By the first week of February 1943, the American forces in the South Pacific expected the Japanese to make another full-scale attempt to retake the Guadalcanal positions. The Japanese were known to be massing naval strength at Rabaul and Buin, and enemy air attacks were being intensified.
Admiral Halsey’s naval strength had increased greatly since November 1942. Expecting a major Japanese attack, he deployed six naval task forces south of Guadalcanal by 7 and 8 February, including seven battleships, two aircraft carriers, and three escort carriers plus cruisers and destroyers. The XIV Corps on Guadalcanal anticipated an attack by 2 aircraft carriers, 5 battleships, about 8 cruisers, 11 transports, 28 destroyers, 304 land-based aircraft, from 150 to 175 carrier-based aircraft, and one infantry division. General Patch prepared to resist enemy attempts to land by deploying the large part of his corps between trie Umasani and Metapona Rivers, and also decided to continue to pursue the retreating 17th Army to Cape Esperance. But Allied intelligence agencies had erred in their estimate of Japanese intentions.
After a long succession of failures, the Japanese high command had at last decided to abandon its efforts to drive the Americans from Guadalcanal. This decision harked back to October and November of 1942, when the defeats had caused concern in Imperial General Headquarters in Tokyo. The 1st Marine Division’s successful defense of the Lunga airfields against the 17th Army reduced the number of Japanese troops available for campaigning in New Guinea. The Japanese clearly realized that the Solomon’s and New Guinea campaigns were integral parts of one whole. Attempting to reinforce Guadalcanal at the expense of New Guinea, the Japanese lost the campaign.
Following the failure of General Hyakutake’s 17th Army in October, Imperial General Headquarters decided to use stronger additional forces to retake the Lunga area. The attempt to transport the 38th Division in force to Guadalcanal, resulting in the naval and air actions of mid-November, had been decided on by the local Japanese commanders. It had not been the result of direct orders from Imperial General Headquarters, which had arrived at its decision for a third offensive on 15 November.
Accordingly General Hitoshi Imamura, commanding the 8th Area Army, left Java to assume control of operations in the Solomon’s and Eastern New Guinea. He arrived at Rabaul on 2 December 1942. During the month following Imamura’s arrival, 50,000 troops of the 8th Area Army, including elements of the 4th Air Army, reached Rabaul. Imamura’s command operated directly under the command of Imperial General Headquarters. It included the Japanese Army forces in Rabaul, the Solomon’s, and Eastern New Guinea—the 17th Army in the Solomon’s and the 18th Army in eastern New Guinea. Imamura planned to recapture the Lunga airfields by landing two more divisions on Guadalcanal. The air strip then under construction at Munda Point on New Georgia would have provided advanced air support. The date of the attack was to be about 1 February 1943.
Problems of transportation and supply caused the projected counteroffensive to be canceled. Prior to December 1942 the Japanese lost about twenty troop transports in the Solomon’s. After the November disaster the Japanese never again used transports to reinforce or supply Guadalcanal. Although Imamura had 50,000 men at his disposal at Rabaul in January 1943, he could not deploy them. General Miyazaki declared: The superiority and continuous activity of the American air force was responsible for our inability to carry out our plans. The superiority of American Army [sic] planes made the seas safe for American movement in any direction and at the same time immobilized the Japanese Army as if it were bound hand and foot.
Japanese ship losses in the Solomon’s forced Imperial General Headquarters, on 31 December, to cancel the proposed counteroffensive; on 4 January Imamura and Vice Admiral Jinichi Kusaka, commanding the Southeastern Fleet, were ordered to evacuate the survivors from Guadalcanal and to hold final defensive positions in New Georgia.
The American corps offensive which began on 10 January had torn great holes in the Japanese front lines. General Hyakutake recognized that he could no longer maintain troops in the Kokumbona area. In December the Japanese front line troops had been ordered to hold their positions until the last man was dead, but sometime after the XIV Corps attacked, Hyakutake changed his mind. He ordered his troops to withdraw west to Cape Esperance, where they were to offer “desperate resistance.”
The Japanese prepared to deceive the American forces in order to cover the rescue of a sizable body of troops from Guadalcanal. Massing strength at Rabaul, for a time they intensified their air attacks against Henderson Field to lead Allied forces to expect another major Japanese attempt at landing on Guadalcanal.
The Japanese put about 600 replacements ashore near Cape Esperance on 14 January to cover the withdrawal, while an additional covering force landed for a short time in the Russell Islands. The Japanese planned to remove their troops from Cape Esperance at night by destroyers, cramming 600 men aboard each vessel. In the event that American air and naval forces drove the destroyers off, barges were to carry the troops to the Russells, where the destroyers would pick them up for the trip north.
By 8 February General Patch was no longer convinced that the Japanese would attempt a landing to recapture the airfields. They were known to be withdrawing supplies from Doma Cove, and Patch expressed his belief that the Tokyo Express was evacuating the remaining Japanese. Aerial photographs of the Cape Esperance area would have shown conclusively whether the enemy forces there were being evacuated or reinforced, but XIV Corps headquarters could not obtain photographic coverage on 7 and 8 February. One squadron, flying P-38’s, of the 17th Photographic Reconnaissance Group had just relieved the 2nd Marine Air Wing of reconnaissance duties on Guadalcanal. The 17th had good planes and cameras but did not possess filters for the camera lenses, nor proper paper on which to print pictures. Thus General Patch had no way of determining exactly what General Hyakutake’s troops at Cape Esperance were doing.
Pursuit of the Enemy: The North Coast
When the XIV Corps reached the Poha River on 25 January, the American offensive was ready to enter its final phase—the pursuit of the retreating enemy. Enemy intentions and dispositions at this time were not clear. In general, the Americans did not expect to meet a formidable Japanese force but they did expect the Japanese to defend the beach road and the Bonegi River line. While few Japanese prisoners had been taken in January, a study of captured documents led to the belief that West of the Poha River the terrain resembles that of the point Cruz-Kokumbona area. The coastal corridor is generally narrow; the distance from the beach inland to the foothills varies from 300 to 600 yards. The coral ridges run north and south; the coastal flats are cut by a great many streams. There were no bridges. The lack of room for maneuver limited the size of the pursuing force, and allowed, in most areas, only enough space for the deployment of one regiment.
XIV Corps’ Field Order No. 2 of 25 January 1943 directed the CAM Division to pass through the 25th Division at the Poha line to attack west at 0630, 26 January. The 6th Marines on the beach and the 182nd Infantry on the high ground inland were to attack abreast; the 147th Infantry was to be in division reserve. Americal and 25th Division artillery, and the 2nd Marine Air Wing, would support the offensive. Wishing to locate and destroy the remaining Japanese forces, General Patch ordered his troops to “effect the kill through aggressive and untiring offensive action.”
The CAM Division attacked on 26 January and advanced 1,000 yards beyond the Poha. There was little righting; the 182nd Infantry met only stragglers and a few riflemen and machine gunners. The tempo of the advance increased the next day, and the CAM Division, gaining 2,000 yards, reached the Nueha River. Patrols met some enemy machine gunners west of the Nueha on 28 January, but reported that the Japanese were not aggressive.
On 29 January General Patch detached the 147th Infantry from the CAM Division. To that regiment he attached the 75-mm. pack howitzers of the 2nd Battalion, 10th Marines, and of A Battery of the 97th Field Artillery Battalion. This composite force, under General De Carre’s command, was to pursue the enemy. Americal Division artillery was to give general support. The 6th Marines were to cover the 147th’s rear. The 182nd Infantry then reverted to control of the Americal Division in the Lunga perimeter.
The 147th Infantry passed through the lines west of the Nueha to attack about 0700, 30 January. On the beach the 1st Battalion advanced against light opposition to the mouth of the Bonegi River, about 2,000 yards west of the Nueha. One patrol crossed the river about 1152. Inland on the left flank, Japanese machine guns stopped the 3rd Battalion 1,000 yards east of the Bonegi. When Japanese on the west bank placed heavy fire on the 1st Battalion, the patrol withdrew from the west bank and the battalion pulled back from the river mouth.
On 31 January the 147th Infantry again attacked with the intention of crossing the Bonegi to capture the high ground west of the river. Both battalions were assisted by artillery preparations and gunfire from an American destroyer standing offshore. In the inland zone the 3rd Battalion crossed the Bonegi and captured part of the ridges on the west bank, about 2,500 yards inland from Tassafaronga Point. The enemy was defending the river mouth in strength and Japanese patrols infiltrated to the east bank to harass the 1st Battalion. Despite the Destroyer’s fire and two artillery barrages, the 1st Battalion could not get across but was held in place about 300 yards east of the Bonegi.
Between 10 and 31 January the XIV Corps’ operations had been quite successful. The Corps had driven the Japanese back seven miles at a cost of 189 soldiers and marines killed and about 400 wounded. One hundred and five Japanese had been captured, and 4,000 were estimated to have been killed. The Corps had also captured 240 Japanese machine guns, 42 field pieces, 10 antiaircraft guns, 9 antitank guns, 142 mortars, 323 rifles, 18 radios, 1 radar, 13 trucks, 6 tractors, and 1 staff car, besides a quantity of ammunition, land mines, flame throwers, and piles of documents.
On 1 February command of the western pursuit passed from General De Carre to General Sebree. The 1st Battalion of the 147th again vainly attempted to cross the river to join forces with the 3rd Battalion on the west bank. The destroyer and the field artillery fired into the Bonegi River valley, and patrols, finding that the enemy had withdrawn from the east bank, reached the river mouth by 1525, but the battalion did not cross. The Japanese unit holding the west bank was a delaying force from the covering battalion which the Japanese had landed on 14 January.
The 147th Infantry’s attacks on 2 February were more successful. The 1st Battalion, supported by artillery, crossed the Bonegi at its mouth, and by 1710 the 1st and 3rd Battalions had made contact south of Tassafaronga. The river crossing cost the 147th two killed and sixty-seven wounded. The 147th Infantry estimated that 700-800 Japanese troops had occupied the positions east and west of the Bonegi. They had executed an orderly withdrawal, but the Americans captured a mobile machine shop, a signal blinker, two 70-mm. guns, eight 75-mm. guns, and a radio station.
On 3 February, while the main body of the pursuing force was establishing itself along a line running south from Tassafaronga Point, patrols reached the Umasani River, about 2,300 yards west of Tassafaronga. The next day the main body advanced 1,000 yards farther on to a line about 1,000 yards southeast of the Umasani River. A few Japanese fired on the 3rd Battalion on the inland flank, but there was no heavy fighting. On 5 February, operations on the western front were limited to patrolling. Patrols again reconnoitered to the Umasani River, but found no organized enemy forces.
The South Coast
Meanwhile XIV Corps headquarters had completed plans to land a reinforced infantry battalion on the southwest coast in the enemy’s rear. From there the battalion was to advance to Cape Esperance in an attempt to trap the remaining enemy forces. As early as October Admiral Turner and General Vandegrift had planned to land the 2nd (Marine) Raider Battalion at Beaufort Bay on the south coast to operate against the enemy flanks and rear. The Japanese landings in October and November had led to the cancellation of these plans, and the raider battalion had been used instead to pursue some of the enemy troops who had landed at Koli Point.
When General Patch assumed command on Guadalcanal, he desired to land an entire regimental combat team on the south coast to prevent further Japanese landings at Cape Esperance, Visale, and Kamimbo Bay, and to press against the enemy’s rear. Naval forces were not then sufficient to transport and supply so large a body of men. During January 1943, however, six tank landing craft arrived at Tulagi to be based there permanently. About 21 January it was decided that naval strength was adequate to make the landing with one reinforced infantry battalion. The reinforced 2nd Battalion, 132nd Infantry, was selected as the landing force, with Colonel Alexander M. George in command.
The landing force would not be sufficiently strong to land against enemy opposition, but General Patch wished it to land as close to the enemy as possible. Troops from L Company of the 147th Infantry at Beaufort Bay were to outpost the area to cover the landing. Lieutenant Colonel Paul A. Gavan, operations officer of the Americal Division and assistant operations officer of the XIV Corps, led a reconnaissance party along the south coast. It picked Titi, near Lavoro Passage, as the landing beach, and Nugu Point (Cape Nagle) as an alternate. Verahue, lying between the two, offered a good beach but Colonel Gavan feared that landing craft would not be able to reach the beach through the narrow channel lined with offshore reefs. An observation post, equipped with a radio, was established at Verahue.
The covering force—eight riflemen and three gunners from L Company, plus machine gunners and automatic riflemen from M Company, 147th Infantry—boarded the island schooner Kocorana at Beaufort Bay at 0100, 31 January. The Kocorana, a local schooner which like others had been hidden from the Japanese and turned over to the Americans, sailed to Lavoro to discharge the force which was to outpost Titi. One officer and five riflemen from the schooner had pulled toward shore in a rowboat about 0600 when enemy troops on a ridge about 100 yards inland opened fire on the landing party and the Kocorana and mortally wounded one soldier on board the schooner. Some confusion resulted; the landing party reached shore and the rowboat went adrift. Since the Kocorana could not be beached, Major H. W. Butler, executive officer of the 2nd Battalion, 132nd Infantry, took the helm and put out to sea, leaving the six men on shore. The Kocorana reached Beaufort Bay about 1600 to take fifteen more riflemen, two automatic riflemen, and three native scouts aboard. Major Butler intended to land his force near Verahue and to march overland to Lavoro to reinforce the six men ashore.
In the meantime, the shore party at Titi had eluded the enemy and recommended to XIV Corps headquarters by radio that the 2nd Battalion, 132nd Infantry, land at Nugu Point instead of Titi. When Butler and the Kocorana reached Nugu Point the next morning they found the six men there, safe. Meanwhile the reinforced 2nd Battalion of the 132nd Infantry had assembled and loaded trucks, artillery, ammunition, and rations on board six tank landing craft at Kukum. [NOTE: The entire force consisted of 2nd Battalion, 132nd Infantry; Antitank Company, 132nd; M Company (less one .50-caliber platoon), 132nd; 1 rifle platoon, K Company, 132nd; F Battery, 10th Marines (75-mm. pack howitzer), and engineer, medical, intelligence, and communication troops. 132nd Inf Hist, p. 11.] By 1800, 31 January, when the last craft had been loaded, the force, escorted by destroyers, left Kukum and sailed around Cape Esperance.
Arriving off Nugu Point at dawn on 1 February, an advance party went ashore in small craft and met Major Butler, who reported that Verahue was clear. When the naval beachmaster agreed that the landing craft could beach safely at Verahue, the expedition moved there and, covered by friendly fighter planes, began unloading. About noon Japanese bombers flew over the beach but did not attack. By 1500 all troops and supplies were safely ashore, and the unloaded craft departed for the Lunga area.
The next morning, 2 February, Colonel George’s force began its advance. The main body moved along the beach, while G Company and twenty native scouts covered the high ground on the right flank. The coast between Verahue and Titi was passable for vehicles, and the trucks brought up some of the supplies. By 1415 the main body had marched 3½ miles to Titi. On 3 February tank landing craft moved more supplies to Titi, while ground patrols advanced as far as Kamimbo Bay. By 4 February, the whole expedition—troops, artillery, transport, and supplies—had reached Titi.44 During the next two days the battalion remained in position, but continued patrolling to its front and its flanks.
Beyond Titi, mud and jungle vegetation halted the trucks. Supplies then had to be carried by tank landing craft based at Kukum, one or two of which were usually available for Colonel George’s men. The self-contained battalion combat team did not expect to be re-supplied or reinforced. The commanding officer therefore kept his supplies and main body of troops together to be prepared for an enemy counterattack or landing in strength. In the absence of accurate information about Japanese capabilities and intentions, Colonel George felt constrained to move cautiously.
By 7 February the force was ready to move out of Titi. In column of companies, the battalion began the advance at 0730. When Colonel George was wounded in the leg on 7 February, Lieutenant Colonel George F. Ferry, commanding the 2nd Battalion, 132nd, assumed command and Major Butler took over the 2nd Battalion. Shortly afterward Colonel Gavan, acting for General Patch, arrived by boat from XIV Corps headquarters “to speed things up.” He found that the troops were ready to move rapidly and therefore did not alter the plans or dispositions. Colonel George was evacuated on the boat which had brought Colonel Gavan. The battalion advanced to Marovovo and bivouacked there for the night.
The Junction of Forces
General Patch, relieving the understrength 147th Infantry on the north coast on 6 February, ordered the 161st Infantry of the 25th Division to pass through the 147th’s lines to continue the pursuit. The 2nd Battalion of the 10th Marines, the 97th Field Artillery Battalion, and Americal Division artillery were to support the 161st. A supply dump which had been established at Kokumbona was to service the advancing force. Command of the western pursuit was to have been given to General Collins on 6 February, but his division was assigned to defense positions in the Lunga-Metapona sector. General Sebree continued, therefore, to command the pursuit.
The 161st Infantry, then commanded by Colonel James L. Dalton, II, passed through the 147th about 1000, 6 February. Preceded by patrols, the 3rd Battalion moved along the beach; the 2nd Battalion covered the foothills; and the 1st Battalion was in reserve. By 2020 the 161st Infantry had reached the Umasani River, and patrols had crossed the river. The day’s only skirmish occurred when one patrol from L Company ran into a small Japanese force in a bivouac area on a ridge just west of the Umasani. The patrol killed at least seven of the enemy, and withdrew without losses.
On 7 February the 161st crossed the Umasani and advanced to Bunina, while patrols penetrated to the Tambalego River, 1,200 yards farther on. The Japanese did not offer a resolute defense, but retired as soon as the American infantrymen attacked them. The 161st Infantry encountered some Japanese at the Tambalego River on 8 February, but after a brief fight drove the enemy off and advanced to Doma Cove.
Since coast-watchers had warned that about twenty enemy destroyers would reach the Cape Esperance area during the night of 7-8 February, Colonel Ferry’s 2nd Battalion of the 132nd Infantry at Marovovo, about six miles southwest of Cape Esperance, expected action that night but saw no enemy. When the American soldiers left Marovovo on the morning of 8 February, they found several abandoned Japanese landing craft and a stock of supplies on the beach. Realizing that the enemy was evacuating, the battalion narrowed its front and advanced to Kamimbo Bay.
On 9 February the 2nd Battalion, 161st Infantry, which had been traveling over the uphill north coast flank on scanty rations, went into regimental reserve. The 1st Battalion, 161st, passed through the 3rd Battalion at Doma Cove to take over the assault, and was followed closely by the 3rd Battalion and the antitank company. By afternoon the 1st Battalion had marched five miles, crossed the Tenamba River, and entered the village of Tenaro.
On the morning of 9 February, Colonel Ferry’s force had started around Cape Esperance toward the same objective, the village of Tenaro, which was the point selected by Colonel Gavan for the forces to meet. Advancing in column of companies, the battalion met fire from some Japanese machine guns and mortars but did not halt The infantrymen, who pushed on beyond the range of the 75-mm. pack howitzers of the supporting artillery, used their mortars for support. Between 1600 and 1700 the 2nd Battalion of the 132nd Infantry marched into Tenaro and there met the 1st Battalion of the 161st Infantry, an event that marked the end of organized fighting on Guadalcanal. Only scattered stragglers from the 17th Army remained on the island.
General Patch, after the juncture of forces, sent the following message to Admiral Halsey: “Total and complete defeat of Japanese forces on Guadalcanal effected 1625 today … Am happy to report this kind of compliance with your orders . . . because Tokyo Express no longer has terminus on Guadalcanal.” The reply from South Pacific Headquarters was characteristic: “When I sent a Patch to act as tailor for Guadalcanal, I did not expect him to remove the enemy’s pants and sew it on so quickly … Thanks and congratulations.”
The Japanese Evacuation
While the American troops could feel justly elated over the end of Japanese resistance on Guadalcanal, they had let slip through their hands about 13,000 of the enemy—by Japanese count. The western pursuit and the shore-to-shore envelopment had been boldly conceived but were executed too slowly to achieve their purpose—the complete destruction of the enemy. On 12 January, General Imamura had directed some of his staff officers to board a destroyer and proceed to Guadalcanal, there to give the 17th Army commander the instructions to evacuate. Hyakutake, receiving the order on 15 January, explained the prospective movement to his men as “a change in the disposition of troop [s] for future offense.”
The 17th Army began its withdrawal to Cape Esperance on the night of 22-23 January. The rescuing destroyers ran down the Slot to Esperance three times and evacuated troops on the nights of 1-2, 4-5, 7-8 February. The 38th Division, some naval personnel, hospital patients, and others left first, followed by 17th Army headquarters and the 2nd Division on 4-5 January, and by miscellaneous units on the last trip. The Americans claimed that three of the destroyers were sunk and four were damaged. About 13,000 Japanese—12,000 from the 17th Army and the rest naval personnel—were evacuated to Buin and Rabaul.
In post-war interviews the Japanese commanders ironically expressed their gratitude over their escape. The Americans, they felt, had moved toward Cape Esperance too slowly and stopped too long to consolidate positions. General Hyakutake stated that resolute attacks at Cape Esperance would have destroyed his army.
The Japanese had displayed skill and cunning in evacuating the troops from Guadalcanal, but the essential significance of the Guadalcanal campaign was unchanged. American forces, in executing Task One as prescribed by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, by taking the first major step toward the eventual reduction of Rabaul had decisively defeated the Japanese.
[NOTE 62Z: 17th Army Opns, II, which states elsewhere that the 17th Army was ordered on 5-6 January to evacuate. Since the order had not then been issued by Imamura, it is obvious that “5-6 January” is either an error in the Japanese text or a mistranslation.]
The cost of victory, though dear, had not been prohibitive. A total of about 60,000 Army and Marine Corps ground forces had been deployed on Guadalcanal. Of these, about 1,600 were killed by enemy action and 4,245 wounded. The 1st Marine Division bore the heaviest burden of casualties, losing 774 men killed and 1,962 wounded. Three hundred and thirty-four of the Americal Division were killed, and 850 wounded. The 2nd Marine Division suffered equally with the Americal, losing 268 killed and 932 wounded. The 25th Division, which was in action a shorter length of time than the others, suffered correspondingly fewer casualties—216 killed and 439 wounded. The Japanese suffered much more heavily. More than 36,000 Japanese from the 17th Army and the Special Naval Landing Forces fought on Guadalcanal. Of these, over 14,800 were killed or missing, and 9,000 died of disease.[NOTE 15-69CA] About 1 ,000 were taken prisoner.
In other respects the Japanese were to feel the cost of defeat much more heavily than in manpower. Their ship losses had been heavy, and the loss of over 600 aircraft with their pilots was to hinder future operations. The Allies had won a well-situated base from which to continue the offensive against Rabaul. The Allied offensive into the Solomon’s had halted the Japanese advance toward the U.S.-Australian line of communications, and also had taken the initiative away from the hitherto victorious Japanese.
NOTE 15-69CA: Interrog of Hyakutake, Miyazaki, Maruyama: 1st Demob Bureau’s Table I. Deaths from battle and disease in the 17th Army, according to 17th Army Opns, II, totaled 21,600. American intelligence reports prepared at the conclusion of the campaign have proved to be fairly accurate. USAFISPA’s Japanese Campaign in the Guadalcanal Area estimated that 43,726 Japanese were dispatched to Guadalcanal, 4,346 were lost at sea, and 37,680 fought on Guadalcanal, suffering 28,580 casualties. Americal Division Intelligence Report, always conservative, estimated that 32,000 Japanese landed or attempted to land on Guadalcanal, losing 24,330.]
Source: Guadalcanal: The First Offensive ; BY: John Miller, Jr. (United States Army Center of Military History)