October/november 1985 | Volume 36, Issue 6
A former Marine recalls the grim defense of Guadalcanal in 1942
July 1942. Winter in Wellington, New Zealand, brought long, slanting sheets of rain that drenched the U.S. Navy transports looming huge and dark along the city’s docks. The men of the 1st Marine Division labored around the clock to combat-load the ships. The artillery, tanks, and communications gear were distributed among all the vessels so that if one or more were sunk by enemy fire, no vital component would be irretrievably lost.
I was twenty-three years old, the captain of C Company, 1st Battalion, 1st Regiment, 1st Marine Division. We had sailed from San Francisco in bright summer sunshine the month before, and now we were halfway around the world in a strange port down under. The New Zealanders’ gratitude at our arrival was obvious; they were keenly aware of the inexorable Japanese advance toward their homeland. Our coming was made specially poignant by the absence of their own young men, who were fighting with the Commonwealth forces in the Middle East. But close and menacing as were the Japanese victories in southeastern Asia, to us Americans they seemed as remote as Rommel’s campaign in North Africa or the Russian defense of Stalingrad.
Suddenly word came that we were moving out—on a practice landing maneuver, 1 thought. We assured our new Kiwi friends that we would be back in no longer than two weeks. In late July we cleared the last headland of New Zealand and within a week were anchored off the palm-fringed Fiji Islands. But there were no practice landings. Instead, we waited while the warships assembled and then we sailed westward.
A few days later the troop officers aboard our transport, the George F. Elliot , were summoned to the wardroom and told we were going into action: our mission was to capture an airstrip that the Japanese were completing on an island named Guadalcanal. I thought: “Just like the Marine Corps! It hasn’t even got the name of the island right.” I was something of a geography buff and could not believe we were heading for an island of which I had never heard. When the place was identified as one of the British Solomon Islands, my mind reverted to the postage-stamp collection of my boyhood. One stamp showed tattooed cannibals in canoes and thatched huts; that brought it home. In a few days we would be landing on this improbable, far-off strand, and landing under fire for the first time in our lives.
Long before dawn on August 7 we were awakened by the continuous roar of the naval bombardment as our ships pounded the enemy positions with high explosives. At first light we stood along the rail and looked out across the calm, violet water. There lay the island, dark and impassively sinister, shrouded in an early morning haze pinpricked by bright orange flashes of shell fire from our ships.
The signal came to go over the side, down the long broad nets, and into the waiting Higgins boats below. The small, thirty-man motor craft circled in swarms, then swept in long, even waves toward Red Beach, our target.
Heavy blasts of orange and yellow smoky flame—our covering fire—burst among the palm trees close to the shoreline. The firing stopped as the landing craft touched the soft coral sand, and we jumped into waist-deep water to splash ashore. Instead of the lethal barrage of mortar and machine-gun fire that was to greet our subsequent landings, this time there was no response at all from the enemy. The silence was eerie and foreboding. Lt. Col. Lenard Cresswell, commanding the 1st Battalion, shouted to me: “Steve, get your people off the beach! Move inland two hundred yards.” We fanned out in combat line and found ourselves in a field of kunai grass, taller than a person and holding the intense tropical heat. Moving through such a field is hard, sweaty, and dangerous work; you never know who or what may be approaching.
Morning had passed, and the afternoon wore on. No orders came until just before nightfall, when we were told to move on again. We followed the company to our right, leaving the high grass and pushing through the jungle single file. Darkness came swiftly, and I thought this was an extraordinary way to be going anywhere, toward a possible enemy position, in the dead of night. When the command came to halt, the men flopped down on either side of the trail. Shortly thereafter, as we lay together in the blackness, came our first experience of pure terror. Without warning, a cacophony of small arms fire enveloped us. A Japanese ambush? But the shots were coming at point-blank range. Too close! We were firing at each other! I don’t know how I made my voice heard above the din, but the platoon leaders and noncoms took up the cry, “Cease fire!” Shaken and exhausted, we lay silent until the dawn, which disclosed one man dead and one wounded—the first installment of the price we were to pay.
At daylight we emerged from the jungle and formed a skirmish line at the edge of yet another field of kunai. As we moved through it, we saw the tops of steel helmets and heard the click of rifle bolts, coupled with cries of “Who goes there?” Approaching warily, we discovered the presence to be that of D Company; minutes, possibly seconds, had kept us from repeating, in broad daylight, last night’s tragedy.
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.
Where were our planes? The engineer battalion had completed the airstrip, using captured Japanese construction equipment, on which the engineers had taken the trouble to paint “USMC.” At last, on August 20, a varying roar of motors told us that Navy Hellcat fighters and Douglas SBD dive bombers had arrived, ready, willing, and able to do aerial combat on our behalf.
Around midnight on that red-letter day came sounds of continuous rifle fire and the heavy thump of mortar. These grew louder, not dying away as had so often been the case when some trigger-happy mistake “spooked the wire.” In the small hours of the morning the company commanders were summoned to battalion headquarters; there we were informed by Colonel Cresswell that the 2d Battalion, 1st Marines, which was dug in along the Ilu sandspit, was under heavy assault. We of the 1st Battalion were to make a counterattack. After crossing the headwaters at daybreak, we swung in a large left wheel through that same field of kunai grass where, two weeks before, we had had our near miss with D Company. We moved forward to the edge of the kunai in full battle formation, A Company on the left, C Company on the right. A sharp spatter of machine-gun fire greeted A Company as it stepped out into a grove of coconuts. The trap was set; now we would spring it. C Company moved forward fast, keeping its left flank tied tightly to the right of the embattled A Company and its right moving securely along the shore.
The Japanese rear guard in the coconut grove realized that they were encircled and turned to face us. We leapfrogged our two light machine guns along the beach, raking them with crossfire; the riflemen moved up in short spurts. Both sides built up firing lines. Casualties mounted as their snipers, hidden in the tops of palm trees, picked off our men. We were seventy yards from the Japanese line, and the intense exchange of fire was costing us too much. Something drastic was called for. I gave the order to fix bayonets, and the lieutenants followed suit. We rushed the Japanese position, and the enemy soldiers, seeing us coming, fixed their own bayonets, leaped up, and charged straight at us.
A vicious struggle followed. No quarter was asked or given as Marines and Japanese fought face-to-face in the swirling gunsmoke, lunging, stabbing, and smashing with bayonets and rifle butts. Horrible cries rose above the general tumult as cold steel tore through flesh and entrails and men died in agony.
Suddenly it was all over. The Japanese lay dead or wounded; we stood among the bodies. One of the enemy, who had pretended to be dead, suddenly moved and lobbed a hand grenade between CpI. Paul d’Errico and me. We hit the deck together as the grenade exploded. Miraculously we were unhurt by the blast; we rushed at him, and as d’Errico covered him with his rifle, I placed my .45 automatic pistol to his head and pulled the trigger. 1 rolled the man onto his back and took a wallet and some papers from his blood-soaked tunic pocket. Inside the wallet was a snapshot of his wife and two children smiling before a lacquered screen. The papers (delivered to regimental intelligence) showed that he was my opposite number, commanding the rear guard. His samurai sword lay beside him (a sword I have to this day). Meanwhile, others in the company saw to it that no one else among the wounded would be able to do what this man had done.
As we, exhausted, held our position among the dead, reports came to me about our own casualties. My second-incommand, Lt. Perry Perrine, had been killed as he worked to build up the firing line just before the bayonet charge. Lt. Mike Ahearn, commanding the third platoon, had been shot through the shoulder by a sniper. The rest of the wounded were being brought together near a small toolshed by the stretcher-bearers. I knelt beside one young Marine, shot through the lungs and dying in the arms of a corpsman. His final word— Mother —brought home to me yet again how very young all these soldiers were. Most were in their teens. One private first class, Carlton Eban, was nicknamed Pop because he was twenty-four.
The Battle of the Tenaru River—so called because the names of the Uu and Tenaru rivers were transposed on early maps—was over. We were later told we had faced the reinforced Ichiki Battalion—twelve hundred specially chosen troops, each man at least six feet tall, veterans of Malaya and Singapore. They had thrown their full strength against us and died to a man.
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 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.
I returned to the bivouac area and found all hands digging desperately, determined to reach the bowels of the earth, it seemed, in case a fresh bombardment should come that night. And come that night it did. A few minutes past midnight the jaws of hell reopened, and the same cacophony of multicolored explosives screamed, roared, and whistled overhead hour after hour. They were from the battleships Kongo and Haruna , whose outsize guns had been built in violation of all the naval treaties signed by the great powers during the twenties and thirties. Several projectiles scored direct hits on the ammunition dump. It blew up, throwing out great balls of orange fire, and from it came the Chinese-firecracker sound of a million detonations.
In the gray, rainy dawn men slumped numbly in their foxholes. Nothing stirred. The ammunition-dump fire raged out of control. But as I walked among the platoons of C Company, I sensed, through scattered wisecracks and remnants of the old cocky swagger, that the men still had an indomitable will to live and that the future could still belong to us. Now it rested with the Japanese. Our orders (and those of the other two companies held in reserve) were to move instantly against any counterattack that might come after the naval shelling had lifted. Colonel Cresswell had added this ominous phrase at his briefing:”… and if that doesn’t work, all bets are off.” These words echoed in my mind as we underwent our third successive night of horror. But by that third day the moment of truth had come and gone for the enemy. Henderson Field could have been theirs had they administered the coup de grâce . They failed to do so.
C Company rejoined the battalion. We moved up from the shattered coconut grove along the beach to relieve a unit on the Lunga River sector of the front line. The Lunga, a swiftly flowing stream between jungled banks, bisected the area now fully enclosed by our defense perimeter. It was dusk by the time we got there. My opposite number waved toward the scattered foxholes behind his barbed wire, shook hands, and said, “It’s your little red wagon now.” Great! Nothing quite compares with putting an infantry outfit into position after nightfall near an unseen enemy.
My predecessor’s command post was a shallow dugout only six feet behind the line of foxholes. When Colonel Cresswell saw it the next morning, he said firmly: “Steve, you don’t belong here. The men may like it, but you should be back where you can command. I know you meant well, but we can buy all the courage we need for fifty bucks a month.”
Life along the Lunga River soon became much the same as it had been along the Hu. The position was improved daily. The barbed wire crept deeper into the forest and across the bare ridge; we established four-man outposts, on twohour shifts, fifty yards in front of each company’s line. We were astonished by the arrival of four war dogs, trained, it was said, to warn of an approaching enemy. But they detested outpost duty even more than the men did and lay cowering, noses between paws, through the long nights. Morale was improved by the availability of better food. Before each evening meal an officer at the head of the chow line made sure that every man swallowed an Atabrine pill to hold in check the malarial symptoms we all had. We began to develop yellowish complexions, which we called an Atabrine tan.
New orders came. The regiment detached C Company once again and sent it to augment the 2d Battalion’s right flank near the Matanikau. So once again, as a sopping tropical dusk descended, I found myself putting the men into a strange and unfamiliar sector of the line. Dawn showed us that we were in yet another sloppy stretch of foxholes behind thin strands of wire. At noon the next day the 2d Battalion’s second-in-command came forward to inspect and ordered the line pushed forward. The area immediately in front of the wire was infested with booby traps left by the previous unit, with no diagram to show where they were. When I pointed out to the major that tangling with these concealed trip wires could cost lives, he stared at me stonily. “That’s an order,” he said, and departed. I pondered this dilemma and sent a runner to battalion headquarters with a written request for more barbed wire to comply with orders. My hopes were fulfilled; neither the wire nor anyone from HQ ever appeared.
Some lives were thus saved, but chaos struck shortly thereafter; a short round from one of our 60-mm mortars burst almost at the feet of Lt. Bob Fowler and myself. The concussion flattened us both. Lying there on the ridge, I noticed blood from a wound in my right shoulder. Luckily for me it was neither deep nor in a vital spot; the corpsman had only to dress it each day with sulfa powder and a fresh bandage. Understandably enough, no Purple Hearts are awarded for wounds inflicted by our own weapons. How would the citation read?
On November 13 mail reached us for the first time since we had left New Zealand. There seemed to be packets of letters for everyone. Thoughts of home, of loved ones, thoughts that we had put aside under the stress of our long ordeal, came flooding back. It was difficult even to imagine what life was like back in the United States.
That night we heard once again the distant noise of tremendous gunfire out at sea. Standing on the reverse slope of the ridge, looking far out to sea, we saw what seemed like bright orange tennis balls floating lazily back and forth across the water in the inky darkness of the Slot. We realized that another decisive naval engagement was under way. The Japanese were attempting to land even more troops to the west of the Matanikau, and our ships were doing everything in their power to prevent them. Our vantage point provided no clue to the outcome, but we sensed that the Battle of Guadalcanal was building toward its climax. We discovered later that Adm. Daniel CaIlaghan had turned the tide by intercepting another Japanese fleet sent to pulverize Henderson Field.
Nevertheless, there were many enemy troops already on the island. Some units were badly mauled, others almost intact, and more kept arriving, conveyed by the resilient Bougainville Express. The Japanese had little artillery and no tanks with which to engage us, but they did have mortars of all sizes. Incoming shells from these tubes gave no advance notice; our best defense was the thick jungle canopy over us, where most of the shells exploded, hurling fragments among us. Bad as these were, they were less lethal than a direct hit.
Around the third week of November we were reunited with the 1st Battalion and took up positions along the Matanikau River. The 7th Regiment and the Army units had pushed the enemy westward, and our mission was to hold what had been won. It was just as well; by then our battalion was in no shape to launch any large-scale frontal attack. It would have been barely able to resist such an assault from the Japanese. None came. We did repel probes that occasionally threw in mortar fire before testing the barbed wire. We continued to patrol, with the same old apprehension gripping our guts. Hacking our way through the jungle, we tended to think of the enemy as wily Orientals at home in this nightmarish terrain. We forgot that they were young men from crowded cities like Tokyo and farmland like Kyushu, just as we were city boys from Boston or country lads from Georgia. Wherever they came from, they fought with unflinching tenacity. None ever surrendered; those few we took prisoner were too weak either to resist or to commit hara-kiri.
But we, too, were weakening. The adrenaline distilled by courage was running low. Our patrols slackened; we dreaded more than ever the agony of evacuating the dead and wounded on stretchers through the jungle. Since August our battalion had been on the front line for more than four months—one of the longest stretches without relief in any modern war—and the strain was showing. All we could anticipate were fresh orders to rejoin the troops attacking westward and one more struggle up the long, bare ridges that rose from the jungle floor. In the midst of this weary resignation we received the electrifying word that we were leaving the island. It was a reprieve that seemed to come not only from division HQ but from heaven.
On the morning of December 23, 1942, what was left of the 1st Battalion stood at attention on the beach at Lunga Point, staring in disbelief at a transport ship. A soft breeze caressed our faces. As a bugle sounded the call to board ship, we managed a stiff salute to our regimental commander, Col. Clifton Gates. Our great anticipation was muted by the realization that many friends were no longer with us. But for all of us, the living and the dead, the long ordeal was over. None of us was aware, as we sailed away, that we had made history, but each man bore within himself a lifetime of memories.