Friday, August 19, 2011

From the Pages - The USMC Invasion of Guadalcanal

In 1942, the island of Guadalcanal looked like any other island in the South Pacific. Roughly the size of Delaware, it was a collection of beaches, rivers, coconut groves, and thick jungle vegetation. Starting in August of 1942, however, a six-month battle would take place on Guadalcanal, resulting in the loss of thousands of American and Japanese lives. At stake? Guadalcanal’s strategic value in the region and its newly construted airfield.

In the following excerpt from Guadalcanal: The U.S. Marines in World War II, author Eric Hammel describes the USMC invasion of Guadalcanal, the bloody Japanese response, and the impact that both would have on the coming engagements in the early days of the Pacific War.


The first shots of the Guadalcanal Campaign were fired by the 8-inch guns of the U.S. Navy heavy cruiser Quincy. Immediately, other cruisers and a number of destroyers added their fires against the darkened shore of Guadalcanal, and then flights of U.S. Navy F4F Wildcat fighters off the USS Saratoga zoomed in to work over the Japanese airfield and shore installations. Also targeted by aircraft off the Wasp were shore installations on Tulagi and the seaplane base at Gavutu. Behind the curtain of naval gunfire and bombs, the Marines of the leading waves climbed down cargo nets into waiting landing craft, and various landing forces formed up for the long, slow ride to the beaches.

Beginning at 0727 hours, a destroyer and a light antiaircraft cruiser opened fire directly at Haleta, a village on Florida Island. Next, the landing craft bearing Company B, 1/2, grounded on the beach fronting Haleta. Nothing happened; there were no Japanese there. Company B patrolled the area, as planned, but found nothing of interest. 

Beach Red
At 0909, the naval and air bombardment against Guadalcanal ceased abruptly and three spotter planes buzzed Beach Red, a good landing place several miles east of the main Japanese base at Lunga. Company B, 1/5, landed on Beach Red at 0913 and immediately assaulted the stands of coconut palms and jungle growth behind the sandy shelf. No Japanese were found. In short order, all of 1/5 and 3/5 landed, formed a protective screen around Beach Red, and dispatched patrols and columns into the heavily forested hinterlands. The Marines advanced warily, but there was no opposition whatsoever. The 5th Marines headquarters landed before noon and, at 1330, 1/5 crossed Ilu Creek, contracted its front, and moved briskly along the coast toward Lunga Point and the airfield. A short time later, the entire 1st Marines landed at Beach Red and, during the afternoon, set off in the direction of Mount Austen, a dominant feature Marine cartographers had dubbed Grassy Knoll.

The combat landing at Beach Red had gone flawlessly enough for raw troops, but the subsequent landing of supplies was a first-magnitude disaster that was to have far-reaching consequences. It was far easier for the cargo ships to send goods to the beach than it was for the untrained pickup shore party to unload and stack the goods. The unloading effort fell farther and farther behind, and even the addition of hundreds of sailors and Marines to the effort proved to be too little and too late. Eventually the movement of supplies from ship to shore had to be virtually curtailed.

There was no opposition on Guadalcanal, but Lieutenant Colonel Merritt “Red Mike” Edson’s 1st Raider Battalion stirred up a hornet’s nest on Tulagi. The Raiders landed without much trouble, but thereafter a battalion-size force of Imperial Navy infantrymen put up a first-rate defensive effort that stalled the Raiders well short of the built-up southern third of the island. By day’s end, the larger, unimproved portion of the island had been occupied by the Raiders and 2/5, but the Japanese tenaciously defended the built-up area. The Marines expected to launch a two-battalion assault on the morning of August 8, but the main body of defenders launched an all-out night attack that was broken by the slimmest of margins. Following more harrowing fighting against the determined but diminished defenders, the Raiders and 2/5 secured Tulagi on August 8.

Gavutu and Tanambogo
Due to a shortage of landing craft, the diminutive 1st Parachute Battalion was unable to stage its assault on Gavutu until around noon on August 7. Though the islet was pummeled for hours by American warships, it turned out that the defenders—more Imperial Navy infantrymen—had moved into bombproof caves that dotted the islet’s single coral hill. When the ’Chutes landed on a tiny, obstructed beach, the Japanese on the hill opened fire from their dominant positions and exacted a terrible toll. Only about half of tiny Gavutu was in Marine hands by nightfall, and the 1st Parachute Battalion was about out of steam. After dark, Company B, 1/2, was directed to attack Tanambogo, which was linked to Gavutu by a concrete causeway. Only about a platoon of Marines from Company B could actually be put ashore in the dark, and they ran into fierce opposition. After a number of Marines had been killed on Tanambogo’s beach, the survivors withdrew to Gavutu or back to their ship. Finally, at 0330 on August 8, 3/2 was ordered to land on the occupied portion of Gavutu and attack through the stalled ’Chutes at dawn. It turned out that most of the Japanese had withdrawn during the night, and the dawn assault by Company K, 3/2, was a walk-through. Late in the day, Company I, 3/2, and several light tanks were landed on Tanambogo. There was a brief, fierce fight, and then Tanambogo also fell securely into American hands, as did a number of even tinier nearby islets.

Also on August 8, combat elements of the 1st and 5th Marines occupied the Japanese encampments and former native villages around Lunga Point, and the Japanese airfield also fell into Marine hands. So far, only isolated Japanese stragglers and snipers had been encountered; there had been no organized resistance whatsoever on Guadalcanal. Along with the partially completed runway and airfield facilities, the Marines claimed an ice plant, a narrow-gauge railroad, an electrical plant and—most important, as it turned out—a world-class long-range radio station. Also, scores of trucks and mounds of engineering supplies fell into Marine hands, as did tons of rice and other foodstuffs.


Air Attacks
In all on August 7 and 8, the Japanese regional headquarters, based 600 miles away, at Rabaul, entirely misread the invasion of the Eastern Solomons. The Japanese thought it was a raid in force. Except for local opposition, only three long-range air strikes were launched. The first, by Imperial Navy A6M Zero fighters and G4M Betty medium bombers on August 7, resulted in aviation losses on both sides, but no other damage. Likewise, a small afternoon strike on August 7 resulted in no losses beyond several aircraft. But an afternoon strike on August 8 added to the aviation losses and resulted in direct bomb hits on a transport and a destroyer.

By the evening of August 8, the naval commanders of the invasion and covering forces had decided to withdraw all the transports and combat vessels from the vicinity of Guadalcanal. The decision was precipitated by an announcement made at Koro, on July 26, that the three fleet carriers covering the operation would need to withdraw on the night of August 8 to refuel. Although only a small portion of the 1st Marine Division’s supplies and equipment had been landed because of the ongoing cargo-handling fiasco at Beach Red, Admiral Turner, the transport chief, felt obliged to pull out when his air cover left. There was no beating Turner’s logic: Without air cover, the transports would be easy meat for unopposed air strikes mounted from Rabaul.

That night, as the invasion fleet was preparing to sail from the area, a Japanese surface battle force consisting of five heavy cruisers, two light cruisers, and one destroyer made a bid to breach the American surface screen and strike at the transports and cargo vessels off Guadalcanal. The Japanese did surprise the screening force, but they were prevented from running at the vulnerable transports and cargomen by the enormity of the conflict. In a running fight in which two separate elements of the screen were surprised and overwhelmed in detail, the smaller Japanese force sank outright or fatally damaged three American and one Australian heavy cruisers and damaged a number of destroyers—all without loss to themselves. The Battle of Savo Island still ranks as the worst defeat suffered by the U.S. Navy in modern times.

The invasion fleet left at dawn, and no one could guess when it might return. The reinforced 1st Marine Division—twenty-five thousand men strewn over a wide area—had only itself and some meager supplies to rely on. That most of the food the Marines had on hand was captured Japanese goods only added to the universal plunge in morale. Thanks to the moral funk arising from the defeat at Savo, the U.S. Navy would not return in force to Eastern Solomons waters until mid-September to resupply the castaway division of Marines.


Left with very few options after its fleet support pulled out, the main body of the 1st Marine Division, on Guadalcanal, laboriously shifted all the supplies that had been landed from Beach Red to Lunga and set to digging in, primarily along the beach, to repel an expected Japanese counterlanding. Aggressive patrolling from the new Lunga base turned up no signs of Japanese forces to the east or south, but it appeared that many laborers and a small force of combatants had regrouped beyond the Matanikau River, which marked the western extremity the area the Marines controlled. Several patrols chased the Japanese, who, though armed, appeared to be starving stragglers.

On August 12, the 1st Marine Division intelligence officer, Lieutenant Colonel Frank Goettge, led a combined patrol of 25 scouts, linguists, and medical personnel to the west to pinpoint the Japanese and, if possible, help the ones who were willing to surrender. Unfortunately, the Goettge patrol was put ashore in the dark near a feature known as Point Cruz—in precisely the area it had been warned by knowledgeable scouts to avoid. In a bitter night-long battle, all but three of the Marines, including Lieutenant Colonel Goettge, were killed. Several company-size forces dispatched at dawn to rescue the doomed patrol were unable to find any Japanese or even the bodies of the slain Marines.

The First Matanikau Battle
Certain that he was facing starving survivors, General Vandegrift, on August 19, dispatched three companies of the 5th Marines to eradicate the Japanese stragglers arrayed around Matanikau and Kokumbona villages, in the vicinity of Point Cruz. It is noteworthy that the assault, to be delivered by three separate company-size forces, was the largest operation of its kind undertaken by Marines since 1918. It was as much a training exercise as a mission of annihilation. Unfortunately, unbeknownst to the Marines, the Japanese had secretly landed several hundred Imperial Navy infantrymen since August 12, and these skilled fighters were sitting on the area the Marines planned to seize.

The Marines did well despite the unanticipated strong opposition. Company B, 1/5, and Company L, 3/5, mounted simultaneous assaults across the Matanikau River—the former along the beach and the latter several hundred yards inland. Company B was stopped by a strong defensive pocket, but Company L swept around the Japanese flank and took Matanikau Village in a stirring heads-up bayonet assault that caused the defenders to break and flee. In the meantime, Company I, 3/5, conducted an assault landing against Kokumbona Village, even though the landing craft were fired on by three Japanese destroyers patrolling the area, seemingly with utter impunity. The destroyers withdrew precipitously when one of them was struck by a 500-pound bomb dropped by an Army Air Forces B-17 heavy bomber that happened to be patrolling overhead from its base at Espiritu Santo!

By the time Company I landed, Japanese pickets on the beach had disappeared. All the Marine forces linked up in short order, and 65 Japanese bodies were counted and buried. The Marines also found and buried, on the spot, the remains of the 22 slain members of the Goettge patrol.

Threat from the East
Also on August 19, but well east of Lunga, Company A, 1/1, was looking for a large force of Japanese rumored to be in the vicinity of Tetere Village. The rumor to which the company was responding was false, but a fresh thousand-man detachment of crack Imperial Army troops had just been landed east of Lunga. The Marines and a Japanese reconnaissance party blundered into one another at about midday. In a sharp 30-minute fire fight, the Marines killed 31 Japanese, including a disproportionate number of officers. It was noted that the Japanese were clad in fresh uniforms and carrying well-maintained weapons. Together with maps found on the bodies of several officers, it was obvious to the Marines that a fresh force of Japanese was massing for an assault on the Lunga Perimeter. This assessment was seconded all the way up the chain of command, and it led to an immediate strengthening of the Marine eastern flank, along Alligator Creek (which Marines had misidentified as the Tenaru River).

Air Support
There was dancing in the streets on August 20. Nineteen F4F Wildcat fighters of Marine Fighting Squadron (VMF) 223 and 12 SBD Dauntless dive-bombers of Marine Scout-Bomber Squadron (VMSB) 232 were launched from an escort carrier at about noon, and these vitally needed warplanes landed a short time later on the packed-earth runway Marine engineers and pioneers and a small navy construction unit had been rushing to completion (with almost no modern equipment) since August 9. Finally the Marines had something with which to counter the ineffective but utterly demoralizing daily Japanese bomber raids from Rabaul.


That very night, the fresh Japanese force that had been uncovered by Company A, 1/1, east of Lunga struck a withering blow against 2/1 at the mouth of Alligator Creek, which Marines at the time knew as the Tenaru River. The Japanese commander, Colonel Kiyano Ichiki, had not meant to strike so soon, nor indeed with only half of his specially trained two-thousand-man independent assault force. But, even though half of Colonel Ichiki’s crack soldiers still had not been landed, he felt pressure to act because he was certain that otherwise the Marines would take measures to strike him first. Moreover, Ichiki had been seriously misinformed by his superiors in Rabaul; he had been led to believe that only twenty-five hundred Marines—and not approximately fifteen thousand—were manning the Lunga Perimeter.

When Ichiki’s brave soldiers attacked directly across the sandspit at the mouth of Alligator Creek, they ran into the massed fire of a dug-in company of Marines reinforced by several .30-caliber medium machine guns and a pair of canister-firing 37mm antitank guns. The Japanese were grimly determined to pierce the Marine defensive line. The attack spread southward along Alligator Creek as the Japanese sought a way around the defenses. The attackers fought their way across the creek at several points, and hand-to-hand fighting erupted in Marine fighting holes all along the line. At one point the Japanese rushed the sandspit and drove back the defenders, but Marine reinforcements counterattacked in the nick of time and drove the Japanese from the overrun antitank bunkers. Finally the battle raged to a standstill. The Marines of 2/1 would not move and the Japanese would not withdraw. At dawn, 1/1 executed a brilliant flank attack around the southern end of the Marine line along Alligator Creek, while six Marine light tanks spearheaded a counterattack by 2/1 across the sandspit. Many of the Japanese were pocketed by the Marine infantry in a beachside coconut grove, and the tanks—supported by Marine Air’s first ground-support sorties of the Pacific War—annihilated them with canister. In all, 871 Japanese were killed, including Colonel Ichiki, who burned his unit’s colors and committed suicide. Fifteen Japanese were taken alive. The cost to the Marines was 34 killed and 75 wounded.

That very afternoon, the Wildcats of VMF-223 rose to issue their very first challenge to the Japanese bombers and fighters that had been making life hell for the occupants of the Lunga Perimeter and the bases on Tulagi, Gavutu, and nearby islets. Weather permitting, Imperial Navy G4M medium bombers had been flying the 600 miles from Rabaul daily to bomb the Marines. There had been no opposition since the fleet left, but that changed on August 21. Only four Wildcats were launched in time to meet the Japanese, but the commander of VMF-223, Captain John Lucien Smith, scored the first of his 19 air-to-air victories over Guadalcanal when he bested a Zero fighter in direct combat.


There was no significant ground action at Guadalcanal through the remainder of August 1942, but there was action overhead almost daily as the Japanese continued to press their bombing attacks, mainly against Henderson Field, the American airfield at Lunga that had been named for a Marine dive-bomber pilot who lost his life at Midway.

The Battle of the Eastern Solomons, history’s third carrier-versus-carrier naval battle, took place on August 24 and 25. During the first day’s action, two U.S. Navy carrier air groups traded blows with their Japanese counterparts. The Japanese light carrier Ryujo was sunk, and the USS Enterprise was damaged by bombs. In the meantime, Marine fighters based at Henderson Field beat back strikes from Ryujo and Rabaul with light losses on both sides. By day’s end the fledgling Cactus Air Force—as the Henderson-based warplane contingent was to be known—was bolstered by 11 Navy SBD dive-bombers that were unable to return to their ship but were able to reach Guadalcanal. (Earlier, on August 22, an advance detachment of the Army Air Forces’ 67th Fighter Squadron had moved up to Henderson Field, but the outmoded army P-400 fighters proved to be inadequate for all but a ground-support role.)

On August 25, the day after the main carrier battle, Marine and navy SBDs took off from Henderson Field to hit a convoy of Japanese transports laden with several thousand troops bound for Guadalcanal. The navy and Marine dive-bombers damaged a light cruiser and sank a large troop transport, and an Army Air Forces B-17 out of Espiritu Santo sank a destroyer. The Japanese convoy turned back to Rabaul without landing a single infantryman.

* * *

August 1942 was a momentous month in the Pacific War, and in Marine Corps history. The largest force of U.S. Marines ever assembled under a single command sailed hundreds of miles into enemy territory and swiftly and efficiently seized multiple objectives of immense strategic value. The planning and training of an entire generation was thus vindicated at a single blow. Unfortunately, because the U.S. war machine as a whole was stretched to the limit, the invasion force’s supports were withdrawn at a critical moment, and the half-trained 1st Marine Division was left to fend for itself and train on the fly to undertake protracted land warfare. Though morally uplifting, the victory at Alligator Creek on August 21 proved little; the Japanese assault force was outnumbered by a factor of fifteen to one (that is, it had zero hope of recapturing Henderson Field), and it had to conduct its attack utterly without support from the outside.

Contrary to decades-old myths, the 1st Marine Division was not simply abandoned on Guadalcanal. Its position was tenuous, to be sure, and the risks were immense. But the decision to leave the division ashore, at the wrong end of a nonexistent or easily dominated supply line, was positively taken by sober, courageous leaders who thoroughly understood the risks and the overriding potential benefits. This takes nothing away from the individual Marines who seized the early objectives, weathered the early setbacks, withstood the early assaults, and attained the early victories, for these Marines operated in a moral climate that would have—and often in history has—defeated lesser men long before the guns had to be fired. August 1942 at Guadalcanal was the foundation upon which the great American Pacific War victory could be built. But greater tests lay in the immediate future. As the Marines learned the ways of war, so did the Japanese remember the lessons they had already learned and should already have applied. September 1942 was to be a far worse, far scarier month for the Marines who weathered August.

Excerpt from Guadalcanal: The U.S. Marines in World War II by Eric Hammel. Photos courtesy of Eric Hammel and the U.S. Marine Corps archives.

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