The Japanese, who had been planning for a full-scale counteroffensive ever since August, had completed their preparations by October, and were ready to strike. The first attempts by the inadequate Ichiki and Kawaguchi Forces had failed to dislodge the marines from their defenses around the airfield. The early Japanese estimates of American strength had proved to be disastrously low. Major General Shuicho Miyazaki wrote later that, while in Tokyo prior to becoming Chief of Staff of the 17th Army, he had lacked exact knowledge of American strength. “Does the American force which landed on Guadalcanal on August 7th,” he had asked himself, “represent the entire enemy force committed to this campaign, or is it only the spearhead of a large counter-offensive? If it is the former, our operations will most certainly be successful. But if it is the latter, victory or defeat hangs in the balance.”
When the Japanese planned their operation in the spring of 1942, Miyazaki wrote, they hoped to sever the line of communications between the United States and Australia with two separate thrusts. One had as its goal Port Moresby in New Guinea, while the other, an advance through the Solomons, was aimed at the Fijis, Samoa, and New Caledonia. The Allied offensive in August, however, had turned these two thrusts into a single campaign. Operations against Port Moresby, which had been repulsed in May at the Battle of the Coral Sea, had meanwhile been resumed by one small force moving overland across the Papuan Peninsula of New Guinea.
After August, 17th Army Headquarters at Rabaul raised its estimates of American strength on Guadalcanal but still made serious miscalculations. It believed that 7,500 American troops were holding Lunga Point on 19 September. Actually, U. S. strength on Guadalcanal at the end of September was above 19,000 and rose to over 23,000 on 13 October.
On the basis of erroneous estimates, General Hyakutake had been preparing elaborate plans for the recapture of Lunga Point even before the Kawaguchi Force had reached Guadalcanal. The first plan, issued on 28 August and altered several times afterward, established the basic concept for the Japanese counteroffensive which was to begin in October. General Hyakutake intended to command the operation on Guadalcanal personally. The Kawaguchi Force was to secure positions east and west of the Matanikau to cover a projected landing by a fresh division, to secure a line of departure, and to harass the Lunga defenses while a strong artillery force prepared to neutralize Henderson Field. The 17th Army was to arrange for the transport of the necessary troops from Rabaul. Once the troops reached Guadalcanal and completed their preparations for the attack, they were to “… capture the enemy positions, especially the airfield and artillery positions in one blow.” General Hyakutake also considered sending one force in an amphibious assault “behind the enemy.” “The operation to surround and recapture Guadalcanal,” he grandiloquently announced, “will truly decide the fate of the control of the entire Pacific area ….”
Once Lunga Point was retaken, the Japanese planned to seize Rennell, Tulagi, and San Cristobal. During this phase, 17th Army reserve forces and the Imperial Navy were to intensify the attacks against General MacArthur’s force in New Guinea. Port Moresby was to be taken by the end of November. Because the importance of Guadalcanal prevented planes, warships, and troop transports from being sent from the Solomons to New Guinea, the Japanese were forced to finish the Guadalcanal campaign before attempting to reinforce New Guinea.
The Japanese offensive against Guadalcanal was to be a joint operation. In September 17th Army representatives met at Truk with the commanders of the Combined and the Southeastern Fleets to plan the attack, which was tentatively set for 21 October. Japanese warships were to co-operate fully until two weeks after the fresh division had landed.
Drawing troops for the projected operation from China, the East Indies, the Philippines, and Truk on orders from Imperial General Headquarters, the Japanese assembled, by October, a strong force in Rabaul and the Solomons under the 17th Army’s command. The infantry units consisted of two divisions, one brigade, and one reinforced battalion. Supporting them were three independent antiaircraft artillery battalions, three field antiaircraft artillery battalions, one field antiaircraft artillery battery, one heavy field artillery regiment plus extra batteries, one tank regiment and one tank company, one independent mountain artillery regiment and one independent mountain artillery battalion, one engineer regiment, one trench mortar battalion, and a reconnaissance plane unit. Of these, the brigade and the reinforced battalion (Kawaguchi and Ichiki Forces) and additional battalions of the 4th Infantry had already met defeat on Guadalcanal.
The 2nd and 38th Divisions, forming the bulk of the main infantry force which had been assembled, had formerly belonged to the 16th Army. In March 1942 the 2nd Division, which had been recruited in Sendai in the Miyagi Prefecture of Honshu, had moved from Manchuria to Java as a garrison force. In July 1942 the 4th Infantry was detached for service in the Philippines, while the 16th and 29th Regiments remained in Java. In August 1942 the entire division was transferred to Rabaul and the Shortland Islands.
The 38th Division had been organized in September 1939 in Nagoya in the Aichi Prefecture of Honshu. A triangular division, it consisted of the 228th, 229th, and 230th Infantry Regiments. In 1941, it took part in the siege of Hong Kong, after which its regiments were detached. One detachment, the reinforced 228th Infantry under Major General Takeo Ito, assisted in the capture of Amboina and Timor. One battalion of the 229th Infantry also helped to take Timor, while the
remainder of the regiment campaigned in Sumatra. The 230th Infantry had served in the Java campaign. The division then reassembled at Rabaul in late September 1942. The 4th Heavy Field Artillery Regiment (150-mm. howitzers) was dispatched from China in September 1942, arriving at Rabaul in early October.
Although the 17th Army was composed of veteran regiments, it had seldom operated as one unit. Likewise, the infantry divisions had seldom seen action as divisions. Individual regiments and battalions had campaigned actively, but had never fought against a foe who possessed superior numbers, equipment, or strong defensive positions.
The movement of Japanese forces from Rabaul and the northern Solomons to Guadalcanal, already begun in August, increased rapidly during September and October. By destroyer, by landing craft, by cargo ship and transport the enemy soldiers sailed down the inter-island channels to land on the beaches west of the Matanikau River under cover of darkness, while destroyers covered the landings by bombarding Lunga Point. The Allied forces which might have opposed them were too few in number to be risked in action north of Guadalcanal, and at night the darkness and clouds helped to hide the Japanese ships from Henderson Field aircraft.
By mid-October General Hyakutake had assembled a sizable portion of his army, except the main body of the 38th Division, on Guadalcanal. The 2nd Division and two battalions of the 38th Division were ready to fight beside the survivors of the Ichiki and Kawaguchi Forces. In addition there were present one regiment and three batteries of heavy field artillery, two battalions and one battery of field antiaircraft artillery, one battalion and one battery of mountain artillery, one mortar battalion, one tank company, and three rapid-fire gun battalions. Engineer, transport, and medical troops, and a few Special Naval Landing Force troops were also on the island. These forces, about 20,000 men, though below full strength, represented the largest concentration of Japanese troops on Guadalcanal up to that time.
The U. S. Situation
The Americans on Guadalcanal thus faced a serious enemy threat. Yet as late as 5 October South Pacific Headquarters had not definitely decided to send additional reinforcements to the 1st Marine Division. Though deferred, the plans for occupying Ndeni in the Santa Cruz Islands had not been canceled. The purpose of holding Ndeni, 335 nautical miles east-southeast of Henderson Field and about 300 nautical miles north-northwest of Espiritu Santo, was threefold: to deny it to the Japanese; to protect the right flank of the Allied line of communications to Guadalcanal; and to provide an intermediate airfield for short range aircraft to stage through while en route from Espiritu Santo to Guadalcanal. Admiral Nimitz had recommended early in September that Ndeni be occupied sometime later at a date to be determined by Admiral Ghormley. Dispatches between Admirals King and Ghormley in late September discussed the possibility of using the 8th Marines of the 2nd Marine Division for the Santa Cruz operation. On 29 September Admiral Ghormley announced that he was planning to occupy Ndeni with a part of that regiment, which was then in need of more training. On the same day he rejected Admiral Turner’s suggestion that one battalion of the 2nd Marines be withdrawn from the Guadalcanal-Tulagi area for Ndeni. Admiral Turner then suggested transporting one Army infantry battalion, some Army field artillery, a detachment of the 5th (Marine) Defense Battalion, and naval construction forces to Ndeni in two transports and one cargo ship. These forces were to be followed by a second Army infantry battalion, one Army antiaircraft artillery regiment, and one Army coast artillery battery, transported in five ships.
General Harmon, the Army commander in the South Pacific, regarded the entire Ndeni project as unsound and unnecessary. When Admiral Ghormley tentatively agreed to Admiral Turner’s proposal, General Harmon, in a letter to Admiral Ghormley dated 6 October 1942, reviewed the reasons for the Ndeni operation in the light of the situation on Guadalcanal. Ndeni, he wrote, would yield sparse results for two or three months, and was not vital to the security of the South Pacific. As long as Allied forces could operate from Espiritu Santo, the Japanese could not operate in strength from Ndeni. Since nearly all Allied aircraft could fly directly from Espiritu Santo to Guadalcanal, Ndeni was not needed as a staging base.
Occupation of Ndeni, General Harmon pointed out, would divert strength from the main effort. The situation on Guadalcanal was exceedingly grave, for if the Japanese were to use artillery against the airfield they could cause serious damage. If the beachhead on Guadalcanal fell, then the Ndeni operation would be a complete waste. The main effort must be in the Solomons. If the beachhead on Guadalcanal did not hold, the Japanese would have an outpost to protect the Bismarcks and to cover New Guinea, as well as a point of departure for advances to the south. “It is my personal conviction,” he wrote, “that the Jap is capable of retaking Cactus-Ringbolt [Guadalcanal-Tulagi] and that he will do so in the near future unless it is materially strengthened.” But if Guadalcanal was strengthened, the airfield improved for heavy bombers, and naval surface operations intensified, the enemy would not make the costly attempt to retake Lunga Point.
General Harmon therefore recommended: (1) that the Ndeni operation be deferred until the southern Solomons were secure, (2) that Guadalcanal be reinforced by at least one more regimental combat team, (3) that naval surface operations in the Solomons be increased, and (4) that sufficient airdrome construction personnel and equipment be sent to Guadalcanal. What was needed at Henderson Field, he stated, was two all-weather runways, improved dispersal facilities and fueling systems, a standing fuel supply of at least 250,000 gallons, and intensive air operations from Guadalcanal against the northern Solomons.
After Admiral Ghormley received this letter he conferred with Admiral Turner and General Harmon on the evening of 6 October. After the conference Admiral Ghormley announced his intention to proceed with the plan to occupy Ndeni and build a landing strip. As it seemed likely that the Japanese would try to recapture the Lunga airfield, he accepted General Harmon’s recommendations that Guadalcanal be reinforced by one Army regiment and that the island’s airdrome facilities be improved.
Reinforcements would prove valuable, for General Vandegrift could then safely enlarge the defense perimeter around Henderson Field to protect it from enemy fire. Although casualties from enemy action had not been prohibitive—by 18 September 848 wounded had been evacuated—the 1st Marine Division was beginning to suffer heavily from tropical diseases. The enervating, humid heat, skin infections caused by fungi, and inadequate diet had weakened the troops. A mild form of gastro-enteritis had appeared in August. Although it caused only one death, this disorder made many temporarily unfit for duty and lowered their resistance to other diseases. During the third week in August malaria had first appeared among the troops. Suppressive atabrine treatment had been inaugurated on 10 September, but the disease had gained such a foothold that it was to become the most serious medical problem of the campaign. It sent 1,960 men of the division into the hospital during October.
The force selected for the reinforcement of Guadalcanal was the 164th Infantry Regiment of the Americal Division, which was then in New Caledonia. The regiment was immediately alerted for movement, and began loading the Zeilin and the McCawley, the flagship of the South Pacific Amphibious Force, at 0800,8 October, at Noumea. The 147th Infantry (less two battalions), Colonel W. B. Tuttle commanding, which was then at Tongatabu, was selected for Ndeni. The McCawley and Zeilin, loaded on 8 October, sailed from Noumea the next morning with the troops, weapons, and supplies of the 164th Infantry, 210 men of the 1st Marine Air Wing, 85 Marine casuals, and cargo for the 1st Marine Division. Three destroyers and three mine layers escorted the transports, while four cruisers and five destroyers under Rear Admiral Norman Scott covered their left flank.
The McCawley and the Zeilin sailed safely from Noumea to Guadalcanal, and arrived off Lunga Point to discharge troops and cargo at 0547, 13 October. Though interrupted twice during the day by Japanese bombing raids, the ships landed 2,852 men of the 164th Infantry, 210 of the 1st Marine Air Wing, and 85 casuals, plus forty-four ¼-ton trucks (jeeps), twenty ½-ton trucks, seventeen 1½-ton trucks, sixteen British Bren gun carriers, twelve 37-mm. guns, five units of fire, seventy days’ rations, sixty days’ supplies, complete tentage, and 1,000 ships’ tons of cargo for the 1st Marine Division and the naval units. The 164th Infantry supplies which were landed totaled over 3,200 ships’ tons. The McCawley and Zeilin, completely unloaded, embarked the 1st Raider Battalion and sailed out of Sealark Channel before nightfall to return to Noumea.
The first naval craft to be permanently based at Tulagi, aside from harbor patrol boats, were four boats of Motor Torpedo Boat Squadron 3, which the destroyers Southard and Hovey had towed in on 12 October. The Jamestown, arriving at Tulagi on 22 October, stayed there as a service ship for the torpedo boat squadron, which was brought to full strength on 25 October by the arrival of four more boats.
Before the Japanese counteroffensive in late October, therefore, the 1st Marine Division had been materially strengthened. With these reinforcements, troop strength on Guadalcanal and Tulagi totaled 27,727 of all services: 23,088 men were on Guadalcanal, the remainder on Tulagi.
When Admiral Ghormley ordered the 164th Infantry to Guadalcanal, General Vandegrift decided to establish permanent positions on the east bank of the Matanikau River, occupied in the offensive of 7-9 October. Domination of the mouth of the Matanikau was essential to the defense of Henderson Field. The rough terrain and thick jungles on the Matanikau effectively prevented heavy equipment from crossing the unbridged river at any point except over the sand bar at the mouth. Since tanks, trucks, and artillery pieces could cross the river over the bar, the Japanese, had they been able to dominate the position, could have put their tanks across it to deploy for attack against the perimeter defense. Had they been able to emplace artillery on the east bank, they might have damaged the Lunga positions and the airfield even more heavily than they did in October.
Two infantry battalions and elements of the 1st Special Weapons Battalion were assigned to hold the Matanikau. They established a horseshoe-shaped position, running from the mouth along the east bank to a point about 2,000 yards inland. They refused the right flank along the beach and the left flank east along the ridge line of Hill 67, a strong defensive position. The marines cleared fields of fire, rigged booby traps, and laid personnel and antitank mines in front. Several 37-mm. antitank guns, with 75-mm. tank destroyers concealed nearby in support, covered the sand bar, which was illuminated at night by headlights salvaged from damaged amphibian tractors. There were not enough troops to hold the beach and jungle between the forward Matanikau position and the perimeter defense; patrols covered the gaps each day.
The arrival of the 164th Infantry on 13 October permitted General Vandegrift to make further changes in the Lunga perimeter defense. The 22,000-yardlong perimeter line was divided into five regimental sectors. As it was believed that the enemy would be most likely to attack from the west, the heaviest strength was concentrated in the western sectors. In Sector One, 7,100 yards of beach on Lunga Point, the 3rd Defense Battalion, with the 1st Special Weapons Battalion attached, had tactical command, and co-ordinated the related functions of beach defense and antiaircraft fire. The amphibian tractor, engineer, and pioneer troops continued to hold the beach lines at night.
The 164th Infantry, Colonel Bryant E. Moore commanding, and elements of the 1st Special Weapons Battalion were assigned to Sector Two, the longest infantry sector. This 6,600-yard line extended along the beach from the 3rd Defense Battalion’s right flank to the Ilu River, inland along the Ilu about 4,000 yards, and west through the jungle to the left flank of the 7th Marines. The 7th Marines (less one battalion) occupied Sector Three, about 2,500 yards of jungle between the 164th Infantry’s right and the Lunga River, including the south slopes of Bloody Ridge. The 1st Marines (less one battalion) held Sector Four, about 3,500 yards of jungle between the Lunga and the left flank of the 5th Marines, who held Sector Five, the western corner of the perimeter.
The 3rd Battalions of both the 1st and 7th Marines held the Matanikau line, and were supported by parts of the 1st Special Weapons Battalion and one battalion of the 11th Marines. The 1st Air Wing was to continue to provide air cover, close ground support, and longer-range bombardment and reconnaissance. The 1st Tank Battalion, then held in division reserve, was to continue to reconnoiter areas suitable for tank action. Each sector was placed under the command of the respective regimental commander. Division headquarters again directed each sector commander to maintain one battalion in reserve to be available to the division if needed. These were the defenses with which the Lunga garrison was to meet the Japanese counteroffensive in October.
Air and Naval Preparations
While the 17th Army troops had been landing on Guadalcanal’s north coast, Japanese fleet units had been preparing to execute their part of the plan. The strongest Japanese naval force assembled since the Battle of Midway left Truk to assemble at Rabaul for the offensive. Bombers from the Southwest Pacific had been attacking Rabaul regularly, but they had inflicted little damage and presented no great threat to the assembling fleet. Japanese submarines had deployed southward in August and September to try to cut the American supply lines leading to Guadalcanal, and warships escorted 17th Army convoys to Guadalcanal and shelled the airfield almost every night. As long as American aircraft could operate from Henderson Field the Japanese could not safely bring troops and heavy equipment to Guadalcanal in transports and cargo ships. The nocturnal Tokyo Express could deliver troops in relative safety but could not carry heavy equipment or large amounts of supplies. The Tokyo Express warships and the daylight bombers therefore made a concerted effort in October to neutralize the Lunga airfield.
Admiral Ghormley’s naval forces were still smaller than those that the Japanese could muster, but, determined to stop the nightly naval bombardments and the flow of enemy reinforcements to Guadalcanal, he ordered the four cruisers and five destroyers under Admiral Scott to sail from Espiritu Santo to Savo by way of Rennell to intercept any Japanese naval units moving on Guadalcanal. Scott’s force was also to cover the left flank of the convoy carrying the 164th Infantry to Guadalcanal.
Battle of Cape Esperance
At 1345, 11 October, patrol planes from Guadalcanal discovered a Japanese force of four cruisers and one destroyer sailing south through the Slot toward Guadalcanal. The Japanese had dispatched them to neutralize Henderson Field and thus provide greater safety for the landing of additional troops and supplies. The force was sighted again at 1810 about 110 miles from Guadalcanal.
Informed of the approaching Japanese, Admiral Scott sailed from the vicinity of Rennell toward Cape Esperance to be in position to stop them about midnight. As Scott’s force neared the channel between Cape Esperance and Savo about 2232, the screens of the radars on the cruisers Boise and Helena showed five Japanese ships 18,000 yards to the northwest. Search planes from the cruiser San Francisco also reported about 2300 that one Japanese transport and two destroyers were in Sealark Channel, but Scott decided to attack the larger force of cruisers and destroyers. The transport and the two destroyers escaped. The Boise and Helena reported the presence of the Japanese cruisers and destroyers by voice radio to Admiral Scott aboard the San Francisco, but he did not attack at once. The flagship’s radar was older and less efficient than that aboard the other cruisers, and Scott was not sure of the location of the destroyers of his force. He feared that the destroyers reported by the Boise and Helena might be his own. The American destroyers, having recently changed their course, were then to starboard (north) of Scott’s cruisers, which were sailing on a southwesterly course. The American destroyers thus lay between the opposing cruiser forces.
The Helena opened fire on the Japanese at 2346, 11 October; her fire was followed by that of the cruiser Salt Lake City, the Boise, and the destroyer Farenholt The Japanese were caught completely by surprise. The American column executed the classic naval maneuver of crossing the enemy’s “T”, by sailing in column at a right angle to, and ahead of the approaching Japanese column. The entire American force was thus able to concentrate salvoes on each ship as it came forward. Each Japanese ship, on the other hand, masked the guns of the ships in its rear. Two Japanese vessels sank at once; the flagship Aoba was badly damaged, and the cruiser Kinugasa suffered light damage. The surviving Japanese ships retired northward after thirty-four minutes of battle. The destroyer Marukamo was joined by the destroyer Natsugumo, and they returned to Savo to rescue survivors in the water, but both were sunk the next morning by dive bombers and fighters from Henderson Field.
Scott’s losses were light by comparison. The Boise, Salt Lake City, and Farenholt suffered damage. The destroyer Duncan, which had pulled close to fire torpedoes at the enemy, was caught between the American and Japanese forces, hit by fire from both, and sank on 12 October.
The victory at Cape Esperance, whose flames lit the night skies west of the Lunga, cheered the men in the Lunga perimeter, but its effects were short-lived. Two days after Admiral Scott’s force stopped the Tokyo Express, the Japanese hit the airfield with damaging blows. Guadalcanal’s air situation had steadily improved during September, for more planes had been arriving. On 22 September Vandegrift reported to Ghormley that thirty F4F’s, twenty-two SBD’s, seven TBF’s, and five P-400’s were operational. The Naval Advanced Base at Kukum included an aviation unit and the 6th Construction Battalion. Air squadron personnel totaled 1,014—917 men of Marine Air Group 23, 33 of the 67th Fighter Squadron, and 64 from the naval carrier squadrons. The P-400’s had proved so valuable that Vandegrift requested more to support ground operations.
By 10 October twelve P-39’s of the 67th Fighter Squadron had reached Henderson Field but had not yet gone into action. B-17’s were now occasionally being staged through Henderson Field. But these operations were soon to end. On 13 October there were ninety operational aircraft under General Geiger’s command at Henderson Field—thirty-nine SBD’s, forty-one F4F’s, four P-400’s, and six P-39’s. At 1200 twenty-two Japanese bombers, escorted by fighters, flew over to bomb Henderson Field from 30,000 feet. They were almost unchallenged.
The PAGO’S could reach only 12,000 feet; the P-39’s could climb to 27,000. The F4F, a relatively slow climber, could not reach the enemy in time to intercept him. Between 1330 and 1400 all the American planes were forced to land for more gasoline. While they were being refueled, a second wave of about fifteen bombers attacked the field. The men of the 6th Construction Battalion worked throughout the afternoon in an effort to keep the field in operation. They had loaded their dump trucks with earth well in advance to speed the task of filling the bomb craters. But their efforts did not avail. The Japanese did not completely neutralize the runway on 13 October, but they inflicted such severe damage that General Geiger was forced to broadcast the information that Henderson Field could not be used by heavy bombers except in emergencies.
After the last bomber had retired, the long-range 150-mm. howitzers which the Japanese had been landing opened fire on the airfield and Kukum Beach from positions near Kokumbona. They first made Kukum Beach untenable. The 1st Marine Division had no sound-and-flash units to locate the enemy howitzers, or suitable counterbattery artillery with which to reply to “Pistol Pete,” as the troops called the enemy artillery. The field artillery units were armed with 75-mm. pack and 105-mm. howitzers, and the 3rd Defense Battalion had emplaced its 5-inch gun batteries on the beach. On 13 October and the days that followed, the 5-inch guns and the 105-mm. howitzers attempted to silence Pistol Pete. But the trajectory of the 5-inch guns was too flat for effective counterbattery fire. Some of the 105’s were moved up to the Matanikau River, but they were too light for effective counterbattery fire. Aircraft also attempted to silence the Japanese artillery, but were no more successful than the artillery.
Shortly before midnight of 13 October, a Japanese naval force which included the battleships Haruna and Kongo sailed unchallenged into Sealark Channel. While a cruiser plane illuminated the target area by dropping flares, the task force bombarded the airfield for eighty minutes, the heaviest shelling of the campaign. The battleships fired 918 rounds of 360-mm. ammunition, of which 625 were armor-piercing and 293 high explosive. They covered the field systematically. Explosions and burning gasoline lit the night brightly. In the words of a Japanese report, “explosions were seen everywhere, and the entire airfield was a sea of flame.” Forty-one men were killed, and many aircraft damaged. When the shelling had ceased, enemy bombers raided the airfield intermittently until daylight.
On 14 October only forty-two planes would fly—seven SBD’s, twenty-nine F4F’s, four P-400’s and two P-39’s.43 An American report states: When the men could finally come from their foxholes and survey the damage they knew what had hit them. They found jagged noses of shells’ measuring 14 inches in diameter—the shells from battleships’ guns—and smaller pieces of shrapnel [sic]. Bits of clothing and equipment were hanging from telephone wires. The field itself was in shambles. . . . The 67th [Fighter Squadron] was fortunate—only two P-39’s were damaged, and, miraculously, not one of the old P-400’s was hit. The next morning a few B-17’s which had been operating temporarily from Henderson Field took off safely from the 2,000 feet of usable runway to return to Espiritu Santo. The bombardments had rendered the airfield unusable as a base for heavy bombers. Moreover the presence of Japanese aircraft and warships over and in Sealark Channel prevented cargo ships from bringing in fuel, so that the perpetual shortage of aviation gasoline on Guadalcanal had now become more acute. As a result B-17’s could no longer be staged through Henderson Field.
By the afternoon of 14 October Japanese bombing and shelling had knocked Henderson Field out of action. Pistol Pete prevented aircraft from using the runway. Fortunately the construction battalion had laid out a rough grassy runway southeast of Henderson Field. When dry this runway, Fighter Strip No. 1, could be used by light planes and it served for a week as the main airfield. Aviation gasoline supplies had fallen to a critically low level. On the afternoon of 14 October a Marine staff officer informed the 67th Fighter Squadron that there remained just enough gasoline to mount strikes against a Japanese force, including transports, which patrolling SBD’s had found sailing toward Guadalcanal. The 67th was ordered to load its planes with 100-pound bombs and to join the SBD’s in striking at the oncoming ships. The aircraft took off and located the enemy before nightfall. They sank one ship and set another on fire, but failed to halt the convoy, which continued on toward Guadalcanal under cover of darkness.
When day broke on 15 October, five Japanese transports and their eleven escorting warships were plainly visible from Lunga Point as they lay ten miles away at Tassafaronga unloading troops, weapons, supplies, and ammunition. The runway was pitted with shell and bomb craters. Only by searching wrecked planes and hunting in the jungles beside the runway for stray gasoline drums was enough fuel obtained for the planes to take off from the pitted runway to strike at the ships. The searches had yielded 400 drums, or about enough for two days’ operations. On the same day Army and Marine Corps transport planes (C-47’s) began flying gasoline from Espiritu Santo to Guadalcanal, despite the fire from Pistol Pete. Each C-47 carried twelve drums. The seaplane tender MacFarland also ran in a load of gasoline from Espiritu Santo. Caught by Japanese planes in Sealark Channel on 16 October, she was seriously damaged but was salvaged by her crew in an inlet on Florida Island.
American fighters and dive bombers attacked the Japanese ships on 15 October, and, despite antiaircraft fire and the opposition of Japanese planes, sank one transport and set two more afire by 1100. The remaining ships and their escorts, under attack from both Guadalcanal aircraft and B-17’s and SBD’s from Espiritu, then put out to sea. One ship fell victim to the B-17’s near Savo. Although the air attacks seriously damaged the Japanese transports, they succeeded in landing all the troops—between 3,000 and 4,000 men51—and 80 percent of their cargo. The soldiers included part of the 230th Infantry of the 38th Division as well as seven companies of the 16th Infantry of the 2nd Division, the last Japanese infantry units to land prior to the opening of the ground offensive against Lunga perimeter.
That the Japanese were preparing to attack in force was all too obvious. General Vandegrift radioed to South Pacific Headquarters to stress his need for the greatest possible amount of air and surface support. Admiral Ghormley, fully aware of the situation, requested General MacArthur to have Southwest Pacific aircraft search the western approaches to the southern Solomons for enemy aircraft carriers. When the B-17’s were forced off Henderson Field, Rear Admiral Aubrey W. Fitch, commanding South Pacific land-based aircraft, suggested that Southwest Pacific aircraft relieve the pressure on Guadalcanal by intensifying their attacks on Rabaul, Kahili, and Buka.
On 16 October, Admiral Ghormley warned Admiral Nimitz that the Japanese effort appeared to be “all out.” South Pacific forces, he stated, were “totally inadequate,” and needed air reinforcements. Naval strength had been seriously weakened by combat losses. The Enterprise, Saratoga, and North Carolina were in Pearl Harbor undergoing repairs. Admiral Nimitz ordered that work on the Enterprise be rushed, and on 16 October the veteran carrier was able to leave Pearl Harbor for the South Pacific with the South Dakota and nine destroyers. Meanwhile Fitch’s force at Espiritu Santo was increased to eighty-five patrol planes and heavy bombers. Southwest Pacific aircraft continued to support Guadalcanal by patrolling, and by bombing Rabaul and the fields in the northern Solomons.
The Ground Offensive; Japanese Tactical Plans
General Hyakutake’s units had meanwhile been confidently preparing to execute their part of the plan—an assault directed at the seizure of the airfield. The 17th Army issued tactical orders to the 2nd Division on 15 October. The main body of the 2nd Division, then in the vicinity of Kokumbona, was to deliver a surprise attack against the south flank of the American position on X Day, then tentatively set for 18 October. While the main body of the 2nd Division, commanded by Lieutenant General Masao Maruyama, was pushing inland to reach its line of departure south of the airfield, a force west of the Matanikau under command of Major General Tadashi Sumiyoshi, commander of 17th Army artillery, was to cover its rear, divert the Americans, and shell the Lunga airfields and artillery positions. An amphibious attack by the 1st Battalion, 228th Infantry, was still a part of the plan, but it was later discarded. American morale and strength, the Japanese believed, were declining.
The coast force under Sumiyoshi’s command consisted of five infantry battalions of about 2,900 men, one tank company, fifteen 150-mm. howitzers, three 100-mm. guns, and seven field artillery pieces.58 The units in Sumiyoshi’s force included the 4th Infantry as well as elements of the 4th, 7th, and 21st Heavy Field Artillery Regiments and several mountain artillery and antiaircraft artillery units, and perhaps tanks and part of the 124th Infantry.
[NOTE: 17th Army Opns, I, does not show the tanks or any part of the 124th Infantry under Sumiyoshi’s command, although they must have been, as the results of the interrogations of former 17th Army officers clearly show. 17th Army Opns, I, terms the 150-mm. artillery units as medium, but contemporary documents called them heavy field artillery units.]
The enveloping force under Maruyama which was to attack Henderson Field from the south consisted of eight or nine infantry battalions totaling 5,600 men, plus artillery, engineer, and medical troops. This force was divided into two wings. The right wing, under Kawaguchi, consisted of one battalion of the 124th Infantry, two battalions of the 230th Infantry, parts of the 3rd Light Trench Mortar Battalion and the 6th and 9th Independent Rapid fire Gun Battalions, the 20th Independent Mountain Artillery, and engineers and medical troops. The left wing, under Major General Yumio Nasu, was composed of the 29th Infantry, the 3rd Light Trench Mortar Battalion (less detachments), a Rapid Fire Gun Battalion, a Mountain Artillery Battalion, and engineers. In reserve were the 16th Infantry and additional engineer units.
Kawaguchi’s wing, after working inland from Kokumbona, was to attack northward under cover of darkness from east of the Lunga to capture the airfield and destroy the American forces east of the Lunga. Nasu’s left wing was to attack northward from a point between Kawaguchi and the Lunga River. Supremely confident that these soldiers could retake Lunga Point, General Hyakutake left the main body of the 38th Division at Rabaul and in the northern Solomons in readiness for operations in New Guinea. Capture of the field would be heralded by the code signal BANZAI. He directed his troops to continue “annihilating” the enemy until General Vandegrift, with staff officers, interpreters, one American flag and one white flag, had advanced along the coast toward the Matanikau to surrender.
To get troops, guns, ammunition, and supplies into position for the attack, the engineers built and improved roads leading from the landing beaches eastward to Kokumbona. Engineers and combat troops had also begun work in September on an inland trail by which the 2nd Division could get into position south of Henderson Field. This trail, commonly known as the Maruyama Trail, ran southward from the 17th Army assembly area at Kokumbona, then turned east to cross the Matanikau and Lunga Rivers south of Mount Austen, and followed the Lunga River downstream (north) to a point near the American perimeter. It covered a distance of about fifteen miles. The Maruyama Trail led through the thickest of tropical jungles, where giant hardwood trees, vines, and undergrowth are so thick that a man cannot easily walk upright or see more than a few yards. The route south of Mount Austen led over an almost unbelievably tangled series of ridges and ravines. As sunlight never penetrates the treetops, the earth underfoot is wet and swampy. The Japanese had no heavy road-building equipment but hacked their way by hand, using axes, saws, and machetes. At best they could have cleared only a path through the undergrowth, making no attempt to cut down the trees. Mount Austen’s bulk, plus the jungle, would hide the advancing column from Lunga Point, and the overhead growth provided security from aerial reconnaissance.
Since the Japanese had brought no horses and almost no motor transport on the Tokyo Express, supplies had to be brought forward by hand from as far away as Cape Esperance. About 800 tons of supplies had to be hand-carried forward. The artillery pieces assigned to Maruyama were hauled forward by manpower. General Maruyama also ordered each soldier to carry, in addition to his regular equipment, one shell, apparently from the supply dump near Kokumbona.
On 16 October, after assembling at Kokumbona, Maruyama’s troops set out on their grueling march toward the line of departure east of the Lunga River, “crossing mountains and rivers with much difficulty due to the bad roads and heavy terrain.” Progress was slow. Since the trail was narrow, the men marched, single file, in a long straggling column. The van would begin the march early each morning, but the rear elements usually could not move until afternoon, with the result that the 2nd Division inched along like a worm. Torrential rains fell during most of the march. The troops, subsisting on half rations of raw rice, burdened with shells and full combat equipment, had to use ropes to scale some of the cliffs. They also used ropes to pull the artillery pieces, machine guns, and mortars along the trail. As carrying and hauling the artillery pieces by manpower proved impossible, these guns were abandoned along the line of march.
Hyakutake’s confidence was somewhat justified, for he enjoyed significant advantages. The 150-mm. howitzers in Kokumbona outweighed the heaviest American howitzers on Guadalcanal. Almost nightly Japanese warships were sailing into Sealark Channel with impunity. The majority of the 20,000 Japanese troops were fresh, while many of General Vandegrift’s 23,000 men were suffering from malaria and malnutrition. The Japanese could reasonably expect to surprise the Americans, since the wide envelopment by Maruyama’s division through jungled, mountainous terrain was hidden from ground or aerial observation.
On the other hand, the Americans were entrenched in prepared positions, were expecting an attack, and could place artillery fire in front of any threatened sector of the perimeter. The Japanese had no near-by airfields, and American planes, though few in number, possessed local control of the air when they had enough gasoline, and thus limited the amount of heavy materiel which the enemy could safely land. The Japanese lacked sufficient transport. Hyakutake had committed his main force to a wide enveloping march through wild, trackless jungle, with all the difficulties of communication, co-ordination, and control attendant upon such a maneuver. Finally, it is doubtful that Hyakutake had enough reserves immediately available to exploit a break-through, even if the assault forces were able to penetrate the perimeter defense in strength.
Action on the Matanikau
The landing of the Japanese from transports on 15 October had alerted the 1st Marine Division to a major attack by infantry. A captured map indicated the possibility of a triple-pronged assault by three enemy divisions from the east, west, and south. But there were no indications that fresh Japanese forces had landed east of the perimeter. Air and ground patrols had not found any organized bodies of Japanese troops along the upper Lunga but only dispirited groups of hungry stragglers, most of whom were promptly killed. On the other hand, the increasing artillery fire and growing Japanese troop strength west of the Matanikau convinced the Lunga defenders that the brunt of the attack would fall in the west.
Maruyama’s forces, unknown to the Americans, were meanwhile slowly approaching the perimeter. Without good military maps, the Japanese commanders were meeting difficulty in finding their way. When advance elements of the enveloping force failed to cross the upper Lunga before 19 October, Maruyama postponed the assault date until 22 October.
The first ground action occurred in the Matanikau area on 20 October when a Japanese combat patrol from Sumiyoshi’s force approached the west bank of the river. The patrol, which included two tanks, withdrew after a 37-mm. gun in the sector of the 3rd Battalion, 1st Marines, hit one tank. At sunset the next evening, after heavy Japanese artillery fire, nine Japanese tanks supported by infantry came out of the jungle on the west bank to attempt to drive east over the sand bar. But 37-mm. fire knocked out one tank and the force pulled back to the west.
No Japanese infantry appeared on 22 October, but Sumiyoshi’s artillery kept firing. On 22 October Maruyama, still short of his line of departure, put off the attack date to 23 October; on that date he postponed it until 24 October. The twenty-third of October was a quiet day until 1800, when Sumiyoshi’s artillery began to fire its heaviest concentrations up to that time—an orthodox preparation on the Matanikau River line, the rear areas, and the coast road.
When the fire ceased a column of nine 18-ton medium tanks [NOTE 71-71] appeared out of the jungles to try to smash a passage across the sand bar to penetrate the defenses of the 3rd Battalion, 1st Marines, while the 4th Infantry assembled in the jungle west of the river. To halt the infantry, the 11th Marines immediately began firing a series of barrages to cover a 600- to 800-yard-wide area between the Matanikau River and Point Cruz, while the 37-mm. guns on the Matanikau engaged the tanks.
Not one enemy infantryman succeeded in crossing to the east bank of the river. The antitank guns meanwhile wrecked eight tanks as they rumbled across the sand bar. One tank eluded the 37-mm. fire and crossed the bar to break through the wire entanglements. A marine rose out of his foxhole and threw a grenade into the tank’s tracks. A 75-mm. self-propelled tank destroyer then approached to fire at close range. The tank ran down the beach into the water, where it stalled, and was finished off by the tank destroyer. The assault having been stopped so abruptly, the surviving Japanese infantrymen withdrew to the west. About midnight a second Japanese attempt to cross the river farther upstream was easily halted.
The jungles west of the river were filled with Japanese corpses, and many enemy dead lay on the sand bar. The 1st Marines, with 25 killed and 14 wounded, estimated Japanese losses at 600. Marine patrols later found three more wrecked tanks west of the river. They had apparently been destroyed by the 11th Marines’ fire before they could reach the Matanikau.
Sumiyoshi had sent one tank company and one infantry regiment forward to attack a prepared position over an obvious approach route while the Americans were otherwise unengaged. The Maruyama force, still moving inland, had not reached its line of departure. In 1946, the responsible commanders gave different reasons for the lack of co-ordination and blamed each other. According to Hyakutake, this piecemeal attack had been a mistake. The coastal attack was to have been delivered at the same time as Maruyama’s forces struck against the southern perimeter line. Maruyama, according to Hyakutake, was to have notified the 4th Infantry when he had reached his line of departure on 23 October, and he so notified the 4th Infantry. That regiment then proceeded with its attack.
[NOTE 71-71: Japanese medium tanks are comparable with U. S. light tanks. These were later identified as Model 2598 Ishikawajima Tankettes and Model 98 medium cruisers, 1st Mar Div Rpt, V, Int Annex N, 9.]
Maruyama disclaimed responsibility for the blunder, and blamed 17th Army Headquarters. His forces, delayed in their difficult march, had not reached their line of departure on 23 October. The 17th Army, he asserted, overestimated the rate of progress on the south flank and ordered the coast forces to attack on 23 October to guarantee success on the south flank. Sumiyoshi was vague. He claimed that throughout the counteroffensive he had been so weakened by malaria that he had found it difficult to make decisions. Despite an earlier statement that he did not know why the attack of 23 October had been ordered, he declared that he had attacked ahead of Maruyama to divert the Americans. Communication between the two forces, he claimed, had been very poor. Radio sets gave off too much light, and thus had been used only in the daylight hours. Telephone communication had been frequently disrupted. As a result the coast force had been one day behind in its knowledge of Maruyama’s movements.[NOTE 76-76]
The Main Attacks
On 24 October, the day after Sumiyoshi’s abortive attack, the Lunga perimeter was fairly quiet during the morning hours. Japanese artillery fire continued intermittently during the entire day, and killed six and wounded twenty-five marines. In the afternoon two events indicated that the situation was becoming serious for the Americans. Men of the 3rd Battalion, 7th Marines, holding the southeast line of the forward Matanikau position along Hill 67, observed a Japanese column passing eastward over Mount Austen’s open foothills about 1,000 yards south of their lines. This column, whose exact composition is doubtful, is reported to have been commanded by Colonel Oka. It had apparently crossed the upper Matanikau in an effort to outflank the forward Matanikau position.[NOTE 77-77] Battalions of the 11th Marines immediately put fire on the area, and aircraft rose to strafe and bomb it. But the column had disappeared among jungled ravines, and the effects of the bombing and shelling were probably slight.
[NOTE 76-76: Interrog of Sumiyoshi; 17th Army Opns, I, slurs over the blunder, but asserts that Hyakutake approved postponing the 2nd Division’s attack from 23 to 24 October.]
[NOTE 77-77: According to 1st Demob Bureau’s map, this column, commanded by Colonel Oka, consisted of 1,200 troops of the 124th Infantry (less 3rd Battalion) and the 3rd Battalion, 4th Infantry. This movement had apparently not been ordered in the original plan of campaign.]
As earlier patrols had reported that the upper reaches of the Lunga River were clear of the enemy, the 2nd Battalion of the 7th Marines had been withdrawn from Sector Three east of the Lunga prior to Sumiyoshi’s attack on 23 October The entire 2,800-yard front, from the Lunga River over Bloody Ridge to the right flank of the 164th Infantry, was turned over to the 1st Battalion of the 7th Marines, commanded by Colonel Puller. The 2nd Battalion of the 7th was ordered to the Matanikau to relieve the 3rd Battalion of the 1st Marines. But following the Sumiyoshi attack on 23 October and the observation of the enemy column the next afternoon, the 2nd Battalion of the 7th Marines, on 24 October, moved hastily into position to cover the gap between the Matanikau line and the Lunga perimeter. It held over 4,000 yards of front along the line between the left flank of the 3rd Battalion, 7th, and the 5th Marines in the Lunga perimeter.
The discovery of Oka’s column east of the Matanikau was followed by evidence that another sector was in danger. A straggler from a 7th Marines patrol returned to the perimeter in the late afternoon to report that he had seen a Japanese officer studying Bloody Ridge through field glasses. At the same time a marine from the Scout-Sniper Detachment reported that he had seen the smoke of “many rice fires” rising from the jungle near the horseshoe bend of the Lunga River, about 1 3/4 miles south of the southern slopes of Bloody Ridge. It was too late in the day for further defensive measures, and the 1st Battalion of the 7th Marines, spread thinly over its long front, awaited the attack. There were then available few troops which were not already in the front lines. The motorized division reserve, bivouacked north of Henderson Field, consisted of the 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marines. The only other uncommitted infantry troops in the perimeter were the reserve battalions in each regimental sector.
By 24 October Maruyama’s infantry forces had finally crossed the Lunga River and moved into position in the dark jungles east of the Lunga and south of Bloody Ridge. On the left (west) the 29th Infantry, with the 16th in reserve, prepared to attack on a narrow front, while the Kawaguchi Force, now commanded by Colonel Toshinari Shoji, prepared to attack farther east.[NOTE 79-79] The heaviest weapons for supporting the infantry were machine guns. All the artillery pieces and mortars had been abandoned along the line of march. Maruyama hoped that bright moonlight would provide enough light for his assaulting troops to maintain their direction, but clouds and heavy rainfall made the night black.
[NOTE 79-79] 17th Army Opns, I. According to Sumiyoshi and Tamaki (2nd Div CofS), Kawaguchi, who had advocated attacking from the southeast, had fallen out with his superiors over the plan and had been relieved before the battle. Neither Hyakutake, Miyazaki, nor Maruyama mentioned this.]
The early evening hours of 24 October were quiet. A Marine listening post east of Bloody Ridge briefly opened fire about 2130. The front then lay quiet until half an hour after midnight, when Japanese infantrymen, firing rifles, throwing grenades, and shouting their battle cries, suddenly sprang out of the jungle to try to cross the fields of fire on the left center of the 1st Battalion of the 7th Marines east of Bloody Ridge. This was the 29th Infantry’s assault, the only attack delivered by the Japanese that night. Shoji’s wing, attempting to reach the perimeter in the black, rainy night, had lost direction and got in behind the 29th Infantry. The confused battalions were immediately ordered to the front but arrived too late to participate in the night’s action.
At the first attacks by the 29th Infantry, troops on the right flank of the 2nd Battalion of the 164th Infantry opened fire to assist the 1st Battalion, 7th Marines. Division headquarters correctly assessed the significance of the Japanese attack. It immediately ordered the 3rd Battalion of the 164th Infantry, then in regimental reserve in the 164th’s sector, to proceed to the front and reinforce the Marine battalion by detachments, for the 1st Battalion, 7th, was holding a long front against heavy odds. The division reserve was not committed.
The Army battalion, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Robert K. Hall, was then in bivouac south of Henderson Field about one mile from the front lines. The rain was still falling heavily, and visibility was poor. By 0200 the assembled battalion, about to engage the Japanese infantry for the first time, had marched out of its bivouac area. While the Marine battalion continued to hold back the Japanese, the soldiers entered the lines by detachments between 0230 and 0330, 25 October. The night was so dark that the marines guided the soldiers into position practically by hand. The two battalions, as disposed that night, did not defend separate sectors, but were intermingled along the front.
In the first wild minutes of battle the 29th Infantry overran some of the American positions. One platoon captured two mortar positions but was immediately destroyed by Puller’s forces. The 11th Marines began firing barrages in depth in front of the threatened sector and maintained the fire throughout the engagement.
The Japanese attacked with characteristic resolution all through the night, but every charge was beaten back by the concentrated fire of American small arms, heavy weapons, and artillery. The rifle companies were supported by the Marine heavy weapons and artillery, by the weapons of M Company, by one heavy machine-gun section of H Company, and by 37-mm. antitank guns of the 164th Infantry. That night M Company fired 1,200 81-mm. mortar rounds. The line threw back a series of separate infantry assaults. It neither broke nor retreated, although some Japanese, including Colonel Masajiro Furumiya of the 29th Infantry, penetrated to the jungle behind the American lines.
By 0700, 25 October, the Japanese attacks had temporarily ceased. Maruyama was withdrawing his battalions to regroup and prepare for another assault The front lines remained quiet throughout the daylight hours of Sunday, 25 October. Japanese artillery and aircraft were so active, however, that veterans of Guadalcanal have named the day “Dugout Sunday.” Pistol Pete opened up at 0800, to fire for three hours at 10-minute intervals. Strong enemy naval forces, which were engaged the next day in the Battle of Santa Cruz, were known to be approaching, and the early hours of Dugout Sunday had found all Guadalcanal aircraft grounded. Fighter Strip No. 1, without matting or natural drainage, had been turned into a sticky bog by the heavy rains. Japanese planes bombed and strafed Lunga Point in seven separate attacks. Some Japanese pilots, resolutely dive bombing a group of planes parked in regular formation along the edge of Henderson Field, destroyed a considerable number. These conspicuous targets, however, were non-flying hulks from the “boneyard” left in the open to deceive the enemy. The operational aircraft had been dispersed and camouflaged.
During the morning three Japanese destroyers, having entered Sealark Channel from the north, caught two World War I, flush-decked, American destroyer-transports off Kukum. Outgunned, the American vessels escaped to the east. The Japanese then opened fire on two of the harbor patrol boats from Tulagi, set them ablaze, and ventured within range of the 3rd Defense Battalion’s 5-inch batteries on the beach. The batteries hit the leading destroyer three times, and the enemy ships then pulled out of range. The sun had dried the airfield slightly, and three fighters succeeded in taking off to strafe the destroyers, which escaped to the north. As the runways became drier more American planes were able to take to the air to challenge the Japanese overhead, until by evening they had shot down twenty-two planes in addition to five destroyed by antiaircraft fire.
Along the perimeter the Americans reorganized their lines. The 1st Battalion of the 7th Marines and the 3rd Battalion of the 164th Infantry, which had been intermingled during the night, divided the front between them. The Marine battalion, occupying the sector from the Lunga River to a point about 1,400 yards to the east, covered the south slopes of Bloody Ridge. Hall’s battalion took over the sector in low-lying, rough jungle between the marines’ left (east) flank and the right flank of the 2nd Battalion of the 164th Infantry. The 3rd Battalion, 164th, prepared to defend its sector with three companies in line—L on the left, K in the center, and I on the right. The 60-mm. mortars were emplaced behind the lines to put fire directly in front of the barbed wire; 81-mm. mortars, behind the light mortars, were to hit the edge of the jungle beyond the cleared fields of fire, which ranged in depth from 60 to 100 yards.
Four 37-mm. guns covered the junction of the 2nd and 3rd Battalions of the 164th Infantry, where a narrow trail led north to the Lunga road net. The 164th Infantry regimental reserve, consisting of 175 men of the Service and Antitank Companies, bivouacked in the 3rd Battalion’s old positions. To the west, in Sector Five, the 5th Marines swung their line southwestward to close with the left flank of the 2nd Battalion, 7th Marines. During the day the soldiers and marines, besides strengthening their positions, improving fields of fire, and cleaning and siting their weapons, hunted down a number of Japanese who had penetrated the perimeter during the night.
Hidden in the jungles south of the perimeter, Maruyama was preparing to attack again. Acting on a false report that an American force was approaching his right (east) flank, he deployed Shoji’s wing on the right to cover his supposedly threatened flank. The attack against the perimeter was to be delivered by two infantry regiments in line—the 16th on the right and the 29th on the left.
After nightfall on Dugout Sunday, Maruyama’s forces struck again in the same pattern as on the previous night. The 16th and 29th Infantry Regiments attacked along the entire front of the two American battalions which had defeated the 29th Infantry the night before. Supported by machine-gun fire, groups of from 30 to 200 assaulted the perimeter in the darkness. They executed one strong attack against the point of contact of the 2nd and 3rd Battalions of the 164th Infantry where the trail led northward. Two enemy heavy weapons companies covered by riflemen repeatedly drove in toward the trail, but they were driven off or killed by canister from the 37-mm. guns and by fire from the weapons of the 3rd and 2nd Battalions of the 164th Infantry. About 250 Japanese were killed in their attempt to seize the trail. One company of the division reserve went forward to support L Company of the 164th, and one platoon of G Company, 164th, moved south to support L Company and E Company, on L’s left. The 164th regimental reserve was alerted in the event of a breakthrough, but again the lines held. The 16th and 29th Regiments pressed their attacks until daylight, but everyone was beaten off. As day broke on 26 October, the shattered Japanese forces again withdrew into the cover of the jungle. Hyakutake’s main effort had failed.
Elsewhere during the night of 25-26 October the enemy attacked with slightly greater immediate success. Oka’s force, which had been observed crossing Mount Austen’s foothills the day before, struck north at the attenuated line of the 2nd Battalion of the 7th Marines east of Hill 67. The Japanese broke through at one point, but before they could consolidate their positions, Major Odell M. Conoley, a Marine staff officer, leading headquarters personnel, special weapons troops, bandsmen, and one platoon of the 1st Marines, hastily contrived a counterattack and drove the Japanese off the ridge.
The unsuccessful night attacks of 25-26 October marked the end of the ground phase of the October counteroffensive. The Japanese forces began a general withdrawal about 29 October. There were no more infantry assaults. American patrols were able to advance 2,500 yards south of the perimeter without encountering any organized Japanese forces. They found only sniping riflemen, small patrols, and bands of stragglers. The defeated enemy forces were retreating eastward and westward to Koli Point and to Kokumbona.
The Americans had won the battle handily. Their employment of their weapons had been skillful and effective. The infantrymen, though outnumbered, had stayed at their posts in the face of determined enemy attacks. The soldiers of the 164th Infantry had done well in their first action. Colonel Hall’s battalion had, in the words of General Vandegrift, “arrived in time to prevent a serious penetration of the position and by reinforcing the 1st Battalion, 7th Marines throughout its sector, made possible the repulse of continued enemy attacks. The 1st Division is proud to have serving with it another unit which has stood the test of battle and demonstrated an overwhelming superiority over the enemy.”
[NOTE: L Company, 164th Infantry, fired for 30 minutes at a suspected enemy force in the jungle in front of the lines on the night of 27-28 October. See Baglien, “The Second Battle for Henderson Field,” p. 28.]
The Japanese counteroffensive, which had been begun with such high hopes, was a costly failure. The 1st Marine Division conservatively reported that some 2,200 Japanese soldiers had been killed. A later Army report estimated that the combat strength of the 16th and 29th Regiments had been reduced by 3,568. By November, effective strength of the 4th Infantry numbered only 403. Over 1,500 decaying Japanese bodies lay in front of the 1st Battalion, 7th Marines, and the 3rd Battalion, 164th Infantry. The latter regiment buried 975 enemy bodies in front of K and L Companies alone. Among the dead Japanese were General Nasu and Colonels Furumiya and Toshiro Hiroyasu (commanding the 29th and 16th Regiments, respectively.) By comparison American losses had been light. The 164th Infantry reported twenty-six killed, four missing, and fifty-two wounded throughout October.
The bombardment of the Lunga airfields had been by far the most successful phase of the Japanese counteroffensive. However, the Japanese might have achieved greater success had the air and naval bombardments been delivered simultaneously with the infantry attacks. The infantry assaults, usually delivered against battalions by forces in regimental strength, had failed completely.
Japanese co-ordination, as exemplified by the operations of Sumiyoshi and Maruyama, had been poor, and the assaults had been delivered in piecemeal fashion. If Oka’s attack had been intended to divert the Americans, it came forty-eight hours too late to be effective. The fact that Maruyama was able to move his troops inland around Mount Austen in secret was a signal demonstration of the skill and doggedness of the Japanese soldier, but the terrain over which the intended envelopment had been executed had prevented the movement of artillery. The heavy artillery in Kokumbona does not appear to have been used in direct support of Maruyama’s attacks. Maruyama’s night attacks were thus made by infantrymen against prepared positions supported by artillery and heavy weapons. As the circular perimeter line possessed no open flanks, the Japanese delivered frontal assaults. The Lunga airfields, though seriously threatened, were saved by a combination of Japanese recklessness and American skill and bravery.
The Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands
The naval phase of the October counteroffensive was concluded almost anticlimactically by the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands on 26 October. South Pacific naval forces had been preparing to meet the attack since early October. On 20 October the Joint Chiefs of Staff transferred the submarines of the Southwest Pacific naval forces to the South Pacific until the completion of the Guadalcanal campaign, and Admiral Nimitz promised to send more submarines from the Pacific Fleet. The Southwest Pacific submarines were ordered to attack warships, tankers, transports, and supply ships in the vicinity of Faisi, Rabaul, Buka, northern New Georgia, Kavieng, Bougainville Strait, Indispensable Strait, and Cape Cretin on the Huon Peninsula in New Guinea. On 24 October the Enterprise and her escorts rendezvoused with the Hornet task group northeast of the New Hebrides. The task force thus assembled, commanded by Rear Admiral Thomas C. Kinkaid, included the two carrier groups—the Enterprise, South Dakota, one heavy cruiser, one light antiaircraft cruiser, and eight destroyers—and the Hornet with two heavy and two light antiaircraft cruisers and six destroyers.
A strong Japanese fleet, consisting of four carriers, four battleships, nine cruisers, twenty-eight destroyers, four oilers, and three cargo ships, had meanwhile been maneuvering off the Santa Cruz Islands in support of the 17th Army. At 0110 of 26 October, while the 17th Army forces were attacking Lunga Point, a patrolling plane reported to Admiral Kinkaid’s force that it had discovered part of the enemy fleet near the Santa Cruz Islands. Kinkaid moved in to attack. The ensuing engagement, a series of aircraft attacks against both planes and surface ships, was less decisive than the ground operations on Guadalcanal. The outnumbered American force lost twenty planes to the enemy, and fifty-four more from other causes. The Hornet and the destroyer Porter were sunk, and the Enterprise, the South Dakota, and the light antiaircraft cruiser San Juan and the destroyer Smith suffered damage. All the enemy ships remained afloat, but three carriers and two destroyers were damaged. The Japanese lost 100 planes, a loss which may have limited the amount of air cover they were able to provide to their convoys in November. At the conclusion of the day’s action the Japanese fleet withdrew and returned to Truk, not because it had been defeated but because the 17th Army had failed. The Santa Cruz engagement proved to be the last action of the Guadalcanal campaign in which the Japanese employed aircraft carriers in close support.
Thus far in the campaign, Allied air and naval forces had fought valiantly, but had not yet achieved the result which is a requisite to a successful landing on a hostile island—the destruction or effective interdiction of the enemy’s sea and air potential to prevent him from reinforcing his troops on the island, and to prevent him from cutting the attacker’s line of communication. This decisive result was soon to be gained.
Source: Guadalcanal: The First Offensive ; BY: John Miller, Jr. (United States Army Center of Military History)