It is seventy years, this month, since Operation SQUAREPEG – the New Zealand assault on Nissan Island, the largest atoll in the Green Islands Group, west of the Solomons.
The island was needed as an air base for operations against the main Japanese naval bases at Rabaul, but it’s become one of the forgotten sidelines of the Pacific Campaign – even in New Zealand memory, playing second fiddle to the North African and Italian campaigns.
For my family, though, it is a piece of history. The effort opened with a commando raid – a reconnaissance in force – ahead of the invasion. My grandfather was on that raid. Some years ago I pieced what happened together from his letters home and official material. The story forms part of the book I wrote in 2003 on the Pacific War.
My grandfather went ashore with 321 others. under Colonel F. C. Cornwall, around midnight on 30 January 1944. They landed at Pokonian plantation at the north end of the lagoon. Here they established a perimeter from which to begin a day’s reconnaissance. All went well until mid-afternoon when the perimeter came under attack from Japanese forces.
My grandfather emptied his pack out on the beach and filled it with grenades, then joined a group of others on a Higgins boat, intending to flank the attackers. When the boat got out into the lagoon it came under fire from half a dozen Mitsubishi ‘Zeroes’. Amidst the drama, Bill Aylward – sitting on the thwart next to my grandfather, turned to one of the pintle-mounted machine guns and returned fire. Soon everybody on the boat was joining in, using machine guns, rifles – and drove off the marauders. Afterwards, my grandfather wrote that Aylward certainly deserved a medal. He wasn’t alone; and Aylward was awarded the Military Medal for his actions.
The incident put paid to any thought of staying, and the commando was pulled off to their boats, awaiting pickup that night. In the scrabble, my grandfather wasn’t able to pick up his mess gear. But they had the information they needed. What they didn’t realise was that the garrison had almost surrendered to them. None of that stopped the main New Zealand invasion force taking the island on 16 February. US Marine engineers were clearing jungle for a runway even before fighting stopped, and the first aircraft made an emergency landing there on 5 March.
My grandfather was stationed on Nissan Island for some time, with the other New Zealanders and a small US force. The whole came under New Zealand Divisional commander Major-General H. E. Barrowclough – including the American contingent, which was led by a young Lieutenant by the name of Richard Milhous Nixon.
Yes, that Richard Milhous Nixon. It’s the only time that a US President has served under New Zealand command… albeit a quarter century or so before he became President, but hey…
Do you have any family stories from the Second World War that you’d like to share?
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014
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