The Enemy Strikes Back: The Japanese garrisons on Guadalcanal and in the Tulagi area had not been able to resist the American attack effectively, although an enemy report claimed that ten transports and the greater part of the escorting naval forces had been destroyed. The air attacks on 7-8 August had not seriously damaged the Amphibious Force, but they had caused serious delays in unloading.
These were only preliminaries, however, to the heavy blow the Japanese were preparing to deliver. Five heavy and two light cruisers and one destroyer assembled in St. George’s Channel off Rabaul on the morning of 8 August with orders to attack the American transports in Sealark Channel. This force sailed south along the east coast of Bougainville until sighted by an Allied patrol plane from the Southwest Pacific Area, which radioed a warning to Melbourne. The Japanese ships then reversed their course for a time, but after the plane departed, turned west through Bougainville Strait and then south through the narrow waters (the “Slot”) between the two chains of the Solomons.
At 1800 on 8 August, Admiral Turner received word that the Japanese force was approaching. The Screening Force, augmented by the fire support warships, was then covering the northern approaches to Sealark Channel. Two destroyers, the Ralph Talbot and the Blue, were posted northwest of Savo Island on either side of the channel to maintain watch by radar. Three cruisers, the Australia, Canberra, and Chicago, and the destroyers Bagley and Patterson, were patrolling the waters between Savo and Cape Esperance. The cruisers Vincennes, Astoria, and Quincy and the destroyers Helm and Wilson patrolled between Savo and Florida. Two cruisers, screened by destroyers, covered the transports.
Aircraft from the American carrier force southwest of Guadalcanal had been supporting the Amphibious Force during daylight hours, but this protection was about to be withdrawn. Two days of enemy air action and operational losses had reduced fighter strength from ninety-nine to seventy-eight planes. Fuel was running low. Admiral Fletcher, commanding Task Force 61, was worried by the numbers of enemy bombers operating in the area. At 1807, 8 August, he asked Admiral Ghormley for permission to withdraw his carriers. Admiral Ghormley consented. The force would be withdrawn, he announced, until enough land-based aircraft to protect the line of communications to Guadalcanal could be assembled, and until sufficient stocks of aviation fuel could be maintained at Guadalcanal to support fighter and bomber operations. The carrier forces retired southward early the next morning.
When informed that the carrier forces were to be withdrawn, Admiral Turner called General Vandegrift and Admiral Crutchley aboard the flagship McCawley. General Vandegrift left his command post at the mouth of the Ilu River to board the McCawley about 2325, 8 August. Admiral Crutchley took the flagship Australia out of the Screening Force and sailed aboard her to the McCawley to attend the conference. Turner informed them that the imminent retirement of the carriers would leave the Amphibious Force without effective air protection and that he had decided to withdraw the ships of the Amphibious Force at 0600 the next morning.
General Vandegrift was seriously disturbed by this news. The retirement of the ships, he felt, would place his division in a “most alarming” position. Unloading of supplies at Tulagi had not even started at 7 August because the Japanese had held so much of the island. The 1st Marine Division’s plans were based on the assumption that the transports would remain offshore until 11 August, and by the night of 8-9 August more than half the supplies embarked by the division still remained in the ships’ holds.
Battle of Savo Island
Meanwhile the Japanese cruisers and destroyers which had earlier been discovered had now approached Savo Island undetected. Shortly before reaching Savo, the cruisers catapulted seaplanes which flew over Sealark Channel to search for the American and Australian ships. About midnight of 8 August the Allied ships in the channel reported that unidentified aircraft were overhead. About 0145, 9 August, a seaplane from the Japanese cruiser Chokai dropped flares over the transports, while the Japanese warships slipped unobserved past the Ralph Talbot and the Blue.
After passing the destroyers, the Japanese sighted the Allied ships between Savo and Cape Esperance. Still undetected, they fired torpedoes which struck the Chicago and the Canberra. After this attack the Japanese left to strike the American ships between Savo and Florida. They illuminated their targets briefly with searchlights, then put heavy fire into the American cruisers. Unwilling to risk further action with the Allied cruisers and fearful that American aircraft might attack his ships at daylight, the Japanese commander then led his force northward away from Savo. On the morning of 9 August the Japanese force reached Rabaul. The next day, off New Ireland, the cruiser Kako was sunk by torpedoes from an American submarine.
The Battle of Savo Island was one of the worst defeats ever suffered by ships of the U. S. Navy. The enemy had taken them by surprise and defeated in detail the two forces on either side of Savo. The only enemy ship damaged was the Chokai, whose operations room was destroyed. The Vincennes and Quincy sank within one hour after being attacked. The badly hit Canberra burned all night and was torpedoed by American destroyers the next morning to sink her prior to the departure of the Amphibious Force. The severely battered cruiser Astoria sank about midday on 9 August. The Chicago and the Ralph Talbot had both been damaged. Fortunately the Japanese commander had lacked sufficient daring to execute his orders to attack the weakly defended transports in Sealark Channel. Had he done so, he could have effectively halted Allied operations in the South Pacific and completely cut off the 1st Marine Division from reinforcement and supply, for all the transports and cargo ships of the South Pacific Force were present in Sealark Channel.
The damage which the Japanese inflicted upon the warships delayed the departure of Admiral Turner’s ships, which remained in Sealark Channel until the afternoon of 9 August. But at 1500 ten transports, one cruiser, four destroyers and the minesweepers sailed toward Noumea, followed at 1830 by the remaining ships. Admiral Turner accompanied the latter force.
Of the original marine landing force of over 19,000 men, nearly all were ashore before the departure of the ships, but a few detachments of the 1st Marine Division remained on board. Most of the men of the 2nd Marines, Reinforced, had landed, but 1,390 men of the regiment, including regimental headquarters, companies from the 2nd Amphibian Tractor and 2nd Service Battalions, and part of the 3rd Battalion, 10th Marines (75-mm. pack howitzers), were subsequently landed at Espiritu Santo by the retiring Amphibious Force. Almost 17,000 marines and naval personnel had landed on Guadalcanal and Tulagi.
Supplies for these men were limited. Of the sixty days’ supplies and ten units of fire with which the division had embarked, less than half had been unloaded. There were about four units of fire available on Guadalcanal and Tulagi. Guadalcanal had 6,000,000 rounds of .30-caliber ammunition, and 800 90-mm. shells. Food stocks were low. When an inventory was completed about 15 August, it was found that food for only thirty days was on hand—B rations for seventeen days, C rations for three days, and Japanese rations for ten days. Troop rations were reduced to two daily meals.
None of the 3rd Defense Battalion’s 5-inch coast defense guns, nor any long-range warning or fire control radar sets had been landed. Only eighteen spools of barbed wire had been brought ashore. Heavy construction equipment was still in the ships’ holds. Since the liaison planes assigned to the division had been destroyed on board their cruisers in the Battle of Savo Island, air reconnaissance of Guadalcanal would not be possible.
The departure of the Air Support and Amphibious Forces left the 1st Marine Division alone in the Guadalcanal-Tulagi area exposed to Japanese attacks, without air cover or naval surface support. The nearest Allied outpost was the primitive base at Espiritu Santo. The enemy posts at Buka and the Shortlands were only 363 and 285 nautical miles away, respectively, and Rabaul itself lay only 565 nautical miles to the northwest. The 1st Marine Division was virtually a besieged garrison.
Consolidating the Beachhead
In a letter to General Marshall on 11 August, General Harmon, the commander of U. S. Army Forces in the South Pacific, expressed serious doubts about the possible success of the invasion: “The thing that impresses me more than anything else in connection with the Solomon action is that we are not prepared to ‘follow up’ . . . . We have seized a strategic position from which future operations in the Bismarcks can be strongly supported. Can the Marines hold it? There is considerable room for doubt.”
A week later he pointed out that two lines of action lay open to the Japanese. They might deliver an amphibious assault, with strong air and surface support, against Guadalcanal and Tulagi, or they might move into New Georgia and infiltrate into Guadalcanal. They probably would not occupy Malaita or San Cristobal, for these would be within fighter range of the newly won Allied base at Guadalcanal, where, to achieve significant results, the Japanese would need to land strong forces. A rapid development of Allied air power at Guadalcanal would render New Georgia untenable for the Japanese. It was Harmon’s view that American forces should mount intensive air and surface operations to destroy Japanese surface forces; base fighters, dive bombers, and heavy bombers on Guadalcanal; replenish Guadalcanal’s supplies; and as General Vandegrift desired, send more troops to Guadalcanal at the earliest possible time.
Admiral Ghormley also stressed the precariousness of the Allied situation in the South Pacific. He warned Admirals King and Nimitz that there could be no further advances until more troops and planes arrived, or until the new positions could be consolidated. If the three aircraft carriers then assigned to the South Pacific were to be withdrawn, or if no reinforcements were to be made available, Guadalcanal and other South Pacific positions might fall to the Japanese. Yet using the carriers to support the Guadalcanal garrison, he observed, would be dangerous. Expenditure of carrier-based aircraft and of destroyers in supporting Guadalcanal would jeopardize the carriers, which were then the principal defense of the line of communications between the United States and New Zealand and Australia. Sending supplies by ship to Guadalcanal would be dangerous until planes could be based there.
Construction and Defense of the Airfield
The rapid completion of the airfield on Guadalcanal was a project of the utmost importance, for planes were needed there immediately to protect supply ships and the newly captured position, and to carry on the offensive against the Japanese. On Guadalcanal work on the uncompleted airstrip had begun on 9 August, when the 1st Engineer Battalion had moved to Lunga Point from Beach Red. The battalion’s equipment was inadequate, for the ships had withdrawn before power shovels, bulldozers, or dump trucks had been unloaded.
Using abandoned Japanese equipment, the engineers put forth their best efforts and added 1,178 feet to the 2,600 feet of runway completed by the Japanese. To fill a 196-foot gap in the center of the runway, they moved 100,000 cubic feet of earth with hand shovels, trucks, and captured dump cars. At first there were no steel mats to surface the field, which in consequence was covered with sticky mud after every hard rainfall.
On 10 August General Vandegrift announced that the field, named Henderson Field after Major Lofton Henderson, a Marine hero of the Midway battle, might be used by thirty-six fighters and nine scout bombers. No ground crews were then present, but there were 400 drums of aviation gasoline, and some oil and machine gun ammunition. The first plane to use Henderson Field was a Navy patrol bomber (PBY) which landed for a short time on 12 August. On 17 August the radio station at Tulagi reported that the field was ready for operation.
On 12 August Admiral Ghormley ordered Admiral McCain, commanding Task Force 63, to load all available destroyer-transports with aviation gasoline and lubricants, bombs, ammunition, and ground crews and dispatch them from Espiritu Santo to Guadalcanal. Sending these speedy ships to Guadalcanal bore a close resemblance to blockade-running. To avoid being attacked by Japanese planes while lying offshore during daylight, they were to leave Espiritu Santo in time to reach Guadalcanal in the late afternoon, and to depart from there early in the morning. Aircraft of Task Force 63 were to cover them.
Admiral Ghormley ordered the South Pacific carrier forces to operate generally south of Guadalcanal against Japanese carriers, transports, battleships, cruisers, destroyers, and other shipping, in that order of priority. He ordered the carriers not to venture north of latitude 10 degrees South unless they were pursuing a promising target within striking distance. In addition Admiral Ghormley directed the carrier forces to protect the line of communications between Noumea and Espiritu Santo, and to cover the shipborne movement of ground crews and equipment to Guadalcanal. South Pacific land-based aircraft under Admiral McCain were to serve as a scouting and attack force, sharing with the surface forces the responsibility for defending and supplying Guadalcanal. Admiral McCain was to be responsible for the movement of all airborne supplies and reinforcements to Guadalcanal.
The immediate effects of the completion of Henderson Field were disappointing. Air operations were severely limited by lack of equipment. General Harmon believed that this shortcoming stemmed from the fact that the campaign “. . . had been viewed by its planners as [an] amphibious operation supported by air, not as a means of establishing strong land based air action.” The marines on Guadalcanal could not obtain gasoline, airfield matting, or bulldozers, General Harmon wrote, because “.. . the plan did not have as its first and immediate objective the seizure and development of Cactus [Guadalcanal] as an air base… Airdrome construction … is going to be disappointingly slow . . . ,” the Army commander reported on 28 August after an inspection trip, for the marines lacked enough “worthwhile equipment.”
The primitive conditions obtaining at Henderson Field limited the use of heavy bombers. There were no bomb-handling trucks, no carts, bomb hoists, or gas trucks. All planes had to be fueled from gasoline drums by hand pumps. Further, pending the arrival of sufficient fighters and antiaircraft guns to defend the field, General Harmon felt that it would be too risky to base B-17’s permanently on Guadalcanal. Suggesting to General Marshall that Army P-38 fighters be made available to the South Pacific, he also warned that fighters at Henderson Field would experience intensive action and a high attrition rate.
Until heavy Army bombers could be based permanently on Guadalcanal, General Harmon suggested staging them from rear bases through Henderson Field to their targets. The B-17’s could not carry profitable bomb loads from the New Hebrides directly to Faisi, Gizo, Tonolei, Kieta, Rekata Bay, Buka, and other targets in the northern Solomons, but they could reach and strike those areas from the New Hebrides by refueling at Guadalcanal, and continuing northward.
Even with improved defenses at Henderson Field, it would be difficult to stage the B-17’s through. A round-trip flight from the New Hebrides to Buka was over 1,800 nautical miles by the shortest route. Henderson Field lay about 560 nautical miles from Espiritu Santo and about 400 nautical miles from Buka. To send twenty B-17’s, each carrying one ton of bombs, from Espiritu Santo through Henderson Field to Buka required that 35,800 gallons of gasoline be pumped into the B-17’s at Henderson Field by hand, and Henderson’s fuel stocks could rarely support such an operation.
The first planes arrived for duty at Henderson Field on 20 August. Marine Fighting Squadron 223 (VMF 223) and Marine Scout Bombing Squadron 232 (VMSB 232) had reached Noumea from Pearl Harbor on the escort carrier Long Island. From Noumea they flew to the New Hebrides, refueled, and continued their way to Henderson Field. These squadrons, the forward echelon of Marine Air Group 23 of Brig. Gen. Roy S. Geiger’s 1st Marine Air Wing, included nineteen Grumman fighters (F4F-4’s) and twelve Douglas dive bombers (SBD-3’s). Eleven dive bombers of Flight 300 from the carrier Enterprise landed at Henderson Field on 24 August, to remain there for three months. The first Army Air Force planes—five P-400’s of the 67th Fighter Squadron—came on 22 August, and were followed on 27 August by nine more.
The 67th Fighter Squadron had debarked at Noumea, New Caledonia, on 15 March 1942, and had trucked its crated aircraft over the mountains along the narrow twisting trail (the “Little Burma Road“) which led to the squadron’s base. When the squadron’s mechanics uncrated the planes, they discovered forty-five P-400’s, a converted model of the P-39 designed for export to the British, and two P-39F’s. None of the pilots had ever flown a P-400 before, and only two had flown a P-39. None of the mechanics had ever worked on a P-400, and no instruction books for this type had been included in the shipment. However, they successfully assembled the planes, and the pilots learned to fly them.
To get from New Caledonia to Henderson Field, the P-400’s flew the 277 nautical miles from New Caledonia to Efate, then the 153 nautical miles from Efate to Espiritu Santo, and, using extra gasoline tanks and guided by a B-17, flew the 560 nautical miles to Henderson Field. Operations of the P-400’s were disappointing at first. They could not fly higher than 12,000 feet, and thus were no match for high-flying Japanese aircraft.
It was standard practice, when Henderson Field was warned of air attack, for the Army P400’s and Marine SBD’s to take off from the field before the raid to prevent these vulnerable craft from being destroyed on the ground. During the raids they strafed and bombed Japanese positions. The P-400’s armor, its 20-mm. cannon and two .50- and four .30-caliber machine guns, and its ability to carry one 500-pound bomb made this plane extremely effective in close support of ground troops.
On 20 August, when Henderson Field began operating, supply and evacuation by air were inaugurated by the twin-engine R4D’s (C-47’s) of Marine Air Group 25. These planes made daily flights from Espiritu Santo to Guadalcanal, usually bringing in 3,000-pound cargo loads, and evacuating sixteen litter patients per trip.
The combat troops on Guadalcanal began to construct defenses for the airfield immediately after its capture. Since they lacked enough tools, sandbags, or barbed wire, the work was difficult A small quantity of wire was salvaged from the coconut plantations and added to the original eighteen spools. Captured rice bags served in place of sandbags. By the afternoon of 9 August hasty positions had been established. Considering that an enemy amphibious attack against the shore line was the most immediate danger, General Vandegrift concentrated the bulk of his strength to hold the beaches. The marines built a defense along 9,600 yards of shore line from the mouth of the Ilu River to the village of Kukum. The right (east) flank was refused inland 600 yards along the west bank of the Ilu, where the river line would give the defending forces a tactical advantage. The left (west) flank line at Kukum was refused inland over the flat ground between the beach and the jungle to the first hills. Caliber .30 and .50 machine guns and 37-mm. guns, supported by riflemen, defended the beach front. The 5th Marines (less one battalion) held the left sector, from the Lunga to Kukum; the 1st Marines held the right, from the Lunga to the Ilu.
Except for troops required to cover the beach defense weapons, the infantry battalions were concentrated inland to be in position to launch counterattacks, or to contain any forces which might penetrate the beach line. In the south (inland), a 9,000-yard-long stretch of jungle running from the Ilu across the Lunga to Kukum posed a grave problem. The northern line along the shore of Lunga Point ran across ground which was generally flat and covered with even rows of coconut trees. But the inland line ran up and down steep, heavily jungled ridges and hills where visibility was extremely limited. There were not enough troops to hold a continuous line in the south sector, and the rough, tangled terrain increased the difficulty of maintaining contact between separated units. Local security detachments from the artillery, pioneer, engineer, and amphibian tractor battalions first held separated strong points in the southern sector until continual nocturnal enemy infiltration made necessary an outpost line between the Ilu and the Lunga. However, large-scale enemy operations in the south sector at first seemed unlikely because of the difficult terrain.
Mortars, 60-mm. and 81-mm., were placed in supporting positions for normal fire missions. The 1st Special Weapons Battalion dug in its 75-mm. tank destroyers in positions inland, but were ready to move to firing positions on the beach in the event of an attack. The troops dug foxholes, slit trenches, and dugouts to protect themselves from enemy rifle, artillery, and naval gun fire, and from the frequent bombing raids. On the outpost and beach lines the troops built two-man foxholes fitted with fire slits; deep pits to catch rolling hand grenades were dug in front of these emplacements.
There was not enough artillery. The 2nd, 3rd, and 5th Battalions of the 11th Marines had landed their howitzers and set them up in central positions from which they could put fire in front of all sectors. The 2nd and 3rd Battalions had 75-mm. pack howitzers, the 5th Battalion, 105-mm. howitzers. There were no 155-mm. howitzers or guns for effective counterbattery fire, nor any sound-and-flash units for locating enemy artillery pieces, a deficiency that was to prove costly. The defenses against air and surface attack were to be inadequate for many weeks. The radars and 5-inch seacoast guns of the 3rd Defense Battalion had not been brought ashore prior to the hasty departure of the Amphibious Force. Automatic antiaircraft weapons, 90-mm. guns, and searchlights, however, had been landed on both Guadalcanal and Tulagi. An air warning system was obviously necessary, and one was established on 9 August in the “Pagoda,” a tower which the Japanese had built on the airfield. From the Pagoda, observers could alert the Lunga garrison before an air attack by sounding a siren which the Japanese had abandoned. The adequacy of the defenses against Japanese ground attacks was soon to be tested.
Action on the Ilu River
The Japanese forces on Guadalcanal in August 1942 were believed to be concentrated near Lunga Point between the Matanikau River, approximately 7,000 yards beyond Lunga Point, and the native village of Kokumbona, about 7,500 yards west of the Matanikau. A prisoner captured on 12 August confirmed this belief, and intimated that some of the Japanese garrison, many of whom were believed to be wandering aimlessly without food, might be willing to surrender, 1st Sergeant Stephen A. Custer of the division intelligence section prepared a plan to take a patrol by boat from Kukum to the Matanikau area to make contact with the Japanese and give them an opportunity to surrender. Colonel Frank Goettge, the division intelligence officer, decided to lead the patrol himself. The patrol embarked from Kukum about dusk on 12 August. Colonel Goettge had planned to land between the Matanikau River and Point Cruz, about 1,200 yards west of the river, but in the darkness he landed at an unknown spot somewhere west of the river. The Japanese, instead of surrendering, attacked the patrol and killed all but three men who escaped by swimming. Colonel Goettge, three other officers, and Sergeant Custer were among the casualties. Subsequent patrols never found any traces of Colonel Goettge’s party.
A vigorous effort one week later to clear Matanikau and Kokumbona villages west of the river mouth met with greater success when B, L, and I Companies of the 5th Marines attacked the villages from three sides. I Company took landing craft to the beach west of Kokumbona, landed, and pushed east through the village while B and L Companies attacked Matanikau from the east and south. L Company, having crossed the river about 1,000 yards upstream from its mouth, attacked northward after a brief artillery preparation by the 2nd, 3rd, and 5th Battalions of the 11th Marines. As L Company advanced, it met rifle fire from enemy emplacements on the ridges to its front and left flanks. By 1400 the company had reached the outskirts of Matanikau village.
Meanwhile, enemy fire had prevented B Company from crossing from the east bank over the sand bar at the river mouth. B Company engaged the Japanese in the village with rifle and machine-gun fire while L Company pushed through the village. The three companies killed about sixty-five Japanese, themselves losing four killed and eleven wounded, before returning to Lunga Point. As the division commander wrote later, this skirmish did not affect the outcome of the campaign, but did reveal the location of those Japanese who had retreated from the Lunga area. The Matanikau River, flowing through a deep valley, was to prove an important terrain feature. Deep, swift, and about 160 feet wide, it could not be forded in the coastal area. In the absence of bridges the alluvial sand bar across the mouth was the only means by which vehicles and artillery could cross the river. To protect Henderson Field from artillery fire it was essential that the marines hold the easily defended east bank, but not until the addition of more troops to the Lunga garrison would enough men be available to extend the lines from Kukum to the Matanikau.
During the first weeks on Guadalcanal the white coastwatchers and friendly natives were proving their value. The coastwatchers were performing an invaluable service for the Allied cause by giving warning of approaching enemy aircraft almost three hours before their arrival over the Lunga. In August, coastwatchers were stationed on the south coast of Guadalcanal, and on Buka, Bougainville, New Georgia, Santa Isabel, and Malaita, to radio reports on Japanese aircraft and ship movements to the intelligence section of the division. Since most enemy bomber flights from Rabaul passed over New Georgia, the coastwatcher on that island was especially valuable, and his reports usually enabled the U. S. fighter planes on Guadalcanal to take to the air in time to meet the oncoming enemy. Other sources of intelligence were reports from higher headquarters, observation posts, regimental and battalion patrols, and air reconnaissance. The few Japanese captured during the campaign usually poured out information voluminously. Also useful to the Allied cause was the Japanese habit of carrying orders, diaries, and other documents to the front lines. A vast quantity of such papers was captured on Guadalcanal and sent to Noumea.
Shortly after the 1st Division had landed, Capt. Martin Clemens of the British Solomon Islands Defense Force, who was also British District Officer for Guadalcanal in the Protectorate Government, left Vungana, his hiding place in the hills south of Aola Bay. With his sixty native scouts he entered the marine lines to offer their services to General Vandegrift who accepted.
On 19 August came the first evidence that Japanese ground forces were planning to attack the Lunga airfield. Patrols had already informed division headquarters that the Japanese were operating a radio station about thirty-five miles east of Lunga Point. Ordered to patrol the coast eastward to locate the enemy, A Company of the 1st Marines surprised a Japanese party of four officers and thirty enlisted men walking openly along the beach near Taivu Point, about twenty-two statute air miles east of Lunga Point. The company killed all the Japanese but two who escaped into the jungle. Examination of the dead men’s effects revealed that these were enemy soldiers who had recently landed.
Their helmets bore the Army star instead of the anchor-and-chrysanthemum insignia of the Special Naval Landing Forces. Among the documents which A Company captured was a code for ship-to-shore communication during landing operations. That an enemy force might attack by land against the 1st Marine Division’s east flank, or force a landing against the Lunga shore defenses in an effort to recapture the airfield, or to attempt both, was an inescapable conclusion. Headquarters of the Japanese 17th Army at Rabaul, acting on orders issued from Tokyo on 13 August, had just assumed responsibility for directing ground operations on Guadalcanal, but its intelligence estimates were extremely inaccurate. The landing on 7 August had taken the Japanese by surprise. They had retaliated with surface and air attacks, but there were not enough troops under 17th Army command to permit the immediate dispatch of strong forces to Guadalcanal. The Japanese thought that a small force had been landed on 7 August.
Some estimated that only 1,000 American troops had come ashore. The Japanese Army apparently based its estimates of the forces needed to destroy the American beachhead upon its experiences in China and Malaya.24 The officer who was later to become Chief of Staff of the 17th Army, Major Gen. Shuicho Miyazaki, was then in Tokyo. He wrote later that “at that time we had no means of ascertaining actual facts regarding the extent of the enemy counter-offensive.”
The 17th Army, commanded by Lieutenant Gen. Harukichi Hyakutake, had decided to retake the Lunga area. Hyakutake planned to use initially a force composed of part of the 28th Infantry of the 7th Division and the Yokosuka Special Naval Landing Forces, and later the 35th Brigade—about 6,000 troops in all. The 2nd Battalion, 28th Infantry, had been formed into a 2,000-man combat team of infantry, artillery, and engineers known as the Ichiki Force, after its commander, Colonel Kiyono Ichiki. This force had been attached to the Navy to make the projected landing on Midway. When the Japanese carrier fleet was defeated, the Ichiki Force had sailed for Guam. On 7 August, when the force was at sea bound for Japan, it received orders to reverse its course. Landing at Truk on 12 August, it was attached to the 35th Brigade, which was then in the Palau Islands. This brigade, commanded by Major Gen. Kiyotake Kawaguchi, was usually called the Kawaguchi Force. The first echelon, about 1,000 men of the Ichiki Force, including Colonel Ichiki, sailed for Guadalcanal via Rabaul. They made the trip from Rabaul to Guadalcanal on the “Tokyo Express,” the Japanese destroyers and cruisers which operated at night among the islands. This echelon landed at Taivu Point about 18 August, at approximately the same time that 500 men of the Yokosuka 5th Special Naval Landing Force landed at Kokumbona. The soldiers whom A Company of the 1st Marines had killed on 19 August were from Ichiki’s first echelon. Ichiki apparently decided to attack immediately because his forces had been discovered, for he did not wait for his second echelon to land before advancing west against the airfield.
The 1st Marine Division was then holding Lunga Point with four infantry battalions in line, one in reserve, and three field artillery battalions in support. As division headquarters was not sure of the size of the enemy force to the east, nor even certain that one had been landed, it could not risk sending troops beyond the front lines to attack the enemy. The marines continued to work on the defenses and extended the eastern line farther inland along the west bank of the Ilu.
The first important ground action on Guadalcanal, after the landing, opened on the evening of 20 August when marines in listening posts on the east bank of the Ilu opened fire at some enemy troops hidden in the jungle. They then fell back to the west bank to report that enemy forces were moving up from the east. Some rifle fire followed, then subsided. The Ilu front lay quiet until about 0310, 21 August, when about 200 infantrymen of the Ichiki Force tried to cross the sand bar at the mouth of the Ilu in a bayonet assault designed to overrun the positions occupied by the 2nd Battalion, 1st Marines. The defending battalion had emplaced a 37-mm. gun, protected by machine guns and rifles, to cover the 45-yard-wide sand bar. As the Japanese drew near, the 2nd Battalion opened fire with rifles, machine guns, and the 37-mm. gun which was firing canister. A few of the Ichiki Force succeeded in crossing the bar to overrun some of the 2nd Battalion’s positions which were not protected by barbed wire. The majority were killed or wounded by the defenders’ fire. The few who had crossed were prevented from reorganizing or extending their foothold by fire from the positions which the 2nd Battalion had been able to hold. G Company of the 2nd Battalion then counterattacked and drove the enemy survivors back across the river. The Ichiki Force installed itself along the beach east of the river mouth.
At 0403 the 3rd Battalion, 11th Marines, which had previously registered on the area, put howitzer fire on the narrow triangle of beach from which the Ichiki Force had begun the attack, and repeated the concentrations at 0515, 0722, 0742, and 0851. When the initial rush failed, the Ichiki Force concentrated artillery, mortar, and machine-gun fire on the marine positions at the end of the sand bar. All available marine weapons replied immediately. From their positions on the west bank the marines enfiladed the enemy on the sand bar and beach, and by morning the sluggish river mouth was filled with enemy corpses.
By daybreak it was apparent that the 2nd Battalion, aided by artillery support and the tactical advantages of its position, could hold the west bank of the Ilu. The 1st Battalion of the 1st Marines was ordered out of division reserve to cross the Ilu upstream to attack the enemy left flank and rear. The 1st Battalion crossed the river in column and posted one heavy weapons platoon to cover the Japanese escape route. By 1230, 21 August, C and A Companies had advanced over 2,000 yards, and C Company, on the right, had reached the mouth of the Block Four River in the rear of the Japanese. When the enemy was surrounded, at 1400, the battalion delivered its assault Some Japanese ran into the sea in an effort to escape, and D Company stopped some who were attempting to retreat inland. Others fleeing to the east were attacked by fighter planes.
To conclude the engagement before dark and to destroy some obdurate enemy machine gunners at the west end of the beach, a platoon of light tanks, supported by infantry, crossed the sand bar at 1500 and with 37-mm. canister and machine-gun fire attacked the Ichiki Force survivors and destroyed them. Two tanks suffered light damage, but by 1700 the engagement had ended. The attacking Japanese force had been destroyed, and Ichiki committed suicide.
Japanese casualties numbered almost 800; only 130 survived. Thirty-five marines had been killed, seventy-five wounded. Captured Japanese materiel included 10 heavy and 20 light machine guns, 20 grenade dischargers, 700 rifles, 20 pistols, an assortment of sabers and grenades, 3 70-mm. guns, 12 flame throwers (which were not used in the engagement), and demolition equipment. One Japanese had surrendered, and fourteen, of whom twelve were wounded, had been taken prisoner.
At no time had the Ichiki Force seriously threatened the airfield. The amazingly small force which attacked the marines indicated either defective intelligence work, or sublime confidence on the part of the enemy. If by 20 August Ichiki had become aware of the numerical strength of the Americans he was attacking, he must have had complete contempt for the military prowess of the marines.
The Battle of the Eastern Solomons
Before the Ichiki Force had launched its hopeless attack, the Japanese had attempted to send a second force to Guadalcanal. An impressive amount of naval strength had been concentrated near Rabaul. By 23 August Allied air reconnaissance reports led to the estimate that there were 3 or 4 aircraft carriers, 1 or 2 battleships, from 7 to 15 light and heavy cruisers, from 10 to 20 destroyers, 15 or more transports, cargo ships, and oilers, and 160 land-based aircraft at Rabaul. The increase in enemy naval strength since early August led to the conclusion that the Japanese were preparing to put a major force ashore on Guadalcanal.
Admiral Ghormley’s naval forces were weaker than those of the Japanese. Total American naval strength in the South Pacific included three aircraft carriers, one battleship, six cruisers, and eighteen destroyers, organized into three carrier task forces under Admiral Fletcher’s command. A fourth force, built around the Hornet, had left Pearl Harbor on 17 August and reached the South Pacific on 29 August after the Battle of the Eastern Solomons had ended. Thirty-nine PBY’s and thirty B-17’s, plus the Guadalcanal aircraft, were also available in the South Pacific.
Four Japanese transports carrying about 1,500 men of the second echelons of the Ichiki Force and the Yokosuka 5th Special Naval Landing Force, screened by four destroyers, had left Rabaul on 19 August to attempt to land the troops on Guadalcanal on 24 August. Two screening units were sailing south about a hundred miles to the east. The total enemy force included three aircraft carriers, eight battleships, four heavy cruisers, two light cruisers, and twenty-one destroyers as well as the four transports. The 25th Air Flotilla at Rabaul provided land-based air cover.
The three U. S. carrier task forces under Fletcher were then operating about one hundred miles southeast of Guadalcanal. When erroneous intelligence reports on 23 August led to the belief that the Japanese naval forces had retired north of Truk, the Wasp force departed from the main body to refuel, leaving only two carrier forces under Fletcher’s command, including the carriers Saratoga and Enterprise, one battleship, four cruisers, and ten destroyers.
That the Japanese had not retired but intended to attack became clear on 23 August after the Wasp’s departure, when American patrol planes sighted the four transports about 350 miles north of Guadalcanal. The next day, 24 August, American carrier planes discovered the enemy screening forces about the same time that Japanese pilots located Admiral Fletcher’s ships. The ensuing engagement, the Battle of the Eastern Solomons, was fought well to the east of Guadalcanal.
Like that at Midway, it was a battle of aircraft against ships. Surface craft did not exchange a single shot. American land-based aircraft joined the carrier planes to attack the enemy ships, and some Japanese planes bombed the Lunga area on 25 and 26 August. The Japanese lost the carrier Ryujo, one destroyer, one light cruiser sunk, ninety planes shot down, and the seaplane carrier Chitose and one cruiser damaged. The Enterprise suffered damage, and twenty American planes were lost.
Late on 24 August Admiral Fletcher retired southward expecting to return and resume the fight next day. But the Japanese force also withdrew and by next morning, 25 August, was out of range. Marine dive bombers and Army B-17’s attacked the enemy transport force on 25 August, and search planes located other scattered enemy ships converging toward Guadalcanal. By noon the Japanese ships everywhere in the southern Solomons had reversed their courses to follow the carriers northward. The Battle of the Eastern Solomons did not prevent the Japanese from landing troops on Guadalcanal, but it did postpone their landing for a few days. The postponement gave the 1st Marine Division more time to strengthen its defenses.
After the victory in the Eastern Solomons, the naval force of the South Pacific, already weakened by the return of nine cruisers and destroyers to the Southwest Pacific, lost several more ships in action, but did not inflict serious damage upon the enemy.
On 31 August the Saratoga, patrolling west of the Santa Cruz Islands, was hit by an enemy torpedo. The crippled carrier reached Tongatabu safely, made emergency repairs, and on 12 September sailed for Pearl Harbor where she remained incapacitated until November. The Wasp, patrolling south and east of the Solomons, sank on 15 September after being struck by three torpedoes from enemy submarines. The battleship North Carolina, escorting the Wasp, was torpedoed on the same day and forced to return to Pearl Harbor. The South Pacific thus lost the services of four major fleet units. Its carrier strength was reduced to one—the Hornet.
The lack of provision for re-supply and reinforcement of the 1st Marine Division, the withdrawal of the supporting naval forces from Guadalcanal, the cruiser losses at Savo Island, and the failure to complete the unloading of the transports of the Amphibious Force had placed the division in a precarious situation. Having embarked sixty days’ supplies to obtain freedom of action, General Vandegrift had been able to bring less than one-half that amount ashore. The lack of shipping, combined with air and surface weakness, would have prevented a free and rapid flow of Allied forces and supplies to Guadalcanal even if unlimited troops and materiel had been available to the South Pacific. To complicate matters further, the fact that the Japanese were free to land strong forces on Guadalcanal protracted the campaign for six months and required the commitment of many more American troops than had been originally planned.
After landing on Guadalcanal, the marines had begun to move the supplies from Beach Red to Lunga Point immediately. Fortunately the Japanese aircraft had not bombed or strafed Beach Red during the crucial period when a tangle of rations, ammunition, spare parts, and other materiel lay exposed. But the supplies had to be moved quickly lest the Japanese exploit the opportunity they had hitherto missed. The division, which had landed only 30 percent of its authorized 2½-ton trucks, put to use every available vehicle, including artillery prime movers, amphibian tractors, and captured Japanese trucks. The pioneers repaired a Japanese-built bridge over the Lunga and improved the coast road. Beach Red was cleared in five days of hauling. The supplies were segregated and dispersed throughout Lunga Point. Observation of the results of the naval bombardment and air attacks on D Day showed the marines that “the probability of damage to supplies varied directly in proportion to the vertical height of the dump.” The dumps were therefore kept at the lowest possible heights.
The 1st Marine Division, expecting that its sixty days’ supplies would prove ample, had naturally not made provision for immediate re-supply. When advanced supply depots were established at Noumea and Espiritu Santo on 20 August by order of Admiral Turner, they were not under divisional control.
On Guadalcanal the movement of supplies brought in by ships proved difficult Once the beachhead was secured, the handling of supplies from the beach to supply dumps was theoretically a naval responsibility. The nucleus of a Naval Operating Base had been formed on 9 August by landing craft and crews from the Amphibious Force, but there were not enough men for effective operation. The division pioneers, later supplemented by hired native labor, continued to unload ships until October when enough sailors to perform this duty had arrived. All supplies had to be lightered from the ships to the beaches, unloaded, placed aboard trucks, and hauled inland. But there were never enough trucks. The arrival of reinforcing units did not alleviate the shortage of 2½-ton trucks, for, to save cargo space, only 1½-ton trucks were now being shipped.
No major reinforcements were sent in during the first month. Before Admiral Turner’s departure on 9 August, Vandegrift had recommended that the 2nd Marines remain with the division instead of occupying Ndeni, and most of the 2nd Marines landed before Admiral Turner’s departure. Admiral Ghormley agreed to Vandegrift’s proposal, and on 9 August he directed the 2nd Marines to remain in the Guadalcanal-Tulagi area if they had already landed. The remainder of the regiment, 1,390 men, debarked at Espiritu Santo on 12 August.
Colonel Arthur, commanding the 2nd Marines, and his staff remained at Espiritu Santo for a few days, and on 22 August landed at Tulagi from the Alhena. The first ships to reach Guadalcanal after the landing were destroyer-transports which on 15 August put ashore aviation ground crews and supplies. By 20 August, when the bulk of Task Force 62 was operating out of Noumea, six destroyer-transports had been assembled to run between Espiritu Santo and Guadalcanal. The next day the destroyer-transports Colhoun, Gregory, and Little brought 120 tons of rations, enough for 3½ days, to Guadalcanal, and the seaplane tender MacFarland landed more aviation materiel. The original plan of 12 August for the destroyer-transports to operate under McCain was changed on 17 August, when Admiral Ghormley charged Turner’s force (Task Force 62) with the responsibility of establishing the line of communications to Guadalcanal. Task Force 62 was to defend and strengthen the Marine garrison there. Turner would plan and control all surface movements to Guadalcanal, including that of aviation personnel and materiel. Admiral McCain was to notify Turner whenever such personnel and supplies were available for shipment by water.
The arrival of fighter planes at Henderson Field permitted large ships to enter Sealark Channel in daylight with some degree of safety. The cargo ships Alhena and Fomalhaut, escorted by destroyers, succeeded in landing some supplies and weapons during daylight on 22 and 23 August, although one of the destroyers was torpedoed and sunk. Seven destroyer-transports and destroyers brought supplies to Guadalcanal and Tulagi on 29 August. The small amounts involved in these shipments may be illustrated by the fact that the Colhoun was carrying only seventeen tons of stores when she was sunk in the afternoon of 30 August during an attack on the ships by eighteen enemy bombers.
By the end of August the 1st Marine Division was in a slightly stronger position than had been the case on 9 August. The defenses of the airfield had been established, the field was in operation, the Ichiki Force had been defeated, and a tenuous line of communications between Espiritu Santo and Guadalcanal had been established. But the Americans were not yet firmly established on Guadalcanal.
Source: Guadalcanal: The First Offensive ; BY: John Miller, Jr. (United States Army Center of Military History)