Insufficiency of troops and weapons imposed severe limitations on the Marine garrison at Lunga Point. The number of troops available to General Vandegrift in late August and early September was too small to permit a sufficient extension of his defenses for the protection of Henderson Field from infantry attacks and artillery bombardments. He believed that to prevent enemy landings and protect the field, a 45-mile-long stretch of Guadalcanal’s north coast should be held. But with less than 20,000 troops on Lunga Point, only a small area could be securely defended. Not until more troops arrived could offensive action be undertaken to keep the Japanese beyond artillery range of Henderson Field. In late August and early September the Japanese forces on Guadalcanal were not able to mount sustained attacks against the Lunga defenses, but aircraft and warships exerted almost continuous pressure by repeated bombardments. Almost daily, Japanese bombers from Rabaul attacked Henderson Field at noon during August, September, and October; a few warships and submarines sailed into Sealark Channel nearly every night to shell the airfield. General Vandegrift, forced to remain on the defensive within a restricted area, concentrated on the improvement of his air defenses, while awaiting the arrival of more troops and supplies.
Air Power and Supply
Radars and 5-inch guns of the 3rd Defense Battalion had been added to the Lunga defenses in late August. The 5-inch guns of the battalion’s two coastal batteries were equipped with permanent mounts. These guns, landed without their trailers and sleds, were manhandled into positions on the beach east and west of the Lunga River, a task requiring ten days of hard labor. Set up on the beach to cover the channel, the 5-inch guns were frequently in action against Japanese warships but lacked enough hitting power to be completely effective.
Three automatic weapons and two 90-mm. antiaircraft batteries were assigned to the defense of the airfield before the end of August, and in early September, following the landing of antiaircraft guns of a detachment of the 5th Defense Battalion on Tulagi, one more 90-mm. battery of the 3rd Defense Battalion was transferred from Tulagi to Guadalcanal. But the battalion could not provide a complete defense.
The Lunga beachhead was too restricted to permit the posting of pick-up searchlights where they could illuminate attacking aircraft soon enough for the gun batteries to fire with complete effectiveness. To catch a plane early in its bombing run would have necessitated placing the lights at points 6,000 to 10,000 yards from the batteries. In September, however, the beachhead was less than 10,000 yards east to west and less than 5,000 yards north to south.
The radar sets supplied to the 3rd Defense Battalion were not uniformly good. The long-range warning set, SCR (Signal Corps Radio) 270, worked well, but the SCR 268, a primitive set originally designed for searchlight control, was not accurate enough for controlling 90-mm. gunfire at night. The guns of only one of the three 90-mm. batteries were equipped with remote control systems by means of which they could be automatically trained by the gun-laying fire control directors. In the other two batteries, the guns had to be trained by hand, a much less accurate method.
During daylight fighter aircraft could usually afford Henderson Field reasonably adequate protection against enemy planes, but at night antiaircraft guns provided the main defense. The effectiveness of Henderson Field’s aircraft was demonstrated on 24 August when Marine fighters intercepted the regular noon Japanese bombing attack and destroyed five twin-engined and five single-engined bombers and eleven fighters. The marines lost three fighters and their pilots. But the accuracy of General Harmon’s prediction that the attrition rate would be heavy was proved the next day when General Vandegrift reported to Admiral Turner that of the thirty-one Marine aircraft which had arrived on 20 August only twenty remained serviceable. One fighter had crashed on the field, four had been lost in action and three were being repaired; one bomber had crashed and two were being repaired.
General Vandegrift requested more planes; and on 29 August he repeated his request. Just eight Grumman fighters, the only planes with the ability to attain enough altitude to intercept the Japanese, remained in commission, although all fourteen of the P-400’s were operational. The next day the P-400’s fought with the Japanese and destroyed five planes but lost four of their own number. By 30 August only five of the original Grumman fighters would fly, but twenty-nine more fighters and dive bombers had reached Henderson Field.
Admiral McCain suggested that two more F4F or P-38 squadrons be used at Henderson Field; if this were done, he believed, Allied air strength would turn Guadalcanal into a “sinkhole” for Japanese air power. Admiral Ghormley, asserting that Guadalcanal could not be defended without more fighters, concurred with McCain. When Admiral Ghormley asked General MacArthur for P-38’s, the Southwest Pacific commander replied that he had in his theater only six operational P-38’s which he needed badly, but he promised P-39’s at a later date.
Throughout September the lack of adequate fighter strength continued to be serious, and the lack of sufficient air supplies and ground crews prevented the field from being used as a permanent base for heavy bombers. The inability of the P-400’s to fight at high altitudes required that all aircraft which could be spared from the Enterprise and the Saratoga be used at Henderson Field. Admiral Nimitz and General Harmon also asked the Joint Chiefs of Staff for high-altitude Army fighters, but none were immediately available.
Yet fighters were absolutely essential for the security of Lunga Point which was being raided almost daily by Japanese bomber forces. On 10 September eleven Grumman fighters rose to meet a flight of twenty-seven twin-engined bombers, escorted by thirty Zeroes, that attacked at 1225. Four bombers were destroyed for the loss of one Grumman. Despite their limited numbers, the effectiveness of American planes and tactics was being constantly demonstrated against the Japanese. One patrolling B-17 destroyed four attacking fighters on 12 September; the next day another shot down two more. On the same day six Grumman torpedo bombers (TBF’s) and twelve more dive bombers arrived at Guadalcanal to strengthen the meager air forces, and twenty F4F’s intercepted a flight of twenty-eight escorted twin-engined bombers fourteen miles north of Henderson Field. The Marine fighters attacked, shot down four bombers and four fighters, and forced the rest of the bombers to jettison their bombs and retire.
The Japanese, pressing their attacks in spite of these losses, sorely tested the endurance of the defenders of Henderson Field. The feelings of the men who suffered the bombardments are expressed by the historian of the 67th Fighter Squadron: Almost daily, and almost always at the same time—noon, “Tojo Time”—the bombers came. There would be 18 to 24 of them, high in the sun and in their perfect V-of-V’s formation. They would be accompanied by 20 or more Zeroes, cavorting in batches of 3, nearby. Their bombing was accurate, and they would stay in formation and make their bombing run even as they knew the deadly fire from the Grumman’s would hit any minute.
There was a routine of noises at Tojo Time. First the red and white flag (a captured Japanese rising sun) would go up at the pagoda. That meant scramble. Every airplane that would fly would start up immediately and all would rush for the runway, dodging bomb craters. Often through the swirling dust the ground crews would see a wing drop. That meant another plane had taxied [into] a dud hole or a small crater, indistinct in the tall grass. The first planes to the runway took off first, and two at a time, whether…Grumman’s, dive-bombers or P-400’s.
The formations would join later in the air. The P-400’s and dive-bombers would fly away to work over the Jap territory. The Grummans would climb for altitude, test-firing their guns on the way. The whining of engines at high r.p.m.. the chatter of machine guns, and settling dust. On the ground the men would put in a few more minutes’ work, watching the pagoda all the while. Then the black flag would go up. It was amazing how fast the tired and hungry men could sprint. … In a moment the field would be deserted.
Then the high, sing-song whine of the bombers would intrude as a new sound, separate from the noise of the climbing Grummans. Only a few moments now. The sing-song would grow louder. Then: swish, swish, swish. And the men would pull the chin straps of their helmets tighter and tense their muscles and press harder against the earth in their foxholes. And pray.
Then: WHAM! (the first one hit) WHAM! (closer) WHAM! (walking right up to your foxhole) . . . WHAAA MM! (Oh Christ!) WHAM! (Thank God, they missed us!) WHAM! (the bombs were walking away) WHAM! (they still shook the earth, and dirt trickled in). WHAM!
It was over. The men jumped out to see if their buddies in the surrounding fox holes had been hit. The anti-aircraft still made a deafening racket. Grass fires were blazing. There was the pop-pop-pop of exploding ammunition in the burning airplanes on the ground. The reek of cordite. Overhead the Grumman’s dived with piercing screams. And the Jap bombers left smoke trails as they plummeted into [the] sea.
In a little while the airplanes would return. The ground crews would count them as they landed. The ambulance would stand, engine running, ready for those who crashed, landed dead stick, or hit the bomb craters in the runway. Then the work of patching and repairing the battered fighters would start again.
But naval shelling’s were much worse:… a bombing is bad, because as the big planes drone overhead the whole field seems to shrink up to the size of your foxhole and when the bombs start to wish-swish-swish in their fall they seem to be aimed right at that tiny spot. But a bombing is over in a minute. A shelling, however, is unmitigated, indescribable hell. It can go on for a few minutes or four hours. When the shells scream overhead you cringe expecting a hit and when there is a let-up you tremble knowing that they are getting their range and the next one will be a hit.
During early September the flow of supplies to the beleaguered garrison on Lunga Point increased slightly, for the American victory in the Battle of the Eastern Solomon’s effected a greater measure of security for the line of communications between Espiritu Santo and Guadalcanal. The destroyer Helm towed three harbor patrol boats to Tulagi on 31 August. The transport Betelgeuse put 200 men of the 6th Naval Construction Battalion ashore on 1 September.
The Fomalhaut and three destroyer-transports landed more supplies on 3 September. The destroyer-transports Little and Gregory followed on the next day, when the Gregory took the 1st Raider Battalion on a patrol to Savo Island. No Japanese were found there, and the battalion withdrew. But on the night of 4-5 September, a superior force of enemy warships sank both the Little and Gregory in Sealark Channel.
The cargo ships Bellatrix and Fuller sailed into Sealark Channel on 7 September, but before they could discharge all their cargo the threat of enemy attack forced them to retire. Escorted by two destroyers, they returned one week later, arriving at 0730, 14 September. General Vandegrift ordered the Bellatrix to unload her gasoline at Tulagi because the Lunga area was under attack. During the day the Bellatrix also transferred the 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marines, from Tulagi to Guadalcanal, and at 1915 the four ships departed.
The Counteroffensive, 12-14 September
After the Ilu engagement on 20-21 August, the marines fought no major engagements until mid-September. An attempt in late August by the 1st Battalion of the 5th Marines to clear the enemy out of the Kokumbona area had failed to accomplish substantial results. Japanese forces were again gathering east of the Ilu. Native scouts had reported in late August that about two or three hundred well-equipped Japanese were building defensive works at the village of Tasimboko, some eighteen miles east of Lunga Point. In early September the native scouts reported that the enemy force at Tasimboko numbered several thousand troops, instead of two or three hundred. Division headquarters discounted this information but determined to destroy the force at Tasimboko by a hit-and-run raid. The force selected for the raid consisted of a provisional battalion composed of the 1st Raider and 1st Parachute Battalions under Colonel Edson’s command. The two understrength units, rested after their hard fighting on 7-8 August, had been brought to Guadalcanal from Tulagi, Gavutu, and Tanambogo and formed, with their companies intact, into a provisional battalion.
The raiders and parachutists were to sail from Lunga to a point east of Tasimboko on destroyer-transports, and land in the rear of the enemy. Because there were not enough ships, the destroyer-transports carried the raider companies to Tasimboko first, then returned to Lunga Point for the parachutists.
The raider companies landed east of Tasimboko at dawn on 8 September, followed by the parachute companies. Advancing west, the raiders met a weak enemy force shortly after daybreak. They overran a Japanese outpost unit and captured one battery of light artillery. Supported by P-400’s and SBD’s from Henderson Field, they pushed west to the outskirts of Tasimboko where enemy resistance grew stronger. But the raiders pressed their attack, and forced the Japanese to evacuate the village. During the raid, the marines destroyed large stores of medical equipment, ammunition, radios, landing craft, four 75-mm. guns, and one 37-mm. gun. At a cost to themselves of two killed and six wounded, they killed twenty-seven Japanese. Contact with the enemy was lost at 1230, and the marines returned east to board the transports.
The raiders had set out expecting to find a few exhausted and poorly armed Japanese. Instead they had met elements of a strong force with artillery support, which General Vandegrift subsequently estimated to number between 3,000 and 4,000 men. The enemy had avoided action with the small raiding force which had engaged only the outposts. The fact that the Japanese main body did not attack the raiders is surprising, for the natives’ reports had been correct. A strong enemy force had been landed near Taivu Point.
The units which the raiders had met were part of the recently landed Kawaguchi Force. This Force, the nucleus of which was Colonel Akinosuka Oka’s 124th Infantry, had originally been the 35th Brigade, a part of the 18th Division in China, until that division was tri-angularized in December 1941 and sent to Burma. On 6 December 1941, the Kawaguchi Force sailed from China for Borneo and landed there on 16 December. In March 1942 it arrived at Cebu in the Philippines, then proceeded to Mindanao in April. In June 1942 the Kawaguchi Force left for the Palau Islands, where it received 1,000 replacements. It was then alerted for New Guinea. The Force stayed in the Palaus until late August, when it departed to stage through Truk and sail in successive echelons for Guadalcanal.
The Kawaguchi Force echelons arrived at Guadalcanal between 29 August and 11 September; they landed at night from destroyer-transports and transports. The Force was composed of the Ichiki Force rear echelon (a part of the reinforced 2nd Battalion, 28th Infantry); the 124th Infantry, and the 2nd Battalion, 4th Infantry, plus antitank, signal, engineer, and artillery elements. It included over 6,000 men.
The 1st Marine Division’s report subsequently estimated that total enemy strength on Guadalcanal at this time amounted to 7,000 men. The majority of the Kawaguchi Force—the 1st and 3rd Battalions, 124th Infantry, and the Ichiki rear echelon—had landed with General Kawaguchi near Taivu in late August and early September. Colonel Oka, with his regimental headquarters and the 2nd Battalion, 124th Infantry, landed at Kokumbona west of Lunga Point on 6 September.
The 2nd Battalion, 4th Infantry, was normally a part of the 2nd Division but was attached temporarily to General Kawaguchi’s command. By the time the last units had landed, General Kawaguchi had assembled over 6,000 men, but they were divided between two widely separated points. On 8 September the main body was in the vicinity of Taivu Point, while Colonel Oka with a smaller force was in the vicinity of Kokumbona, more than thirty miles west of Kawaguchi’s position. Kawaguchi had been ordered to reconnoiter and decide whether his men were capable of seizing the airfield at once, or if they should first be reinforced. Confidently believing that reinforcements were unnecessary, he determined to attack immediately.
About 2 September Kawaguchi’s engineers, using hand tools, started to cut a trail from Tasimboko through the jungle toward a point south of Henderson Field. Tough vines, heavy undergrowth, dense forest, and steep ravines and ridges along the route of approach made all movement difficult in that area. As the trail progressed, infantry and artillery units followed the engineers. Documents captured later indicated that the Japanese had planned a co-ordinated attack, with strong air and naval surface support against three separate sectors. The plan involved moving against the Lunga defenses from the west, south, and east. The western force was out of physical contact with Kawaguchi’s main body, which was then proceeding through the jungle toward the 1st Marine Division’s south and east flanks.
The 1st Marine Division headquarters was well aware that an attack was impending. Land patrols, observation posts, and patrolling aircraft were furnishing data on the enemy to the intelligence section. South and southeast of the Lunga defenses patrols of marines and native scouts clashed regularly with the Japanese. Accumulated evidence demonstrated that Kawaguchi’s column was advancing toward the Lunga, but division headquarters did not know Kawaguchi’s exact location until he attacked.
The marines, meanwhile, had improved their defenses. The Lunga garrison, strengthened by the raiders and parachutists, was also augmented by the 2nd Battalion of the 5th Marines, which was brought over from Tulagi on 21 August and assigned for a time as regimental reserve in the 5th Marines’ sector west of the Lunga River. In preparation for an attack from the east the 1st Marines completed the extension of the east flank line to a point about 4,000 yards inland from the mouth of the Ilu. The right (south) flank of the line was unprotected. In the west sector a 4,000-yard gap between the Lunga River and the 5th Marines’ lines southwest of Kukum lay open in the inland area. The pioneers held one strong point in this gap on a small ridge west of the river, and amphibian tractor drivers held a second separate strong point on a large open ridge northwest of the pioneers. General Vandegrift realized that a coordinated attack could penetrate these defenses, but he expected that the reserve would be able to contain any force attacking there before it reached the airfield.
East of the Lunga in the 1st Marines’ sector the southern line was almost as weak. An outpost line extended across 4,000 yards of rough jungle between the east flank and the Lunga River. This line was held by the 1st Marines, and by artillerymen, engineers, and pioneers. The outpost line ran north of the low ridge, later called Bloody or Edson’s Ridge, which lies about 800 yards east of the Lunga River. The dense growth and the rough ridges limited fields of fire; there were not enough troops to hold a continuous line in force. At the edge of the jungle at the north end of the ridge was the division command post.
General Vandegrift ordered the Raider-Parachute Battalion out of division reserve to develop a defense position along Bloody Ridge south of the outpost line. He believed that if it was undefended, the ridge would provide the enemy with a good route of approach to the airfield. The 1st Pioneer Battalion had already bivouacked northwest of the ridge along the east bank of the Lunga, and the 1st Engineer Battalion had bivouacked northeast of the ridge to help prevent the Japanese from advancing north along the Lunga or through the jungle east of the ridge.
Action on Bloody Ridge
On 12 September the Raider-Parachute Battalion attempted to patrol south along the ridge but met enemy rifle fire. The battalion dug in for the night on the southernmost knoll. During the night of 12-13 September there was continuous firing along the ridge. That the enemy had penetrated to the jungles around the ridge was obvious, but the dense growth and the blackness of the night limited visibility from Bloody Ridge. At one time during the night some Japanese actually broke through the sketchy positions of the Raider-Parachute Battalion, but apparently failed to realize it for they made no effort to exploit their advantage.
The Raider-Parachute Battalion attempted a further advance after daybreak on 13 September, but failed to gain. Exhausted by righting in the heat, it halted in the afternoon to establish a slightly stronger, higher position about 250 yards north of its bivouac of 12-13 August. On the right the raiders had made a tenuous connection with the pioneers, but the left flank was open. The 2nd Battalion of the 5th Marines, then in division reserve, moved to the south edge of the airfield on the afternoon of 13 September to effect the relief of the Raider-Parachute Battalion the next morning. One battery of the 5th Battalion, 11th Marines (105-mm. howitzers), had been assigned to provide direct-support to the ridge area. Men from the 11th Marines Special Weapons Battery maintained an observation post on the ridge. In the afternoon the battery had registered on areas in the south but accurate plotting was impossible because there were no reliable maps.
On the ridge itself two companies of parachutists were holding the eastern spur of the center knoll, with their left flank uncovered; B Company of the Raiders held the center of the knoll on the parachutists’ right. Posted on the right between the ridge and the Lunga River was A Company, and C Company was the battalion reserve. During the last hours of daylight on 13 September the troops dug in and extended their fields of fire.
Enemy aircraft attacked Lunga Point repeatedly during the day. American fighter planes forced one wave of bombers to turn back, but at 1020, 1320, and 1750 Japanese bombers protected by fighter escort came over to attack Henderson Field and positions adjacent to the ridge.
Shortly after nightfall on 13 September rocket flares over Bloody Ridge announced the opening of an attack by at least two battalions of the Kawaguchi Force. Without any artillery preparation, the main body attacked north against the center of the ridge while one force cut through the jungle west of the ridge and isolated the right platoon of B Company of the raiders and cut off A Company. Though surrounded, the platoon from B Company fought its way about 250 yards to the rear to join the battalion reserve on the northernmost knoll.
The Japanese exploited the gap between the raider companies and the pioneer companies by moving strong parties in, while at other points small groups infiltrated through to cut telephone wires. B Company of the raiders, in danger of envelopment, refused its right flank along the western slopes of the ridge. The registered battery of the 5th Battalion, 11th Marines, opened fire on the enemy at 2100, joined shortly thereafter by a second and then a third battery. All batteries fired over the heads of the marines on the ridge. As the enemy attack grew in intensity the 5th Battalion began firing heavy concentrations. Communications between the fire direction center and the forward observers were broken for about two hours, but the artillery continued to fire without observation.
While continuing the attack against B Company on the center of the ridge, the Japanese put heavy mortar fire on the parachutists’ positions on B Company’s left. At 2230, shouting loudly, the Japanese infantry stormed the parachutists’ lines and drove them back off their eastern spur. This exposed B Company to attack from three sides. Colonel Edson, commanding the Raider-Parachute Battalion, decided to withdraw B Company from its dangerous position and to rally his forces on the northern knoll of Bloody Ridge, the battalion reserve line. Using C Company of the raiders as a nucleus, Colonel Edson and Major Kenneth Bailey, the executive officer, successfully re-established the lines on the last knoll in front of Henderson Field and the division command post.
The Japanese, continuing their attacks, advanced uphill against artillery, mortar, machine-gun, and rifle fire and grenades. As at the Ilu, these assaults failed to break the last lines. Kawaguchi’s forces attacked Bloody Ridge about twelve times during the night. The direction and objective of every attack was -preceded by a rocket flare, each of which served as a point of reference for the fire of the 5th Battalion, 11th Marines. From 2100, 13 September, until dawn the next day, the 105-mm. howitzer batteries fired 1,992 rounds in support of the Raider-Parachute Battalion at ranges as short as 1,600 yards. They sometimes put shells within 200 yards of the front lines, which was generally considered to be an unusually short distance in the early days of the war. By 0230 Colonel Edson had concluded that his troops could hold out, although they were still under attack. As morning drew near the vigor of the Japanese assaults declined. By dawn of 14 September the Raider-Parachute Battalion was still holding the last knoll on Bloody Ridge. The Japanese attacks had ceased. After aircraft took off from Henderson Field and drove the remaining enemy from Bloody Ridge, the Kawaguchi Force began to retreat.
Action on the Flanks
While the main enemy body was attacking Bloody Ridge, a second unit of the Kawaguchi Force had attacked west about midnight against the right flank of the 3rd Battalion, 1st Marines, on the Ilu. Here the line lay along the edge of the jungle in front of a 700-yard-deep flat, grassy plain to the east. The front was wired in; fields of fire had been prepared by burning and trampling the grass. The right end of the line was without flank protection and thus was open to envelopment.
About two companies of Japanese attacked against the front of the right flank unit, but failed to penetrate the line.23 A fire fight developed which lasted throughout the night, but the 1st Marines’ positions were never seriously endangered. During the day division headquarters, believing that the force still facing the 1st Marines on the east flank was composed of one infantry battalion supported by artillery, sent six light tanks across the plain to destroy the enemy. When they made repeated sorties over the same routes of approach, three tanks were hit by antitank gunfire and one overturned in a creek. The Japanese did not attack the 1st Marines again but engaged the right flank of the east line with desultory fire until 16 September.
A third Japanese force, probably under Colonel Oka’s command, struck on the afternoon of 14 September in the west sector. Part of the 3rd Battalion of the 5th Marines was holding the sector from the coast inland to a ridge which commanded the coastal road. The Japanese, debouching from the jungles, struck suddenly at the ridge but failed to take it and were driven back down the slopes by infantry counterattacks and artillery fire.
The exact composition of the three Japanese attacking forces is not clear. The 1st and 3rd Battalions of the 124th Infantry and the 2nd Battalion of the 4th Infantry probably delivered the assault against Bloody Ridge while the Ichiki Force rear echelon may have attacked the 1st Marines. The 2nd Battalion, 124th Infantry, probably delivered the weak attack against the 5th Marines on 14 September.
Marine casualties on Bloody Ridge were about 20 percent of the total force engaged. Thirty-one were killed, 103 wounded, and 9 missing. The Japanese casualties were much higher. Of an estimated 2,000 who attacked Bloody Ridge, about 600 were killed on the ridge itself. After its repulse, the Kawaguchi Force began to retreat, carrying its wounded in litters. The Japanese had entered the action with only a few days’ rations, and these seem to have been quickly exhausted. About 400 men of the 2nd Battalion, 28th Infantry (Ichiki’s rear echelon) made their way east to Koli Point. Some troops of the 2nd Battalion, 4th Infantry, were also reported to have gone to Koli Point. The remainder of the Kawaguchi Force retreated to the west by cutting a trail around the rough southern slopes of Mount Austen to Kokumbona. Many of the wounded died, and the weakened survivors buried dead soldiers, heavy equipment, and artillery pieces along the way. The journey took over a week. The Japanese reported that 633 men were killed in action, and 505 wounded.
That the Kawaguchi Force could offer no immediate threat to Henderson Field was indicated in the week following the Bloody Ridge action. Marine patrols fought a series of successful engagements with Japanese units along the upper reaches of the Lunga River. They found stocks of the equipment, ammunition, small arms, and guns of two field artillery batteries which the Kawaguchi Force had abandoned. The second and more formidable threat to Henderson Field had been successfully averted.
By mid-September the Marines, besides capturing the airfield, had fought two successful defensive actions and conducted minor offensive actions in the Matanikau area. Neither combat reinforcements nor additional ammunition had yet been sent to Guadalcanal. When Vandegrift had persuaded Turner in August that the 2nd Marines should remain with the 1st Division, he had also asked Turner to consider sending the 7th Marines from Samoa to rejoin the division on Guadalcanal.
Allied aerial reconnaissance in September showed that the Japanese were building up their strength at Rabaul, and Admiral Ghormley concluded that the Japanese could be expected to continue their ground operations in New Guinea and to mount a large-scale counteroffensive to retake the Lunga airfield.
Turner believed that until the Allies could muster sufficient strength to keep the Japanese air and surface forces away from Guadalcanal, additional positions there should be established outside the Lunga defenses. These additional positions should be strong enough to withstand direct enemy attack. From these new positions patrols could destroy enemy forces which succeeded in landing elsewhere along the coast. On 9 September Turner recommended to Ghormley that the reinforced 7th Marines establish the first additional position at Taivu Point, about twenty-five statute miles east of Lunga Point. Admiral Ghormley decided to withhold his final decision until Turner visited Guadalcanal to decide whether the 7th Marines could be used more advantageously at Taivu or at Lunga Point.
The 7th Marines and part of the 5th Defense Battalion had embarked on seven ships at Samoa on 2 September with equipment and vehicles. The ships had sailed under escort for Espiritu Santo, where they arrived on 12 September. While en route, the commanders of the transport division, the 7th Marines, and the 5th Defense Battalion detachment had been ordered to prepare landing plans for both Ndeni and Taivu Point.
In the meantime Admiral Turner had flown to Guadalcanal to confer with General Vandegrift, who wished the 7th Marines to reinforce the Lunga defenses. They agreed that while a wide deployment along the coast would be essential for ultimate security, the most pressing need was the reinforcement of the Lunga area by the 7th Marines. Admiral Turner presented these recommendations to Admiral Ghormley on 12 September, and the next day Ghormley ordered the 7th Marines to reinforce the Guadalcanal garrison as soon as possible. a time, and on 2 October occupied the island of Funafuti in the Ellice Group, about 1,250 miles to the east of Guadalcanal.
For the movement of the 7th Marines to Guadalcanal, Admiral Turner organized a new task force—Task Force 65. The transport group of the force consisted of two transport divisions of three ships each. The 7th Marines, Reinforced, including the 1st Battalion of the 11th Marines (75-mm. pack howitzers), comprised the landing force. Three cruisers, including the New Zealand cruiser Leander, plus destroyers and minesweepers were to screen the transports.
Task Force 65, under Turner’s command, sailed from Espiritu Santo at 0515, 14 September. The situation was delicate. The remaining Allied naval forces in the South Pacific were supporting Turner’s force but were inferior in strength to the Japanese. Many enemy ships were present in the Solomons waters. On 15 September Turner decided not to continue toward Guadalcanal, for some Japanese warships had been reported to be operating near Santa Cruz and the Shortlands, and warships were shelling the Lunga area almost nightly.
He did not wish to risk being attacked by the Japanese during debarkation. At 1500, 15 September, his force retired to a point southeast of San Cristobal to await more favorable conditions. Twenty-four hours later the force turned north toward the east end of San Cristobal to be in position to land the 7th Marines on Guadalcanal on 18 September. As the Japanese did not attack, Admiral Turner decided on 17 September to proceed with the landing plans.
General Vandegrift had wished to extend the east flank of the Lunga position one mile beyond the Ilu, and the 7th Marines were to have landed at Beach Red. After the night battle of 13-14 September he decided not to extend his flank, and suggested that the 7th Marines land between the Lunga and the Ilu Rivers. As heavy weather and rolling seas made this area unusable, Admiral Turner decided to land at Kukum where the beach was more sheltered. He planned to spend no more than twelve hours unloading off Kukum as his force would have to clear Sealark Channel before nightfall to avoid enemy warships. He desired to put ashore within that time all troops, weapons, and essential equipment, three units of fire, forty days’ rations, and the vehicles carried on board the six transports.
The force anchored off Kukum on the morning of 18 September and by 0550 had begun unloading. As Japanese aircraft did not attack during the day, unloading operations proceeded without interruption until 1800. The MacFarland and the Tracy also sailed into the channel about 1000, followed by the Bellatrix at 1300, and all three ships, which were not part of Task Force 65, began unloading an emergency shipment of aviation gasoline.
The results of the day’s operations, according to Turner, actually exceeded his expectations. Four thousand, one hundred and eighty men of the reinforced 7th Marines came safely ashore.33 One hundred forty-seven vehicles were landed, together with 90 percent of the engineering equipment, 82.5 percent of the organizational equipment, nearly all the ammunition, 82 tons of B rations, 930 tons of C and D rations, nearly all quartermaster stores, and 60 percent of the tentage. The McCawley, Bellatrix, MacFarland, and Tracy put 3,823 drums of fuel ashore. Still on board were 13 officers and 244 enlisted men; 15 tanks; 8,825 tons of B, C, and D rations, and 73 vehicles. The ammunition landed at this time was the first shipment which the 1st Marine Division had received in response to its request for 10,000 rounds of 37-mm. canister and 10,000 hand grenades on 22 August.
Turner’s force, having taken on board the 1st Parachute Battalion, 162 American wounded, and 8 Japanese prisoners, sailed for Espiritu Santo at 1800, 18 September, followed by the gasoline ships. Enemy warships entered Sealark Channel from the north on the night of 18-19 September but did not pursue the retiring task force.
Because Japanese warships regularly operated in Sealark Channel at night, Admiral Turner specified on 24 September that any vessels carrying supplies to Lunga Point were to unload only during daylight. If not fully unloaded they were to retire eastward out of the channel at night and return to the Point at dawn. Following these orders, the Betelgeuse, escorted by one destroyer, unloaded off Lunga Point from 0628 to 1830, 24 September, and then retired eastward.
The ships returned at 0530 the next morning to discharge cargo, and withdrew again for the night. They anchored once more off Lunga Point at 0630, 26 September, to resume unloading. During the same morning the Alhena, escorted by one destroyer, sailed into Sealark Channel to unload. The Betelgeuse and her escort retired, completely unloaded, at 1500. The Alhena sailed out of the channel at 2045, returned the next morning, and continued the process until 1200, 29 September, when she had discharged all her cargo.
Admiral Turner’s orders on 29 September defined ships’ operations more explicitly. Thereafter, ships of the Amphibious Force were to load cargo specifically either for Guadalcanal or Tulagi. Unless otherwise ordered they were to load no more than 3,000 tons, a quantity which could be unloaded in twenty-four hours. Ships discharging cargo off Guadalcanal, standing in the open channel, were to unload only during daylight, but ships unloading in the greater security of Tulagi Harbor could unload continuously. By about 18 September logistic support of the 1st Marine Division had improved sufficiently to restore full rations to all combat troops. By the end of the month, the Guadalcanal garrison’s troop strength was still low; 19,251 men were on Guadalcanal, 3,260 on Tulagi.
Actions on the Matanikau
The addition of the 7th Marines to the Lunga garrison and the arrival of more aircraft at Henderson Field made possible an improvement of the Lunga Point defenses. For the first time, General Vandegrift was able to establish a complete perimeter defense. On 19 September he divided the Lunga area into ten sectors. Defenses of the seven inland sectors on the west, east, and south were strengthened by the addition of infantry battalions. Two battalions constituted the division reserve. Each infantry regiment was to maintain one battalion in reserve, under regimental control but available for commitment by division headquarters if necessary. The 3rd Defense Battalion, commanded by Colonel Pepper, with the 1st Special Weapons Battalion attached, continued to be responsible for providing beach and antiaircraft defense. Each night the three beach sectors were to be strengthened by men of the pioneer, engineer, and amphibian tractor battalions who performed their regular duties during the day and helped to man the beach lines after dark.
The defense thus established was generally circular. Though some areas could not be strongly held, there were no exposed flanks and no large gaps. The southern (inland) area still posed problems which could not be completely solved. Positions on open ridges could be organized in depth, but on the low ground the dense vegetation prevented the establishment of completely mutually supporting positions. There were not enough men to carry out the enormous task of clearing fields of fire for a line which ran through 14,000 yards of jungle. Whenever possible the main line of resistance followed the hills and ridges. The field fortifications included foxholes and splinter-proof machine gun emplacements of logs and sandbags. Sufficient barbed wire had been brought to the marines to enable them to begin to wire in the whole front behind two bands of double apron fence with trip wires between the bands. The 11th Marines, strengthened by the 75-mm. pack howitzers of the 1st Battalion, remained grouped inside the perimeter to provide fire support to all sectors. Although this cordon defense was far from ideal, it provided strong fire power and presented a continuous line to prevent enemy infiltration. It was vulnerable to intensive artillery fire, but as General Vandegrift observed, the Japanese demonstrated “a lack of efficiency and a low order of professional technique” in the use of artillery.
The division was now ready to take the offensive. After the Bloody Ridge engagement, division headquarters knew that a sizable enemy force was operating from Matanikau village west of the river, in Kokumbona, and was occasionally patrolling Mount Austen. These troops were from the 4th Infantry of the 2nd Division and the Kawaguchi Force. The rest of the 4th Infantry had landed west of the Matanikau in mid-September to join forces with its 2nd Battalion. Reasonably sure that the Japanese could offer no immediate threat to the south and east sectors, the 1st Division planned to clear the enemy out of the areas to the west by a series of offensives in regimental strength. Once those in the Matanikau area had been driven out or destroyed, the division would be able to establish defense positions to keep the Japanese beyond striking distance of Lunga Point.
The first plan called for operations by the newly arrived 1st Battalion, 7th Marines, and the 1st Raider Battalion. Lieutenant Colonel Lewis B. Puller commanded the 1st Battalion of the 7th Marines; the raiders were then commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Samuel B. Griffith, II. Colonel Edson, recently promoted to full colonel’s rank, had taken command of the 5th Marines on 21 September after Colonel Hunt’s departure for the United States.
On 23 September Colonel Puller’s battalion was to proceed southwest to Mount Austen, advance west along its northern slopes, and cross the Matanikau inland to patrol the area between the river and Kokumbona. This patrol action was to be concluded by 26 September. On that day the raiders were to advance west along the coast road to establish a temporary patrol base at Kokumbona where several inland trails intersected the coast road. Control of Kokumbona would not only deny a good landing beach to the Japanese, but would also prevent them from using the trails to advance inland. The 1st Battalion, 7th Marines, passed through the perimeter defense line on 23 September. Upon reaching the Mount Austen area, it surprised and scattered a Japanese force shortly after sunset on 24 September. The battalion was reinforced by the 2nd Battalion of the 5th Marines the next morning.
Two companies of the 1st Battalion were detached to escort the marine wounded back to the perimeter. The main body of Puller’s force moved slowly toward the Matanikau, and reached the river the next day, 25 September. As Colonel Puller had been ordered to conclude his patrol on 26 September, he did not cross the Matanikau, but turned north and patrolled along the east bank to the river mouth, where he intended to cross the river. When the force reached the mouth it started across the sand bar, but was forced back by heavy Japanese mortar fire from the west bank. The colonel called for and received artillery support, but the fire failed to dislodge the Japanese, who were strongly entrenched in carefully prepared positions.
The 1st Raider Battalion had meanwhile reached the river mouth en route to Kokumbona. Division headquarters ordered the raiders to join forces with Colonel Puller’s force to attack west the next day, 27 September. Colonel Edson was assigned to command the combined forces, with Puller as second-in-command. Edson ordered the 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines, to attack west across the river mouth, while the raiders moved upstream to cross the river at a stream junction about 2,000 yards from the mouth.
Both battalions moved to the attack in the morning, but failed to gain ground. The 2nd Battalion was unable to establish itself on the west bank. The raiders meanwhile had advanced to the high ground (Hill 67) on the east bank about 1,500 yards south of the beach where they were halted by unexpected enemy fire. During the previous night a Japanese force had crossed upstream to the east bank and occupied Hill 65, about 850 yards south of Hill 67. In the raiders’ attempt to advance Colonel Griffith was wounded and Major Bailey, the battalion executive officer, was killed.
Unable to move farther, the raider battalion sent a message to Colonel Edson to explain the situation, but in the haste and excitement of battle it was badly phrased. Colonel Edson concluded from the message that the raiders had crossed the river and were meeting resistance in the village of Matanikau itself. He decided on a new plan of attack which was based on the erroneous assumption that the raiders had reached Matanikau. The raiders were to resume the advance at 1330, while the 2nd Battalion, 5th, attacked across the river mouth. Colonel Puller’s 1st Battalion, 7th Marines, was to embark in landing craft at Kukum, land west of Point Cruz, and attack the Japanese in Matanikau from the rear. The 1st Battalion, supported by fire from the destroyer Ballard, landed west of Point Cruz as ordered, and advanced toward the first ridge about 350 yards inland. No sooner had it gained the ridge than a Japanese force attacked it from both flanks and cut it off from the shore. The acting battalion commander was killed.
Before the battalion could be withdrawn from its dangerous position, division headquarters lost control of the situation. Just as the battalion was being surrounded twenty-six Japanese bombers attacked the positions in the Lunga area, including the division command post. “Resultant damage included the complete disruption of all communication facilities at the division headquarters at a time when reliable communication was imperative.” The arrangements for withdrawal of the 1st Battalion were completed by Colonel Edson, while division headquarters re-established contact with Edson over the artillery telephone line to the forward observers. Fortunately, the Ballard, which had withdrawn during the air raid, had been notified of the 1st Battalion’s plight. Colonel Puller, who was also aware of the situation, was taken aboard the destroyer which sailed in close to the beach west of Point Cruz. Receiving firing data from a 1st Battalion sergeant using signal flags, the Ballard laid down a barrage. Puller ordered his battalion to fight its way to the beach at all costs. The battalion successfully cut through the enemy, reached the beach, and boarded landing craft which had come up from Lunga Point. All the wounded men were brought out safely, and by nightfall the battalion had returned to the Lunga perimeter. Once Puller’s battalion was safe, the raiders and the 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines, also withdrew. In this hastily planned, unsuccessful action, the marines lost 60 killed and 100 wounded.
The next offensive came ten days later. Its object was to establish a line far enough to the west to keep the Japanese beyond artillery range of Henderson Field. Information from higher headquarters, coastwatchers, aerial reconnaissance, and ground patrols indicated that the Japanese were building up strength in the west in preparation for offensive action. Opposing patrols were clashing daily on the east bank of the Matanikau. Japanese 150-mm. guns capable of interdicting Henderson Field from Kokumbona were landed in late September. The 1st Marine Division therefore determined to trap and destroy the enemy near Point Cruz, and drive any survivors west beyond the Poha River, about 9,000 yards west of Point Cruz. If this operation succeeded a patrol base could be established at Kokumbona, and the airfield would be safe from artillery fire.
The division’s plan of attack called for the 5th Marines (less one battalion) to execute a holding attack at the mouth of the Matanikau River, crossing the river on divisional order, while the 7th Marines (less one battalion) and one reinforced battalion enveloped Point Cruz. The reinforced battalion, commanded by Colonel William J. Whaling, was composed of the 3rd Battalion of the 2nd Marines and the Division Scout-Sniper Detachment, a detachment which Colonel Whaling had personally trained on Guadalcanal in an effort to improve the quality of patrolling. The Whaling Group was to follow the 5th Marines along the coast road, then turn southwest and advance inland to a point about 2,000 yards southwest of the river mouth where the Matanikau is narrow. The group was to cross the river on a bridge made of logs thrown across the stream and then turn right (north) to attack. The ridges west of the Matanikau, from 200 to 300 feet in height, run from north to south. The Whaling Group was to attack north along the first ridge west of the river. The 7th Marines (less one battalion) was to follow the Whaling Group across the river, advance beyond the first ridge, and attack northward with battalions abreast on the left of the Whaling Group. If these attacks succeeded in reaching the beach and destroying the Japanese, the 5th Marines would pass through the Whaling Group and the 7th Marines to attack west toward Kokumbona. The 3rd Battalion, 1st Marines, was in reserve.
The 1st Marine Air Wing was to support the offensive with dive bombing and strafing. Officers of the attacking infantry forces were assigned as air forward observers to radio target data to the supporting aircraft. The wing was also to provide liaison planes for the infantry and spotting planes for the artillery. The 1st Battalion, 11th Marines, was to provide direct artillery support to the 7th Marines; the 2nd Battalion, to the 5th Marines; the 5th Battalion, to the Whaling Group. The 3rd Battalion was to cover the perimeter while the other three were engaged.
The Japanese had also prepared a plan of attack which was markedly similar to that of the Marines. In preparation for the counteroffensive against Lunga Point the 17th Army and the 2nd Division had ordered the 4th Infantry, commanded by Colonel Tadamasu Nakaguma,44 to seize positions east of the Matanikau about 8 October for use by the artillery. The 1st Battalion of the 4th Infantry was to occupy the Point Cruz area and cross the Matanikau at its mouth while the 3rd Battalion made a crossing farther inland. Should the 4th Infantry’s attack succeed, the Japanese would be able to deny to the marines the Matanikau River, one of the best defense lines west of the Lunga. Fortunately the marines struck before the enemy could execute his entire plan.
The attacking marines passed through the perimeter defense line near Kukum at 0700, 7 October, en route to the line of departure on the Matanikau. About 1005 the advance guard of the 3rd. Battalion of the 5th Marines, marching along the coast road, met enemy fire several hundred yards east of the river. The 3rd Battalion deployed and forced the enemy slowly back toward the river, while the 2nd Battalion moved to the left around the 3rd. Meeting no opposition, the 2nd Battalion reached the river by 1148. The Whaling Group and the 7th Marines, having turned southwest in column, advanced about 3,000 yards toward Hill 65. They met light rifle fire but reached Hill 65 safely and bivouacked there for the night.
Some Japanese had escaped over the river, but others had meanwhile halted part of the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines, just short of the east bank of the river, and retained a small bridgehead about 400 yards south of the river mouth. One company of the 1st Raider Battalion, then at about one-half its authorized strength, moved up to reinforce the 5th Marines’ right flank.
During the night of 7-8 October the 5th Marines and the raider company held a 1,500-yard front extending inland from the river mouth, and bowed to the east around the Japanese bridgehead. The Whaling Group and the 7th Marines occupied bivouac areas on high ground overlooking the river about 800 yards southeast of the 5th Marines’ left flank. To divert the Japanese from the enveloping force, the 5th Marines noisily simulated preparations for an immediate river crossing. Amphibian tractors rumbled up and down the coastal area behind the lines to convince the Japanese that they were threatened by a tank attack across the river mouth. Otherwise the night was uneventful.
The attack across the river had originally been set for 8 October, but as heavy rains on that day turned the ground into mud, made the coral ridges slippery, and impeded air operations, the attack was postponed until the next day. The 5th Marines and the raiders continued to reduce the Japanese bridgehead on the east bank. At 1800 some of the Japanese, climbing out of their standing-type foxholes, attempted to break out through the right of the line which was lightly held. In mass formation they struck against the raiders’ right flank. Running abreast, the front ranks fired small arms while the rear ranks threw grenades over the heads of the first rank. In the gathering dusk a sharp hand-to-hand fight ensued between the Japanese and a small group of raiders. Casualties on both sides were heavy. Some of the surviving Japanese broke out, but were trapped and killed against the barbed wire barricade which the marines had erected over the sand bar. Elsewhere the night of 8-9 October was quiet except for intermittent rifle and machine-gun fire.
At this point the nature of the offensive had to be changed. Division headquarters, warned on 8 October that the impending Japanese counteroffensive would employ strong reinforcements, canceled its plans to attack toward Kokumbona and the Poha and turned the operation into a large-scale raid against the Point Cruz area. With the enemy threatening to attack in strength, it was necessary to hold the Lunga perimeter with all available forces, then amounting to 19,000 men. To send troops more than one day’s march from the Lunga perimeter involved a greater risk than General Vandegrift felt was feasible. By 9 October the remaining Japanese east of the Matanikau had been killed.
The weather had cleared; the troops were rested. The Whaling Group, followed by the 7th Marines, left its bivouac, crossed the Matanikau, climbed the first ridge, and rapidly attacked north along Hills 73 and 75 to the coastal area. The 2nd Battalion of the 7th Marines, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel H. H. Hanneken, advanced about 800 yards west of the river and turned right to attack over Hill 72 to Point Cruz. Hanneken’s battalion met only light enemy fire. Colonel Puller’s 1st Battalion, 7th Marines, advanced about 1,200 yards beyond the Matanikau and attacked north along a 2,000-yard ridge (Hills 66-81-80). The 1st Battalion met stronger Japanese resistance. One group of Japanese held positions in a deep ravine on the 1st Battalion’s left between Hills 81-80 and the hill mass on the west, Hill 83. Calling on the 11th Marines for artillery fire to cover his front; the battalion commander directed the battalion mortars to fire into the ravine. When their positions were hit by this mortar fire, the Japanese attempted to escape from the ravine by climbing the steep, open, eastern slopes of Hill 83, where they were easy targets for rifle and machine-gun fire. Some returned to the ravine, which was still under mortar fire.
When his mortar ammunition ran out, Colonel Puller withdrew his battalion according to instructions, and by 1400 the whole enveloping force—the Whaling Group and the 2nd and 1st Battalions of the 7th Marines—had crossed east over the mouth of the Matanikau to return to Lunga Point. The withdrawal was covered by the 5th Marines. The 11th Marines had fired 2,188 75-mm. rounds and 1,063 105-mm. rounds in support of the three-day operation. A marine patrol later found a Japanese officer’s diary which indicated that the 4th Infantry had lost nearly 700 men during the three days. The Marines lost 65 killed, 125 wounded. Thus far during the campaign the ground engagements that had been fought were hot, sharp actions involving relatively small forces. But the Japanese were preparing for a much larger operation.
Source: Guadalcanal: The First Offensive ; BY: John Miller, Jr. (United States Army Center of Military History)