Espiritu Santo

Relief map of Espiritu Santo

Espiritu Santo (167.185E 15.529S) is the largest island of the New Hebrides group, extending 75 miles (120 km) north to south along its west coast and 45 miles (70 km) from east to west for a total land area of 1550 square miles (3880 km2).  It had an excellent but almost completely undeveloped harbor at Luganville in 1941. The western half of the island is mountainous with a maximum elevation of over 5500 feet (1670 meters). The eastern half is somewhat less rugged but with a number of limestone ridges, former reefs exposed by tectonic uplift. The climate is very damp, with an average annual rainfall of 90 inches (230 cm), and the entire island is jungle-clad except where the land had been cleared for cultivation. The population was some 4000 natives and 900 Europeans, and the island had significant agricultural production of copra, coffee, sugarcane, cotton, rice, and tropical fruit. The plantations were concentrated in the southeast of the island and the adjacent smaller islands.

Because of its strategic location, halfway between New Caledonia and the Solomons, the island became a major Allied base during the Guadalcanal campaign. An advance force from Efate arrived on 28 May 1942 and 3 Naval Construction Battalion began landing in large numbers beginning on 12 August 1942. The initial airfield site, at Turtle Bay twelve miles (19 km) north of Luganville, proved problematic, and a landing strip was barely ready by 7 August 1942, the day of the Guadalcanal invasion. Ultimately Turtle Bay had 6000' (1830 meter) and 4500' (1370 meter) runways, and by November 1942 there was a 6000' (1830 meter) runway two miles west of Luganville and a 7000' (2130 meter) runway four miles east of Luganville. In early 1943 a fifth runway 6800' (2070 meters) long was built outside Luganville.

The Allies initially tried to keep the existence of the base secret, by analogy with Base "T" (Addu Atoll) in the Indian Ocean. However, a seaplane from I-24 discovered the airfield on 2 October 1942.

Segond Channel south of Luganville is deep and well-protected and was heavily developed during the war. It became the largest operating base in the South Pacific and remained important to the end of the war. Before the base was dismantled on 12 June 1946, hundreds of vehicles were dumped into the harbor because they would have cost too much to ship home.


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