When the 25th Division completed the capture of the Galloping Horse on 13 January, it doubled the length of the Corps’ west front. The front now extended far enough inland to enable the Corps to advance westward on a broad front without much danger of having its left flank enveloped. General Patch then prepared for a second co-ordinated attack designed to carry through Kokumbona to the Poha River, about 9,000 yards west of Point Cruz. Such an attack had to wait until supplies could catch up with the troops.
The 25th Division was forced to halt after capturing the Galloping Horse until the road net could be extended sufficiently to bring enough supplies forward to support the next drive.1 Engineers immediately began to push the Hill 66 road to the southwest, but it was 22 January before the Corps could resume its advance on a two-division front. The units on the beach, on the right flank of the 25th Division, were not impeded in their forward movement by lack of supplies. These were brought to them over the coast road network, and they were able to move forward almost every day from 13 to 24 January. General Patch hoped to trap and destroy the Japanese in Kokumbona.
There were only two routes by which they could escape from that village. The easiest lay along the flat ground on the north coast between Kokumbona and Cape Esperance, and was then controlled by the Japanese. The second route lay over a 20-mile-long native trail which ran from Kokumbona southwestward through the mountains to Beaufort Bay on the south coast. Allied patrols had explored most of the trail in December. Beaufort Bay was friendly territory. The Japanese had never operated in strength on the south coast. Emery de Klerk, a Belgian missionary of the Roman Catholic Society of Mary who had maintained a station at Beaufort Bay before the war, had declined to be evacuated when the marines had come, but gave his services as a coastwatcher, recruiter of native labor, and authority on terrain.
To prevent the Japanese from escaping via Beaufort Bay, General Patch had dispatched there a shore-to-shore expedition even before the opening of the first January offensive. The expedition was to land at Beaufort Bay and proceed over the trail to block the passes in the mountains near the village of Vurai, which lay southwest of Kokumbona. In the narrow mountain defiles, a small force might withstand entire battalions of infantry. Troops for the expedition were provided by the 147th Infantry. Commanded by Captain Charles E. Beach, the force consisted of I Company, one platoon from M Company, one platoon from the Antitank Company, and pioneer, medical, and communication troops.
On 7 January Captain Beach’s command boarded two tank landing craft (LCT) at Kukum to sail around Cape Esperance at night, and reached Klerk’s mission at 1315 on 9 January. The force landed and one I Company platoon, plus the antitank and heavy weapons platoons and pioneers, established beach defenses.
Two days later, while the 27th Infantry was fighting on the Galloping Horse, the remainder of the expedition set out over the mountain trail and reached Vurai on 14 January. There the troops established a base camp, a defensive line, and outposts. When patrols failed to find any Japanese the main camp was moved farther north to Tapananja on the upper reaches of the Nueha River, about six miles south of Sealark Channel. Outposts guarded the upper Poha, but no Japanese attempted to make their way from Kokumbona along the blocked trail.
The blocking force subsisted on scanty rations. Natives were to have carried food over the mountains, but apparently little food actually reached I Company, which after trying to subsist on baked green bananas reported that they “taste like hell.” Captain Beach requested that aircraft drop food to his force, but XIV Corps headquarters refused for fear of revealing the block to the enemy.
The Japanese never attempted to make their way over the trail; the block by Beach’s detachment, however, was an economical method of ensuring that the enemy did not escape southward from Kokumbona to hide in the mountains or on the south coast.
Plans and Preparations; XIV Corps’ Offensive Plans
Two days after Captain Beach’s force reached Vurai, General Patch directed the XIV Corps to resume its co-ordinated attacks. (Appendix C) Field Order No. 1, issued on 16 January, ordered the Corps to attack west to gain a line extending southwest from a point on the beach about 2,600 yards west of Point Cruz inland to a point about 3,000 yards west of the Galloping Horse.
Since most of the regiments of both the 2nd Marine and Americal Divisions were too badly worn out for further offensive action, the Corps commander formed the Composite Army-Marine (CAM) Division from the 6th Marines, the 182nd and the 147th Infantry Regiments, and the 2nd Marine and Americal Division artillery units. The CAM Division was to continue the coastal drive on the right of the 25th Division on a 3,000-yard front. It was also to keep contact on its left with the 25th Division and guard the shore line between the Matanikau River and the objective. General Patch ordered the 25th Division to attack to the southwest to envelop the Japanese south (right) flank and cover the XIV Corps’ left (south) flank. “Isolated points of enemy resistance” were to be contained, bypassed, and reduced later. After reaching its objective the Corps was to be prepared to continue the attack to the northwest. Artillery support arrangements were the same as those made on 10 January. General Mulcahy’s 2nd Marine Air Wing was to give close air support. Destroyers of the U. S. Navy, assisted by fire control parties on shore, would bombard enemy coastal positions. During the attack the Americal Division (less the 182nd Infantry) and the 2nd and 8th Marines were to man the Lunga perimeter defense.
The ground over which the XIV Corps was to fight is similar to that covered in the first January offensive. On the coast the rocky north-south ridges, with deep ravines between, furnished the enemy with strong natural positions from which to oppose the CAM Division. The 25th Division’s zone covered higher ground than the CAM Division’s. The outstanding feature of the inland zone is the hill mass formed by Hills 87-88-89, the highest ground on the north coast between the Matanikau River and Cape Esperance. These hills dominate Kokumbona just as Mount Austen dominates Lunga Point.
25th Division’s Preliminary Movements
To carry out General Patch’s orders for the offensive, General Collins, on 20 January 1943, ordered the 25th Division to attack west from the Galloping Horse on 22 January. The 27th Infantry was to deliver a holding attack while the 161st Infantry, making the division’s main effort, moved southwest to outflank the enemy. The 35th Infantry was to complete mopping up the Gifu, then pass to division reserve.
In the 161st Infantry’s zone, three small open hills lay southwest of the Hill 53. (Map XIX) Hill Z, the most distant, was 2,500 yards from Hill 53, and 6,900 yards south of Sealark Channel. The 161st Infantry was to seize these hills, then move northwest through the jungle to attack Hill 87, the division objective, from the rear. After the capture of Hill 87 the regiment was to seize the other two eminences (Hills 88 and 89) comprising the hill mass. The road up to the Galloping Horse had been extended to Hill 53. Supplies for the 161st Infantry had been trucked to Hill 53, and native bearers were to hand-carry supplies forward from there to support the attack. The 161st Infantry assembled on the southern parts of the Galloping Horse. On 20 January the 2nd Battalion advanced to Hill X, and the next day to Hill Y, but found no strong forces there. The battalion killed only one Japanese on 21 January.
In the northern half of the 25th Division’s zone, the 27th Infantry prepared for its holding attack. A long, slender, open ridge runs from a point southwest of Hill 66 near the northwest Matanikau fork to a point east of Hill 87. This ridge, called the “Snake” from its appearance in an aerial photograph, provided a route of approach for the 27th Infantry. To supply the 27th’s attack, the 57th and 65th Engineer Battalions extended the road from Hill 66 up to the Snake’s back prior to 22 January, and when the infantry advanced the engineers were to push the road to Hill 87.
On 17 January Colonel Jurney’s 1st Battalion, the assault unit, had outposted the Snake. C Company, with one light machine gun section attached, occupied the Snake’s head. On 20 January a patrol from A Company—one rifle and one mortar squad—advanced west over the Snake toward Hill 87. As the patrol neared Hill 87C enemy machine-gun and mortar fire forced the soldiers to take cover. When the patrol radioed for assistance one rifle platoon from the 1st Battalion started forward. Before the reinforcing platoon reached the scene an artillery forward observer with the beleaguered patrol radioed firing data to his battalion. The resulting artillery bombardment forced the enemy to cease fire and the 1st Battalion patrol returned safely.
The enemy still held Hill 87; the mortars and machine guns emplaced there helped to confirm the American belief that the position would be strongly defended. Because Hill 87 dominated Hill 87C, the 1st Battalion did not try to hold the latter prior to 22 January.
A second 1st Battalion patrol marched without incident to Hill 87G, 1,000 yards northwest of 87C, on 20 January. Because the route led the patrol over such rough terrain that it took three hours to travel the distance, Colonel Jurney determined to attack only over the Snake on 22 January.
Colonel Mitchell’s 2nd Battalion of the 27th Infantry, in reserve, took over the 1st Battalion’s old positions on Hill 57 on 21 January. The 3rd Battalion, Colonel Bush commanding, moved to the Snake’s head on the same day to be in position to follow closely behind the assaulting 1st Battalion.
The 25th Division s Advance to Kokumbona; First Day: The Change in Plan
Infantrymen of the 25th Division attacked at 0630, 22 January. The divisional field order had not specifically ordered a preparatory artillery bombardment, but at the requests of the regimental commanders the division artillery fired 12½ tons of 75-mm., 105-mm., and 155-mm. ammunition into the 161st Infantry’s zone southwest of the Galloping Horse, and 55½ tons on Hill 87. Four battalions put fire on Hill 87; the 8th Field Artillery Battalion, for example, fired at an extremely rapid rate—fourteen and one-half rounds per gun per minute.
While the 1st Battalion of the 161st Infantry covered the division’s left flank, the 2nd Battalion, which had been designated as the assault battalion, moved off Hill Y into the deep jungle. The 3rd Battalion followed to Hills X and Y. The 2nd Battalion began marching along an old trail toward Hill 87.12 The 27th Infantry launched its holding attack simultaneously with the 161st’s attempted envelopment. At 0630 the 1st Battalion started over the narrow Snake in a column of companies led by C Company. At 0700, when the artillery battalions ceased firing, the 27th Infantry’s mortars and 37-mm. guns on the Snake opened fire at Hill 87. C Company started to climb Hill 87F but Japanese machine-gun fire from the top of Hill 87 forced it to halt American mortars and antitank guns on the Snake silenced the enemy, and by 0745 the battalion had resumed the advance.13 The battalion then deployed—A Company on the right, B in the center, and C on the left—and assaulted Hill 87. But the enemy had withdrawn; there was no opposition. By 0910, in less than three hours, the battalion had advanced almost 3,000 yards to the summit of Hill 87, the day’s objective.
Fortunately the XIV Corps possessed officers who were flexible enough to change their plans to exploit this unexpectedly rapid advance. General Patch had orally instructed the 25th Division commander that if the attack progressed well, the 161st Infantry was to push past the day’s objective to take Hills 88 and 89 without waiting for the 27th to reach Hill 87. But the 27th had reached its objective while the assault battalion of the 161st was still deep in the jungle. Colonel Jurney’s battalion therefore advanced past the objective. While A Company held Hill 87, B Company went forward 500 yards to seize Hill 88 and C Company advanced 1,000 yards west and north to take Hill 89 by 1035.15 By 1100 all companies were in place and digging in.
General Collins witnessed this rapid advance from the division observation post on Hill 49 east of the Matanikau. In view of General Patch’s instructions to go beyond the objective if possible, General Collins, who in Admiral Halsey’s words was “quick on his feet and even quicker in his brain,” left the observation post and started toward Hill 89 by jeep and on foot to make arrangements to continue the attack, for the 27th Infantry had outrun its wire communications. Reaching Hill 66, he met Brigadier General Robert L. Spragins, the Corps chief of staff, and obtained authority from him, in the name of the Corps commander, to continue the 25th Division’s advance into Kokumbona as rapidly as possible. The boundary between the two divisions was immediately changed to place Hills 91, 98, 99, and Kokumbona in the 25th Division’s zone. It then ran north to the beach in front of the CAM Division’s zone of action.
General Collins reached Hill 89, where he conferred with the 27th Infantry’s commander, Colonel McCulloch. As the 27th was obviously best situated to pursue the retreating Japanese, General Collins and Colonel McCulloch agreed that the 27th Infantry should resume the attack to capture Hills 90 and 97 just south of Kokumbona. The 2nd Battalion of the 161st, then deep in the jungle, continued toward Hill 87 against a few Japanese riflemen. It gained its objective in the afternoon. The 1st and 3rd Battalions of the 161st were immediately withdrawn from the south flank and dispatched to the Galloping Horse and the Snake.
The main body of the 3rd Battalion of the 27th Infantry had followed the 1st Battalion over the Snake to Hills 87 and 88. I Company, in covering the right flank, kept contact with the 182nd Infantry in the CAM Division’s zone. E Company of the 2nd Battalion moved from the Galloping Horse to the Snake’s head in the early morning, and later in the morning the rest of the battalion marched to the Snake to guard the regimental supply route.
The 1st Battalion, 27th Infantry, began its advance north to Hill 90 about 1400. With B Company in reserve, A and C attacked abreast. The 8th Field Artillery Battalion and D Company’s heavy weapons on Hill 89 supported the infantry. Again the soldiers advanced rapidly and overran a few enemy riflemen in the deep valley between Hills 89 and 90. By 1700 Colonel Jurney’s battalion, having covered nearly 2,000 more yards, had reached its objective, the high ground east and south of Kokumbona—Hills 90 and 98.
The 27th’s fast advance necessitated displacement of the artillery. The 64th Field Artillery Battalion, freed by the impending collapse of the Gifu, took over the missions of the 8th while that battalion moved across the Matanikau to Hill 66. On 22-23 January the 90th Field Artillery Battalion also moved its howitzers across the Matanikau to the Point Cruz area. During the displacement the 89th Field Artillery Battalion fired all general support missions, and on 23 January moved forward to Hill 49 east of the Matanikau. Only the 64th Field Artillery Battalion remained in its original position.
Second Day: The Capture of Kokumbona
The 27th Infantry’s successful attack on 22 January carried it to the high ground immediately overlooking Kokumbona. In one day the 1st Battalion had gained over 4,500 yards and by nightfall the 2nd and 3rd Battalions were close behind. The supply route was protected, and the regiment was ready to exploit its success by moving into Kokumbona. Plans to take Kokumbona on 23 January were completed on the night of 22-23 January. On the morning of 23 January the 3rd Battalion, 27th, advanced north from its positions on Hills 89 and 91 to Hills 98 and 99. While the 1st Battalion’s advance blocked the Japanese on the south, the 3rd Battalion’s move extended the regiment’s right flank over the undefended hills to the beach to block the hills and the beach road and pocket the enemy facing the CAM Division in the ravines east of Hills 98 and 99.
Once the 3rd Battalion was in position, the 1st Battalion, with E Company and one K Company platoon attached, sent two columns into Kokumbona from the east and south. The right flank column—B Company, the platoon from K, and one machine gun platoon and two mortar sections—attacked westward over the northern and western slopes of Hill 99. On the left A and E Companies plus one machine gun platoon and two mortar sections advanced north over Hill 90 into Kokumbona. By 1510 the two columns had each traveled over 1,000 yards to join forces in the village.
In the afternoon the 2nd Battalion was ordered to hold the hills just south of Kokumbona (Hills 90 and 97), and to advance west through the jungle north of Hill 97 to complete the defense of the left flank by seizing Hill 100, about 500 yards beyond the west slopes of Hill 97. G Company assumed the defense of Hill 90, and Battalion Headquarters and H Companies extended their lines west to Hill 97. F Company moved west and killed about thirty Japanese in the jungled draw between Hills 97 and 100 cut by the Beaufort Bay trail and by the Kokumbona River, and took Hill 100 without suffering casualties.
The nights were generally uneventful. The American troops built strong defenses each night, but the retreating Japanese attempted none of the night attacks which had previously characterized their operations on Guadalcanal. After the capture of Kokumbona, I Company of the 3rd Battalion, 27th, blocked the road between Hill 99 and the beach. After nightfall on 23-24 January, a group of Japanese soldiers carelessly marched west along the road, talking, using flashlights, and wheeling a 37-mm. gun. Obviously unaware that the Americans had reached the beach, they walked right into I Company’s block. The men in the company lay quiet until the Japanese were close, then opened fire with all weapons that would bear and killed about fifty of the enemy.
CAM Division’s Offensive
In the coast zone on the right of the 25th Division, marines and soldiers had been pressing forward prior to 22 January, supported by Americal and 2nd Marine Division artillery and American destroyers firing from offshore. The 2nd Marine Division’s attacks from 13 and 17 January had advanced the line almost one mile beyond Point Cruz. When the battle-weary 2nd and 8th Marines were relieved and returned to the perimeter defense, General Patch had attached the relatively fresh 1st and 2nd Battalions of the 182nd Infantry and the 1st and 3rd Battalions of the 147th Infantry to the 2nd Division to form the CAM Division.
The 182nd Infantry (less the 3rd Battalion) moved into line on the left of the 6th Marines on 17 January. By nightfall of 19 January the two regiments had advanced west slightly over 1,000 yards. Progress was slow on the left on 19 January, although there was no heavy fighting. A gap developed between the 6th Marines and the 182nd Infantry, and when the latter regiment halted short of the day’s objective the 6th Marines also stopped. Only sixteen Japanese were killed during the advance on 19 January. As a result of the halts and confusion on 19 January, some bitterness apparently arose between the two regiments.
By late afternoon of the same day the Americal Reconnaissance Squadron had relieved the 147th Infantry at Koli Point, and the 147th moved up to the Point Cruz area. On 20 January the 3rd Battalion, 147th (plus C Company and less I Company) began moving into the front line between the 6th Marines and the 182nd Infantry. As the two battalions were not completely in position until 21 January, the CAM Division did not move forward.
On 22 January the division opened a full-scale attack as part of the Corps offensive. Units from all three regiments participated; the 6th Marines attacked on the right along the beach, the 147th Infantry advanced in the center, and on the left the 182nd Infantry maintained contact with the 25th Division. The attack, which opened at 0630, was supported by the artillery of the Americal and 2nd Marine Divisions, and by aircraft and naval gunfire. In the zones of the 147th and 182nd Infantry Regiments the terrain offered the only serious resistance to the advance. By 1600 G Company of the 182nd had made contact with the 27th Infantry north of Hill 88.27 The 147th Infantry seized Hill 95, and patrols from that regiment met some machine-gun fire in the ravine to the west.
The beach was the scene of the day’s hardest fighting. An estimated 250 Japanese who were occupying the ravine just west of Hill 94 stopped the advance of the 3rd Battalion of the 6th Marines with machine and antitank guns. The 2nd Battalion of the 6th, on the 3rd Battalion’s left, halted to protect its flank. The CAM Division had advanced about 1,000 yards, but its front lines were still some 1,000 yards east of the high ground (Hills 98 and 99) east of Kokumbona.
The division resumed its attack the next morning, 23 January, the day on which the 27th Infantry captured Kokumbona. The 182nd Infantry advanced 1,000 yards to its objective, Hill 91, keeping .contact with the 25th Division on the left and the 147th Infantry on the right. The 147th Infantry advanced slowly against enemy strong points on the north slopes of Hill 92 and on the coast road. All three battalions of the 6th Marines were committed to action. Though meeting small-arms and artillery fire, they captured Hill 92 and destroyed three 150-mm. guns, one light tank, two 37-mm. guns, and two machine guns.
By the end of the fighting on 23 January, the XIV Corps had pocketed the main body of Japanese remaining east of the Poha in the ravine east of Hill (99. On 24 January the CAM Division resumed its advance. Soldiers of the 147th, attacking to the northwest, killed eighteen Japanese and reached Hill 98, where they made contact with the 27th Infantry by 0940. The 6th Marines attacked and killed over 200 Japanese. By 1500 all three battalions had gained Hills 98 and 99 and had made contact with the 27th Infantry.
Final Push to the Poha
With the CAM Division moving up to Hills 98 and 99 on 24 January, the 25th Division was able to continue the Corps plan to advance beyond Kokumbona. The 27th Infantry was again best situated to make the attack. Colonel Mitchell’s 2nd Battalion, 27th Infantry, took over the assault E Company was released from service with the 1st Battalion and rejoined the 2nd Battalion. Colonel McCulloch, the regimental commander, attached K Company of the 27th Infantry to the 2nd Battalion when troops of the 147th Infantry took over K Company’s position on Hill 98. The 27th Infantry’s objective was the Poha River, whose mouth lies about 2,300 yards northwest of the west tip of Hill 100 and about 2,600 yards northwest of Kokumbona.
Supplies had run short, but the capture of the Kokumbona beaches made it possible for landing craft to bring supplies in by water. By noon enough supplies had reached the 2nd Battalion to enable it to move out of Kokumbona. Supported by H Company’s machine guns and mortars on Hill 97, K and E Companies attacked west at 1300 on the right, with K Company’s right flank on the beach. E Company, on K’s left, attempted to drive over Hill 102, a bare hill just west of Kokumbona, but a vigorous Japanese defense held the company on the west tip. To avoid exposing its left flank, K Company halted, and both companies stayed in place for the rest of the day.
On the left G Company, with the antitank platoon of Battalion Headquarters Company and six machine guns from H Company attached, began its advance north from Hill 97; it turned northwest to attempt to seize Hill 103, about 250 yards beyond Hill 100. When G Company tried to cross one of the dry stream beds north of Hill 100, fire from the same well-hidden enemy positions that had halted E Company hit G Company from three sides. Colonel Mitchell ordered the company back. It withdrew and approached Hill 103 by moving safely around the south slopes of Hill 100, which protected G Company from the enemy fire. By nightfall it had reached Hill 103.
The 27th Infantry attacked in greater strength the next day, 25 January, again with orders to reach the Poha. Colonel Bush’s 3rd Battalion, which had been relieved on Hills 98 and 99 by the 6th Marines, was to attack along the beach west of Kokumbona, while the 2nd Battalion on the left advanced to Hills 105 and 106 overlooking the Poha. K Company was detached from the 2nd Battalion and ordered to clean out the Japanese between Hills 102 and 103.
The 3rd Battalion left its lines on Hills 98 and 99, and passed through the 1st Battalion in Kokumbona about noon to advance northwest in columns of companies. L Company led, followed by I, Battalion Headquarters, and M Companies. Deployed on a 400-yard front to comb the jungle, L Company advanced slowly. At 1600 Colonel Bush decided to narrow his front in order to speed the advance sufficiently to reach the Poha before dark. I Company passed through L Company, and moved northwest along the coast road. A few Japanese riflemen opposed the 3rd Battalion, which killed about thirty-five of the enemy during the day.
Colonel Bush’s battalion reached the Poha area in late afternoon. Colonel Bush, who had only a crayon map to guide him, had difficulty in finding the correct river. The Poha channel, like many other rivers on Guadalcanal, splits and wanders over alluvial bars as it nears the sea to form a small delta cut by several sluggish streams. Colonel Bush’s troops, who were out of physical contact with the 2nd Battalion, crossed six such streams, each one of which was part of the Poha, although the map represented the Poha to be a single stream. The battalion commander therefore requested the artillery to drop a round 1,000 yards offshore, opposite the Poha’s mouth as shown on the map. When the shell fell into the channel behind him, Colonel Bush concluded that he had crossed the Poha and ordered his battalion to bivouac. The troops constructed a perimeter defense in a coconut grove, which is shown on aerial photographs as west of the river’s main stream.
Meanwhile the 2nd Battalion was advancing to Hills 105 and 106. E Company passed through G on Hill 103 and advanced without righting over steep hills and jungled ravines to reach Hills 105 and 106 by dusk. The battalion blocked the area extending from its front southeastward to the hill mass south of Kokumbona. About fifty Japanese were killed on the night of 25-26 January at the stream and trail blocks.
The two battalions regained contact at 0700, 26 January, when one platoon from L Company patrolled south along the Poha to meet F Company. The 2nd and 3rd Battalions held the Poha line until the 6th Marines and 182nd Infantry passed through the lines about noon to pursue the Japanese up the north coast. To meet an apparent enemy threat to land once more on Guadalcanal in force, XIV Corps headquarters sent the 25th Division back to the perimeter defense to guard Henderson and Carney Fields.
The 27th Infantry’s successful January attacks had cost that regiment few casualties. Seven officers and 67 enlisted men had been killed in January and 226 were wounded, largely in the capture of the Galloping Horse. Losses in Kokumbona had been light.
Kokumbona, formerly an important enemy landing beach, trail junction, and assembly area, was now in American hands. In addition the 27th Infantry had captured the highest ground dominating the landing beaches between Kokumbona and Cape Esperance, an enemy radar station, trucks, landing craft, ten field artillery pieces, two 37-mm. guns, three 40-mm. antiaircraft guns, flame throwers, and ammunition, besides killing over 400 of the enemy. Had the Japanese attempted to land, they would have encountered greater difficulties in getting inland to envelop the perimeter defense than they did in October, for the XIV Corps held the important trail junctions in Kokumbona and dominated the landing beaches to the northwest. With the enemy retreating, the task facing the XIV Corps was to pursue and destroy the remnants of the 17th Army before they could reach Cape Esperance to escape or dig in for a suicidal stand like that of the determined defenders of the Gifu.
Source: Guadalcanal: The First Offensive ; BY: John Miller, Jr. (United States Army Center of Military History)