- Historic Sites
Ordeal At Vella Lavella
June 1977 | Volume 28, Issue 4
Despite Atkinson’s genius—and the continuing efforts of the more orthodox cooks—food was always short, and always on everyone’s mind. The men no longer talked about the girls in Sydney—it was the steaks back home. So it was not too surprising when Major Kelly stormed up to Chew one day, reporting that someone had stolen one of the few cans of Spam salvaged from the rafts. “IfI find out who it is, will you sentence him to death?”
Chew said he thought this was a little drastic. The thief was probably some poor devil, so hungry he really didn’t know what he was doing. Kelly was adamant, and the “Mayor” was caught between approving what he felt was a Draconian measure, or undermining his “Chief of Police.” To his enormous relief, the culprit was never caught.
A graver crisis arose the day a four-man Japanese patrol came too close to the camp. The native scouts intercepted, and in the skirmish that followed, three of the enemy were killed. The fourth was taken alive, posing a serious dilemma. With his men hiding out deep in Japanese territory, and the enemy now on their heels, Chew felt it was too dangerous to have a prisoner on their hands, yet they certainly couldn’t turn him loose. In the end he reluctantly ordered the Japanese executed—technically, perhaps, against the rules of the Geneva Convention, but surely that body never contemplated a situation like this. Nevertheless it was a hard decision, and it comforted Chew to know that the Reverend Silvester understood and agreed.
The next Japanese thrust was no four-man affair. Twenty well-armed troops landed from a barge in Lambu Lambu Cove and started up the trail toward Sam’s house. Warned by their native scouts, the Irregulars deployed to meet the threat, while the rest of Chew’s group prepared to move deeper into the interior.
Major Kelly hoped to ambush the Japanese as they climbed single file up the trail. He selected a spot that gave him both good observation and cover for his own men. The Irregulars moved into position with their grab bag of weapons and waited. Soon they heard the Japanese coming, hobnailed boots clanging against the rocks, their voices casual and quite audible in the distance. Kelly wondered how they got their reputation as stealthy jungle fighters.
Still, they were plenty dangerous, and the outnumbered, outgunned Irregulars steeled themselves for a last-ditch fight. Then, just as the head of the enemy column came into view, several blue Corsair fighters streaked by overhead and began firing at the Japanese barge on the coast. Black smoke boiled up, and the patrol, voices babbling in excitement, hurried back to the beach.
Kelly never knew what triggered the attack—probably the fighters just happened by and saw the barge—but he did know that Corsairs were generally land-based. This must mean that the U.S. now had a field within fighter range of Vella Lavella.
Twelve miles up the coast at Paraso Bay—but in touch by radio—Henry Josselyn wasn’t thinking about these small triumphs; he was thinking about all the other Japanese on Vella Lavella. Some three to four hundred enemy troops were now on the island, and the number was growing. There were new outposts at Kundurumbangara Point and Baka Baka, both near Chew’s camp, and another at Marisi, about three miles west of Ensign Bausewine’s group at Paraso.
There was no time to lose, if the men were to be saved. COMSOPAC (as Admiral William Halsey’s headquarters was called) said they could provide a couple of destroyer-transports, so the problem boiled down to the mechanics of evacuation. A total of 165 Helena survivors were involved— 104 with Chew, 50 with Bausewine, and another 11 a few miles to the northwest with Chief Warrant Officer William Dupay. Even after adding Dupay’s men to Bausewine’s group, it was impossible to concentrate everybody in one place, so Josselyn planned two separate evacuations. He was already at Paraso Bay with Bausewine; so he would send this group off first. Then he would go down to Lambu Lambu and do the same for Chew’s group.
July 12, and Bausewine’s party received a surprise addition—a captured Zero pilot, brought in by native scouts. Here, too, arose the agonizing question of what to do with the prisoner. The general consensus was to kill him, but as Bausewine later recalled, “Nobody would go through with it; so he lived.” Happily, he seemed cowed and thoroughly docile, but to be on the safe side his hands were bound and he was kept blindfolded whenever the group moved. A final and far more welcome newcomer was Lieutenant Ciunguin, the downed P-38 pilot who had been helping Firth with the radio traffic.
By nightfall on the twelfth all were assembled on the beach, waiting for the pickup at 2 A.M. , but the Japanese Navy didn’t cooperate. The Tokyo Express came barreling down The Slot that night with twelve hundred more reinforcements for Kolombangara. Admiral Ainsworth rushed to intercept them, and the rescue operation was postponed, first to the thirteenth, then to the fourteenth. But now it fell too close to the fifteenth, when Josselyn had planned to send Chew’s group off. In the end he proposed to do the whole job on the night of the fifteenth: the ships would first pick up Bausewine’s party at Paraso Bay, then steam down the coast and get Chew’s group at Lambu Lambu.