Diminished Honor

Occasionally, one wonders, “What in the hell is the matter with people?”  I have to say that the American navy has a rich history of honor, sacrifice, and fortitude, but there are a few blemishes, as well —which is true within all our military branches.  Our military is representative of our society —its strengths and weaknesses.  There is no justification for dwelling on them, but they do present important lessons and we either learn from them or repeat them to our sorrow.

Two disgraces stand out.  The first involves Rear Admiral (then Captain) Leslie Edward Gehres, USN (1898-1975) whose primary contribution to the Navy was his toxic leadership while in command of the USS Franklin (CV-13) (1944-1945).  Gehres assumed command of USS Franklin at Ulithi, relieving Captain J. M. Shoemaker.  Under Shoemaker, USS Franklin had come under attack by Japanese kamikaze aircraft.  At the change of command ceremony, Gehres told the ship’s crew, “It was your fault because you didn’t shoot the kamikaze down.  You didn’t do your duty; you’re incompetent, lazy, and careless.  You don’t know your jobs and I’m going to do my best to shape up this crew.”  The vision of this takes us to the film Caine Mutiny, starring Humphrey Bogart—a psychopath placed in command of the fictional destroyer, USS Caine.  One can only imagine how Captain Shoemaker felt having to listen to Gehres’ tripe on his last moment of command.

Gehres was raised in Rochester, New York and Newark, New Jersey.  He enlisted in the New York Naval Militia in 1914.  His unit was activated for World War I service and Gehres was assigned to USS Salem, USS Massachusetts, and USS Indiana.  Subsequently, Gehres attended the Reserve Officer’s Course at the USN Academy.  He was commissioned an ensign on 24 May 1918.  Gehres received a regular commission in the Navy in September of that year while serving aboard USS North Dakota in the Atlantic.  He was assigned to flight training at Pensacola, Florida and received his designation as a Naval Aviator in August 1927.

In November 1941, Gehres commanded Fleet Patrol Wing 4.  He spent most of World War II in the Aleutian Islands.  His subordinates referred to him as “Custer” because of his illogical tactics and erratic behavior.  Despite a rather poor reputation among his subordinates, Gehres was advanced to the rank of Commodore —the first Naval Aviator to achieve this rank.

USS Franklin
USS Franklin

In November 1944, he took a reduction in rank designation in order to assume command of USS Franklin.  His remarks at the change of command ceremony must not have done very much for crew morale.  In 1945, Franklin was assigned to the coast of the Japanese homeland in support of the assault on Okinawa.  Ship’s aircrews initiated airstrikes against Kagoshima, Izumi, and southern Kyushu.  At dawn on 15 March, the ship had maneuvered to within 50 miles of the Japanese mainland and launched a fighter sweep against Honshu Island and Kobe Harbor.  It was a stressful time for the crew, who within a period of six hours, had been called to battle stations on six separate occasions.  Gehres finally allowed the crew to eat and sleep but maintained crewmen at gunnery stations.

A Japanese aircraft appeared suddenly from cloud cover and made a low-level run on the ship to drop two semi-armor piercing bombs.  Franklin received a “last minute” warning of the approaching aircraft from USS Hancock, but Gehres never ordered “general quarters.”  One-third of the crew were either killed or wounded.  It was the most severe damage of any surviving USN aircraft carrier in World War II.  As a result of officer and crew activities, ten officers and one enlisted man was awarded the Navy Cross —one of those being Gehres.

(Chaplain) Father Joseph T. O’Callaghan refused the Navy Cross for his participation in the aftermath of the Franklin bombing.  Some speculated that the priest turned down the award because his heroic actions in the aftermath of the bombing reflected unfavorably on Gehres leadership as Commanding Officer.  President Truman intervened, however, and Father O’Callaghan was awarded the Medal of Honor on 23 January 1946.  True to form, Captain Gehres charged crewman who had jumped into the water, to avoid death by fire, with desertion.  Gehres charges against crewmen were quietly dropped by senior naval commanders in the chain of command.  Captain Gehres, while advanced to Rear Admiral (Lower Half), was never again assigned to a position of command.  By 2011, Gehres was universally excoriated for significant deficiencies in leadership.  Admiral Gehres became a study of poor leadership —but one wonders why the Navy promoted him to flag rank.  His behavior in command of USS Franklin became the very definition of “toxic leadership.”  Indeed, it was.

Charles B McVay III
Captain Charles B. McVay III

A second failure in navy leadership involved the case of Captain Charles B. McVay III (1898-1968).  Captain McVay was a highly decorated navy officer in command of USS Indianapolis (CL/CA 35) when the ship was torpedoed and sunk in the Philippine Sea on 30 July 1945.  Of the 1,197 crew, only 317 survived the sinking.  Of all ship’s captains in the history of the US Navy, McVay was the only officer ever court-martialed for the loss of his ship in a combat action.

At the time, USS Indianapolis, a heavy cruiser (formerly the flagship of Admiral Raymond Spruance, 1943-1944), was on a top-secret mission and under the direct authority of the President of the United States.  Its mission was to deliver two atomic bombs to Tinian Island.  Because the mission was top secret, speed was of the essence and to prevent attention to her course, no escorts were authorized.  This was a catastrophe of epic proportions.  Captain McVay, wounded, ordered his crew to abandon ship.  Of the 897 (approximate) crewmen who went overboard, 317 survived massive shark attacks over a period of five days.

Why was Captain (later promoted to Rear Admiral) court-martialed?  The Navy accused him of hazarding his ship by not following a zig-zag course through the Philippine Sea.  He was found “not guilty” of a second charge of “failing to order abandon ship in a timely manner.”  The fact was, however, that the Navy failed the USS Indianapolis on several fronts.  First, the Navy refused to provide the cruiser with escort ships, to which it was entitled during war.  Second, the Navy delayed its rescue of the crew (owing to the secret mission assigned to the ship) and no report of an overdue ship was made, again owing to the nature of its secret mission.

A navy court of inquiry recommended that Captain McVay be court-martialed.  Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, Commander, U. S. Pacific Fleet disagreed, but he was overruled by the Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Ernest J. King [1].  The Japanese commander of the submarine that sank Indianapolis was called to testify at McVay’s court-martial.  He stated that given the proximity of Indianapolis to his submarine, zigzagging wouldn’t have made any difference —Indianapolis was dead the minute the torpedoes were fired.  Ultimately, Admiral King ordered any punishments to be set aside.

Captain McVay suffered for the remainder of his life over the death of his crew, but not a single man lost was the result of McVay’s competence.  After the loss of his wife to cancer in 1967, Charlie McVay took his own life in 1968.  This too was a failure of Navy leadership.  McVay was a good man chastised for no good reason other than as a scapegoat for poor Navy leadership.

Sources:

  1. The Day the Carrier Died: How the Navy (Nearly) Lost an Aircraft Carrier in Battle. James Holmes, National Interest Newsletter, 28 April 2019
  2. Stanton, D. In Harm’s Way: The Sinking of the USS Indianapolis and the Extraordinary Story of Its Survivors. Reed City Productions, 2001
  3. Hulver, R. A. and Peter C. Luebke, Ed. A Grave Misfortune: The USS Indianapolis.  Naval History and Heritage Command, 2018.

Endnotes:

[1] According to author Richard F. Newcomb (Abandon Ship), Admiral King’s insistence that Captain McVay appear before a court-martial was because Captain McVay’s father, admiral McVay (II) once censored King, as a junior officer for regulatory infractions.  According to Newcomb, Admiral King never forgot a “grudge.”

 

A Master of Naval Warfare

A favored saying among historians is that our failure to learn the lessons of history condemns us to repeat it.  There are several variations of this, of course, most are a misquotation of the original by George Santayana (1863-1952), who in Volume I of The Life of Reason, wrote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”  While the statement has a negative connotation, there are many positive things to learn from history and the people who made it.

Among the on-going discussions within the Navy and Marine Corps is how to best prepare for the next international conflagration.  In his 2007 professional article published in the Marine Corps Gazette, Lieutenant Colonel Wayne Sinclair noted, “The greatest challenges and most far reaching opportunities of the Marine Air-Ground Task Force (MAGTF) commander will lie in his ability to orchestrate and synchronize the efforts of numerous, diverse entities along a single path toward an overarching campaign adjective.”  Sinclair was not the first to make such an observation.  Admiral Raymond A. Spruance isolated the “single naval battle” in the Pacific during World War II.  In 2012, Admiral John C. Harmony explained [1], “’The Single Naval Battle’ is a framework, or lens, for thinking about, planning for, and executing naval operations.  Everything that occurs in the maritime battlespace affects everything else in that battlespace —so every aspect of Navy and Marine Corps doctrine and operations must consider the impact across the whole naval force.”

There is nothing simple about warfare.  Quadruple that statement when it comes to naval warfare.  Before World War II, Raymond A. Spruance began to train his mind to imagine the single battlespace.  He was part of an organization that created and maintained the extraordinary culture in which learning, experimenting, and innovation was demanded and then rewarded through promotion and assignments.  Admiral Spruance was an engineer; a man thoroughly knowledgeable of the technologies of the day: radar, processing combat information, air power —and how to effectively employ it.  He thought long and hard about what his enemy was thinking and what they were likely to do.  Spruance may have been the most intellectual of all senior naval officers of his day; his mental capacity back then may even dwarf that of modern-day admirals and generals.  Something to think about because we haven’t seen the end of war.

Ray Spruance 001Raymond Ames Spruance (1886-1969) became one of the greatest admirals in United States naval history.  Although born in Maryland, he was raised in Indianapolis, Indiana.  He graduated from the United States Naval Academy in 1907 and later pursued advanced degrees in electrical engineering.  Typical of the Navy, Spruance had to learn about sea service from the bottom rung of the officer rank structure.  He initially served as a junior officer aboard the battleships USS Iowa and USS Minnesota.  He later transferred to the destroyers USS Bainbridge and USS Osborne, and then back to the battleship flotilla.  In 1916, Spruance helped to fit out USS Pennsylvania and served aboard that ship during its initial voyages.  He later served as the Assistant Engineering Officer at the New York Naval Shipyard (1917-1918).

As an officer in command, Spruance was known for maintaining a quiet bridge.  Chit-chat was prohibited.  Whatever was spoken in the performance of duty must be said in clear and concise language.  There was never any room on the bridge for confusion or lack of focus.  Given the several recent at-sea mishaps involving our navy’s ships, this would seem to be a policy that contemporary commanders should be reimplement.

Spruance graduated from the Naval War College in 1927.  He subsequently served as the executive officer of the USS Mississippi, several engineering assignments, staff intelligence, and as an instructor at the Naval War College.  He later commanded the battleship USS Mississippi (1938-1939), receiving his promotion to rear admiral in 1939.  His first flag assignment was as Commandant of the Tenth Naval District in Puerto Rico through August 1941.  In the first few months of World War II, Admiral Spruance commanded Cruiser Division Five making his flagship the USS Northampton.  His force was constructed around the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise, which was then commanded by Vice Admiral William F. Halsey. Halsey’s task force conducted a series of hit and run raids against the Japanese in the Western Pacific —notably in the Gilbert and Marshall Islands in February 1942, Wake Island in March, and facilitating the Doolittle Raid in April.  In reality, the raids achieved little more than raising the morale of the people of the United States, who were devastated by Japan’s surprise attack at Pearl Harbor —but they also set the tone for a more aggressive stance by naval commanders in the Pacific.

Yamamoto 001In late May 1942, naval intelligence confirmed Japan’s intent to invade Midway Island.  The attack was the brainchild of Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto [2], who intended his combined fleet to expand the Japanese Navy’s outer perimeter in the Central Pacific.  Yamamoto was convinced that an overwhelming attack at Midway would threaten the United States at Hawaii and cause the United States to sue for peace with Japan.  For all of Yamamoto’s exposure to American culture, his thinking revealed that he did not know the American people.  Commanding the United States Pacific Fleet, Admiral Chester W. Nimitz realized that his primary task was to destroy Japan’s air power in the Pacific.  To do that, he would need to destroy the Japanese carrier fleet.  This would become Vice Admiral Halsey’s mission.

Two days before Admiral Halsey was to set sail from Pearl Harbor, he was hospitalized with what we today refer to as Shingles.  Halsey recommended that Spruance replace him as commander of the task force.  Spruance had no prior experience employing carrier-based air combat.  At first, Nimitz questioned Halsey’s choice, but Halsey was adamant, even insistent, but he also advised Spruance to rely on his chief of staff, Captain Miles Browning [3], a battle-tested expert in carrier warfare.  Despite his personal trepidations, Admiral Spruance assumed command of Task Force 16, which included USS Enterprise and USS Hornet.  In this capacity, Spruance served under the overall command of Vice Admiral Jack Fletcher, whose flagship was the USS Yorktown; Yorktown had been badly damaged during the Battle of the Coral Sea but was quickly repaired and returned to active service in time for the defense of Midway.

The navy’s intercept force consisted of the three carriers, seven heavy cruisers, one light cruiser, fifteen destroyers, 233 carrier-based attack aircraft, 127 land-based aircraft, and sixteen submarines.  The battle group would face off against a two-battle group Japanese invasion force.  The first group consisted of four carriers, two battleships, two heavy-cruisers, one light cruiser, twelve destroyers, 248-carrier based aircraft, and sixteen float planes.  The surface support force (second group) involved four heavy cruisers, two destroyers, and twelve seaplanes.  Japanese occupation forces served under Admiral Nobutake Kondo.  Yamamoto exercised over-all command from the IJN ship Yamato.

Midway 001
Battle of Midway

Admiral Yamamoto devised a complex plan for seizing Midway.  What made this scheme complex was the coordination of multiple battle groups over several hundred miles.  He named his scheme Operation MI.  Yamamoto’s plan, however, was based on erroneous assumptions —specifically that the Americans would field only two carriers.  He knew that Lexington was sitting at the bottom of the Coral Sea, and assumed that the Americans had lost the Yorktown, as well.  Admiral Yamamoto also underestimated American morale.

Yamamoto dispersed his attack force to mask their presence from the American navy.  He then sought to lure the Americans into a trap, defeat the US Navy and land-based aircraft by overwhelming air power, and then bring up his second group to place the final nail in the coffin of what remained of the American navy.  It was a doctrinal tactic popular among the major navies of the world at the time.  It might have worked had the US Navy not broken the Japanese Naval Code (JN-25), which allowed Admiral Nimitz to read Yamamoto’s mail.  Moreover, Yamamoto’s dispersal plan precluded one battle group from supporting the other.  Additionally, Yamamoto’s light carriers and battleships were unable to keep up with his fleet carriers.

Yamamoto’s plan also involved a compromise with the Japanese Army.  The IJA would support Yamamoto’s Midway operation if Yamamoto agreed to support the army’s invasion of the Aleutian Islands.  The Army felt that their invasion was necessary in order to keep mainland Japan out of the range of US land-based aircraft in Alaska.  Japan’s invasion of the Aleutian Islands was the first time a foreign nation had occupied American territory since the War of 1812.  The Americans had no choice but to confront the Japanese in the Aleutians for the same reason: to prevent Japanese bombers from attacking the West Coast of the United States.  The invasion of the Aleutians (designated Operation AL) reduced Yamamoto’s combat fleet by two carriers, five cruisers, twelve destroyers, six submarines, and four troop transport ships.  Accordingly, Admiral Nagumo’s Carrier Division Five was two-thirds short of his original carrier fleet.  Beyond this, the Japanese fleet suffered from what some historians have identified as a glass jaw.  The Japanese could throw a pretty good punch, but it couldn’t take one.

At Midway on 4 June, the U. S. Navy had four squadrons of PBY aircraft (31 birds) for long-range reconnaissance, six TBF Avengers, nineteen Marine Corps [4] SBDs, seven F4F Wildcats, seventeen SB2U Vindicators, and twenty-one Brewster F2As (Buffalos).  Army aircraft included seventeen B-17s, four B-26 Marauders equipped with torpedoes.  Overall, 126 aircraft.  Piloting a PBY, Ensign Jack Heid spotted the Japanese force at about 0900.  He plotted their position as 580 miles west of Midway.  What Heid observed was the occupation force, not the main battle force.  Nine B-17s departed Midway just after noon to attack the force identified by Ensign Heid.  Three hours later, the B-17s found their target and released their bombs.  None of these munitions struck a Japanese ship.  In fact, the only successful hit was from a PBY that delivered a torpedo into a Japanese oil tanker at 0100 on 5 June.  Bombarding navy ships from the air was no easy task.

Japanese aircraft and shipboard anti-aircraft fires were intense, resulting in the defeat of several waves of US aircraft —at Midway and at sea en route to the Japanese task force.  American dive bombers from Spruance’s air wing located the Japanese carriers at a most-inopportune time.  Japanese fighter-bombers were in the process of refueling on the decks of carriers; planes detailed to provide air cover were overwhelmed with American torpedo bombers.  It did not go well for the Japanese.

True … Admiral Spruance’s attack was a gamble —but not a foolish one.  The United States Navy was at the time led by intellectual warriors.  In June 1941, 83 of the Navy’s 84 admirals had completed the Naval War College.  Through training and study, the US Navy-Marine Corps team had foreseen everything that in fact transpired during World War II.  Admiral Spruance was one of these men.  What set him apart from his peers was his display of intellectual independence and the courage to call a spade and spade.  Admiral Spruance displayed his exceptional talent at Midway.  If we could break it down, then we should observe that the outcome at Midway was a combination of luck, hubris, and exceptional leadership.  The Americans were lucky to break the Japanese Naval Code (JN-25); Japanese national pride and ethnocentric arrogance got in the way of common sense, and Admiral Spruance was an extraordinary leader at a most critical moment in history.

After the task force’s initial success, Spruance was challenged by the question, “What next?”  He knew that Japanese carriers had been gravely wounded.  Should he exploit this success by pursuing the Japanese to take advantage of their diminished capability?  Should he withdraw his task force back toward the east, beyond the reach of the Japanese fleet?  The U. S. Navy had three aircraft carriers in the entire Pacific Ocean area; two of these were under Spruance’s command.  Spruance knew as well as anyone that the U. S. Navy remained inferior to its Imperial Japanese counterpart both in numbers and in efficiency at sea [5].  Admiral Nimitz’ directive to Spruance was two-fold: Protect Midway and its land-based aviation capability; inflict maximum damage to the Japanese carrier force.  He did that … but what next?

Spruance withdrew toward the east while maintaining a watchful eye over Midway Island.  Despite scathing criticism from senior admirals [6], Spruance made the right decision.  He knew that the Japanese were bloodied, not beaten.  Defending Midway had been a risky endeavor; should Spruance have risked a night engagement with IJN forces that were still in the area?  It would have placed limited assets at an unacceptable risk.  Where Admiral Spruance stood out is his ability to see the “single naval battle.”  Admiral Spruance ignored his critics.  He was comfortable in his own skin; he had confidence in the capabilities of his subordinates.

Following the Battle of Midway, Rear Admiral Spruance was pulled back to Pearl Harbor to serve as Admiral Nimitz’ chief of staff and later, as Deputy Commander in Chief, U. S. Pacific Fleet.  Nimitz needed someone of Spruance’s intellectual capacity to advise him.  Spruance remained in Hawaii until August 1943 when he was appointed to command of the Central Pacific Force —later designated US 5th Fleet [7].

In August 1943, Admiral Nimitz instituted a plan that was designed to make maximum use of his limited naval forces.  Nimitz called it his “Big Blue Fleet.”  Naval assets were alternated between Admiral Halsey (designated Third US Fleet) (Task Force 38) and Admiral Spruance (designated Fifth US Fleet) (Task Force 58).  When not in command of their designated fleets, the admirals and their staffs were assigned to Pearl Harbor where they planned future operations.

Bill Halsey USN 001
William F. Halsey

The differences between Halsey and Spruance were as night and day.  “Bull” Halsey [8] was aggressive and brash; Spruance was calculating and cautious.  The rank and file were proud to serve under either of these men, but the senior officers preferred the leadership style of Spruance.  Under Admiral Spruance, the senior staff knew what they were going to do, and when they were going to do it.  Halsey, on the other hand, made his senior officers nervous.  They never knew from one moment to the next what he would order them to do.  For this reason, Admiral Spruance became known as the “admiral’s admiral.”

In February 1944, Admiral Spruance directed Operation Hailstone, the US assault against the Japanese naval base at Truk.  Spruance’s Fifth Fleet destroyed twelve Japanese warships, 32 merchant ships, and 249 aircraft.  The assault on Truk took place at the same time Admiral Kelly Turner’s amphibious force attacked Eniwetok Atoll in the Marshall Islands.  When Japanese naval forces withdrew from Truk, Admiral Spruance commanded the task group that pursued them.  It was the first time a four-star admiral took part in a sea action aboard one of the engaged ships.  Spruance commanded his force with deadly precision.  In addition to the destruction of Japanese ships at Truk, Spruance sunk the light cruiser Katori and the destroyer Maikaze.  In June, while screening for the US invasion of Saipan, Admiral Spruance defeated the Japanese fleet in the Battle of the Philippine Sea, sinking three carriers, two oilers, and an estimated 600 Japanese aircraft.  Spruance mauled the Japanese so badly that afterwards, Japanese carriers were used solely as decoys because there were no aircraft or aircrews to fly them.  Again, in the aftermath of the battle, Spruance was criticized for not being aggressive enough … but once more, Spruance made the right call.

USS Indianapolis 001
Artist’s rendition of the USS Indianapolis

For most of the war, Admiral Spruance preferred to use the heavy cruiser USS Indianapolis as his flagship.  It was named in honor of his hometown.  After Indianapolis was struck by Kamikaze aircraft off the coast of Okinawa, Spruance moved his flag to the USS New Mexico.  On 12 May 1945, two Kamikaze aircraft struck New Mexico; afterwards, the Admiral was could not be located.  He was discovered manning a firehose amidships, helping deck hands to fight the fire.  As the ship was not too badly damaged, Spruance maintained his flag aboard USS New Mexico.  For his actions at Iwo Jima and Okinawa, Admiral Spruance was awarded the Navy Cross.

In November 1945, Admiral Spruance succeeded Admiral Nimitz as Commander-in-Chief, U. S. Pacific Fleet.  Spruance was later awarded the Army Distinguished Service Medal for his service during the capture of the Marshall and Marianas Islands.  After the war, Spruance was not awarded five-star rank due to the limited number of Fleet Admirals authorized in the Navy.  Instead, he was awarded five-star retirement pay for life.  Admiral Spruance later said that he felt that Admiral Halsey was more deserving of the fifth star and was happy he received it.

From February 1946 to July 1948, Admiral Spruance served as President of the Naval War College.  After retirement, Admiral Spruance served as US Ambassador to the Philippine Islands, serving from 1952 to 1955.  Raymond Spruance passed away at Pebble Beach, California on 13 December 1969.  He was laid to rest at Golden Gate National Cemetery alongside his wife, Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, Admiral Richmond K. Turner, and Admiral Charles A. Lockwood.

I lament that we no longer have fighting admirals of Ray Spruance’s caliber serving on active duty.

Sources:

  1. Marine Corps Gazette, the Professional Journal of U. S. Marines, Marine Corps Association & Foundation.
  2. Willmott, H. P. The Last Century of Sea Power: From Washington to Tokyo, 1922-1945.  University of Indiana Press, 2010.
  3. Buell, T. B. The Quiet Warrior: a biography of Admiral Raymond A. Spruance.  Boston, Little-Brown, 1974.

Endnotes:

[1] Admiral Harvey, J. C. and Colonel Philip J. Ridderhof.  “Keeping our Amphibious Edge.”  U. S. Naval Institute Proceedings, Annapolis, Maryland, 2012.

[2] See also: The Truly Reluctant Admiral (in several parts).

[3] Browning served as a navy surface warfare officer in World War I, later attended flight school at NAS Pensacola, and served aboard the USS Langley.  He later evolved into one of the Navy’s most courageous combat pilots.  He retired as a Rear Admiral in 1947.

[4] Marine F2A and SB2U aircraft were already obsolete, but it was all the Marine Corps had at the time.

[5] There was no better demonstration of this than the Naval Battle of Savo Island.  The US Navy lacked the number of surface vessels and the training needed to defeat the Imperial Japanese Navy.

[6] Vice Admiral William S. Pye (1880-1959) issued a stinging rebuke of Spruance for his failure to pursue the Japanese Fleet.  Pye was no intellectual and, despite his service in two world wars and his seniority, Admiral Pye had no combat experience.  It was Admiral Pye who failed to relieve the Marines at Wake Island in December 1941.

[7] Admiral Nimitz devised a program of rotating senior officers (and staffs) in and out of the Central Pacific.  Nimitz called it the “big blue fleet.”  When Admiral Halsey commanded the US Third Fleet (Task Force 38), Spruance and his staff returned to Pearl Harbor to plan future operations.  When Spruance activated the US Fifth Fleet (Task Force 58), Halsey and his staff would rotate back to Pearl Harbor.

[8] On 13 October 1942, William F. Halsey was abruptly ordered to “immediately” assume command of the South Pacific Area and South Pacific Forces.  Admiral Ghormley had become reticent and a lackluster senior officer.  Halsey’s appointment improved the morale of all naval, air, and ground forces in the South Pacific area … particularly among Marines on Guadalcanal, who suffered under Gormley’s command.

Manilla John

EGA BlackLess than six months after Japan’s “sneak attack” on the United States, our armed forces were on the comeback trail.  Americans were angry—very angry, and our front-line troops gave no quarter to the fanatical Japanese who confronted them.  And, truth be known, it was just as well the Japanese were more willing to sacrifice themselves to their Emperor because US Marines weren’t inclined to take prisoners.  Guadalcanal was a disease-ridden cesspool; it was here that U. S. Marines met the Imperial Japanese Army for the first time in land combat.  The contest was one of fierce determination, bullet to bullet, bayonet to bayonet, and in some cases, hand to hand.

Imperial Japanese forces occupied the Solomon Islands in April 1942.  It was their plan to capture Port Moresby in New Guinea and Tulagi in the southern Solomons.  This would extend their southern defensive perimeter and establish bases to support future advances.  Their seizure of Nauru, Ocean Island, New Caledonia, Fiji, and Samoa would sever supply lines between Australia and the United States; the result of this would reduce or eliminate Australia as a threat to Japanese possessions in the South Pacific.

The Japanese pushed forward two construction units, consisting of around 2,450 men.  They were originally planned to work on Midway Island when it was captured, but that didn’t happen, so the Japanese moved these construction crews to Guadalcanal on 6 July, where they began building an airfield.  When coast watchers reported this activity to the Americans, US military planners devised a scheme for the capture of Guadalcanal and use of the airfield against the Japanese.

Guadalcanal is not a small island; it extends 2,047 square miles.  The U. S. Marine Corps footprint on this island was desperately small.  Once the Marines had gained a foothold on Guadalcanal however, they were determined to keep it.  The IJA was equally determined to push the American Marines into the sea.  The battle lasted six months.  The struggle to retain possession of the air strip, which the Marines renamed Henderson Field [1], was the focus of a bloody contest.  The climax to the Battle of Lunga Ridge came on a Sunday night, 25 October 1942.

Lunga Ridge lay about 1,000 yards south of Henderson Field.  Typical of Guadalcanal at this time of year, it was raining buckets that Sunday night; Marine positions were transformed into miserable mud pits.  The Marines were exhausted; they had been battling the Japanese for two days, driving back wave after wave of fanatical assaults.  The Marines knew well enough that the Japanese weren’t through with them just yet.

Basilone John 002At about midnight, through dense darkness and rain, hundreds of screaming Japanese troops assaulted the Marine perimeter.  They threw themselves into the flesh tearing barbed wire —these first waves creating human bridges across the wire to allow their comrades access to Marine lines.  The Marines, although tired, knew that this was a desperate contest.  They were wet, undernourished, ill, and pissed off.  Among the Marines waiting to receive them was Sergeant John Basilone, who commanded two machine gun sections in Company D, 1st Battalion, 7th Marines, 1st Marine Division.

Basilone, born on 4 November 1916 of Italian immigrants, was an experienced machine gun section leader.  He joined the US Army in July 1934, serving a three-year enlistment with the US 16th Infantry Regiment in the Philippine Islands.  He was a strapping young man who was a champion pugilist.  He reenlisted in the Army in 1937 and was reassigned to the US 31st Infantry Regiment.  He liked serving in the Philippines, where he was known as Manilla John, but the Army would not re-post him to the Philippines, and so he took his discharge from the Army and went back to his hometown, where he worked for a time as a truck driver.

But Manilla John maintained his fervor for the Philippines and figured that the best way to find a posting there was to join the Marine Corps.  He enlisted in 1940, and after recruit training at Parris Island, South Carolina, he was sent to Marine Corps Base, Quantico for advance infantry training. After an assignment at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, the Marine Corps assigned him to the 7th Marine Regiment, which was part of the 1st Marine Division—an infantry division earmarked for service on Guadalcanal.  In 1942, Basilone had nearly eight-years of active service in the infantry.  He knew his job.

The Japanese assault on the night of 25 October was ruthless.  Marine defenders received intense grenade and rifle fire; automatic weapons shredded human flesh, splattering friend and foe alike with blood and body parts.  Buckets of blood mixed with the rain and mud.  Basilone’s men, like many others on the line that night, suffered from malaria and dysentery.  Despite these circumstances, Basilone kept his guns firing and his men focused. When the barrels became too hot, he changed them, cleared jammed weapons, directed automatic fire into the mass of attacking Japanese, and kept his men supplied with ammunition.  He steadied his Marines on the line, and gave them encouragement by word and example.

Japanese bodies piled so high in front of the machine guns that he had to constantly reset the weapons so that they could fire over the dead soldiers into additional waves of fanatics.  Eventually, not even water-cooled weapons could stop the Japanese and one section of guns was overrun.  Two of the defenders were killed, three others seriously wounded.  Basilone took up one of his weapons and ran to the breach.  He surprised and killed eight Japanese soldiers.  He then noted that two guns had become jammed by mud and water; the Japanese were setting up for yet another charge.  Basilone stripped the mud away from the belts of ammunition, fed them into the guns, cleared the jammed chambers, and sprayed the Japanese as they began their renewed attack.  The battle ran hot for two hours.

At around 0200, the Japanese assaults stopped, and the firing died down, but the Marines knew better than to relax, and as expected, the Japanese Sendai regiments renewed their attack at 0300.  It was a Banzai attack with the full weight of the assault on Basilone’s sector.  During the lull in firing, Basilone has repositioned his guns to establish a killing zone.  Attacking Japanese fell by the hundreds.  Advancing Japanese soon dropped into the mud and began crawling forward.  Basilone depressed his weapons and destroyed these determined soldiers.

At dawn, Sergeant Basilone and his men were drained.  Only three of these Marines were left alive.  During the fight, Basilone has lost his boon dockers [2], the mud having sucked them off his feet.  Their faces were filthy black from cordite and gun oil, their eyes red and swollen from lack of sleep.  The battlefield was strewn with dead and wounded Marines and Japanese —but Henderson Field still belonged to the Marines.  Many of the dead Japanese were credited to Sergeant Basilone, who killed them with anything he could get his hands on, including his .45 caliber pistol and a machete.  On 26 October 1942, John Basilone was just 26-years old.  In this battle, the legend of the fighting Manilla John was born.

Basilone Lena 001
Sgt Lena Mae Basilone

Basilone was returned to the United States in 1943, where he received the Medal of Honor and placed on a war bond tour.  The press made him into a celebrity, but that wasn’t who Basilone was.  He was a Marine who felt that his duty, his rightful place, was with forward deployed combat Marines.  He was offered an officer’s commission but turned it down.  He was offered an assignment as a combat training instructor, but he turned that down too.  What he wanted was to go back to the Pacific.  The Marine Corps approved his request in December 1943 and Manilla John was assigned to Company C, 2nd Battalion, 23rd Marines, 5th Marine Division.  At the time, the 5th Marine Division was undergoing pre-deployment training at Camp Pendleton, California.  In 1944, Basilone married Sergeant Lena Mae Riggi, Women Marine Reserve, who was also assigned to Camp Pendleton.  After their honeymoon, Basilone reenlisted in the U. S. Marine Corps [3].

On 19 February 1945, on the first day of the invasion of Iwo Jima, Gunnery Sergeant John Basilone was serving as a machine gun section leader on Red Beach II.  The Marines came under concentrated enemy fire from Japanese fortifications staged at various locations on the island.  With his unit pinned down, Basilone made his way around the side of the Japanese emplacements until he was in a position directly above their position.  He then attacked the Japanese with grenades and demolitions, single-handedly destroying the entire point of resistance and its defending garrison.

Basilone then fought his way toward Airfield-1 and aided a tank that was trapped in an enemy mine field and encountering intense Japanese mortar and artillery fire.  Despite the enemy fire that surrounded him, Basilone guided the tank through the hazardous terrain to safety.  Soon after, however, Basilone was killed by Japanese fire while moving along the edge of the airfield.  Some have attributed his death to mortars, while others claim that he was killed by well-aimed rifle fire.  For his courageous actions at Iwo Jima, Basilone was posthumously awarded the Navy Cross and Purple Heart.  He was also entitled to wear the Presidential Unit Citation (two awards), which equates to a Navy Cross for every individual assigned to a valorous unit.

Manilla John Basilone is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.  Lena Basilone never remarried.  She passed away in 1999.

Endnotes:

[1] Named in honor of Major Lofton Henderson, killed in action during the Battle for Midway while commanding VMSB-241.  Henderson was the first Marine Corps aviator killed in this battle.

[2] Field boots used by soldiers and Marines in World War II.

[3] One wonders how much of Basilone’s story made its way into the popular John Wayne film, Sands of Iwo Jima (1949).

Remembering the Ladies

Adams A 001
Abigail Adams

“I long to hear that you have declared an independency.  And by the way, in the new code of laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make, I desire you would remember the ladies and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors.  Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the husbands.  Remember, all men would be tyrants if they could.  If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation.”

Abigail Adamsin a letter to her husband John, 31 March 1776.

Johnson OM 001
Opha May Johnson (1878-1955)

Opha May Jacob was born on 4 May 1878 in Kokomo, Indiana.  She graduated from the shorthand and typewriting department of Wood’s Commercial College in Washington, D. C. at the age of 17.  In 1898, she married a gentleman named Victor H. Johnson. Victor was the musical director at the Lafayette Square Opera House and Opha worked as a civil servant for the Interstate Commerce Commission.

And then, World War I came along.  Women have always been involved during times of war.  For centuries, women followed armies—many of whom were the wives of soldiers who provided indispensable services to their men, such as cooking, laundry, and nursing wounds.  World War I involved women, too … albeit in a different way than at any previous time. Thousands of women in the United States formed or joined organizations that worked to bring relief to the war-torn countries in Europe even before America’s official entry into the war in April 1917.  American women weren’t alone in this effort; thousands of women in the United Kingdom followed a similar path —the difference being that Great Britain had been engaged in World War I from its beginning.

After the United States entered World War I, women continued to join the war time organizations and expand the war effort.  They were highly organized groups, much like the military, and this helped women to gain respect from their fellow citizens and have their patriotic endeavors recognized and respected.  The key difference between the efforts of women during World War I and previous wars was the class of women involved.  Typically, women who followed the armies in earlier times were working-class women, but during World War I, women from all classes of society served in many different capacities.  So-called upper-class women were primary founders of war time organizations because they could afford to devote so much of their time (and money) to these efforts. Middle and lower-class ladies were more likely to serve as nurses, telephone operators, and office clerks. And for the first time in American history, women from every part of the social spectrum stepped up to serve in the military.

The first women to enlist in the United States Marine Corps on 13 August 1918 was Opha May Johnson.  She became the first woman Marine because when the recruiting doors were opened to enlist women for the first time, Opha Johnson was standing first in line —the first among 300 women accepted for enlistment in the Marine Corps Women’s Reserve. Given her background as a civil servant, Private Johnson’s first duty was clerical at Headquarters Marine Corps. Within one month, Johnson was promoted to sergeant and therefore became the Marine Corps’ first female sergeant and the highest-ranking woman in the Marine Corps.

Streeter RC 001At the end of World War I, women were discharged from the services as part of general demobilization.  Opha May Johnson remained at Headquarters Marine Corps as a civil service clerk until her retirement from in 1943.  She was still working at Headquarters Marine Corps in 1943 when the Marine Corps reinstituted the Women’s Reserve for World War II service.  At the time of her enlistment in 1918, Opha May Johnson was 40 years old.  In 1943, the Marine Corps appointed its first Director of the Women Reserve, a lady named Ruth Cheney Streeter (shown right).  At the time of Streeter’s appointment as a reserve major, she was 48-years old.  In those days, the age of the applicant would not have affected enlistment or appointment eligibility because, with few exceptions, women did not perform their duties at sea or foreign shore.

As Abigail Adams admonished her now-famous husband, we should always remember the ladies and give them due credit for their patriotism and service to the United States of America. Women have been an integral part of the United States Marine Corps since 1948 when the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act gave them permanent status in the regular and reserve forces. During World War II, twenty-thousand women served as Marines in more than 225 occupational specialties.  Eighty-five percent of the enlisted jobs at Headquarters Marine Corps in World War II were filled by women; two-thirds of the permanent personnel assigned to Marine Corps posts and stations in the United States were women Marines.

Womens Reserve USMCThe first woman Marine to serve in a combat zone was Master Sergeant Barbara Dulinsky, who served on the MACV Staff in Saigon, Vietnam in 1967 [1].  Since then, women Marines have taken on new roles, from combat aviators [2] to rifleman.  In Afghanistan and Iraq, women Marine officers commanded combat service support units in combat zones and served on the staffs of forward deployed headquarters. By every account, these women acquitted themselves very well.  Still, the issue of women serving in the combat arms, while authorized and directed by the Department of Defense, remains a contentious issue.  Prominent women Marines have spoken out about this, with more than a few claiming that while women do perform well in the combat environment, such duties have a deleterious effect on their physical health —more so than men— and that it is therefore unnecessary to employ women in the combat arms in order to maintain a high state of readiness in combat units and organizations.

Endnotes:

[1] American women have served on the front line of combat since the Revolutionary War, primarily as nurses, medics, and ambulance drivers, and provisioners.  The US Army Nurse Corps was established in 1901, and the Navy Nurse Corps was created in 1908.  Prohibitions of women serving aboard navy ships (excluding hospital ships) resulted in most Navy nurses serving in field hospitals ashore and not within a battle area; Army nurses similarly served in field medical hospitals on foreign shore.

[2] See also: Wings of honor.

Guadalcanal: First to Fight —Part IV

Between 5-9 November, the Tokyo Express delivered additional soldiers from the 38th Infantry Division, including most of the 228th Infantry Regiment.  General Hyakutake send these fresh men to reinforce the IJA perimeter at Point Cruz and Matanikau.  Allied and Japanese forces continued to face one another along a line west of Point Cruz for the next six weeks.

After their defeat at the Battle for Henderson Field, IJA headquarters decided to make yet another attempt to oust the Americans from Lunga Point.  Hyakutake needed additional troops, however.  Admiral Yamamoto was asked to assist the Army (again) to deliver reinforcements and provide support for the next offensive.  Yamamoto agreed to provide 11 large transport ships to carry the remaining 7,000 troops from the 38th Infantry Division, their ammunition, food, and heavy equipment from Rabaul to Guadalcanal.  He also agreed to provide a warship support force that included two battleships equipped with special fragmentation shells.  The plan called for the IJN to bombard Henderson Field on the night of 12–13 November and destroy it and any aircraft stationed there.  This would ensure that the slow transports reached Guadalcanal and unload safely the next day.  The warship force commander was Vice Admiral Hiroaki Abe.

However, in early November, Allied intelligence learned about these Japanese ambitions and responded by sending Task Force 67 to Guadalcanal on 11 November.  Under the command of Admiral Turner, the task force included much-needed Marine replacements, two US Army battalions, ammunition, and food stores. Two task groups provided protection for Turner’s ships, one commanded by Rear Admiral Daniel J. Callaghan, and the other commended by Rear Admiral Norman Scott.  Japanese aircraft attacked Task Force 67 on 11-12 November, but Turner was able to unload most ships without incurring any serious damage.

American reconnaissance planes spotted the approach of Admiral Abe’s bombardment force and passed a warning to the Allied command, prompting Turner to detach all usable combat ships under Callaghan to protect the troops ashore from Japanese naval attack and ordered his supply ships at Guadalcanal to depart before dusk on 12 November.  Callaghan’s force included two heavy cruisers, three light cruisers, and eight destroyers.  At around 0130 on 13 November, Admiral Callaghan intercepted Abe’s bombardment group between Guadalcanal and Savo Island.  In addition to his two battleships, Admiral Abe commanded one light cruiser and 11 destroyers.  In the blackness of night, the two forces intermingled before opening fire at close quarters.  Admiral Abe sank or seriously damaged all but two of Callaghan’s ships.  Rear Admirals Callaghan and Scott both died in the melee.  The Americans sank two Japanese destroyers; the Battleship Hiei and a destroyer were heavily damaged.  Despite this American defeat, Abe ordered his warships to retire without bombarding Henderson Field.  After repeated attacks by the CAF, Hiei went under later in the day.  Admiral Abe’s failure to neutralize Henderson Field prompted Admiral Yamamoto to order the Japanese transport convoy to wait another day before heading toward Guadalcanal; he ordered Admiral Nobutake Kondo to assemble another bombardment group and attack Henderson Field on 15 November 1942.

Meanwhile, at 0200 on 14 November, a cruiser and destroyer force under Admiral Gunichi Mikawa conducted an unopposed naval bombardment of Henderson Field.  The attack did cause some damage but failed to impede the operational capability of the airfield or its aircraft.  Trusting that Mikawa’s force destroyed or heavily damaged Henderson Field, Tanaka’s transports began their run down the slot toward Guadalcanal.  Throughout the day on 14 November, aircraft from Henderson Field and USS Enterprise attacked Japanese shipping, sending one Japanese heavy cruiser and seven transports to Iron bottom Sound.  Japanese destroyers rescued most of the troops and returned them to the Shortland Islands.  After dark, Tanaka and his remaining four transports continued toward Guadalcanal. Admiral Kondo’s force approached Lunga Point.

Admiral Halsey, who was now low on undamaged ships, detached two battleships and four destroyers from the Enterprise Battle Group.  USS Washington and USS South Dakota, under the command of Rear Admiral Willis A. Lee, reached Guadalcanal and Savo Island prior to midnight on 14 November —an hour or so before Admiral Kondo’s task group arrived to execute his mission.  Admiral Kondo commanded the battleship Kirishima, two heavy cruisers, two light cruisers, and nine destroyers.  Shortly after hostile contact, Lee lost three destroyers —a fourth heavily damaged.  As Kondo turned his attention to USS South Dakota, USS Washington opened fire on the Kirishima,repeatedly smashing her with main and secondary batteries. Kirishima’s fate was thus sealed. Kondo retired without bombarding Henderson Field.

Tanaka’s four transports beached themselves near Tassafaronga at 0400 and quickly began unloading men and material.  Two hours later, Allied aircraft and artillery began firing on the transports, destroying all four ships and most of their supplies. Between 2-3,000 Japanese soldiers made it safely to shore, but their numbers were still inadequate to the planned offensive, prompting the Japanese IJA command to suspend it.

Lieutenant General Hitoshi Imamura assumed command of the newly formed Eighth Area Army at Rabaul on 26 November 1942.  In this capacity, he was responsible for operations in the Solomon Islands and in New Guinea.  Initially, General Imamura prioritized the seizure of Henderson Field and Guadalcanal, but the Allied offensive in New Guinea prompted him to rethink his urgencies. New Guinea posed a greater threat to Rabaul than did Guadalcanal.

Japan’s greatest difficulty was resupplying its widely dispersed IJA/IJN force. The situation among Japanese forces on Guadalcanal was dire; these men were starving to death; they were dying of diseases.  Pushed to the point of using submarines to resupply Hyakutake’s force, this effort was grossly inadequate.  A separate attempt to establish bases in the central Solomons to facilitate barge convoys to Guadalcanal also failed due to destructive allied air power.  On the very day Imamura assumed command in Rabaul, General Hyakutake notified him that the 17th Army was facing a food crisis: front line units were entirely out of food and rear-echelon troops were on one-third rations.  The only solution to this problem was returning to the employment of destroyers for resupply missions —with an interesting twist.

The Japanese devised a plan to help reduce the exposure of destroyers delivering supplies to Guadalcanal.  They cleaned and filled large oil drums with medical supplies and food, leaving enough air space to provide buoyancy, and then strung them all together linearly with rope.  As Japanese destroyers arrived at Guadalcanal, they would make a sharp turn and the cut-loose the drums.  Boat crews from shore could then retrieve the buoyed end of a rope and return it to the beach, where the soldiers could haul in the supplies.  Responsibility for implementing this plan fell to Admiral Tanaka (commanding the Tokyo Express).  On the night of 30 November, Tanaka loaded six destroyers with between 200 and 240 supply drums each and sent them down the slot to Guadalcanal.

Recall, however, that the Americans were reading the IJN’s mail. When notified of the Japanese effort to resupply their men on Guadalcanal, Admiral Halsey ordered Task Force 67 to intercept Tanaka’s destroyers.  Under the command of Rear Admiral Carleton H. Wright, Task Force 67 included four cruisers and four destroyers.  Two additional destroyers joined Task Force 67 while en route to Guadalcanal from Espiritu Santo on 30 November.

Admiral Tanaka’s force arrived off Guadalcanal at around 2240 and began preparations to unload the supply barrels.  Admiral Wright’s command approached the island through Iron Bottom Sound.  Wright detected Tanaka’s force on radar but waited too long before giving the order to attack.  Wright’s hesitance allowed Tanaka to escape an optimum firing setup.  All American torpedoes missed their intended targets. At the same time, Admiral Wright’s cruisers opened fire, destroying one IJN guard destroyer.  Tanaka abandoned his supply mission, increased the speed of his vessels, and launched a total of 44 torpedoes toward Wright’s cruisers. His salvo resulted in the demise of USS Northampton.  USS Minneapolis, USS New Orleans, and USS Pensacola were all heavily damaged.  Admiral Tanaka managed to escape, but his supply mission failed.  Within a week, General Hyakutake was losing 50-men per day from malnutrition, disease, and Allied air/ground assaults.  Additional efforts at resupply failed to alleviate the food crisis, and Admiral Tanaka lost another destroyer to a U. S. Navy Patrol/Torpedo Boat.

IJN headquarters proposed to abandon Guadalcanal on 12 December 1942; IJA headquarters concurred —given their inability to resupply forward ground forces, further efforts to retake Guadalcanal from the Americans would be impossible.  The order to begin planning for the abandonment of Guadalcanal was issued on 26 December.  The Japanese wanted to focus on New Guinea, instead.  Emperor Hirohito formally approved this decision on 31 December.  The effort to withdraw from the island was code named Operation Ke —it would commence during the latter part of January 1943.

During December 1942, the war-weary 1st Marine Division was withdrawn from Guadalcanal for rest and recuperation, replaced by the US XIV Corps (consisting of the 2nd Marine Division, 25th Infantry Division, and 23rd Infantry Division) under the command of Major General Alexander Patch, U. S. army. On 1 January, allied forces on Guadalcanal numbered around 50,000 troops.

On 18 December, XIV Corps began attacking Japanese positions on Mount Austen, but the Japanese mounted a sturdy defense and the American assaults stymied and halted on 4 January 1943.  The Army renewed its offensive on 10 January.  As Marines advanced along the coast, Army units poured into the Mount Austen area. The operation cost the Americans around 250 lives, but the Japanese suffered around 3,000 killed in action.

The Japanese delivered a battalion of soldiers via the Tokyo Express on 14 January.  This unit was to provide a rear-guard for Operation Ke.  Japanese warships and aircraft moved into positions around Rabaul and Bougainville in preparation of the withdrawal.  Allied intelligence detected these enemy movements but misinterpreted them as a preparation for another attempt to seize Henderson Field and Guadalcanal.  General Patch, an overly cautious commander, committed only a small portion of his troops to continue a slow-moving offensive against General Hyakutake.

Admiral Halsey, acting on the same intelligence assessment, dispatched a supply convoy to Guadalcanal with a screening force of several cruisers. Sighting these cruisers, Japanese torpedo bombers attacked and heavily damaged USS Chicago, which the Japanese sunk the next day in a separate action.  Halsey directed the remaining cruisers to take up station in the Coral Sea, south of Guadalcanal, and prepare to counter a Japanese offensive.  While Halsey anticipated a renewal of a Japanese offensive, the 17th Army withdrew to the west coast of Guadalcanal.

Twenty destroyers operating under the command of Admiral Shintaro Hashimoto successfully evacuated General Hyakutake and roughly 5,000 of his soldiers on the night of 1 February 1943.  Additional evacuations occurred on 4 and 7 February.  In total, the number of Japanese soldiers evacuated from Guadalcanal numbered 10,652 men.

America’s first offensive in World War II … what did we gain?  It was the first step in recovering advanced Pacific bases.  The United States developed Guadalcanal and Tulagi into major forward operating bases supporting the Allied advance further up the Solomon Islands chain, including additional fighter/bomber capable airstrips at Lunga and Koli Point, and major port and logistics facilities.

The Guadalcanal campaign transformed the Pacific war into a defensive war for the Japanese.  They were a fierce and determined enemy, but clearly the Empire of Japan had bitten off far more than it could chew when it attacked the United States of America.  In early 1943, the Allied forces gained a strategic initiative that they never once relinquished throughout the war.  Japan’s withdrawal from the southern region of the Solomon Islands enabled the Allies to deny the Japanese Navy access to the sea; forward units of the IJA could not long survive without the IJN.  Incrementally, the Allied forces neutralized Rabaul and facilitated the South West Pacific Campaign under General Douglas MacArthur and the Central Pacific Island-hopping campaign of Admiral Chester Nimitz.  It was now up to the Allies to decide whether to destroy a Japanese held island or by-pass it.

The war was far from over, however.  It would take bucket more blood to win the Pacific War.

Sources:

  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

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

Sources:

  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

Endnotes:

[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

Sources:

  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

Endnotes:

[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.