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November 1943 – November 1944
Allied operations to retake Bougainville (operation Cherry Blossom) from the Japanese 17th Army began with landings at Cape Torokina by the U.S. Marine 3rd Division, I Marine Amphibious Corps, on November 1, 1943. The Allies established a beachhead around Cape Torokina for the construction of an airfield within fighter range of Rabaul. Allied forces did not plan at this time to try to capture the entire island of Bougainville from Japanese forces. An attempt by the Imperial Japanese Navy to attack the U.S. landing forces was defeated by the U.S. Navy in the Battle of Empress Augusta Bay, on November 1–2. A subsequent attempt by Japanese land forces to attack the Allied beachhead was defeated in the Battle of Koromokina Lagoon.
From November 6–19, 1943, I Marine Amphibious Corps landed the remaining regiment of the 3rd Marine Division and the U.S. Army's 37th Infantry Division to expand the beachhead. Protracted and often bitter jungle warfare followed, with many casualties resulting from malaria and other tropical diseases. Except for patrol skirmishes, all of the combat to expand the beachhead occurred in the Marine sector. Operations resulted in the Battle for Piva Trail, Battle of the Coconut Grove, Battle of Piva Forks, and the Battle of Hill 600A.
In November and December the Japanese emplaced field artillery on the high ground around the beachhead, concentrated in a group of hills along the Torokina River overlooking the eastern perimeter. They shelled the beachhead, targeting the airstrips and the supply dumps. The 3d Marine Division extended its lines to include the hills in a series of operations that lasted from December 9–27. One hill, "Hellzapoppin Ridge", was a natural fortress 300 ft (91 m) long, with sharp slopes and a narrow crest that overlooked much of the beachhead. The Japanese constructed extensive artillery positions on the reverse slopes using natural and artificial camouflage. The 21st Marines attacked Hellzapoppin Ridge but were driven off on December 18. Several air strikes missed the narrow ridge completely. Finally, co-ordinated air, artillery, and infantry attacks resulted in the capture of Hellzapoppin Ridge on Christmas Day.
On December 15, 1943, the I Marine Amphibious Corps was replaced by the Army's XIV Corps and on December 28, the 3rd Marine Division by the Americal Division. The XIV Corps defended the beachhead against a major Japanese counterattack from March 9–17, 1944, at Hill 700 and Cannon Hill, which were defended by the Ohio 37th infantry division, and Hill 260, which was defended by the Americal Division. The counterattack was defeated with heavy losses for the Japanese army, which then withdrew the majority of its force into the deep interior and to the north and south ends of Bougainville.