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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 U.S. reinforcements got there first. One echelon arrived on November 11 under escort of a convoy commanded by Admiral Scott. The other arrived November ia in a convoy escorted by Admiral Daniel (“Uncle Dan”) Callaghan.
These forces got word at 1317 on November 12 from the coastwatcher at Buin that Japanese planes and ships were on the way. The American troop transports and the other noncombatant vessels continued unloading until dusk and then shoved off to leave the night’s work for Callaghan, who was senior to Scott.
The Helena got the first radar fix on the approaching Japanese at 0124 November 13. From there on for forty-five minutes there took place “the wildest most desperate sea fight since Jutland,” according to historian Samuel Eliot Morison. By 0200 the Japanese admiral had had enough, and ordered his battleships to turn north.
The price both sides had paid was apparent at dawn. There were eight crippled ships lying in the narrow waters between Savo and Guadalcanal—five American and three Japanese.
That night, as they had planned, the Japanese came in again. This time there was nothing left to oppose them but motor torpedo (PT) boats. Just after midnight the Japanese stood offshore and shelled Henderson Field for thirty-seven minutes.
But Henderson Field was in business again soon after daylight, and the American planes had a prime target: the approaching group of Japanese transports, whose location had now been discovered. As the day wore on, planes from the “Big E,” the carrier Enterprise , arrived, and by afternoon U.S. airmen were taking a terrific toll. Admiral Tanaka retained an “indelible picture” of the scene that day—“of carrier bombers roaring toward targets as though to plunge full into the water, releasing bombs and pulling out barely in time; each miss sending up towering columns of mist and spray; every hit raising clouds of smoke and fire as transports burst into flame and take the sickening list that spells their doom. Attacks depart, smoke screens lift and reveal the tragic scene of men jumping overboard from burning, sinking ships.”
It got so bad that Admiral Tanaka transferred a good part of the army force to destroyers. It was a good thing he did. By dark, Marine, Navy, and Army airmen had sunk seven Japanese transports and one heavy cruiser while losing only five planes.
At this point Tanaka asked his higher echelon if he might simply beach the four transports that were still afloat. The answer was No! But he did so anyway.
For some days two of America’s newest and biggest battleships had been floating in the roads at Noumea, held there because, as one history puts it, “Many [officers] at COMSOPAC doubted the wisdom of committing two 16-inch battleships to waters so restricted as those around Savo Island, but Admiral Halsey felt he must throw in everything at this crisis.” And so South Dakota and Washington steamed off to Guadalcanal, arriving there under the command of Admiral Willis Lee on November 14—ready to take on that night’s Tokyo Express.
The fighting started at 2317. Aside from its distinction as one of the few actions in World War II where battleships fought each other in surface actions, it was another somewhat mixed-up and inconclusive fight. Neither of the American battleships was lost, but Japan lost its Kirishima . By 0025, in the first minutes of November 15, Admiral Kondo, commanding the bombardment group that night, ordered a withdrawal.
That moment is just as good as any to fix the point at which the United States won the victory of Guadalcanal.
It was not so much that the Japanese had been thrashed as that they could not afford to go on. Those troops sent in by the Japanese in November (only about 4,000 of the 10,000 got safely ashore) were never to fight a major offensive action. It simply was too expensive to supply them on a regular basis or to reinforce them. Just to keep them alive the Japanese had to put supplies in sealed steel drums and drop strings of them from destroyers, to float ashore.
The Americans, on the other hand, began to reinforce almost at will and continued until there was a corps-sized ground force on Guadalcanal. These men conducted an offensive under Army General A. M. Patch; finally on February 9 he was able to report to Admiral Halsey: “Total and complete defeat of Japanese forces on Guadalcanal …”
As for the weary men of the First Marine Division, they were no longer capable of offensive operations. In November, 3,213 new malaria cases were reported and with the disease went a form of secondary anemia.
“Weight losses in these muscular, toughened young adults ran as high as forty-five pounds,” wrote a doctor who treated them. “Rain, heat, insects, dysentery, malaria, all contributed—but the end result was not bloodstream infection nor gastrointestinal disease but a disturbance of the whole organism—a disorder of thinking and living, or even wanting to live.”