.
The Allies had landed on Vella Lavella Island, one of the western Solomon Islands, on August 15, 1943. The first elements of the Second Marine Parachute Battalion, First Marine Parachute Regiment, First Marine Amphibious Corps (IMAC) began landing on Vella Lavella on October 1. The rest of the regiment arrived later in October.
The battalion was commanded by Krulak, a 1934 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy. His men called their 5-feet, 4-inch, 130-;pound commander "the Brute," a nickname that had been given him by his Annapolis classmates.
Several weeks after arriving at Vella Lavella, Krulak had been summoned to IMAC headquarters at Guadalcanal, one of the southernmost of the Solomons, to discuss a special mission for his battalion.
In anticipation of American landings in the northern Solomons, the Japanese were frantically moving troops by barge, often from Kolombangara (north of New Georgia), northeastward to Bougainville, Choiseul, and the Shortland and Treasury Islands.
The idea was for Krulak's forces, far outnumbered by Japanese, to go to Choiseul, an important base for barge traffic. There they would conduct diversionary raids on Japanese fortifications on the northwest part of the island and make the Japanese commanders think there were more Allied troops than there actually were. They called it "Operation Blissful."
"Operation Blissful" would, they hoped, convince the Japanese that they needed to send more troops to Choiseul from Bougainville—the Allies' real objective because of its airfields. That way, there would be fewer of the enemy defending Bougainville, less than 50 miles from Choiseul, when the Allies landed there. Krulak's commanders gave him some additional firepower to help with the job of deceiving the Japanese.
It was a gamble, but they believed "the Brute" was the man for the job, and he needed to be briefed in person.
At this time in the Pacific in World War II, the Allies were plodding their way through the Solomon Islands in their island-by-island push toward the Japanese mainland. There was a long way to go—the costly fighting on Iwo Jima and Okinawa lay nearly two years away—but now they were concerned mainly with the island of Bougainville.
By the end of the operation, its supporting characters would include a future President of the United States and a future Supreme Court justice. And "the Brute" would add another chapter into what would become a long and distinguished career in the Marine Corps.
Making the Preparations for "Operation Blissful"
Before Krulak's men were deployed to Choiseul in late October, several amphibious patrols had been sent to the island. They were guided by two Australians, Sub-Lt. Carden W. Seton and Lt. Alexander Waddell of the Royal Australian Navy, who provided much valuable information and advice.
Waddell was part of a network of coastwatchers in the islands northeast of Australia reporting on Japanese activities. He had been on Choiseul in 1941 and 1942 and knew both the area and the natives better than anyone else. Seton, a former manager of a plantation on the Shortland Islands in the Solomons, had intimate knowledge of the whole area.
Because of the dense jungle, Krulak's marines, some 658 of them, would be unable to parachute in and would instead have to make an amphibious landing. Krulak was to select a site for a PT boat base and withdraw after 12 days if the Navy decided it did not want to establish the base. Lt. (j.g.) Richard Keresey, a former PT boat skipper, accompanied the marines to help locate a suitable PT base in case the Americans actually took the island.
The actual landing would be made on unguarded beaches in the vicinity of an abandoned village named Voza, on the northern portion of Choiseul's southwest coast between the two relatively lightly held concentrations of Japanese soldiers at Sangigai and Choiseul Bay.
Intelligence indicated there were 4,000 to 5,000 Japanese on the island, most of them refugees from the islands lower down the Solomons, in poor shape and badly armed, dispersed in small camps along the coast. They were now awaiting transportation for a withdrawal to Bougainville. For this operation, Krulak was promised support from Vella Lavella–based aircraft and PT boats.
Krulak's battalion was ordered to make contact with the Japanese but not to engage in major battles. IMAC would announce to the press on October 30 that 20,000 marines had landed on Choiseul, and to lend credibility to the news reports, Krulak would begin making attacks that day.
An attack on the Sangigai barge station would, they hoped, make the Japanese believe that Americans were present on the island in force. If the diversion was successful, the Japanese would begin to transfer troops from Bougainville to Choiseul before they realized that the November 1 landing at Empress August Bay on Bougainville Island was the main invasion.
A Midnight Landing and a Mountain Outpost
During the early evening of October 27, Krulak's reinforced battalion departed Vella Lavella Island for Voza, on Choiseul Island. Soon after midnight, the first wave of the landing force began traveling to shore. Zinoa Island, a tiny lone islet just 2,000 yards off Voza, was chosen as the place to hide four landing craft, and their Navy crews, which would be needed for raiding up and down the coast.
Shortly after the ships departed, while the beachhead was being established, enemy reconnaissance planes discovered the landing and bombed the area without effect. Just to make sure the Japanese knew they were in Choiseul, Allied radio broadcast the news.
Leaving the beach, the marines headed for a high-ground base, to be called the Mountain Camp, about 1,000 yards above Voza, which would be their base camp. With the aid of some 80 natives and led by the Australian Seton, the marines moved off the beach into the jungle. They established a base of operations and set up outposts on the beach north and south of the village.
The marines also created a dummy supply dump of empty boxes on a beach two miles to the north to invite enemy attention to the landing. It worked. After daylight, Japanese planes attacked the dump. Shortly after noon, Krulak had an uncoded message sent to IMAC stating that the entire division, 20,000 men, had landed and were moving toward their objectives.
In the afternoon, Krulak sent out a small patrol west along the seacoast to investigate possible sites for a PT boat base. Two other native patrols working farther away from Voza provided the battalion with information on the nearest Japanese positions. Approximately 150 to 200 Japanese were guarding a barge staging and replenishing base at Sangigai to the southeast, while another force was 30 miles northwest. Krulak decided to attack Sangigai on October 30 as planned.
Early on October 29, Krulak sent a patrol, consisting of 10 marines, an Army radar specialist, and Keresey, the former PT boat skipper, some 15 miles north to determine the feasibility of bringing landing craft to Moli Point for future operations against the Japanese forces. They were also to select tentative locations for radar equipment and PT boat bases. They believed they would be back before dark.
The next day's attack had a two-fold mission: destroying the Sangigai base and impressing the enemy with the strength of the marine forces.
E Company, reinforced with machine guns and rockets, would move down to the Vagara River. From there they would move on Sangigai, destroy the garrison, and drive the Japanese into an F Company ambush. F Company, reinforced with machine guns and rockets, would establish an ambush location on a ridge to prevent the Japanese from retreating into the mountains.
When the mission was completed, they would both return to the Vagara River mouth, where the landing craft would extract them. G Company would remain as guard at the Voza Mountain Camp.
Meanwhile, the patrol that was heading toward Moli Point reached it without spotting any Japanese. There they found no place to base landing craft or any locations for the installation of radar equipment. As darkness was setting in, the marines set off on their return to Voza but soon decided to stop for the night.
An Attack at Sangigai and the "Invasion" Is On
About 4 a.m. on October 30, the battalion left the Mountain Camp. Moving to the beach, the force waited for four landing craft to pick them up. Before the craft could meet the marines, however, four U.S. fighter aircraft attacked the boats, apparently thinking them Japanese barges, and damaged three of them.
E and F Companies marched down the coast to Sangigai, 10 miles to the southeast, for the planned attack. The force was guided by Seton and two native scouts. About the time the marines began their march, the prearranged air strike with 12 TBF torpedo bombers and 26 fighters dropped about two tons of bombs on the enemy positions just outside Sangigai.
Adm. William F. Halsey, commander of the South Pacific Area, issued a press release the morning of October 30 announcing the Allied invasion of Choiseul, indicating that a division of 20,000 marines had landed and was moving toward its objective. Newspapers all around the country ran stories about the invasion, ensuring that the Japanese got the story, too.
At the Vagara River, Krulak's forces split. Krulak took Company F, Seton, and two native guides inland to the headwaters and continued through the mountain jungles toward their ambush position at the Japanese rear.
Company E continued to Sangigai and attacked the Japanese base. The fleeing Japanese encountered Company F's ambush, and when the fighting died down, about 40 Japanese ran, and 72 were dead. The marines' own casualties numbered 6 killed, 1 missing, and 12 wounded, Krulak being one of them.
In Sangigai, Company E searched the enemy dead and the buildings for souvenirs and documents. They found a veritable treasure trove of documents and charts, including hydrographic maps showing the water routes of Bougainville and its surrounding islands. While the documents were being inspected, the marines destroyed 180 tons of supplies, food, ammunition, medical supplies, fuel, communications equipment, barge repair parts, and one new landing barge.
Having completed its mission and hearing the firing at the ambush position dying down, Company E started back to the Vagara River to meet the landing craft. There they waited for Krulak and Company F. When they had not appeared by dusk, Company E boarded the boats and headed back to Voza, where Company G was guarding the Mountain Camp.
After burying its dead and the excess rocket ammunition, Company F proceeded to the Vagara River mouth, to find Company E and the landing craft gone. Krulak decided to remain where he was for the night because it was already dark and the troops were fatigued.
The troops dug in, and, unable to make radio contact with the base camp, Krulak sent some men back to Voza to arrange for the boats to pick them up the next morning. Meanwhile, natives informed Krulak that the Japanese were sending reinforcements to Sangigai—just as the Allied command hoped they would.
Another Strike Is Made to Confuse the Japanese
In the early morning of October 31, the landing craft picked up Krulak and Company F and took them back to Voza. The force then headed inland to the Mountain Camp. Immediately patrols were dispatched and ambushes erected to thwart the almost certain Japanese reaction to the attack on Sangigai.
A landing craft took the maps, charts, and documents captured during the raid at Sangigai, along with Company F's severest casualties, to a Navy PBY flying boat, and the plane quickly took off for IMAC headquarters.
Satisfied with the Sangigai raid, Krulak decided to strike at the Choiseul Bay area to keep the Japanese guessing and to do as much damage as possible before their true strength was perceived.
In preparation for this operation, Krulak sent Maj. Warner T. Bigger, the battalion executive officer; Lt. Samuel Johnston, the intelligence officer; an intelligence detachment; and a platoon from Company G 20 miles up the northwest coast to scout the area around the village and barge station of Nukiki and the Warrior River. They reported no Japanese troops along the route of their planned attack.
Back at the Mountain Camp, Bigger and Krulak went over plans for the next day's operation against Choiseul Bay. Bigger would lead the raid, taking Company G's Second and Third Platoons. That evening, natives reported that immediately after the fight to the south—at Sangigai—the Japanese had begun to reoccupy the village.
The Japanese commander, who previously suffered defeat on Guadalcanal, was not convinced that the Allied landings on the Treasury Islands, made by New Zealand forces as another diversion, and Choiseul were the main attacks. But, not wanting to take chances, he ordered Japanese at Bougainville, the Shortlands, and other islands to reinforce the Choiseul garrison.
At dawn on November 1, elements of the Third Marine Division and the Second Raider Battalion landed at Empress Augusta Bay on Bougainville.
Krulak later sent the 27-man Third Platoon of Company E to set up an ambush position along the Vagara River near the village of Vagara, which was held by the Japanese. The Japanese, who by this time had become aware of the small size of Krulak's force, were sending out combat patrols toward Voza. Two miles north of the Vagara River, the platoon was ambushed by more than 20 Japanese and suffered casualties, including one dead. The marines then pushed forward, driving the Japanese back toward Sangigai, killing eight and wounding a number of others.
Meanwhile, Major Bigger, along with the G Company commander and the three platoon leaders and their forces, boarded three landing craft and headed northwest to the mouth of the Warrior River.
The river should have been deep enough for small schooners, but the boats became stuck in the shallow coral about 200 yards from shore. The engines made such a loud noise as they tried to get off the coral that Bigger was pretty certain that the Japanese heard it. He had his men offload in the water and head for the east bank.
Moving through the jungle, Bigger's men found themselves in a dense swampland, lost and falling behind schedule. They would not be able to complete their mission at Choiseul Bay and return to the Warrior River by dusk to be picked up, so Bigger decided they would spend the night in the swamp and make the raid the following day, November 2.
He then tried to raise both Krulak and the group back at the Warrior River but without luck—his TBX radio was not working. Bigger sent Lt. Rae Duncan and a 10-man squad back to the Warrior River, where they would use the TBX there to inform Krulak about the change in plans and to send the landing craft back to Voza for the night.
When the squad got back to the Warrior River, they found that the TBX team's radio did not work. Duncan ordered a Sergeant Siefke to take his squad to Nukiki, where they would stay overnight, and go to Voza the next day to report to Krulak and request the landing craft be sent back the evening of November 2. While waiting for the boats, Japanese troops had moved between the platoon and Bigger's men.
When the landing craft arrived, the platoon boarded, and Duncan told the crew to head back to Voza. If Siefke's squad was at Nukiki, they would pick them up; if not, they would return for them in the morning. When they reached the barge station at Nukiki and saw no one, the boats continued back to Voza. When Krulak learned of Bigger's plight, he requested fighter support and PT boat cover for the boats engaged in the withdrawal of the force from the Nukiki area.
Siefke's squad was nearing Nukiki around sunset, and they decided it would be too dark to determine if the Japanese occupied the village. They moved toward the beach and set up a defensive perimeter on a long coral outcropping and waited until the next morning before moving on. Not long after setting up their position, the marines heard voices on the beach, but with the noise of the surf they could not determine whether they were English or Japanese. They decided to stay put, knowing whoever was on the beach surrounded them on three sides.
PT Boat Cover Is Requested; The Enemy Is No Longer Fooled
While Siefke's squad stayed hidden and prayed that the Japanese would break camp and leave, Bigger and his men headed through the swamp to complete their mission.
Back at the Mountain Camp, Duncan decided to take two of the landing craft and head north to look for Siefke's men and whoever else might have been sent to Nukiki. As Keresey watched them go, he thought they needed additional firepower, so he proposed to Krulak that they get some PT boats from Vella Lavella.
Shortly after 6 a.m., Siefke saw three boats moving up the coast toward them. He had one of his men crawl to a position where he could signal the boats to pick them up.
The Japanese, however, saw the boats at the same time and opened fire. Siefke's men and the machine guns on the landing craft opened up on the Japanese. As the Japanese fell back into the jungle, Siefke and his men were able to reach the shore and board the landing craft.
When the landing craft reached Voza, the men informed Krulak that there were at least two companies of Japanese at Nukiki and eight barges in the water. Krulak, concerned that Bigger's force might be cut off, radioed the PT base at Lambu Lambu to tell them that they would be needed that night. He also radioed IMAC and requested air and PT support.
Bigger's men reached the coast at 11:30 a.m., between the Warrior River and Choiseul Bay. When they could not make radio contact with Krulak or the Warrior River TBX team, Bigger sent a five-man squad back to the river.
They were to tell the TBX team to contact Krulak and request the landing craft to pick them up at the mouth of the river at 3 p.m. A Sergeant Wilson, a Corporal Gallaher, and three men immediately set off. Bigger's force, now numbering 56, moved toward Choiseul Bay, oblivious of the situation to his rear.
Back at Krulak's Mountain Camp that morning, word arrived that the Japanese appeared to be moving from both directions to push the marines off their Voza Mountain Camp and secure their barge lines and the important coastal track.
Avenging the Torture and Death of a Fellow Marine
Now that the Japanese knew the real size of Krulak's force, they were determined to cut it off. At least a battalion of Japanese were between Moli Point and Bigger. Krulak strengthened his defenses. Later that day, intelligence reports from coastwatchers and natives indicated that there were between 800 and 1,000 Japanese at Sangigai and some at Moli, with more moving in by barge from Choiseul Bay.
Bigger's force was at least two miles away from Choiseul Bay when they ran across and killed a small number of Japanese soldiers at a lookout post. One survivor fled into the jungle. Bigger, concerned that the gunfire had alerted the enemy and realizing that they still had a ways to go, decided to attack just their secondary target—the barge replenishing center and fuel base on Guppy Island.
Sergeant Wilson's patrol reached the Warrior River and saw no evidence of the TBX team. Corporal Gallaher was selected to swim across the river to look for them, but just as he got to the opposite shore, Japanese soldiers came out of the jungle, grabbed him, and quickly disappeared. Wilson decided they would have to go up to the headwaters of the river, cross there, and come back down the other side.
Bigger's force reached a point on the coast across from Guppy Island around 2 p.m. They immediately began lobbing 60mm mortar shells, 143 in all, down on the island, hitting the fuel dump.
As the attack on Guppy Island was taking place, Wilson and his three men crossed the river and moved south back to the ocean. About halfway back, they found Gallaher's body, stripped naked, tied to a tree, and dead, having been used for bayonet practice by his captors.
Continuing on to the coast, they spotted five Japanese, apparently the ones who had killed their colleague. They immediately opened up on them, instantly killing them. They continued to the coast, then set out along the coastal trail to the southeast.
Early in the afternoon, Krulak ordered the landing craft to return to the Warrior River to pick up Bigger's force that evening, hoping it had made their attack and returned to the river.
Also looking for Bigger's force were the Japanese. Responding to the attack on Guppy Island, the Japanese manned barges in considerable numbers and landed behind Bigger's force at the mouth of the Warrior River and took up positions on both sides.
Bigger's force arrived at the Warrior River at 4 p.m., more than an hour late. No boats were there, nor were there any marines. But the Japanese were there—not only on the southeast shore but also behind them. The firefight lasted for half an hour before the Japanese withdrew. A total of 43 Japanese were dead; two of Bigger's men were killed, one was missing, and two were wounded.
At the Warrior River, Bigger believed there should be some marines on the other side and decided to have some men swim across to find them. If they could not make radio contact with Krulak, they were to continue on to Nukiki or even Voza to tell Krulak to rescue them and warn him about the large number of Japanese in the Warrior River vicinity.
Lt. Samuel Johnston, with two men following him, began swimming. As Johnston reached the shore, two Japanese jumped out of the jungle, wounded him, and grabbed him. Other Japanese began firing at the men in the water and the marines on the opposite shore. One man was killed; the other, though wounded, safely returned to the west bank.
Still believing that there were marines on the eastern bank of the river, the marines on the west bank displayed an American flag. The Japanese fired again and wounded one man. This was the first definite indication that Bigger's force was cut off from Voza. Duncan and the men on the landing craft heard the gunfire, and they headed toward it. As they moved toward the shore, the Japanese ceased firing.
Perhaps the Japanese stopped firing because they heard what the marines heard—boat engines heading for the mouth of the river. Two landing craft, covered by three fighter aircraft, were coming toward the east bank of the Warrior River. The boats then moved in closer, to less than 100 yards from the beach. As the marines began wading out, the Japanese continued firing on them and the boats. Fortunately, it was getting dark, so the Japanese could not see well enough to fire effectively. The landing craft then pulled away from the beach.
PT-59's Skipper Gets a New Assignment
Earlier that day, Lt. Arthur H. Berndston at Lambu Lambu Cove on Vella Lavella had received Krulak's request for PT boat assistance. He had only two PT boats available, and one, Kennedy's PT-59, was refueling.
Kennedy had only one-third of a tank of fuel in PT-59, which was enough to get them to the Warrior River but not enough to get them back.
The two officers decided that the PT-59 and PT-236, already fueled, would leave immediately. When Kennedy's boat ran out of fuel, the other boat would tow it. "Wind'er up," Kennedy told his crew as they left the cove and headed out.
The two PT boats reached the Choiseul coast and began looking for a landing craft to help guide them to Bigger's force. At around 6 p.m. Kennedy spotted the boat 300 yards off Voza. On board were Krulak and Keresey, who immediately transferred to PT-59.
Kennedy was surprised to see Keresey, who, as skipper of PT-105, had been on patrol with Kennedy the night that PT-109 had been cut in half by a Japanese destroyer. Kennedy asked him what he was doing on Choiseul. Keresey replied, "Never mind that, we have to haul ass up the coast. There's a bunch of marines trapped!"
Kennedy, with Keresey guiding, immediately headed full-out northwest up the coast, with the fuel gauge reading almost empty and only 30 minutes of daylight remaining.
At the Warrior River, as the marines were trying to get aboard two landing craft, the Japanese began lobbing mortar rounds at them, and a heavy rain began falling. One landing craft, having taken on more than 30 marines, reversed its engine and began moving away. As it did, the boat scraped the coral reef, which bent the rudder and made steering difficult. Bigger and some 25 marines boarded the other craft. As that boat began moving out to sea, it too began scraping along the coral reef and taking on water. Soon the motor was flooded out, and the boat began drifting dangerously close to the shore and Japanese fire. It finally came to rest on the coral, less than 100 yards from the beach.
A few minutes after Kennedy had put his boat into a fast idle, Keresey could hear something coming from inshore, not gunfire but something else. He signaled Kennedy to turn toward the sounds. As the boat swung in at the Warrior River and the rain squall continued, Keresey saw the two landing craft close by. Keresey hailed them, and Kennedy placed his boat between the shore and the sinking craft. The other craft came alongside, and PT-59 began taking on personnel and equipment from both boats.
As PT-59 headed toward Voza, Kennedy's crew gave the marines canned peaches, the first real food they had had in six days. Up to that point they had lived on one D–bar and one K-ration per day. The men had lost an average of 15 pounds each during their week on Choiseul.
As the two PT boats moved along the coast, the craft with the bent rudder tried to keep up but fell behind. The trip back to Voza was completed without incident. Kennedy transferred the marines to a waiting craft that took them to shore.
With their work done, the PT boats started back to Vella Lavella. Halfway across the channel to Vella Lavella, Kennedy's boat ran out of fuel. It was towed by PT-236 the rest of the way and arrived at Lambu Lambu Cove around dawn. Kennedy, knowing the situation of Krulak's forces, volunteered to go back to help further.
The Japanese Close In as Krulak's Forces Evacuate
Late in the day, IMAC asked Krulak by radio whether his forces should be withdrawn the following night. The message ended with the assessment—"Feel your mission accomplished."
Krulak responded that he expected a strong Japanese attack within 48 hours and recommended withdrawal in light of IMAC's view that nothing further could be gained by continuing operations.
Both IMAC and Krulak realized that, two days into the Empress Augusta Bay landing, it must have been obvious to the Japanese that the west coast of Bougainville was the main target and Choiseul was a diversion.
IMAC, knowing sizable Japanese forces were closing in on both flanks of Krulak's position and that the Bougainville invasion was already a success, decided to curtail the Choiseul diversion. At 2:30 a.m. on November 3, IMAC sent a message to Krulak indicating that the Japanese were closing in on his position and that he needed to evacuate that day. They would be extracted that evening by landing craft.
Krulak, learning of the increasing numbers of Japanese at Sangigai and Moli, had his forces undertake vigorous combat patrols. They ambushed and delayed some of the Japanese leading elements.
At Lambu Lambu Cove around noon, Lieutenant Berndston and his intelligence officer, Lt. Byron White, were informed that their five boats, including PT-59, would cover the extraction of Krulak's battalion that night. The boats, already loaded with fuel and ammunition, would rendezvous with the three craft heading toward Choiseul and escort them to their destination.
In mid-afternoon, the battalion began leaving Mountain Camp and headed down to the beach at Voza. They took with them all their supplies, except rations, which were given to the native carriers.
Before leaving, they left behind numerous booby traps, including a rocket suspended in a tree. Booby traps and mines were placed at various approaches to Voza. Double-edged razor blades were worked into palm trunks to discourage snipers from clambering up.
While waiting at the beach, the marines set up a semicircular perimeter and learned that natives working for Seton had come across Lieutenant Johnston's body. He had been tied to a tree, carved up with knives while alive, and then executed.
As darkness fell at Voza, the craft had not arrived. Native scouts reported that Japanese forces were moving closer and soon were less than a mile away. Shortly thereafter, they reported that Japanese barge traffic was moving in large numbers from Moli Point toward Voza.
At 10:30 p.m. the craft were out in the channel somewhere beyond Zinoa. Krulak and Seton immediately boarded a landing craft and went out to find them and guide them to the shore. The PT boats patrolled offshore, screening the seaward approaches. A half-hour later, a Japanese patrol several hundred yards from the perimeter set off one of the booby traps. Minutes later another booby trap exploded. To the marines this meant the Japanese were nearby, and they began to worry about mortar shelling.
The PT boats then interspersed themselves between the landing craft and were ready to open up on the Japanese as soon as they reached the beach. Shortly after returning to shore, at 1:38 a.m., Krulak gave the order to withdraw. As the marines began gathering their gear and heading to the landing craft, the Japanese continued their approach and set off more booby traps. The marines, eager to leave, were ready in 12 minutes.
The PT boats escorted the slow-moving landing craft back toward Vella Lavella, and when it was clear they would safely reach their destination, the PTs left the flotilla and returned to their base at Lambu Lambu. When the craft arrived in Vella Lavella, they were met by the regimental commander, selected members of the IMAC staff, and a section of the Amphibious Corps band. That morning, coastwatchers reported the Japanese had occupied Voza and were having difficulty with the booby traps and mines left by the marines.
"Blissful" Is a Success; Kennedy Is Hospitalized
The mission had accomplished its primary goals.
The Japanese sent reinforcements to Choiseul, delaying reaction to the Bougainville landing. The Choiseul operation also killed at least 143 Japanese, destroyed several hundred tons of enemy fuel and supplies, sank two barges, and destroyed the barge station at Sangigai, disrupting Japanese barge traffic along the coast of Choiseul.
In addition, the captured documents allowed the Navy not only to more safely navigate the waters around Bougainville but also to mine areas that the Japanese believed were clear, which resulted in the sinking of two Japanese warships.
On the night of November 5–6, Kennedy led three PT boats to Moli Point and Choiseul Bay, where they attacked Japanese barges. During the next week and a half, Kennedy's PT-59 prowled off Choiseul Bay looking for barges. Kennedy's final action was on the night of November 16–17, when he took PT-59 on an uneventful patrol.
On November 18 a doctor directed Kennedy, who was mentally and physically exhausted and had lost 25 pounds during the preceding three months, to go the hospital at Tulagi. He gave up his command of PT-59 that day and left the Solomons on December 21 for the United States. He left the Navy on physical disability in March 1945.
In 1946, Kennedy was elected to Congress, and during the legislative fight of 1948 to decide whether the Marine Corps should be abolished, he was a champion of retaining the corps. In 1960, Kennedy was elected President of the United States.
His first appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court, in 1962, was a man he had known since before World War II, the man who wrote the intelligence report on the sinking of PT-109 and who was a participant in Operation Blissful. Former Lt. Byron White served as an associate justice until 1993.
The natives on Choiseul were confused and disappointed about the marines leaving, seeing it as a sign of Allied weakness. Seton and Waddell, the Australians, spent considerable energy convincing them of the necessity of helping the Allies. Seton, still on Choiseul until the spring of 1944, pinpointed targets for a number of successful dive-bombing raids. As a result, Choiseul Bay ceased to be an important enemy base.
The First Marine Parachute Regiment was shipped back to the United States on January 2, 1944, and disbanded. Many of them were then assigned to the newly formed Fifth Marine Division, which took part in the Iwo Jima campaign in the spring of 1945.
Admiral Halsey personally pinned the Navy Cross on Krulak for his efforts, and Krulak received the Purple Heart for the wounds he received during the attack at Sangigai. He later joined the newly formed Sixth Marine Division and took part in the Okinawa campaign.
Krulak remained in the Marine Corps and received his third Legion of Merit for exceptionally meritorious service from 1962 to 1964 as special assistant for counterinsurgency activities with the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations.
During Kennedy's presidency, Krulak, in a meeting with the former PT boat skipper, presented Kennedy with a promised bottle of whiskey for the 1943 rescue from Choiseul, according to an account in the New York Times.
On March 1, 1964, he was designated commanding general, Fleet Marine Force, Pacific, and promoted to lieutenant general. He retired four years later and died in December 2008 at age 95.
From 1995 to 1999, his son, Gen. Charles C. Krulak, served as commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps.
Greg Bradsher, an archivist at the National Archives and Records Administration, specializes in World War II intelligence, looted assets, and war crimes. His previous contributions to Prologue have included articles the discovery of Nazi gold in the Merkers Mine (Spring 1999); the story of Fritz Kolbe, 1900–1943 (Spring 2002); Japan's secret "Z Plan" in 1944 (Fall 2005); Founding Father Elbridge Gerry (Spring 2006); and the third Archivist of the United States, Wayne Grover (Winter 2009).
Note on Sources
Among the useful documents held by the National Archives are Krulak's report on Operation Blissful and Maj. Gen. Roy S. Geiger's report on the early phases of the Bougainville campaign. Both are found in the Geographic "Area" File, 1942–1946, First Marine Force Pacific, in Records of the United States Marine Corps (Record Group 127).
Kennedy's PT boat career is documented in Robert J. Donovan, PT 109: John F. Kennedy in World War II (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1961) and Richard Tregaskis, John F. Kennedy: War Hero (New York, Dell Publishing Co., 1962). Information about the coastwatchers can found in Walter Lord, Lonely Vigil: Coastwatchers of the Solomons (New York: Viking Press, 1977) and Commander Eric A. Feldt, O.B.E., Royal Australian Navy, The Coast Watchers (Hawthorne, Australia: Lloyd O'Neil, 1975).
Useful for the Choiseul operations are Maj. John M. Rentz, USMCR, Bougainville and the Northern Solomons (Washington, DC: Historical Section, Division of Public Information, Marine Corps, 1948) and Lt. Col. Jon T. Hoffman, USMCR, Silk Chutes and Hard Fighting: U.S. Marine Corps Parachute Units in World War II (Washington, DC: History and Museums Division, U.S. Marine Corps, 1999).
An excellent work, based primarily on oral histories with over 70 of the participants, is James F. Christ, Mission Raise Hell: The U.S. Marines on Choiseul, October–November 1943 (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2006). Two of the participants wrote books about their military experiences. These are Gerald P. Averill, Mustang: A Combat Marine (Novato, CA: Presidio Press, 1987) and Dick Keresey, PT 105 (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1996).