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“I’ve Served My Time In Hell”
So thought many a weary Marine after the bloody, interminable battle for Guadalcanal. It was only a dot in the ocean, but upon its possession turned the entire course of the Pacific war
February 1966 | Volume 17, Issue 2
On June 30, the entire division was organized into 300-man, eight-hour, three-shift working parties for around-the-clock stevedore duty. A command line-up was hastily put together. Ghormley was theatre commander, number one in the South Pacific—and a new boundary was drawn between him and General Douglas MacArthur, commander of the Southwest Pacific. Commander of the task force that was to go to Guadalcanal was to be Vice Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher, who had commanded the carriers at the Battle of the Coral Sea in May. To command the amphibious force, Rear Admiral Richmond Kelly Turner was named. And Vandegrift’s place, as commander of the landing force, was directly under Turner.
The line-up looked good on paper. If there was a weakness it was at the top. Instead of pulling his people together in the little time left, Ghormley shoved off for a powwow with MacArthur in Australia.∗ The outcome was a joint’message Io Washington asking that the Guadalcanal operation he postponed; the two “found themselves in agreement as to the doubtful feasibility of this first offensive,” as one official history puts it. In short, Ghorniley, bearing the top responsibility for the operation, did not believe in it.
∗ In a technical sense Ghormley was ordered to meet with MacArthur. But there cannot be lhe least doubt that he could have asked the Joint Chiefs, from whom the order had come, to let him forgo this mission for others more important in setting up his own command and ironing out its operational details.
The request was disallowed. Then, on July 28, when the tactical commanders met at Koro for the rehearsal, they discovered that there were serious unresolved differences between them. Fletcher astonished the others by revealing for the first time that he had no intention of risking his carriers in the waters of Guadalcanal for more than four days. This was a blow to Vandegrift and was not happy news to Turner.
The task force, in the luck of the draw, was concealed by squalls and an overcast as it moved from Koro to Guadalcanal. The first notion the Japanese had of its presence was at daylight August 7. At 0647, the traditional signal, “Land the landing force,” was sent by Turner, and the Marines went over the side—“paled by days of inactivity … dripping with sweat … their dungarees clinging to their bodies,” a man who was there remembers.
The first flight of Zeros had been scheduled to land on the Guadalcanal airstrip later that morning! The Japanese had just completed a 3,600-foot, coral-surfaced runway. The race was won, and the landing was unopposed, a stroke of the best fortune. At Guadalcanal, the Japanese simply took off, leaving behind (another stroke of good fortune) all their food and road-building equipment, and even a batch of propaganda leaflets.
But there were two separate assaults, and the one directed at Tulagi and its adjoining islands, Gavutu and I anambogo, ran into some nasty opposition from the Kurc forte, which was still there. In July, the Japanese had brought a construction unit to Guadalcanal, relieving the Kurc men. In a prophetic dclcnse, the Kure men burrowed into the faults of the coral-hillocked islands, and the Marines had to blast and burn them out. There were two days of hard fighting.
Meanwhile, unloading was not going well. Low-flying Kettys from Kabaul attacked the American Iransports on the first day, slowing down the flow of supplies. The second day, August 8, they came back again in broad daylight and set fire to the transport George F. Elliott .
By nightfall, when only a fraction of the Mariiie supplies were ashore, Admiral Kletcher sent a message to Admiral Ghormley: “In view of the large number of enemy torpedo planes and bombers in this area I recommend the immediate withdrawal ol my carriers.” He ordered his carriers to change course for the southcast, and sailed away from Guadalcanal.
This left Admiral Turner the ranking American officer on the scene, with his transports and a protecting force of cruisers and destroyers, only a few of which had ever worked together before, operating tinder an Australian, Admiral V. A. C. Crutchlcy.
At 2032, Turner summoned Vandcgrift and Crutchley to his command ship, McCawley . Because it would lake several hours to get there in his barge, Crutchley came on in his flagship, the cruiser Australia .
Now Turner gave Vandcgrift the really bad news. Hc was going to have to pull out and take the transports (and the stipplies still unloaded aboard them) with him. Hc couldn’t stay without Flctchcr’s air cover. He would stay through pan of the next day, leave in time to be out of there before deep dark set in. It is recorded that Vandegrift had a few angry words to say before he went ashore. Mcforc Crutchley left, he asked Turner about a report he had heard that a Japanese forte was on the way down to Guadalcanal.