Letters Home – Russell Islands 1943

Upon returning to the Pacific, the USS Massachusetts, powered by Fireman First Class Kenney Rhoades (and others) took part in more training while the U.S. beefed up her defensive strategy and finalized plans to transition to an offensive-defensive phase.  There are indications that Kenney did write more letters during these months, but these have been lost or misplaced in our family files.  What we do have is a chronology that Kenney either obtained or typed up himself (it’s on thin carbon copy paper, indicating multiple copies were made on a typewriter.)

Kenney crossed the equator aboard Big Mamie on February 18, 1943, and then crossed the International Date Line on March 1.  On March 4, they found themselves in Noumea, New Caledonia. 

Approximate path of Kenney on the USS Massachusetts from February to April 1943. Google Maps

Events leading up to 1943

Early in 1942 Japanese forces had dominated the Islands off the east coast of Australia and New Guinea.  Later that year Allied forces were having success in routing Japan out of the Pacific culminated by the Battle of Guadalcanal.  Early in 1943, activity around Guadalcanal was winding down and resulted in Japan’s occupation of the Russell Islands.  Japan used these islands temporarily as a final staging point for evacuating their troops from the area.  Intelligence rolled into Allied leaders that Japan had abandoned these islands two weeks after occupying them in February 1943.  Marine and Army ground troops secured the Russell Islands late in February and the Islands became a strategic Allied location for training and supplies; a staging point for the offensive in the Solomon Islands.

While the Russell Islands were being secured for Allied occupation, US military leaders formulated plans for the U.S.’ next move.  In February 1943, the Joint Chiefs approved a directive that took into consideration all of the plans as well as addressing British concerns for increasing military forces in the Pacific.  The new operation was dubbed Cartwheel, and the USS Massachusetts along with other Navy ships were assigned to the Pacific, and began making their way to the Russell Islands.

The overall strategic plan was to regain control of the Solomon Islands and secure Allied control of the South Pacific before pushing further north.  

The chronology among Kenney’s papers has an entry for April 5 that states, “Covered for landing on Russel [sic] Islands, Coral Sea up to the 15th.”  However, the Allies already controlled the Russell Islands by this time.  A history of the USS Massachusetts in the U.S. Navy WWII War Diaries (note: this hyperlink may require a Fold III membership to view) implies there were additional operations among the Russell Islands through April 1943, supporting the chronology’s indication that there was a Marine landing operation. Many of the Navy histories and press releases simply state that the USS Massachusetts trained in the South Pacific in the first half of 1943.  Not even Kenney’s papers refer to operations by name, but that is not surprising as he was in the engine room sweating his tail off, not in the communications room reading orders.  Having been in the military myself, my gut feeling is, the April landing of the Marines and Naval cover by Big Mamie may have been training for Big Mamie’s next offensive mission.

Big Mamie probably did a lot of other training.  The typed chronology in Kenney’s papers does not have entries for May through July 1943.  Operation Cartwheel commenced in June 1943 and the history books don’t have Big Mamie directly participating in the early objectives.  A few sources also indicate that Big Mamie was providing security along the shipping lanes in the Pacific.  I assume these shipping lanes were supply lines from the U.S. or Australia to the Russell Islands leading up to the start of Operation Cartwheel.

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