Monday 28 June 2021

At War! Bougainville: Jungle Attack

In 2014 I was contacted by Brigadier General Ronald R. Stockum, who was born on the 8th July 1916, just one week after his father Sergeant Reginald G. Bareham was killed in action on the first day of the Battle of the Somme whilst serving with the 11th Battalion, Suffolk Regiment (the Cambs Suffolks). Since then I've got to know the General well and am proud to know him as a friend. Aside from the interest in his father, 'Van' as he is known, is a great source of inspiration and knowledge having had a long and distinguished military career. Indeed when I was studying for my MA I was able to tap into his memories of combat during the Second World War Pacific Campaign at which point he was serving with the US Marines as a young officer. Van, now almost 105 years old, continues to write a column in his local newspaper and I thought I would share his account of the Battle of Bougainville which was republished recently.

Here it is .....

Brief History
The island of Bougainville is named for French admiral and explorer Louis Antoine de Bougainville, who visited there in 1768. Japan invaded the island in 1942 to provide a support base for operations elsewhere in the South West Pacific. The Allied invasion began in 1943 with full control of the island not re-established until 1945.  Today, the region is divided into three Districts: the North, the South and the Central Bougainville Districts. 

French Admiral Louis Antoine de Bougainville

Jungle Attack 
On November 6, 1943, the 1st Battalion, 21st Marines debarked into landing craft from high-speed transports, actually old converted destroyers, and landed in reserve on the Torokina beaches.  My thoughts, as I faced infantry combat for the first time, were mixed.  While anxious to prove myself, I was apprehensive about the uncertainties ahead and in my inner thoughts hoped to find the battle won and the island secured.
Promptly at 9:55 a.m., the shells of supporting artillery commenced their welcome shrieks overhead.  This is it, I thought, as the chatter of machine guns joined the crescendo to signal two minutes to go!  I made a quick visual check of my weapon and equipment, being unconsciously joined in this by a thousand tense, serious and determined men. As I glanced at my watch, the minute hand seemed to race toward ten o'clock.

US Marines - Bougainville Jungle, 1943

An enormous silence signalled H-Hour, 10:00 a.m., the time of our attack. The battalion sprang to life.  Small patrols moved out and were soon swallowed by the dense jungle. They were followed by the battalion in seven files; each preceded by scouts and a team of machete-wielding marines.
I slipped into my accustomed place near the battalion commander in the center column.  There was little difference between this actual attack and the many that we had rehearsed during training on Guadalcanal. The shade of the jungle was just as friendly and welcome as ever, but what else might it shelter and conceal?  Contrary to popular belief, the jungle is relatively cool, the towering growth providing shelter from the tropic sun. 

A copy of the jungle attack formation carried in combat by the author, November 1943 

An Incredible Sight
Soon after initiating our attack, we encountered an incredible sight!  Covering an area less than the size of a football field was a ghastly tableau of a Japanese assembly area. It contained at least three hundred of the enemy in all sorts of grotesque poses.  Some had died clutching shovels, desperately in the act of digging in.  Some had been surprised while eating what became their last meal.  Others were stilled in the act of undoing their packs.  The stink of putrefaction was not yet in the air, but dominating the dreadful scene was the spectre of death.

I silently thanked God for the barrage which had destroyed this well-equipped and heavily-armed force before it could extract its toll from the ranks of the First Battalion.

Brigadier General Ronald R. Van Stockum (June 2021)