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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
The Japanese threw something against this diminutive beachhead every day and every night, from August through November, but their Major offensive moves fell into a pattern. There was one in August, one in September, one in October and one in November. The time interval was dictated by logistics; each time it took the Japanese about a month to rebuild their forces.
The Japanese were also operating at the farthest extremity of their lines of supply. It is necessary to understand that Guadalcanal was just as much an improvisation for the Japanese as for the Americans.
First the Japanese would make a heroic effort to bring in enough men and supplies to drive American off the island. Then the Americans an equally heroic effort to back up the Marine landing force with whatever reinforcements they could get to the island. Before the battle was over the Japanese had brought men to Guadalcanal from southeast Asia, from China, from the home islands of Japan itself; the Americans were bringing troops from the U.S. mainland.
This build-up would go on for three or four weeks, and then there would be a climatic test of strength. The Japanese would attack, would fail, and then would fall back into the jungle. Then the build-up would start again.
The Japanese were slightly irrational. Or at least they seemed to have nourished a conviction of racial superiority. An example of this came to hand several days after the Battle of Savo. A few days after Marines landed, the Japanese had occupied Mount Austen and set up a listening post there. A Marine officer who later stood at the same point said that he could easily see from there the shape and size of the Marine landing force. From this it is obvious that the Japanese must have known almost exactly how large the American force was. But apparently their minds did not listen to the reports of their eyes. Knowing that something like a division of Americans was on Guadalcanal, they nevertheless decided to attack with something less than a battalion. This was to be their test of strength for August.
On August 12, the Japanese high command in Tokyo ordered Lieutenant General Haruyoshi Hyakutake’s Seventeenth Army to take over the ground action on Guadalcanal, and Rear Admiral Raizo Tanaka’s Eighth Fleet to take over at sea. The nearest thing at hand for Hyakutake’s use was a 2,000-man force of infantry, artillery, and engineers under Colonel Kiyono Ichiki that had been put together as the landing force for Midway. Tanaka put the first echelon—some 900 men—of Ichiki’s force ashore on Guadalcanal on August 18.
If what now happened had not involved so many human lives, it would have been a comic caricature of Oriental behavior. Without waiting for the rest of his men, cocky little Colonel Ichiki sent those he had across the sandspit at the Tenaru River against the Marines on the night of August 21. He lost 600 men, accomplished nothing, and expressed his chagrin by committing suicide.
That was the August offensive, but it was no sooner over than the build-up started again. The Japanese moved almost at once to reinforce. On August 23 they sent down a large convoy that included several troop-carrying transports. This news caused Admiral Fletcher to set sail for Guadalcanal again, and the result was: (1) an inconclusive naval skirmish (the Battle of the Eastern Solomons) and (2) a lesson learned by the Japanese—that they could not bring troops all the way down to Guadalcanal on slow-moving transports. They took their infantry to the Shortland Islands, reloaded them there on fast destroyers, and then brought them down the last leg at night, on what soon came to be called the Tokyo Express.
These troops—about 6,000 men—were the rest of Ichiki’s force plus a new outfit General Hyakutake was sending down, the Kawaguchi Brigade, veterans of China, Borneo, and the Philippines. Their whereabouts on Guadalcanal was not a mystery to General Vandegrift; natives were soon coming through the lines with the news that the Japanese were moving up the Lunga, into the hills behind the airfield.
Aware of his weakness there, General Vandegrift had already brought his raider and parachute battalions over from Tulagi on August 31 and given them the mission of defending this rugged piece of terrain. By September 12 Lieutenant Colonel Merritt (“Red Mike”) Edson, the raider commander, had set up a thin line of defense across a bald ridge, facing a blank wall of green jungle in front and on both sides.
At 2100 that night a Japanese float plane dropped a flare over the ridge, and a few minutes later a Japanese light cruiser and three destroyers standing offshore began to shell the area. They kept this up for about twenty minutes.
Then the men of Kawaguchi Brigade came out of the jungle at the Marines. They hit hardest at the extreme right flank of the American position—almost at the bank of the Lunga. But words like “flank” and “position” are misleading pieces of language at a moment like this. They make a battlefield sound more orderly than it ever really is. This one was a melee.