- Historic Sites
Four Months On The Front Line
A former Marine recalls the grim defense of Guadalcanal in 1942
October/november 1985 | Volume 36, Issue 6
We found ourselves that night settled once again in dense tropical forest. I remember the tension and the extreme precautions I took to ensure that we fire at no one not identified as an enemy. The night was full of strange noises; one peculiar birdcall was heard over and over. Sgt. Dan Jones, crouched in a foxhole, his carbine cocked, whispered to me, “Captain, that’s a human voice.” In our deep ignorance of Japanese ways this seemed, indeed, quite a likely signal for the long-expected counterattack against us. It wasn’t. The first authentic message came in the morning from a nambu light machine gun firing at us from somewhere between our position and what we realized was the edge of the airstrip. The bullets clipped the jungle foliage over our heads. I crawled forward with my binoculars and spotted a camouflaged Japanese detachment. Within minutes our sixty-millimeter mortar squad had the exact range, and the men of the first platoon zeroed in with rifle fire as well. Just as the enemy machine gun fell silent, a runner from battalion headquarters arrived with orders to advance and seize the airfield. C Company swept out of the jungle in assault formation and across cleared land to grab the prize, pausing only for brief moments to bayonet the survivors of the machine-gun outpost. It had taken us two days and two nights to cover what could not have been much more than a mile and a half.
That night we stood on the nearly completed runway and felt both triumph and relief. The foe had, unaccountably, offered little resistance but continued to make its presence known by firing greenish phosphorescent flares, which kept us all on edge and lent a corpselike pallor to the men’s unshaven faces. The flares were doused by the coming of a tropical thunderstorm whose fury seemed to rend the heavens. Sitting in puddles, under sopping, useless ponchos, we heard a tremendous sound above the noise of the storm and saw bright flashes of light, which continued intermittently hours after midnight.
Dawn comes swiftly on the equator. Hot, white sunlight dried our soaked gear, and we began the march back toward the beach. On our way we met a detachment of Marines moving toward the airfield. As I looked at their untested faces, I sensed how much I had changed in the few short days since the landing. Death had touched us—our own casualties the first night in the jungle, then the bloody extinction of the Japanese machine-gun nest. We were veterans now, veterans who had achieved our “objective.” My mind scanned the usual clichés: “mission accomplished,” “all secured,” “the marines have landed, and the situation is well in hand.” We all thought that now that the job was done, the Army soon would be there to garrison the island, and we would leave to prepare for the next landing, wherever that might be. But as we neared the beach, a look at the ocean put that idea to rest. Our ships were gone! Far to the east smoke rose from a beached and burning transport, the last forlorn survivor. Here (we learned later) had been the Battle of Savo Island; a Japanese task force had swept down on our landing fleet during the night and in fifty hideous minutes had sunk four Allied cruisers and inflicted heavy damage on our destroyers and transports. It was the worst defeat in U.S. naval history.
Anticipating the inevitable counterattacks, we now prepared to defend the airstrip, which would soon be christened Henderson Field in honor of a Marine flier killed at Midway. The defense perimeter stretched for several miles along the beach in front of the airfield and then in along the Matanikau River at one end and the Ilu at the other; we established our position along the headwaters of the Ilu, a sluggish, green-black flow that runs across a broad sandspit into the ocean. Behind us we strung barbed wire entanglements of ever-increasing density. Foxholes were deepened into trenches, and the sandbags multiplied as the days passed. But there were gaps of hundreds of yards between the fortified positions of our units. In fact, the perimeter was never in any sense completed in the early months on the island. There was no one on the upper Ilu, on our right flank, or inland beyond that. The only thing that enabled us to survive the battles to come was the incredible luck that inspired the Japanese always to attack at those points where we were dug in instead of the vast empty spaces where we were not.
Only our deep inexperience of war kept us from realizing our predicament. There were ten thousand troops on the island with no ships to supply them; we were alone and abandoned on a hostile shore. Meanwhile, a patrol from A Company, under Capt. Charles Brush, discovered a large body of Japanese infantry somewhere to the east of the Uu. To the west there were reports of intensive Japanese naval activity and the landing of additional enemy troops. Hostile air attacks intensified; Zero fighters zipped in at the treetop level to strafe the front lines, while far above, bombers droned by in V formation each day at noon. Compounding our vulnerability was the shortage of rations. We had what we had brought ashore with us and some rice and canned fruit that had been abandoned by the enemy. Ingersoll, our company cook, performed wonders in giving us two meals a day.