The First Hell

When Marines landed on Guadalcanal, they came ashore without opposition.  A small Japanese construction force assigned to complete the airfield at Lunga Point wisely withdrew as soon as they realized there were Marines in the area.  Guadalcanal did eventually turn into a combat cesspool, but not during the initial landing.

Marines landing on Tulagi, however, faced off against a determined enemy.  This enemy would eventually let go, of course, but only over their dead body—and the U. S. Marines were plenty capable of accommodating them. 

On 7 August 1942, the Japanese, in their insufferable arrogance, continued to imagine that it could maintain their presence in the central Pacific region, even after their two attempts to extend their homeland defensive perimeter were thwarted in the Battle of Coral Sea (May 1942) and at Midway (June 1942).  These two back-to-back victories gave the Allied forces the opportunity to seize the offensive elsewhere in the Pacific.  Allied planners decided to make this move against the British Solomon Islands: Guadalcanal, Tulagi, and Gavutu-Tanambogo.

As part of their campaign that resulted in the Battle of the Coral Sea, the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) sent naval infantry to occupy Tulagi and nearby islands in the southern Solomons.  The Third Kure Special Naval Landing Force occupied Tulagi on 3 May 1942 [Note 1].  These troops almost immediately began to construct a seaplane base, ship refueling facility, and communications station on Tulagi and Gavutu/Tanambogo and the Florida Islands.

Aware of these activities, Allied planners became even more concerned when they observed Japanese efforts to construct an airfield near Lunga Point.  Admiral Ernest J. King, serving as Commander-in-Chief of the United States Fleet, devised a plan to deny the use of the Solomon Islands.  Otherwise, the Japanese would be positioned to threaten supply routes between the United States and Australia.  King’s long-term objective was to seize or neutralize the Japanese base of operations at Rabaul.  The Solomon campaign would also enable the Americans to support Allied efforts in New Guinea and open the way to re-take the Philippine Islands.

Admiral Chester A. Nimitz, Commander, United States Pacific, established the South Pacific theater of operations, placing Vice Admiral Robert L. Ghormley in command to direct the Allied effort in the Solomon Islands.  Major General Alexander A. Vandegrift, U. S. Marine Corps, moved his 1st Marine Division from the United States to New Zealand for pre-combat training.  Additional Allied units (land, naval, and air forces) established bases in Fiji, Samoa, and New Caledonia.  Vandegrift’s established his forward headquarters at Espiritu Santo in the New Hebrides.  The Solomon campaign would become known as Operation Watchtower.

Initially, Watchtower excluded Guadalcanal—until Allied intelligence noted the airfield construction at Lunga Point.  Nimitz then decided to incorporate Guadalcanal.  The expeditionary force involved 75 warships and troop transports (both American and Australian), which assembled near Fiji on 26 July 1942.  There was only time for one rehearsal landing.

Major General Vandegrift commanded 16,000 Allied (mostly U. S. Marines) and he intended to lead the majority of these ashore on Guadalcanal on 7 August.  Vandegrift assigned a second offensive operation to his deputy commander, Brigadier General William H. Rupertus [Note 2].  Rupertus would command the assault on Tulagi with 3,000 Marines.

Bad weather in the southern Solomon Islands allowed the Americans to approach Guadalcanal undetected early on the morning of 7 August.  The amphibious ready group split into two groups, one earmarked for Guadalcanal, and the other for Tulagi, Gavutu-Tanambogo-Florida.  Aircraft from USS Wasp attacked the Japanese installation on Tulagi in advance of the landing, destroying 15 seaplanes.  The cruiser USS San Juan and destroyers USS Monsoon and Buchanan conducted pre-landing bombardments.  To provide supporting fire for the main landing, the 1st Battalion, 2nd Marines (1/2) made an unopposed landing on Florida Island at 07:40—guided to their objective areas by Australian coast watchers.

The Battle for Tulagi

Tulagi Island is roughly two miles long and about a half-mile wide.  It’s location is south of Florida Island, 22 miles across Sealark Channel from Guadalcanal.  A ridge rising 300 feet above sea level marks the northwest-southeast axis.  Two-thirds of the way down from its northwest tip, the Ridgeline is broken by a ravine, and then rises again toward a triangle of hills.  The farthest southeast hill is designated Hill 208, and the farthest northeast hill is designated Hill 281.  Three thousand yards east of Tulagi are the islets of Gavutu and Tanambogo.  Gavutu Harbor on the Northeast end of the island, and Purvis Bay, southeast of Gavutu, forms an ideal deep-water anchorage.

At 0800, two battalions of Marines made an unopposed landing on the western shore of Tulagi, about midway between the two ends of the oblong shaped island [Note 3].  Thick beds of coral prevented landing craft from reaching the shoreline, so the Marines went over the side of their landing craft and waded ashore—a distance of about 110 yards.

The Marine landing surprised Tulagi’s Japanese defenders and it took them some time to organize their defenses.  The overall Japanese commander of the Tulagi contingent was Captain Shigetoshi Miyazaki of the Yokohama Air Group.  Miyazaki radioed his commander in Rabaul, IJN Captain Sadayoshi Yamada, informing him that Tulagi was under attack, that he was in the process of destroying signals, and his intention to resist the Americans to the last man.

2/5 secured the Northwest end of Tulagi without opposition and then joined Edson’s Raiders in their advance toward the southeastern end of the island.  Japanese resistance was stiff, but isolated.  Around noon, Captain Suzuki, commanding the 3rd Kure Force, repositioned his men on Hill 281 and a nearby ravine at the Southeast end of the island.   Japanese defensive positions included dozens of tunneled caves dug into the hill’s limestone cliffs.  Each of these contained machine-gun positions protected by layers of sandbags.  The Marines reached the primary line of resistance (MLR) near dusk and dug in for the night.

Japanese naval infantry attacked the Marine perimeter five times during the night.  Their tactics included ferocious frontal attacks and small unit attempts at infiltration.  The Marines met teach assault by fire and close combat.  Although taking a few casualties, the Marine line held through the night; the Japanese gave up far more dead or wounded.  Twenty-two year old Private First Class (PFC) Edward H. Ahrens, from Dayton, Kentucky, assigned to the 1st Raiders, single-handedly engaged the enemy in hand-to-hand combat, killing thirteen Japanese before he too was killed [Note 4].

At daybreak on 8 August, six Japanese infiltrators shot and killed three Marines before they were eliminated.  Later that morning, 2/2 landed to reinforce the landing force; 2/5, surrounded Hill 281 and the ravine.  Pounding the enemy with mortar fire, the Marines launched a coordinated attack with satchel charges and well-aimed small arms fire.  Each assault on Japanese held caves and machine-gun positions was expensive.  Japanese naval infantry fought from foxholes, slit trenches, pillboxes, and caves.  Machine-gunners fired their weapons until killed; when one gunner fell, another would take his place and this process continued until everyone in that position was dead.

Stiff Japanese resistance continued until late afternoon, although the Marines found a few stragglers over the next several days, engaged them, and killed them.  In total, only three Japanese soldiers surrendered on Tulagi.  Forty Japanese escaped by swimming to Florida Island.  Over the next several months, Marines tracked down these escapees and killed them.

The Battle for Gavutu-Tanambogo

Gavutu and Tanambogo were islets, so-called because they were little more than exposed mounds of coral rising out of the sea.  The Japanese constructed a seaplane base on Gavutu.  The highest point on Gavutu was Hill 148; on Tanambogo, Hill 121—hills the IJN defended with concrete bunkers and a series of well-fortified caves.

Separating the two islets was a causeway extending some 1,600 feet.  Nearly six hundred troops occupied these islets, including a number of Japanese and Korean civilians assigned to the 14th Construction Unit.  The two islets were mutually supportive; each was in machine gun range of the other.

Marine commanders mistakenly estimated an enemy force of around two-hundred men.  Following a naval bombardment, which  damaged the seaplane base, Marines of the 1st Parachute Battalion stormed ashore at Gavutu at noon on 7 August 1942.  Because naval gunfire had damaged the seaplane ramp, the Marines had to disembark their landing craft in an exposed position.  Japanese defensive fire began ripping up the Marines, wounding or killing one in every ten of the battalion’s 397 troops.  The landing force scrambled to get out of the killing zone. 

Captain George Stallings, the battalion operations officer, ran forward to direct the forward movement of two Browning machine guns and a mortar section.  He directed these weapons against Japanese positions to suppress their murderous fires.  Dive bombers arrived to help suppress the Japanese, with some success.  After about two hours of intense combat, the Marines reached and began climbing Hill 148.  From the top, they began working their way down the other side, clearing Japanese positions with satchel charges, grenades, and hand-to-hand combat.  Other Marines at the top of Hill 148 began delivering automatic weapons fire against the Japanese on Tanambogo’s Hill 121.

The battalion commander radioed General Rupertus for reinforcements before assaulting Tanambogo.  Rupertus detached a company from 1/2 on Florida Island to assist in the assault, ignoring the advice of his operations officer that one company would not be sufficient.  Rupertus reasoned that since most of the Japanese on Tanambogo were aircrew, aircraft maintenance, and construction personnel with no combat training., one company would do.  Again, the Marine hierarchy under-estimated Japanese strength and fighting spirit.  The rifle company was sent to Tanambogo shortly after dark on 7 August.  The Marines came ashore while illuminated by the fires created by earlier naval bombardments.  Five of the landing craft received heavy automatic weapons fire as they approached the shore, which killed or wounded several navy boat crewmen.  Realizing that his position was untenable, the company commander quickly transferred his dead and wounded to the remaining boats to be taken back to the landing ship.  He then led twelve Marines in a sprint across the causeway to cover on Gavutu.

During the night, heavy thunderstorms dropped torrential rains on the islets.  Under this cover, the Japanese launched several assaults against the Marine perimeter.  General Vandegrift, monitoring the operation from Guadalcanal, ordered 3/2 to prepare for landing on Tanambogo the next morning.  The battalion began moving ashore at 10:00 on 8 August.  Initially, the landing received air support from carrier-based attack aircraft, but General Vandegrift called it off after two aircraft accidentally dropped their bombs on Marine positions — killing four Marines.  USS San Juan directed accurate naval gunfire on Tanambogo lasting for about thirty minutes.  Marines from Gavutu provided covering fire while 3/2 went ashore, which enabled the battalion to complete its landing phase by 12:00.

3rd Battalion, 2nd Marines began its assault at 16:15, supported by two Stuart light tanks.  One of these tanks became stuck on a large tree stump and was isolated from its infantry support.  Fifty Japanese airmen assaulted the tank and set it on fire, killing two crewmen and nearly beating the remaining two Marines to death before infantry fire killed most of the attackers [Note 5].

3/2 Marines began clearing operations by systematically destroying the Japanese cave network with satchel charges and hand grenades.  During the night of 8 August, Japanese defenders initiated several assaults, which frequently involved hand-to-hand engagements.  By noon on 9 August, all Japanese resistance on Tanambogo ended.  During the battle for Tulagi and Gavutu-Tanambogo, Marines killed 863 Japanese soldiers/airmen and took twenty prisoners (most of whom were civilian laborers).  Marine and Navy losses were 122 killed in action, 200 wounded.

The U. S. Navy quickly turned the Tulagi anchorage into a naval base/refueling station.  Japanese naval superiority in the “slot” forced Allied ships into the refuge of Tulagi during hours of darkness and ships encountering significant battle damage were usually anchored at Tulagi for repairs.  Later in the war, Tulagi became an operating base for the Navy’s patrol-torpedo boats; Florida Island became an American seaplane base.

Once officials declared the islets “secure,” General Rupertus’ landing force joined the rest of the 1st Marine Division on Guadalcanal.   

Sources:

  1. Alexander, J. H.  Edson’s Raiders: The 1st Marine Raider Battalion in World War II.  Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2000.
  2. Christ, J. F.  Battalion of the Damned: 1st Marine Paratroopers at Gavutu and Bloody Ridge, 1942.  Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2007.
  3. Hammel, E.  Carrier Clash: The Invasion of Guadalcanal & The Battle of the Eastern Solomons, August 1942.  St. Paul: Zenith Press, 1999.
  4. Jersey, S. C.  Hell’s Islands: The Untold Story of Guadalcanal.  College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2008.
  5. Miller, J.  Guadalcanal: The First Offensive.  Washington: Center of Military History, 1995.

Endnotes:

[1] The Special Naval Landing Forces were not called “marines,” but their purpose was identical to those of their American opponents: to project naval power ashore.

[2] William H. Rupertus (1889-1945) was a highly decorated Marine Corps officer who participated in the Banana Wars, as a China Marine, and in World War II at Guadalcanal, New Britain, and the Marianas  Island campaigns.  A distinguished marksman and a member of the famed Marine Corps Rifle Team, Rupertus was the author of the now famous Rifleman’s Creed.  

[3] Commanding officers were: 1st Raider Battalion, Lieutenant Colonel Merritt A. Edson; 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines (1/5), Lieutenant Colonel Harold E. Rosecrans.  Company B and Company D of the 1st Raiders were first ashore, followed by Company A and Company C.  Japanese defenders did not make a serious attempt to oppose the landing; they instead withdrew into a network of caves and dugouts intending to inflict as many casualties on the Marines as possible.  Edson soon realized that naval and aerial bombing had no effect on the Japanese defenses unless they were “direct hit.”

[4] Posthumously awarded the Navy Cross.

[5] Marines later discovered 42 Japanese bodies around the tank, one of whom was the Japanese executive officer of the Yokohama Air Group, Lieutenant Commander Saburo Katsuta, and several of his seaplane pilots.  The overall commander at Tanambogo was Navy captain Miyazaki, who blew himself up inside his command post during the late afternoon of 8 August.