By the end of November, the higher commanders in the Pacific clearly recognized that the 1st Marine Division needed to be relieved and evacuated to a healthier climate. The division had begun the first offensive undertaken by American ground troops in World War IL Despite the lack of the powerful air and surface support that American infantrymen in later campaigns were to take almost for granted, and in spite of air raids, naval bombardments, inadequate diet, inadequate armament, and resolute Japanese infantry attacks, it had captured and successfully defended an airfield of great importance. Its achievements were rewarded by the Presidential Unit Citation.
Marine battle casualties had not been excessive. Over 600 men of the division were killed in action or died of wounds and other causes between 7 August and 10 December 1942. During the same period the dead of other American units on Guadalcanal totaled 691. Over 2,100 sick and wounded men of the 1st Division had already been evacuated.
In the Solomon’s battle casualties did not accurately reflect a unit’s losses. Hospital admissions resulting from sickness must also be taken into account. Up to 10 December 1942, of the 10,635 casualties in the division, only 1,472 resulted from gunshot wounds; 5,749 malaria cases had put men out of action. In November malaria alone sent 3,283 into the hospital. Gastro-enteritis, which had struck nearly 500 men during August and September, materially decreased during the following months and in December only 12 cases appeared. War neuroses afflicted 100 during October when enemy bombardments had been heaviest, but in November only 13 were affected. These figures are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Many malaria victims were hospitalized more than once; many of the same men were also later killed or wounded. Thus the number of men in the division who were not hospitalized may have been larger than the statistics indicate. Yet many other malaria victims did not report for treatment, and many milder cases were not hospitalized.
The men who had remained on duty were ready for relief. They had endured months of intermittent combat, air raids, and naval attacks. Inadequate diet had caused nearly every man to lose weight. Secondary anemia was common. Weakness resulting from malnutrition, heat, and disease was causing an excessive number of march casualties in all units. Merely living in the Lunga perimeter was an ordeal in itself. Water was insufficient for bathing and laundry, and fungi frequently infected those who bathed in the rivers. The old October perimeter had included less than thirty square miles, so there were no real rest areas, nor any recreational facilities. Flies, attracted by unburied enemy corpses lying beyond the perimeter, harassed the troops constantly. They clustered so thickly that men messing in the open had to brush flies off their food with one hand while eating with the other.
As early as 3 November Halsey had wished to relieve the worn-out division, but he was unable to do so until he could send more fresh troops to Guadalcanal. The 43rd Division was already on its way to the South Pacific; the first elements of the division had arrived in the area in early October. On 3 November Harmon repeated an earlier request that General Marshall send the 25th Division, then assisting in the defense of the Hawaiian Islands, to the South Pacific.
While General Marshall had alerted the 25th Division for movement as early as 19 October, it was not then definitely decided whether the division was to go to the South or to the Southwest Pacific Area. One combat team of the 25th Division was to have left Pearl Harbor in November, but it was delayed when the ship aboard which it was to sail, the President Coolidge, sank on 26 October when it struck two U. S. mines off Espiritu Santo. The Coolidge was carrying the 172nd Regimental Combat Team of the 43rd Division.
On 30 November the Joint Chiefs of Staff decided to send to the South Pacific the 25th Division, commanded by Major General J. Lawton Collins. The 1st Marine Division was to be relieved, with the first echelon leaving in early December. It was to go to the Southwest Pacific Area to be rehabilitated and to provide General MacArthur with a division having amphibious training.
On Guadalcanal staff officers of the Americal Division, who had arrived in November and been working closely with the Marine division staff, were preparing to take over. At the beginning of December they moved into the Marine staff sections to acquaint themselves with the problems peculiar to Guadalcanal. The Americal Division’s supply sections completed an inventory of the stocks on the island, and on 1 December they assumed responsibility for supply. By 8 December all Army staff officers had assumed complete responsibility.
The selection of a commander to succeed General Vandegrift was left to General Harmon. He chose Major General Alexander M. Patch, commanding general of the Americal Division, to direct tactical operations on Guadalcanal. On 9 December General Patch relieved General Vandegrift, who was to leave with his division. The evacuation of the 1st Division began on the same day, when three ships carrying the 5th Marines sailed out of Sealark Channel for Australia. By the end of the month the rest of the division had followed.
General Patch, the new commander, born in 1889, was graduated from the U. S. Military Academy in 1913. He saw active service in France during World War I, taught military science and tactics at Staunton Military Academy in Virginia during three separate tours of duty, and was graduated from the Command and General Staff School and from the Army War College. From 1936 to 1941, he served on the Infantry Board at Fort Benning, with the 47th Infantry, and commanded the Infantry Replacement Training Center at Camp Croft in South Carolina. Early in 1942 he had been ordered, as a brigadier general, to command the American force which had been organized to defend New Caledonia.
On 10 December 1942 the Guadalcanal-Tulagi area assumed somewhat the same status as the other island commands in the South Pacific. General Harmon became responsible for providing supplies for the troops. Admiral Turner was relieved of responsibility for defending Guadalcanal but was to retain responsibility for transporting troops and supplies to the area. General Patch was responsible to Admiral Halsey. His command included the Guadalcanal airfields, the seaplane base at Tulagi, and the naval bases as well as the troops of all services. The troops were then occupying Tulagi, the adjacent islands, and Koli Point, Lunga Point, and the Matanikau River-Point Cruz area on Guadalcanal. The mission given him was clear and direct: “eliminate all Japanese forces” on Guadalcanal.
For the Americans on Guadalcanal October and November had been primarily periods of stubborn defense interspersed with hard-fought local offensives. The first half of December was a period of transition, a time of organization for offensive action while reinforcements were on their way. Prior to the relief of the 1st Marine Division American forces had included almost 40,000 men. Although in December there were about 25,000 Japanese troops on Guadalcanal, the Americans were not sure of the 17th Army’s precise strength or dispositions, and there always remained the dangerous possibility that it might be reinforced by the nocturnal Tokyo Express.
Prior to his assumption of command General Patch had estimated that he would require at least two reinforced divisions to hold the airfields, and three to prevent the Japanese from making any more landings. But there were then no other divisions in the South Pacific which could be spared. The 37th Division, the only other complete U. S. Army division in the South Pacific except the Americal, was then holding the strategically important Fiji Islands and could not be moved. The departure of the 1st Marine Division reduced troop strength so much that no major offensives could be undertaken until the 25th Division arrived. The Americal Division, the 147th Infantry, the reinforced 2nd and 8th Marines of the 2nd Marine Division, and the Marine defense battalions were the only ground forces available to General Patch during most of December, and most of these were needed to hold the ground already gained.
Most of the remaining units of the Americal Division reached Guadalcanal in December. The 132nd Regimental Combat Team (less the 1st Battalion and A Battery of the 247th Field Artillery Battalion) landed on 8 December. The 2nd Marine Division Signal Company and the 18th Naval Construction Battalion landed on 12 December, followed on 13 December by the 3rd Battalion, 182nd Infantry, and C Company, 2nd (Marine) Engineer Battalion. The next day more Americal Division units landed—the Mobile Combat Reconnaissance Squadron, the 1st Battalion, 132nd Infantry, A Battery of the 247th Field Artillery Battalion, and a detachment of the 39th Military Police Company. The 221st Field Artillery Battalion did not arrive until January 1943. These units were inexperienced, but the 164th and 182nd Regiments had seen heavy fighting.
The Americal Division was a unique Army unit, for it bore a name instead of a number and had been activated in New Caledonia instead of on United States territory. The name “Americal” is a contraction of the words America and New Caledonia. The division, activated in May 1942, was composed of elements of the force sent to defend New Caledonia in the early months of the war. Composed of infantry, artillery, and supporting units and led by General Patch, this task force had left the United States on 23 January 1942. After a short stay at Melbourne, Australia, it had reached Noumea, New Caledonia, on 12 March, to occupy and defend that island. New Caledonia, valuable as a military base and source of nickel, was a French colony held by the Vichy government during the first years of World War II until a popular uprising overthrew the Vichy governor and installed a member of General Charles de Gaulle’s Fighting French Forces. In co-operation with the Fighting French authorities, General Patch’s force had organized the defense of New Caledonia.
The main units of the Americal Division were the 132nd, 164th, and 182nd Infantry Regiments; the 221st, 245th, 246th, and 247th Field Artillery Battalions; the 57th Engineer Combat Battalion; the 101st Quartermaster Regiment; the 101st Medical Regiment; the 26th Signal Company, and the Mobile Combat Reconnaissance Squadron. The division, which had been widely dispersed in New Caledonia, was to operate on Guadalcanal as a complete division for the first time.
The first element of the division to land on Guadalcanal was the 164th Infantry, a part of the North Dakota National Guard. It was followed by a Massachusetts National Guard regiment, the 182nd Infantry. The units of the Americal which served with the 1st Marine Division also received the Presidential Unit Citation. The 132nd Infantry, of the Illinois National Guard, arrived last. The division’s artillery battalions came from the old 72nd and 180th Field Artillery Regiments. The Mobile Combat Reconnaissance Squadron, equipped with jeeps, rifles, machine guns, automatic rifles, mortars, and 37-mm. antitank guns, was a special unit which had been organized in New Caledonia by Lieutenant Colonel Alexander M. George to provide a mobile striking force to strengthen the defense of the island. Guadalcanal’s terrain was too rough and densely jungled for motorized combat units, however, and the squadron fought on foot.
Brigadier General Edmund B. Sebree, then assistant division commander and soon to command the division, was by December a veteran of Guadalcanal. He had reached the island in early November, had conducted the closing phase of the Koli Point action, and had commanded part of the perimeter defense. On General Vandegrift’s order he had directed the offensive of 18 November which, though it bogged down short of the Poha River, succeeded in establishing the American lines west of the Matanikau River.
There were no experienced fresh troops on Guadalcanal in early December. The 132nd Infantry was fresh but untried, and the veteran Marine and Army units were in little better condition than the 1st Marine Division. All were suffering from general debility, battle weariness, and malaria, and most of the Americal Division units were understrength. On 11 December the Americal Division numbered 13,169 men—23 officers and 3,102 enlisted men below full strength. The 132nd, 164th, and 182nd Infantry Regiments, with an authorized strength of 3,325 men each, lacked 329, 864, and 869 men, respectively.
General Harmon resorted to emergency measures to increase the strength of the forces on Guadalcanal. With Admiral Halsey’s approval, he ordered the ships bearing the 25th Division from Hawaii to sail to Guadalcanal without reloading at New Caledonia. In doing so General Harmon knowingly took a risk, for, as General Marshall warned him on 7 December, shipping space had been too limited for combat-loading, or even unit-loading the ships before they left Pearl Harbor. Discharging these ships in the forward area would be dangerous.
But in view of General Patch’s urgent need for more troops, combat-loading the 25th Division’s ships at Noumea, where dockside congestion had caused a crisis, would delay the landing of the division on Guadalcanal by six weeks—until early February 1943. General Harmon therefore carried out his plan despite the dangers involved, and the 25th Division, protected by air and surface forces, went to Guadalcanal without taking time to reload at Noumea. The 35th Regimental Combat Team landed at Beach Red on 17 December; it was followed by the 27th Regimental Combat Team on 1 January 1943, and by the 161st Regimental Combat Team on 4 January. All units landed without loss. On 4 January 2nd Marine Division headquarters and the 6th Marines, Reinforced, having moved up from New Zealand, also landed, thereby bringing the 2nd Marine Division to nearly full strength. General Patch had now, in addition to miscellaneous units, three divisions.
The additional duties assumed by General Patch’s staff during December imposed heavy burdens upon it. Americal Division headquarters, the highest headquarters on Guadalcanal in December, had been acting as a full corps headquarters—acting simultaneously as island headquarters, Americal Division headquarters, and headquarters for part of the 2nd Marine Division. To remedy this situation, General Harmon recommended to General Marshall that a corps headquarters be designated for the Guadalcanal-Tulagi area. General Marshall, who on 5 December had informed General Harmon that all Army Air Force units in the South Pacific Area were to be designated the Thirteenth Air Force, acceded to this request, and on 2 January 1943 General Harmon activated the XIV Corps. The Corps consisted of the Americal and 25th Divisions, with the 2nd Marine Division and other Marine ground forces attached.
General Patch was given the command of the XIV Corps, and General Sebree succeeded to command of the Americal Division. Headquarters and Headquarters Company, VIII Corps, then in the United States, was re-designated and assigned to the XIV Corps, and in late December Brigadier General Robert L. Spragins arrived to assume his duties as XIV Corps chief of staff. The XIV Corps’ staff section chiefs assumed their duties on 5 January 1943, but most of the posts at XIV Corps headquarters were manned by Americal Division staff officers. The Americal Division staff section chiefs acted simultaneously for their division and as assistant staff section chiefs for the Corps. As late as 1 February 1943 XIV Corps headquarters proper consisted of only eleven officers and two enlisted men. The Corps was not only insufficiently staffed, but also lacked service troops and organic corps artillery. It used the 155-mm. guns of the defense battalions and the Army coast artillery battery as corps artillery.
The arrival of reinforcements in late December and early January increased American strength on Guadalcanal sufficiently to make possible the opening of large-scale offensive operations. By 7 January 1943 Allied air, ground, and naval forces in the Guadalcanal area totaled about 50,000 men. The Americal Division numbered about 16,000; the 25th Division, 12,629; the 2nd Marine Division, 14,733.25
By December the difficulties and shortages which had limited the campaigns in the South and Southwest Pacific were partially overcome. In the Solomon’s, Allied air strength was on the increase. Control of the air and the sea in the southern Solomon’s enabled Halsey and Turner to send troops and supplies to Guadalcanal regularly. The number of heavy Army bombers in the South Pacific had increased. The veteran 11th Heavy Bombardment Group had been operating in the theater since July, and in November it was reinforced by the 5th Heavy Bombardment Group and the 12th and 44th Fighter Squadrons, which arrived at Espiritu Santo from Hawaii.
By November forty B-17’s of the two groups were operating in the Solomon’s, and General Harmon released heavy bombers of the 90th Bombardment Group which he had been authorized to divert en route to the Southwest Pacific. On 20 October twin-engined Army fighter planes (P-38’s) had arrived in the South Pacific, but not until November, when Henderson Field was safe from shell fire, could they be based at Guadalcanal. When heavy bombers from Henderson Field raided Buin on 18 November, P-38’s escorted the B-17’s all the way for the first time.
Unfortunately the B-17’s frequently had to be diverted from bombardment to patrol missions. The Navy’s twin-engined flying boats (PBY’s) were too vulnerable to enemy attack. The B-17’s, on the other hand, could patrol over long stretches of water, locate enemy convoys, and beat off attacking Japanese fighter planes. The effectiveness of heavy bombers was also diminished by the fact that most fixed enemy objectives lay beyond the range of bombers based at spiritu Santo. The heavy bombers when not flying patrol missions were usually limited to the bombardment of shipping and thus did not meet with conspicuous success as compared with the dive bombers and torpedo bombers which the Navy had designed for just such work. A sustained air offensive against the enemy in the northern Solomon’s could not be mounted until a strong bomber force was permanently based at Henderson Field.
[NOTE-25XK: XIV Corps Strength Rpt, 7 Jan 43, in Amer Div Strength Rpt. Figures in the Corps report, incorrectly totaled, have been corrected. The Corps’ report does not show the 221st Field Artillery Battalion, which landed on 4 January 1943. As strength figures for this battalion for 7 January 1943 have not yet been found, those for 1 February 1943 have been used to reach the approximately correct figure.]
Allied air power on Guadalcanal had greatly increased since the grim days in October. On 23 November General Vandegrift reported that eighty-four U. S. Army, Navy, Marine Corps, and Royal New Zealand Air Force planes were operating from Guadalcanal. By 29 November there were 188 aircraft of all types. By December the 1st Marine Air Wing included Marine Air Group 14, with elements of the 12th, 68th, and 339th Fighter Squadrons and of the 70th Medium Bombardment Squadron (equipped with B-26’s) of the Army Air Forces attached. The advance elements of Brigadier General Francis P. Mulcahy’s 2nd Marine Air Wing, which was to relieve the 1st Wing, arrived on 26 December.
By December, in spite of all difficulties, air and naval power had almost, but not completely, isolated the Japanese on Guadalcanal. The Tokyo Express could slip through on occasion, but the island’s air forces limited its trips. Allied air power was also able to prevent Japanese aircraft from successfully attacking ground installations in force during daylight and from using aircraft for daylight reconnaissance.
Henderson Field was in fair condition by December. Although its operational facilities were still crude, it could support the efficient operation of eighty planes. On returning to the United States after his tour of duty as commander of land-based aircraft in the South Pacific, Admiral McCain had recommended building gasoline storage tanks with a minimum capacity of half a million gallons. He had recommended storage tanks with a million-gallon capacity if Guadalcanal was to be used as a base for further advances, and by December construction of storage tanks with that capacity had begun. Henderson Field could be used in all weathers. By 10 January steel mats had been laid over 320,750 square feet of runway but 600,000 square feet remained without mats.
Fighter Strip No.1, east of Henderson, was being regraded in December but 1,800,000 square feet of matting were required. It was later to serve Navy and Marine Corps aircraft. The coral-surfaced Fighter Strip No. 2 southwest of Kukum was nearly complete by the end of December. It was to furnish U. S. Army and Royal New Zealand Air Force pilots with an excellent runway. At Koli Point naval construction forces, unhindered by enemy ground forces, had nearly completed the bomber strip, Carney Field.
The daylight air attacks, naval shellings, and artillery fire that had pounded Henderson Field so heavily in October were over, although harassing air raids continued to take place at night. Antiaircraft guns of the Marine Corps defense battalions and, until its relief, of the 1st Special Weapons Battalion defended the airstrips. Automatic weapons ranging in size from .30-caliber water-cooled antiaircraft machine guns to 20-mm. and 37-mm. antiaircraft guns beat off strafers and dive bombers, and 90-mm. guns and searchlights defended the field against high-level bombers.
One of the features of the campaign was the nightly nuisance attacks by the Japanese planes, which the troops called “Louie the Louse,” or from the engines’ sound, “Washing-machine Charley” and “Maytag Charley.” Charley bombed at random and caused little damage, but the bombs forced the troops to take cover in dugouts and foxholes, losing sleep and exposing themselves to malarial mosquitoes. Charley was a difficult target for the antiaircraft guns since he usually flew high and maneuvered violently when searchlights and guns went into action. Night fighting, radar-equipped planes, which would have been effective against him, were not to reach the South Pacific until late in February 1943. On several occasions air forces and antiaircraft batteries successfully coordinated fighter attacks with searchlight illumination.
The long-range radar used on Guadalcanal, the SCR 270, functioned fairly well, although the antiaircraft batteries’ fire control radar, the SCR 268, was too primitive for accurate fire control. The coast-watching stations supplemented radar to warn the Lunga area of approaching enemy planes, for the enemy occasionally attacked Lunga Point from the south and southwest over the mountains which screened the planes from radar beams.
The American Situation on Guadalcanal
The area of Guadalcanal which was held by American troops in December was not much greater than that captured in the assault landing. The Lunga perimeter had been enlarged in the November offensive to include the Matanikau River and the area west to Point Cruz. By December the American lines extended from Point Cruz south to Hill 66, from there were refused east across the Matanikau River, and joined the old Lunga perimeter line east of the river. At Koli Point Colonel Tuttle’s 147th Infantry, the 9th (Marine) Defense Battalion, and the naval construction battalion had established a perimeter defense.
Tulagi, Gavutu, and Tanambogo, successfully stormed on 7-8 August, were in American hands. The Japanese had shelled and bombed these islands but had directed all their ground assaults against Henderson Field. Tulagi Harbor provided a good anchorage for warships and transports. American patrols from Tulagi regularly visited Florida Island across the channel from Guadalcanal, to check on possible enemy forces.
The fundamental importance of health and supply in the American situation on Guadalcanal had not diminished. But by December supply had greatly improved over that of the early days, and a major crisis at Noumea had been surmounted. In November, a break-down in the handling of incoming ships at Noumea threatened to cut off supplies for the Army troops on Guadalcanal.
The South Pacific Amphibious Force was already short of ships, and with the torpedoing of the Alchiba off Guadalcanal in November Admiral Halsey reported that only four undamaged cargo ships were left in the South Pacific Force. At Noumea the increased flow of supplies and troops from the United States had resulted in a serious congestion of the harbor, where 91 vessels carrying 180,000 tons of cargo were waiting to be unloaded. Eighty-three of the vessels carried supplies and equipment which Were to be trans-shipped to the New Hebrides and to Guadalcanal. Noumea, like the few other partially developed ports in the South Pacific, lacked enough men, equipment, and storage and berthing space to unload the ships. Army, Navy, and Marine Corp units had formerly each handled their own supplies, but in late November Admiral Halsey suggested that the Army assume responsibility for loading and unloading ships at Noumea. The Army took over the task immediately. In November 34,327 long tons of cargo had been discharged at Noumea, and in December the amount rose to 126,216 long tons. Cargo shipments to Guadalcanal, which had totaled 5,259 long tons in November, increased to 7,271 long tons in December.
Once supplies reached Guadalcanal, however, further difficulties arose. In the absence of docks, all supplies had to be unloaded from ships standing off-shore, lightered to the beaches, unloaded, reloaded on trucks and hauled inland to the dispersed dumps. Since the shortage of shipping space stripped units traveling to Guadalcanal of much of their motor transport, there were never enough trucks. As the number of service troops was also inadequate, combat troops as well as native laborers were forced to handle cargo, a duty for which the combat soldiers showed a marked lack of enthusiasm. As General Patch wrote, combat troops were “apathetic toward labor.”
Moreover, poor roads hindered the movement of supplies inland. Engineers and pioneers of the 1st Marine Division had built roads and some bridges, and the 57th Engineer Battalion was continuing the work. Known before the war as Government Track, the coast road served as the main route between the Ilu River and Point Cruz. An additional road net served Henderson Field and the infantry positions to the south. The marines had begun a jeep trail southwest from the perimeter toward Mount Austen; the 57th Engineers were to complete this trail, over which supplies for the forthcoming attack on Mount Austen were to be carried. A permanent motor bridge enabled heavy vehicles using the coast road to cross the Matanikau. The coast road supplied the troops near Point Cruz, while jeeps carried supplies to Hill 66 on a trail leading over Hills 73 and 72.
These roads, which rain turned into mudholes, were never completely adequate even in dry weather for the supply of front-line units. Before the American invasion no real motor roads had existed. The Japanese had hacked trails through the jungle but many had been obliterated by the trees and undergrowth. When American troops advanced, the engineers would build supply roads behind them, but since they were muddy and narrow, small supply dumps, widely dispersed as a protection against bombing and shell fire, were situated well forward. Jeeps and hand-carriers usually brought supplies to the units in the front lines. Despite these efforts, American troops in January were frequently to outrun their supplies and in some instances were even to fight for considerable periods without water.
Malaria, too, affected operations. By December 1942 the problem of malaria control had not been solved, nor was it to be solved until after the campaign. Malaria, the greatest single factor reducing the effectiveness of South Pacific troops, caused five times as many casualties as enemy action in the South Pacific. No malaria control personnel had been permitted on Guadalcanal until mid-November. The island had been occupied almost a year before sufficient aerosol dispensers and insect repellent were available. Quinine was scarce; suppressive atabrine treatment had been inaugurated but had not halted the spread of the disease. Many men swallowed atabrine tablets reluctantly if at all. Many falsely believed that it was poisonous, that it caused sexual impotence, or that it stained the skin permanently. Little had been done to check the breeding of mosquitoes. The natives were all heavily infected, as were the Japanese. Each rain filled the numerous swamps, streams, lagoons, craters, and foxholes, and provided ideal breeding areas for mosquitoes. Malaria discipline had been lax in all units.
Of the ineffective troops in the Army units on Guadalcanal, nearly 65 percent were put out of action by disease as compared with about 25 percent wounded in action. The rate of malaria per 1,000 men per year for units of all services on Guadalcanal was high. It rose from 14 cases per 1,000 in August to 1,664 per 1,000 in October, 1,781 in November, 972 in December, and 1,169 in January 1943. The hospital admission rate from malaria in Army units alone on Guadalcanal from 1 November 1942 to 13 February 1943 averaged 420 admissions per 1,000 men per year.
The Japanese Situation
As the American situation on Guadalcanal improved, the enemy’s situation correspondingly deteriorated. By piecemeal commitment the Japanese had dissipated their air, surface, and troop strength. Hard fighting with Americans of all services had cost the enemy dearly, as had his own lack of perception, demonstrated by repeated attacks, without sufficient artillery support, against superior forces. Malnutrition and disease exacted a heavy toll from the enemy on Guadalcanal.
The Japanese Army command in the South Pacific was altered in December when a higher headquarters than that of the 17th Army moved into Rabaul. On the orders of Imperial General Headquarters, General Hitoshi Imamura, commanding the 8th Area Army, left Java for Rabaul to assume command of army operations. General Imamura reached Rabaul on 2 December 1942 and was followed later by his army. On Guadalcanal the forward echelon of 17th Army Headquarters continued to direct operations. General Hyakutake, the army commander, and his staff remained on the island until February 1943. In December, the 17th Army kept the bulk of its combat forces between Point Cruz and Cape Esperance, while patrols covered the south coast. The Japanese front lines extended from the Point Cruz area to the high ground about 4,500 yards inland, curving east about 3,000 yards to include Mount Austen. The only Japanese troops east of the Lunga in December were stragglers.
[NOTE-40ZL: USSBS, Allied Campaign Against Rabaul, p. 9. This source occasionally calls Imamura’s command the 8th Group Army, 17th Army Opns, I, states that Headquarters, 8th Area Army reached Rabaul on 22 November. 17th Army Opns, I, II. Many Allied sources affirm that Hyakutake left the island well before February. According to the XIV Corps and Americal Division’s intelligence reports, Maruyama directed operations in Hyakutake’s absence.]
On the island were the remnants of General Maruyama’s 2nd Division, General Sano’s 38th Division, and the Kawaguchi and Ichiki Forces. Major General Takeo Ito, Infantry Group commander of the 38th Division, commanded about 1,000 troops of the 124th and 228th Infantry Regiments and supporting units on an inland line extending from Mount Austen to a point about 3,000 yards west. Of this force, Major Takeyosho Inagaki with the 2nd Battalion, 228th Infantry, occupied the northeast slopes of Mount Austen. Colonel Oka, with part of the 124th Infantry and other units, held the center of the line between Mount Austen and the Matanikau, while Colonel Masaichi Suemura commanded the 1st and 3rd Battalions of the 228th Infantry on the high ground west of the Matanikau. In the coastal area, part of the 2nd Division, operating occasionally under 38th Division command, and units of the latter division faced the Americans along the Point Cruz-Hill 66 line, while the rest of the 2nd Division was concentrated farther west. In early December the Americans were not completely aware of Japanese strength and dispositions on Guadalcanal, especially on Mount Austen and the hills to the west.
Japanese troop strength had declined from the peak of 30,000 men, reached briefly in November, to average about 25,000 in December. Almost no reinforcements had arrived since the 38th Division survivors had come ashore from their blazing transports on 15 November. During the entire campaign about 33,600 troops of the 17th Army and 3,100 of the Special Naval Landing Forces saw action on the island at various times. In December the Americans underestimated the total strength of the Japanese on Guadalcanal; their estimates varied from 9,100 to 16,000. But all Japanese units were understrength, and many soldiers were unfit for duty.
In all sectors the enemy, incapable of offensive action, had dug in for defense. The front-line troops especially were in poor physical condition. The increasing shortage of supplies had reduced rations to a bare minimum, to less than one-third the regular daily allowance. Stealing of food was common. As the few supplies which were brought in were usually landed near Cape Esperance and carried by hand to the front, rear-area troops fared best. Front-line troops were often reduced to eating coconuts, grass, roots, ferns, bamboo sprouts, and what wild potatoes they could find. There are even a few apparent instances of cannibalism on Mount Austen.
[NOTE-47ZL: Interv with Colonel Stanley R. Larsen, 19 Aug 46. Colonel Larsen commanded the 2nd Battalion, 35th Infantry, on Mount Austen and saw butchered corpses. See also statements by Colonel R. B. McClure (CO, 35th Inf), 20 Jan 43; Lieutenant Colonel James L. Dalton, II, 31 Jan 43; Major Lome S. Ward, 29 Jan 43; and Lieutenant Colonel Stuart F. Crawford, (G-2, 25th Div), in 25th Div FO’s, in misc USAFISPA docs in files of Hist Div, SSUSA.]
But hunger was not the only serious problem. If malaria decimated the American ranks, it caused havoc among the enemy. Among the Japanese probably every man was a victim. They had no systematic malaria control, few mosquito nets, and inadequate field hospitals. While American troops operated and bivouacked on high open ground whenever possible, the enemy’s need for security from air attack made him travel, bivouac, and fight in the jungles, where the Anopheles mosquito breeds in the sluggish streams and swamps. According to enemy figures, of 21,500 casualties, 9,000 died of disease—malaria, malnutrition, beri-beri, and dysentery. [NOTE-48KL] Illness and malnutrition weakened the troops so much that late in the campaign one Japanese officer is reported to have classified his men in three groups: those who could move and fight, those who could fight only from emplacements, and those who could not fight at all. In several instances when hospitals moved west during the retreats in January and February the medical personnel apparently evacuated only ambulatory patients. That the others were left behind to die or be captured was indicated by the fact that American troops, during the January offensives, were to find numbers of unwounded enemy corpses in abandoned hospital sites.
[Note-48KL: 1st Demob Bureau table, attached to Interrog of Hyakutake, et al. 17th Army Opns, II, gives figures which substantially agree, but shows the total dead as 21,600. Amer Div Int Rpt, Tab B, gives 27,000 enemy dead; Japanese Medical Problems, p. 11, estimates that 2/3 of enemy deaths were caused by illness; XIV Corps, Enemy Opns, gives larger figures—42,554 committed; 24,330 killed; 3,000 evacuated; 14,724 died of wounds or sickness.]
The Japanese troops lacked food because air and naval power had almost completely isolated them from their bases. They could not use transports for supply and reinforcements. The nocturnal Tokyo Express was able to bring in only a scattering of supplies and reinforcements. The Express made about eleven trips to Guadalcanal between 16 November 1942 and 9 February 1943, and lost ten destroyers sunk and nineteen damaged in the process. To deliver food to Guadalcanal, the Japanese at Rabaul packed rice in empty gasoline drums, roped fifty together, and loaded four of these 50-drum bundles on the deck of each destroyer. The destroyers would then sail down the Slot, arrive at Cape Esperance at night, and throw the drums overboard to float in with the morning tide. Destroyers transported over 20,000 drums, but the troops ashore recovered less than 30 percent. Some were destroyed on the coral reefs, the ropes often broke, and Allied fliers on dawn patrol strafed them whenever possible. When the drum method failed the Japanese tried supply by submarine, but with little success. According to former 17th Army officers, the Japanese on Guadalcanal not only failed to receive the greater part of their heavy equipment, but also lost all but 10 percent of their ammunition.
Thus it was impossible for the Japanese to undertake offensive operations. Not only were the soldiers too weak, but ammunition stocks were too low. Enemy artillery lacked shells to hit Henderson Field, and Allied aircraft and counterbattery artillery made the extensive use of artillery dangerous. Farther north, however, enemy activity was increasing. After their failure to retake the Lunga airfields in November, the Japanese had begun to build an airfield at Munda Point on New Georgia, just 207 miles from Henderson Field. It was so well camouflaged that it was not discovered by the Americans until 3 December. Despite almost daily attacks by aircraft, the field was completed by 29 December. Thereafter Guadalcanal-based aircraft struck it regularly to prevent its fighters escorting the Tokyo Express or intercepting Allied bombing formations bound for the Shortlands and Bougainville, and to discourage its bombers from attacking the Lunga airfields.
An Allied victory on Guadalcanal seemed to be assured by December, but only at the cost of more hard righting. Though weak from hunger and disease, the Japanese were not disposed to surrender and were to continue to fight with bravery and skill.
Source: Guadalcanal: The First Offensive ; BY: John Miller, Jr. (United States Army Center of Military History)