- 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
The attacks were over for a while, but the enemy continued to unload troops nightly on the west side of the Matanikau River, where the 5th Marines were dug in against the increasing pressure. We of the 1st returned to our battle stations on the upper Hu, to daily patrols, and to daily reports that more and more Japanese were assembling in the area. They arrived via a chain of fast destroyers that we called the Bougainville Express. As August ended, so did hopes for quick relief. We were grimly aware of the fact that the perimeter was incomplete, and we could only wonder where the next attack would come from. Aerial dogfights continued to be waged above us, and occasionally, low-flying Zeros swooped in over the sea to strafe our lines. One afternoon in early September we were hammered by a squadron of strange planes firing cannon from their noses. They were newly arrived P-39s, American planes designed for close-in infantry support. Another mistake.
While the Japanese regrouped, we waited. Tension from the endless vigil and dysentery from the meager diet were becoming endemic. Each dusk brought clouds of malarial mosquitoes. We had “jungle rot,” too, skin ulcers that appeared and reappeared on legs and armpits, which corpsmen swabbed with Gentian Violet. Everyone had crab lice. The men spent idle hours “reading their shirts” —picking lice out of the seams—in a futile attempt to get rid of them.
Morale was at its lowest, but it was holding and got a tremendous lift when the 7th Regiment arrived from Samoa, bringing our division to full strength for the first time. The Navy had sufficiently recovered from its shattering defeat off Savo Island to bring large stores of muchneeded supplies also.
The Ichiki Battalion threw its full strength against us and died to a man.
The struggle for Guadalcanal had become a high-stakes poker game. Japan had made the initial bet by seizing the island and building the airstrip. We had called and raised the bet when we captured it. The pot grew steadily as the two sides battled on land, on sea, and in the air to put more troops ashore to inflict heavy casualties on each other. Shortly after Columbus Day the United States raised the stakes again, bringing in Army troops for the first time. This was the Americal Division, a National Guard outfit made up mostly of big farm boys from Minnesota and the Dakotas.
On the night of October 13 orders came from regimental headquarters that C Company was to be pulled out of the line and placed in division reserve, bivouacked in the coconut grove midway between the beach and the airstrip. No explanation, of course, accompanied the orders. The company was reluctant, as infantrymen inevitably are, to leave a well-entrenched position and to camp, uncertain of purpose, in open terrain, after nightfall. The men grumbled as they dug their new foxholes and word circulated of a possible Japanese naval attack that night. Because we had been living almost entirely on rumors since our landing, I discounted this latest warning as cut from similar cloth.
The evening passed in near-total silence. I sat by a shallow drainage ditch and stared across the stretch of water called the Slot, in whose depths now lay the wrecks of so many warships that it had garnered a second name: Iron Bottom Bay. All at once the murmuring night exploded into ghastly daylight as the fourteen- and sixteen-inch guns of Japanese battleships opened up less than a thousand yards offshore. The concussion knocked me halfway over as I dived headlong for the puny cover of the ditch, where I lay shaking among fallen palm fronds. Salvo followed salvo as the enemy sought to end our poker game with a final deathblow to Henderson Field. Overhead the enormous shells roared like subway cars amid a screeching that sounded like a thousand bolts of cloth being torn at once. The earth heaved as short rounds landed near or among us. The ominous chant of “Corpsman! Corpsman!” sounded faintly through the hellish din. Time ceased to have meaning; the shelling would go on forever.
As I lay in the shallow ditch, I was startled to hear a calm voice, close by in the darkness, ask, “Say, bo, is that our artillery or theirs?” Stunned by such innocence, I realized that it must be a soldier from the newly arrived Americal Division who had wandered into the area. My teeth were chattering so fiercely that I could hardly answer him. But as a veteran Marine who had been on the Canal since the beginning, I was determined to conceal it. With a great effort I stopped shaking long enough to blurt out: “It’s theirs. Take cover and stay down.”
Just before dawn, when it seemed certain that the cannonade would last forever—or until we all were blown to bits—it stopped. The Japanese ships had departed. Now there was a great silence, broken only by the cries of the wounded. Tall columns of smoke could be seen rising from the airstrip. I walked along the edge of Henderson Field. Mangled shapes of planes lay scattered about; giant craters pocked the runway. Stretcher-bearers were still carrying the wounded to division hospital, which had, incredibly, escaped damage. Elsewhere the devastation seemed nearly complete.