Guadalcanal: First to Fight—Part III

Major General Vandergrift realized that he needed more Marines.  On 14 September, he moved the 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marines from Tulagi to Guadalcanal.  On 18 September, the 3rd Marine Provisional Brigade arrived with 4,157 reinforcements: the 7th Marine Regiment and one battalion of the 11th Marine Regiment (artillery).  This particular convoy [1] also delivered 137 vehicles, aviation fuel, ammunition, food rations, and engineering equipment.  With these additional assets, Vandergrift was able to establish a continual perimeter around Lunga Point.

Due to a spate of bad weather, Japanese air attacks subsided between 14 and 27 September 1942.  During this period, the Japanese replaced their flagging air fleet with 85 fighter and bombers.  While the Americans did receive additional aircraft during the same period, the Japanese maintained their superiority in numbers of aircraft (117 at Rabaul vs. 71 at Henderson Field.  The air war resumed on 27 September.

Kawaguchi at Kamimbo Bay
General Kawaguchi and staff at Kamimbo Bay, Guadalcanal 1942

The 3rd Battalion, 4th (Aoba) Infantry Regiment landed at Kamimbo Bay on the western end of Guadalcanal on 11 September, but too late to take part in Kawaguchi’s assault.  It did, however, join Colonel Akinosuke Oka’s forces at the Matanikau River.  Tokyo Express missions on 14, 20, 21, and 24 September resupplied the Japanese land forces with food and ammunition.  An additional 280 men from the 1st Battalion Aoba Regiment arrived during this period. The Japanese transferred the 2nd and 38th Infantry Divisions from the Dutch East Indies to Rabaul beginning on 13 September; they intended that most of these men would participate in the next attack on the American Marines, an event scheduled for 20 October.

Colonel Akinosuke Oka
Colonel Akinosuke Oka. Later posthumously promoted to major general.

General Vandergrift was well-aware that Kawaguchi had retreated to the area west of the Matanikau River, and that numerous groups of Japanese stragglers were scattered throughout the area between Lunga Point and the Matanikau.  He accordingly scheduled a series of small-unit operations in and around the Matanikau Valley.  The purpose of these missions was to locate and destroy any stragglers, preventing them from rejoining Kawaguchi’s main body.  The first operation took place between 23 and 27 September by elements of three Marine battalions.  The Japanese of Oka’s group repulsed each of these probes.  At one point, three Marine rifle companies found themselves surrounded by Japanese infantry near Point Cruz.  After suffering heavy losses, the Marines escaped entrapment with the assistance of U. S. Coast Guardsmen [2] who displayed exceptional courage and commitment to rescuing the Marines.

In a second action between 6 and 9 October, a large force of Marines successfully crossed the Matanikau River, attacked newly landed Japanese forces from the IJA 2nd Infantry Division, and inflicted heavy losses on its 4th Infantry Regiment.  The Japanese, badly mauled, withdrew from the Matanikau. Between 9 and 11 October 1st Battalion, 2nd Marines raided two small Japanese outposts some 30-miles east of Lunga Point near Aola Bay.  The raids resulted in 35 Japanese killed in action, but it cost the Marines 20 dead (including three Navy corpsmen).  The Marine’s aggressiveness caused the Japanese to reconsider their planned assault on 20 October.

Throughout the last week of September and first week of October, the Tokyo Express delivered additional troops from the 2nd Infantry Division to Guadalcanal.  The Imperial Japanese Navy promised to support the Army’s planned offensive by delivering reinforcements and needed equipment, and by increasing its air attacks on Henderson Field.  Warships would bombard the American airfield.

Admiral R. L. Ghormley
Admiral Ghormley

Meanwhile, Lieutenant General Millard F. Harmon, commanding U. S. Army Forces in the South Pacific, convinced Admiral Ghormley that the U. S. Marines on Guadalcanal needed immediate reinforcements if the Allied forces were to successfully defend the island from an anticipated Japanese offensive.  On 13 October, the US 164th Infantry Regiment and its contingent of 2,837 men arrived to reinforce the Marines on Guadalcanal.

The Japanese continued preparations for a large-scale offensive in late October.  Deeming the Tokyo Express operation insufficient to this purpose, Japanese planners decided to risk a one-time departure from the Tokyo Express.  On 13 October, a convoy of six cargo ships with eight protective destroyers departed the Shortland Islands for Guadalcanal. The convoy carried 4,500 troops from the 16th and 230th Infantry Regiments, some naval infantry, two battalions of heavy artillery, and one company of tanks.

IJN Bombardment at HendersonTo help safeguard these assets from Marine aviators, Admiral Yamamoto sent two battleships from Truk to bombard Henderson Field.  The bombardment commenced at 0133 on 14 October. Together, the two battleships delivered 973 14-inch shells into the Lunga perimeter for nearly an hour and a half.  IJN naval artillery heavily damaged both runways, destroyed nearly all available aviation gas, destroyed 48 of 90 CAF planes, and killed 41 men (including six pilots).  Despite this damage, Marine combat engineers and Seabees were able to restore the field to operational condition within a few hours.  Thirty-seven replacement aircraft were flown in to Cactus from Espiritu Santo and Army/Marine Cargo planes began ferrying in aviation fuel.

Japan’s convoy reached Tassafaronga, Guadalcanal after midnight on 14 October.  Unloading operations commenced immediately.  Throughout the next day, CAF operations bombed and strafed the ships while they were unloading, destroying three cargo ships. Having unloaded all the troops and about two-thirds of the supplies and equipment, what remained of the Japanese convoy departed on 16 October.  Japanese heavy cruisers continued to bombard Henderson Field.

With this new influx of troops, General Hyakutake now had 20,000 men at his disposal to execute his assault on the American positions.  Hyakutake’s first mistake, however, was that he under-estimated the strength of the Allied land forces.  He expected a Marine defense of about 10,000 men; in reality, there were 23,000 soldiers and Marines at Lunga Point.  More than this, Hyakutake underestimated the effect of jungle warfare on his men.  In order to reach the Marine positions, the Japanese had to construct a road from the Matanikau River to the Lunga perimeter.  The fifteen-mile-long road crossed numerous streams and rivers, deep, muddy ravines, steep ridges, and think jungle foliage.  Construction of the road didn’t begin until 12 October 1942.  General Hyakutake’s 2nd Infantry Division began its movement-to-contact on 16 October.  They were still struggling through this morass on 23 October and had not yet reached their attack positions.  Hyakutake postponed the assault until 1900 on 24 October.  The Marines, meanwhile, were blissfully unaware of the Japanese approach.

Due to the American Marine’s interest in the Matanikau region in early October, the Japanese relinquished these positions.  General Hyakutake decided that his main thrust would be from south of Henderson Field. His 2nd Infantry Division (augmented by troops from the 38th Infantry Division), serving under Lieutenant General Masao Maruyama (about 7,000 soldiers, organized in three regiments of three battalions each) was ordered to march through the dense jungle and attack the American positions from the south near the east bank of the Lunga River. Hyakutake ordered the assault to commence on 22 October.  He then changed the date to 23 October.  As a means of distracting the Americans, Hyakutake ordered Major General Tadashi Sumiyoshi, commanding 3,000 Japanese soldiers and a battalion of heavy artillery, to attack Marine defenses from the west along the coastal corridor.  Hyakutake reschedule the attack for 24 October, but General Sumiyoshi was unable to communicate this change to his forward units.

Japanese Army Assault
Japanese assault at dusk

At dusk on 23 October, two battalions of the 4th Infantry Regiment (supported by tanks) launched an attack on Marine positions at the mouth of the Matanikau River.  Marine Corps artillery and naval gunfire repulsed Sumiyoshi’s attack, destroying all of Sumiyoshi’s tanks.  The Marines suffered only light casualties.

Maruyama’s force finally reached the Lunga perimeter late on 24 October.  For two consecutive nights, Maruyama directed numerous frontal assaults against the 1st Battalion, 7th Marines (commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Lewis B. “Chesty” Puller) and the U. S. Army’s 3rd Battalion, 164th Infantry (commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Robert Hall).  Soldiers and Marines, well-armed with rifles, machine guns, mortars, and artillery —including canister fire from 37mm anti-tank guns, destroyed the attacking Japanese.

“I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve.”

—Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto.

A few small groups of Japanese did infiltrate the American lines, but the Marines hunted them down and, without mercy, killed them.  Fifteen-hundred of Maruyama’s troops died; the Americans lost sixty killed in action. In the air, the Cactus Air Force downed fourteen Japanese aircraft and sent a light cruiser to the bottom of the sound.  Despite this beating, the Japanese continued their assault.  On 26 October, Marines operating near the Matanikau slaughtered their attackers.  General Hyakutake called off the offensive and withdrew his remaining force.  Half of Maruyama’s survivors marched back to the upper Matanikau Valley, while the 230th Infantry Regiment under Colonel Toshinari Shoji returned to Koli Point.  Leading elements of the 2nd Infantry Division arrived at 17th Army headquarters on 4 November.  Between the mauling of the American Marines, malnutrition, and tropical diseases, the 2nd Division was utterly destroyed.  The best it could do is help form a defensive perimeter along the coastal region of Guadalcanal.  In total, the Japanese lost between 2,500-3,000 troops; the Marines lost 80 killed.

At about the same time General Hyakutake’s troops were attacking the Lunga perimeter, Japanese aircraft carriers and other large warships moved into a position near the southern Solomon Islands.  From this location, Admiral Yamamoto hoped to engage and destroy allied naval forces —particularly those that responded to Hyakutake’s ground offensive.  At this time, allied naval forces (composed mostly of the U. S. Navy) were under the overall command of Admiral William Halsey [3] —a man who desperately wanted to meet the Japanese at sea.

Japanese and American carrier forces confronted each other on the morning of 26 October in what we remember in history as the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands.  Following the usual exchange of aerial attacks, Allied surface ships withdrew from the battle area with the loss of one carrier sunk (USS Hornet), and another heavily damaged (USS Enterprise).  The Japanese suffered extensive damage to two carriers and a significant loss of aircraft.  This was a trend the Japanese could not sustain.  The loss of qualified carrier aircrews was a “war stopper.” Japanese carriers no longer played a key role in this campaign.

General Vandergrift, seeking to exploit his victory over the 17th IJA launched offensive operations west of the Matanikau River.  Serving under Colonel Merritt Edson, six Marine battalions and one Army battalion assaulted Kokumbona.  Their mission was to kill or capture what remained of the 17th Imperial Japanese Army. Defending Point Cruz was the 4th Infantry Regiment under Colonel Nomasu Nakaguma.  Nakaguma’s regiment was significantly understrength due to battle damage, tropical disease, and malnutrition.

Edson’s campaign began on 1 November; Point Cruz was destroyed by 3 November, including rear-echelon troops sent to reinforce Nakaguma’s battered regiment.  At the moment when the Americans were close to breaking through the Japanese defenses and capturing Kokumbona, other Marine forces engaged newly landed Japanese reinforcements near Koli Point.  General Vandergrift temporarily halted Edson’s campaign to address this new threat on 4 November.  Between 1-4 November, American losses totaled 71 killed in action; the Japanese lost 400 additional men.

Early in the morning of 3 November at Koli Point, five Japanese destroyers delivered 300 IJA troops to support Colonel Shoji.  Vandergrift directed 2/7 under LtCol Herman H. Hanneken to aggress the Japanese, but the Japanese pushed his battalion back almost to the Lunga perimeter. Vandergrift quickly sent Puller’s 1/7 and two battalions of the 164th to reinforce him.  As the Americans attempted to encircle Shoji, General Hyakutake ordered Shoji to withdraw and reinforce the main body at Kokumbona.  A gap developed in the swampy creek on the southern flank of the American lines.  Between 9-11 November, Shoji and about 3,000 of his men escaped into the jungle. The next day, Hanneken’s force overran and killed the remaining Japanese soldiers caught in the pocket.  Japanese losses at Koli Point numbered 475 killed. Allied losses were 40 KIA and 120 WIA.

Meanwhile, on 4 November, two Raider companies (reinforced with one company from the 147th Infantry Regiment) under LtCol Evans Carlson landed by boat at Aola Bay, 40 miles east of Lunga Point.  Carlson’s mission was to provide security for a battalion of Seabees as they attempted to construct an airstrip at that location.  Admiral Halsey, acting upon the recommendation of Admiral Turner, approved the construction plan.  Halsey later abandoned the project because the terrain at Aola Bay was unsuitable for aircraft operations.  On 5 November, General Vandergrift ordered Carlson and his raiders to search and destroy any of Shoji’s remnant force.  Carlson set off on a 29-day patrol from Aola Bay to Lunga Point. Carlson reported several clashes with Japanese, reportedly killing 500 and Marine losses totaling 16 killed in action. Tropical disease and malnutrition continued to affect Japanese combat efficiency.  By the time Colonel Shoji reached the Lunga river in mid-November, roughly half the distance to Matanikau, only 1,300 men remained alive. Half of those died before he reached the 17th IJA headquarters.

Continued next week


  1. Braun, S. M. The Struggle for Guadalcanal (American Battles and Campaigns).  New York: Putnam, 1969
  2. Christ, J. F. Battalion of the Damned: The 1st Marine Paratroopers at Gavutu and Bloody Ridge.  Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2007
  3. Coggins, J. The Campaign for Guadalcanal: A Battle That Made History.  Garden City: Doubleday, 1972.
  4. Hersey, J. Into the Valley: Marines at Guadalcanal. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2002


[1] The Japanese submarine I-19 torpedoed USS Wasp, sinking her southeast of Guadalcanal, leaving the US Navy with one carrier in the South Pacific: USS Hornet.

[2] See also: Some Gave All.

[3] Concluding that Admiral Ghormley lacked the ability to win against the Japanese, Admiral Nimitz replaced him with Halsey on 18 October 1942.

Guadalcanal: First to Fight —Part II

Not long after coming ashore, allied troops encountered a severe strain of dysentery; by mid-August one in five Marines was so inflicted.  Next up for the Marines: malaria.

On the evening of 12 August, Lieutenant Colonel Frank Goettge, serving as the Division Intelligence Officer, led a 25-man patrol west of the Marine perimeter at Lunga Point.  His intent was two-fold: first, to conduct a reconnaissance of the region, and second, to ascertain whether Japanese troops were willing to surrender to Allied forces.  Soon after coming ashore, Japanese naval infantry attacked the patrol killing nearly every Marine.  In response, on 19 August, General Vandegrift sent three companies of Marines from the 5th Regiment to attack the Japanese troop concentration west of the Matanikau River.  One company attacked across the sandbar at the mouth of the river, while another crossed the river 1,000 meters inland and attacked the Japanese force at the Matanikau village.  The third company landed by boat further west and attacked Kokumbuna village.  Having thus killed 65 Japanese soldiers (losing four Marines), the battalion returned to the Marine perimeter.

F4F Wildcats On GuadalcanalOn 20 August, two squadrons of Marine Corps fighter aircraft arrived at Henderson Field; one squadron of F4F Wildcats, and one of 12 SBD Dauntlesses.  The Allied codename for these aviators was “Cactus Air Force.” Both squadrons were operational by the next morning and conducted daily raids on Japanese positions.  Army aviators, flying the Bell P-400 Aircobra, arrived on 22 August.

As a response to the landing of Marines in the Solomon Islands, the Imperial General Staff ordered Lieutenant General Harukichi Hyakutake, who commanded Japan’s 17th Army (a corps-sized combat force) to retake Guadalcanal.  Hyakutake would receive the support of naval units, including the combined fleet under Isoroku Yamamoto, then headquartered in Truk [1].  At the time, 17th Army was heavily committed to the New Guinea campaign and had only a few organizations available to meet the Allied challenge.  Of these, the 35th Infantry Brigade under Major General Kiyotake Kawaguchi was at Palau, the 4th (Aoba) Infantry Regiment was in the Philippines, and the 28th (Ichiki) Infantry Regiment (Colonel Kiyonao Ichiki, commanding) was aboard ship near Guam.  As the closest unit to Guadalcanal, Colonel Ichiki’s command was the first to arrive, consisting of a battalion sized unit landing from destroyers at Taivu Point, east of the Lunga perimeter, at around midnight on 19 August.  Without hesitation, the battalion began its march toward the 1st Marine Division positions that same night.

Fight at Alligator Creek
Artists rendition of the fight at Alligator Creek.

Apparently under-estimating the strength of the American Marines, the battalion commander ordered a frontal assault in the early morning hours of 21 August near Alligator Creek (also, Ilu River) on the east side of the Lunga perimeter.  The Marines slaughtered the Japanese with heavy and interlocking fields of fire.  This incident became known as the Battle of Tenaru.  After daybreak, the Marines counter-attacked the Japanese force, once more inflicting heavy losses.  In total, there were only 128 Japanese survivors; Colonel Ichiki was not one of them. The surviving Japanese made their way back to Taivu Point and notified 17th Army headquarters of their defeat; 17th Army headquarters ordered these survivors to “stand fast” and await further reinforcements.

Admiral Yamamoto took personal change of organizing the Japanese relief expedition.  His intention was to destroy any American naval and land units operating in the area of the Solomon Islands.  He wanted the use of the airstrip at Lunga Point.  Taking most of his assault force from Truk, Japanese reinforcements began their movement to Guadalcanal on 23 August.  On board the transport ships were the 1,500 remaining troops of the 28th Regiment and 500 men from the 5th (Yokosuka) Special Naval Landing Force.  Guarding the troop carriers were 13 warships under the command of Rear Admiral Raizo Tanaka, who planned to land his force on 24 August.  Admiral Yamamoto ordered Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo to provide cover for Tanaka’s landing force.  Nagumo’s battle group included three carriers and 30 additional warships.  It was Yamamoto’s plan to send the light carrier Ryujoahead of Nagumo’s main force as bait to attack the Marines at Guadalcanal and lure away American pilots.  Nagumo’s carrier-based aircraft numbered 177.

USS Saratoga “Sara” 1942

Meanwhile, Admiral Fletcher’s Task Force 16 (two carriers —USS Saratoga and USS Enterprise) approached Guadalcanal to counter Japan’s counter-offensive efforts.  The number of aircraft available to Fletcher was 176.  The two battle groups clashed on 24 August.  The Americans quickly overwhelmed Ryujo; the carrier went under during the night.  Enterprise received enough damage to send her back to Hawaii for repairs [2], but the two Japanese fleet carriers escaped any damage.  Japanese aircraft losses numbered in the dozens.  The Americans lost only a handful of planes.  In the end, both sides retreated from the area.

The Cactus Air Force attacked Tanaka’s ships on 25 August, sinking one transport, inflicting heavy damage on other ships, and forcing Tanaka to divert his force to the Shortland Islands in the northern Solomons.  There, Tanaka transferred his surviving troops to destroyers for delivery to Guadalcanal.  While the CAF attacked Tanaka, additional Japanese aircraft attacked Henderson Field, causing a great deal of chaos.  Subsequently, Marine aircraft again targeted Tanaka’s task force, sinking one transport, rendering one destroyer incapable of further service, and damaging Tanaka’s own flagship, Jintsu.  Once again, the Americans forced Tanaka to withdraw and reschedule his landing for 28 August.

Solomon Islands, Guadalcanal, and The Slot

Major General Kawaguchi’s brigade reached Truk on 23 August.  Initially, the Japanese decided to load these troops onto slow transport ships for movement to Guadalcanal, but after the damage done to Tanaka’s convoy, Japanese planners put together a new plan.  Rather than loading these troops onto slow transports for delivery to Guadalcanal, they decided to load these troops on to destroyers and transport them quickly through the New Georgia Sound (also called “The Slot”) to Guadalcanal. A destroyer could make the round trip in a single night and it was a strategy that minimized Japanese exposure to Allied air attack.  The Americans referred to these overnight runs as the “Tokyo Express;” the Japanese called it “Ratto Yuso”(ラット輸送), or “rat transportation.[3]”  The downside to this operation was that it denied to the Japanese infantry most of its heavy equipment (vehicles, heavy artillery, tanks, and much food and ammunition).  Moreover, the strategy reduced the availability of Japanese destroyers to escort and protect resupply convoys.

Between 29 August and 4 September, Japanese light cruisers, destroyers, and patrol boats landed 5,000 soldiers at Taivu Point, including most of the 35th Infantry Brigade, most of the 4th Infantry Regiment, and the balance of Colonel Ichiki’s regiment. General Kawaguchi came ashore on 31 August and assumed command of all Japanese forces on Guadalcanal.  An additional 1,000 troops under Colonel Akinosuke Oka landed at Kamimbo, west of the Lunga Perimeter.

Throughout the month of August, small numbers of US aircraft and their crews arrived at Guadalcanal. By the end of August, the CAF had 64 planes of various types stationed at Henderson Field.  On 3 September, Brigadier General Roy Geiger, Commanding General, 1st Marine Aircraft Wing, arrived and assumed command of all air operations at Guadalcanal.  Air battles between Allied aircraft at Henderson Field and Japanese fighters and bombers from Rabaul became a daily occurrence.  The opposing air elements were evenly matched.  Between 25 August and 5 September, the Japanese lost 19 aircraft; the Americans lost 15.  The difference, however, was that the Americans recovered more than half of their downed aircrews to fight again, while none of the Japanese aircrews survived. The Japanese learned that it was much more difficult to replace aircrews than it was aircraft.

General Vandergrift continued to strengthen and improve his defensive perimeter around Lunga Point. Between 21 August and 3 September, Vandergrift relocated three battalions from Tulagi and Gavutu to Guadalcanal. These were the 1st Raider Battalion under LtCol Merritt A. Edson, 1st Battalion, 5th Marines, and the 1st Parachute Battalion.  This latter battalion had suffered significant casualties during the Battle of Tulagi and Gavutu-Tanambogo and remained seriously understrength. Accordingly, Vandergrift placed the 1st Parachute Battalion under Edson’s overall command.  After fighting on diminished rations for nearly a month, the Guadalcanal Marines received much needed supplies between 23 August and 8 September.

On 1 September, U. S. Navy Seabees arrived on Guadalcanal and immediately set out to improve and maintain Henderson Field.  Once the airfield could accommodate larger aircraft, Marine Aircraft Group 25 began flying in high priority cargo, such as personnel replacements, aviation gasoline, munitions, and medical supplies.

On 7 September, General Kawaguchi issued his directive to subordinate commanders: rout and annihilate the enemy in the vicinity of the Guadalcanal Island airfield.  He intended to split his force into three elements, to approach the Lunga Perimeter inland, and then execute a surprise frontal assault (night attack).  Oka’s troops would attack the perimeter from the west, while Ichiki’s remaining echelon (renamed Kuma Battalion) would attack from the east.  Kawaguchi’s assault would be the main-body attack, numbering 3,000 men in three battalions.  March to contact began on the same day.

Native scouts under the direction of coast watchers send reports to the Americans outlining the activities of Japanese troops at Taivu.  Colonel Edson was planning a raid on the Japanese concentration at Taivu.  To better assess the situation, he sent a reconnaissance patrol by boat to Taivu.  On 8 September, after coming ashore, Edson’s men captured the village of Tasimboko, driving the Japanese into the jungle.  Inside the village, Marines discovered large stockpiles of food, ammunition, medical supplies, and a powerful shortwave radio.  The Marines destroyed what they could of the equipment and carried back with them to Lunga Point some documents and equipment.  The Marines thus knew what was in store for them.

Edson’s Ridge

Colonel Edson and the Division Operations Officer assumed (correctly) that the Japanese attack, when it came, would come at the narrow, grassy, ridge that ran parallel to the Lunga River, just south of Henderson Field.  Lunga Ridge offered a natural avenue of approach to the airfield, commanded the surrounding area, and (at that time) was relatively undefended.  On 11 September, Edson moved his 800-man battalion onto and around the ridge.

The next night, Kawaguchi’s 1st Battalion assaulted the Raiders, forcing one Marine Company to withdraw to its secondary positions.  The Japanese disengaged before sunrise.  On 13 September, Kawaguchi faced Edson’s Raiders with 3,000 troops and an assortment of light artillery.  The Japanese attack began just after nightfall with the 1st Battalion assaulting the Marine right flank west of Lunga Ridge.  After breaking through the Marine lines, the Japanese attack faltered when additional Marines reinforced the perimeter.  Two companies of Kawaguchi’s 2nd Battalion charged the southern edge of the ridge and pushed the Marines back to Hill 123 at the center section of the ridge.  Marines at this position, supported by artillery, defeated wave after wave to Japanese frontal assaults.  Hand-to-hand combat ensued.  Marines also defeated Japanese units that had successfully infiltrated past the ridge to the edge of the airfield and assaults initiated by the Kuma and Oka Battalions. With more than 850 men killed in action, Kawaguchi led his shattered brigade in a five-day march westward to the Matanikau Valley where he joined up with what remained of Oka’s Battalion. Marines losses were 104 killed in action.

When the Japanese General Staff learned of Kawaguchi’s defeat, they concluded that Guadalcanal could be the decisive land battle of the war.  Lieutenant General Hyakutake realized that in order to send additional (sufficient) troops and materials to defeat the Allied forces on Guadalcanal, he could not (at the same time) support operations in New Guinea.  With the concurrence of the JGS, Hyakutake prepared to move greater numbers of troops to Guadalcanal for another attempt to take the airfield and defeat the American Marines.

Continued Next Week


  1. Braun, S. M. The Struggle for Guadalcanal (American Battles and Campaigns).  New York: Putnam, 1969
  2. Christ, J. F. Battalion of the Damned: The 1st Marine Paratroopers at Gavutu and Bloody Ridge.  Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2007
  3. Coggins, J. The Campaign for Guadalcanal: A Battle That Made History.  Garden City: Doubleday, 1972.
  4. Hersey, J. Into the Valley: Marines at Guadalcanal. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2002


[1] Truk (now Chuuk Lagoon) is a sheltered body of water 1,100 miles north-east of New Guinea, now part of the Federated States of Micronesia.  The atoll consists of a protective reef extending some 140 miles in diameter, enclosing a natural harbor 49 by 31 miles and an area of 820 square miles.  Its land area is 36 square miles.  During World War II, heavily fortified (most fortified of all Japanese strongholds) Truk was Japan’s main naval base in the South Pacific and served as Japan’s forward anchorage.  Japanese engineers had constructed roads, trenches, bunkers, and a network of caves. The island contained five airstrips, seaplane bases, a torpedo boat station, submarine repair shops, a communications center, radar station, significant coastal defense batteries, and nearly 45,000 Japanese sailors and soldiers.  The Truk (Chuuk) Islands is part of the larger Caroline Islands group.

[2] Enterprise transferred its aircraft to Henderson Field to reinforce the CAF. These reinforcing aircraft made daytime resupply of Japanese forward positions nearly impossible.  In only a few weeks, the Japanese lost its air superiority to the Americans.

[3] This term was not used to denigrate the Japanese troops; the term was used because, like a rat, the Japanese ships were active only at night.

Guadalcanal: First to Fight —Part I

Old Corps EGA“We struck at Guadalcanal to halt the advance of the Japanese.  We did not know how strong he was, nor did we know his plans.  We knew only that he was moving down the island chain and that he had to be stopped. We were as well-trained and as well-armed as time and our peacetime experience allowed us to be.  We needed combat to tell us how effective our training, our doctrines, and our weapons had been.  We tested them against the enemy and found that they worked.  From that moment in 1942, the tide turned and the Japanese never again advanced.”

~Alexander A. Vandegrift

In the summer of 1941, the American people were horrified by the unfolding war in Europe.  They were equally horrified by the idea that the United States might, in some way, become involved.  The American people had already sent their loved ones off to die in Europe; few Americans wanted to see this happen again.  President Franklin D. Roosevelt, on the other hand, strongly believed that the United States had an obligation to stand up to the emerging Axis powers —but he was also an astute politician who knew better than to ignore the mood of the American people who preferred isolationism to the horrors of war. Involving the United States in another world war would end his presidency and destroy his legacy.

No, Mr. Roosevelt realized early on that the only way the United States could join forces against the Axis powers was that if one or more of its members launched an attack upon the United States of America.  Germany focused its belligerence on its immediate neighbors and Eastern Europe. Mussolini’s Italy confined its military activities to interventions in Spain, Albania, Ethiopia, Egypt, and Palestine. If an attack against the United States should come, it would have to come from Japan, whose growing naval and military power had unfettered access to America’s lightly-defended and far-flung Pacific bases.  Roosevelt did everything in his power to encourage a Japanese attack on US advanced bases.  He imagined that Japan’s attack would target the Philippines (which it did), but he did not think Japan would strike Hawaii.

Franklin D. Roosevelt got his war on 7 December 1941 when the Empire of Japan assaulted the United States Navy Base on the island of Honolulu.

After Japan’s surprise attack, the United Kingdom and United States agreed to concentrate first upon the defeat of Germany; war with Japan would occupy a second priority. Initially, this policy forced America’s Pacific area military commanders to confront the Japanese on Japan’s terms. Most of America’s naval power lay at the bottom of Pearl Harbor, Hawaii on 8 December 1941.

Japanese Western Pacific 1941-1942Consequently, Imperial Japanese forces swept through Northeast Asia, East Asia, Southeast Asia, and much of Melanesia during the first six months of 1942.  They were able to accomplish these feats through careful planning over many years, initiative, and surprise [1].  Allied personnel and advanced bases at Wake Island, Guam, Singapore, Bataan and Corregidor, and the Netherlands East Indies were at great risk.  The Japanese seized Rabaul on 23 January 1942, and Bougainville in the Northern Solomon Islands in April.  At the end of Japan’s line down the Solomon Islands was the British port of Tulagi and a (then) little known island called Guadalcanal.  A few British and Australian riflemen were all that defended Tulagi; they were no match for the 3rd Kure Special Naval Landing Force assault on 1 May 1942.  The only check on the Japanese advance at Tulagi came when United States Navy Admiral Fletcher, Commanding Task Force 17, sent his aircraft against Japanese shipping in Tulagi Harbor, sinking the destroyer Kikutsuki, damaging the destroyer Yuzuki, and offering some damage to the cruiser-mine-layer Okinoshima [2].  The Pacific islands were particularly important to the Japanese because they intended to deny America supply lines and communications with Australia and New Zealand.  Japan was in undisputed possession of the Solomon Islands.

American and Japanese naval forces clashed on 7-8 May 1942 in the Coral Sea.  It was no outright victory for the Americans, who lost the carrier USS Lexington, but the Japanese lost the light carrier Shoho, 80 planes, and suffered substantial damage to the fleet carrier Shokaku.  If the battle had one significant outcome, it was the forestalled Japanese invasion of Port Moresby and South Papua.

Between 4-7 July 1942, American and Japanese naval forces clashed once more, approximately 150 miles northwest of Midway Atoll.  Japan’s carrier-based air power of their combined fleet was virtually annihilated. The Americans sank four Japanese carriers: Kaga, Akagi, Soryu, and Hiryu —along with the cruiser Mikumaand more than 250 Japanese aircraft.  Perhaps more important than the loss of ships, the Japanese also lost their experienced crews and pilots and the practiced and coordinated teams and organizations formed over many pre-war years.  It was a terrible blow to the Imperial Japanese Navy. After Midway, the time was ripe for initiating a more aggressive stance toward the Japanese.

Vandergrift 001On 29 June 1942, Major General Alexander A. Vandegrift received a warning order: prepare the 1st Marine Division for an amphibious assault.  He wasn’t told where.  While he set about training the division for combat, the Department of War exchanged terse messages with General MacArthur and Admiral Ghormley [3].  Roosevelt wanted his Pacific commanders to seize the initiative, attack the Japanese, and do so promptly.  MacArthur and Ghormley answered “Yes sir, as soon as you give us adequate resources.” Vandergrift’s 1st Marine Division began its incremental move to New Zealand in mid-June, but it was far from its war time strength.  In fact, all Marine Corps units were under-strength and widely dispersed throughout the Pacific region either as provisional brigades or separate defense battalions.  Naval and air forces were not much better off, and these circumstances necessitated the sharing of assets between and among theater, area, and task-force commanders.

It was a hectic time for the Americans, but more so for the Empire of Japan.  Midway was a strategic victory for the Americans, but Japan did not realize this until many months later when Japanese military commanders awoke one morning to discover that they were fighting a defensive war in their own home islands.  Japan’s brash decision-making handed them horrific losses in both material and personnel —and the Americans marched steadily toward execution of Operation Watchtower.

Before 1941, the Solomon Islands was a protectorate of the United Kingdom.  The allied powers chose the Solomon Islands, specifically Guadalcanal, Tulagi, and Florida Island as their first offensive target.  The Navy Department [4] created Task Force One (Code named Pestilence) and gave it three objectives: (1) Seize and occupy Santa Cruz (Operation Huddle); (2) Seize and occupy Tulagi (Operation Watchtower); (3) Seize and occupy adjacent positions.  Guadalcanal (Codename Cactus) eventually became the focus of allied operations.

Driving the US strategy in the Solomon Islands were several reports from air reconnaissance assets and coast-watchers that, in addition to its seaplane base in Tulagi, the Japanese intended to construct an airfield on the Lunga Plains of Guadalcanal.  From this location, it would be possible for Japanese long-range bombers to threaten the sea lanes between California and Australia and defend its major base at Rabaul.  Nine-hundred naval infantry defended Tulagi; 3,000 laborers were set to work on Guadalcanal.

While General Vandergrift readied his 1st Marine Division, Pacific Fleet headquarters in Hawaii sent other Marine and naval units to establish or reinforce American advanced bases in Fiji, Samoa, New Hebrides, and New Caledonia.  Admiral Ghormley ordered Vandergrift to establish his headquarters at Espiritu Santo.  He would begin his operations on 7 August 1942 with time for one rehearsal landing. The operation included 75 warships and transports of US and Australian origin.  Overall commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force was Vice Admiral Frank Fletcher, Commander, Task Force 61.  Rear Admiral Richmond K. Turner commanded the Amphibious force.  General Vandegrift commanded 16,000 allied (primarily Marine Corps) infantry.

On D-Day, most Marines going ashore carried the M1903 Springfield (bolt-action) rifle and ten days of ammunition.  The landing force had 60 days’ worth of supplies; they needed 90, but naval planners had reduced their logistical footprint in order to speed up the time-table for the landing [5].  Bad weather (storms and heavy seas) permitted the Allied Expedition to arrive off the coast of Guadalcanal at night on 6 August 1942 unseen by the Japanese.  The next morning, allied ships and aircraft began bombarding shore lines and Japanese positions.  The landing force went ashore in two groups: one assaulting Guadalcanal and the other the Tulagi and Florida Islands.  Three-thousand Marines assaulted Tulagi and two nearby smaller islands named Gavutu and Tanambogo.  The Marines achieved all their objectives by 9 August, killing all Japanese defenders in the process.  The Marines suffered the loss of 122 brave men.

The Marines assaulting Guadalcanal experienced scant resistance.  Eleven-thousand Marines of the 1st Marine Division went ashore at 0910 on 7 August, landing between Koli Point and Lunga Point.  They secured the airfield by 1600 on 8 August.  Japanese naval construction troops and laborers serving under Captain Kanae Monzen withdrew 3-miles west of the Matanikau River in the face of allied bombing and the advancing Marines.  The Japanese had abandoned their food, supplies, construction equipment, motorized vehicles, and thirteen dead.

During allied landing operations, Japanese naval aircraft based at Rabaul attacked the amphibious force several times.  The transport ship USS George F. Elliott was set ablaze and sank two days later.  The destroyer USS Jarvis was heavily damaged. Over two days, the Japanese lost 36 aircraft; the US lost 19 planes, including 14 carrier-based aircraft.

Admiral Fletcher became concerned about the safety of his task force: the threat of Japanese navy counter-attack was real, his ships were low on fuel, and his ships were sitting-ducks to Japanese aircraft and submarines.  Losing 14 carrier-based aircraft meant that Fletcher had less air cover.  Admiral Turner decided to withdraw his amphibious shipping even though less than half of the supplies and equipment needed by the Marines had been off-loaded. The Marines would suffer mightily as a result of this decision.

Lunga Point looking east
Lunga Point, looking east.  Marines established a loose perimeter around the point and the airfield.  At first, there simply weren’t enough Marines to establish a tight defensive line.

The transports continued to unload equipment during the night of 8-9 August.  Two naval groups screening Allied shipping under British Rear Admiral Victor Crutchley VC were surprised and defeated by a Japanese naval force of seven cruisers and one destroyer based at Rabaul under Vice Admiral Gunichi Mikawa.  Remembered as the Battle of Savo Island, Allied forces lost one Australian and three American cruisers; one cruiser and two destroyers were heavily damaged.  The Japanese naval force suffered moderate damage to one cruiser.  Admiral Mikawa, unaware of Fletcher’s pending withdrawal and concerned about the presence of US aircraft, retired to Rabaul without attempting to attack any of the Allied transports.

By 9 August, the bulk of the 1st Marine Division formed a loosely defined defensive perimeter around Lunga Point and airfield.  Vandergrift directed his logisticians move the landed supplies and equipment within the perimeter [6].  Using captured Japanese construction equipment, work began on the airfield almost immediately. On 12 August, the Marines renamed the airfield Henderson Field [7] and on 18th August, the airstrip became operational.

Continued next week


  1. Braun, S. M. The Struggle for Guadalcanal (American Battles and Campaigns).  New York: Putnam, 1969
  2. Christ, J. F. Battalion of the Damned: The 1st Marine Paratroopers at Gavutu and Bloody Ridge.  Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2007
  3. Coggins, J. The Campaign for Guadalcanal: A Battle That Made History.  Garden City: Doubleday, 1972.
  4. Hersey, J. Into the Valley: Marines at Guadalcanal. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2002


[1] Not every senior Japanese military officer believed it was a wise choice to attack the United States. The Japanese economy was already straining to keep of with the demands of war in China.  Vice Admiral Yamamoto, chief architect of the strike at Pearl Harbor, had very strong misgivings about war with the United States.  See also: The Truly Reluctant Admiral (in several parts).

[2] Sunk a week later.

[3] Vice Admiral Robert L. Ghormley, USN, Commander, South Pacific, had limited carrier and aviation experience, but had the respect and friendship of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the confidence of Admiral Ernest J. King (Chief of Naval Operations) and Admiral Chester Nimitz, Commander-in-Chief United States Pacific Fleet. Admiral William S. Pye was senior to Ghormley, but Pye allowed the Japanese to capture Wake Island and thus earned the reputation of a timid admiral.

[4] Admiral Ernest J. King was the architect of Watchtower.

[5] Within a short time, the Marines began to refer to Guadalcanal operations as “Operation Shoestring”.

[6] Food stores, when combined with captured Japanese supplies, gave the Marines 14-days of food supplies.  To conserve these stores, Marines received only two meals per day.

[7] Named in honor of Major Lofton R. Henderson, a Marine Corps aviator killed during the Battle of Midway.

In Every Clime and Place

Hayden 001
A young Sterling Hayden

You might remember this man in the role of the somewhat psychotic Air Force General Ripper in the 1964 film, Dr. Strangelove—or as the brutally corrupt police chief in the 1972 film The Godfather, but by the time these two films became box-office successes, Sterling Hayden had already starred in films for twenty-three years.  He stood 6’5” tall and weighed around 230 pounds.  In some Hollywood circles, he was ‘the most beautiful man in movies.’ But, as it turns out, Sterling Hayden was much more than that.

He was christened Sterling Relyea Walter shortly after his birth in Montclair, New Jersey on 26 March 1916.  After the death of his father, he went to live with his maternal uncle, whose name he took.  Like many young men of his day, he yearned for the adventurous life, so at the age of 16-years, Hayden quit school and joined the crew of a sailing schooner out of New London, Connecticut.  Over the next nine years, the cocky teenager followed the sea and the wind.  He began his sea adventure as a common seaman; by 1940, he’d earned his master’s license.  It was his love for the sea that brought him into contact with fellow sailing enthusiast David Rumsey Donovan, the son of William J. Donovan [1].

Hayden’s good looks and his cocky attitude earned him a Hollywood screen test in 1938 with Jeanne Cagney, the sister of actor James Cagney.  Placed on the studio payroll at $250.00/week, his first two movies (both released in 1941) brought him instant fame throughout the country.  Life was good.  He was earning a good income in those days, and he was engaged to the beautiful starlet Madeleine Carroll.  Despite his success, something was missing.  In late 1941, Hayden received a cryptic message from “Wild Bill” Donovan, who wondered if Hayden had what it takes to complete British Commando School.

Hayden sailed to Scotland in November 1941, successfully completing the commando course in February 1942.  He was later assigned to parachute training and had ten jumps to his credit when he received serious injuries during a night training exercise.  Landing in a rock quarry, Hayden suffered a broken ankle, dislocated knee, and spinal injuries.  He was returned to the United States and he married Miss Carroll [2].  Hayden was moody throughout his recovery; he wasn’t happy being placed on the sidelines. David Donovan urged him to apply for a commission in the US Navy, but as it turned out, the Navy wasn’t looking for sailing masters with bad legs and injured spines.  After being turned down for the Navy, Hayden sailed his schooner to the West Indies.

While in Curacao, Hayden met up with a few Marines from the security detachment and the seven of them had ten or twenty too many drinks.  They ended up in the American Hotel, where their antics prompted the hotel manager to inform the Marines that they’d have to leave; Hayden could remain, of course.  Relying on his commando skills, Hayden promptly tossed the manager into the street and Hayden ended up in jail.  After his film agent bailed him out, Hayden sold his boat and flew back to New York and in a few days, made a momentous decision.  He enlisted in the Marine Corps under the name John Hamilton. Private Hamilton was on a train to Yamasee, South Carolina that very day.

Hayden’s commando training set him up for success at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot, Parris Island.  While undergoing training, the Marines singled him out for a commission.  Soon after becoming a second lieutenant, Hayden was assigned back to the OSS.

Private Hayden 001
Sterling Hayden (a.k.a. John Hamilton) at MCRD Parris Island, South Carolina

At this time, very few Marines served in the Atlantic/Mediterranean region.  Those who did serve in the European/African theatre distinguished themselves many times over.  It wasn’t easy dealing with allies in the secret services.  These men, both British and American, were well trained and capable of marvelous actions, but tended to be turf-conscience —and sometimes petty factionalism dominated the entire clandestine bureaucracy.  The problem was acute because while the resistance groups competed with one another for American or British funding, few of them had much regard for the “secret agents.”  In any case, fierce competition was the environment in Cairo when Hayden/Hamilton reported for duty there.  When Hayden reported to his new commanding officer, the man stared at Hayden for a long few minutes and then asked, “Haven’t I seen you somewhere?”  Hayden never let on who he really was.

Having little patience for sitting around reading intelligence reports, Hayden spent most of his time at the Royal Egyptian Yacht Club or sailing.  After several weeks, Hayden was assigned to Monopoli, a small Italian port south of Bai.  Aided by 400 Partisans, Hayden was assigned the task of using a fleet of schooners [3] to run supplies through the German blockade on the Adriatic Sea to the Croatian island of Vis.  This wasn’t an easy task: the schooners could manage 14 knots in good weather, while German patrol boats could achieve 35 knots in almost any weather, and German planes regularly patrolled maritime routes.

In January 1944, Haydon skippered a 45-foot boat across the hostile Adriatic.  Enemy activity demanded that he sail his boat at night and hide during the day in one of thousands of Dalmatian coves to avoid discovery. After delivering his war supplies, Hayden started back to his base of operations at Monopoli.  Well out to sea, the boat’s water pump and engine froze up. Hayden, Gunnery Sergeant John Harnicker, and his Partisan crew had to paddle the boat to the mainland for repairs.

Hayden’s group was a Yugoslav version of The Wild Bunch [4].  When Hayden learned that a German patrol boat was experiencing mechanical problems and adrift, Hayden organized an attack without first obtaining permission from his superiors.  Having approached the vessel, Hayden learned that the German crew was mostly formed of naval cadets; he was hesitant to give the order to pen fire.  Gunnery Sergeant Harnicker had no qualms and the boat quickly surrendered.  Wounded Germans were treated by one of the Partisans, who before the war, was a French surgeon.  Hayden took his “prize” vessel to Vis.

Hayden also took part in the fierce fighting which raged around Vis and neighboring islands. These were largely guerrilla operations that targeted the 118thJaeger Division.  Taking part in these operations were elements of the Four Three, and Four Naught British Royal (Marine) Commando.  Throughout his service, Hayden was attacked by Stukas, chased by patrol boats, and ambushed while ashore.  He was nevertheless aggressive in moving his boats into Albania, the Adriatic islands, and mainland Yugoslavia.  He rescued downed airmen while providing aid to the courageous Yugoslav fighters, whom he came to admire and respect.  In effect, they were a nasty lot … none of whom would hesitate to slit a German’s throat.

First Lieutenant Hamilton returned to the United States in November 1944 adorned with the Silver Star medal.  By then, his marriage was on the rocks, but there was nothing he could do about that. In February 1945, Hayden was back in Europe as a member of the OSS team attached the First French Army.  A few months afterwards, the European war was over and many OSS activities involved intelligence gathering about the new threat to peace: communism.  Captain Hayden/Hamilton resigned his commission in 1947 and returned to Hollywood. We all now recall his many films —and now we know that Sterling Hayden was much more than a Hollywood pretty boy.

Hayden was caught up in the so-called “red scare” of the late 1940s and early 1950s.  His admiration for the communist partisans during World War II did, for a time, move him to join the American Communist Party, but his affiliation was short lived and he later repudiated that decision, opting instead to become a life-long Democrat.  During the McCarthy hearings, Hayden offered open testimony and gave the committee the names of Hollywood personalities who he thought had also joined the movement.  He later claimed that he never provided McCarthy with any information he didn’t already have.

During World War II, Marines dominated headlines in the Pacific.  They were also quite active in gutsy operations in such places as Albania, Algeria, Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, China, Corsica, France, Greece, India, Italy, Malaya, Germany, Romania, and Yugoslavia … Indeed, the Marines fought in every climb and place.  We just don’t know that much about these clandestine fellows —but then, that’s what clandestine means.  Captain Sterling Hayden, U. S. Marine Corps (1916-1986), we salute you for your service.

See also: Operation TorchBehind the Lines.

End Notes:

[1] Brigadier General, holder of the Medal of Honor (World War I), Army Distinguished Service Cross, three awards of the Distinguished Service Medal, Silver Star medal, and three Purple Heart medals.  Donovan was a prominent lawyer and confidant of Franklin D. Roosevelt, who appointed Donovan to head the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the pre-cursor to the Central Intelligence Agency.

[2] The marriage lasted four years.

[3] Supplied by an executive of the Wrigley Chewing Gum Company who served the OSS as director of OSS Maritime Operations.

[4] A 1969 western film that starred William Holden, Robert Ryan, and Ernest Borgnine depicting crude men trying to survive their violent environment, the Mexican Revolution, by any means necessary.  Robert Ryan was also a Marine during World War II.

Marines and Operation Torch

EGA BlackOperation Torch was the name assigned to the allied invasion of French North Africa in November 1942.  It is true that during World War II most Marines were assigned to combat duty in the Pacific Ocean Area, but not all.  A few served with distinction in the Atlantic, as well. This is an overview of their contributions in context with the evolving conflict..

The main problem of doing nothing other than watching dictators take over the free world is the time, money, and blood required to take it back.  Doing nothing is what happened in the years leading up to World War II.  In 1935, Italy’s fascist leader Benito Mussolini invaded Ethiopia.  Between 1936-39, Spain erupted in a bloody civil war.  Japan invaded China in 1937.  In the mid-1930s, Japanese forces in Manchukuo often clashed with the Soviet Union and Mongolia.  With Japan’s defeat at Khalkin Gol in 1939, the on-going (second) Sino-Japanese War, and Nazi Germany pursuing neutrality with the Soviet Union, Japan’s policy of northward movement was impossible to maintain.  Eventually, Japan and the USSR signed a neutrality pact in April 1941.  It was after this that the Japanese began looking south.

In Europe, Germany and Italy became more aggressive. In March 1938, Germany annexed Austria, which provoked little more than gasps from any other European power.  Thus encouraged, Germany began to press claims on the Sudetenland, an area of Czechoslovakia with a predominantly ethnic German population. Against the wishes of Czechoslovakia, the United Kingdom and France conceded this territory to Germany in the Munich Agreement; Germany promised not to make any further territorial demands. Soon afterward, Germany and Italy forced the Czechs to cede additional territory to Hungary; Poland annexed the Zaoizie region of Czechoslovakia.

On 20 March 1939, German Chancellor Adolf Hitler delivered an ultimatum to Lithuania, forcing more territorial concessions.  In April, Hitler made further demands on the “Free City” of Danzig; the UK and France made assurances of support for Polish independence.  When Italy conquered Albania in April 1939, the British and French offered similar pledges to Romania and Greece.  Undaunted, Germany and Italy formed the “Pact of Steel” alliance.  Germany then denounced the UK and Poland, accusing them of trying to encircle Germany; he promptly canceled the Anglo-German Naval Agreement and German-Polish Non-aggression Pact.

Meanwhile, the UK, France, and the Soviet Union were trying to negotiate an alliance.  When these talks stalled, the USSR signed a non-aggression pact with Germany.  The pact included a secret protocol, each side agreeing to spheres of influence.  Germany would control western Poland and Lithuania, and Russia would control eastern Poland, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, and Bessarabia [1].  The prospect of a free and independent Poland looked dim in 1939.  It looked even worse on 1 September 1939 when Germany launched its blitzkrieg into Poland.

Germany continued its territorial expansion through 1941; Denmark and Norway fell.  Denmark capitulated in less than five hours; Norway held out for two months.  It was Norway’s collapse that propelled Winston Churchill back to 10 Downing Street on 10 May 1941.

Before Churchill, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlin wanted to avoid a war with Germany and seemed willing to do almost anything to achieve “peace in our time” —he became one of world history’s greatest appeasers.  Meanwhile, in the United States, President Franklin Roosevelt campaigned for reelection promising to keep America out of the emerging European War, while at the same time doing everything in his power to circumvent congressional neutrality laws [2].

In April 1941, the US Congress limited the strength of the Marine Corps to 20% of that of the U. S. Navy.  It was a small Marine Corps.  The U. S. Atlantic Fleet consisted of four old battleships (New York, Texas, Arkansas, and Wyoming), one division of heavy cruisers (San Francisco, TuscaloosaQuincy, and Vincennes), the USS Ranger (CV-4), and a squadron of destroyers.  Accordingly, only a handful of Marines were detailed to duty in the Atlantic and these were assigned traditional functions: security of naval installations and service with Marine Detachments afloat —mostly battleships, cruisers, and aircraft carriers.

In May and June 1941, Marine Corps Major Gerald C. Thomas, and Captain James Roosevelt USMC conducted a special diplomatic mission on behalf of President Franklin D. Roosevelt —one that took them from the United States to England, onward to India and Basra, Iraq, where they met with British Brigadier Sir William Slim and then continued by plane and automobile to Suez and Cairo.  During this exhaustive and dangerous trip, these two relatively junior officers received high-ranking briefings from Air Vice-Marshal Theodore Tedder, General Sir Archibald Wavell, King George of Greece, King Peter of Yugoslavia, Sir John McMichael (who served as High Commissioner to Palestine), King Abdul of Iraq, General Charles De Gaulle (in exile), and Lord Mountbatten.

In July 1941, the Marine Corps set up its first embassy detachment in London, England.  The detachment commander was Major Walter I. Jordon, USMC.  From its initial strength of 60 officers and men, the detachment doubled in size in the first six months of service.  Initially headquartered at 20 Grosvenor Square, Marines provided security to the American Embassy and served as armed messengers for senior American diplomats.  After Admiral Harold R. Stark assumed his post as Commander, Naval Forces Europe (COMNAVEUR), the Marine Detachment was realigned to focus on naval rather than diplomatic duties.

President Roosevelt knew early on that ultimately, the United States would become involved in the war (—hence the bolstering of US forces in the United Kingdom—) but he also realized that Congress would never authorize American military intervention in the war without an enemy attack upon the United States [3].  Miraculously, the Japanese attacked Honolulu, Hawaii on 7 December 1941 and launched a full-scale invasion of the Philippine Islands the very next day.

By the end of December 1941, the Pact of Steel (Germany, Italy, and Japan) had managed to swallow up most of the civilized world.  German forces conquered France in only six weeks.  Japan seized China, Indochina, the Dutch East Indies, and all European colonies in Asia extending from Southeast Asia to the Central Pacific.  It was up to the Allied Powers to take it back, but with Russia confined to fighting Germans inside the Soviet Union and Nationalist Chinese confronting the Japanese in China, the allied effort mainly involved the United States and the United Kingdom.  It would take time, enormous sums of money, and buckets of British and American blood.

To achieve victory over Germany and Italy, the British and Americans devised a strategy that involved encircling Germany and strangling the Germans into submission. The first step in this process was the occupation of French North Africa [4]; it would open the Mediterranean to Allied supply convoys and save time by not having to send shipments around the Cape of Good Hope.

Litzenberg 001
Homer L. Litzenberg

Rear Admiral H. Kent Hewitt was appointed Commander, Amphibious Forces, Atlantic Fleet (Task Force 34) in April 1942.  Two of Admiral Hewitt’s key staff officers were Lieutenant Colonel Homer L. Litzenberg [5], who served as Assistant Operations Officer, and Major Francis Millet Rogers, Assistant Intelligence Officer.  Hewitt and his staff would be responsible for putting together a plan for operations in North Africa.  It was designated Operation Torch.  The Amphibious forces expanded from a force of three transports to 28 troop-carrying ships. The plan called for an invasion force of 37,000 Army troops, 250 tanks, and all necessary combat support equipment.

Admiral Hewitt’s plan called for the creation of sustainable and mutually supporting US landing forces for an invasion of French Morocco on the Atlantic coast of Africa, and simultaneously, for a joint UK/US landing force to seize Algiers/Tunis in the Mediterranean.  Hewitt’s force was prepared to take action against Spanish Morocco and respond to Axis forces in the western desert.  French Morocco was under the control of the Vichy French government, a German ally, headed by Marshal Henri Petain, a hero of France during World War I.  In North Africa, Admiral Jean Darlan commanded the French fleet; given his intense loyalty to Petain, Hewitt and his planning staff expected that Darlan would oppose the allied landing.

Hewitt 001
RAdm H. Kent Hewitt

At this time, there was only a negligible American presence in North Africa, but their efforts included working among the French to ease the way for the expected landing force.  First Lieutenant Pierre J. Ortiz, attached to the US Embassy, Tangiers as a naval attaché was one of the few Americans working behind the scenes to collect intelligence on Axis forces. Prominent among this small number of Americans was Robert Murphy, US Consul to the Vichy government, and his attaché, Colonel William A. Eddy [6], USMC.  Eddy’s assistant, First Lieutenant Franklin Holcomb, USMC, contributed to the success of Torch by finding and smuggling out of Morocco two boatmen from Casablanca who were familiar with the complex hydrographic conditions in North Africa.  Both gentlemen helped to guide the landing force ashore.

Lieutenant General Dwight D. Eisenhower [7] was appointed to serve as Commander-in-Chief, Allied Expeditionary Forces early enough to become involved in the planning for Operation Torch.  Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham exercised overall command of the operation. Colonel Eddy traveled from Morocco to brief Eisenhower and his staff on the operation.  He was then sent to Washington to brief the military and naval service chiefs and President Roosevelt.  Eisenhower, who was favorably impressed with Colonel Eddy, appointed him Senior Military Attaché for Africa.

Meanwhile, it was determined that weapons training was needed for navy boat crews.  In September 1942, twenty-five Marine Corps instructors under Lieutenant Colonel Louis C. Plain and Captain William E. Davis set up training camps at the naval base in Rosneath, Scotland.  They were joined by First Lieutenant Fenton J. Mee and fifteen enlisted men.  At the conclusion of training, the officers and men were divided into six-man teams and assigned to six different ships as part of the landing force; the remaining ten Marines returned to their base in Londonderry.

To facilitate the transportation of large numbers of soldiers, ships were gathered from all along the US eastern seaboard.  One hundred ships left for the Mediterranean in late October 1942.  The troops for the North African landing came from Major General George S. Patton’s Western Task Force.  Owing to the presence of French capital ships Richelieu and Jean Bart [8], the task force included USS Massachusetts (BB-59), USS Texas (BB-35), USS New York (BB-34), USS Ranger (CV-4), four escort carriers, USS Wichita (CA-45), USS Tuscaloosa (CA-37), USS Augusta (CA-45), light cruisers USS Savannah, USS Brooklyn, USS PhiladelphiaUSS Cleveland, 38 destroyers, and four submarines.  Marine detachments were assigned to all capital ships and the carrier USS Ranger; beyond their security duties, the detachments were trained to man naval guns and conduct amphibious operations ashore

Unlike its army, the French Navy was full of fight and intended to resist any US/UK intervention.  Vice Admiral Francois Michelier commanded coastal defenses, including artillery and offshore aerial reconnaissance.

To facilitate the scheduled D-Day [9] landing of 8 November 1942, the American convoy cross 4,000 miles through submarine-infested waters, averaging 14 knots per hour. Hewitt planned to land his forces at three locations.  The main effort pressed ashore at Fedala (14-miles north of Casablanca) with secondary landings at Port Lyautey (65-miles north) and at Safi (125-miles south) of Casablanca.  H-hour was delayed for an hour owing to the confusion in the dark of night.  The main opposition to the joint-forces landing came from French shore batteries and strafing by French planes.

As expected, the French Navy mounted an aggressive defense, but after losing several ships to American sea power, ships staying afloat made the profoundly wise decision to withdraw.  Several American ships were lost to French shore battery fires and German submarines.  Once the Americans landed, however, French resistance collapsed within a few hours. Colonel Litzenberg went ashore at Fedala and was temporarily attached to General Patton’s headquarters.  Major Rogers [10], who was fluent in both French and Arabic, also went ashore.  His mission was to make his way through hostile territory,  seek out Admiral Michelier, and negotiate a surrender of all French forces in Morocco.  Within four days, US troops were positioned to attack Casablanca.  Due to Roger’s efforts, Michelier surrendered his command and the assault was canceled.

French troops in North Africa (along with those in French West Africa) who were not already captured eventually joined the allied cause and served as part of the French Expeditionary Corps throughout the rest of World War II.  Initially, Moroccans made up 60% of the French expeditionary forces.  When Adolf Hitler learned that Admirals Michelier and Darlan had surrendered to the allies, he ordered the occupation of Vichy France and dispatched the German Army to Tunisia.  Admiral Darlan was assassinated in December 1942.

As for Marines serving in Europe after 1942, many served with the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) and British SOE.  One of these men was a famous actor and author.  He and several others played an important role in the pacification of the Balkan states; their tales are hair-raising and amusing.  I’ll have to tell you about them sometime.


[1] A historic region in Eastern Europe bounded by the Dniester River on the east and the Prut River on the west.  About two-thirds of Bessarabia lies within modern-day Moldova. Ukraine’s Budjak region covers the southern coastal region and its Chernivtsi Oblast covering a small area in the north.

[2] The United States Congress adopted several neutrality acts intending to ensure that the US remained disengaged from European conflicts. The Neutrality Acts of 1935, 1936, and 1937 made it illegal for Americans to sell or transport arms and munitions to warring nations.  Roosevelt lobbied Congress to amend the neutrality provisions to allow the provision of arms to allied nations if they paid cash for such goods and assumed responsibility for transporting them on non-US flagged ships.  Accordingly, Congress passed the Neutrality Act of 1939 ending the embargo on a cash and carry basis.  In doing so, Congress began its shift away from isolationism toward interventionism.

[3] Few academics are willing to argue that FDR pushed Japan into making its attack on 7 December 1941.  They cite the absence of any documentation to this effect, and if this is true, then it had to be one of the most amazing coincidences in modern history. Japan had long established a proclivity for surprise attacks: The First Sino-Japanese War (1894-95), the invasion of Taiwan (1895), the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05), they overstayed their welcome during the Siberian intervention (1918-22), they invaded Manchuria (1931-32), invaded China again (1937-45), and they Invaded French Indochina (1940).  Moreover, following World War I, Japan made no apologies for seizing and retaining control of numerous islands in the western pacific region during the first world war.  Who, with even limited knowledge of these events, could not have predicted Japan’s attack on the United States’ advanced pacific bases?  Roosevelt made no preparation for war in the far east after 1937, even while making every possible provocation for a Japanese attack. If US policy toward Japan could provoke an attack upon American territory, then Roosevelt would have his excuse for US involvement in the European war.

[4] Following Germany’s conquest of France and its later occupation by German and Italian forces, France collaborated with the Pact of Steel under Marshal Philippe Petain, the nominal head of the French government.  The allied effort to invade North Africa pitted British and American forces against Nazi Germany and the so-called Vichy French forces of Marshal Petain.

[5] Litzenberg (1903-1963) joined the USMC in 1922.  He received his commission to Second Lieutenant after a tour of duty in Haiti and served in Nicaragua from 1928-29.  He also served aboard USS Idaho, USS Augusta, USS Arkansas, USS Arizona, and USS New Mexico.  Following his service with the Navy in Europe, Colonel Litzenberg was sent to the Pacific where commanded the 3rd Battalion, 24th Marines, served as Executive Officer, 24thMarines, and served as assistant operations officer of the V Amphibious Corps.  During World War II, he took part in combat at Roi-Namur, Saipan, and Tinian. During the Korean War, Litzenberg commanded the 7th Marine Regiment at the Battle of Chosin Reservoir. He retired as a Lieutenant General in 1959 and passed away on 27 Jun 1963.

[6] Colonel Bill Eddy (1896-1962) was a World War I and World War II Marine, university professor, college president (1936-1942), US Minister to Saudi Arabia (1944-1946), and a US intelligence officer (1942-1944).  As a lieutenant, Eddy served in the 6th Marines during World War I.  During World War I, Eddy was awarded the Navy Cross, Distinguished Service Cross, two Silver Star Medals, and two Purple Heart Medals.  In 1946, Eddy served as Special Assistant to the Secretary of State for Research and Intelligence and was instrumental in the creation of the Central Intelligence Agency.

[7] General Eisenhower never held a combat command until being assigned to command allied combat forces.  It was this lack of experience that led other general officers, who had combat experience, to denigrate him at every opportunity.

[8] Both ships had fifteen-inch guns.  There were also concerns about the possible intervention of German warships.

[9] D-Day was a designation for the date of an important military operation or invasion.  Since the actual date was classified top secret, the use of D-Day was intended to mask the actual date the operation was to begin.

[10] Rogers was awarded the Silver Star Medal by General Patton for his courageous actions.  Promoted to lieutenant colonel, Rogers remained on Admiral Hewitt’s staff for the duration of US Naval operations in the Mediterranean Sea.  After the war, Rogers joined the faculty of Harvard University as a professor of romance languages and dean of the graduate school of arts and sciences.  He retired from Harvard in 1981 and passed away in August 1989.