“I’ve Served My Time In Hell”

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It was nearly midnight. Turner, like most American naval officers, had a traditional distaste for night action. He dismissed the report. It was probably nothing more than an escort force for tenders that would launch a seaplane raid the next day, Turner said.

But Turner was quite wrong. A Japanese task force especially trained in night surface righting was almost upon the Americans at that moment. It had been steaming at top speed all day long down the “Slot” between the chain of islands, headed for Guadalcanal, looking for a night fight—that night.

Before he went off to meet Turner, Crutchley had given his cruisers and destroyers their assignments for the night. They were to patrol the entrance to the twenty-by-thirty-mile body of water (eventually to be called Iron Bottom Sound, for the number of ships sunk there) between Tulagi and Guadalcanal in which rode the vulnerable transports. A tiny island called Savo sits in the middle of the entrance, and Crutchley put half his force (the cruisers Chicago and Canberra , his own flagship Australia , and two destroyers) on the south of Savo and the other half (the cruisers Vincennes, Astoria , and Quincy and two more destroyers) on the north. The radar-equipped destroyers Blue and Ralph Talbot were assigned to patrol the western approaches to the sound and give early warning of enemy attack.

At 0130 on August 9 the Japanese force (five heavy cruisers and two light ones) was at the south entrance. They had sighted the U.S. picket destroyer Blue at 0054, had slowed down and trained their guns on her. But when she had shown no sign of knowing they were there, they had sped up and come on. They knew exactly the disposition of the American forces; their float planes had been snooping for an hour.

 

At 0145 the Japanese cruisers sighted the southern group (minus Australia because Crutchley had not yet returned from the conference with Turner). Within two minutes every Japanese ship had fired torpedoes. They hit both Chicago and Canberra , crippling the latter so badly she had to be sunk the next morning.

They then turned the corner around Savo, into the sound, toward the northern group, which was taken by surprise. The Japanese quickly sank Quincy and Vincennes and damaged Astoria , which went down the next morning.

In the first surface battle that the U.S. Navy had fought since Santiago it suffered one of the worst defeats it had ever suffered or, fortunately, would suffer again throughout World War II. When daylight came there was nothing left in the sound except crippled and burning or sinking warships, and the transports. The transports hurried to unload as much as possible before dark, and then departed.

The quality of that Marine unit ashore now became critical. Could it hold alone, without any help from the air or from the sea? Could it take the punishment the Japanese were almost certain to pour on?

If a professional tradition and a record of rugged duty meant anything, the First Marine Division was the best in the American armed forces in 1942. Its nucleus, the First Marine Brigade, was led by men who had done hard, dirty, and largely thankless duty in the banana wars of the 1920’s and 1930’s in Haiti and Nicaragua. The had stubbornly persisted (even after Gallipoli) in their belief that it was still possible to make an amphibious assault against a defended shore in modern war, and had formed the landing force for six fleet landing exercise between 1934 and 1941. The brigade tested and perfected many of the most important innovations in amphibious warfare. And when the reserves had been called up in 1941, wrote Marine historian Colonel John W. Thomason, “the Leathernecks, the breed of American regular, regarding the service as home and war an occupation … transmitted their temper and character and viewpoint to the high-hearted volunteer mass …” they had the same in World War I.

The essential position on Guadalcanal was defensive. General Vandergrift wanted only as much land as he could be sure of keeping. The perimeter was a toe-hold and nothing more; the lines were drawn like an arc around the airfield. It was, if Marines had landed on Long Island and taken only Jones Beach. At one end of the beach the line was put down along a small, sluggish tidal river, the Tenaru. At the other end, there was no natural defensive position; the line hung in the jungle. Inland, some outposts were strung along a bald ridge which overlooked the airfield.