While the invasion force was assembling and rehearsing, Army B-17’s of the 26th Squadron of the 11th Bombardment Group, which were part of Task Force 63, had been executing daily bombardments of Guadalcanal and Tulagi to “soften” them before the invasion. The 26th Squadron was then based at Efate and Espiritu Santo. The air strips at both islands were each 5,000 feet long and 150 feet wide by the end of July, but facilities were primitive. The runways were soft and were frequently covered by water from the many rains. For night take-offs, the ends of the runways were marked by truck headlights, and the sides by rags stuck in bottles of gasoline and set ablaze. Beginning on 31 July, the B-17’s bombed Guadalcanal and Tulagi for seven days. One B-17 was lost, but the 26th Squadron shot down three Japanese fighters. Since the airfield on Guadalcanal had no planes, the principal targets were the runways and suspected supply depots and antiaircraft positions on both Guadalcanal and Tulagi.
The Amphibious Force, covered by the Air Support Force and by Task Force 63, had left Koro in the Fijis on a southwesterly course on 31 July. Four days later the Betelgeuse and Zeilin with their escorts joined Transport Groups X and Y, respectively, to bring the total number of ships in the Expeditionary Force to 82, and the number of men in the landing force to over 19,000. Sailing in three great concentric circles—the transports in the middle, the cruisers around them, and the screening destroyers in the outer circle—the Amphibious Force reached a point south of Rennell, then swung north and set its course for Savo Island, while the carriers sailed for a point southwest of Guadalcanal. On 5 and 6 August, during the Amphibious Force’s northward run west of Guadalcanal, overcast skies and a heavy haze reduced visibility to four miles and limited air operations. Intermittent rain squalls helped to cover the ships, which were maintaining radio silence. There were no contacts with the enemy.
The weather cleared for the approaching American ships on the night of 6-7 August, and the Amphibious Force, still undetected, raised Savo Island at 0200. Clear skies and a moon in the last quarter provided good visibility as the force passed into the calm, narrow waters between Savo, Guadalcanal, and Florida. The transport groups separated at 0240, 7 August. The four transports and four destroyer-transports of one group sailed around Savo to enter Sealark Channel between Savo and Florida. The fifteen transports of the Guadalcanal Group entered the channel between Savo and Cape Esperance on Guadalcanal. As daylight broke, the islands lay quiet. The Japanese were taken by surprise; not one shot had been fired at the Amphibious Force.
The supporting warships took station, while their observation planes flew over the target areas. The three cruisers and four destroyers of the Guadalcanal Fire Support Group opened fire on their targets between Kukum and Koli Point on Guadalcanal at 0614. Two minutes later the cruiser and two destroyers comprising the Tulagi Fire Support Group opened fire on Tulagi. The minesweepers covered their assigned areas but found no mines. By 0651 the transport groups had reached their areas, 9,000 yards off the landing beaches, and lowered landing craft into the water. A calm sea permitted the troops to descend via cargo-net gangways on both sides of all transports into the landing craft. H Hour, the time for the Tulagi landing, was set for 0800. Zero Hour, the time for the landing on Guadalcanal, was finally set at 0910.
Ships’ gunfire and strafing by fighter planes quickly sank a small gasoline schooner, the only visible enemy vessel in Sealark Channel. Dive bombers and fighters from the carriers, then maneuvering seventy-five miles to the south in open waters, bombed and strafed the target areas, but encountered only feeble antiaircraft fire. Forty-four planes struck at Guadalcanal, and forty-one attacked Tulagi. Eighteen Japanese seaplanes were destroyed.
The Northern Attack
The initial Allied landing in the Solomon Islands, which preceded those on Tulagi, Gavutu, and Tanambogo, was made by a covering force. Supported by fire from the cruiser and destroyers of the Tulagi Fire Support Group and the minesweepers, landing boats put B Company of the 2nd Marines ashore near Haleta, a village adjoining a promontory on Florida Island which commands Beach Blue on Tulagi. The remainder of the 1st Battalion of the 2nd Marines landed at Halavo on Florida to cover the landings. No enemy forces opposed either landing, and the battalion was later withdrawn.
Covered by fire from the supporting cruiser and destroyers, the first wave of landing craft carrying B and D Companies of the 1st Raider Battalion sailed to Beach Blue on Tulagi, a small, hilly island about three miles long. The enemy was not defending Beach Blue but had retired to caves and dugouts in the hills and ravines on the southeast part of the island. The only casualty in landing was one raider killed by rifle fire. The second wave, A and C Companies, quickly followed B and D Companies which then advanced north across the island. The 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines, then came ashore and pushed northwest to clear out the enemy in the northwest part of the island. The raider companies turned right and advanced to the southeast, supported by E Company, the raiders’ heavy weapons company. There was no hard fighting until the afternoon when fire from Japanese caves and dugouts halted the raiders about one mile short of Tulagi’s southeast tip. The marines discovered that the ships’ gunfire and dive bombing had not destroyed the caves and dugouts, most of which would withstand everything but a direct hit. Machine-gun fire was relatively ineffective against the tunnels and caves, which were not constructed along straight lines. The most efficient means for destroying the enemy positions were grenades and high explosive charges placed by hand.
The Japanese sailors and laborers fought from foxholes, pillboxes, slit trenches, and caves. They refused to surrender and fought until they were shot or blown up. Machine gunners fired their weapons until they were killed. When one gunner fell, another would take his place, a process that continued until all in the position were dead.
By late afternoon it had become obvious that the raiders could not complete the capture of Tulagi on 7 August, and the battalion established a defensive line about 1,000 yards from the southeast tip of the island. The five raider companies and G Company of the 5th Marines occupied these positions, which the enemy attacked repeatedly but unsuccessfully throughout the night of 7-8 August.
The first reports estimated that the raiders had suffered casualties amounting to 22 percent of their total strength on Tulagi; the 1st Parachute Battalion was reported to have lost from 50 to 60 percent on Gavutu. General Vandegrift requested Admiral Turner at 0135, 8 August, to release the remaining battalions of the 2nd Marines from division reserve for the Tulagi-Gavutu operation. Admiral Turner assented.
On the morning of 8 August F and E Companies of the 5th Marines, having cleared the northwest part of Tulagi, joined G Company and the five companies of the 1st Raider Battalion. The combined force pressed its attack, reduced the enemy positions, and by 1500 had completed the occupation of Tulagi. Only three of the original Japanese garrison surrendered; an estimated forty escaped to Florida by swimming. The remainder, about 200 men, were killed. The Marine casualties on Tulagi, Gavutu, and Tanambogo, which had been exaggerated in the first reports, were lighter than those of the Japanese. On Tulagi thirty-six were killed and fifty-four wounded.14 Captured materiel included trucks, motorcycles, ammunition, gasoline, radio supplies, two 13-mm. antiaircraft guns, one 3-inch gun, and ten machine guns.
Gavutu and Tanambogo
While the 1st Raider Battalion and the 2nd Battalion of the 5th Marines were reducing Tulagi, the islets of Gavutu and Tanambogo, lying 3,000 yards to the east, also saw hard fighting. Gavutu is 250 by 500 yards in size and Tanambogo, a slightly smaller island, is joined to Gavutu by a 300-yard-long concrete causeway. Dive bombers (SBD’s) attacked Gavutu from 1145 to 1155 on 7 August.
The Tulagi Fire Support Group shelled Gavutu from 1155 to 1200 to cover the 7-mile approach of the thirteen landing craft bearing the 1st Parachute Battalion to the seaplane slips and jetties on Gavutu’s northeast corner. The bombardment had knocked several large concrete blocks from the ramps into the water, and the parachutists were forced to land at the docks and mount them in face of enemy small-arms fire. The first wave reached shore safely, but succeeding waves were hit hard, about one man in ten becoming a casualty. By 1400 the parachutists were advancing inland under fire from the Japanese emplaced on the island’s single hill and on near-by Tanambogo. By 1800 the battalion had secured the hill and raised the national colors there. The Japanese retained possession of several dugouts until the afternoon of 8 August, when they were reduced by the parachutists and two companies of the 2nd Marines.
In spite of air bombardment and naval shelling, the Japanese on Tanambogo continued active on 7 August. After being withdrawn from Haleta, B Company of the 2nd Marines attempted to land on Tanambogo’s north coast after a 5-minute naval bombardment, but the attack failed. About 1130 the next day, the 3rd Battalion of the 2nd Marines and two light tanks attacked Tanambogo from the beach and the causeway and secured most of the island by late afternoon. By nightfall all the Japanese were dead. Marine casualties in the Tanambogo-Gavutu attacks had been relatively heavy; 108 were dead or missing, 140 wounded. The marines later estimated that nearly 1,000 Japanese had held Gavutu and Tanambogo, but the actual figure was about 500. On 8 and 9 August the 2nd Marines completed the northern attack by seizing the adjacent islets of Mbangai, Makambo, and Kokomtambu.
The Invasion of Guadalcanal
Beach Red, which lies about 6,000 yards east of Lunga Point, between the Tenaru and Tenavatu Rivers, had been selected for the Guadalcanal landings. The transports of Group X initially anchored 9,000 yards off Beach Red on the morning of 7 August. The destroyers of the Guadalcanal Fire Support Group took their stations 5,000 yards north of the beach at 0840 to mark the line of departure for the landing craft. The assigned liaison planes made eight runs at low altitudes to mark the extremities of the beaches with smoke. The three cruisers and four destroyers of the Guadalcanal Fire Support Group began firing at 0900, to cover a 3,200-yard-long area from a point extending 800 yards on either side of Beach Red to a depth of 200 yards.
The first wave of landing craft, carrying troops of the reinforced 5th Marines (less the 2nd Battalion), crossed the line of departure 5,000 yards off Beach Red. As the landing craft drew to within 1,300 yards of the beach, the warships ceased firing. There were no Japanese on the beach. The marines went ashore at 0910 on a 1,600-yard front, the reinforced 1st Battalion on the right (west), the reinforced 3rd Battalion on the left. Regimental headquarters followed at 0938, and by 0940 heavy weapons troops had come ashore to act as regimental reserve. All boat formations had crossed the line of departure promptly and in good order, and had reached their assigned beach areas. The assault battalions of the 5th Marines then advanced inland about 600 yards to establish a beachhead perimeter bounded on the west by the Tenaru River, on the east by the Tenavatu River, on the south by an east-west branch of the Tenaru, and to cover the landings of successive units.
Landing of the reinforced 1st Marines in column of battalions had begun at 0930. The 2nd Battalion led, followed by the 36 and 1st Battalions. By 1100 the entire reinforced regiment had come ashore. Meanwhile, in the absence of enemy mines and shore defenses, the transports had moved 7,000 yards closer to the shore.
To provide direct support, the 75-mm. pack howitzers of the 2nd and 3rd Battalions of the 11th Marines came ashore with the assault battalions of the 5th and 1st Marines. The 105-mm. howitzers of the 5th Battalion, 11th Marines, had been assigned to general support but were not ready for action until the afternoon. The howitzers were landed separately from their prime movers, which had been held on board ship because there were not enough ramp boats to bring them ashore promptly. When the 105’s reached shore, there were no prime movers immediately available to pull them up the beach. Whenever amphibian tractors were available at the beach, they were used to pull the 105’s until the prime movers (1-ton trucks, instead of the authorized 2½-ton 6-wheeldrive trucks) came ashore in the afternoon. The artillery battalions reverted to control of Headquarters, 11th Marines, when that headquarters landed. All battalions upon landing registered their fire by air observation.
When the assaulting regiments and their supporting pack howitzers were ashore, the advance toward the airfield was ready to begin. The 1st Battalion of the 5th Marines was to advance west along the beach toward the Lunga River while the 1st Marines attacked southwest toward Mount Austen. The 3rd Battalion of the 5th Marines, the artillery, engineer, pioneer, and special weapons and defense battalions were to hold the beach during the advance.
At 1115 the 1st Marines passed through the 5th Marines’ lines. Engineers put a temporary bridge upstream on the Tenaru, using amphibian tractors as pontoons. The 1st Marines crossed the river and turned southwest toward Mount Austen. On the beach the 1st Battalion of the 5th Marines crossed the mouth of the Tenaru at 1330 and marched toward the Ilu. Neither regiment met any Japanese.
The 1st Marines, advancing inland with battalions echeloned to the left and rear, progressed slowly. The only, map which the regiment had to guide it was vague; the angle of declination between grid and true north was not shown. The regimental historian stated later that, had commanders been able to study aerial photographs before the landing, they might have picked easy, natural routes instead of a straight compass course through the jungle.
The troops were heavily loaded with ammunition, packs, mortars, and heavy machine guns as they struggled through the thick, fetid jungle. The humid heat exhausted the men, whose strength had already been sapped by weeks aboard crowded transports. Salt tablets were insufficient in number. Troops in the Solomons needed two canteens of water per day per man, but the number of canteens available had permitted the issue of but one to each man. All these factors served to slow the advance of both regiments.
By dusk the regiments had each advanced about one mile. General Vandegrift, who had come ashore at 1601, ordered them to halt in order to reorient and establish contact. The 1st Battalion of the 5th Marines established a perimeter defense at the mouth of the Ilu River, while the three battalions of the 1st Marines dug in for the night in the jungle about 3,500 yards to the south.
Considering the division’s state of training and the inexperience of the junior officers and noncommissioned officers, tactical operations were satisfactory, but General Vandegrift criticized the “uniform and lamentable” failure of all units to patrol their fronts and flanks properly. Organization for landing and the ship-to-shore movement of troops had been very good. As the Japanese were not opposing the advance, the operation did not involve a thorough test of methods of controlling ships’ gunfire by shore-based fire control parties, but nothing had indicated the need for fundamental changes in doctrine.
Co-ordination between ground forces on the one hand, and naval and air units on the other, had been unsatisfactory, for the naval forces were not using the same map as the 1st Marine Division.25 In view of the relatively few air support missions requested by the ground troops, the centralized control of supporting aircraft had been satisfactory. Had the division met heavy resistance on Guadalcanal, a more direct means of air-to-ground communication would probably have been necessary. The problem had been recognized in advance, but there had not been time to organize and train air control groups for liaison duty with regiments and battalions. The liaison planes furnished little information to division headquarters, for the pilots were not able to observe very much in the jungle, and some of the messages they transmitted were vague.
The Capture of the Airfield
At 2000, when 10,000 troops had come ashore, General Vandegrift ordered the 1st Marines to attack toward the Lunga the next morning instead of taking Mount Austen. He recognized that Mount Austen commanded Lunga Point, but because it was too large and too far away for his relatively small force to hold he decided not to take it immediately.
Supported by tanks, the 1st Battalion of the 5th Marines crossed the Ilu at 0930 on 8 August. Progress was slow at first as the battalion advanced on a wide front. General Vandegrift, then convinced that his division was not faced by a sizable organized force on Guadalcanal, ordered the battalion to contract its front, cross the Lunga River, and seize Kukum village before nightfall. By 1500 the advance guard had traveled almost 6,000 yards to overrun a small party of Japanese firing rifles and machine guns from knolls on the outskirts of Kukum. Kukum, containing one 3-inch antiaircraft gun, one 1-inch antiaircraft gun, two 37-mm. antitank guns, and heavy machine guns, was otherwise undefended. Meanwhile the 1st Battalion of the 1st Marines had covered 4,500 yards to capture the airfield by 1600.
The enemy garrison, composed of 430 sailors and 1,700 laborers, had fled westward without attempting to defend or destroy their installations, including the nearly completed runway. General Vandegrift wrote: The extent to which the enemy had been able to develop their Lunga Point positions was remarkable in view of the short time of occupation. Since 4 July they had succeeded in constructing large semi-permanent camps, finger wharves, bridges, machine shops, two large radio stations, ice plants, two large and permanent electric power plants, an elaborate air compressor plant for torpedoes, and a nearly completed airdrome with hangars, blast pens, and a … runway.
Besides the runway and the weapons in Kukum, the Japanese had abandoned a store of .25-caliber rifles, .25-and .303-caliber machine guns, two 70-mm. and two 75-mm. guns, ammunition, gasoline, oil, individual equipment, machinery, Ford and Chevrolet-type trucks, and two radars. They left stocks of rice, tea, hardtack, dried kelp, noodles, canned goods, and large quantities of beer and sake behind. The marines took over the abandoned weapons and used them to bolster their defenses. The 100-pound bags of rice and other food in the commissary dumps were added to the marines’ limited stores. The Japanese left among their personal belongings many diaries which were valuable sources of information for Allied intelligence.
About thirty-five of the Japanese trucks were serviceable. Lighter than American military transport, they proved less efficient. Without powered front axles, they stuck easily, but were a valuable addition to the 1st Marine Division’s limited motor transport, and were used as long as they held together. The division engineers also used the Japanese rollers, mixers, surveying equipment, gasoline locomotives, and hopper cars in the subsequent completion of the airfield.
Tactical operations had proceeded favorably. The Guadalcanal forces had landed unopposed and captured the airfield without casualties. In the Tulagi-Gavutu-Tanambogo area, all objectives had been taken at the cost of 144 killed and 194 wounded, while the defending garrisons had been destroyed. By 9 August, 10,900 troops had landed on Guadalcanal, and 6,075 on Tulagi. To support the infantry, 3 field artillery battalions, with 3 units of fire, plus special weapons, tanks, tank destroyers, and part of the 3rd Defense Battalion, had landed on Guadalcanal, while the 3rd Battalion, 10th Marines (75-mm. pack howitzers), and part of the 3rd Defense Battalion had landed on Tulagi.
Logistical operations, in contrast with tactical developments, had seriously bogged down. The 1st Pioneer Battalion had been charged with the duty of unloading supplies from the landing craft as they touched at Beach Red, while a navy beachmaster and shore party directed the boat movements at the beach. Of the 596 men (including naval medical personnel) of the Pioneer Battalion, one platoon of 52 went to Tulagi with the 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines, and another remained on board one of the cargo ships. About 490 men on Beach Red were to handle supplies for the Guadalcanal force of the 1st Marine Division. By 1043 of 7 August the beachmaster’s party was operating on Beach Red.
Unloading the landing boats proved to be an exhausting and almost impossible job, for so many of them lacked movable bow ramps which could be let down to speed the removal of supplies from the boats. The pioneers had to lift the supplies up and over the gunwales to unload them. On the other hand, the unarmored amphibian tractors “demonstrated a usefulness exceeding all expectations.” Used as an ambulance, a prime mover, and an ammunition carrier, the amphibian tractor, later to play such an important tactical role in the Pacific, was able to move directly from ship’s side to inland dump, easily traversing the sea, reefs, beaches, and swamps without halting. But there were only a few amphibian tractors.
Too few troops had been provided to unload boats and move materiel off the beach. While loaded landing craft hovered off Beach Red, which was already cluttered with unsorted gear, hundreds of marines who were waiting to move forward were in the vicinity, but did not assist on the beach. General Vandegrift later stated that the unloading party had been too small; he pointed out that he had anticipated that his division would have to fight a major engagement before capturing the airfield and he had therefore expected to use most of his troops tactically. At that time, too, the 2nd Marines (less one battalion) had not been released by Admiral Turner.
When supplies began to pile up on the beach, sailors from the transports joined the shore party to try to get the boats unloaded and the supplies moved farther inland. Pioneers and sailors worked to the point of exhaustion; the extreme heat caused many to suffer from nausea and severe headaches. But the beach remained cluttered.
Enemy air attacks also delayed unloading operations. Twenty-five twin-engine Japanese bombers from Rabaul attacked the ships in the early afternoon of 7 August. Several planes were shot down by the covering fighters and gunfire from the transports and screening warships. The Bougainville coast-watcher had warned the Allied ships in time so that none were hit, but the transports had been obliged to cease unloading and get underway. About one hour later, a second wave of Japanese bombers drove the transports off again and damaged the destroyer Mugford. The Japanese aircraft fortunately did not attack the gear which crowded the beach, but three hours of unloading time had been lost.
By nightfall on 7 August 100 landing craft were beached, waiting to be unloaded, while an additional 50, unable to find landing room on the beach, stood offshore. Unloading was continued into the night, but the tired shore party could not cope with its task and operations broke down completely. At 2330 the shore party commander, stating that unloading was “entirely out of hand,” requested that the ships cease discharging cargo until 1000, 8 August, when he estimated the beach would be cleared. Admiral Turner and General Vandegrift assented.
To provide more room for incoming supplies, General Vandegrift doubled the length of the beach by extending Beach Red’s boundary west to the Block Four River on 8 August. But the situation did not improve. Forty more enemy bombers flew over Florida about noon to disperse the ships again, this time setting the George F. Elliott afire and damaging the destroyer Jarvis. The Elliott burned until she was a total loss. The Jarvis left for Noumea but was never heard from again. A false air alarm later in the afternoon forced the ships to get underway once more.
Source: Guadalcanal: The First Offensive ; BY: John Miller, Jr. (United States Army Center of Military History)