Although the lack of sufficient troops limited American capabilities, December was not without some bitter fighting. As a preliminary to a corps offensive, American troops began a small offensive designed to capture Mount Austen. The necessity for capturing the mountain had been recognized even before the Marine landing. General Vandegrift had originally planned to capture it together with Lunga Point. He had changed his .plans on the discovery that Mount Austen was much farther from Lunga Point than the first maps had indicated. Lacking sufficient troops, he had never tried to hold it permanently. General Harmon had always maintained that Henderson Field would not be secure until the mountain was in American hands. In November he had asked General Vandegrift when he intended to take it; the Marine commander replied, according to Harmon, that he would take it at the earliest opportunity.
Mount Austen, 15-30 December: Plans for the XIV Corps Offensive
The capture of Mount Austen was a necessary prelude to a full-scale corps offensive against the Japanese west of the Matanikau. In early December Admiral Halsey, stating that it would not be possible to “predict the ability of our naval surface forces and air to satisfactorily interdict the operation of Jap submarines and the Tokyo Express into Guadalcanal . . . ,” ordered General Harmon to take action necessary to eliminate all Japanese forces on the island. This order gave General Harmon, temporarily, direct authority over tactical operations which he had not previously possessed, for as commander of U. S. Army Forces in the South Pacific he had only administrative authority. In effect, Admiral Halsey had informally deputed to him part of his own tactical authority within a limited area. General Patch’s authority over his troops was not limited or affected in any way. He was to direct operations on Guadalcanal subject to the direction of Harmon, who was acting for Halsey.
General Harmon immediately flew to Guadalcanal to confer with General Patch. Patch planned to capture Mount Austen immediately. Once that mountain had been taken and sufficient forces had been assembled, two divisions would attack westward while a third division defended the airfields. While one of the attacking divisions swung over Mount Austen and the hill masses south of Hill 66 to outflank the Japanese, the other would resume the coastal push from the Hill 66-Point Cruz line. The flanking movement would extend the American line west of the Matanikau an additional 3,000 yards inland. The two divisions would continue attacking westward to trap and destroy the Japanese. General Harmon gave his approval to this plan.
Planners also discussed the possibility of sending amphibious expeditions around Cape Esperance to land on the south coast in the enemy’s rear, block the trail that ran from Kokumbona over the mountains to Beaufort Bay, and to advance west toward the cape. But these bold shore-to-shore movements could not be executed until more landing craft could be assembled.
Terrain and Intelligence
Mount Austen, a spur of Guadalcanal’s main mountain range, juts northward between the Matanikau and Lunga Rivers toward Lunga Point. The 1,514-foot summit lies about six miles southwest of Henderson Field and dominates the surrounding area. It provided the enemy with an excellent observation post from which to survey activity at Lunga Point—traffic at Henderson Field and the fighter strips, unloading of ships, and troop movements. Just as the coastwatchers radioed information on enemy movements to the Allied forces, so Japanese observers could warn their northern bases when bombers left Henderson Field. From the hill they could see the American areas west of the Matanikau, and over the hills west of the mountain into Kokumbona, 9,000 yards to the northwest.
Mount Austen, where the Japanese were to make their strongest defensive effort of the campaign, is not a single peak, but the apex of a confusing series of steep, rocky, jungled ridges. The main ridge forming the summit rises abruptly out of the foothills about two miles south of the shore, and east of the Matanikau River. Aerial photographs do not always give a clear picture of Mount Austen, for a dense forest covers the summit and much of the foothill area is covered by grass. The bare, grassy spaces are not separate hills, though for identification they were assigned numbers. No ridge is usually visible in a single vertical aerial photograph. The actual summit appears to be lower than the open, grassy areas. Hill 27, a separate rocky mound, 920 feet high, lies southwest of the summit. The crest rises just above the surrounding treetops, and is barely visible. Hill 31, a grassy area about 750 yards north of Hill 27, overlooks Lunga Point.
Fifteen hundred yards northwest of Mount Austen, across a deep gorge cut by the Matanikau, lies another hill mass (Hills 43 and 44). A third hill mass (Hills 55-54-50-51-52-53-57), about 900 feet high, lies just north of the first, and is clearly visible from Mount Austen. As General Patch intended to move one division over these hill masses in the southwesterly envelopment, it was first necessary to capture Mount Austen to deny it to the enemy, and to locate and partially roll up his east flank.
In late November and early December it was thought that the Japanese were not holding Mount Austen in strength. Patrols from the 132nd Infantry, which was to attack Mount Austen, had confirmed the negative reports by earlier patrols from the 8th Marines and the 182nd Infantry. By 15 December, General Patch had reason to change this view. Intelligence reports indicated that the enemy might be building up strength in the south, and that he might attack in force from the south or raid the airfields. On 12 December a night-raiding party had managed to steal through the lines to destroy one P-39 and a gas truck on Fighter Strip No. 2. Two days later the 132nd Infantry regimental intelligence officer, four other officers, thirty-five enlisted men, and ten native bearers reconnoitered Mount Austen’s northwest slopes. Pushing east, they met fire from a force estimated to include one rifle platoon, four machine guns, and one or two mortars. Receiving orders by radio, the patrol withdrew. On his return to the Lunga perimeter the intelligence officer directed artillery fire on the enemy positions. From the patrol’s experience it was concluded that the enemy had occupied Mount Austen. On 15 and 16 December the patrol went up Mount Austen’s eastern slopes and reported finding only abandoned Japanese positions. It had not found the enemy, who may have been lying quiet, unwilling to disclose his position.
The commanders on Guadalcanal were not fully aware of the extent of the enemy’s strength on Mount Austen. Colonel Oka’s force, including understrength battalions from the 124th and 228th Infantry Regiments, and the 10th Mountain Artillery Regiment, were then holding positions which extended to the northeast slopes of Mount Austen, and were concentrated in a 1,500-yardlong pillbox line west of the summit on a curved ridge lying between Hills 31 and 27. Supply and evacuation posed difficult problems for the Americans, but for the Japanese they were almost insoluble. They had to depend exclusively upon hand-carriers for rations and ammunition, and received a negligible quantity.
There is no evidence to show that Oka’s troops were ever reinforced after the 132nd Infantry attacked. Most of the enemy wounded were apparently not hospitalized; they either fought on or died in their foxholes and pillboxes. The battalions of the 124th and 228th Regiments had been on Guadalcanal for periods ranging from several weeks to three months; they had been affected by battle weariness, malnutrition, and disease.
Plans for Taking Mount Austen
By 16 December General Patch was ready to inaugurate preparations for the corps offensive in January by seizing Mount Austen. He ordered the 132nd Infantry to occupy Mount Austen at once. The operation was to be conducted under the control of the west sector commander, Colonel John M. Arthur, USMC, who reported directly to General Patch. The 132nd Infantry, commanded by Colonel LeRoy E. Nelson, had landed on Guadalcanal on 8 December, and was completely new to combat. The 3rd Battalion, Lieutenant Colonel William C. Wright commanding, was to lead the attack. Lieutenant Colonel Earl F. Ripstra’s 1st Battalion (less D Company) was to follow in reserve. The 2nd Battalion, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel George F. Ferry, was to remain in the Lunga perimeter defense.
Artillery support for the operation was to be provided initially by the 105-mm. howitzers of the 246th Field Artillery Battalion and the 75-mm. pack howitzers of the 2nd Battalion, 10th Marines. Ample additional artillery support was available if needed. On 11 December 1942 there were twenty-eight 75-mm. pack howitzers, thirty-six 105-mm. howitzers, twelve 155-mm. howitzers, and six 155-mm. guns belonging to the Americal Division and attached units in the Lunga area. The Marine Corps battalion moved its pack howitzers to the northwest slopes of Mount Austen, inside the perimeter defense, while Lieutenant Colonel Alexander R. Sewall’s 246th Field Artillery Battalion occupied the positions near Fighter Strip No. 2 that it had taken over from the 5th Battalion, 11th Marines. The 246th’s positions were much farther from Mount Austen than those of the marines. The two battalions later fired some “Time on Target” (TOT) concentrations. To surprise the enemy troops and achieve the maximum possible destruction by having all initial rounds hit the target simultaneously, each battalion subtracted its shells’ time of flight from the time its shells were to hit the target and fired its howitzers on the second indicated. This was probably one of the earliest occasions during World War II when American artillerymen employed TOT in combat, although it should be emphasized that this was not a divisional artillery TOT.
To meet the difficulties of supply and evacuation, the 57th Engineer Battalion was building the rough, slippery, jeep track up the mountain from the coast road. By 20 December the engineers had reached Hill 35, about five miles southwest of Lunga Point. The 60-degree incline of Hill 35 slowed the engineers, for they then had no heavy equipment and only 40 percent of their authorized dump trucks. Jeeps were to carry supplies forward from the coast road to the terminus of the mountain road, from which available soldiers and the “Cannibal Battalion” of native bearers were to hand-carry supplies forward.
The Mount Austen operation was opened on 17 December with a reconnaissance in force to the northeast slopes by L Company of the 132nd Infantry, reinforced by about a hundred men from K Company. Patrols from these companies reported finding no Japanese. Early on 18 December L Company marched up the road again ahead of the 3rd Battalion’s main body to the terminus at Hill 35. L Company advanced about 1,000 yards southwest from Hill 35, then swung left (southeast) to enter the jungle on the crest of the mountain. Patrols from L Company had pushed about 500 yards into the jungle by 0930, when fire from hidden enemy riflemen and machine gunners forced them to take cover. Unable to see the enemy, the company awaited the arrival of the main body which joined it at 1130. At Colonel Wright’s request the supporting artillery put fire on the suspected enemy position in front of the 3rd Battalion, which did not close with the enemy. The battalion suffered only one casualty on 18 December, a shoulder wound. The troops were worn out, however, by the hard climb in the heat. After the artillery fire the 3rd Battalion killed three enemy soldiers, then established a perimeter defense just inside the jungle.
The 132nd Infantry continued to underestimate the strength of the enemy defenses. On 18 December, for example, it estimated that a determined westward advance by two battalions would drive the Japanese into the Matanikau River. That this estimate was overly optimistic was soon to be demonstrated.
Three dive bombers (SBD’s) bombed and strafed the enemy areas from 0725 to 0735 on 19 December; this was followed by a 5-minute artillery concentration 400 yards in front of the 3rd Battalion. Colonel Wright and a three-man artillery liaison party from the 246th Field Artillery Battalion then reconnoitered west into the jungle in front of the 3rd Battalion. About 0930 Colonel Wright, who was wearing his insignia of rank, was struck by enemy machinegun fire. The three artillerymen stayed with him to administer first aid, but the enemy machine guns prevented medical aid men from reaching the colonel and halted all efforts to carry him to safety. He died from loss of blood shortly after noon, whereupon the artillerymen crawled back to the 3rd Battalion’s lines.
When Colonel Wright fell, the battalion executive officer, Lieutenant Colonel Louis L. Franco, assumed command. At the time he took over the battalion he was 1,000 yards back with the rear echelon and unable to exercise control. The battalion, temporarily without a leader, was partly disorganized and, in the words of one observer, its operations were “obscure.”
When Colonel Franco reached the front he organized the efforts of the battalion. Late in the afternoon he sent forward a combat patrol under the regimental intelligence officer. The patrol was guided by the artillery liaison party. Covered by the patrol’s fire, the artillerymen crawled forward, rescued a wounded man lying nearby, and pulled Colonel Wright’s body back.
The 3rd Battalion failed to gain ground on 19 December. Japanese riflemen harassed the troops with fire from concealed positions. A few infiltrated the American lines by slipping through the ravines to harass the supply parties and the engineers cutting the supply trail near Hill 35. At 1700 a concealed enemy automatic weapon opened fire and surprised the combined battalion command post, aid station, and ammunition dump. Simultaneously, at least two enemy riflemen also opened fire on the command post. The headquarters troops cleared the area hastily, and the command post was not reorganized until 1830.
The regimental commander then ordered the reserve 1st Battalion (less D Company) to move southeast to join the left flank of the 3rd Battalion south of Hill 19. Both battalions then dug in on a line which faced generally south from a point south of Hill 20, and extended east toward the eastern tip of Hill 21. The night of 19-20 December was typical of the Mount Austen operation. It was noisy with artillery, small-arms, and automatic weapons fire. American artillery harassed the enemy throughout the night, while Japanese soldiers, attempting to infiltrate the 132nd’s line, employed noise-making ruses to tempt the Americans to fire and disclose their positions.
On 20 December the 1st Battalion sent out patrols in an unsuccessful effort to find the enemy’s east flank, while Japanese riflemen and patrols harassed the 132nd Infantry’s flanks and rear. On 21 December General Sebree ordered the 132nd Infantry to cut the Maruyama Trail, which, he thought, lay across its left front. Accordingly C Company advanced 1,000 yards to the south but found no enemy troops and no trail.
Meanwhile, getting supplies to the two front line battalions was proving difficult Wright Road was a narrow, tortuous trail fit only for jeeps, and the heavy rains made its steep grades slick and dangerous. Jeeps could bring supplies to Hill 35, the point to which the engineers had pushed the road by 20 December, but beyond Hill 35 all ammunition, water, food, replacement parts, and medical supplies had to be hand-carried forward over rough, wooded slopes. Raiding enemy riflemen led the regimental commander, who was concerned about the security of the supply line, to request the Americal Division headquarters to use the 2nd Battalion, 132nd Infantry, and the Mobile Combat Reconnaissance Squadron to protect the route. Division headquarters, asserting that the supply line was not in serious danger, denied this request.
The 101st Medical Regiment’s Collecting Company, assisted by the 25th Division Collecting Company, was having trouble in evacuating wounded and sick. Litter bearers carried them to battalion aid stations 100 yards behind the firing line. Serious cases were carried in 100-yard relays to the forward collecting station on Hill 35, and from there jeep-ambulances carried them to the Lunga perimeter. Carrying the litters up and down ridges and through ravines was so exhausting that bearers had to be relieved and rested after one or two trips. The medical aid men were fired on so frequently that they began to discard their arm brassards in favor of weapons. As carrying both wounded men and rifles at the same time proved awkward, two-man escorting parties armed with rifles and submachine guns escorted the litter bearers. Later in the operation, engineers and medical men fixed skids on litters to slide them down hills, and also rigged pulleys and steel cables to carry the litters across the deepest ravines.
Resolute patrolling on 23 December produced more significant results than did the patrolling on 20 and 21 December. The 1st Battalion patrols covered 1,000 yards they had previously penetrated, then reconnoitered 500 yards farther toward the south and west. When they found neither Japanese nor trails, regimental headquarters concluded that the Maruyama Trail did not cross Mount Austen but circled along its southern slopes to reach the upper Lunga. In the north a 3rd Battalion patrol advanced westward from the summit, skirting the southeast grassy area of Hill 30, and reached Hill 31, another grassy area more than 1,000 yards west of the 132nd Infantry’s line. The patrol, finding only abandoned enemy bivouacs around Hill 31, turned south and advanced a short distance before turning east to return to the American lines. On the return trip the patrol encountered small-arms fire. It returned the fire, killed one Japanese, and reached the lines without loss.
As the patrol had found a safe route to Hill 31, Colonel Nelson changed the direction of his attack. At 2000, 23 December, he ordered the 3rd Battalion to move west over the patrol’s route and prepare to attack toward Hill 27 from the north. The 1st Battalion was to follow the 3rd Battalion west to cover the open areas (Hills 20, 28, 29, and 30) and to be in a position to assist the leading battalion, protect the supply route, and assist in carrying supplies forward.
Attacks Against the Gifu Strong Point, 24-30 December
The 3rd Battalion left its area at 0730, 24 December, in column of companies. L Company again led, followed by I and Headquarters Companies, the medical detachment, and M and K Companies. The battalion reached Hill 31 in the afternoon after routing some enemy riflemen who tried to oppose the advance. It then started a push south into the jungle. As the troops moved up the grassy, open slopes of Hill 31 they were halted by heavy machine-gun fire from well-concealed positions. The battalion had not suffered any casualties that day, but Colonel Franco, the battalion commander, decided that it was too late in the day to develop the enemy position and continue the attack. The 3rd Battalion established a perimeter defense for the night in the ravine between Hills 31 and 32.
Meanwhile the reserve 1st Battalion had completed its move. All companies were reported in position by 1230. B Company held the west spur of Hill 30, C Company, Hill 29, and A Company, Hill 20. The machine-gun fire which had halted the 3rd Battalion’s attack came from the strongest Japanese defensive position on Guadalcanal—the Gifu strong point. Its garrison, about five hundred men from Oka’s forces, had given it the name of a prefecture in Honshu. The Gifu lay between Hills 31 and 27, west of the summit of Mount Austen. The strongest part of the area was a horseshoe-shaped line of about forty-five inter-connecting pillboxes between the two hills. Arranged in a staggered formation, they were mutually supporting. The pillboxes were made of logs, and were dug into the ground and revetted inside and out with earth. The roofs were three logs thick; the walls, two logs. Earth and foliage concealed and protected the pillbox tops, which rose less than three feet above the surface of the ground.
Each pillbox contained at least one and sometimes two machine guns, plus two or three riflemen. Supporting riflemen and light machine gunners outside the pillboxes had prepared positions under the bases of mahogany and banyan trees, and some were reported, probably erroneously, to have established themselves in the treetops. Foliage concealed the fire lanes, and in the thick, dark forest the well-camouflaged pillboxes were almost invisible. The machine guns in the positions covered all approaches with interlocking bands of fire, and the American infantrymen were to have great difficulty in finding their exact locations. When one machine gun was knocked out the Japanese would redistribute their automatic weapons.
Mortar fire usually did little damage to the Gifu. The 105-mm. howitzer was to prove more effective, but only direct hits could damage the pillboxes. Anything lighter was ineffective, and less plunging fire burst in the trees. Fuzed charges of high explosive could have destroyed the pillboxes had the soldiers been able to get close enough to place them. Flame throwers were not then in use. The attacking troops, of course, did not possess exact knowledge about the Gifu. Whenever they moved into the jungle, heavy fire would force them down before they could close in to locate the pillboxes.
The enemy position, though strong, was not invulnerable. It was a fixed position, but the Japanese were unable to supply or reinforce it. The attacking American forces had a preponderance of artillery support, while the Japanese, apparently lacking sufficient ammunition, seldom used artillery on Mount Austen. The west side of the Gifu was weak, and the omission of Hill 27 from the perimeter of the strong point left the Gifu open to eventual envelopment.
On 25 December General Sano, commanding the 38th Division, tried to raise morale with an “Address of Instruction.” He assured his men that the Americans had lost their fighting spirit and promised that patient endurance of starvation by the Japanese would soon be rewarded by air, ground, and naval reinforcements. Sano, urging his troops to resist with “desperate determination,” referred slightingly to the American reliance on fire power and faith in “material substance.”
The attack of the 132nd Infantry was renewed on Christmas Day. The three rifle companies of the 3rd Battalion were to advance southward in line from Hill 31 toward Hill 27. M Company was in reserve. At 0930 the rifle companies, supported by 60-mm. mortar fire, began advancing from the open area into the jungle. As the men entered the jungle their movements were impeded by the rocky terrain. The Japanese maintained rifle and machine-gun positions out beyond the pillbox line to prevent the attackers from drawing close. The Americans were forced to fight for each yard of ground against an invisible enemy. By 1335, after moving a short distance, the American companies had been completely halted by machine-gun and rifle fire from their front and flanks. Patrols then attempted to locate the enemy’s right and left flanks, but Japanese fire halted their movements. The battalion had by that time lost three officers and nine enlisted men killed and sixteen enlisted men wounded. The regimental commander ordered the troops to retire to their original positions while howitzers shelled the enemy.
As a result of the day’s action, the regimental commander concluded that the Japanese had built a perimeter defense in the area. He decided to resume the attack on the next morning. The 3rd Battalion was to deliver a frontal attack while the 1st Battalion covered the 3rd Battalion’s left flank, and moved 1,000 yards to the south to establish a position from which patrols could deploy to locate the enemy flanks.
At 1030, 26 December, after an artillery and aerial bombardment, the 3rd Battalion again tried to move forward. K Company advanced on the right (west), I Company on the left (east). L Company was held in reserve on Hill 31. The 1st Battalion (less C Company) covered the 3rd Battalion’s left flank, while C Company covered the 1st Battalion’s rear from Hills 29 and 30. The 3rd Battalion was able to advance only to the line reached on the previous day. Heavy machine-gun fire halted the assault companies again. Soldiers from K Company located one machine-gun position and killed nine Japanese with grenades. Meanwhile B Company, given the mission of finding the enemy’s east flank, had been halted by machine-gun fire. At 1600 the troops dug in along the south edge of Hill 31. K Company held the right, I and B Companies the center, and A Company held the left flank. The day’s attack cost the 3rd Battalion five killed and twelve wounded. In addition twenty-one sick men were evacuated on 26 December. Nine Japanese were known to have been killed.
The Gifu was still intact, but the 132nd now held a line between the Gifu and Hill 31, from which the enemy could no longer observe the Lunga area. The regimental commander decided to use both battalions in the next day’s attack. While the 3rd Battalion delivered a holding attack, A, B, and C Companies were to swing south and east to find the enemy flanks. The 3rd Battalion moved forward at 0800 but was halted by machine-gun fire. The 1st Battalion meanwhile moved south in a column of companies. But it had become confused in the jungle. Ordered to assemble between Hills 29 and 30, the 1st Battalion actually assembled in the ravine between Hills 30 and 31, 400 yards too far to the west. Its right flank closely crowded the left flank of the 3rd Battalion, making free maneuver impossible. In the lead, B Company ran into the Gifu line instead of outflanking it. As B Company was quickly halted by machine guns, A Company then deployed to the left where it met less fire, for the Gifu’s main eastern bulge did not extend east of Hill 30.
Patrols on 27 and 28 December could find no gaps in the enemy lines, nor any flanks, but on 29 December an 8-man patrol from the 1st Battalion before returning at 1330. By advancing due south from Hill 29, the patrol had avoided the eastern bulge of the Gifu, and found the route by which Hill 27 could be economically assaulted.
By the end of December the battalions were dispirited and in poor physical condition. Between 19 and 30 December the two battalions had lost 34 killed, 129 wounded, 19 missing, and 131 sick and evacuated, a total of 313 casualties. Each battalion had been understrength at the outset, and by 28 December effective strength in both battalions totaled only 1,541.44
The Capture of Hill 27: The Plan
Although the attack of the 132nd Infantry had bogged down, the American generals agreed that the Mount Austen operation should be continued. At a conference held at General Patch’s command post on 29 December, Generals Harmon, Patch, Collins, and Sebree decided to attempt to complete the capture of Mount Austen because it was an essential preliminary to the corps offensive planned for January.
The 132nd’s commander believed that a co-ordinated attack by the 1st and 3rd Battalions from the north coupled with a wide envelopment by the 2nd Battalion, would capture Hill 27. The 132nd Infantry’s Field Order No. 1, issued on 30 December 1942, announced the plan for continuing the attack by taking Hill 27. The 3rd Battalion was to continue attacking south from Hill, 31 while the 1st Battalion pushed against the enemy’s eastern line. To secure sufficient space for maneuver, the 1st Battalion was to jump off from assembly areas east of Hill 30, advance southward, then swing southwest to attack Hill 27.
The fresh 2nd Battalion, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel George F. Ferry, was to deliver the main attack. On 28 December the regimental commander was informed that this battalion would be released to him, and regimental headquarters immediately began to plan for its employment. The battalion executive officer and each company commander were ordered to reconnoiter the routes leading to Hill 27.
To capture Hill 27 from the south the 2nd Battalion was to make a wide envelopment, starting from Hill 11 in a southwesterly direction. When the battalion reached a point southeast of Hill 27, it was to turn to the northwest and attack up the south slopes of Hill 27. Each battalion would be responsible for the security of its flanks. H Hour was originally set for 0630, 1 January 1943, but was postponed to 0630, 2 January 1943, when the 2nd Battalion’s progress up Wright Road proved slow. The 2nd Battalion was to be in position southeast of Hill 27 on the night prior to the regimental attack.
While patrols from the 1st and 3rd Battalions reconnoitered the enemy lines, the 2nd Battalion left the perimeter defense on 30 December to march up Wright Road to Hill 11, where it bivouacked on the night of 31 December 1942-1 January 1943. At daybreak on New Year’s Day the battalion left Hill 11. Hill 27 lies less than one air mile from Hill 11, but the enveloping march up and down almost vertical slopes covered 6,000 yards.
The terrain proved so difficult that on 2 January 175 litter bearers were to take five hours to evacuate 20 casualties over the same route. Since the crest of Hill 27 was nearly invisible from the jungle, an airplane, gunning its engine at intervals, flew between Hill 11 and the objective every fifteen minutes to help orient the scouts. The 2nd Battalion was fired on by a few enemy riflemen but did not delay its approach march, and the battalion arrived at the day’s objective—the southeast slope of Hill 27—by 1600 without losing a man. Colonel Ferry was confirmed in his belief that the fire from the scattered Japanese riflemen usually called “snipers” was not dangerous when the troops kept moving. Meanwhile the commander of the 132nd Infantry, who was suffering from malaria and the debilitating effects of the tropics, had asked to be relieved.
Colonel Alexander M. George took over command of the regiment and arrived at the 132nd Infantry’s forward command post at 0915, 1 January. One of his first acts was to stage a dramatic exhibition to demonstrate to the tired battalions facing the Gifu that Japanese small-arms fire was generally ineffective against a moving target. Clad in shorts and a fatigue cap, and armed with two .45-caliber automatic pistols and an M1 rifle, Colonel George inspected the front lines. He walked along erect in full view of the soldiers of the 1st and 3rd Battalions. Some soldiers, unaware of his identity, shouted to him to take cover, but Colonel George finished his tour. Japanese soldiers in the jungle helped him to prove his point by shooting at him repeatedly but inaccurately.
Artillery support for the regimental offensive of 2 January was heavier than on previous occasions. It included the 105-mm. howitzers of the 247th Field Artillery Battalion, the 75-mm. pack howitzers of the 36 Battalion, 10th Marines, and the 155-mm. howitzers of the recently landed B Battery, 90th Field Artillery Battalion, 25th Division.
Operations of the 3rd and 1st Battalions, 2 January
The 132nd Infantry moved to the attack at 0630, 2 January. The 3rd Battalion, pouring fire into the jungle in its zone, was able to advance in line from Hill 31 for a short distance into the jungle, although I Company on the left met heavy fire. At 1400 the battalion established positions just south of the tree line on Hill 31. In the day’s fighting the battalion killed fifteen Japanese and lost four killed and eighteen wounded.
The 1st Battalion had moved in column to the southwest out of the ravine between Hills 29 and 30 simultaneously with the 3rd Battalion’s attack. When fire from Japanese patrols hit C Company which was leading, it deployed while A Company moved south and east to bypass the Japanese, and then turned southwest again, followed by B Company. By 1000 A Company had reached a point just east of the Gifu’s eastern bulge. Before the end of the day C Company cleared out the enemy in its front and rejoined the main body. The 1st Battalion then dug in on a line east of the Gifu. The left flank lay near Hill 27, but a 200-yard gap remained between the 1st and 3rd Battalions. During the day the 1st Battalion killed twenty-five Japanese, C Company accounting for most of them. Two 1st Battalion soldiers were killed and four were wounded.
Operations of the 2nd Battalion
In a difficult zone of action, the 2nd Battalion was able to take its objectives in one of the day’s most successful operations. The battalion’s roundabout march through the jungle on the previous day had not alerted the Japanese. At 0630 the battalion moved out of its bivouac area to attack; it advanced in column of companies with each company in single file. As the battalion began the climb up the southeast slopes about 0730, the troops deployed as much as the terrain would permit. E Company advanced on the left, F Company on the right, while G and H Companies were held in reserve. The climb was hard. Perspiration soaked the men’s clothing and cut through the camouflage blacking on their faces. The slippery slopes delayed their advance, but no Japanese opened fire.
By 0907 the leading assault troops gained the summit without firing a shot, and by 1130 all assault troops had reached the top. The Japanese had been completely surprised. As E and F Companies reached the top they saw a 3-inch mountain howitzer in the open about 100 yards north of the crest. The enemy crew was sprawled at ease in the shade about thirty yards from the howitzer. The Japanese artillerymen ran for their weapon, but riflemen of the assault companies picked off each gunner before he could reach it.
The 2nd Battalion began to organize Hill 27 for defense, but digging in on the rocky crest was slow work. Like nearly all Army and Marine Corps units on Guadalcanal, the battalion was suffering from serious shortages, and did not possess enough entrenching tools. Before the troops could complete their foxholes and machine-gun emplacements, the Japanese north of Hill 27 recovered from their surprise and attempted to recapture the hill. Using mortars, grenade dischargers, machine guns, rifles, and some artillery, they poured a heavy fire on the exposed troops. An artillery forward observer on Hill 27 describes the fire fight: Then all hell broke loose. Machine guns and rifles pinged from all directions. Snipers fired from trees . . . Crossfire cut down our boys who were over the hill . . . Our Garands [M1 rifles] answered the fire and the battle was on. Enemy “Knee mortars” [grenade dischargers] popped on our lines with painful regularity. Our own 60’s [mortars] opened and neutralized them only to have the shells start lobbing in from a different direction. In forty minutes, as the troops dug in under fire, the 2nd Battalion lost eight men killed and seventy wounded but they held the hill against the six successive infantry counterattacks launched by the Japanese in the afternoon. After mortar fire the Japanese infantry would rush southward against the American lines, but the 2nd Battalion beat off each assault
In the late afternoon the 2nd Battalion moved back off the exposed crest for the night and dug in on the reverse slope, about 100 yards south of the military crest where the hill was narrower. During the night of 2-3 January the battalion was almost surrounded, for the Japanese had penetrated to positions on the north, northwest, and southwest of Hill 27. Heavy artillery concentrations on the enemy’s positions prevented him from getting close enough to the 2nd Battalion to break its lines. On one occasion, when enemy troops climbed the north slopes to set up machine guns which could have covered the 2nd Battalion’s lines, the 3rd Battalion, 10th Marines, placed one concentration directly in front of the lines. The shells exploded between the Americans and the Japanese, who were unable to get even one gun into action. The Japanese employed the standard ruse of firing mortar shells into the American lines while the American artillery shells were bursting—a ruse designed to make the American infantrymen think their own artillery fire was falling short. Some cried “cease fire,” but the forward observer kept the artillery firing. By dawn the last enemy soldier had been killed or driven off. The 2nd Battalion moved back to the military crest of Hill 27 to dig in securely, and H Company moved its heavy weapons up to the hilltop.
On 3 January the 1st Battalion, attempting to push west to straighten the bulge in the line, established contact on its left with the 2nd Battalion. By 1000, 4 January, patrols from companies of the 1st and 3rd Battalions had met at a point about 500 yards south of the ravine between Hills 31 and 30.
The 132nd Infantry was ordered to dig in and hold its gains and on 4 January it began to build a strong half-moon-shaped line around the eastern bulge of the Gifu between Hills 31 and 27. The troops built log-covered foxholes and wired in the lines. The addition of D Company, which was relieved from the Lunga perimeter defense, enabled Colonel George to place one machine gun platoon on the line in support of each rifle company. Every heavy weapons company sent one mortar platoon to form a provisional 81-mm. mortar battery on the reverse slope of Hill 29. The 132nd Infantry’s operations from 1 to 3 January had ringed the Gifu strong point on the north, east, and south with a strong line which was to prove impervious to enemy counterattacks.
Hard hit by battle fatigue, malaria, dysentery, and casualties, the 132nd was incapable of further offensive action. It held the line until relieved by the 2nd Battalion, 35th Infantry, of the 25th Division. During its twenty-two days on Mount Austen the 132nd Infantry lost 112 men killed, 268 wounded, and 3 missing; it estimated that during the same period it tad killed between 400 and 500 Japanese. Part of Mount Austen was still in Japanese hands, but the 132nd’s accomplishments were of great value. Observation of the perimeter was denied to the Japanese, and the XIV Corps’ troops could be safely deployed in the forthcoming southwesterly operations. The 132nd Infantry had located and partly rolled up the Japanese east flank. With the arrival of the 25th Division, preparations could be made for more ambitious efforts.
Source: Guadalcanal: The First Offensive ; BY: John Miller, Jr. (United States Army Center of Military History)