February 1966 | Volume 17, Issue 2
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
On May 3, 1942, a small detachment of Japanese sailors, the grd Kure Special Landing Force, landed without opposition on Tulagi Island, then capital of the British Solomon Islands.
Their prize was a group oi faded, tin-roofed wooden buildings, a cricket field, and one of those peculiarly British colonial institutions called “The Residency.” The usual inhabitants of the little seat of government, the mixed group of missionaries, civil servants, and Chinese traders, had been forewarned and had left.
After making what shift they could for their own comfort, the Kure men settled down in the tropic heat. They were only an outpost. They had been landed on Tulagi as the flank of the New Guinea front the Japanese were trying to develop in the late spring of 1942.
After they had been there a month, the men of the Kure unit started laying out an airstrip. Because Tulagi was totally unsuited, they chose a location on the larger island across the bay: Guadalcanal.
No one needs to be told that a battle was fought at Guadalcanal. It was one of the few battles in World War II that the United States stood a real chance of losing. And the outcome hung in (he balance, not for a Jay, but for three months. It often rested on life-and-death combat between individuals, between a handful of Americans and a much larger Japanese force, fighting hand to hand.
It is not surprising that the style and stereotypes of the entire Pacific war were drawn at Guadalcanal. The dungaree-clad Marine, his helmet covered with camouflage cloth, lunging forward at the enemy with his rirle at the ready, became the single, larger-than-life figure of the Pacific theatre of operations. And when anybody in those days said, “the island,” there was no doubt about which island he meant.
What is surprising is that the facts about Guadalcanal live tip to the fictions. Guadalcanal was pivotal in a purely military sense, too. With twenty years of hindsight and careful research behind them, military and naval historians agree that it was a turning point of the Pacific war. At Guadalcanal the United States moved from the defense to the offense. The only direction in which the Japanese moved after Guadalcanal was backward.
As early as February, 1942, there had been talk in Washington about sonic kind of operation in the islands north ol New Caledonia. Mut there was little or nothing in ihe way of men or materiel with which to carry out such an operation. Resides, the Joint Chiefs of Stall had given the war in Europe clear priority.
There were only 291 land-based airplanes in the hundreds of thousands of square miles the United States still held west of Hawaii, and fewer than half of these were modern, first-line combat aircraft. Excepting a few Marine defense battalions and Army anti-aircraft units, there was only one amphibiously trained major combat unit in the Pacific—the First Marine Division, which was in the process of moving from the States to New Zealand for further training. It had been told it would not be used until 1943.
But all this suddenly changed when the Kure force lit grass fires to clear away the underbrush for their airfield on Guadalcanal. Suddenly every man, every plane, every ship, and every minute counted.
The Japanese could not be allowed to finish that airstrip. Their bombers would for the first time be within range of the vital American shipping lanes to Australia. The United States was going to have to try to retake Guadalcanal. And it would be just so much easier to do it the island could be retaken belore the Japanese finished the strip and could add land-based airplanes to their defense.
The race to get there in time began. On June 26, the newly appointed South Pacific Commander, Vite Admiral Robert Ghormley, held a conference at his headquarters at Auckland. Major General Archer Vandegrift, Commander of the First Marine Division, was to work out a training schedule for his outfit. Hut Ghormley had just received a warning order from Admiral Chester Nimitz, Commander in Chief, Pacific Ocean Areas, calling for an operation in “the lower Solomons” with D-day set for August 1. Vandegrift was to be It.
Vandegrift was in a fix: he was going to have to have his division ready to fight in thirty-seven days. His advance echelon had been in Wellington only twelve days. His rear echelon was still at sea, not due to arrive until July 11. The rehearsal was to take place at Koro in the Fijis, six days’ travel from Wellington. That left thirty-one days. Koro is seven days from Guadalcanal: thai left twenty-four days.
In those twenty-four days Vanclegrift had to reconnoiter his target, get information about it, plan his assault, issue orders, load thirty-one transports and cargo carriers, and embark nearly 20,000 men and sixty days’ supplies.
On June 30, the entire division was organized into 300-man, eight-hour, three-shift working parties for around-the-clock stevedore duty. A command line-up was hastily put together. Ghormley was theatre commander, number one in the South Pacific—and a new boundary was drawn between him and General Douglas MacArthur, commander of the Southwest Pacific. Commander of the task force that was to go to Guadalcanal was to be Vice Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher, who had commanded the carriers at the Battle of the Coral Sea in May. To command the amphibious force, Rear Admiral Richmond Kelly Turner was named. And Vandegrift’s place, as commander of the landing force, was directly under Turner.
The line-up looked good on paper. If there was a weakness it was at the top. Instead of pulling his people together in the little time left, Ghormley shoved off for a powwow with MacArthur in Australia.∗ The outcome was a joint’message Io Washington asking that the Guadalcanal operation he postponed; the two “found themselves in agreement as to the doubtful feasibility of this first offensive,” as one official history puts it. In short, Ghorniley, bearing the top responsibility for the operation, did not believe in it.
∗ In a technical sense Ghormley was ordered to meet with MacArthur. But there cannot be lhe least doubt that he could have asked the Joint Chiefs, from whom the order had come, to let him forgo this mission for others more important in setting up his own command and ironing out its operational details.
The request was disallowed. Then, on July 28, when the tactical commanders met at Koro for the rehearsal, they discovered that there were serious unresolved differences between them. Fletcher astonished the others by revealing for the first time that he had no intention of risking his carriers in the waters of Guadalcanal for more than four days. This was a blow to Vandegrift and was not happy news to Turner.
The task force, in the luck of the draw, was concealed by squalls and an overcast as it moved from Koro to Guadalcanal. The first notion the Japanese had of its presence was at daylight August 7. At 0647, the traditional signal, “Land the landing force,” was sent by Turner, and the Marines went over the side—“paled by days of inactivity … dripping with sweat … their dungarees clinging to their bodies,” a man who was there remembers.
The first flight of Zeros had been scheduled to land on the Guadalcanal airstrip later that morning! The Japanese had just completed a 3,600-foot, coral-surfaced runway. The race was won, and the landing was unopposed, a stroke of the best fortune. At Guadalcanal, the Japanese simply took off, leaving behind (another stroke of good fortune) all their food and road-building equipment, and even a batch of propaganda leaflets.
But there were two separate assaults, and the one directed at Tulagi and its adjoining islands, Gavutu and I anambogo, ran into some nasty opposition from the Kurc forte, which was still there. In July, the Japanese had brought a construction unit to Guadalcanal, relieving the Kurc men. In a prophetic dclcnse, the Kure men burrowed into the faults of the coral-hillocked islands, and the Marines had to blast and burn them out. There were two days of hard fighting.
Meanwhile, unloading was not going well. Low-flying Kettys from Kabaul attacked the American Iransports on the first day, slowing down the flow of supplies. The second day, August 8, they came back again in broad daylight and set fire to the transport George F. Elliott .
By nightfall, when only a fraction of the Mariiie supplies were ashore, Admiral Kletcher sent a message to Admiral Ghormley: “In view of the large number of enemy torpedo planes and bombers in this area I recommend the immediate withdrawal ol my carriers.” He ordered his carriers to change course for the southcast, and sailed away from Guadalcanal.
This left Admiral Turner the ranking American officer on the scene, with his transports and a protecting force of cruisers and destroyers, only a few of which had ever worked together before, operating tinder an Australian, Admiral V. A. C. Crutchlcy.
At 2032, Turner summoned Vandcgrift and Crutchley to his command ship, McCawley . Because it would lake several hours to get there in his barge, Crutchley came on in his flagship, the cruiser Australia .
Now Turner gave Vandcgrift the really bad news. Hc was going to have to pull out and take the transports (and the stipplies still unloaded aboard them) with him. Hc couldn’t stay without Flctchcr’s air cover. He would stay through pan of the next day, leave in time to be out of there before deep dark set in. It is recorded that Vandegrift had a few angry words to say before he went ashore. Mcforc Crutchley left, he asked Turner about a report he had heard that a Japanese forte was on the way down to Guadalcanal.
It was nearly midnight. Turner, like most American naval officers, had a traditional distaste for night action. He dismissed the report. It was probably nothing more than an escort force for tenders that would launch a seaplane raid the next day, Turner said.
But Turner was quite wrong. A Japanese task force especially trained in night surface righting was almost upon the Americans at that moment. It had been steaming at top speed all day long down the “Slot” between the chain of islands, headed for Guadalcanal, looking for a night fight—that night.
Before he went off to meet Turner, Crutchley had given his cruisers and destroyers their assignments for the night. They were to patrol the entrance to the twenty-by-thirty-mile body of water (eventually to be called Iron Bottom Sound, for the number of ships sunk there) between Tulagi and Guadalcanal in which rode the vulnerable transports. A tiny island called Savo sits in the middle of the entrance, and Crutchley put half his force (the cruisers Chicago and Canberra , his own flagship Australia , and two destroyers) on the south of Savo and the other half (the cruisers Vincennes, Astoria , and Quincy and two more destroyers) on the north. The radar-equipped destroyers Blue and Ralph Talbot were assigned to patrol the western approaches to the sound and give early warning of enemy attack.
At 0130 on August 9 the Japanese force (five heavy cruisers and two light ones) was at the south entrance. They had sighted the U.S. picket destroyer Blue at 0054, had slowed down and trained their guns on her. But when she had shown no sign of knowing they were there, they had sped up and come on. They knew exactly the disposition of the American forces; their float planes had been snooping for an hour.
At 0145 the Japanese cruisers sighted the southern group (minus Australia because Crutchley had not yet returned from the conference with Turner). Within two minutes every Japanese ship had fired torpedoes. They hit both Chicago and Canberra , crippling the latter so badly she had to be sunk the next morning.
They then turned the corner around Savo, into the sound, toward the northern group, which was taken by surprise. The Japanese quickly sank Quincy and Vincennes and damaged Astoria , which went down the next morning.
In the first surface battle that the U.S. Navy had fought since Santiago it suffered one of the worst defeats it had ever suffered or, fortunately, would suffer again throughout World War II. When daylight came there was nothing left in the sound except crippled and burning or sinking warships, and the transports. The transports hurried to unload as much as possible before dark, and then departed.
The quality of that Marine unit ashore now became critical. Could it hold alone, without any help from the air or from the sea? Could it take the punishment the Japanese were almost certain to pour on?
If a professional tradition and a record of rugged duty meant anything, the First Marine Division was the best in the American armed forces in 1942. Its nucleus, the First Marine Brigade, was led by men who had done hard, dirty, and largely thankless duty in the banana wars of the 1920’s and 1930’s in Haiti and Nicaragua. The had stubbornly persisted (even after Gallipoli) in their belief that it was still possible to make an amphibious assault against a defended shore in modern war, and had formed the landing force for six fleet landing exercise between 1934 and 1941. The brigade tested and perfected many of the most important innovations in amphibious warfare. And when the reserves had been called up in 1941, wrote Marine historian Colonel John W. Thomason, “the Leathernecks, the breed of American regular, regarding the service as home and war an occupation … transmitted their temper and character and viewpoint to the high-hearted volunteer mass …” they had the same in World War I.
The essential position on Guadalcanal was defensive. General Vandergrift wanted only as much land as he could be sure of keeping. The perimeter was a toe-hold and nothing more; the lines were drawn like an arc around the airfield. It was, if Marines had landed on Long Island and taken only Jones Beach. At one end of the beach the line was put down along a small, sluggish tidal river, the Tenaru. At the other end, there was no natural defensive position; the line hung in the jungle. Inland, some outposts were strung along a bald ridge which overlooked the airfield.
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.
The Japs cut a hole in the Marine line and pushed some of the flank men back and upward to the crest. There were minutes when the Japanese had it their way, with nothing much left between them and the airfield, at that moment the prize of the Pacific war.
But it was no easier for the Japs to fight in the jungle than it was for the Marines. They couldn’t mobilize enough men to exploit their advantage, and the attack for that night sputtered out with sporadic rifle fire.
There were Japanese planes over the perimeter nearly all the next day, in three major attacks, and the Marine raiders worked with last-minute energy to improve their foxholes and to clear, as best they could, fields of fire between themselves and the jungle. There were about 400 raiders and parachutists on the ridge, holding a line about 1,800 yards long. That’s one man about every five yards. If estimates of Japanese strength are good, there were at least five, maybe six, Japanese for every Marine that second night.
At 2100 on September 13, a Japanese plane dropped a flare over the lines. Destroyers started firing immediately. Then a flare rose from the Kawaguchi lines, and the Japanese struck.
Edson at once called on the Eleventh Marines, the First Division’s artillery regiment. As the Japanese advanced, Edson called the fire closer and closer to his own lines. By 10 P.M. , 105 mm. howitzer shells were falling within 200 yards of the Marine foxholes. By then, the Japanese had again cut through the lines on the side of the hill; the Marines began to fall back to the crest as they had the night before.
In all, the Japanese struck twelve times through the night, “grinding themselves into the fire from Marine artillery, mortars, machine guns and rifles in vain attempts to dislodge Edson from his final knoll of Bloody Ridge,” says the official Marine history.
Squads of a reserve battalion from the Fifth Marines began to filter into the thin raider and parachute lines at 0400. By dawn the Japanese had spent themselves.
That was the September battle, the famous “Battle of Bloody Ridge,” for which both Edson and Major Kenneth Bailey were to get the Medal of Honor.
Almost as soon as the firing died away, men all along the perimeter turned to the simple routines of life, and found them, as fighting men always have, to be gratifying sources of quiet pleasure. By this time there was both a swimming-hole and a laundry-hole on the Lunga. A fallen, half-submerged tree nearly spanned the river at one point. This interval was the time of the great housing project on Guadalcanal. Everybody built himself a crude shack and lean-to, using whatever materials came to hand.
But this tropical pastoral quickly passed. Before the September battle was over, the Japanese held a powwow at Truk and decided to make an even greater effort to retake Guadalcanal in October.
For this one, General Hyakutake himself was coming down. No more battalions, no more brigades: this time there would be two divisions—the 2nd (Sendai) and the 38th (Nagoya)—and then some. No more reliance on mortars alone, either; this time there would be 150 mm. howitzers with which to knock out the airfield and keep it knocked out.
Only one fresh American unit, the 164th Infantry Regiment of the Army’s Americal Division, was sent to Guadalcanal. This outfit left Noumea on October 9 in two transports under escort of a force of four cruisers, eight destroyers, and three mine-layers commanded by Rear Admiral Norman Scott.
Scott was a perfectionist who had his cruiser force drilling for weeks in night operations. He reached Guadalcanal on October 11 and defeated a Japanese naval force in the night battle of Cape Esperance. The American regiment moved in safely.
What Scott had hit was, however, nothing more than a slightly oversized version of the daily Tokyo Express. And the Japanese had bigger things in store: early in the morning of October 13 their big push began. Twenty-two Japanese fighter-bombers came in at 1202, and they had no real opposition. They were after the airfield, and they left thirteen bomb holes in the strip. A subsequent bombing attack caught the American planes refueling and hit the main gasoline storage tanks. Five thousand gallons of precious and almost irreplaceable airplane fuel went up in black smoke.
No sooner had that flight disappeared than fifteen 150 mm. enemy howitzers, newly arrived, opened with their first bombardment of the airfield. They kept this up all afternoon.
Just before dusk two of the largest Japanese ships that had ever entered these waters, the battleships Haruna and Kongo , came plowing in, loaded with 300 shells of a new type, with greater bursting radius. Float planes lit the field with flares and the big ships cut loose, firing over 900 shells. Night bombers continued their strikes until daylight.
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.
Some Japs would sneak through our lines and behind us. I’d have to stop firing every once in a while and shoot behind me with my pistol. By dawn, when the fight was over, our guns were just burnt out. Somebody figured we got rid of 26,000 rounds.
For what he did, Basilone got the Medal of Honor. He was later killed at Iwo Jima.
It was obvious to Puller that his men were taking the brunt of the Japanese October attack, and he asked for help. Division headquarters sent him a battalion from the 164th Infantry. There was no use trying to put them in as a unit while the Japanese were attacking. Instead, Chesty ordered his NCO’s to come out of the line and lead the reinforcements in by squads. Shoulder to shoulder, Marines and soldiers fought on together until the Japanese firing died away at 0330.
The next day, Sunday, October 25, is remembered in Marine annals as “Dugout Sunday.” Japanese warships stood offshore in broad daylight and shelled Henderson Field and the Marine perimeter. Dodging in and out of their foxholes, Seabees worked away at the airfield, like ants. Soon Marine fighter planes were rising from the field, holding off some of the incoming enemy bombers.
At 2200 that night the Japanese struck again at the ridge near where they had struck the night before and the month before that . But they got no place this time.
At another point on the perimeter, upstream on the Matanikau, along the front held by the 2nd and 3rd Battalions, Seventh Marines, it was a different story. The Japanese kept charging there, up the steep escarpment which the Marines were defending, until they made a penetration. But here, as at the ridge, individual bravery did much to save the position at the crucial moment. The hero was Marine Platoon Sergeant Mitchell Paige, who won the Medal of Honor for what he did; that was, in his own words: I would fire a burst and move. Right off the nose, in the grass, thirty Japs stood up. One of them was looking at me through field glasses. I let them have it with a full burst and they peeled off like they had been mowed.
After that, I was so wound up I couldn’t stop. I rounded up the skirmish line, told them I was going to charge off the nose and I wanted them to be right behind me. I picked up the machine gun, and without hardly noticing the burning hot jacket, cradled it in my arms and threw two belts of ammo over my shoulder. Behind me the skirmish line came whooping like a bunch of wild Indians. We fired on until we reached the edge of the clearing and then there was nothing left to fire at.
I was soaked and steam was rising from my gun. My hand felt funny. I looked down and saw a blister running from my fingertips to my forearm.
That was the end of the October battle.
To the men who had been there since August, Guadalcanal had begun to seem infinite, almost eternal—a tragic and wearisome existence so profoundly felt that any other was difficult to remember.
“The weight loss averaged about 20 pounds per man,” said a medical report. “Examination revealed marked dehydration as shown by dry skin and sunken eyes. Many of these patients reported being buried in foxholes, blown out of trees, blown through the air, or knocked out.”
The single most seriously debilitating factor was the anopheles mosquito. There were 173 new cases of malaria in the first week of October; in the second week, 273; in the third, 655; and in the fourth, 840—the October total was 1,941. Chills and fever had grown so common that men didn’t bother to turn into the hospital: they simply sweated it out in their own bivouac areas.
The essential tactical truth about Guadalcanal was evident now: it was a battle of attrition. The point had come when both sides had to ask themselves just how much the pestilential island was worth.
For the Americans, the decision was appropriately made by the Commander in Chief, President Franklin D. Roosevelt. On October 24, the President sent individual messages to each member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff calling on them to do whatever needed to be done to insure the capture of Guadalcanal.
Indecision, hesitation about committing men and materials to the battle, disappeared. The campaign might—and still very well could—be lost. But if it was, it would not be because the U.S. high command did not send every man, gun, and plane it could get there.
History’s insights into Japanese high-command thinking are cloudy, but apparently the Japanese now also decided to pour more into Guadalcanal.
They were going to follow the well-established pattern they had laid down in August, September, and October. With one difference: this time the Imperial Japanese Navy insisted on being overall boss. Its ships and planes were going to shell Henderson Field out of commission on the nights of November 12–13 and November 13–14. The troop transports were to arrive on the morning of the fifteenth.
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.”
They were relieved on December 9. Shortly before their departure, they went to the cemeteries to clean up and mark the graves of their buddies. On one mound they laid out an inscription in broken bits of stick which read, in crude lettering, “A Great Guy.” Others read: “Our buddy,” “A Big Guy with a Bigger Heart,” “The harder the going the more cheerful he was.”
And there was some poetry: