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.


[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.

7th Motor Transport Battalion

7thMTBn 002It isn’t just about driving and maintaining rolling stock. It’s about providing sustainable combat service support to front line troops; without the motor transportation community, there would be no way to push forward to the battle area much-needed combat supplies: bullets, beans, and band-aids.  Without a steady flow of logistics, there can be no success on the battlefield.  Motor transport is a tough job; there’s a lot to know about moving men and equipment forward under all weather conditions and terrain features.  It’s also dangerous work, because motor transport units are primary targets of enemy air and ground forces.  If an enemy can interrupt the supply chain, really bad things start to happen.  It is for this reason that Marines assigned to motor transport units are, in fact, combat Marines.

The Marine Corps activated the 7th Motor Transport Battalion (now known as the 1st Transportation Battalion) to support the 1st Marine Division during the Korean War.  Its Korean War service began in October 1950 and lasted through December 1953.

Twelve years later, in May 1965, forward elements of the 7th Motor Transport Battalion began their service in the Vietnam War.  Company A (Reinforced) arrived in Indochina as an attachment to the 7th Regimental Landing Team (RLT-7).  By July of that year, the 7th Motor Transport Battalion consisted (on paper) of H&S Company (-), Company B, Company C, and Company D.  The battalion commander was Major Louis A. Bonin[1].

Almost immediately after arriving in Vietnam, ninety percent of the personnel assigned to the 7th Motor Transport Battalion in California received orders moving them over to the 1st Motor Transport Battalion, which was at that time assigned to Chu Lai. The reason for this shift of personnel was combat necessity —but along with this decision, 7th Motors became ineffective as a combat service support organization pending the arrival of newly graduated Marines from recruit training and basic motor transportation schools (in the United States) and pending the arrival of additional equipment. Combat operations were intense during this period —so much so, in fact, that much needed battalion-level (second echelon) maintenance simply wasn’t performed because Company A was detached from the battalion.  This resulted in a significant reduction in motor transport operational capability.  By the time these vehicles received their much-needed attention, vehicle readiness was around 50%.  As an example of why proper vehicle maintenance was (and is) important:

In May 1966, Colonel Bonin and his Marines executed 3,744 combat support missions involving 22 tactical convoys over 129,961 miles.  During this month, there were eight separate enemy attacks that involved the detonation of enemy mines, incoming mortars and small arms fire, and on the 24th of that month, a Viet Cong sympathizer tossed a poisonous snake into the bed of one of the trucks.  The Marines riding in the bed of that truck were not happy campers.  Moreover, the battalion lifted 24,061 tons of supplies on 1,623 pallets and a total of 33,923 combat personnel supporting forward units.  The battalion served in Vietnam for five years; to appreciate their service, multiply the foregoing statistics by a factor of sixty.

7thMTBn Convoy RVN
Marine combat convoy operators from 7thMTBn, located in Quang Tri, prepare for a run over the dangerous Hai Van Mountain Pass into Da Nang Vietnam. Trucks shown are M52 tractors with semitrailers and M54 5-ton cargo vehicles.

In effect, the Marines of 7th Motor Transport Battalion were constantly on the road, constantly exposed to enemy action, and constantly involved in such programs as Medical Civil Action (MEDCAP).  When the Marines weren’t moving personnel or equipment, or seeing to the needs of local Vietnamese, they were cleaning their weapons and getting a few hours rest. After weeks of sustained operations, hardly anyone knew what day it was.  See also: Personal Memoir by Corporal Chuck McCarroll, USMC.

In the infantry, Marines train to fight.  In the combat service support arena, Marines perform real-world support on an ongoing basis. Their daily missions in times of peace are the same as those performed in actual combat, less people shooting at them, of course.  And, given the deployment and training schedules prevalent in the Marine Corps since the end of the Vietnam War, the pace is fast and furious.  Marines who drive medium to heavy-lift vehicles must know how to complete their combat service support missions.  Supplies, materials, and men must always get through —and they do, in times of peace and in times of war.  In order to accomplish these things, the vehicles must be maintained —and they are.  It’s a tough job —made tougher when higher headquarters assigns unusual tasks.

1988 was a busy year. Long reduced to three companies (H&S Company, Truck Company, and Transport Company), the Marines of 7th Motor Transport Battalion were “turning and burning.”  Beyond their mission to support the two Marine Expeditionary Units (MEUs), additional requirements reduced manpower levels to a point where Combat Service Support Elements (CSSEs) could barely complete their missions.  Worse, personnel shortages increased the likelihood of serious mishaps.  Operating heavy equipment is dangerous work.  What additional taskings?  Under mandated fleet assistance programs, motor transport companies experienced personnel reductions by as much as 20% in order to satisfy the demands of host commands … that is, sending combat Marines to base organizations to staff “special services” billets.  It was a waste of well-trained and much-needed operators/mechanics, particularly when the host commander assigned these Marines to rock-painting details.

This was the situation at 7th Motor Transport Battalion in 1988.  As already stated, personnel shortages make dangerous work even more so. Marines would return to the battalion after one six-month MEU deployment and begin spooling up for a second.

Between May and August 1988, 250-forest fires broke out within the Yellowstone National Forest —seven of these caused 95% of the destruction. At the end of June, the National Park Service and other federal agencies had mobilized all available personnel. It wasn’t enough … the fires continued to expand.  Dry storms brought howling winds and lightening, but no rain.  On 20 August —dubbed Black Saturday— a single wildfire consumed more than 150,000.  Ash from the fire drifted as far as Billings, Montana —60 miles northeast of Yellowstone. More land went to flames on this one day than in all the years since the creation of Yellowstone National Park.  Among the worst were the Snake River Complex and Shoshone fires.

Yellowstone wasn’t the Western United States’ only fire.  In that year, officials reported more than 72,000 fires.  Firefighters and equipment were stretched to the limit. To help fight the fire, US military personnel were tasked to provide support to the front-line firefighters.  Before it was over, more than 25,000 personnel participated in efforts to quell these fires.  Crews worked for two or three weeks, send home to rest, and returned for another tour on the line.  The task involved digging trenches, watering down buildings, clearing undergrowth near structures, and installing water pumps.  The front line extended more than 655 miles.  Hundreds of men worked on engine crews and bulldozing equipment; much of their efforts involved protecting existing structures.  Men received injuries requiring medical treatment for broken bones, skin burns, and lung damage due to noxious fumes.  One firefighter and one pilot died in an incident outside the wildfire area.

USMC 5-ton truck7th Motor Transport Battalion received its warning order: within 48 hours, provide a detachment of Marines to support to the national firefighting force.  The Battalion Commander, LtCol William C. Curtis[2], tasked Transport Company with the mission, Captain Greg Dunlap, commanding.  Within 24-hours, Dunlap had mobilized 50 trucks and 175 Marines.  Operational control of Transport Company passed to the 7th Engineer Battalion, placed in overall command of the Combat Service Support Element mission.

Captain Dunlap and his Marines Departed Norton Air Force Base aboard C-5 aircraft.  The combat service support element landed at the Wester Yellowstone airstrip, which at the time was serving as the Federal and State Firefighting headquarters and where, ultimately, the 7th Engineer Battalion established its command post.  Upon arrival, Dunlap assigned one transport platoon with five-ton trucks in direct support of a Marine infantry battalion further inside the park.

The Marine Corps mission was to relieve civilian firefighters by following up on the fire-line and extinguishing any smoldering areas.  Transport Company provided the lift for infantry Marines to operationally sensitive areas inside Yellowstone.  The overall commander of the U. S. Forest Service assigned daily missions to the Marines via the 7th Engineer Battalion command element, who in turn passed them on for execution to Captain Dunlap.

While serving in Yellowstone, 7th Motor Transport Battalion personnel dined on field rations (officially referred to as Meals, Ready to Eat[3]) and meals provided by US Forest Service caterers.  West Yellowstone Base Camp personnel could walk to the small town of West Yellowstone. Local restaurant owners offered free chow to firefighters and military personnel; few of Dunlap’s Marines partook of the freebies because of the financial impact on local citizens.  Dunlap’s Marines didn’t see any reason to make it more complicated for them than it already was.  Local hotel owners offered billeting to the Marines, but they preferred to live in tents.  The Forest Service provided showering facilities.

Captain Dunlap’s company returned to Camp Pendleton, California two weeks later.  The citizens of West Yellowstone loved “their” Marines and invited them to march in their town parade on the Fourth of July, an invitation that Captain Dunlap accepted.  Town elders also invited the Marines to attend the local high school prom … an invitation that the Marines did not accept.

Marines of the 7th Motor Transport Battalion excelled in this mission.  It’s what these Marines have always done since the beginning of the Korean War.  It’s a tough, thankless job.  In 1988, the Marines of 7th Motor Transport Battalion were ready, their equipment was ready, their attitudes were positive, and they excelled in the completion of their mission.  Seventh-motors Marines shined in the face of unusual adversity, and in doing so, they brought great credit upon themselves, the Marine Corps, and the United States Naval Service.  They continue to do this today as the 1st Transportation Battalion.

It was my privilege to serve alongside the Marines of 7th Motor Transport Battalion from June 1987 to June 1989.


[1] Promoted to lieutenant colonel on 12 May 1966.  I served under Colonel Bonin while a member of the 3rdMarDiv staff in 1972.

[2] Lieutenant Colonel Curtis retired from active duty in 1991, completing more than 34 years of continuous honorable service.  He has written several essays for this blog beginning with Combined Action Platoon, Part I.

[3] Also referred to as meals rejected by Ethiopians.

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.


  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


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


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

[2] See also: Some Gave All.

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

Guadalcanal: First to Fight —Part II

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

USS Saratoga “Sara” 1942

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

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

Solomon Islands, Guadalcanal, and The Slot

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Edson’s Ridge

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

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

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

Continued Next Week


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


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

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

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

Guadalcanal: First to Fight —Part I

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

~Alexander A. Vandegrift

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Continued next week


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


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

[2] Sunk a week later.

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

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

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

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

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

In Every Clime and Place

Hayden 001
A young Sterling Hayden

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See also: Operation TorchBehind the Lines.

End Notes:

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

[2] The marriage lasted four years.

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

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