- Historic Sites
“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
By noon of October 14 Henderson Field was out. The Japanese had succeeded. But still their bombers and howitzers kept working over the field all day, and that night a cruiser force threw in 752 eight-inch shells. The next morning, in broad daylight and in plain sight of the helpless and punch-drunk Marines, six Japanese transports unloaded the Sendai Division.
The Marine airmen made desperate efforts to stop this piece of arrogance. They sent out scouts to scavenge for gas, did what they could to repair the airstrip, and enabled Brigadier General Roy S. Geiger, the Marine air commander, to get some American dive bombers into action. By the end of the day three Japanese transports were beached and burning. But Hyakutake had got ashore most of his men—3,000 to 4,000—and eighty per cent of his supplies.
Altogether Hyakutake now had about 20,000 more or less fresh troops on the island. Except for the Army regiment that had just come ashore, the Marines had less than this number, on whom malaria, malnutrition, and constant tension had worked their inevitable debilitating effect. Except for marginal forays, the airfield was useless; and the Japanese had control of the sea. It was a critical moment.
The one piece of good news was that a new man had been put in charge of the whole Guadalcanal operation. He was Vice Admiral William F. Halsey. He took over down at Noumea as COMSOPAC (Commander, South Pacific), relieving Admiral Ghormley on October 18.
But the Japanese were moving into position. They struck at the mouth of the Matanikau on October 20. This and another attack on October 23 were repulsed.
This affair did not have the appearance of being a major push, and it was not. It was one prong of a three-pronged attack. The big push was to be a strike at the ridge, Bloody Ridge. This time the Japanese were simply going to pour more on—more men and, particularly, more fire power. They were going to get artillery up there.
The story of how they did so, the heroic effort and blood they put into moving the heavy guns through the jungle, is and will probably remain one of the most awesome parts of the whole Guadalcanal epic.
Nightmare stories trickle through the captured documents and testimony of Japanese who cut out this “Maruyama Trail” through the steep abutments and tangle of jungle. Every soldier who wasn’t actually manhandling the guns had to carry an artillery shell plus his regular gear, infantry rifle, and ammunition.
The Japanese suffered: it is only “a legend that they got along better in the jungle than did the Americans. The Japanese soldier did not, it is true, expect the same degree of personal comfort as did the American. But if he complained less, he undoubtedly suffered more. His army’s medical services were primitive; the Japanese say that they lost more men on Guadalcanal through sickness than they did from American bullets.
This time the ridge was to be defended by a little bantam of a Marine, Lieutenant Colonel Lewis B. (“Chesty”) Puller. Puller got his nickname from his posture: he stuck his chest out so far he looked deformed. Chesty was the Patton of the Marine Corps, the most decorated and in some ways the most controversial Marine officer of World War II. Once when an Army chemical warfare officer finished a demonstration of a new flamethrower, Puller was heard to ask: “Where do you put the bayonet on it?” He was suspicious of any refinement of war above the hand-to-hand struggle.
His men, the ist Battalion, 7th Regiment, were to get some of that on the night of October 24.
Shortly after dark, a heavy, squelching tropical rain began to fall. A few minutes after midnight, the Japanese came lunging out of the jungle toward the ridge, crying out their banzais , throwing grenades, firing rifles and light machine guns, striking Chesty’s men on a narrow front.
Marine artillery and mortars turned on the Japanese assembly areas, pounded away, pulled their fire up forward toward Marine lines, threw it back again into the Japanese assembly areas. At one point the Marine positions were swamped. But only momentarily. That was near where Sergeant “Manila” John Basilone had his section. He recalled afterward: When the first wave came at us the ground just rattled. A runner came in and told me that at the emplacements on the right Japs had broken through. With their knives they had killed two of the crew and wounded three, and the guns were jammed. I took off up the trail to see what happened. … We left six Japs on the trail.
While I fixed the jams on the other two guns up there, we stayed to set up. Bullets were smacking into the sandbags. I rolled over from one gun to the other, firing them as fast as they could be loaded. The ammo belts were in awful shape. They had been dragged on the ground. I had to scrape mud out of the receiver.