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Strong Men Armed
Strong Men Armed relates the U.S. Marines’ unprecedented, relentless drive across the Pacific during World War II, from Guadalcanal to Okinawa, detailing their struggle to dislodge from heavily fortified islands an entrenched enemy who had vowed to fight to extinction—and did. (All but three of the Marines’ victories required the complete annihilation of the Japanese defending force.) As scout and machine-gunner for the First Marine Division, the author fought in all its engagements till his wounding at Peleliu. Here he uses firsthand experience and impeccable research to re-create the nightmarish battles. The result is both an exciting chronicle and a moving tribute to the thousands of men who died in reeking jungles and on palm-studded beaches, thousands of miles from home and fifty years before their time, of whom Admiral Chester W. Nimitz once said, “Uncommon valor was a common virtue.”
Strong Men Armed includes over a dozen maps, a chronology of the war in the Pacific, the Marine Medal of Honor Winners in World War II, and Marine Corps aces in World War II.
Robert Leckie STRONG MEN ARMED The United States Marines Against Japan
HELMET FOR MY PILLOW
LORD, WHAT A FAMILY
THE MARCH TO GLORY
CONFLICT: The History of the Korean War
THE WARS OF AMERICA: From 1600 to 1992 (in two volumes) GEORGE WASHINGTON’S WAR: The Saga of the American Revolution
FROM SEA TO SHINING SEA: From the War of 1812 to the Mexican War, the Saga of America’s Expansion
NONE DIED IN VAIN: The Saga of the American Civil War
DELIVERED FROM EVIL: The Saga of World World II
OKINAWA: Final Battle of World War II
Southwest pacific, 7
Central pacific, 11
Betio (Tarawa, 192
Western New Britain, 245
Roi-Namur (Kwajalein), 282
Iwo jima, 438
It was the sixth of August, 1942—eight months since Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo had swung his aircraft carriers south and sent them plunging through mounting seas toward Pearl Harbor.
Eight months, and during them the power of America’s Pacific Fleet had rolled with the tide on the floor of Battleship Row; Wake had fallen, Guam, the Philippines; the Rising Sun flew above the Dutch East Indies, it surmounted the French tricolor in Indo-China, it blotted out the Union Jack in Singapore where columns of short tan men in mushroom helmets double-timed through the streets. Burma, Malaya and Thailand were also Japanese. India’s hundreds of millions were imperiled, great China was all but isolated from the world, Australia looked fearfully north to the Japanese bases on New Guinea, toward the long chain of the Solomon Islands drawn like a knife across her lifeline to America.
Eight months, and now an American invasion fleet sailed north to Guadalcanal. Thirty-one transports and cargo ships were stuffed to the gunwales with 19,000 United States Marines and their guns and vehicles. Guarding them were some 60 warships, mostly cruisers and destroyers, one battleship, a few oilers, and that trio of flattops representing all of America’s carrier striking power in the South Pacific.
The skies were overcast, as they had been the day before. As storm and fog had covered the Japanese approach to Pearl Harbor, so low ceilings concealed these Americans in their sweep west and north from the Fiji Islands.
Aboard the troopships it was not only the warm moist air that brought the sweat oozing from the bodies of the men on the weather decks, staining the sailors’ light blue shirts as dark as their denim trousers, making blotches on the pale green twill dungarees of the Marines. There was tension in the air. It was almost a living presence. It made voices taut, husky—made the sweat come faster. It was one with the rasp of steel on whet-stones, the sound of the Marines sharpening bayonets and sheath knives for the morning’s fight. Other Marines squatted on the grimy decks blacking rifle sights or applying a last light coat of oil to their rifle bores. Machine-gunners went over long belts of ammunition coiled wickedly in oblong green boxes, carefully withdrawing and reinserting the cartridges into their cloth loops, making certain that they would not stick and jam the guns. Other men adjusted packs, inspected grenade pins or made camouflage nets for their helmets—those exasperating scoops of steel which banged the back of a man’s neck at a walk, bumped over his eyes at a run.
Many of these men wondered silently how they would react next day, in the holocaust of battle. Compassionate Marines suddenly became aware that they had no wish to kill, wondering, as they sat alongside cruel Marines carving X’s on bullet ends to make dum-dums of them, if they would actually pull the trigger. Sentimental Marines composing that last letter home for the sixth or seventh time wrote in the grave periods of men already gloriously dead. But some, men such as the lazy Marines who had not cleaned or oiled their weapons, consciously drove the thought of battle from their minds. Others could not grasp its import. “Pogey-bait” Marines stood for hours in line outside the ship’s canteen, thinking no further ahead than the next Clark Bar or Baby Ruth. Yardbird Marines—those immemorial dreamers “who never get the word” —were so little impressed by all this martial bustle that one of them could clear out a crowded hold in the George F. Elliott by stepping over the threshold with a newly issued hand grenade in one hand and a freshly pulled pin in the other, asking shyly:
“What do I do now?”
Kiwi—as Marine yardbirds were now called in honor of that New Zealand bird which also does not fly—Kiwi was marched topside by a gunnery sergeant bellowing, “Grenade! Grenade! Git outta my way—grenade!” It was only after the gunny had cleared the fantail of the ship and had commanded Kiwi to hurl the grenade into the ocean, and had hit the deck alongside him, it was only after this that the gunny turned and booted Kiwi all the way forward and down the hatch to the head.
It was in the heads that the big poker games were played. The money had found its inevitable way into a few skillful hands and the big winners gathered for showdown games in lavatories deep below decks, places in which the air was such a foul compound of the reek of human refuse and cigarette smoke that a man coughing in revulsion blew holes in those blue clouds.
Above decks on one of the transports a young Marine skipped half dollars across the flat gray surface of the sea. A sergeant raged at him and the youth replied with a shrug:
“So what’s the use of money where we’re going?”
Aboard all the troopships platoons of men attended classes on the subject “Know Your Enemy.” For perhaps the twentieth time they listened while lieutenants, few of whom had ever seen combat, read to them from hastily assembled manuals celebrating those qualities which made the Japanese soldier “the greatest jungle fighter in the world.” Mr. Moto, said the manuals, could swim miles underwater while sucking air from hollow reeds, he could sneak stealthily through the jungle on split-toed, rubber-soled shoes, and he could climb trees like a monkey, often tying himself to the trunks and fighting from the treetops. He was tricky, capable of booby-trapping the bodies of his friends, and he often cried out in English to lure the unwary into ambush. At night the Japanese soldiers set off strings of firecrackers to simulate numerous machine guns and frighten their opponents into giving away their position, or they signaled to each other by rifle shot. Finally, this strong, stoic Oriental, who tortured and slaughtered in the name of an Emperor he believed to be divine, was also able to march farther, eat less and endure more than any other soldier in the world. Though some of this was true, much of it was hysterical hokum born of the Pearl Harbor psychosis, and because they had been fed it so often and in such large doses, many of these Marines had come to wonder aloud if every last son of Nippon had been suckled by a wolf.
“All right,” said a young lieutenant aboard one troopship, “if a Jap jumped from a tree what would you do?”
“Kick him in the balls!” came the answer, almost in concert, and the lieutenant grinned and dismissed his class.
Below decks, many other Marines had joined the sailors in preparing the ships for battle. They sweated in stuffy supply holds, often straining their heads aloft to the open hatches while winches swung the heavy hooks and cargo nets among them, sometimes cursing when beads of sweat which had formed on their eyebrows fell into their eyes, blinding them. Men could be badly hurt by swinging hooks, and one Marine had already been killed by them.
Above the whining of the winches rose the spluttering roar of landing-boat motors being started. Their coxswains were testing them, even as they were being freed of their lashings and swung out on davits. Brassy-voiced bosun’s mates shouted at their men, and the harder the sailors worked, the louder the bosun’s mates yelled—for it is characteristic of their calling that they sweat only about the mouth.
On the artillery transports, boxes of shells were lifted on deck and placed in readiness to go over the side next day. Seventy-five- or 105-millimeter howitzers were trundled to the gunwales and coils of rope for hauling them inland were looped about their barrels. Winchmen on the assault transports hauled boxes of rifle ammunition, mortar shells, spare gun parts and roll after roll of barbed wire on deck.
So much barbed wire puzzled the men. It was defensive warfare material, and they, as they thought, were strictly offensive troops. Once they had seized Guadalcanal, they would turn it over to a garrison of soldiers and move on to assault another island. So they had been told, and the great stores of barbed wire bewildered them almost as much as the outlandish nature of the island they were to capture.
“Who ever heard of Guadalcanal?” one of them growled. “Whadda we want with a place nobody ever heard of before?”
It was a common complaint, and it had been raised since July 31 when the troopships had made rendezvous with the warships off the Fijis and the men had been informed of their destination. They had been startled, but their surprise had far from rivaled the astonishment of their commander, Major General Alexander Vandegrift, when he, too, had been abruptly made aware that he was going to Guadalcanal.
When Vandegrift had come to Auckland in New Zealand on June 26, his First Marine Division had already been fragmented by the problem of moving men and munitions across the vast reaches of the Pacific. His Seventh Regiment had been detached from his command and sent to Samoa. His Fifth Regiment was encamped outside the New Zealand capital of Wellington, his First Regiment was sailing from San Francisco for Wellington, the Third Defense Battalion assigned to his division was in Pearl Harbor, his Eleventh Regiment of artillery was divided among these fragments, along with other supporting troops, and the Second Regiment, which would be detached from the Second Marine Division to replace Vandegrift’s missing Seventh, was in San Diego Harbor. More gravely, not half the men in this division had been a year in uniform. They were mostly boys in their late teens and early twenties. Though they were high-hearted volunteers, tough and sturdy youths who had flocked to the Marines in the weeks following Pearl Harbor, they were still barely better than “boots.” Some had been with their units only a week before departure from New River, North Carolina. They were in great need of training, for all their zest and bounce. So were their junior officers, those “Ninety-Day Wonders” just out of the Officer Candidates School in Quantico. Many of the senior NCO’s and officers at company and even battalion level were reservists, men who had trained in armories one night a month and spent an annual two weeks in summer camp. But the division was heavily salted with seasoned NCO’s, as well as with many of the battle-blooded officers in the Marine Corps. With these-and with six months’ grace—Vandegrift was confident that he could field a fine fighting force in early 1943.
In this mood of confidence, Vandegrift came to Auckland and sat at a table across from Vice Admiral Robert Ghormley, commander of the South Pacific Area. Ghormley handed him a dispatch from America’s supreme command, the Joint Chiefs of Staff. It said:
Vandegrift read, deeply interested. Perhaps, when this base was assaulted and secured, he would be able to train his division there.
“Who will do the occupying?” asked the general.
“You,” said the admiral.
There was an interval, and then:
“The first of August.”
If Alexander Vandegrift had glanced at his watch, he could not have been exaggerating the urgency of that moment. August 1! Between the present date and August 1 were thirty-seven days. But it would take six days to sail from New Zealand to the Fiji rendezvous area, and it would take another seven days to sail from the Fijis to the objective in the Solomons. That left twenty-four days in which to await the arrival of troops from California and Hawaii, to reconnoiter the objective, to study its terrain and map it, to get Intelligence working at an estimate of probable enemy defenses and troop strength, to load 31 transports and cargo carriers with 19,000 men and 60 days’ combat supply—and then to conduct joint rehearsals before the day of assault. Twenty-four times twenty-four hours to go, and there was not even a battle plan begun. There was not a scrap of information on the objective beyond a Navy hydro-graphic chart made thirty-two years ago and Jack London’s short story The Red One, which, though set in Guadalcanal, was already suspect by spelling it Guadalcanar. If General Vandegrift had been asked to land his Marines upon the moon, he could not have had less knowledge of the battleground.
But Vandegrift was a Marine accustomed to adversity and skilled in the art of improvising. In those years between World Wars, when Congress slashed military budgets with a belligerence matched only by the ferocity of its pacifism, he had been among those officers who fought to fulfill a vision of the Marine Corps as a highly trained assault force with a special mission of making ship-to-shore landings on enemy-held terrain. To such professionals, the seeming setback was the normal condition of career. And Vandegrift was a professional, a soft-spoken, tough-minded commander in the mold of Stonewall Jackson. Intelligent enough to be appalled by the task confronting him, sensible enough to mask that dismay before his staff, he set that staff to work at organizing America’s first full-scale amphibious invasion—imparting to them some of his own sense of urgency that was the surest guarantor of unpleasant surprise.
It was a surprise to find that the totality of the war did not impress the Wellington longshoremen’s union controlling work on the huge Aotea Quay provided by the New Zealand government. The union still believed that the longer a job takes the longer the pay lasts. All cries for speed elicited the scornful rejoinder “Not half!”—and the unloading of ships moved at a crawl. So the union was ignored and the Marines were used as dock-wallopers. Enormous working parties of 300 men each were placed on around-the-clock shifts, unloading and loading their own ships. For the problem was one of unloading as well as loading.
Most of these ships had come to Wellington stuffed with supplies for a division assembling for training in a civilized country. But now this division was bound for combat in one of the world’s wildest places, a place where priority belonged to bullets, beans and barbed wire, where such niceties as field cots and mattresses landed on the bottom of the heap, beneath drums of gasoline, water cans and mosquito nets. All of these supplies were in bulk lots. They had to be piled on the wharf, classified in the order of their importance and either reloaded or sent inland.
The cold driving rains of the Down-Under winter poured from mackerel skies. Shore winds whipped the rain up and down the great dock in sheets, drenching the Marines in their brown ponchos and tan sun helmets, making a mush of tons upon tons of cornflakes, cigarettes, candy, C-rations—of anything packed in those thin paper cartons that seemed to melt like snow beneath the downpour. Drifts of cornflakes were so deep that the flat-bedded New Zealand lorries could barely butt their way through the mess. Men stumbled or slogged through a churned-up marsh of paper, tobacco and food, sometimes kicking with savage glee at the detested little cans of C-rations which lay glistening in the glow of wharf lights that were seldom doused. Sometimes these Marines drifted to the landward end of Aotea Quay, vanishing in the darkness only to reappear in “browned-out” railroad stations, there to slip off poncho and dungarees covering those neatly pressed green uniforms in which they roamed the steep streets of Welhngton, determined that a rain-soaked dock and a mush of ruined supplies would not be the only memory of the first foreign land which most of them had seen. But they came back to join their working parties, and when the division sailed off to battle there were not a dozen deserters among 19,000 men.
At Division Intelligence, meanwhile, that old marine chart and Jack London’s short story had been augmented by nothing more than a few oblique aerial photos taken five years before the Japanese occupation, plus a half-dozen postcards made from bad pictures taken years ago by missionaries. True, fliers from the Yorktown had photographed the target area in May, but Yorktown had been sunk in the Battle of Midway. If the pictures had survived, no one knew anything about them. Worse, the Australian coastwatchers—those intrepid islanders who had remained in Japanese-seized territory to report the enemy’s movements—were at present in bad shape on Guadalcanal. The only reliable informant there was Captain Martin Clemens of the British Solomon Islands Defense Force, and he had sprained an ankle and been ordered to hole up in the hills until it healed. Earlier coastwatcher reports had provided an estimate of 1,500 Japanese troops on Tulagi and the twin islets of Guvutu-Tanambogo, and 5,000 more on Guadalcanal. Beyond this, nothing.
It became necessary for Lieutenant Colonel Frank Goettge to fly to Australia in search of those islanders who had fled the Japanese advance. Goettge spent a week in Melbourne and a few days in Sydney, moving from the austerity of military offices to the jolly babble of the pubs to the secrecy of hotel rooms, talking to missionaries, blackbirders, sailboat skippers and one scar-faced giant of a planter named John Mather. They were South Sea characters straight out of a short story by Somerset Maugham, but their memories were all that Goettge had working for him. He brought eight of them back to Wellington with him.
Goettge also requested the Army’s 648th Engineer Topographic Battalion, then in Melbourne, to put on a “red-rush” aerial photo-mapping of Guadalcanal. The Army obliged. A photography flight was flown. Then, in the way of every army since Agamemnon’s, a transportation officer saw to it that the negatives were delayed ten days in reaching the map plant, after which his naval counterpart had the finished maps placed at the bottom of a steadily mounting pile of boxes in Auckland. The Marines in Wellington never got their maps, making one of their own from such catch-as-catch-can “intelligence” as could be produced during sessions in which anxious Americans prodded amiable Australians with questions and Scotch whisky. At one of the last of these a planter who had lived on Guadalcanal recalled having had to shoot a couple of cows which had fallen into the Tenaru River and could not get back up its steep banks. His appalled interrogator reminded him that he had said earlier that vehicles could cross the shallow Tenaru with ease. The Australian replied that he meant the mouth of the Tenaru, never suspecting that any troops would want to cross it upstream. But the Marines were crossing upstream and now they would need to bring along bridging material—and that meant unloading and reloading an entire ship.
An aerial reconnaissance made by Lieutenant Colonel Merrill Twining and Major William McKean produced one vital piece of information: that the landing beaches appeared usable. Twining and McKean went aboard an Army B-17 bomber in Port Moresby, New Guinea, and flew to Guadalcanal. A trio of growling float Zeros rose from Tulagi anchorage to welcome them. The Flying Fort’s gunners shot two of the Japanese down, but the third badgered the big bomber so persistently that it actually ran out of gas, riding a tail-wind home to Moresby to land with bone-dry tanks.
Yet, the First Marine Division remained confident of its ability to “occupy and defend” the objectives. The plan was to make five landings. The main body—First and Fifth Regiments—would land on the northern beaches of Guadalcanal at a point about 10 miles west of the center of its 90-mile length. Four smaller landings would be made 20 miles directly north. The First Marine Raider Battalion and a battalion of the Second Marines would hit tiny Tulagi, which was almost invisible from northern Guadalcanal for the bulk of Florida looming behind or north of it. A battalion of the Second Marines would secure Florida. The chuteless First Marine Parachute Battalion would hit Guvutu-Tanambogo, twin specks of rock joined by a causeway and lying a few miles east or to the right of Tulagi.
On July 22, eleven days following the arrival of the First Marines from San Francisco, the troopships stood out of the hill-girdled harbor at Wellington and made for the open sea. They reached the Fiji Islands with Vandegrift’s staff relieved to hear that D-Day had been pushed back to August 7, but concerned to learn that the Japanese had begun building an airfield on Guadalcanal. General Vandegrift himself was shaken to find that he could not expect Vice Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher to keep his covering carriers in the battle area for more than three days. Fletcher would not risk the Japanese flying down from Rabaul and the upper Solomons. Nor would he stay in waters where five enemy flattops and a force of fast battleships could get at that precious trio of American carriers. The other warships under the over-all expeditionary command of Rear Admiral Richmond Kelly Turner would remain as long as necessary.
At the Fijis also the mass rehearsals were called off when it was found that Koro Island’s sharp coral was cutting up the division’s landing boats, and it was at the Fijis that the Marines got the last and biggest surprise since Admiral Ghormley had looked at General Vandegrift and said, “You.”
Marine officers arriving in the Fijis by plane from New Zealand brought with them copies of the July 4 edition of the Wellington Dominion, which carried the following story:
There was more, but the Marines could only think of the earlier phrase: Rabaul, Wake Island, and Tulagi. And here they were, sailing to Tulagi, a name which both Japanese and Down-Unders found synonymous with Solomon Islands. It was incredible, but it was not, of course, treachery. It was something equally destructive: stupidity. Still, there was nothing for these Marines to do but to fire off an abundant arsenal of oaths. A few days more, July 31, and the ships weighed anchor and sailed away.
Daylight of August 6, 1942, had turned to dusk.
Among the ships of the American fleet, the motors of the winches and the landing boats had fallen silent. The open mouths of the hatches made darker pools in the gathering gloom. Men stood at the rails of their ships, talking in low voices, gazing at the horizon where the slender silhouettes of flanking destroyers were rapidly becoming invisible.
“Darken ship. The smoking lamp is out on all weather decks. All troops below decks.”
It had come for the last time, this order. It had been heard for many nights, by some men for months of nights, but it had never before possessed such capacity to chill hearts.
They went below, with little of the accustomed horseplay, without the usual ineffectual insults hurled at the bullhorn that had ordered them down. They descended to troopholds far below the water line, where five-tiered bunks were slung from bulkheads and the air could become one with the foul reek of the heads if the blowers should break down. Many of them took showers, in fresh water if they were lucky enough to be aboard a ship that could spare it, but generally in salt water which left their bodies sticky and unrefreshed. Some men gathered at final Protestant services, others went to confessions being heard by Catholic chaplains. Weapons were wiped free of excess oil that might gather sand and clog them. Packs were checked for the last time, filled with mess gear, clean socks and underwear, shaving gear, rations—here a Bible, there a pack of letters-from-home, an unfinished paperback book, a crumpled photo of a pin-up girl—all those individual extras which men put in their packs as whim and character might direct. Now the men were banging the chained bunks down from the bulkheads, crawling into them fully dressed—for no one removed his clothes that night. The showdown games had ended and the ultimate winners were choosing between stowing the money on their persons or sending it home via the ship’s post office. Attempts at humor were falling flat and fading into tight-lipped silence, lights were going out below decks, and all was quiet save for the steady throbbing of the ships’ motors. Lulled by this and the gentle rise and fall of the ships, the men of the First Marine Division sought sleep.
In the wardrooms above, lights still burned. Shadows formed grotesque patterns on big maps plastered to the bulkheads, and fell in long dark shafts across green-covered tables at which the officers sat with cards and chessboards. Aboard Admiral Turner’s flagship McCawley both Turner and General Vandegrift were grateful for the darkness closing on them as they reached Guadalcanal’s back door. They could not know, but they could suspect, that bad weather during the last two days had grounded enemy seaplanes at Tulagi, allowing them to sail along the southern coast of Guadalcanal undetected.
At two o’clock in the morning of August 7, by the light of a moon emerging just as the American force rounded Cape Esperance at Guadalcanal’s northwestern tip, men on the weather decks could make out the bulk of Savo Island rising from the mists ahead.
Because of Savo, a round cone which sat like a brooding sentinel at the western mouth of Sealark Channel, the invasion fleet had to split in two. Ships carrying the main body turned immediately east or right to sail between Savo and Guadalcanal and take up stations off the Guadalcanal beaches. The other sailed north or above Savo before making their eastward turn, moving to stations off Tulagi, Florida and Guvutu-Tanambogo.
Both sections were in position before daylight.
Aboard the troopships the men were going to the galleys fully armed. They ate beans for breakfast and climbed the ladders topside. They came on deck, blinking in what was now broad and sunny day, startled to hear the thundering of the American cruisers and destroyers or the crashing of bombs dropped by the warplanes of Admiral Fletcher’s carriers.
The bombs fell on those Japanese on both sides of the channel who had awakened in terror to find their waters stuffed with enemy ships. Seaplanes in Tulagi Harbor were caught before they could rise, and were turned into floating torches. One of them tried to take off and was tumbled back into the water by a cruiser’s guns. Fires were started on both sides of Sealark Channel. Marines moving to their battle stations gazed with satisfaction at flickering shorelines to north and south. At shortly after seven o’clock the assault troops of both sections were ready to launch simultaneous attacks.
“F Company stand by to disembark. First platoon stand by to disembark.”
“All right, you men—down them cargo nets!”
Antlike they went over the side, clinging to the rough rope nets that swayed out and in against the warm steel sides of the ships. They stepped on the fingers of the men below them and felt their own hands squashed by men above. Rifles clanged against helmets. Men carrying heavy machine guns or mortar parts ground their teeth in the agony of descending to the waiting boats with 30 or 40 pounds of steel boring into their shoulders. And the boats rose and fell in the swells, now close in to the ships’sides, now three or four feet away.
The men jumped, landing in clanking heaps, then crouched beneath the gunwales while the loaded boats churned to the assembly areas, forming rings and circling, finally fanning out in a broad line at a few minutes before eight and speeding with hulls down and frothing wake straight for the shores of the enemy.
It was Tulagi, not Guadalcanal, where the Japanese made their first defensive stand of the war.
Tulagi had been typically British, the seat of the British Solomon Islands with a cricket field, a “Residency” and an Anglican bishop. But now this boot-shaped little island with its magnificent anchorage was Japanese, and its occupants were about to demonstrate that blind bitter tenacity with which they would cling to every fortress across the chain of island empire.
They were dug in on Tulagi, with most of their defenses concentrated at the foot of the boot, the southeastern tip. They were in hillside caves, squeezed into the fissures pocking the island’s generous outcropping of rock. Against them came that splendid First Raider Battalion commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Merritt Edson, a short tough man of hard jaw and soft voice, of smiling lips and large cold unsmiling eyes. Red Mike, the men called him, for his thinning wisps of carroty hair.
Tulagi’s southeastern beaches were dense with smoke and a small Jap boat blazed against the shore when Red Mike’s Raiders leaped from their boats into the surf and charged across a narrow beach into the murk of the jungle. Enemy bullets whispered among them, but no men fell. The Raiders drove swiftly across the island at a point two-thirds up the boot. Behind them came the Second Battalion, Fifth Marines, who turned left and quickly overran the lightly defended northwestern third of the island.
The Raiders wheeled right to drive down the island’s spine to the lowlands, working through rocks and trees, keeping clear of shore trails covered by enemy cliffs. They attacked four companies abreast. They began to take a withering sniper fire —snipers under houses, tied into the tops of trees, dug in beneath those forest giants with huge buttressing roots four and five feet high. Sniper fire came from the rear too, for the Japanese soldier was already using his trick of lying doggo until the enemy had passed and he might shoot into his rear. Now the Raiders on the southern shore of the island were pinned down by fire from a concentration of machine guns atop a hill. Mortars crunched among them. Caves spat fire. There were casualties, among them a company commander. It took an hour to get that hill, it took rifles and grenades of the men who inched forward under covering fire until they had reached the point when they might come erect and charge the cavemouths. Then Edson’s men moved down to the cricket field set between two hills, east and west. Here the Japanese fought skillfully from caves and crevices. Here they could not be budged and the Marines dug in, for it was now twilight and obvious that the island could not be taken that day.
That night came the first banzai charge.
Marines lying in hastily scooped-out foxholes could hear the enemy assembling. The Japanese crawled noisily out of their caves and holes. They came running in scattered bands, their officers leaping before them and waving long samurai sabers. They howled in their native tongue or shrieked those quaint English oaths, which, they had been told, would melt the hearts of the Americans.
“Japanese boy drink American boy’s blood!”
“Death for the Emperor!”
The Japanese fired their rifles as they charged, deliberately trying to draw giveaway fire, but they were met by grenades spiraling silently through the black to flash among them with flesh-rending crashes. In twos and threes, they tried to infiltrate in the dark, to close with knives—and where they did they were met with knives. They punched a hole between two companies on the southern flank, but were beaten down in individual combat. They swirled savagely around Marine positions in the center, coming five times against a rise in ground. Mortar shells thumped and crashed among them throughout the night, breaking them up as they assembled, driving them into Raider guns. In the end, they failed. In the morning, the Marine counterattack swept forward and squeezed the Japs to death among the limestone hills of the southern third of the island.
Tulagi was taken by nightfall of August 8.
There had been no difficulty in securing Tulagi’s western offshore flank represented by Haleta Village on the southwestern tip of big Florida Island. Company B of the First Battalion, Second Marines, had landed without opposition at twenty minutes before eight o’clock on D-Day morning. Private Russell Miller was the first of these Marines to touch land, becoming the first American to tread Japanese-held soil in World War Two. And Florida fell without a shot fired.
The eastern offshore flank represented by Guvutu-Tanambogo was not so cheaply won. It was not possible to land at more than one or two points on either of these Siamese-twin islets, for both rose steeply from the sea and were ringed with coral. The only landing place on Guvutu, the southernmost or lowest of these two isles connected on a north-south axis, was the seaplane ramp and pier on the northeastern tip. Invaders had to sail around the little islet to get in at it.
At noon of August 7, after Guvutu had been pounded from the sea and sky, Higgins boats carrying the First Parachute Battalion under Major Robert Williams roared straight for the seaplane ramp.
They were struck hard by enemy fire.
The Marines could not land at the ramp, because naval gunfire had turned it into a jumble of concrete. The boats slanted toward the dock. Out leaped the men, some of them to scamper ashore. But most were pinned down in the lee of the pier. They were like men lined up against a cellophane wall, shot at from both sides. Fire came from trenches behind the pier, from a Guvutu hill to their left and from across the causeway on Tanambogo to their right. One boat ground ashore to the left, bringing a section of mortars to the rescue. Soon the mortar shells were leaving the stovepipes with a metallic plop, landing with a crrrunch-whummp in the enemy trenches. The assault swept forward again, group after group gaining the pier and charging forward to ram headlong against the steep, cave-pocked defenses of Guvutu.
Then Major Williams was hit and the command passed to Major Charles Miller. Captain Harry Torgerson began lashing sticks of dynamite to the ends of poles, or of strips of planking. Under the protective fire of his men, Torgerson rushed the cavemouths, hurling his explosives like javelins, sometimes stooping to poke them in if the opening was too narrow. Sometimes a bare instant separated his throw and the blast, for these were only five-second fuses. There came a time when an instantaneous explosion sent him rolling down a hill.
“Goddam, Cap’n,” yelled an irreverent Marine, “you done lost the seat of yer pants!”
“Screw the pants!” screamed the singed and denuded Torgerson. “Get me more dynamite!”
Thus was born the first of the gloriously raggedy-assed Marines, and thus was Guvutu conquered.
If the Japanese bombers flew to Guadalcanal from the big northern air base at Kavieng on New Ireland, their route would take them over Buka Passage in the Northern Solomons—and there they could be spotted by the Australian coastwatcher, Jack Read.
If they flew from the bigger base at Rabaul, their route took them over Buin—and there they could be seen by the Australian coastwatcher, Paul Mason.
On the morning of August 7 the red-balled bombers rose from Rabaul and went roaring south. They passed over Buin at about half-past ten, the thundering of their motors rousing Mason as he sat in his palm-thatched hideout on Malabite Hill. Mason rushed outside. He counted 24 torpedo bombers, “Kates” as they were called. He ran back inside and flashed his radio message:
“Twenty-four bombers headed yours.”
Twenty-five minutes later, aboard the Australian cruiser Canberra in the waters between Guadalcanal and Tulagi, an impersonal voice came over the bullhorn:
“The ship will be attacked at noon by twenty-four torpedo bombers. All hands will pipe to dinner at eleven o’clock.”
Americans within earshot of that announcement could grin at the suggestion that the Japanese bombers were after “the ship,” which was Australian, rather than the convoy, which was otherwise entirely American. But, as the Aussies say, the information was “fair dinkum,” and at exactly twelve noon 24 bombers did appear over Sealark Channel. They were met by a roar of antiaircraft fire which put them to flight with only three of their eggs splashing harmlessly into the sea.
The “Bonzer boys” up north had made the first of hundreds of priceless advance warnings.
At a few minutes past six in the evening of August 7, American destroyers ran close to Tanambogo and let go with five-inch guns. A flight of dive-bombers swooped down through gathering smoke to drop their bombs. A Japanese three-inch gun on a Tanambogo hilltop was blown into the air in full view of the Marines coming from Guvutu to attack the island.
B Company of the Second Marines, the outfit which had landed so easily on Florida, was making the assault. Their Higgins boats made a wide swing around the causeway, turning in sharply to a northern beach. The men could see that there was not a tree left standing on Tanambogo. An oil dump was burning furiously beneath a dense cloud of smoke, and the five-inch shells of the destroyers were still wailing over their heads. To the men of B Company, it looked like another holiday.
But it was holocaust instead. A sheet of fire fell on them from the crown of Tanambogo. Private Russell Miller, the first American to land on Japanese soil, fell dead at his Lewis gun.
Then a destroyer shell dropped short and exploded among the Higgins boats.
Shell fragments flew, killing and wounding, striking a coxswain and tearing him from the wheel of his boat. The boat swung sharply around, heading back for Guvutu. Other coxswains, sensing a withdrawal, turned to follow. Only three boats plunged forward through the mounting Japanese fire. In them were Captain Edgar Crane, the mustachioed commander of Company B, and Lieutenant John Smith. The boats lurched to a halt on the sand adjoining a concrete pier.
“Follow me!” cried Lieutenant Smith, darting across the sand and plunging into a thicket.
But his men could not follow. Though Smith had gotten past that crossfire of bullets converging on the three boats, his men could not. They were as though nailed to the beach. They slipped leftward, wriggling through water, until they could link up with Captain Crane at the pier.
Inside the thicket, Lieutenant Smith was all alone. He could hear firing on the beach behind him. He began working back to it, moving from scrub to scrub. He saw someone lying beneath a palm tree. “Come on, Marine,” he whispered. The figure came erect, lips parted and bright teeth flashing like his bayonet. Smith shot him dead, whirled, and raced back to the beach.
He returned to a desperate situation. Captain Crane and his men could not fight past the pier. Their machine-gunners had set up to help, but had been silhouetted by the light of the burning oil dump. Jap gunners riddled them. They were forced to withdraw by boat. As night fell, more boats came in to take off B Company’s mounting number of wounded. A dozen men hung on at the pier, covering the withdrawal, until darkness came and they slipped across the causeway to Tanambogo.
With that dawn of August 8, the Third Battalion, Second, began the fierce fight which took Tanambogo. First the battalion landed on Guvutu to assist in mopping up that island. Then its companies began the land-sea assault which sent one force advancing across the causeway from Guvutu on foot and the other making a landing from Higgins boats.
The waterborne attack was launched with the support of two tanks commanded by Lieutenant Robert Sweeney. They landed and rolled inland with bullets clanging off their steel sides. Some 50 Japanese came swarming at them, charging with turkey-gobbler shrieks, running low with outthrust pitchforks, with pipes or crowbars which they hoped to ram into the tanks’ treads. The tank guns blazed. A few of the Japanese fell. The others came on. Lieutenant Sweeney opened his tank turret to direct fire. He was shot in the forehead. A Japanese thrust a crowbar in the treads of the other tank. It stalled. The Japanese began hurling Molotov cocktails against the tank’s side. It began to burn. Tankers came popping out the open turret, jumping through the flames, fighting their way, one by one, through a crowd of knife-swinging, pitchfork-jabbing Japanese.
Marine riflemen were rushing up to take the Japanese under fire. Private Kenneth Koons began picking off enemy soldiers from the throng milling around the other tank, which had become wedged between two coconut trees. He saw one of them slam a pitchfork down its open turret. ,He saw the Japanese scream and grab his hand where the tank commander had shot him. Koons took aim and finished him off.
Another Japanese jumped on top of the embattled tank. Inside it, Pfc. Eugene Moore aimed his .45 at a round tan face framed like a bull’s-eye within the ring of the uncovered turret. He squeezed the trigger. The face flew out of sight. The tank worked free, lurched, and halted. A crowbar had been jammed in the wheelers. Moore seized a tommy gun and poked his head out of the turret and fired.
A hurtling object struck him, fell inside the tank. There was a flash and a roar. It had been a hand grenade. It killed the tank commander. Now Molotov cocktails were bursting on the sides of the tank, setting it on fire. Now Moore’s own neck was ablaze. He ducked below.
“Let’s get out of here,” yelled the driver, and leaped from the turret.
He was shot through the head.
Private Koons was able to kill the driver’s killer, but now, as he pressed a fresh clip into his rifle he gaped in astonishment. The last man—Pfc. Moore—was coming out the tank feet first. And the Japanese went wild. They seized him and punched him. They stuck him with pitchforks. They knifed him. They kicked him in the face and in the stomach. They tore the hair from his head. They ripped his pockets apart and took his money. And then, in a final maniacal outburst, unaware of how steadily their numbers had been dwindling under the methodical fire of Private Koons and other riflemen, one of the Japanese grabbed Moore by the feet and another by the arms —and they swung him to and fro against the tank, trying to beat the life out of him until Marine bullets found them and it was they, not Moore, who were dead.
The Japanese died to a man—42 of them—with Koons shooting most of them himself. And Pfc. Moore was hurriedly carried to a battalion aid station, where his numerous wounds and bruises were bandaged and he awoke to hear the news that Tanambogo was also falling.
In late afternoon, while the tankers made their stand just inland of Tanambogo’s beaches, the force from Guvutu began advancing across the causeway. A spray of bullets whittled them. They ran forward, some of them falling, at last closing with the Japanese defenders, who jumped from their holes swinging bayonets and brandishing knives. The Marines cut them down and moved on to Tanambogo. By seven o’clock that night the land force had secured the Tanambogo end of the causeway.
By that time also the Marines driving inland from the tank beachhead had captured two-thirds of the islet. Cave after cave fell to the style of attack first improvised by Captain Torgerson on Guvutu. Gunnery Sergeant Orle Bergner earned the nickname of “The One-Man Stick of Dynamite” as he led the way.
Next day mopping-up operations secured the last of the harbor islands. About 750 Japanese had been killed defending them, a score of prisoners had been taken and about 60 more Japanese had escaped by swimming to Florida Island. The islands had been captured at a cost of 144 Americans killed and 194 wounded, an unusually high proportion of dead to wounded which gives testimony to the savagery of the battle. There was also testimony to the spirit which had won it, and this was given by a communications sergeant named Robert Bradley.
Bradley had been perched in a balcony of the Lever Brothers plantation store on Tanambogo. He was a forward observer for a mortar section. Enemy fire pierced his throat, smashing his voice box. Blood gushed from his wound, and as a naval doctor rushed to stop the flow, Bradley began making frantic writing motions. The doctor gave him a pencil. Bradley wrote:
“Will I live?”
The doctor nodded, and Bradley wrote once more:
“Will I speak again?”
The doctor hesitated, then nodded a second time. Bradley grinned. Almost with a flourish, he wrote:
“What the hell’s the use in worrying!”
That was the sardonic spirit that took Tulagi, and it would be this—during the four-month ordeal ahead—that would hang on to Guadalcanal.
She was beautiful seen from the sea, this slender long island. Her towering central mountains ran down her spine in a graceful east-west keel. The sun seemed to kiss her timberline, and lay shimmering on open patches of tan grass dappling the green of her forests. Gentle waves washed her beaches white, raising a glitter of sun and water and scoured sand beneath fringing groves of coconut trees leaning langorously seaward with nodding, star-shaped heads.
She was beautiful, but beneath her loveliness, within the necklace of sand and palm, under the coiffure of her sun-kissed treetops with its tiara of jeweled birds, she was a mass of slops and stinks and pestilence; of scum-crested lagoons and vile swamps inhabited by giant crocodiles; a place of spiders as big as your fist and wasps as long as your finger, of lizards as long as your leg or as brief as your thumb; of ants that bite like fire, of tree-leeches that fall, fasten and suck; of scorpions without the guts to kill themselves, of centipedes whose foul scurrying across human skin leaves a track of inflamed flesh, of snakes that slither and land crabs that scuttle —and of rats and bats and carrion birds and of a myriad of stinging insects. By day, black swarms of flies feed on open cuts and make them ulcerous. By night, mosquitoes come in clouds—bringing malaria, dengue or any one of a dozen filthy exotic fevers. Night or day, the rains come; and when it is the monsoon it comes in torrents, conferring a moist mushrooming life on all that tangled green of vine, fern, creeper and bush, dripping on eternally in the rain forest, nourishing kingly hardwoods so abundantly that they soar more than a hundred feet into the air, rotting them so thoroughly at their base that a rare wind—or perhaps only a man leaning against them—will bring them crashing down.
And Guadalcanal stank. She was sour with the odor of her own decay, her breath so hot and humid, so sullen and so still, that all those Marines who came to her shores on the morning of August 7 cursed and swore to feel the vitality oozing from them in a steady stream of enervating sweat.
Vandegrift’s main body, some 10,000 men of the First and Fifth Marines, had hit Red Beach almost at the center of Guadalcanal’s northern coastline. The Fifth landed first, with two battalions abreast. Unopposed, they jabbed inland, then wheeled to their right, or west, to work along the shore toward Japanese installations near the Lunga River. A Japanese laboring force of about 1,700 men had fled when the first of the American shells and bombs crashed among them as they sat at breakfast. Marines bursting into their encampment found bowls of still-warm rice on tables. More important, the Japanese had abandoned an airfield nearly complete with hangars, blast pens and a dirt runway 3,600 feet long. This was named Henderson Field after Major Lofton Henderson, who gave his life crash-diving a Japanese warship at the Battle of Midway. There was not only Henderson Field but also a complex of wharves, bridges, ice plants, radio stations and power and oxygen plants which the Japanese had succeeded in throwing up since work began July 4. There were tons and tons of rice —wormy, despicable rice which the Marines spurned but fortunately did not destroy, for it would one day stand between them and starvation. These were not all discovered the first day, although the airfield was captured by the First Marines on August 7.
This regiment (Marine regiments are always called “Marines” in the way that Army regiments are known by their arm, as in “4th Cavalry” or “19th Infantry”) followed the Fifth ashore. One battalion turned right to overrun the undefended airfield. The other two plunged into the steaming morass beyond or south of it.
All day long the men of these battalions toiled up slime-slick hills and slipped and slid down the reverse slopes, with the machine-gunners breaking the rule of silence by yelps of pain whenever heavy tripods banged cruelly against their necks. They thrashed through fields of sharp-edged kunai grass as tall as a man, sometimes shooting at each other. They forded swift cold jungle streams, often stooping to slosh the blessed water against their faces, even lying full-length in the shallows to let it fall into open mouths—ignoring the officers crying, “Don’t drink! It may be poisoned!” Back came the unfailing reply: “Fer gawd’s sake, lootenant—even the Japs can’t poison a whole damn river!”
If there had been an organized enemy in the Guadalcanal jungle that day, there might have been an American catastrophe. For these Marines were far from professionals as they blundered onward toward their objective: a high clear height called Grassy Knoll, or Mount Austen, which commanded Henderson Field from the south.
But if the jungle dissolved Marine discipline, it did not dampen Marine humor. That night, after the men had dug foxholes in the dank earth, they began to ask each other what it was all about. What did General Vandegrift want with Grassy Knoll?
“Maybe,” said a private, “it’s because it’s the only place with a view.”
“Where else they gonna put the officers’ club?”
Then they fell silent, half of them to stand guard in that blind, black whispering jungle, the other half to attempt sleep beneath ponchos that failed to keep out the rain because of the big hole for the head, or behind little veils of mosquito netting that could not keep mosquitoes off because they were plastered to their faces.
They awoke in the morning—puff-eyed, bitten and soaked —and began sloshing south again.
At ten minutes of nine on the morning of August 8, the Australian Jack Read stood on a hill overlooking Buka Passage and counted 45 Japanese bombers flying overhead. They had come from Kavieng. Before the sound of their motors had faded behind him, Read was in his shack and at his radio.
“Forty-five bombers going southeast.”
A half-hour later Pearl Harbor again broadcast a warning to the Solomons fleet, and General Vandegrift decided that the noon arrival of the enemy bombers would be just the time to give his beach working parties a rest.
There were just a few hundred of these working-party men, and they were all headquarters troops and specialists. There were no stevedoring battalions to do the job, and Vandegrift dared not risk detaching any combat troops for it. Though the beach was a jumbled confusion of crates and boxes, though he had received the message “Unloading entirely out of hand,” though nervous cargo captains were badgering him for more men, Vandegrift would not weaken his line troops. So these makeshift stevedores worked on, sweat streaming from naked torsos, and at noon, with some of them already passed out from exhaustion, they took a break.
Just as half the Japanese bombing force came in low over Florida and went wolfing among the transports.
Then they came in a straight line, torpedo-laden Kates counting on surprise. But they were struck by a storm of sound and flame that obliterated 12 of them. Only one was successful, launching a torpedo which flashed into the hull of the destroyer Jarvis, sending her limping from the battle—to be sunk later by Japanese aircraft.
Next the dive-bombing Vals came plummeting down. They too counted on surprise, unaware that fighters from Wasp had taken high stations a half-hour before and were now riding them down, risking their own antiaircraft fire polka-dotting the skies with deadly black puffs; unaware, until .50-caliber bullets chopped off their tails, sheared off their wings, set gasoline tanks ablaze, and started them on the long straight fall to oblivion.
Far up north the coastwatcher Read crouched by his radio while an excited voice broadcast the results of his alert: “Boy, they’re shooting them down like flies… one… two… three… I can see eight of them in the water right now.”
But one of them fell in flames into an open hold of the transport George F. Elliott. The big ship was set hopelessly afire. She was scuttled at twilight, the first major American ship to rest beneath that body of water which would be known as Iron Bottom Bay for the scores of vessels which would join her on its floor. Fortunately, Elliott’s troops had gone ashore the preceding day—but she went down with a battalion’s supplies.
Night began to fall and General Vandegrift went aboard McCawley with a feeling of satisfaction. Though one transport was gone, though one destroyer was apparently only out of action, the Japanese had lost more than three-quarters of their planes, and they had not harmed those piles of precious supplies that were at last beginning to disappear inland. All of Vandegrift’s Marines were safely ashore, the airfield was his, the harbor islands were almost secured, and he could count on a few more days of unloading.
But he could not.
Admiral Turner was going to take the supply ships away in the morning.
The powerful Japanese surface force which he and Admiral Fletcher had feared was coming down The Slot.
The Slot was the sea corridor running 400 miles from Bougainville to Guadalcanal. It was a watery passage between the Solomon Islands, which faced each other in two near-orderly rows at near-regular intervals of from 50 to 60 miles. Japanese ships based at Rabaul had about 240 miles to go before they reached The Slot’s northwest terminus at Bougainville. They entered it at midday, planning to arrive off the southeast terminus at Guadalcanal under cover of darkness.
A task force of seven cruisers led by Rear Admiral Gunichi Mikawa entered The Slot at about midday on August 8. They came down it in column of battle: Mikawa’s flagship Chokai leading, followed by the heavy cruisers Aoba and Furutaka, next two more heavies, and then a pair of light cruisers. They were sighted almost immediately by an American search plane. But by half-past eleven on the night of August 8, the search plane’s warning had not been received by all of the ships patroling Savo Island.
With their picket destroyers, cruisers Chicago and Canberra guarded the south gate between Savo and Guadalcanal, while the north gate was held by Quincy, Vincennes and Astoria and their pickets. It was getting on to the midnight change of watches aboard these ships. Weary sailors tumbled out of their bunks, gulped hot coffee and groped their way on deck to relieve the eight-to-twelvers. The new watch could see faint flashes of lightning over the western horizon. A rain squall was making up off Savo. It would work for Admiral Mikawa.
His patrol planes had already been catapulted aloft, prepared to drop illuminating flares. His men were at their battle stations in gun turrets above decks, alongside torpedo tubes below—ready to strike the Allied warships before falling upon the thin-skinned transports at their leisure.
At about eleven o’clock some of the Allied warships began picking up unknown airplanes on their radar. Others actually heard them droning overhead. Some mistook them for friendly aircraft, for the Japanese pilots had boldly turned on running lights. In that confusion which often precedes disaster, the reports were either misdirected, misinterpreted or ignored.
A few minutes before one o’clock in the morning of August 9, Mikawa’s lookouts spotted the American destroyer Blue off to their right. Some 50 great guns swiveled around in the night and trained upon the little ship. Luckily for Blue, unhappily for her sister ships off Savo, neither her lookouts nor her radar had spotted the Japanese.
On went Mikawa’s cruisers, hitting 24 knots… 26…
At half-past one, Mikawa’s lookouts sighted Savo. Three minutes more and Mikawa passed the battle order:
“All ships attack!”
In five minutes, they had gotten the range, had loaded the torpedo tubes. In one more, hissing fish were leaping from the sides of the Japanese cruisers, were cleaving the dark water toward those unsuspecting sentinel ships. Two more minutes, and Chokai had closed to within two miles of them, still undetected…
Now the warning came. Destroyer Patterson had sighted a big ship. The radio alarm was braying:
“Warning! Warning! Strange ships entering harbor!”
It was forty-three minutes past one in the morning of August 9, and it was already too late.
Eerie greenish flares swayed down from the Japanese patrol planes and the harbor rocked to the roaring of the main batteries on Chokai, Aoba and Furutaka. Marines ashore looked fearfully at one another in baleful light filtering down from the blackness above. A dread silence interrupted the Tulagi conference of Vandegrift and Brigadier General William Rupertus. And then two of the Japanese steel fish finished their run by thrusting with cyclonic force into the side of Canberra, almost at the same moment that a shower of Japanese shells fell on her decks with merciless precision—and the Battle of Savo Island had begun.
The Japanese torpedoes had already given Canberra her mortal wounds, and though she fought back with two fish of her own and a few rounds from her four-inchers, she was done.
Chicago’s bow was blown off. She was out of the fight, unable to hinder the enemy cruisers swinging left and making for the northern force, running up on Quincy, Vincennes and Astoria, switching on their powerful searchlights, taking the stunned Americans under point-blank range and sending them to the bottom. Not all of them sank immediately, but they had taken their death blows.
The Battle of Savo Island, which sailors and Marines more accurately called the Battle of the Five Sitting Ducks, wore on until dawn—when Mikawa took his cruisers out of Iron Bottom Bay and streaked for home. He left the American transports unmolested, but he had sunk four cruisers, damaged a fifth and also damaged a destroyer. His only losses were a direct hit on Chokai’s chartroom, plus some slight damage to Aoba.
After Mikawa left, Admiral Turner also departed with the transports and their escorts.
In the sundown of August 9, men of the First Marines returning to the beaches from their toilsome, useless march inland, saw no ships in Iron Bottom Bay. Only a few blackened, smoking hulls were visible to their left, toward Savo as they faced the water. Otherwise there was nothing.
The Marines were all alone.
The fact of complete isolation had been accepted by Major General Vandegrift as early as the dawn of August 9. In that misty light, in a driving rain, he had assembled his staff officers, his regimental and battalion commanders.
The booming of the big guns could still be heard to the west of the Division Command Post near Alligator Creek. Concussions shook the palm fronds, showering those officers who stood beneath them to avoid the rain. Someone had made coffee over a smoking, sputtering fire. The hot black liquid was passed around in empty C-ration cans.
Offshore, lifting mists revealed the gray truncated shape of a prowless cruiser making slowly eastward between a pair of shepherding destroyers.
“Chicago,” someone said in awe.
There was a shocked silence, and then Colonel Gerald Thomas, the Division’s operations officer, broke the bad news swiftly.
The Navy was going, and no one could say when or if it would return. The Marines could presume loss of the air as well as the sea. They were not only isolated but separated, with nearly half of the combat battalions over on the harbor islands. That very loss of air and sea suggested that there would be no hope of getting these troops over to Guadalcanal. Tulagi had eight days’ supplies and Guadalcanal a few days more than that. Reinforcements, resupply, were only a hope. What were they going to do?
They were going to finish the airfield, get the supplies off the beach and dig in. They were going to hold a beachhead, which, when marked off on a map, made an oval shape extending about 3,500 yards inland at its deepest and 7,500 yards from west to east at its widest. Most of the small towns of America are bigger than this beachhead was. But it was all the Marines needed, for it contained the southwest-northern slant of Henderson Field at a point about 2,000 yards inland and equidistant from the eastern and western flanks. These flanks were represented by the Tenaru River on the east or right flank as the Marines faced the sea, and by the Kukum hills on the west or left flank. To the south, behind the airfield, the line was almost made of paper. Here was a series of local outposts, at their strongest as they drew curving back from the Tenaru and ran fairly straight west for about 3,000 yards to the Lunga River. Here, they curved again, following the crooked river line northwest or seaward for 2,500 yards until they ended at the artillery command post and Vandegrift’s new headquarters. The gaps to the rear of the airfield were numerous, but between the Lunga and the western hills there was one big gap about 2,000 yards wide. This was to be guarded by constant daily patrols, and to be very loosely “filled” at night by small outposts. The strongest point was the northern or seaward front, where the Marines dug in along the beach to defend against counterlanding.
This was the “perimeter” which was to be held by 10,000 foot soldiers with hand guns, mortars, some tanks and three battalions of light artillery against an enemy who possessed interior lines from Rabaul 640 miles north, as well as all the men, guns, ships and airplanes he needed to press the initiative which was now his. That was the situation which Colonel Thomas outlined to those commanders who stood grim-faced in the rain. And when he stopped speaking and the conference ended, the Battle for Guadalcanal passed from an offensive into a defensive operation.
United States Marines, trained to hit, were now being forced to hold.
Though Vandegrift’s commanders tried to keep the bad news to themselves, it was inevitable that the men would soon learn of their perilous isolation. But they only grasped its import gradually. That aching, empty, yearning sense of loneliness that characterized the stand on Guadalcanal would not seize them fully for yet another week. In the meantime, they frolicked.
They found and plundered a warehouse full of delicious Japanese beer and saki, a yellowish Japanese rice wine. The day of that discovery Guadalcanal’s single coastal road was thronged with dusty, grinning Marines trudging along with cases of beer on their shoulders or pulling captured Jap rickshas piled high with balloon-like half-gallon bottles of saki. They buried the loot, out of sight of prying officers, drinking it secretly and sometimes getting in a tipsy state that would account for more than one outburst of “trigger-happy” firing on the lines.
In the morning, the trigger-happy might find that the “enemy” against whom they had battled so valiantly in the dark was one of those blundering mammoth land crabs in which Guadalcanal abounded or perhaps some scarecrow of a plantation cow.
There was also, in this gay interlude between the real thing of the landing and the impending real thing of the Japanese counterattack, the nightly comedy provided by men who had difficulty pronouncing the passwords.
All of the passwords—“Lallapaloozer,” “Lollipop,” “Lallygag” —were loaded with L’s because the Japanese normally cannot make that sound, turning it into a liquid R instead. But polysyllabic passwords could also tie the tongues of Marines such as the one who had arisen in the night to relieve himself and was having trouble with “Lilliputian.”
“Halt!” came the sentry’s cry.
“Fer Gawd’s sake, don’t shoot. It’s me, Briggs.”
“Gimme the password.”
“C’mon, c’mon! The password, or I’ll let yuh have it.”
“Luly-pah… lily-poosh…” Silence, and then, in outrage: “Aw, shit—shoot!”
Of course the sadistic sentry did not shoot, for he and all the men around him were already collapsed with laughter, a bawdy mirth that continued throughout that naive week until Lieutenant Colonel Goettge led out a patrol to accept a Japanese surrender and was ambushed and massacred.
It was Goettge who had organized the helter-skelter gathering of information prior to the landings. He was a man of great vigor and daring. He was also a man of compassion, and this, when offered to an enemy as compassionate as a crocodile, was a fatal virtue.
On August 12, a Japanese naval rating had been captured behind the western lines. He was questioned. He was a sour little crab-apple of a man, making his answers sullenly and with great reluctance. But he admitted that many of his fellows west of the Matanikau River—a stream lying a few miles to the west of the Kukum Hills line—were sick and starving, and that they might be persuaded to surrender. To this was added a patrol report of a “white flag” flying at a Japanese encampment west of the Matanikau.
Hearing this, Goettge was moved. He took personal charge of a patrol that was to have scouted the Matanikau that day. He included in this patrol the Fifth Marines’ surgeon, Lieutenant Commander Malcolm L. Pratt, and Lieutenant Ralph Cory, an interpreter. Goettge cleaned out the Division Intelligence Section and borrowed veteran NCO’s from its regimental counterpart in the Fifth. After dark, under a moonless, starless night, leading the ill-natured Japanese by a rope, Goettge and 25 men left by Higgins boat for the “surrender area.”
They landed opposite Matanikau Village. They moved quickly inland about 20 yards, halting before a cluster of grass huts set in a fringing wood. They built up a perimeter. Goettge and a few men went forward to reconnoiter and were struck to the ground by converging streams of rifle and machine-gun fire. Goettge was killed instantly, shot in the head. The Japanese fire rose in fury. Commander Pratt was mortally wounded. A sergeant with the prophetic name of Custer was shot in the arm, then killed.
The Marines were pinned down, unable to move, firing back blindly while the enemy fire raked them mercilessly. The Japanese were so close that the Marines could feel the hot air of their muzzle blasts. But the enemy did not approach. He was content to toy with this rainbarrel full of fish.
At one in the morning Sergeant Monk Arndt was ordered to swim back for reinforcements. He stripped. He crawled back to the water, naked but for shoes and helmet, under which he had tucked his pistol, hooking its butt on the chin strap. He swam breaststroke along the beach. The Japanese fired, raising little spurts of water all around him. Arndt felt foolishly exposed, as though his nakedness had left him without armor. He swam out to sea, crawling over the cruel subsurface coral that tore and tattered his flesh like pinking shears. He turned shoreward again. He found a beached native boat. One end was riddled with bullet holes. He pushed the boat out and got in the other end, paddling with a plank lying on its bottom. He paddled past the Marine lines, shouting “Million! Million!” for though he had forgotten the password, he knew that million had a million L’s. As dawn came and the mists swam up from the sea, Arndt had reached the Marine boat base. He waded ashore, the red of his blood streaming from multiple slashes below the hips, the knucklebones of his fingers laid bare.
But Arndt had arrived too late. It was already all over for the patrol to the west. Two other Marines escaped, swimming east to safety. One of them who left just before daybreak turned for a parting look as the sun came up. He saw sabers flashing in the sun.
Sabers flashing in the sun.
It ran like a rallying cry all along the Kukum ridges, sweeping east through the coastal gunpits and foxholes, turning right to race up the barbed-wire line of the Tenaru, bursting in the ears of the airfield outposts, among the artillerymen, the amtrack drivers, the tankers, and the engineers grimly bulldozing the airstrip which only the day before had received its first American plane. It had the power to chill hearts, but on Guadalcanal those hearts were swelling with rage. The Marines could not have known that the “surrender flag” was actually a Japanese battle flag accidentally hanging limp and thus obscuring its red center, or that the Goettge mission was conceived in an error compounded by compassion. They only knew that Marines had risked their flesh to help the enemy and had been slaughtered in reward.
All light bantering ceased. Timid patrols turned aggressive and savage. Marines hoped openly for battle, and because they had also not yet known it, talked loudly of wanting the enemy to come because they wanted to kill him and chop him up with his own sabers. There would also come a time when these same men would dread recurrent battle, but now, after the Goettge patrol, they wanted it.
They would get it. It came, at first, down The Slot. Destroyers, sometimes cruisers, sneaked into the bay during darkness to pound the airfield or the men crouching in pits, turning at dawn to streak back to Rabaul. Submarines surfaced between Guadalcanal and Tulagi, firing deck guns to sink every small American ship in sight, chasing Higgins boats back to the anchorage. Sometimes the Marines dueled the enemy warships with their puny 75-millimeter pack howitzers or with the .75 rifles mounted on half-tracks run down to the water. Once the celebrated Gunnery Sergeant Lew Diamond offered to take an 81-millimeter mortar aboard a Higgins boat and go after a submarine which was shelling Guadalcanal with five-inch guns. The offer was declined. But Gunny Lew’s proposal was reflective of the new aggressive spirit which had seized Vandegrift’s Marines after the Goettge patrol, and which kept them on their guns even as the bombs came wailing and crashing down on Henderson Field during increasing aerial bombardment of Guadalcanal.
Lieutenant General Haruyoshi Hyakutate, then assembling his 17th Army at his headquarters in Rabaul, was of one mind with Imperial Headquarters in its conviction that the Americans would tire quickly of war. To this end Admiral Nagumo had sailed to Pearl Harbor. Strike the Americans hard, set them back so far that by the time they had changed from the manufacture of playthings to the making of munitions the resource-rich booty of the Southwest Pacific and Southeast Asia would have been consolidated under the Reign of Radiant Peace. Then, when the Americans attempted to come back, Japan would make it so costly that they would quit the war in a negotiated peace.
Until recently, General Hyakutate’s mission in the over-all scheme of conquest laid down by the militant Premier Hideki Tojo had been to capture Port Moresby in New Guinea, which was just to the north of Australia. But then Port Moresby was given to the 18th Army while Hyakutate’s 17th was told to recapture Guadalcanal. The change annoyed General Hyakutate. Port Moresby seemed by far the more important operation. Nor was the general—a small, thin, testy man—pleased with the army which Imperial Headquarters had given him to do the job at Guadalcanal. As so often happened with the Japanese military, the 17th Army’s 50,000 men had been given to Hyakutate unassembled. The famous 2nd Division——called the Sendai after the city near Tokyo from which most of its men were recruited—was in Java and the Philippines; the 38th Division was in China, along with 17th Army antitank units as far away as Manchuria; the Kawaguchi Brigade, actually close to a division, was in the Palaus; and the Ichiki Detachment was on Guam.
The Ichiki Detachment, which, in the Japanese manner, took the name of its commander, Colonel Kiyono Ichiki, was a reinforced battalion with a strength of about 2,000 men. General Hyakutate decided to use this unit to deal with the annoyance —for such he still regarded it—at Guadalcanal. Though there were but 2,000 Ichikis to hurl against an enemy force his intelligence had estimated at 10,000 men, were these enemy troops not, after all, Americans?
General Hyakutate lost some of his irritation in contemplating a bold stroke that would at once regain Guadalcanal and its vital airfield, would gratify Imperial Headquarters and would also respectfully suggest a measure of his contempt for the new assignment.
Hyakutate ordered Colonel Kiyono Ichiki to move. The Ichikis sailed from Guam to the great naval base at Truk. On August 16, Colonel Ichiki led some 900 storm troops aboard six fast destroyers and shoved off. Behind them came a cruiser and a destroyer escorting two transports carrying the remainder of Ichiki’s troops and his supporting arms.
Ichiki’s destroyers sped swiftly down The Slot, rapidly leaving the slower transports behind. The colonel was in a hurry, for one of the Army’s battle reports on American capabilities said: “It can be seen that when they are pressed for time, the American dispositions and especially their organization of fire are not coordinated. Therefore we must not fail to move fast and attack quickly, giving them no time in which to prepare their positions.”
But the Marines were already prepared and there was aerial reinforcement on its way.
She had been the merchant ship Macmormail, but now she was the Long Island. With her flight deck topside and a few guns she had been turned into a makeshift aircraft carrier, dignified in that status with the name of an American battle, and sent into the Pacific.
On August 20 she reached the southern Solomons and flew off 19 Wildcat fighters and 12 Dauntless dive-bombers to the embattled Marines on Guadalcanal.
The planes came skimming over the coconuts, and the men below glanced up nervously to hear the hum of motors. But then they saw the Yankee star on the wings and they shouted in jubilation. Two of the planes deliberately circled Henderson Field for all to see, and the men ran along the ridgesides and riverbanks and beaches, throwing helmets in the air, punching each other gleefully, cheering and crying for joy.
The first relief had come.
Colonel Kiyono Ichiki was a military man. His carriage was stiff, his jaw square, and his glance struck straight from narrowed eyes. His habit of courage was matched by a habit of thought as clipped and uniform as his military mustache.
He had landed his 900 men on August 18 at Taivu 20 miles to the east of the Tenaru River and he had decided not to wait for the following troops. Nine hundred men such as his—big, strong fellows among the very best troops in the Empire—were surely sufficient to overrun the American defenses and seize the airfield.
Next day, Colonel Ichiki wrote in his diary: “18 Aug. The landing. 20 Aug. The March by night and the battle. 21 Aug. Enjoyment of the fruits of victory.”
True, it was only 19 Aug.—but Colonel Ichiki foresaw the chance that he might die before he could make this entry. So he inscribed the inevitable, postdated it for posterity, and then he sent out a large party to lay communications wire.
Captain Charles Brush was not a military man. His shoulders slumped, his gait was shambling and his sideways glance was of an accusing character calculated to cause respect among the troops, but which actually only confirmed their suspicion that the skipper had quit teaching high school to take a small revenge on the schoolboys who would follow him into service.
On the morning of August 19, leading a patrol of roughly 80 men, Captain Brush shuffled eastward from the Tenaru. Some time after noon, his advance scouts caught sight of the Ichiki wiremen moving slowly westward. Brush attacked.
Part of his patrol drove straight ahead while a platoon swung to the right to get behind the Japanese. In a fight lasting nearly an hour, 31 of the Japanese were killed and three others escaped into the jungle. Three Marines were killed and three wounded.
It might have been put down as another jungle skirmish, except that the patrol was unusally large for the supposed remnant of laborers left on the island. Moreover it had been led by four officers of surprisingly high rank, the uniforms of the dead soldiers were new—and they had been laying communications wire when attacked.
Brush quickly stripped the dead of maps and documents and sent these back to the perimeter.
Marine intelligence officers were disturbed by the maps. They were accurate, with all of the weak points along the Tenaru carefully marked.
Lieutenant Colonel Al Pollock pulled some of the machine-gunners of his Second Battalion, First, off the beach line and sent them south along the Tenaru to extend his right flank. On the left where a sandspit kept the green sluggish Tenaru from reaching the sea, Pollock had placed his heaviest concentration—machine guns, riflemen and a 37-millimeter antitank gun, all dug in behind a single strand of barbed wire running across the sandbar.
The sandpit was as good as a bridge across the river. Pollock placed outposts beyond it, west of it, in the coconut grove across the river.
Night fell swiftly, as it does in the jungle. A few stray shafts of light seemed to linger, as though trapped between jungle floor and jungle roof, and then it was black and silent except for the stirring of those creeping, crawling things that move by night. Men crouched along the Tenaru peered at the narrow dark river gleaming wickedly in the faint starlight and felt all those atavistic fears flowing formlessly around their hearts. The crocodiles were out, their noiseless downstream swimming marked by the gradually widening V of their wakes.
Down at the sandbar there was movement opposite the outposts. A marine fired at the sound.
“No, no! Me Vouza. Me Sergeant-Major Vouza.”
A short powerful figure stagged out of the darkness. Blood streamed from his naked chest, from his throat. He was a fuzzy-haired Melanesian, he was Sergeant-Major Vouza of the Solomons Island Police and the Japanese had caught and tortured him. He was taken to Pollock’s command post, and there, with blood still dripping from his wounds, he began to speak.
“I was caughted by the Japs and one of the Jap naval officer questioned me but I was refuse to answer. And I was bayoneted by a long sword twice on my chest, through my throat, and cutted by side of my tongue. And I was got up from the enemies and walked through the American front line.”
“How many Japs?” Pollock asked sharply.
“Maybe 250, maybe 500.”
Pollock had heard enough. He called Division to come for Vouza. He glanced at his watch to mark the time at eighteen minutes past one in the morning, and at that moment a green flare rose from the coconut grove, a Marine sentry fired a shot —and the charge of the Ichikis began.
They came flowing across the sandspit, sprinting, hurling grenades, howling. They came blundering into that single strand of barbed wire, and there they milled about in a jabbering frenzy. They hacked wildly at the wire with bayonets, they tried to hurdle it, and they slung long thin lengths of explosive-packed pipe under it in hopes of blowing gaps in it.
Then the Marines opened fire, the flare-light faded and the re-enveloping night seemed to reel with a thousand scarlet flashes. Machine guns chattered and shook. Rifles cracked. Grenades whizzed and boomed. Fat red tracers sped out in curving arcs and vanished. Orange puffs spat from the mouth of the antitank gun. Howitzers bayed in the rear distance and their whistling shells crashed and flashed among the coconuts where mortar missiles had already described their humming loops and were falling with that dull crrrunch that tears and kills.
Private Johnny Rivers unclamped his heavy machine gun to spray a hosing fire. Across the river a Japanese machine-gun section jumped into an abandoned amtrack to set up a crossfire on Rivers’ pit. Their bullets crept up the riverbank, ate their way down the water-jacket of Rivers’ gun and found his heart. Rivers froze on the trigger. Dead, he fired 200 more rounds. Private Al Schmidt jumped on the gun, fed it another belt, resumed the fire. A grenade sailed into the pit. It exploded. It knocked out the gun. It blinded Al Schmidt. He lay in the darkness while the battle swirled around him.
Downstream the barrel of the antitank gun glowed red in the dark. It was firing point-blank at the charging foe, spewing a hail of cannister shot that sometimes struck them down in squad groups. Another grenade somersaulted through the night. It fell hissing into the antitank dugout and filled it with roaring light and death. Riflemen jumped into the dugout and the 37 glowed red again.
The Ichiki charge rose in fury. Squad after squad, platoon after platoon, burst from the covering darkness of the coconut grove to dash against the line. They broke it. They came in on holes and gunpits, running low with bayoneted rifles outthrust for the kill. At a gap in the leftward wire, three Japanese rushed for big Corporal Dean Wilson in his foxhole.
Wilson swung his BAR toward them. It jammed. The Japanese rushed onward, screaming “Marine you die!” One of them drove downward for the thrust. Wilson seized his machete and slashed. The man sank to the ground, his entrails slipping through his clutching fingers. The others slowed. Wilson leaped from his hole and attacked, hacking them to death with his thick-bladed knife.
There was a Japanese inside Corporal Johnny Shea’s hole. His bayonet was into Shea’s leg, out again, in again—out and slashing upward. Shea kicked with his right foot, slamming the Japanese against the foxhole side while he yanked desperately at the bolt of his jammed tommy gun. The bolt snicked free and Shea shot his assailant to death.
There were hurrying squat shapes swarming around the foxhole where Lieutenant McLanahan lay with wounds in both arms, in his legs, in his buttocks—loading rifles and clearing the jammed weapons of those men who could still fire.
There were tall shapes mingling with the short ones, figures that closed, merged, became as one grotesquely whirling hybrid of struggling limbs, for now the battle had become that rarity of modern war, the close-in fight of clubbed rifles and thrusting blades, of fists and knees and gouging thumbs. Now there were more tall shapes than short ones, for Pollock had thrown in a reserve platoon, and the guttural cries of “Banzai!” were growing fainter beneath the wild keening of the battle, the crackling of rifles, the hammering of machine guns, the gargling of the automatics, and the jumping wham of the 37.
The Ichikis were stumbling now over heaps of slain comrades strewn along the sandbar. They were themselves slumping into loose ungainly death, for the Marine fire had been multiplied from upriver where the guns had been swung seaward and trained on the sandspit. The last of the Ichikis were trapped. Marine mortars had drawn a curtain of fire behind them. Bullets ahead, shell-bursts behind—forward or backward was to die.
Some chose the river, where American bullets still sought and found them and where crocodiles found them in the morning. Some chose to run the gantlet of guns along the shore, peeling off to their right at the barbed wire, dashing through the surf only to be dropped where the incoming tide would roll their bodies and cover them with sand. Others chose the sea. They plunged into the water. They tried to swim back to the east, but it was now dawn and their bobbing heads were visible targets for those Marine riflemen who had left their pits and had thrown themselves flat to fire from the prone position.
“Line ‘em up and squeeze ‘em off!” roared Pollock, striding among his men. “Line ‘em up and squeeze ‘em off!”
The remainder of Colonel Ichiki’s elite was being wiped out within the coconuts.
“Cease fire!” came the order, up and down the line. “Hold your fire, First Battalion coming through!”
Over the river, green-clad men were flitting through the coconuts. The First Battalion, First, had crossed the Tenaru upriver and had fanned out into a flanking skirmish line. Now they were working seaward.
Downstream, Marine tanks rolled slowly over the sandspit. They reached the coconut grove and turned right.
By nightfall more than 700 Japanese bodies had been counted. There were 34 dead Marines and 75 wounded. The surviving Japanese had sought the treacherous sanctuary of the jungle, there to endure hunger, black nights and the slow dissolution of the rain forest. They wandered leaderless, for Colonel Kiyono Ichiki had already tasted “the fruits of victory.”
He burned his colors and shot himself through the head.
In all the Imperial Army there was no commander who could surpass Lieutenant General Haruyoshi Hyakutate in the peculiar Japanese custom of celebrating defeat with a loud cry of victory. General Hyakutate knew all those euphemisms whereby a setback became “a valiant advance” or the report of a rout reached the ears of the Emperor as “a glorious withdrawal of unshaken discipline.”
But the affair of the Ichikis was unique. There was no euphemism at hand to describe annihilation. Undaunted, General Hyakutate sent Tokyo this message: “The attack of the Ichiki Detachment was not entirely successful.” Then he drew up a plan for another attempt at recapturing Guadalcanal.
This time he would use the surviving rear-echelons of the Ichiki Battalion—around 1,100 men—together with the 6,000-man brigade commanded by Major General Kiyotake Kawaguchi (the Japanese have no rank of brigadier general). This force would land on Guadalcanal supported by planes and ships of the Combined Fleet. The fact that it was still outnumbered by the 10,000 enemy troops to the south did not deter Hyakutate. He still refused to accept the Americans as worthy foemen. He believed the battle report that stated: “The American soldiers are extremely weak when they lack support of fire power. They easily raise their hands during battle and when wounded they give cries of pain.” So General Hyakutate ordered 5,000 Kawaguchis to join the remaining Ichikis on one of those nightly runs down The Slot which the Marines were already calling the Tokyo Express. He sent them south with the battle cry:
“Remember the Ichiki suicide!”
And they had to turn back.
On August 25, the day after the Japanese Combined Fleet met Admiral Fletcher’s carriers in the Battle of the Eastern Solomons, the Japanese convoy was sighted north of Guadalcanal by bombers from Henderson Field. A Dauntless piloted by Lieutenant Larry Baldinus dove down to plant an egg forward on the big escort cruiser, Jintsu. She went staggering home, asmoke and afire, while a Navy dive-bomber and other Marines fell on the transport Kinryu Maru. They stopped her dead in the water, and when destroyer Mutsuki went to help her, they stopped Mutsuki to—leaving both ships to await the obliterating bombs of a flight of Flying Fortresses which followed up their attack. The remaining Japanese ships turned north and sailed to the Shortland Islands, where the soldiers debarked to board barges for a less ostentatious trip south.
Henderson Field, meanwhile, had withstood the aerial assaults which had been planned to make way for these troops. On August 24, the Marine fighter pilots shot down 11 Zero fighters and 10 bombers at a loss of three of their own planes. That date marked the beginning of the long epic defense of Guadalcanal’s skies, which was to match the stand being made on the ground. From August 24 onward, Marine fliers began shooting down Zeros and twin-engined Betty bombers at a rate of from six to eight kills for every one of their own men lost. They fought, of course, with the almost invariable assistance of Navy and Army airmen—but the Guadalcanal aerial war was in the main a Marine affair, fought by the self-styled Nameless Wonders of the Bastard Air Force. These men were galled almost nightly to hear the San Francisco radio speak of “Navy fighters” or “Army bombers” while only the enemy might know who rode the cockpits of “American aircraft” or “Allied planes.” And it was a Bastard Air Force, for if aerial combat is a gentleman’s war, if it is clean, quick and sporting to fight in the clouds with hot meals and soothing drinks and laundered bedsheets awaiting the survivors, this was not so on Guadalcanal. Here the fly-boys were like the foot-sloggers.
They lived next to Henderson Field, in the very center of the Japanese bull’s-eye. They rose an hour before dawn. If they cared to eat that common gruel of wormy rice and canned spam that passed for meals on Guadalcanal, they ate it standing up, spooning the detestable slop out of borrowed mess gear. They gulped hot black coffee from canteen cups while bumping jeeps drove them through the darkness to the airstrip, where they warmed up planes that had to be towed from revetments by tractor. Then it was dawn and they were roaring aloft, climbing high, high in the skies, sucking on oxygen. They went to battle in a sort of floating world where the only sounds were the roaring of their own motors and the hammering of their guns; where all the sights were the blind white mists of engulfing clouds, the sudden pain of reappearing sunlight bursting in the eyeballs, the swift dread glimpse of the red balls streaking by.
If the Japanese patrol planes which came over at night and were called Washing-Machine Charley for the uneven beat of their motors failed to kill many of these pilots, they succeeded in keeping them awake. They circled the night sky for hours. When their gas was low and the patience of their victims nearly exhausted, they dropped their eggs and sauntered home.
To be replaced by another Charley, or far, far worse, to be supplanted by Louie the Louse. This was the name for all those scouting aircraft whose swaying flares heralded the arrival of the Tokyo Express off Guadalcanal. Louie’s droning motors and his flares were all the warning given. Then the sea-lying darkness flashed and the great naval shells wailed overhead and these pilots who were the very targets of the Japanese ships were flung gasping out of their cots while the roaring air squeezed their bodies like rubber dolls in the hand of a giant.
Only after the warships were gone, could the fliers of the Bastard Air Force sleep.
But they would rise again at dawn, greet the first light with scalding hot coffee to dissolve the rice lying in the belly like stones—greet it with the barely comprehended news of more men killed, more men wounded, and the wreckage of their tiny air force strewn up and down their mangled airstrip.
Still they flew on, taking to the skies in patched-up aircraft, flying wing-to-wing in that technique of fighting by pairs which they would bring to perfection. Within a week of their arrival, some of them were aces. By August 30, Major John Smith had five little red balls painted on his Wildcat fighter. By nightfall, there were four more.
August 30 was one of those rare days when only the Zeros came down to strike at Henderson Field. Major Smith shot one of them to earth quickly, coming in on the enemy pilot’s rear and killing him in his cockpit before he knew he was under attack. Then Smith banked toward a Zero attacking his wingman. The red ball flashed full in Smith’s sights. He pressed the button. The Zero flamed and crashed. Now a third Japanese fighter was coming up under Smith. His bullets were sewing stitches up and down his fuselage. Smith nosed over. He came at the Japanese head-on. A bullet struck Smith’s windshield and whined past his ear. He kept his thumb on the button. The Zero was coming apart in chunks. The two planes roared toward collision. They tore past each other not 15 feet apart.
Over his shoulder Smith could see the Zero spinning down, and its pilot bailing out. Then there was no time to watch for the flowering of the parachute, for Smith, running low on gas, had only a few rounds of bullets left for those six wing guns and here he was coming down on top of a fourth Zero hedge-hopping along the shore.
Smith skimmed over the coconuts with all guns blazing and the Zero fell into the sea in flames.
So it went into September, while the Bastard Air Force’s collective total climbed toward 100, while its fighters also flew the cover under which Major General Vandegrift withdrew the Raiders and other troops from Tulagi to meet a fresh emergency.
The Kawaguchis had slipped into eastern Guadalcanal by night barge and were marching through the jungle toward the gaps behind Henderson Field.
Major General Kiyotake Kawaguchi had brought his dress whites to Guadalcanal with him. He had them in a trunk when his brigade landed at the village of Tasimboko, a mile or so west of the same Taivu area where Colonel Ichiki had landed. Kawaguchi had stowed the whites among his brigade’s supplies at Tasimboko against that day when, with the Rising Sun again waving above the island airfield, with his silk uniform facings gleaming in the sun, his braided cap clapped over his balding head, his handlebar mustache ends twisted briskly to attention, he would turn his face toward the Emperor and the photographers.
That had been September 6. Next day, after posting a rear guard of about company strength in Tasimboko, General Kawaguchi strode off into the jungle in khakis, confident that his men had landed undetected, assured that Japanese air and sea power would keep the Americans engaged until he had slipped into position to spring his surprise attack the night of September 12. By that time, too, his rear-guard would have joined him with his supplies, his remaining guns, and, of course, the whites.
Red Mike Edson and about 850 Raiders came ashore near Tasimboko at dawn of September 8. They landed a mile west of the village supported by the shelling of destroyer-transports and the strafing of Army P-400’s. They turned right to the village, dueled briefly with gunners of Kawaguchi’s rear-guard —and then swept through Tasimboko on the heels of an enemy broken on the anvil of encirclement. They killed 27 Japanese at a loss of two of their own killed, six wounded—and now they had the village.
They broke into a beer warehouse only to find that the last bottle had been issued the day before. Whereupon they burned the warehouse down and the village with it. They towed a battery of Kawaguchi’s guns into the sea, hurling the breech blocks into the water. They blew up supplies. They committed those unspeakable movements of spoliation upon the food which caused one Japanese diarist to write: “It is maddening to be the recipient of these insulting attacks by American forces.” And then Red Mike Edson’s Raiders found the fancy pants of Kiyotake Kawaguchi and carried them back to the airfield in triumph. Two days later they were climbing a ridge to plug one of the gaps behind Henderson Field.
That was where they were on the night of September 12 when Kiyotake Kawaguchi came furiously against Henderson Field, doubly determined to save his face, now that he had lost his pants.
Bald but for its kunai grass, nameless and bumpy, the ridge rose like a long thin island from the dark green sea of the jungle. It lay a short mile south of Henderson Field. It stretched perhaps a thousand yards on a northwest-southeast slant. It could be bombed and shelled, it could be easily approached, it could be turned, be overrun, cut off—but whoever held the ridge commanded Henderson Field, and whoever held the airfield held Guadalcanal.
It was here that Red Mike Edson brought his Marines on September 10, after General Vandegrift received reports which told him that the payoff battle was impending.
To the east of the Tenaru, patrols had found emplacements of Japanese mountain guns. They were carefully sighted in on the Marines’ defenses and thoughtfully smeared with grease against the corrosion of the jungle. They were left unguarded or only protected by a single soldier. But Vandegrift had learned not to be baffled by the enemy’s ways. He could judge now between what mattered and what seemed to matter. It mattered that these guns were new, not that they were undefended; that their sentries were well fed and well equipped, not that they were solitary. It mattered that the dump which Edson had destroyed at Tasimboko had been large, not that it was lightly guarded. It mattered that the Melanesian natives now swarming to the sanctuary of his perimeter were terribly frightened, not that their estimates of Japanese numbers were as usual unreliable; that they babbled of gun-point forced labor on a “tunnel” southwest through the jungle, not that they had actually seen or had not seen the torture and murder of missionary priests and nuns.
Vandegrift could now judge with certainty that the enemy had returned to Guadalcanal in force, that he was heavily armed, that he had lost his supplies and must therefore attack quickly, that he had disappeared to the southwest and was probably looking for a route to the airfield through one of the gaps behind it. That was why, on the tenth, Vandegrift sent Edson up to that ridge to plug the biggest gap. Also on the tenth, Vandegrift took the mounting fury of Japanese aerial bombardment to be one of the surest signs of approaching battle. But then, having judged the situation, he could not act.
He could not maneuver, for he had only a single battalion in reserve. He could not reinforce Edson or plug other gaps, for his specialists, truck drivers, pioneers and amtrack men had already been formed into rifle battalions and sent to hold isolated strong points. Nor dared he strengthen the ridge by weakening other points already spread disastrously thin and held by troops already melting away with malaria.
Next day, the eleventh, there was help. Twenty-four Navy fighters flew into Henderson Field, and rarely before had sailors been so warmly welcomed by Marines. There had been 46 Japanese bombers and fighters over the airfield that day and the Marines were down to 11 planes.
On the eleventh, Major General Kawaguchi decided that the guns lost at Tasimboko meant that he would cancel a thrust at the Tenaru scheduled to coincide with his surprise attack. Otherwise, he would go ahead and surprise the Americans whom his scouts had sighted on the ridge.
On the eleventh, the Marines on the ridge had their first mail call in two months. Major Kenneth Bailey, hardly recovered from his Tulagi wound, had gone over the hill from the hospital in New Caledonia and brought the outfit’s mail with him. There were bundles of letters, hometown newspapers, food packages from home. The men grinned happily. At last they were getting a rest. They could read letters, munch pogey-bait, loaf, or perhaps stroll up to the ridge crest to enjoy the spectacle of fierce dogfights growling over the airfield. They scattered when the Zeros sighted them and came snarling down with bullets digging up dirt, their empty cartridges tinkling to earth in a chilling fugue.
Also on the eleventh, Colonel Red Mike Edson scouted the jungle to his front and became alarmed at signs of an enemy build-up. On the twelfth he was among his men, softly urging them forward on the ridge, ordering them to stow their mail, dig in, string barbed wire, for this was it as it had never been before.
Red Mike could guess that his men were bitter. They had fought at Tulagi, patroled Savo, fought at Tasimboko. They had gambled against the law of averages, the only law that bound them, and had survived that awful lottery. Now, seeking the respite in which they might forget the mounting odds, they were being asked to toss their numbers in again. Their numbers. Not those of the other outfits below them, fresh outfits, fat outfits, outfits that had yet to risk the odds—but the Raiders again, the Paramarines again. They cursed Red Mike for a “glory hound.” They muttered that he hung around Division to hunt up new assignments for the outfit, more medals for himself. But they dug.
Soon only a singularly stupid man wasted his breath cursing the brass. He saved it for the moment he had struck his pick mattock on the ridge shale and the frail tool snapped in his hands, or when the barbed wire tore his flesh and left it festering and unbandaged, for no adhesive tape would stick to bodies slippery with sweat.
They fortified the southern nose of the ridge where it sank into the jungle between steep wooded ravines falling away to right and left. In the right ravine a company was strung out a half-mile west to the Lunga River. On the left another line stretched east a similar distance and ended with an exposed flank in the jungle. The men in the ravines cut fields of fire, strung single strands of wire from tree to tree. On the ridge, artillery observation posts were set up, machine guns emplaced, reserve companies put into position.
The aerial battle began over Henderson Field again, and the shriek of diving airplanes, the sharp cracking of the antiaircraft bursts, the hammering of guns and wailing of bombs took on dread significance for these Marines: the Betty bombers laid sticks of eggs all down the long axis of their ridge.
Then the clamor of aerial battle ended and the ridge became silent but for the clinking of picks, the rasping of shovels, the soft urgent calls attuned to gathering dusk. Men straightening on the ridge could see the last flights of parakeets skimming over the jungle roof, the brilliance of their plumage vanishing with the fading light. Night came clear and moonless. The jungle seemed to flow around the ridge like a silent dark sea. Men in the ravines squeezed their eyes tight shut to accustom them to the night, and were startled to hear the cry of the bird which barked like a dog, the crrrack of the bird whose call was as the clapping of wood blocks.
The ridge was ready.
At nine o’clock that night a green flare fell from a Japanese patrol plane droning over Henderson Field. A half-hour later a Japanese cruiser and three destroyers stood off the mouth of the Lunga to pound the ridge with eight- and five-inch shells. In twenty minutes more a rocket rose in front of the Marines on the right or Lunga side of the ridge.
Firecrackers exploded, random shots rang out, mortars fell and the Kawaguchis struck with a howl.
They had marched down the bank of the Lunga, swung right toward the ridge, and then, silhouetted in the swaying light of their parachute flares, had come sprinting on in waves. Grenadiers first, riflemen, light machine-gunners, coming in columns stretching as far back as the Marines could see, they came on to a cadenced slapping of rifle butts, a rising, rhythmic chant:
U. S. Marines be dead tomorrow.
They drove the Raiders back. In the blackness that followed the dying flares, they split the center of Edson’s lines, sliced off a platoon to the far right flank, cut communications wire, and moved down the Lunga to attempt an encirclement. If General Kawaguchi had chosen to follow quickly upon that first shattering rush, he might have overwhelmed the ridge. But his men merely flowed up against its right side, thrashing about in the jungle that had engulfed them, tripped them, confused them, once they had left the straight going of the riverbank. The battle that had been joined so swiftly became fragmented almost immediately.
Groups of Marines struggling to restore their lines blundered into groups of Japanese milling about trying to cut fields of fire in the undergrowth. The shooting was wild, the grenades fell among friend as well as foe, the bayonet jabbed against the sound of a strange tongue and found only air. It was a battle fought beyond the direction of either commander. Even a fresh Japanese naval bombardment after midnight did not drastically alter the deadlock established after the first fierce charge. It smoldered on until daybreak, a mindless fight, but it ended in a victory for General Kawaguchi.
His men had cut communications between the Marine companies and forced them back. They spent the daylight of the thirteenth fortifying their positions for the final blow that night.
Red Mike Edson’s men were stunned. They stumbled as they walked, lifting their feet high as though fatigue had weighted them with lead. They mumbled as they talked, licking cracked dry lips with swollen tongues. They had been thrown back, and they did not like to remember it. They had attempted to drive off the Japanese with a morning counterattack, but they had failed again. They had expected to be relieved or reinforced by the Second Battalion of the Fifth Marines, but intermittent attacks on Henderson Field had kept this force under cover. The men of the Fifth could not reach the ridge until dusk, after the dogfights over Henderson Field ended and enemy guns from land and sea had fallen silent. Even then they would only be able to take up supporting positions.
It was up to 400 men holding a shortened line 1,800 yards long against 4,000 Japanese—one man every five yards against 10 of the enemy. Red Mike Edson gathered a small group of men in late afternoon, a few minutes after they had eaten their first food since the day before, and he spoke to them like a professional.
“This is it,” he said softly. “It is useless to ask ourselves why it is we who are here. We are here. There is only us between the airfield and the Japs. If we don’t hold, we will lose Guadalcanal.”
The men returned to their gunpits. But this time there was no cursing.
Major General Kiyotake Kawaguchi had lost more men than he had anticipated, but he had successfully forced his way past that deadly American firepower. He was in close, where the “spiritual” power of Bushido was unstoppable. His men had been pleased to hear the sound of friendly bombs falling upon the Americans. Tonight, he would attack earlier than usual. He wanted to have the airfield cleared of Americans before Admiral Mikawa’s cruisers arrived at midnight. Then the honor of retaking Guadalcanal would belong to the Army. Also, he had ordered the Ishitari Battalion then east of the Tenaru to strike the river line at midnight. Then, he, Kiyotake Kawaguchi, would wheel his three battalions right or east from the airfield and crush the Tenaru Americans from the rear.
General Kawaguchi sent a radio message to Tokyo. It was not as premature as had been the diary entry of Colonel Ichiki, but it did suggest that if Radio Tokyo were to announce the recapture of the airfield, Major General Kiyotake Kawaguchi would back them to the hilt on it.
At half-past six that night he attacked.
Smoke rolled over the Marine right. Again the flares, again the jabbering, and again that voice, precise and un-American:
But there was no gas, it was only smoke, only another Japanese trick, and the Marines held to their holes until more flares had made a ghoulish day of the night and from 75 yards away the jungle spewed forth platoon after platoon of short tan shapes. But now the Marines were screaming their own coarse epithets at the onrushing enemy. They were firing. The Japanese were falling. Still they came on, a full battalion rushing a right flank held by less than a hundred Marines, and this time they were shooting from the hip as they came.
Again the Japanese closed and fragmented that right flank. Quickly they cut off a platoon and surrounded it. The Marines fought back individually. Pfc. Jimmy Corzine caught sight of four Japs setting up a machine gun on a commanding knob. He rushed them. He bayoneted their leader and as the others fled, turned the enemy gun on them, killed them, and fired on until he himself was killed.
Edson’s right was in serious trouble. Captain John Sweeney’s Company B had been cut into small pockets among a surging sea of enemy. He had lost his right flank platoon, he was down to less than 60 men, and on his left a mortar barrage and another headlong rush of the Kawaguchis had driven the Paramarines back.
Captain Torgerson took command of the retreating Paramarines. He rushed among the knots of men drifting back along the ridge spine. He held roll call. He singled the men out by name, he taunted them to go forward—and they did. They drove out through a rain of Japanese hand grenades, throwing themselves on the bare slopes to fire, to set up machine guns. The Japanese singled out the Marine machine guns, dropping grenades on them from the little launchers or “knee mortars” they carried forward strapped to their legs. Sergeant Keith Perkins scurried over the ridge, hunting grenades and ammunition for his two machine guns. One by one, his gunners fell or were wounded. Perkins jumped on his last gun. He fired. He was killed.
The Paramarines were hanging on to what remained of the left flank as Red Mike Edson came forward on the ridge and tried to make telephone contact with Captain Sweeney’s Company B alone on the right. A voice came through.
“Our situation here, Colonel Edson, is excellent. Thank you, sir.”
Edson swore softly. It was a Japanese. They had cut his wire. How to reach Sweeney? Edson seized a brass-lunged corporal and spoke rapidly. The corporal darted forward on the ridge. He cupped his hands to his mouth and bellowed:
“Red Mike says it’s okay to pull back!”
Sweeney heard and gathered the remnant of his company. Slowly, taking a raking fire, grenades, they fought back to the ridge.
On top of the ridge Edson and Major Bailey were rallying their men with insults and taunts, trying to drive them forward with those irrational shouts which often halt those rational drifts to the rear. Edson was now within 10 yards of his foremost machine gun. He lay on his belly with his arm curled around his hand telephone, sometimes lifted and slammed to earth by the force of enemy mortar blasts. He saw a knot of men milling around aimlessly. He rose and rushed at them, screaming as he pointed toward the Japanese: “The only thing they have that you don’t is guts!” He led them to new positions, for he was shortening his lines, while Bailey ran among other reluctant Raiders, seizing them individually by the arm. “You,” he snarled, “do you wanna live forever?” It had been said by Dan Daly in Belleau Wood and had been mocked by a generation, but now it was being flung in American teeth once more and it could still sting.
They went forward again, to dig in, to hurl the grenades rushed to them by Bailey, to draw a shallow horseshoe on the center of the ridge and await the full fury of the Kawaguchi Brigade now massing for the final rush.
Red Mike Edson had called for artillery; with him to spot the enemy was a private named Watson. He would be Second Lieutenant Watson in the morning in reward for that hell he called down from the heavens. The shells came whistling in from the Eleventh Marines’ 105-millimeter pack howitzers a half-mile back. They fell in a curtain of steel not 200 yards from that desperate last horseshoe of defense. They shook the Marine defenders, squeezed their breath away, but they made a flashing white slaughter among the Kawaguchis.
When the Japanese commanders fired rocket signals for attack, Watson marked them and directed redoubled shelling on the enemy breaking for the ridge. They were blown apart. The night was made hideous with their screams, and those who passed that dreadful line were either cut down by Marine fire or beaten to the earth by clubbed rifles and bayonets.
It was now half-past eleven and Red Mike Edson had contacted his general and told him he would hold.
Just before midnight Admiral Mikawa’s warships reached Guadalcanal. They heard firing to the south of the airfield. They began cruising about, awaiting General Kawaguchi’s flare signaling recapture of the airfield. Then they heard firing to the east.
The Ishitari Battalion had attacked the Tenaru. They struck through a field of kunai grass against the weapons and barbed wire of the Third Battalion, First Marines. They were caught halfway across by the massed firing of Marine 75-millimeter howitzers. The Ishitaris were broken. They reformed and came again. The guns roared. Marine tanks joined the riflemen. The Ishitaris were driven off.
Admiral Mikawa was bewildered. The firing to the east had subsided. There was only a fitful crackling of gunfire in the southern hills. There was still no flare, and it was getting dangerously close to the dawn that would make him visible to American bombers. Admiral Mikawa gave up and sailed home.
It was daybreak on the ridge. A rosy sun was rising almost directly to the left of the Marine front, lighting the battle that was now over. There was only an occasional shot, the boom of a grenade on a boobytrapped body. Six hundred Japanese lay sprawled on the ridge slopes or were faintly visible in the ravines below. Souvenir-hunters were already moving warily among the bodies. Major Bailey was receiving treatment for another wound. Red Mike Edson’s men were being relieved by the Second Battalion, Fifth. Slow-flying Army Airacobras rose from the airfield to harry the retreating enemy. Mopping-up began in the jungle and far to the Marines’ rear among those Japanese who had infiltrated. Four of these infiltrators rushed into General Vandegrift’s headquarters with a cry of “Banzai!” They were shot down, but only after a Marine sergeant had died of a sword thrust.
There was also a brief flare-up to the west, where a Japanese daylight attack across the Matanikau River was hurled back.
By daybreak the main battle, that which the Marines were already calling Bloody Ridge, was over. There were 40 dead Marines and 104 wounded, against a Japanese toll which would rise far above the 600 dead at Bloody Ridge, the 250 who fell at the Tenaru, the 100-odd destroyed at the Matanikau. For General Kawaguchi had already begun a cruel march south through the jungle, a terrible red-trailed retreat of which one of his officers wrote:
“I cannot help from crying when I see the sight of these men marching without food for four or five days and carrying the wounded through the curving and sloping mountain trails. The wounds couldn’t be given adequate medical treatment. There wasn’t a one without maggots. Many died.”
And yet, Bloody Ridge marked only the end of the beginning—a fact made plain to the Marines by a Japanese prisoner who stood among his slaughtered countrymen and said:
“Make no matter about us dead. More will come. We never stop coming. Soon you all be Japanese.”
September 15—the day after the Battle of Bloody Ridge—gave proof that the high superiors of that Japanese prisoner were truly determined to keep coming.
On that day an American fleet was hit hard in “Torpedo Junction,” a 640-mile stretch of the Coral Sea between Guadalcanal and Espiritu Santo which abounded in Japanese submarines.
The Japanese subs attacked the carriers Wasp and Hornet, the fast new battleship North Carolina, seven cruisers and 13 destroyers—in effect the American Pacific fleet. Fortunately, a prudent decision by Vice Admiral Richmond Kelly Turner deprived the Japs of juicier prey: the six transports carrying the Seventh Marine Regiment from Espiritu to Guadalcanal. The day before, a big Kawanishi flying boat was spotted tracking the task force. Turner sent the transports back to Espiritu that night.
Next day, the fifteenth, a blue, cloudless, tropic day, the red-balled Japanese subs struck at the Americans sailing in two sections about a half-dozen miles apart.
Mighty North Carolina shuddered as a Japanese fish smashed her side. She turned and went streaking south. Little O’Brien staggered after her, only to fall apart and sink before she could reach port. Hornet and the others got away, but Wasp took three torpedoes. She burned brightly beneath the red glow of twilight on September 15, and then she went under.
Beneath the same red sky in Tokyo, high-ranking officers of the Imperial Army and Navy reported the results to cheering thousands in Hinomiya Stadium. They also reported the news of the “recapture” of the Guadalcanal airfield, and then, to bursts of thunderous applause, came this announcement:
“…and the stranded 10,000 Marines, victims of Roosevelt’s gesture, have been practically wiped out.”
It was a great day in Tokyo, and at Rabaul, Lieutenant General Haruyoshi Hyakutate, gratified to hear that his humble part in the victory had not been overlooked, turned to tidying up his triumph.
Hyakutate was going to use all the 20,000 soldiers then available to him to dispose of the remaining Marines. He would be sure this time, for reports filtering back to Rabaul from the Kawaguchis suggested that these Marines did not conform to the Imperial Staff Manual descriptions of Americans. They were beasts, the refuse of jails and insane asylums. They drank blood. They cut off the arms of their prisoners and staked their bodies to the earth. Then they drove over them in steamrollers.
No, Hyakutate would not gamble again. He would send all the Sendai Division. Advance units would go down The Slot in fast destroyer-transports. They would be followed by the Sendai’s commander, Lieutenant General Masao Maruyama, then the main body aboard slower transports, next the combined aerial and sea power of the Imperial Navy—and finally by Lieutenant General Haruyoshi Hyakutate, who would sail down in October in time to accept the American surrender.
In the third week of September the Tokyo Express began running troops to Guadalcanal again.
There were now 23,000 Marines on Guadalcanal, for the Seventh Regiment had come in.
Becoming bold in the wake of the Torpedo Junction disaster, Kelly Turner had turned the six transports around while still at sea and started them for Guadalcanal again. Under cover of hazy skies, assisted by the plastering of Rabaul by Army bombers, the transports sailed through Torpedo Junction on the sixteenth and seventeenth and arrived off Lunga Roads at Guadalcanal before dawn of September 18. At a few minutes before six the men of the Seventh began coming ashore.
Now, bolstered by 4,262 fresh men, and more of his combat troops coming over from Tulagi, Major General Alexander Vandegrift changed his style of defense.
The system of strong points with artillery covering the gaps was abandoned in favor of a ring around Henderson Field and the new fighter strip. It meant spreading a lot of men thin. It meant defending every point, but weakly, as opposed to defending some vital points, but strongly. And thus it would also mean that wherever the enemy attacked he would be hitting with the most against Vandegrift’s least. It was an old-fashioned defense, as surely outdated by artillery as the long bow had made an anachronism of mounted knights. But the Japanese artillery had been as ineffectual as the Marines’ had been superb.
So Vandegrift drew his ring around Henderson Field. With barbed wire, axes, shovels, sandbags, machetes and bulldozers now in abundance, his men began building a tight bristling defensive ring which would lead one Japanese officer to snort that U. S. Marines were actually not true jungle-fighters because “they always cut the jungle down.” The cordon followed approximately the same oval-shaped dispositions as the old beachhead line 3,500 yards deep and 7,500 yards wide, but all the gaps were plugged—especially the big ones to the south of the airfield.
Coconut groves rang to the strokes of the axe. Big trees came crashing down, were chopped into sections and dragged over wide sandbagged holes. More sandbags went atop the logs and over this were planted clumps of grass. In that lush-growing moist heat, the grass quickly took root and the rough-hewn pillboxes took on the appearance of low hummocks. Fields of fire—thatis, cleared lanes between the guns and the enemy—were burned out in the grass or hacked out in the jungle. Apron after apron of barbed wire was strung until many of the Marine fronts were as wicked laceworks of glittering black wire and tan, charred grass. Riflemen learned to dig Japanese spider-holes, those vertical foxholes in which a man could stand to fight. Mortarmen sandbagged their heaps of shells. Booby-traps were fashioned of hand grenades with partially loosened pins attached to trip wires. Machine-gunners set up interlocking crossfires or registered their guns for night firing. Artillerymen plotted the fronts, registered the trails, marked the likely assembly areas. As the men worked, barely nourished by two daily meals of wormy rice, daily patrols went winding into the jungle.
Patrols were the eyes and ears of that line of defense, the feelers that went out daily—east,south and west—probing for the presence of the enemy. They went out in groups of a dozen men, occasionally in company strength. They were lightly armed. The men carried only a canteen of water. They fastened their gear tight to prevent tell-tale clinks, they daubed their faces with mud, adorned their blouses and helmets with branches—and moved out slowly, hugging the trails to right and left with intervals of a dozen feet between them, listening for the sudden cry of birds that might betray a lurking enemy, moving at a crawling, crablike rhythm, at a pace so maddeningly slow that tension became multiplied, all the sounds so magnified that the rustling of a lizard might echo in helmet-muffled ears like the movement of a human body.
Patrols moved warily because ambushes were frequent during September. On one of them a company scouting the Lunga south of the perimeter was struck by a sudden storm of fire. Men could hear Japanese calling from the jungle, “Come here, please. Come here, please.”
Private Jack Morrison saw Marines slump to earth around him. He felt white-hot pain sear his arm and his chest. He shouted in agony and toppled into a bush, his body obscured by undergrowth, his feet sticking out over the trail. To his right along the riverbank a Marine had fallen behind a log. He was moaning aloud. Behind him, hidden in a foxhole, was another Marine. He was Pfc. Harry Dunn. He was not wounded. He was playing dead. For in the complete surprise and success of that assault, the ambushed company had pulled back down the trail.
It was late afternoon and Morrison lay in the bush listening to the Japanese running about, jabbering to each other as they hunted down the wounded and bayoneted them. Great retching waves of pain swept over his body, but he ground his teeth and kept silent. He had heard the Marine behind the log moan. He had seen the Jap jump over the log with upraised bayonet, had seen it slammed down—once, twice—and had heard no more moaning.
Sometimes a merciful blackness engulfed Morrison. He would pass out, returning to the agony of consciousness, pass out again. He could feel the blood oozing from his wounds, sense the strength leaving him. His thirst was a torment. Still he dared not move—not even after night had fallen, for the enemy was still active.
Toward midnight he felt a presence alongside him. A hand came over his mouth. He stiffened in terror, then relaxed to hear the voice whisper in his ear, “It’s all right. It’s me—Harry Dunn.” Slowly, gently, Dunn pulled Morrison away from the trail and into a thicket. He took off the wounded youth’s shirt and tried to bind his wounds. But there was so much blood the shirt became soaked and was useless. Dunn threw it away.
Dunn crept out of the thicket in search of water, for both men’s canteens were empty. He crawled to the dead Marine behind the log. But the body had been completely looted. Helmet, weapon, belt, canteen, all were gone. Dunn looked to his right. He could see the Lunga gleaming darkly, could hear the wavelets lapping her shores. But he dared not break for it. He would have to cross a clearing in full view of the Japanese, still moving around the riverbank, still calling out loudly to one another.
Dunn crawled back to Morrison in the thicket. They lay there, through the night, through the entire next day, among swarming mosquitoes and crawling ants while the terrible sweet stench of decaying flesh rose from the lumps that had been their comrades, while their tongues swelled in their mouths, and while Morrison burned in the fire of his pain and Dunn kept his hand clamped over his mouth to stifle his. groans.
At last it was night again and the Japanese had moved upriver. Dunn dragged Morrison down to the river. He pulled him behind a log caught in the shore underbrush and lowered him gently into the water. Then he lay down and rolled over, opening his mouth, allowing the river water to caress his burning palate. Morrison drank, too, for the first time in two days.
Now Dunn had Morrison on his back. He was crawling down the riverbank toward the sea and the Marine lines, keeping well inshore for fear of the crocodiles prowling the Lunga, yet shying clear of the enemy-infested jungle. He stopped frequently to rest, and crawled on again. Sometimes Morrison mumbled wildly in his delirium, sometimes he sank into unconsciousness. Occasionally Dunn would also lose his senses. But he would awaken and crawl on.
At daybreak they reached the Marine lines. Still bleeding, Morrison was rushed to the airfield and quickly evacuated to a base hospital. Dunn was taken to a field hospital, carried there—for he had passed out from exhaustion.
It was no longer the Bastard Air Force but Cactus Air Force, so called after the code word for Guadalcanal. It was under the command of a grizzled white bear of a brigadier general named Roy Geiger. He was a flying general, a pioneer of Marine aviation who had flown as a captain in World War One. General Geiger was also a student of land warfare. On Guadalcanal, he consistently visited the front lines to study Vandegrift’s dispositions. Geiger would one day become the only Marine to command an American army, but in those late September days on Guadalcanal he was still bringing Marine air power to its maturity.
Geiger came into Guadalcanal September 3 on the first transport plane to reach Henderson Field. Shortly afterward he was promoted to major general. He took up headquarters in a wooden shack called “The Pagoda” and located only 200 yards from the main runway. He quickly became known as The Old Man to that youthful flying fraternity which made up his command. For Cactus Air Force was actually a band of brothers who looked so much alike on the ground—the faces of each obscured in the shadow of identical long-billed blue baseball caps, the left breast of each bulky with the same automatic pistol stuffed into the same shoulder holster . strapped over identical faded khaki shirts—that it was not surprising to see them fighting like wing-joined twins in the skies.
Geiger’s men had learned never to dogfight a Zero. The Japanese fighter planes were too fast, too maneuverable. They would be in on the Wildcat’s tail and firing away. But the Wildcats had the armor and the firepower, and if one of them was no match for one Zero, two of them fighting together could take on five enemy. They watched each other’s tails, firing quick six-gun bursts at the attacking Zeros—and because the Japanese planes had thin skins and no self-sealing gas tanks, they flamed easily. The Marines had learned other things, among them the necessity of wiping their guns free of oil lest they freeze at altitudes above 25,000 feet, and the danger of coming in behind a bomber’s tail guns. They contented themselves with making overhead passes at the bombers, flashing past protecting Zeros with quick bursts, then diving for safety and a pull-out.
And while the Wildcats were mastering the Zero which had once been the scourge of the Pacific—slaughtering the Marine Buffaloes at Midway—Cactus Air Force’s Dauntless dive-bombers and Avenger torpedo-bombers ranged up The Slot to fulfill Vandegrift’s requests for strikes on the Tokyo Express.
On September 21 Lieutenant Colonel Albert Cooley led the bombers against the destroyer Kagero while she landed troops at Kamimbo Bay, a point roughly 30 miles west of the Marine perimeter.
On September 22 the bombers hit the Japanese massing-point at Visale, a few miles north of Kamimbo Bay. One of the dive-bombers was flown by fifty-seven-year-old Roy Geiger. He had become angered when his men complained that the runway was so pocked with bomb-blasts they could not take off safely. He lumbered from The Pagoda, squeezed his bulk into a Dauntless cockpit and roared north to drop a thousand-pounder on the enemy. That same date more bombers went after destroyer-transports in a night attack.
On September 24 Cooley’s planes bombed and strafed destroyer-transports Kawakaze and Umikaze in Kamimbo Bay.
But the troops were getting ashore, and this, together with patrol reports of increasing build-ups to the west, convinced General Vandegrift that before the Japanese could gather all their strength he had better break them up.
Vandegrift had two reasons for striking the Japanese west of the Matanikau River. He wanted to break them up before they could cross to the east bank, from which they could punish Henderson Field with their artillery and prepare an assault on his line at Kukum, and he wanted to occupy the east or inner bank of the river himself.
On September 23 Vandegrift ordered the famous jungle-fighter, Lieutenant Colonel Lewis Puller, to take his First Battalion, Seventh Marines, on a reconnaissance-in-force into the hills south and west of the perimeter. The scouting expedition was to end by September 26, on which date the Raider Battalion, now under Lieutenant Colonel Samuel Griffith, was to cross the Matanikau River at its mouth and march about 10 miles farther west to the village of Kukumbona. The idea was that the Raiders could set up a patrolling base at Kukumbona. All this was to be preliminary to Vandegrift’s attack.
Nothing was heard from Puller until, on the night of September 24, he reported meeting the enemy near Grassy Knoll, about four miles south of the western half of the perimeter, and losing seven men killed and 25 wounded in the fight that followed. Because of rugged terrain, it required four men to carry back each of the stretchers on which the 18 seriously wounded lay. Vandegrift sent Puller the Second Battalion, Fifth Marines, and told him he was on his own as far as continuing his mission or withdrawing was concerned.
The wounded were placed in the care of two companies from Puller’s own battalion under Major Otho Rogers. Then Puller led the rest of his force west of the Matanikau.
The night of September 24 Puller’s force bivouacked just short of the Matanikau’s east bank. Next morning the Marines reached the river and turned right, or north, to work down its east bank to the sea. In early afternoon, still several hundred yards short of the rivermouth, mortar shells fell on them from enemy positions across the river and near the coast. The Marines took cover and gradually crept down to the mouth of the Matanikau. But every attempt to cross the river was repulsed.
And now the Raiders who were to cross the Matanikau on their march to Kukumbona that very same day were obviously unable to do so. Vandegrift sent them up the east bank of the river. They were to move inland, or south, about 2,000 yards until they came to a log-crossing just beneath a fork in the river. They would cross there and come down on the Japanese right flank. This action was to begin the following day, September 27, with support from the air and from Marine artillery.
It began, but as the Raiders approached the log-bridge they were pinned to the ground by Japanese who had crossed the Matanikau at that point during the night and had occupied the east bank. The gallant Major Bailey was killed here and the Japanese kept the Raiders pinned down and cut them up with mortars.
Back at his headquarters, Vandegrift was under the impression that the Raiders had crossed the river and were now engaging the enemy on the west bank. He thought his planned strike at the Japanese right flank was taking place. So he sent the companies under Major Rogers on an amphibious thrust at the Japanese left. They were to go west to the Kukumbona vicinity by boat that same day. They were to land there and cut off the “defeated” enemy’s retreat.
The Marines under Major Rogers shoved off just as the first of three waves of Zeros and bombers swept overhead. Destroyer Ballard which was to deliver supporting fire was forced to flee. Still the Marines went west, but when they came ashore they were far short of Kukumbona. They were at Point Cruz, a small peninsula just west of the Matanikau and just north or behind the Japanese left.
The Marines went in without radio, without naval gunfire, and before they had gone 500yards they were blasted by Japanese mortars and Major Rogers was killed. An enemy column came from the Matanikau’s west bank and struck them. The Marines took refuge on the top of a ridge, and the Japanese moved in between them and the sea and began pounding them with mortars.
Now Vandegrift had three battalions in trouble and the last one was out of contact.
Lieutenant Dale Leslie could not be sure. He was flying his Dauntless west of the Matanikau, on station for the aerial support planned against the Japanese there, and this could be another enemy trick. Leslie peered over the side of his plane. There it was—H-E-L-P—spelled out with something white, maybe T-shirts.
Leslie passed the word to the Fifth Marines, with whom he was in radio contact. The Fifth contacted Vandegrift and a rescue by sea was set in motion.
Ballard went west along the coast again. She stood off Point Cruz. Her officers saw a Marine leap up on a ridge about 500 yards inland. He was waving his arms, making semaphore signals.
The waving Marine was Sergeant Robert Raysbrook, standing erect amid Japanese bullets. His signals told Ballard’s officers that the Japanese stood between the Marine ridge and the beach. Ballard’s five-inchers boomed, striking the Japanese, cutting a swath of safety for the Marines. One of the batteries of Marine artillery which was to support the attack at the rivermouth raised sights and battered the nose of Point Cruz, which jutted into the water east of the besieged ridge and which could hold enemy gunners.
The Marines came down the ridge, taking heavy enemy fire. The Japanese rushed to close. Sergeant Tony Malinowski turned to cover his company’s withdrawal. He took on the onrushing Japanese with his BAR. He was never seen again.
But his comrades got down the hill. Now they were at the beach. The Japanese set up an interlocking fire of machine guns. They swept the beach. Casualties mounted. The Marines threw up a defensive perimeter while a Coast Guardsman named Donald Munro led the first wave of boats through the surf. They got in, though Munro was killed—winning a posthumous Medal of Honor. But the second wave hesitated.
Lieutenant Leshe nosed his Dauntless down again. He came in with a roar, flying low, shepherding the faltering boats shoreward, spraying bullets as he banked to climb for the return swoop. The Marines got out, with all of their 23 wounded, but not all of their 24 dead.
It was a daring rescue compounded of ingenuity and courage, and it served to take some of the sting out of the Marines’ defeat at the Matanikau.
Defeat it was, for Vandegrift shortly afterward called all his forces back from the river. He had lost 60 dead and 100 wounded and his repulse had been the result of bad intelligence and piecemeal commitment of forces, tactics that had heretofore characterized only Japanese operations.
But Cactus Air Force was still master of the aerial enemy. By the end of September General Geiger’s flyers had 171 Japanese kills to their credit. There were 19 little red balls painted on Major Smith’s Wildcat and “Smitty” had won the Medal of Honor. So had Major Bob Galer, who shot down 13 enemy planes, who might have destroyed more if he had not been knocked down three times himself. Captain Marion Carl’s string had been run up to 16, after the interruption of a jungle crash.
So the second month on Guadalcanal ended with the Marines on the ground bruised but still capable of more battle and with those in the skies steadily whittling enemy air power.
And then it was October.
October was the month of the dreadful rains, the month of decision, of change, of unending battle between men and ships and airplanes—the month of the Night of the Battleships, of Dugout Sunday, of Pistol Pete—the month when Americans on Guadalcanal were still hanging on while other Americans in Washington were backing off.
By day the Marines strengthened their lines, sent out patrols, rushed in supplies and troops or flew from the airfield to break up those aerial attacks which the enemy launched by day to clear the way for his movement at night. At night the Marines lay still in their holes, peering into the rain-swept darkness, knowing that destroyers were disgorging troops to the west, or that great dark shapes were gliding into the bay and that at any moment the silence might be shattered by the thundering of guns and the yelling of a new attack.
On each of those early October nights, the Tokyo Express brought an average of 900 troops to the island. On the night of October 4, they landed Lieutenant General Masao Maruyama.
Maruyama was a disciplinarian. He was a proud man, with haughty chin and an aristocratic nose beneath which ran a thin line of mustache as supercilious as a raised eyebrow. He was easily irritated, and he was displeased with what he found on Guadalcanal. Colonel Akinosuke Oka should not have allowed the American Marines to get away so cheaply on September 27. More, he should not have permitted the Ichiki and Kawaguchi survivors he commanded to mingle with the men of the Sendai’s fresh 4th Regiment and spread their tales of horror among them.
The 4th had arrived first from Rabaul. It had come ashore on Guadalcanal and reached Kukumbona, Maruyama’s headquarters, with its men full of vigor and splendidly equipped. Apart from his weapon, each man was supplied two pairs of trousers, two shirts, gloves, camouflage helmet-cover and split-toed shoes. His pack bulged, not with uncooked rice, but with canned fish or beef, canned vegetables—even a ration of hard candy. None of the “Old Whisky” looted from the Philippines had yet come down to Guadalcanal for the troops, but there would certainly be beer for them later and saki for the officers.
But Oka had allowed these excellent men to mingle with the scarecrows bequeathed him by General Kawaguchi. Those who were not prostrate with malaria or malnutrition had been telling horrible stories of Guadalcanal to the men of the 4th.
On October 5, General Maruyama received a letter written by a soldier of the 4th and intercepted by his commanding officer. It said:
Lieutenant General Masao Maruyama issued a general order, which said:
Then, while awaiting the arrival of his other troops—the 16th and 29th Regiments, his heavy artillery and a few thousand men of a Naval Landing Force Brigade—General Maruyama went to work planning an advance across the Matanikau. He, too, had seized the importance of the east bank. He would need it to gain room for the jumping-off of his main attack. He ordered Colonel Juro Nakaguma to take the 4th across the river in the early-morning dark of October 7.
Then Maruyama began searching his maps for that point most suitable to receive the surrender of the American General Vandegrift.
Although the detail of a surrender point escaped him, Alexander Vandegrift also studied maps of the Matanikau that afternoon of October 5.
He still believed that he could not allow the Japanese west of the river to build their forces unmolested. His earlier setback had only impressed upon him the need of using a force large enough to destroy the enemy. He decided to use five full battalions led by Red Mike Edson, now commander of the Fifth, and Colonel Wild Bill Whaling of the special Scout-Snipers group.
They would attack on October 7.
On October 6 the Japanese 4th Regiment’s approach march from Kukumbona to the Matanikau was broken up by Marine aircraft. The men took cover. At night Colonel Nakaguma ordered them forward to the west bank of the river. They dug in. They would cross in the early morning. Meanwhile, Nakaguma sent three of his companies downstream to the rivermouth. They crossed there.
On October 7 Colonel Edson’s force reached the east bank of the Matanikau mouth. The Third Battalion, Fifth, joined battle with Nakaguma’s three companies which had crossed to the east bank. The Marines pressed the Japanese back, slowly containing them. Edson asked for reinforcements. Vandegrift sent the Raiders into their last battle. Commanded by Major Silent Lou Walt of the Fifth Marines, the Raiders helped push the enemy into a pocket. During the night the Japanese attempted to break out. They were destroyed.
Upriver on October 7 Colonel Whaling’s men were unable to cross until nightfall, at which time they turned right to face the sea themselves on the west bank, the Edson forces on the east bank.
On October 8 it rained. Water poured from skies so dark that the jungle became a murk of gloom. Both sides were mired in a slop of mud.
On October 9 the coastwatchers up north sent word of a great invasion force making up in Rabaul. Vandegrift was forced to shave his ambitions. Even though Whaling’s men had begun to make good progress seaward that day and Edson was across the Matanikau, Vandegrift decided that he would not strike at Kukumbona but be content with battering the enemy in the Point Cruz-Matanikau Village area before withdrawing to the east bank of the river and fortifying it.
It was then that the First Battalion, Seventh, was ordered out on reconnaissance again.
Lewis Burwell Puller was the battalion commander’s full name, but he was simply “Chesty” to his men. This was the famous Chesty Puller who had already blooded his battalion in the Matanikau defeat and who had chafed at the order to withdraw. He was a man of only five feet six inches in height, but with an enormous rib cage stuck on a pair of matchstick legs—the barrel chest crowned by a great commanding head with strong outthrust jaw. At forty-four Puller was only a “light” colonel, for in him there was none of the guile that slips up the ladder of promotion. Chesty had become notorious among brother officers for insisting that regimental staffs were too large and the distance between command posts and front lines was too long. When he came to Guadalcanal leading the First Battalion, Seventh, he was already legendary for battles which had won him two Navy Crosses and for a salty tongue which had won him the affection of his men. Asked why Nicaragua patrols were slow, he had snapped: “Because of the officer’s bed roll!” Shown his first flame-thrower, he had growled: “Where do you fit the bayonet on it?” Flunked out of Pensacola flying school on the unique report, “Glides too flat, skids on turns, climbs too fast,” he had merely been relieved that he might return to the riflemen where “all the fightin’s on foot.”
And now he was on foot again during the afternoon of October 9, leading his battalion over a series of grassy ridges west of the Matanikau near the coast. Atop a high ridge Puller saw that a ravine below him was swarming with Japanese. At the same moment he received orders to scout the coastal road toward Kukumbona and to avoid combat. He asked and obtained permission to stay where he was for he had found a whole battalion under his guns.
The ravine became a slaughter-pen.
Marine mortar shells fell with dreadful accuracy. Death swept suddenly and invisibly among those Japanese, devastating them. They swarmed blindly up the hill against Puller’s men. They were raked with small arms. They fled back down into the ravine, rolling down the slope, sprinting in terror through that hell of mortar fire and up the side of an opposing ridge, only to re-emerge on the crest in full view of Puller’s Marines. They were riddled.
Again they fled down into the ravine, again they tried to come up through Puller’s men again, were halted, turned, and sent through the reverse gantlet once more—and now the carnage was multiplied by the aerial bombs and artillery shells which Chesty Puller had called down into the ravine.
There were few Japanese who survived.
Seven hundred fell in that awful trap, and Lieutenant General Masao Maruyama’s attempt to seize the east bank of the Matanikau met with disaster. For there were roughly 200 more casualties inflicted on the 4th Regiment as the converging Whaling and Edson forces drove briskly into Point Cruz-Matanikau Village. The 4th was shattered and now Nakaguma’s men had terrifying tales of their own to spread among comrades sailing south to the place they would call Death Island.
Marines withdrawing east from the river, bringing back their 65 dead and 125 wounded, heard the welcome roar of massed motors overhead. Major Leonard (Duke) Davis was leading Squadron 121 to the Cactus Shivaree.
Riding the cockpit of one of those 20 Wildcats was a cigar-smoking, blunt-featured, high-spirited Marine captain by the name of Joseph Jacob Foss.
It was clear that the Matanikau had eclipsed the Tenaru in importance. The Japanese no longer landed on eastern Guadalcanal but came ashore in the west. It was vital that the Marines’ western boundary be extended to the east bank of the Matanikau River to stop the inevitable thrust from the west.
Because he had not enough men to hold all the river line, Vandegrift decided to defend the two main crossings—at the mouth of the river and at the upriver crossing which the Marines called Nippon Bridge from the Japanese characters ippon-bashi, meaning “one-tree bridge.” This was about 2,000 yards inland, just below the fork in the stream.
The river block became a shallow horseshoe. Fortifications at the mouth “refused” the right flank, that is, exposed it in a backward curve to the beach behind it. Then the line ran slightly more than 2,000 yards along the river past Nippon Bridge to refuse the left flank, which was drawn back across a ridge and down into the jungle and allowed to dangle there.
Vandegrift knew it was possible to cross the river at other points farther inland than Nippon Bridge. But he was making shift with what he had. He could spare two battalions. The Third Battalion, Seventh, went in line on the left and the Third Battalion, First, on the right. They could be reinforced and supplied along the coastal road connecting them with the original perimeter still held intact a few miles back east. Artillery was placed in support.
All this was done in the few days following the victory gained across the Matanikau October 7-9, done while that big invasion force of which the coastwatchers had sent warning was sailing down The Slot.
The Japanese ships were bringing Pistol Pete to Guadalcanal.
This was the collective nickname which the Marines were to bestow on those 150-millimeter howitzers with which General Maruyama hoped to chew up the runway at Henderson Field, as well as to batter the American lines.
On October 10 four of these big guns went aboard a seaplane tender at Rabaul.
Next day they sailed south in that task force which included destroyer-transports bringing more of the Sendai Division to Guadalcanal, cargo ships, a protecting screen of destroyers and a division of cruisers to shell Henderson Field while guns, men and supplies were being put ashore.
Waiting for them off Cape Esperance was Rear Admiral Norman Scott with four cruisers and five destroyers of his own.
Again the island of Guadalcanal was quivering like a live thing. Once more the night glowed with the glare of burning ships while concussions rolled unimpeded over blackly gleaming water. Marines ashore were throwing aside ponchos and blankets and rushing for their holes in frantic, jostling groups. And Alexander Vandegrift was entering his headquarters tent to sit in battle vigil beneath the light of a single blue electric bulb.
The Battle of Cape Esperance had begun.
Pistol Pete and the bombardment force coming down had collided with Rear Admiral Norman Scott’s cruisers and destroyers coming up. And Scott “crossed the T.” He swung wide of western Guadalcanal to cover the Savo Island water gate and at midnight his ships were standing broadside to the Japanese, all their guns swiveled and trained starboard upon the perpendicular of an enemy column “now visible to the naked eye.
Heavy Salt Lake City hurled ten swift salvos into cruiser Furutaka, broke her in two, sank her. Heavy San Francisco, the lights Boise and Helena, and the five destroyers, shot off shell after shell into the others. Big Aoba, Rear Admiral Aritomo Goto’s flagship, took 40 hits. She staggered out of the battle, Goto dying on his bridge, half of the crew dead. The big destroyer Fubuki went down. Destroyer-transports hit bottom. In the morning, planes from Henderson boiled out to finish big destroyers Natsugumo and Murakamo. By then the American destroyer Duncan was also gone—shot at by both sides—and Boise had two gun turrets burned out. But before morning Alexander Vandegrift’s vigil had ended in jubilation. Colonel Thomas had rushed into his tent to tell him that Norman Scott had squared accounts for the Battle of the Five Sitting Ducks. Iron Bottom Bay was no longer a Japanese lagoon. The Navy would be coming back, and there would be reinforcements.
But a dozen miles west to Kukumbona, General Maruyama gave orders for the emplacement of four big guns with their tractors. If many ships and men had not survived the crossing of the T—Pistol Pete had.
We asked all the Doggies to come to Tulagi
There was a refrain, beginning with the uncomplimentary and unjust sobriquet “Dugout Doug.” The Marines knew that General Douglas MacArthur was a brave man, but this did not deter them from singing their derision of the Army Dogfaces who had still not arrived on Guadalcanal. The Marines had given up hope—not of victory, but of help-and had turned to mocking the Doggies.
So they were astonished, almost resentful, to find on the morning of October 13 that the Doggies had actually come to Tulagi. The Army’s 164th Infantry Regiment had arrived from Noumea, just in time for a fiery baptism which not even the Marines had experienced.
For the thirteenth was also the day on which Australian coastwatchers in Bougainville were fleeing Japanese patrols and keeping radio silence. There were no advance warnings of the three Japanese aerial formations that struck so savagely at the island. At noon, 24 twin-engined bombers and escorting Zeros flew over Henderson Field before the Marine Wildcats could climb to intercepting stations. They let loose a rain of bombs and incendiary bullets that set stores of aviation gasoline blazing. Two hours later 15 more bombers pounced, multiplying destruction. Captain Joe Foss shot down one of the escorting Zeroes—his first—took a bullet in the oil pump of his engine and came rocketing down from 22,000 feet to a dead-stick landing while a trio of Zeros rode his tail. But the rest of the attackers escaped. And then the third Japanese formation struck, bombing the coconut groves where the 164th was bivouacked.
The Doggies had been blooded.
It was dusk and Sergeant Butch Morgan was preparing the evening meal for General Vandegrift. He was frying meat on a Japanese safe that had been upended and made into a griddle.
Pistol Pete spoke.
His first shell screamed over Division Headquarters and struck the airfield with a crash. Sergeant Morgan grabbed his helmet and raced for his air-raid hole. Another shell screeched overhead. Sergeant Morgan held his helmet down tight and ducked.
Alexander Vandegrift looked up in surprise. He glanced thoughtfully overhead.
“That wasn’t a bomb,” he called. “That’s artillery.”
Sergeant Butch Morgan was embarrassed. He glanced about him, shamefaced, hoping that no boot had seen his flight—for Sergeant Morgan was an Old Salt who had fought in France and knew something of artillery.
“Aw, hell,” he muttered, taking off his helmet. “I mean, only artillery…”
If it was “only artillery” it was the first with enough authority to reach the airfield. And now Pistol Pete was pumping them out, ripping up the big strip with a thoroughness that would make night flight impossible, shifting to hammer the perimeter, swinging to Kukum to blow up naval stores—and finally falling among the men of the 164th with such rending red terror that a sergeant crawled about begging his men to shoot him.
And then the same terror came upon all the island.
Red flares shot up from the jungle, Pistol Pete roared and roared, enemy aircraft circled overhead—drifting in and out of the crisscrossing searchlight beams that sought them, eluding the flak and dropping bombs—and men stumbled into foxholes, climbed out of them, ran back to them, bracing in expectation of they knew not what.
At half-past one in the morning Louie the Louse planted a green flare over the airfield and the Night of the Battleships began.
Mighty Haruna and Kongo had steamed down from Rabaul. Cruisers and destroyers came with them, some to join the airfield bombardment, others to protect seven transports loaded with General Maruyama’s remaining troops.
They slid into the bay, screened by cruiser Isuzu and eight destroyers. They awaited the flares of the ground troops, the patrol plane’s green light. Then: “Commence firing!”
Star shells rose, horrible and bright, scarlet with the fat red beauty of Hell, exploding like giant ferris wheels to shower the night with streamers of light. And then, the 14-inchers of the battleships, the eight-inchers of Isuzu, the five-inchers of the destroyers…
Pah-boom, pah-boom. Pah-boom, pah-boom, pah
Men in their holes could hear the soft hollow thumping of the salvos to seaward, see the flashes shimmering outside the gun ports, and then the great airy boxcars rumbling overhead, wailing and straining—hwoo-hwooee—seeming to lose breath directly overhead, to pause, whisper, and go on. Then the triple tearing crash of the detonating shells and the bucking and rearing of the very ground beneath them.
American troops had never before been exposed to such cannonading and would never be so again. Even the great naval shellings that would one day fall upon the Japanese would not be comparable, for the Japanese would be in coral caves or huge pillboxes of ferro-concrete, while these Americans crouched in dirt holes, within shelters of mud and logs.
Henderson Field’s bombers were blown to bits, set afire, crushed beneath collapsed revetments. Shelters shivered, sighed and came apart. Foxholes buried their occupants. Men were killed—41 of them, among them many pilots—and many, many more men were wounded. But the over-all effect upon men’s souls was devastating.
In that cataclysm, when every shell seemed to explode with the pent-up flame and fury of a full thunderstorm, some men might glance at their buddies and see in horror how their features had dissolved in a nerveless idiot mask. Men whimpered aloud. Others burst into sobs and rushed from the pits rather than betray their weakness, if such it was, before comrades. There were Marines who put their weapons to their heads. Men prayed with lips moving silently across the backs of others against whom they lay huddled, prayed in confusion —mentally murmuring Grace or a childhood refrain as though it were the Lord’s Prayer—prayed for the strength to stay where they were, to suppress that nameless thing fluttering within them.
The bombardment lasted an hour and twenty minutes, and then Haruna and Konga and their nine sister furies masked their guns and sailed north.
The bombers remained until dawn.
And at dawn Pistol Pete resumed action.
But the Marines and soldiers came above ground anyway. There had been no attack, and who would fear a six-incher after having felt the lash of 14-inch naval rifles?
They were dull-eyed and dazed, but they were already pluming themselves on having “really had it rough,” already forgetting the fierce vows of the night in the profane oaths with which they asked God to take a look at the size of those 14-inch base plates and enormous shell fragments that were displayed to them by day.
The airfield was a shambles. The main strip was unusable. Of 38 bombers, only four survived the shelling. But these four went roaring skyward from Fighter Strip One to strike at the Japanese transports which had put Maruyama’s troops ashore during the night. They sank one, and flew back to an airfield where Marine engineers and Seabees were already hauling fill to the big strip. Bulldozers were butting earth into yawning shell-craters and anxious squadron commanders were conferring with repair officers on the chances of getting airborne.
“What’s left, Lieutenant?”
“You’d need a magnifying glass to find it, Colonel.”
“Well, start using one then. How about Number 117?”
“Her? Oh, she’s great—wasn’t even scratched. Except that she needs an engine change. Other than that, all she needs is both elevators, both stabilizers, the right auxiliary gas tank, right and center section flaps, right aileron, windshield, rudder, both wheels and the brake assembly. But she’s still in one piece, sir, and I guess we can get her up in six days.”
“Dammit, Colonel, back in the States it’d take six months to do it!”
“All right, all right—but let’s keep those junk-pickers of yours busy.”
They patched together ten more bombers that day. They filled gas tanks by hand, hauled bomb trailers by hand, and lifted the big eggs into the racks with straining, sweating bodies. They did this while Japanese bombers swept over Henderson Field again and again, for Cactus Air Force must be ready to go by the next day, when the remaining Japanese cargo ships would surely return to unload General Maruyama’s supplies.
And then it was discovered that they were running out of gasoline.
Not even the arrival of six more Dauntlesses that afternoon of October 14 raised the drooping spirits of men who heard that news.
General Geiger began issuing orders. He sent a flight of Army B-17’s back to Espiritu Santo, for the Flying Fortresses drank too much gasoline. He ordered the tanks of wrecked planes drained. He sent out a search party to find a cache of 400 drums of gasoline which had been buried outside the airfield in the early days. He instructed Marine air transports to fly in nothing but gasoline. He got fast destroyers headed toward Guadalcanal with more drums lashed to their decks. He called off individual fighter sallies to husband his strength, for he wanted to use all that he had at dawn the next day.
But during the night the big cruisers Chokai and Kinugasa sped down The Slot to enter the Bay and hurl 752 eight-inch shells into Henderson and its defenders. At dawn, Marines standing atop the southern ridges looked westward to a place called Tassafaronga to contemplate the chilling spectacle of six squat Japanese ships calmly going about the business of unloading supplies.
Behind them on the battered airfield there were but three Dauntless dive-bombers able to fly.
“Always pray, not that I shall come back, but that I will have the courage to do my duty,” wrote Lieutenant Anthony Turtora to his parents on a day before his squadron came to Guadalcanal.
In the daylight of October 15, Lieutenant Turtora climbed into the cockpit of his patched-up Dauntless and flew down to Tassafaronga to do his duty. He did not come back. But he and many others of the same spirit did what they set out to do.
By ten in the morning, after a flurry of single-plane sallies, the patchwork, ragtag Cactus Air Force was rising to the attack. It was incredible. They had no right to be airborne. Departing Chokai and Kinugasa had assured the transports that American airpower was now as defunct in fact as in the communiques of Imperial Headquarters. But here they were coming with the sun glinting off their wings—Wildcats, Dauntlesses, Avengers, Army P-39’s and P-400’S, and later Flying Forts from Espiritu. Henderson mechanics had not slept for three days but they had made good their vow to salvage all but bullet holes. Thousand-pound and goo-pound bombs fell among the Japanese ships and beached supplies, bullets flayed and scattered enemy shore parties—while Marines on the ridges wildly cheered the Tassafaronga parade. And then, a great shout of delight broke from their throats to see a clumsy Catalina flying boat lumber into the air with two big torpedoes under her wings.
It was the Blue Goose, General Geiger’s personal plane.
Mad Jack Cram was at the controls. Major Cram had never heard of a PBY making a daylight torpedo attack before, nor had he ever fired torpedoes. But he had flown into Guadalcanal at dusk of the preceding day and been told that there were no Avengers to use the big fish nestled beneath his wings. In that case, he replied testily, he would launch them himself. He had received five minutes’ instruction from a fighter pilot whose brother flew a torpedo bomber, and then, gathering his crew, had climbed into the big Cat.
Now Cram was nursing his ship up. He made for a rendezvous with eight fighters and a dozen Dauntlesses a few miles east of Henderson, far from 30 Zeros flying cover for the ships. Major Duke Davis’ Wildcats were roaring down the runway behind him, taking off even as Pistol Pete ripped at the field again.
The Dauntlesses were at 9,000 feet. They were going over. The lead plane rolled over on its back, flashing down. The Zeros above them began peeling off, riding them down. Flak rose from Tassafaronga. The Blue Goose was going over. She was almost vertical, going for a Japanese transport a mile away. Cram rode the controls with his eyes devouring the speedometer needle. A Catalina was built for 160 miles an hour. Blue Goose was coming down at 270. Her great ungainly wings wailed and flapped in an agony of stress. She would surely come apart.
Cram hauled back on the stick. Blue Goose began to level off at 1,000 feet. Cram went over again. Blue Goose came screaming in at 75 feet, flashing past two transports, shuddering at the antiaircraft burst that knocked off her navigation hatch. Now Cram was sighting off his bow at a third transport. He jerked the toggle release. The first torpedo splashed in the water and began its run. Cram yanked again. The second fell, porpoised, righted—and followed the first into the transport’s side.
Five Zeros quit the dogfight to go after Blue Goose. Cram stood the plane on its wing and banked for Henderson Field. Behind him the transport was sinking. But the Zeros were around him, taking turns at making passes at his tail. Cram roller-coasted his ship, diving and rising, diving and rising, while the Zeros raked him homeward. Blue Goose was over the Henderson main strip, but Cram was going too fast to get down. He made for Fighter One, Blue Goose now wheezing through a hundred holes. Still the Zeros struck at his tail.
Cram began putting Blue Goose down. A Zero climbed his tail, just as Lieutenant Roger Haberman was also bringing his smoking Wildcat into the landing circle with lowered wheels.
Wheels still down, Haberman completed his turn, came in behind the Zero and shot it down.
Blue Goose ploughed up the strip in a glorious pancake landing. Mad Jack Cram and his crew emerged unharmed, though it would take much skill and patience to pull Blue Goose together again.
She had accounted for one of the three lost Japanese transports, and helped to drive the others away from Guadalcanal. The Tassafaronga tally-ho had struck a grievous blow at Lieutenant General Masao Maruyama. He had 20,000 men ashore, but he had lost most of the shells for his big guns, much of his food, and nearly all his medical supplies. The last was the worst of all, for beriberi and malaria had already begun to sweep among Maruyama’s earlier arrivals and one of those inveterate Japanese diarists was already setting down his lament:
It was coming down The Slot again.
Once again the flares, the night aglow with muzzle blasting, the long sleek shapes in the lagoon, American feet pelting madly in the darkness—and 1,500 shells raining in upon Henderson and the perimeter from the heavies Myoko and Maya.
It went on for an hour, and then there was silence. Fearfully at first, then with growing confidence, weary Marines climbed out of their pits and foxholes and stumbled to rearward sleeping holes that were only better in that they had ponchos drawn across them. Along the airfield the pilots dragged themselves to tents and cots. Among them was Major Galer. He looked around for his friend, Major Smith. He had been talking to him when the shelling began, and they had raced for the dugout together. Galer was worried. He went outside the tent and began calling:
“Smitty? Smitty? Where are you, Smitty?”
There was a momentary silence and then, faintly, from the airfield dugout came the infuriated voice:
“Here I am, dammit! Somebody bring me my shoes, will you? I’ll be damned if I’m going to walk barefooted over all those sharp-assed stones!”
There was another silence, and then, snickering, from Major Galer this time:
“How the hell’d you get out there, Smitty?”
At daylight of October 16, General Geiger calculated that he had lost 41 bombers and fighters to Japanese guns in the past three days, plus 16 more aircraft damaged. He had 25 bombers left in flyable condition, once repairs were made to the victims of Myoko and Maya, but he had only nine fighters. Geiger signaled Efate in the New Hebrides for hurry-up help.
In came 19 Wildcats and seven more Dauntlesses, led by Lieutenant Colonel Harold (Joe) Bauer—rugged Joe Bauer who had shot down five Japanese aircraft while “visiting Guadalcanal.” Bauer’s Squadron 212 came in just as the Japanese launched a savage dive-bombing attack on the field and the American ships in the Bay. Bauer’s gas tanks were nearly empty, but there were eight enemy Vals plummeting down on a wildly zigzagging destroyer.
Bauer went after them alone. He pulled back on the stick and went slashing up through his own antiaircraft fire and then came snarling down again. He shot down four Vals before he landed and he saved the destroyer. It was swift, as aerial combat goes, but it was then, and has remained, the most extraordinary feat of individual heroism among the Henderson airmen, men who already acclaimed Joe Bauer as the best fighter pilot the Marines had produced. Bauer got a Medal of Honor for it, and it boosted his individual score to 11.
So ended the six-day ordeal begun with the arrival of Pistol Pete. But Pistol Pete was losing his voice. The airmen had put his shells on the bottom, and this would matter greatly in the tide of battle now flowing back to land.
By mid-October of 1942 the struggle for Guadalcanal had become the preoccupation of the Empire. It had long since overshadowed the offensive against Port Moresby in New Guinea, where, in fact, the Australians had not only held but had pushed the Japanese 18th Army back, and had finally been joined by American soldiers in a drive on Buna-Gona.
It was now the 17th Army of Lieutenant General Haruyoshi Hyakutate which was receiving most of the men, munitions, airplanes and ships. At the conference which Fleet Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto had called at Truk, General Hyakutate was assured that he would receive the support of the Combined Fleet. Yamamoto was giving him four aircraft carriers, four battleships, eight cruisers, twenty-eight destroyers, four oilers and three cargo ships under the divided command of Vice Admirals Chuichi Nagumo and Nobutake Kondo. Haruyoshi Hyakutate was no longer displeased with the southern Solomons assignment, when, on the night of October 17, a lighter brought him to Guadalcanal to take personal charge of the campaign.
The general landed near Kukumbona and made straight for Maruyama’s headquarters there. He asked Maruyama for his battle plan. He read it carefully. In the dim light, with his thin face and great round eyeglasses, Hyakutate looked something like a lemur.
Maruyama’s plan was a good one. It dovetailed with the Truk strategy whereby the Army would capture the airfield, while the Combined Fleet swept the waters clear of Americans and flew off aircraft to occupy Henderson Field. Maruyama planned three thrusts, two from the vicinity of the Matanikau and a surprise attack from the south.
On October 20 Colonel Oka’s force was to cross the Matanikau far above Nippon Bridge and work down the east bank to be in position to drive behind the exposed American left flank on the night of October 21.
On that same night the remainder of Colonel Nakaguma’s 4th Regiment was to cross the sandbar at the mouth of the Matanikau behind 11 tanks. The armor, drawn from the ist Independent Tank Company, was already hidden in a tunnel cut in the jungle on the edge of the sandbar. When the order came, the tanks would crash through the last few feet of underbrush like metal monsters bursting paper hoops.
On the following night, October 22, with the tanks safely across the river and firing at the Marines in the southern hills, with Oka sweeping around the American left to the airfield, General Maruyama would deliver the surprise crusher from the south.
He had already assembled his main body—the 16th and 29th Regiments of his own Sendai Division, plus part of the 230th Regiment from the 38th Division, some dismounted cavalry-men and a battery of mountain guns—and sent them to the headwaters of the Mamara River, which was about 10 miles south and a bit west of Kukumbona. From there they would march almost directly east until they were opposite the Marines in the hills behind the airfield. Then they would slip left or north to steal up on the Americans undetected. Engineers had already gone ahead of the foot troops to hack out the 35-mile jungle passage which the Sendai commander was already calling the Maruyama Road. The march was expected to take five days. Aerial photographs had shown no difficulties of terrain, and men as tough as the soldiers of the 29th—who had once marched 122 miles in three days, double-timing at the end—should be able to cover the distance easily.
General Maruyama not only counted on surprise but also hoped to pierce the enemy line without a fight. The Sendai intelligence officer, a Lieutenant Colonel Matsumoto, having failed to obtain intelligence of the enemy by torturing a captured Marine, had beheaded the American in the honorable way and turned to searching enemy bodies. He had found an American operations map which showed many gaps in the enemy’s southern line. The map had been reproduced for the Sendai’s officers.
Lieutenant General Hyakutate was pleased. He agreed, also, that the American, Vandegrift, should surrender his sword at the rivermouth.
Maruyama bowed and strode off to join his main body.
The following day, October 18, far to the southeast in New Caledonia, a stocky American admiral with a bulldog face led a force of carriers into the harbor of Noumea. The great ships dropped anchor. A whaleboat drew alongside the admiral’s flagship. A naval officer came aboard and handed the admiral a manila envelope. Inside it was another marked SECRET. The admiral ripped it open. It was from Admiral Chester Nimitz, the commander-in-chief of the Pacific. It said: “You will take command of the South Pacific Area and South Pacific forces immediately.”
“Jesus Christ and General Jackson!” the admiral swore. “This is the hottest potato they ever handed me!”
William Frederick Halsey was taking over—old Bull Halsey of the craggy bristling jaw, the creed of attack and the undying hatred of the enemy. The Marines on Guadalcanal now knew they had a fighting sailor behind them.
The day after Halsey took command in the South Pacific, Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox held a press conference in Washington to discuss the perilous situation on Guadalcanal. There was a direct question: Could the Marines hold?
“I certainly hope so,” the secretary replied. “I expect so. I don’t want to make any predictions, but every man out there, ashore or afloat, will give a good account of himself.”
Those Marines on Guadalcanal who had been jubilant to hear that Old Bull was taking over received the secretary’s shy little pep talk with the wonderful bad grace which would always sustain them.
“Didja hear about Knox? It was on the ‘Frisco radio. He says he don’t know, but we’re sure gonna give a good account of ourselves.”
“Yeah, I heard—ain’t he a tiger?”
The Maruyama Road had run into unexpected roadblocks. Captain Oda’s engineers had slashed easily through the foothills of the Lunga Mountains, but then, three days and about 20 miles out, they had blundered into a maze of steep cliffs and a clutter of jungle-tangled ravines and gorges. General Maruyama chafed at the delay, but there was nothing he could do. A patrol might have moved along the Maruyama Road, but not almost a division of troops loaded down with burdens of 50 pounds each. Each man carried an artillery shell in addition to his own equipment. They had to cut footholds in the cliffs, haul the guns up by ropes. Rain fell constantly. Advance troops churned the underfooting into a mush which slowed the steps of following soldiers. Maruyama had to call repeated halts to close the gaps. His men were weakening, for Maruyama, having lost much food, had been forced to put them on one-third rations.
By evening of October 20 the Sendai was still far short of its intended position to the south. General Maruyama signaled his superiors by portable radio. Would the Navy hold off its sweep until October 26? The photographs made by the naval fliers had been imperfect. There were difficulties of terrain. Also, had he remembered to point out to General Hyakutate that General Vandegrift’s surrender offer must be accepted at once, that he must come from his headquarters alone but for an interpreter?
Alexander Vandegrift was not at his headquarters that evening. He was in Noumea, conferring aboard the U.S.S. Argonne with Bull Halsey, Major General Millard F. Harmon, the Army’s South Pacific commander, and Major General Alexander M. Patch, who would one day relieve Vandegrift. Even the commandant of the Marine Corps, Lieutenant General Thomas Holcomb, was present at this dramatic shipboard conference.
Vandegrift told his story. The facts marched forth as gaunt and unpolished as his Marines. Halsey asked:
“Are we going to evacuate or hold?”
“I can hold,” Vandegrift said. “But I’ve got to have more active support than I’ve been getting.”
Rear Admiral Richmond Kelly Turner was stung. He commanded the Amphibious Forces Pacific, and Kelly Turner could not accept that Marine rebuke without reply. He spoke quickly in the Navy’s defense. There were getting to be fewer transports and cargo ships, fewer warships to protect them. There were no sheltering bases at Guadalcanal, and the Solomons’ landlocked waters were too narrow for maneuver. There were enemy submarines.
Halsey heard him out. But he had made up his mind.
“All right,” he told Vandegrift. “Go on back. I’ll promise you everything I’ve got.”
Even as Vandegrift flew back to Guadalcanal, Lieutenant General Hyakutate had decided to press the attack on the Matanikau. His irritation had not been mollified by Maruyama’s nice touch about the surrender. The Navy had grown churlish. Kondo and Nagumo were badgering him: would soldiers never learn that ships sail on oil? The Combined Fleet could not remain much longer at sea. Hyakutate had better get on with it.
He did. On the afternoon of October 21, he ordered Pistol Pete to begin pounding the Third Battalion, First Marines, atop the ridges overlooking the sandbar at the rivermouth. With night, the tanks would roll.
But that afternoon Pistol Pete found himself in a fight with the five-inch rifles of the Third Marine Defense Battalion. Two of the Japanese 150’s were silenced, and the others were forced to change position.
When Colonel Nakaguma’s 4th Regiment came at the Marines that night with their tanks and their gobbling cries of death, the big howitzers joined the lighter ones to destroy the lead tank and send the remaining ten rumbling back into the jungle with the 4th’s infantrymen swarming after them.
The Japanese repulse was so swift, the flare-up so brief, that General Vandegrift considered the entire engagement a patrol action.
It had not been, of course, it had only been Colonel Oka again. Not ten minutes after the tanks had rolled, Lieutenant General Hyakutate had learned that Oka was twenty-four hours behind schedule. He not only had not gotten into position east of the river upstream, he hadn’t gotten over the river.
Hyakutate quickly called off the attack.
Next day the commander of the 17th Army arrived at the Matanikau front in a rage of command. He signaled Oka and told him that he had better get across the Matanikau and be prepared to attack the exposed left flank of the Marine line by the night of October 23. Men who malingered were to be dealt with ruthlessly.
The assault was going to be made the night of the twenty-third no matter what, and with any luck, it might just happen that Maruyama—from whom nothing had been heard since October 20—would strike at the same time.
But General Maruyama had not yet reached his point of attack on that black night of October 23, and Colonel Oka was still dragging his feet. Only Colonel Nakaguma attacked, and it would have been better for the Japanese cause if he had not. For Nakaguma was another of those Japanese officers who pressed home attacks that were no better than massed deathswarmings. They could not fight and run away, these commanders. They would not fight another day. They would look on death before defeat.
The 4th Regiment rushed into the massed fire of 10 batteries of Marine artillery, into the murderous interlocking fire of machine guns, rifles and automatic weapons. They were like moths, seeking to obliterate the light with their exploding bodies. They matched flesh against steel and were torn apart.
Only one of Nakaguma’s 10 medium tanks succeeded in crossing to the east or Marine bank. It held the tank company leader, Captain Maeda. It raced over the sandbar, rolled over the barbed wire, crushed a pillbox and swung right to come clanking down on a foxhole held by Private Joe Champagne.
Champagne ducked. He fumbled for his grenade. The tank’s underbelly blotted out the night. Champagne reached up, slipped the grenade into the tank’s treads. He huddled down again.
Captain Maeda’s tank sloughed around out of control. A Marine half-track rolled out on the sandbar. Its 75-millimeter rifle flashed. Maeda’s tank lurched. The half-track fired again.
A sheet of flame gushed from Maeda’s tank. The half-track had hit the ammunition locker and the tank was blown 20 yards into the sea, where it was finished off.
Now, one by one, Marine half-tracks rolled down to the sandbar and destroyed the remaining tanks.
The attack which had begun with dark was over by ten o’clock in the night. Morning revealed a hideous spectacle on that sandbar. Nothing moved among jagged coconut stumps, twisted blackened tanks, whole tops of trees lying in broken-headed ruin among the heaps of dead—nothing moved but the bloated crocodiles swimming lazily downstream.
The day after the 4th Regiment met zemmetsu or annihilation on the Matanikau, Colonel Akinosuke Oka explained his own unit’s failure to attack with this report:
“The Regiment endeavored to accomplish the objective of diverting the enemy, but they seemed to be planning a firm defense of this region.”
It was not true, there was no defense on the left of the Marines opposite Nippon Bridge, and Lieutenant General Hyakutate could not accept Oka’s alibi. The colonel had again played the part of Ferdinand the Bull. But by late afternoon of October 24 the general was at last able to goad Oka into getting across the river and moving down toward that exposed left.
Oka did and moved too far.
Men of the Third Battalion, Seventh Marines, on top of the ridge where the Marine left was refused spotted Japanese soldiers moving across a lower ridge to their left. They reported it to headquarters.
General Vandegrift acted quickly. The Second Battalion, Seventh Marines, was even then moving out of reserve to relieve the Third Battalion, First, which had fought at the rivermouth the night before. Vandegrift turned this battalion south and sent it up to the undefended high ground lying about 1,000 yards east of the refused left flank.
The Marines of the reserve began moving south just as the sun began to fade from the sky to their right.
The dying sun of October 24 was on the left of Lieutenant General Maruyama’s main body as it at last moved north on its march to battle. Maruyama’s men had made their left turn, had quit the tortuous ravines, and were coming in undetected on the Marines who held the hills between them and Henderson Field. They could hear their own bombs exploding within the Marine perimeter a few miles in front of them. Maruyama was pleased that radio contact was being renewed with Hyakutate and that the naval liaison officer present at the Kukumbona headquarters would be able to relay news of the airfield’s capture to Admiral Yamamoto, thus sending the Combined Fleet into action.
General Maruyama was confident of victory. Like Colonel Oka, he believed that he was moving on a weak point in the enemy lines. He trusted in the map provided by Matsumoto. There was no reason not to. How could Maruyama know that the map taken from the dead Marine was an American copy of a map taken from a dead Japanese early in August? How could he suspect that the American lettering on it marked positions held by the Japanese prior to the Marine landing?
Maruyama, like Oka, was not moving against a gap. He was approaching the low-lying jungle to the east of Bloody Ridge, a point held by the battalion commanded by Chesty Puller.
The sun was down.
It was dusk of Saturday night, October 24.
A young Marine on patrol outside Puller’s line in the southern hills stopped dreaming of the delights of Saturday night back home and hurried to catch up with comrades who had left him behind. He paused. Behind him, just silhouetted on a low ridge, he could see a Japanese officer studying the line through field glasses. The officer disappeared. The Marine rushed on to report to his patrol leader.
Japanese south of the airfield?
Vandegrift was uneasy. He had just strengthened the Matanikau left with all he could spare from his reserve. What would he do if Puller got hit hard back there?
Probably, he thought, he would have to use the soldiers. There was a battalion of the 164th in bivouac behind the Tenaru.
The men of the U.S. 164th Infantry Regiment were sulking. They were sick and tired of being an orphan outfit, being pushed around. They had been squeezed out of their own division—the 41st—when the old National Guard “square” divisions were made “triangular,” that is, cut from four to three infantry regiments. They had been tossed into another orphan outfit with the bastard name of Americal Division—not even a number!—and been pushed around the Pacific. They had landed in dismal Noumea, which was bad enough, being an oversized hatrack for Navy brass, but which was also worse with those snooty French colonials frosting the doughfoots and the fact that if there was so much as a single native girl to go skylarking with she’d surely be found doing some shave-tail’s laundry.
Then they were detached again and handed over to the Marines!
They had been bombed and shelled and shot at and put on the Tenaru and then been made to suffer the indignity of having fresh-faced kids five and six years their junior tell them they should have been on Guadalcanal “when it was really rough.” Kids that couldn’t grow beards, and they’d come around with their notched rifles and try to swap souvenir battle flags for the candy the 164th still possessed or for wrist-watches that had not yet rusted in the jungle. Japanese “battle flags”1 Even the men of the 164th knew that the Marines made them by pounding red match tips onto the center of white handkerchiefs.
The men of the 164th were sore, nor did they feel any better when they heard the rumor that they had been alerted to stand by for action in a battle expected that night.
At seven o’clock on that night of October 24, Platoon Sergeant Mitchell Paige crawled forward to the nose of the ridge position which was then being occupied to nail down the Matanikau left flank. Paige’s men had reached their position in darkness. Now the sergeant was feeling around him with his hands, searching for a good position for the guns. He felt the ridge fall away sharply to either side.
“Here,” he whispered to the men of his machine-gun platoon. “Put the guns here.”
They set them up, moving stealthily, careful not to stumble in the mud, careful to slip the gun pintles into tripod sockets without a telltale clink of metal.
“Chow time,” Paige whispered. “Where’s the chow?”
They had one can of Spam and also a can of peaches “borrowed” from a rear-echelon galley on their march south to the ridge. The man carrying the peaches mumbled that he had dropped the can and it had rolled down the ridge into the jungle. There were fierce coarse things hissed in the dark and it was well for the loser of the peaches that the night veiled his face. Paige opened the Spam, tore the soft meat in pieces and pressed them into outstretched hands. The men ate.
They took up watches on their guns. It began to rain. Suddenly, after midnight, from far to their left, they heard the sound of battle.
At half-past midnight Sunday morning, October 25, the rain was coming down in a torrent, and a torrent of Japanese soldiers was washing against the line held by Chesty Puller’s Marines.
Their attack came at a point perhaps 2,000 yards south of Henderson Field, and a little less than five miles to the east or left of the newly fortified ridge where Sergeant Paige and his men sat.
The Japanese came by the thousands, so many of them rushing and shrieking that the soggy ground shook beneath their feet. They hit the barbed wire even as the Marine guns erupted, and some of them came through it, using the bodies of fallen comrades as ladders over and bridges through the wire.
These were soldiers of the 29th Regiment led by the shouts of their commander, Colonel Masajiro Furumiya, inspired by the dashing sight of the 7th Company—the color company streaking through a rent in the barbed wire and charging toward the line of American pits and holes.
A few feet behind that line Chesty Puller bellowed at his men, directing counterfire. He found one Marine lying in the tall grass. He stooped, seized him, booted him in the behind, and snarled: “Get the hell up theah, an’ doan lemme se youah shirttail touch youah ass until you do!” The Marine ran forward to fight—to fight and live to boast of how old Chesty gave him a good one right between the cheeks.
Now that gap in the wire was being closed as Marine riflemen and machine-gunners opened up in concert. Colonel Furumiya and the men of the color company were cut off between the wire and the Marine foxholes. The two guns under Sergeant John Basilone—Manila John they called him—were firing full trigger, piling up bodies as the bullets streaked out at a rate of 250 rounds a minute. Soon Basilone’s guns were out of ammunition. Manila John ducked out of his pit and ran to his left to get more belts. As he did, Furumiya’s men, drifting to the west, overran the section of guns at Basilone’s right. They stabbed two of the Marines to death and wounded three others, driving on farther to the rear after the American guns jammed when the Japanese tried to turn them on the Marines.
Basilone returned to his own pit just as a runner came up gasping: “They’ve got the guys on the right.” Basilone raced up the rightward trail. He blundered into a barefoot private named Evans—“Chicken” they called him because of his tender eighteen years—and the Chicken was firing his rifle and screaming at the enemy: “C’mon, you yellow bastards!” Basilone ran on, jumped into the silent pit, and found that the guns were jammed. He ran back to get one of his own guns.
At his own pit, Basilone seized a machine gun and spreadeagled it across his back. He shouted at half of his men to follow him and ran back up the trail to his right. The men ran after him, overtaking him just as he reached a bend in the trail. Around the bend were half a dozen Japanese infiltrators. The Marines killed them and ran on.
Now they were in the fallen pit and the men were firing the gun Basilone had brought, while Manila John himself lay in the mud working to unblock the jammed guns. The Japanese were forming again outside the wire, gliding through the rain in bunches. Now Basilone had the guns fixed. They were set up. The men were frantically scraping mud from machine-gun belts they had dragged uptrail. Then they were firing again, and Basilone was rolling from gun to gun, shooting up each successive belt as soon as it was fed into the breech and snicked into place.
Now it was half-past one in the morning and still the men of the Sendai were rushing, while their commanding general made a jubilant report of victory back to Hyakutate. And the Sendai were falling even as the naval liaison officer back at Kukumbona relayed the message to Admiral Yamamoto and the Combined Fleet in these words: “Banzai! Occupied airfield.”
During the next half-hour the Japanese began to falter under rising American fire. They still rushed at the wire, but when they reached that point where the bullets crisscrossed with an angry steady whispering, they began to peel off in groups, flitting through the rain-washed illumination of the shell flashes to throw themselves down in the darkness and crawl toward the Marine lines on their bellies. Sometimes Basilone and his men turned their pistols and rifles around to take on the infiltrators.
In that half-hour, it became clear to General Maruyama that his first two thrusts had failed and he had better regroup and try again. The earlier optimism must be toned down and he sent off a report to Hyakutate that the fighting was still going on. The naval officer transmitted the message to Yamamoto.
It was now a little after two in the morning and the firing had begun to die down.
At shortly after two in the morning, Sergeant Mitchell Paige and his men heard firing to their right. Unknown to them, a party of Colonel Oka’s men had slipped through a draw between their right and the left of the Third Battalion, Seventh, and had overwhelmed an observation post.
Paige crawled forward on the ridge. He heard low mumbling in the jungle below. There were Japanese down there. Paige decided to force them to attack before they could discover his position. He pulled the pin from a hand grenade. His men, hearing that snick, pulled their own pins. Paige threw. The men handed him their primed grenades and he threw these too. There were explosions, Hashes—screams.
Paige’s men scuttled back to their guns, bracing.
But no one came.
At half-past three in the morning the Sendai came rushing again at Lieutenant Colonel Puller’s line, and at that time also the men of the 164th Infantry went into battle with the Marines.
Led by Lieutenant Colonel Robert Hall, the regiment’s Third Battalion had marched from bivouac behind the Tenaru to Puller’s battlefront to the southwest. They came sloshing in through the darkness, guided by the yelling and jabbering and hammering of the fight. Lieutenant Colonel Hall quickly found Lieutenant Colonel Puller, who was brief.
“I’m in command here,” Chesty snapped, “and I’m feeding youah men in piecemeal whether you like it or not.”
Hall had heard of Puller and this was obviously not the moment to quibble over seniority.
“Go ahead,” Hall said, and the 3rd Battalion, 164th, went into line.
The soldiers went in by squads, moving in alongside squads of Marines, sometimes having to be led by hand, it was so dark, the ground was so slippery. They also held, helping to halt and shatter that third and final onslaught of the Japanese.
By seven o’clock in the morning the Sendai stopped coming, and Admiral Yamamoto’s aide had flashed the word that the airfield was still American. By then also the rain had stopped.
The sun was out, falling with ghastly illumination on the sodden heaps of lifeless flesh lying sprawled before Puller’s lines, warming the Marines and soldiers, setting the jungle steaming.
It was Dugout Sunday.
That thundering sabbath of the twenty-fifth of October, during which only stretcher-bearers, ammunition-carriers or airfield crews dared stay long erect, was set in motion by that prematurely jubilant «Banzai!“ which the naval officer at Kukumbona had flashed to Yamamoto at half-past one in the morning.
His subsequent messages were vague. Before he could send off the seven o’clock admission that the airfield was still American, the Japanese Combined Fleet had begun its end of the coordinated land-sea-air attack which was to crush the Americans.
Carriers flew off airplanes to obliterate remaining American air strength on Henderson Field and to sink whatever ships were found in Iron Bottom Bay. A cruiser-destroyer force made for a point behind Florida Island to enter the battle on call. Three big destroyers—Akatsuki, Ikazuchi and Shiratsuyo—sped down The Slot to shell the Guadalcanal shore and to attack shipping. And then, as the liaison officer began tempering his original jubilation, Yamamoto kept the remainder of the Combined Fleet sailing a circle 300 miles north of Guadalcanal. The situation had not only become unclear, the Japanese admiral had received reports indicating that American carrier and surface forces were coming up to Guadalcanal from southern bases.
Dugout Sunday’s services began at ten in the morning, which was when Akatsuki, Ikazuchi and Shiratsuyo showed up. They steamed into the Bay with all guns going and pounded Marine coastal installations. They sank the tugboat Seminole and made wreckage of other little harbor craft. They looked hungrily about for other victims, and then, to their great surprise, geysers of water rose around them.
Gunners of the Third Marine Defense Battalion were blasting at the Japanese destroyers with five-inch rifles. They were scoring hits. Soon black clouds were boiling off the destroyers’ sterns. Sending up a screen of smoke, Akatsuki, Ikazuchi and Shiratsuyo streaked for home.
The airplanes arrived at half-past two.
The Japanese pilots attacked thinking the airfield had been knocked out. If they had come in the morning their belief would have been correct, in effect, for the rains of the preceding night had made a mire of both runways. But General Geiger put his repair crews to work while placing a call for help with American air bases in the south, and the Seabees and engineers, aided by a hot, drying sun, had the runways operable by midafternoon. Then there began that daylong jolting rhythm of flying, fighting, landing, refueling, rearming —and flying again.
Captain Joe Foss and Lieutenant Jack Conger were among those Marine fighter pilots who struck ferociously at the first Japanese flight of 16 heavy bombers, plus escorting Zeros. Foss had been on Guadalcanal only 16 days and he was already a legend. He had shot down 11 enemy planes—had flamed four bombers on October 23 alone—and now on Dugout Sunday, riding his cockpit with a dead cigar stub clenched in his teeth, he was climbing aloft to duplicate that feat. In the first scramble Foss and three others took on six Zeros. Foss got two of the three knocked down. But his Wildcat was so riddled by bullets he had to go down for another one, bringing his pilots down with him to refuel. They went back up to close with nine of the dozens of Zeros leading a fresh formation of bombers over the field. Foss shot down two more, and dove for home again, just one plane shy of a kill for every day he had spent on the island.
Lieutenant Jack Conger fought until he ran out of ammunition. He had escorted a crippled comrade back to Henderson, fighting off Zeros all the way. He shot one down, but now, as he turned and screamed up toward an enemy fighter, the pressure of his thumb on the gun button brought no response from his wing guns. Still he flew upward at the Zero. He brought his whirling propeller blades under its tail. The Zero turned frantically, and broke in two.
Conger’s plane was also staggered. It was going over, falling. Conger couldn’t bring it out. That huge obliquely-sliding mirror which was the surface of Iron Bottom Bay seemed to flip up toward him. Conger strained at his escape hatch. He couldn’t get out, he thought he would never get out, and that monster mirror was about to slap him. With a great wrench, Conger was free. He was barely 150 feet above the water when his parachute billowed, jerking him. He could see his plane plummet down among the coconuts, then he was into the mirror, jolted and jarred as though it possessed the very density and opaqueness of glass.
Conger surfaced, treading water. He slashed at the smothering shroud of his parachute. He glanced up to see another Zero falling in flames. He gaped in astonishment as its pilot floated down to water not 20 feet away from him.
Now there was a rescue boat speeding toward Conger. It came alongside, its exhaust putt-putting hollowly in the swells. Conger was hauled aboard. The boat slewed around and made for the Japanese pilot. Conger called to him, made surrender motions. The flier dived under. He came up beside the boat, kicked with both feet against its hull, and tried to swim away. The boat pursued. Conger grabbed a boathook and caught the flier by his jacket. The man struggled. Conger leaned forward. They contemplated each other, warbirds of East and West, the one rescuing, the other refusing—and the Japanese pulled out a Mauser pistol, pressed it against Conger’s face and pulled the trigger.
Conger sprawled backward. I’m dead! he thought. But he was not, nor was the Japanese pilot, who, failing to return death for life, had placed the pistol to his own head and produced another click. Conger seized a water can and slammed it down on the flier’s head. Limp and unconscious, the Japanese was hauled into the boat.
In all, 26 Japanese planes fell to Marine fighters and antiaircraft gunners. Marine bombers went up too, and from the hilarious shouts of their returning pilots, even the imprisoned little flier might have guessed that they had caught the Japanese ships behind Florida and left a cruiser sinking.
And yet, the flier’s confusion could never match the consternation of that naval liaison officer then composing a fourth report for Admiral Yamamoto. The Army’s night attack had failed. There had been “difficulty in handling the force in the complicated terrain,” he reported, but General Hyakutate was going to try again that night. The Army was ready.
The Army had better be ready, the Navy thundered. There was a naval battle making up northeast of the Solomons and the Army must have possession of the airfield before it began.
Down the chain of command went Hyakutate’s frustration. Colonel Oka had better attack tonight. Maruyama’s Sendai had better keep faith with its motto: “Remember that Death is lighter than a feather, but that Duty is heavier than a mountain.”
But heavier than duty was that mountain of despair weighing upon the men of the Sendai this night of October 25. They munched their meager ration, stunned, dispirited and wet—for the jungle continues to drip long after the sun comes out. Their officers were not sure of their position; Matsumoto’s map had caused them to blunder into the Marines the preceding night. The men were still mindful of that hideous firepower which had nearly made zemmetsu of the 29th Regiment. What had happened to the 29th? Was it true that they had lost their colors? Where was Colonel Furumiya?
He was trapped behind the enemy lines.
The 7th Company which had carried the 29th’s colors through the Marine wire had been annihilated. Only Colonel Furumiya and a staff officer had survived. Throughout the night they had blundered through the dark, hoping to rejoin their regiment. They had become lost. With day, they had gone into hiding, for the colors were wound around the waist of Colonel Furumiya. Loss of the regiment’s colors to the enemy meant that the 29th would be struck from the lists in disgrace. Rather than risk exposing them to capture, Colonel Furumiya decided to lie low and await Maruyama’s inevitable night attack.
The inevitability of an attack that night of October 25 was also evident to Sergeant Paige’s platoon of machine-gunners, men with names like Leiphart, Stat, Pettyjohn, Gaston, Lock, McNabb, Swanek, Reilly, Totman, Kelly, Jonjeck, Grant, Payne, Hinson.
They had found their can of peaches in the jungle and had opened it with a bayonet—Guadalcanal’s all-purpose instrument—and eaten. Then they dug in, certain of an attack from the fact of the myriad winking lights they had seen in the jungle. They knew these were not fireflies but the colored flashlights which the enemy used for signaling.
Lieutenant Colonel Chesty Puller was also ready, though the fury of Dugout Sunday had not given his men much time to improve their positions; there had been time to resupply the 81-millimeter mortars, those unlovely stovepipe killers of which their gunners sang:
We have a weapon that nobody loves,
Proof of the last line was to be given shortly. At eleven o’clock that night the men of the Sendai Division came padding up the narrow jungle trails into assembly areas south of Puller’s lines. Officers began to whip them into frenzy. Soon they were chanting, “U. S. Marine you going die tonight, U. S. Marine you going die tonight.”
Marine mortars began falling among them. Shells flashed along the trails. The Japanese charged and the mortars stayed with them, whittling this heaviest of all Guadalcanal charges before it reached the wire. Soon the howitzers to the rear were booming.
And the Sendai Division still charged.
Colonel Oka’s men had at last made a direct attack.
They struck heaviest at the ridge nose held by Sergeant Paige and his men. At two in the morning, Paige again heard low mumbling. It was much closer than the night before. The Japanese were floundering about in the bushes with less than Oriental stealth. Paige passed the word:
“Use grenades. Don’t let ‘em spot the guns. Fire only when you have to.”
They pulled pins and threw. They grasped grenades in both hands and tore out the pins with their teeth and rolled the yellow pineapple bombs down the slopes.
Oka’s men came bowling up at them.
“Fire!” Paige bellowed, but he needn’t have, nor could he have been heard above that sudden eruption of sound and light. All of his guns were hammering, spitting orange flame a foot beyond the flash-hiders. But the enemy was swarming in. It was hand to hand. Paige could see little Leiphart down on one knee, wounded, trying to fight off three charging shapes. Paige shot down two of them with his rifle. The third bayoneted Leiphart, killed him, and Paige killed his killer. Pettyjohn was shouting that his gun was out of action. Gaston was battling a Japanese officer, blocking with his rifle while the officer swung a saber, kicking wildly after the rifle had been cut to pieces. Now part of Gaston’s leg was gone. He kicked again. His foot slammed up under the officer’s chin and broke his neck. Now it was fighting without memory of a blow struck, a shot fired, a wound received; now it was mindless, instinctive, reflexive; the shapes struggling on the slopes, the voices hurling wordless atavistic battle shouts, “Aaa-yeee!”; the voices crying, “Kill! Kill!” and “Bonnn-zahee!”; the voices hoarse with death, shrill with pain—and beneath it all ran the cracking booming chorus of the guns.
Then the attackers flowed back down the hill and vanished. The first wave had been shattered.
Paige knew they would come again, and ran quickly to Pettyjohn’s disabled gun. He worked to dislodge a ruptured cartridge. He pried it free, slipped in a fresh belt of ammunition—and hot pain seared his hand. A Japanese light machine-gunner had fired a burst into the gun and wrecked it. With that burst came the second wave.
Oka’s men flowed upward in a yelling mass. Grant, Payne and Hinson held out on the left, although they were all wounded. In Paige’s center, Lock, Swanek and McNabb were hit and carried to the rear by corpsmen. The Japanese moved into the gap in the center. Paige ran to his right, hunting for men to counterattack the Japanese, for another gun to put back in the center. He found the machine gun manned by Kelly and Totman. They were protected by a squad of riflemen. Paige ordered the machine-gunners to break down their gun, told the riflemen to fix bayonets, and then, with the cry “Follow me!” he led them back to drive the enemy out of the center. Paige set the gun up. He fired it until dawn, while Kelly and Totman fed it ammunition. At dawn, Sergeant Paige saw another of his platoon’s machine guns standing unattended on the forward nose of the ridge. There were short men in khaki and mushroom helmets crawling toward it. Paige got up and ran forward….
To the left of Paige’s position, where the second wave of Oka’s men had made a penetration, the fight had gone badly for F Company of the Second Battalion, Seventh. Oka’s men had forced F Company back and captured a ridge on the extreme left of the Second Battalion’s line. They put 150 men in position. They set up two heavy machine guns. They began raking the Marines from the flank.
In that early-morning light in which Sergeant Paige had spotted the machine gun, Major Odell (Tex) Conoley could see vapor rising from the Japanese machine guns as the hot steel condensed the jungle water on the barrels. Conoley realized that the Japanese now had a strong penetration which could be built up for a breakthrough. He was the battalion executive officer, and only a few of the men around him were riflemen. But there were also at hand a few bandsmen serving as litter-bearers, a trio of wiremen, a couple of runners and three or four messmen who had brought up hot food the night before and had stayed. There were 17 in all. Tex Conoley formed this bobtail band and charged.
They went in hurling grenades. They knocked out the machine guns before the Japanese could fire at them and they came in with such sudden force that they routed the startled defenders of the ridge crest. And then the mortarmen shortened range to draw a curtain of steel across the forward slope of the ridge while Conoley consolidated and received reinforcements.
Daylight of October 26 lighted the destruction of the Japanese 2nd or Sendai Division.
The assault against Puller’s lines had gone on all night, but it had produced not a single penetration. It ended at dawn with Japanese losses in proportion to the fury of their charge. It was the most savage assault, it became the most stunning defeat.
The Sendai could not fight again as a unit on Guadalcanal.
Sergeant Paige got to the gun first….
He dove for the trigger, got it, squeezed it—and killed the crawling Japanese. A rain of enemy fire came down on Paige. Bullets spattered off the ridge shale, spurting, squealing away in richochet. Paige kept firing. Three men ran to him with ammunition belts—Stat, Reilly and Jonjeck. Stat went down with a bullet in the belly. Reilly reached the gun, took a bullet in the groin, and went down kicking—nearly knocking Paige off balance. Jonjeck came in with a belt and a bullet in the shoulder. As he stooped to feed the gun, Paige saw a piece of flesh go flying off Jonjeck’s neck.
“Get the hell back!” Paige yelled.
Jonjeck refused. Paige hit him on the jaw. Jonjeck obeyed.
It was full light now, and Paige was scurrying back and forth, moving his gun to avoid the inevitable rain of grenades greeting each burst. In the tall grass below the ridge some 30 Japanese sprang erect. One of them put field glasses to his eyes. He signaled a charge.
Paige triggered a long searing, sweeping burst and the Japanese vanished from sight like puppets pulled on a string. Then Sergeant Mitchell Paige charged himself. He called to his riflemen. He slung two belts of ammunition crisscross over his shoulders. He unclamped the gun, yanked it from its cradle and cradled the burning-hot water jacket across his left arm.
“Let’s go!” he yelled.
Straight downhill they charged, screaming their rebel yells —“Ya-hoo! Yaaaa-hoo!”—firing from the hip as they went, obliterating all before them while Paige aimed a disemboweling burst at the enemy officer who had popped up out of the grass. And then they were in the jungle and it was strangely quiet.
It was the hush that comes upon the end of battle, as eerie as that long white snakelike blister that ran from the fingertips to the forearm of Platoon Sergeant Mitchell Paige.
On October 26, while land fighting sputtered out on Guadalcanal, the naval battle which Admiral Yamamoto expected was fought in waters roughly 300 miles to the east.
Yamamoto, who had always sought a major engagement with the American fleet, hurled his forces into the fight as eagerly as Bull Halsey, who sent Rear Admiral Thomas Kincaid into action with the signal: “Attack! Repeat—Attackl”
But the air-sea engagement known as the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands fell short of a clear-cut decision. The Americans lost the carrier Hornet and a destroyer to submarine attack, and 76 American planes went down. The unsinkable Enterprise was again hit. The Japanese suffered severe damage to two carriers and a heavy cruiser and lost 100 aircraft. Minor damage was about even.
Santa Cruz was a disappointment to both sides, but neither side allowed the stand-off to weaken its resolve to fight on for Guadalcanal.
Already, in the final days of October, while the surviving ships of both nations steamed north to Truk and south to Noumea, the Americans were sending more ships to the South Pacific area and Marine and Army units were under orders for movement to the island.
Up in Rabaul, Lieutenant General Hyakutate was taking the last shot from his locker. He was calling on the 17th Army’s reserve division, the 38th. Hyakutate had already fed in the Ichiki Detachment, the Kawaguchi Brigade, the Sendai Division, and a handful of lesser units. Now he would send roughly 15,000 troops down The Slot, the bulk of that 38th or Nagoya Division commanded by Lieutenant General Tadayoshi Sano.
On Guadalcanal itself in the final days of October, the broken remnants of the Sendai Division, together with the survivors of all those other units which had come to the island since early August, were streaming westward through the jungle. They were disorganized, starving, wounded and sick. Some 5,000 Japanese died beneath Marine guns in those attacks which began on October 21, and which, after Maruyama’s main thrust was shattered on October 24-26, erupted sporadically in small local actions or jungle skirmishes until the month ended.
Among these dead was Colonel Furumiya. He and his staff officer had not been able to find their way back to the jungle south of the American lines. They had not eaten for days. They had barely enough strength to tear the 29th’s colors into bits and grind them into the mud with their feet. They had not burned the flag because the smoke might give them away. Then Colonel Furumiya wrote a letter which the staff officer was to deliver to Maruyama, although it would actually be taken from the officer’s dead body by the Marines who killed him. Furumiya wrote:
Colonel Furumiya straightened. He placed a pistol to his head. He bowed in the direction of Tokyo and the Emperor, and the staff officer pulled the trigger.
Chesty Puller was also writing a letter, composing it mentally while he lay on a hospital cot with seven pieces of shrapnel in his legs.
Puller had been helping wiremen repair communications wire in a patrol to the east of the Tenaru when an enemy shell burst among them, wounding Puller. A Navy corpsman quickly gave him aid and began to write out an evacuation tag.
Chesty tore it from the corpsman’s hand and flung it at him. “Go label a bottle with that goddam tag!” he roared.
But Puller had been forced to accept hospital treatment. Now he lay on his cot, thinking. He had had a close call with the corpsman. He could have been evacuated and sent Stateside, out of the war. Automatically, the words of a request to Headquarters began forming in his mind: “… therefore I respectfully request… duty overseas with a combat unit… for the duration of the war…”
He would write it as soon as he returned to his men, with all but one of the shrapnel pieces pried from his legs, which would be at the end of that dreadful black month of November.
It was in November that the Marines of Major General Alexander Vandegrift came close to losing their minds.
A bitter aching fatigue had come upon them. They had met the enemy on the beaches, in caves, atop the hills, down in the jungle swamps—and they had defeated him. They had been battered by every weapon in the arsenal of modern war. They had been blown from their holes or been buried in them. They had not slept. They had been ravaged by malaria, weakened by dysentery, nagged by tropical ulcers and jungle rot, scorched by the sun or drenched by the rain. They had met each ordeal with the hope of victory, and had survived only to prepare for greater trial. They had come to Guadalcanal lean and muscular young men, and now there was not one of them who had not lost twenty pounds, and there were some who had lost fifty. They had come here with high unquenchable spirit, but now that blaze of ardor was flickering low and there was a darkness gathering within them and their minds were retreating into it.
All the world was circumscribed by their perimeter. Guadalcanal had become Thermopylae multiplied by ninety days. There might be ninety more, for all they knew, for there seemed no way out, around or through. This was that “feeling of expendability” of which so much has been written, but which, like a toothache, can never be understood but only felt. It was a long shuddering sigh of weariness with which men rehearsed in their minds what had gone before, wondering dully, not that it had been sustained, but in what new hideous shape it would reappear. It was a sense of utter loneliness made poignant by their longing for encouragement from home, which never seemed to be forthcoming, by their hope of help, which was always being shattered. It seemed to these men that their country had set them down in the midst of the enemy and left them there to go it alone. They could not understand—had no wish to understand—that high strategy which might assign a flood of men and munitions to another theater of war, a trickle to their own. They reasoned only as they fought: that a man in trouble should get help, and here they were alone.
So they turned in upon themselves. They developed that vacant, thousand-yard stare—lusterless unblinking eyes gazing out of sunken, red-rimmed sockets. They drew in upon themselves in little squad groups, speaking constantly in low voices to each other, rarely to men of other units. They avoided those top NCO’s and officers who might put them on working parties unloading ships. They were not shirking duty, they were saving strength—for the daily patrols, for the ordeal of the night watch with its terrors of the imagination, terrors fancied but real. Some of these men had not the strength to go to the galley to eat, for galleys usually lay in the lowlands behind the lines. Weakened men might get down to the galley, but they could not get back up. Their friends brought them food, just as men brought food to buddies sickened by malaria but not sick enough to occupy a precious cot in the regimental sick bays. Men with temperatures a few points above 100 were not regarded as bona fide malaria cases. There had been only 239 of these in September, there had been 1,941 of them in October—and before November ended there would be 3,200 more.
So these men faced the month of November, forgetting the outside world, forgetting even that they were Americans—mindful only that they were Marines and trying always for those flashes of rough comedy which could nourish their spirit.
Sometimes men stood on the hills and shouted insults at an unseen or nonexistent enemy in the darkened jungle. They called Emperor Hirohito “a bucktoothed bastard.” They dwelt at loving length on the purity of his lineage. They yelled unprintables at Premier Tojo while ascribing to him every vice in the book of human depravity. And there came an astonishing night when a thin reedy voice shrilled up at them in outraged retaliation:
“F—— Babe Ruth!”
So went November on Guadalcanal, the month which General Vandegrift began with another offensive west and a counterinvasion move east.
On November 1 a force of roughly 5,000 Marines moved across the Matanikau. Vandegrift was again hoping to prevent an enemy build-up to the west, as well as to destroy the disorganized survivors of the October battles. He hoped also to raise morale with a successful offensive and to knock out Pistol Pete, now firing again, and all other enemy artillery to the west. The western force moved cautiously at first, striking along the coast toward Kukumbona.
On the same day another force of Marines was trucked to the Tenaru preparatory to crossing the river next day. Admiral Halsey had already notified Vandegrift that Koli Point, about a dozen miles east of the Tenaru, was probably going to be the next enemy landing place. Halsey was also worried about the security of Aola Bay, 18 miles east of Koli Point, where he hoped to build another airstrip and where engineers and the newly arrived Second Raider Battalion were to land on November 3. An enemy unit at Koli Point could cut communications between the perimeter and the Aola Bay force. So Vandegrift was sending troops east to prevent a Koli Point landing.
The eastern force was the same Second Battalion, Seventh Marines, which had stopped Oka. It was led by Lieutenant Colonel Herman Henry Hanneken, the “King of the Banana Wars” who had fought as a sergeant in Haiti, meeting the Caco leader, King Charlemagne, in personal combat and killing him.
The next morning, November 2, Hanneken’s battalion crossed the Tenaru and began a forced march to Koli Point. They reached it before dusk, crossed the Nalimbiu River which cuts through it, and then also crossed the Metapona River another few miles east. They set up a coastal defensive perimeter on the east bank of the Metapona. And then, in the fading light of day, they saw three Japanese ships slip into the lee of the coast another mile east and begin unloading troops. Hanneken watched helplessly. Rain had put his radios out of commission, and he had strung communications wire no farther east then the Nalimbiu.
In three hours, the 230th Infantry Regiment, vanguard of the 38th or Nagoya Division, came ashore with supplies and guns—and the cruiser, destroyer and transport which had brought them sailed away.
Next morning, Hanneken decided to attack. His mortars opened up. The Japanese replied with an artillery barrage and themselves began attacking. They came down the beach in superior force and Hanneken withdrew. He got back behind the Metapona, set up, and was attacked again.
A destroyer had put a Japanese landing party ashore in front of Hanneken’s Marines.
At about the same time west of the Matanikau, the Fifth Marines closed in on a few hundred Japanese caught in a trap around Point Cruz and destroyed them with bayonets. Next day the Fifth was to sweep on to Kukumbona.
But they would not. That night they were under orders to return to the perimeter next day, for Lieutenant Colonel Hanneken’s radios had at last begun to function and the beleaguered commander had asked for reinforcements. Vandegrift was calling off his western offensive again, and planning a trap for the Japanese 230th Infantry.
The Marine general ordered the First Battalion, Seventh, east by boat to reinforce Hanneken, who was even then successfully forcing his way west of the Nalimbiu River. The unit which landed in front of him was not large enough to contain him. Hanneken set up a beachhead 400 yards wide and 300 yards inland and at midnight the reinforcing battalion arrived and joined his defense line.
Next Vandegrift ordered his air to strike everything the Japanese had in the east, especially with an eye toward protecting the Aola Bay airfield-construction force which had also landed November 3.
Finally, he sent the 164th Infantry Regiment on a march southeast. This was begun November 4, even as Hanneken’s force attacked eastward again and recrossed the Nalimbiu. When the 164th was far enough southeast, or behind the Japanese, it would wheel and face north to the sea. Hanneken, meanwhile, would turn the enemy inland. Thus, the soldiers of the 164th Infantry would become the anvil on which the hammer blows of the Seventh Marines would shatter the enemy.
As a final touch, to cut off and annihilate any Japanese who might burst out of the trap, Vandegrift was going to place another force still farther south. He had just the outfit to do it.
They specialized in private wars, these men of Carlson’s. They had made the hit-and-run raid on Makin Island on August 25, and though they had been wildly acclaimed in the States, their score of roughly 100 enemy dead had failed to impress the dogged, sardonic defenders of Guadalcanal. For the “Gung Ho Boys” of Evans Carlson were not popular with brother Marines. They regarded themselves as an elite of an elite, they had volunteered for the Raiders’ special mission of staging commando-style raids, they had all answered “Yes” to their commander’s unique question, “Could you cut a Jap’s throat without flinching?”—and because of this, because of Makin, because they could march and fight on an unchanging ration of rice, tea and bacon, they thought themselves tougher than the ordinary Marine.
But the “ordinary” Marine, if such exists, could not agree. They now knew to the last cruel degree of adversity the difference between the unromantic foot-slogger who hits-and-holds and the dashing beach-leaper who hits-and-runs. Even the Raiders’ motto of “Gung Ho”—the Chinese phrase for “Work Together” which Carlson had learned during his prewar service with the Chinese Eighth Route Army—was not likely to thrill or awe these ordinary Marines. It was more likely to call forth sarcasm. If the Marine Corps’ own slogan of “Semper Fidelis” was often interpreted to mean “I got mine, how’d you make out?” the Raiders’ flamboyant “Gung Ho!” could receive the sneering twist, “Which way’s the photographers?”
Carlson’s Raiders were now at Aola Bay. On November 5 they moved west toward the Japanese who had attacked Hanneken. They sloshed up the trails following that tall, lean, long-nosed, passionate man who had given them their individuality and their battle cry, unaware, as he was unaware, that “Gung Ho!” now must prove itself beneath the eyes of the most critical audience they knew—the ordinary Marines of Guadalcanal.
On November 8, while Vandegrift’s eastward forces were still maneuvering to spring their trap, Vice Admiral Halsey came to Guadalcanal.
He came in without fanfare. He put on Marine dungarees and boondockers and rode in a jeep around the perimeter. His staff officers begged him to stand up, to wave, to do anything that would let the men know that Bull Halsey was there. He refused.
It would be “too damn theatrical,” he said, it would be an affront to the weary men who had held this island for three months.
At noon Halsey went to Vandegrift’s headquarters for lunch.
It was a surprisingly good meal. There was even apple pie. Admiral Halsey was so impressed that he wished to compliment Vandegrift’s cook.
“Sergeant,” Vandegrift called, “the Admiral would like to speak to you.”
Butch Morgan came out of his tent-galley. He drew a tat-toed forearm across his glistening handlebar mustache and grimy stubble of beard. He carefully wiped his hands on his T-shirt.
“Sergeant,” Admiral Halsey said grandly, “I want to compliment you on your cooking. Especially the apple pie. It was terrific!”
Sergeant Morgan shifted his feet sheepishly while that awful thing called a blush colored his wrinkled, weather-leathered face. He looked at his general in agony, and then he burst out:
“Oh, bullshit, Admiral—you don’t have to say that!”
The admiral and the general exchanged glances, and the sergeant was mercifully dismissed. The next day Bull Halsey flew back to Noumea, heartened to hear that Archie Vandegrift still thought he could hold, convinced that men fed by such cooks could never be defeated.
One day later, November 10, those men of Alexander Vandegrift had pulled the string on the Japanese to the east. They killed 350 of them, against their own losses of 40 dead, 120 wounded. They captured 15 tons of rice, 55 boats and much of the enemy’s artillery. But most of the 230th escaped, pouring through a gap blasted in the inland line held by the 2nd Battalion, 164th. They fled westward toward Hyakutate’s reorganizing remnants, moving over the trail which the Kawaguchi Brigade had cut around the Marine perimeter in September. Following them like a scourge came Carlson’s Raiders.
Another private war had begun. With only an occasional air-drop of ammunition and rice, disdainful of help or the barest report which might acknowledge the fact of the larger war raging seaward, Carlson’s Raiders began to whittle the retreating 230th Regiment.
They struck the Japanese column twelve times, falling savagely on the flanks and rear, vanishing almost as suddenly as they had appeared—employing that simple guerrilla tactic which Carlson had learned from the Chinese. The Raider main body marched in a line parallel to the retreat of the Japanese main body, sometimes on the right side, sometimes on the left. Directly behind the Japanese came Raider patrols. Each time the patrols ran into large numbers of Japanese they opened fire. Whereupon the enemy would begin to rush reinforcements to his rear. As he did, Carlson’s main body struck from the flank with concentrated firepower.
Carlson’s Raiders killed 500 men of the 230th Regiment with this tactic, and when they returned to the Marine lines 30 days after they had set out from Aola Bay, with only 17 of their comrades fallen, they found that “Gung Ho!” was no longer a cry of derision among their brother Marines. They also found that their private war had run concurrently with the general war they had left—for the tide of battle on Guadalcanal had at last turned.
And it turned at sea.
“Commence firing!” Rear Admiral Daniel Callaghan shouted. “Give’em hell, boys!”
Callaghan’s little stopgap fleet drove ahead; his ships plunged straight into the flaming guns of the mighty Japanese fleet which had come south to pulverize Henderson Field. Guns roaring, sterns down, keels carving hard white wakes in the glittering obsidian waters of Iron Bottom Bay, they rushed on to destruction—to the fiercest surface battle of the war.
Callaghan’s fleet had come north to escort the Army’s 182nd Infantry Regiment to Guadalcanal. There were his own flagship, the cruiser San Francisco, the other cruisers Atlanta— with Rear Admiral Norman Scott aboard her—Portland, Helena and Juneau; and the destroyers Laffey, Cushing, Sterrett, O’Bannon, Aaron Ward, Barton, Monssen and Fletcher. They covered the 182nd’s landing November 11, and when 32 Japanese torpedo bombers and fighters came winging over The Slot the afternoon of November 12, their antiaircraft guns joined Henderson’s fighters in knocking all but one of them from the skies.
In the afternoon succeeding that fifteen-minute flurry came word of the Japanese bombardment fleet sweeping down from the Shortlands: the battleships Hiei and Kirishima, the cruiser Nagara, and 14 of those big Nipponese destroyers.
To stop them Admiral Turner had only Uncle Dan Callaghan and his five cruisers and eight destroyers. He ordered Callaghan to attack.
Admiral Kondo had to be held off for at least one night, for mighty Enterprise had been repaired and was tearing north with a load of warplanes to hunt out the Japanese transports bringing the rest of the Nagoya Division to Guadalcanal. The planes would need to land at Henderson Field. Therefore Henderson must not be bombarded.
Turner’s decision was made after the twilight in which Callaghan’s ships stood out to sea. They returned at midnight. At a quarter of two in the morning of November 13 Callaghan stood on San Francisco’s bridge and shouted his rallying cry and the battle was joined.
It was as though the world were being remade. It was cataclysm ripping matter apart like paper. Searchlights slashed the star-shell-showered night. Gunflashes flitted like bolts of summer lightning. The wakes of speeding ships were crisscrossed by the thin foaming lines of racing torpedoes, blotted out by the flaming geysers of their collision. And above the smoking roar of battle, Admiral Callaghan was crying over the Talk Between Ships:
“We want the big ones, boys, we want the big ones!”
Little Laffey took on a big one. She ran in under great Hiei’s mighty 14-inch turrets and peppered her bridge. She was so close that Hiei’s pagoda silhouette seemed to sway above her. Hiei thundered and Laffey lurched and began to burn. San Francisco was dueling Hiei, hurling salvo after salvo into her superstructure. Hiei thundered again. A full salvo of 14-inchers tore into San Francisco’s bridge, killing Callaghan and every other man there. San Francisco’s gun turrets began firing on local control, and her salvos were rocking crippled Atlanta. Admiral Norman Scott was dead; the commander who had won the Battle of Cape Esperance had fallen from our own fire. Silhouettes plunging in and out of smoke were difficult to determine. American fired on American, Japanese on Japanese—and every ship but Fletcher was hit. Barton blew up. Monssen sank. So did Cushing, Laffey—and the cruisers Juneau and Atlanta.
But the Japanese were running. Every one of them had been staggered. Destroyer Yudachi was going down. So would Akatsuki. Admiral Kondo’s ships were streaking north, and limping behind them, rudderless, her hull rent with jagged holes from the twin torpedoes of little Sterrett, her superstructure a mass of wreckage from 85 shell hits, came great Hiei.
After her came the fighters and bombers from Henderson Field. Though Callaghan and Scott and many of their men had died, though the Americans had lost six ships, Henderson had not been scratched. The battle which Fleet Admiral King called “the fiercest naval battle ever fought” had served its purpose, the preservation of the airborne Marine fighters and bombers that were now coming to kill Hiei. They slashed down on the eight Zeros sent south to cover her and shot them down. Major Joe Sailer planted a bomb on Hiei’s remaining antiaircraft turrets and knocked them out. Captain George Dooley’s quartet of Avengers sent another torpedo flashing into the great ship’s hull. Seven Dauntlesses fell upon her with thousand-pounders. Nine Avengers from Enterprise joined the assault, and full five more attacks were made on Hiei that day. Still the great sea monster wallowed in the swells, glowing cherry red, sailing an aimless circle, now making for Guadalcanal, now drifting north again—refusing to go under.
At night the Japanese scuttled her. By morning only a shining oil slick two miles long marked the sun-dappled seas off Savo, marking the place where great Hiei sank.
But before that morning, the Japanese Navy again came to Henderson Field. Gunichi Mikawa, who had won the Battle of the Five Sitting Ducks three months before, led six cruisers and six destroyers down to Savo again. They arrived at midnight. Standing off the island’s cone, Mikawa sent in Suzuya and Maya while his flagship Chokai and the others covered for them. The two heavies hurled 1,000 shells into the island. They would have hurled more, but six little torpedo boats crept from the creeks and coves of Tulagi Harbor and came with a roar at the big ships. They loosed a spread of torpedoes, hit cruiser Kinugasa and drove the rest away.
Gunichi Mikawa, who had passed up the chance to sink the American transports three months ago, sinking their escorts like a wolf killing the dogs and letting the sheep go, was once again departing Savo Island with that high speed which the exultant torpedo-boaters described as the act of “hauling ass.”
Then it was full morning, and in the daylight of November 14 the Wildcats and Dauntlesses and Avengers were up early to hunt out Mikawa’s force. The Japanese shelling had destroyed only two planes and damaged 16 others, and Fighter One had been manhandled swiftly into shape.
The Marine fliers found Mikawa’s ships under a cover of fleecy clouds. They put torpedoes into crippled Kinugasa, planted bombs on two more cruisers and a destroyer—and then, calling for Enterprise’s fliers to come north to finish Kinugasa and batter the others, they flew back to Guadalcanal in time to launch the slaughter of the Nagoya Division known as the Buzzard Patrol.
Commander Tadashi Yamamoto stood on the bridge of his destroyer Hoyashio as it plunged south under empty blue skies. It looked as though the convoy was going to make it undetected. There were no enemies aloft and none over the horizon. Eleven transports stuffed with about 12,000 men, plus 12 escorting destroyers, seemed destined to arrive safely off western Guadalcanal that night.
It had been so predicted. Admiral Mikawa had radioed the utter destruction of Henderson Field and reported the absence of enemy surface ships.
This was well. Even Commander Yamamoto, accustomed to his nation’s indifference to the comfort of its soldiers, felt uneasy at the sight of those troopships looking like drifting logs aswarm with ants.
It was a little after noon. There were less than six more hours to go. And then Yamamoto heard the motors.
The Americans came hurtling down from the skies, every last precious airplane which Henderson Field could put aloft. Major Joe Sailer, Major Bob Richard and the Navy’s Lieutenant A1 Coffin were among the first to strike. Thousand-pound eggs tucked beneath their Dauntless bellies fell away, described that dreadful yawning parabola—and exploded on crowded decks in leaping sheets of flame and flying steel. Two such bombs gave one of the transports its mortal wounds, six more left another troopship dead in the water, two others crippled a destroyer.
Flights now came from everywhere, from Enterprise, from Espiritu Santo, from the Fijis. They flew in, dropped their bombs, launched their torpedoes, strafed and flew away—sometimes to their own base, sometimes to Henderson for rearming. Zeros roared down from Rabaul to intercept them, but there were Marine fighters such as Captain Joe Foss and Lieutenant Colonel Joe Bauer flashing among them, shooting them down or driving them away from the diving Dauntlesses or skimming Avengers. Nor could the Zeroes tarry long. The range was now in the Americans’ favor. When they left, Marine and Navy pilots, the Army Lightning fighters lately come to Guadalcanal, swooped down at masthead level to rake decks already slippery and running red with blood.
Even the sea about those listing, settling, burning transports was incarnadine with Japanese blood. The water was dotted with thousands of bobbing heads—men blown overboard, men who had jumped to flee the fires only to feel the bullets sting and sear among them. It was merciless, it had to be merciless. Every Japanese safely ashore on Guadalcanal was another soldier a Marine must kill. Men vomited in their cockpits to see the slaughter they were spreading. They dove and saw with horror how the decks and bunks and bulkheads visible through jagged, gaping holes were glowing red with heat.
It went on until nightfall, until seven of the transports were sunk or sinking. The remaining four staggered shoreward in flames to beach themselves near Kukumbona, putting a few hundred leaderless soldiers ashore before they were destroyed by Marine fliers, the destroyer Meade and the five-inch batteries of the Marine Third Defense Battalion. Of the 12,000 men of the Nagoya Division who sailed south, something less than 5,000 survived the scourging of the Buzzard Patrol. Most of these were taken aboard the destroyers and carried north. Some reached Guadalcanal by boat. Others were scattered in ragged dispirited groups throughout the Central Solomons. And of all the supplies which General Hyakutate sent south, only five tons got ashore.
It was a stunning victory, almost absolute, but for the loss of the incomparable Joe Bauer, who was shot down and never seen again.
To Vandegrift’s Marines it seemed that they had been saved. The great enemy convoy had been destroyed at sea. They would be reinforced, they would be relieved, they would sling their rotted field packs on their shoulders, seize their rusted rines—and sail away from this horrible island forever.
But not yet.
If the virtue of the Japanese warrior was his tenacity, as it was, then the defect of that virtue was his inflexibility.
Among those admirals whom the great Admiral Yamamoto had sent to reinforce Guadalcanal or to knock out Henderson Field, none was more tenacious than Vice Admiral Nobutake Kondo. Nor more inflexible.
Kondo’s plan had called for the shelling of Henderson on three successive nights. The first night, November 12, had been a failure ending in disaster—the loss of Hiei. The second night had been better, but no success when balanced against the daylight bombing of Admiral Mikawa’s bombardment group and the calamity befalling the ships and men of the Nagoya Division.
Now it was the third night, that of November 14. Nobutake Kondo kept to his plan. He was headed for Henderson Field with battleship Kirishima, heavy cruisers Atago and Takao, two light cruisers and a flock of nine destroyers. He was loaded for bombardment, and he was not expecting a fight. Only those tiny torpedo boats which had buzzed Mikawa the night before might stand in his way, and the destroyers would make sukiyaki of these.
Even if the Americans had capital ships available, he was sure they would not dare risk them in the narrow waters of Iron Bottom Bay.
It was getting on to midnight as a trio of torpedo boats slipped out of Tulagi Harbor. They took up station at Savo’s north gate. They believed themselves to be all that was left to defend Henderson Field against the great fleet coming down. The sea was calm, the night air soft and fragrant. A first-quarter moon had set behind Cape Esperance. The pale gold gleaming beneath the violet vault of the heavens had vanished from the surface of the sea, and the lookouts peered anxiously into the dark.
They stiffened. Two great shapes came gliding toward them.
The Americans did have big ships and they were risking them in the narrow waters of Iron Bottom Bay.
Bull Halsey had sent Rear Admiral Willis Augustus Lee charging north from Noumea with the new 16-inch-gunned South Dakota and Washington. and a hastily assigned screen of four destroyers. Lee had no battle plan or radio call-signal, and he had very little information other than that the Japanese heavies were coming down.
Admiral Lee was hungering for intelligence as his ships swept west of Savo, turned north, swung east and put the hulking island off to the right, unaware that he had also put two little torpedo boats to his left. Admiral Lee signaled Guadalcanal, using the code word, “Cactus.” Back came the exasperating reply:
“We do not recognize you.”
Admiral Lee decided to play it by ear. Archie Vandegrift was his personal friend. He would remember Lee’s Annapolis nickname.
“Cactus, this is Lee. Tell your big boss Ching Lee is here and wants the latest information.”
And then, over the Talk Between Ships from the softly chatting torpedo boat skippers, came this:
“There go two big ones, but I don’t know whose they are.”
Unrecognized to his right, suspected to his left, Admiral Lee quickly called Guadalcanal.
“Cactus, refer your big boss about Ching Lee. Chinese, catchee? Call off your boys!”
Guadalcanal replied: “The Boss has no additional information,” and Admiral Lee took his battleships into the Bay. He about-faced and sailed west again. It was close to midnight when he addressed the startled PT-boat skippers:
“This is Ching Lee. Get out of my way. I’m coming through!”
The little boats scurried aside and the battleships went through.
At sixteen minutes past one in the morning, Lee’s radar screens were covered with approaching pips and there was a babble of Japanese voices on the radio-telephone.
It went hard at first for the Americans. Preston, Benham and Walke took the full brunt of shoals of Japanese torpedos and were sunk. South Dakota was pinioned like a big bug on the cold white shafts of enemy searchlights and was shuddering under the impact of their shells. But Lee’s flagship Washington had tracked mighty Kirishima and her terrible sixteen-inchers were tearing her apart. Kirishima was a mass of flames topside, and would soon join her sister Hiei on the bottom of the sea. And now South Dakota was helping Washington batter the heavy cruisers Atago and Takao. Her great guns flashed and smoked above the litter of dead and wreckage topside. The Japanese heavies dragged themselves out of the fight. They would not see action again for many, many months. The destroyers and lights fled after them.
It was quiet on the Bay.
Ching Lee sailed back to Noumea with triumphant Washington, with valiant South Dakota, with lucky little Gwin.
Never again would Japanese battleships come out to fight until they sailed to their fiery Götterdämmerung in the narrow seas of Surigao Strait two years hence. The three-day Naval Battle of Guadalcanal was over.
The Marines had held, and now they were truly saved.
It was December 9 and command of Guadalcanal was passing from the Marines to the Army.
Major General Vandegrift had again put together an offensive to the west and had finally seized the high ground he wished to hold. The Army would direct the clean-up of the island.
The last weeks of November and early days of December were relatively quiet, though the enemy continued to sneak in a few thousand troops by barge. On November 30 Japan sent down the last supplies by sea, and won the Battle of Tassafaronga when the torpedoes of eight of her destroyers drove off the American force trying to intercept them.
Aerial battles sputtered sporadically, there were infrequent bombings, but Henderson Field was gradually shaping up as the great forward bastion of American air power in the Pacific. From the 31 Marine aircraft with which Cactus Air Force was launched on August 20, Henderson’s strength had slowly risen through September, had sunk to that disastrous low of 14 after the Night of the Battleships, and was now climbing toward 150.
Troop strength had increased concurrently. Vandegrift now commanded his own First Marine Division as well as all but one infantry regiment of the Second Marine Division and the Army’s Americal Division. With these went supporting troops and specialists.
As Major General Alexander Vandegrift handed over command to Major General Alexander Patch on this day of December 9, the men who had done so much to make the Rising Sun stand still—the men of Vandegrift’s First Marine Division —were coming down from the hills.
Some of these Marines had spent as many as 122 consecutive days on the lines without relief. They gaped in astonishment at the mountains of food heaped within supply dumps behind their perimeter, for they had only dreamed of this while their sodden bellies growled with rice and Argentine corned beef. They saw big trucks raising clouds of dust along the coastal road, great four-engined bombers roaring off the airfield, ships of all sizes in the Bay. They saw the new cemetery, serried ranks of white crosses broken here and again with stars of David. They were astounded to hear that there was an open-air movie near the airfield, and most of them refused to go—for they wanted nothing of a luxury that belittled their own hard memories of this island.
Then they marched down to the beach to take ship. The Fifth Regiment left first on December 9, the First Marines by December 22, the Seventh Marines before January.
But they could not really march. They stumbled. They were ragged, bearded, sick, emaciated. They had not the strength to climb the cargo nets. Sailors had to pull them over the gunwales, fish them out of the water where they had fallen—doing it gladly and with open tears. They were sticks of men and their sunken eyes stared wonderingly at that island they were leaving, where General Vandegrift, Manila John Basilone, Red Mike Edson, Mitchell Paige and the fallen Major Bailey had won Medals of Honor; where 621 of the Division’s men died, where 1,517 more were wounded and another 5,600 had been stricken with malaria. It seemed such a small cost to balance against the 30,000 soldiers Japan lost at Guadalcanal. But who would count that other cost, that toll of suffering and sacrifice told in shrunken necks and knobby joints and stark rib cages and faces made of bone and parchment flesh?
They couldn’t tell. They could only go below to the Marine’s reward of a hot meal and a clean bunk, while the great ships shuddered and made for the open sea.
Behind them, General Patch’s soldiers and Marines were already moving against General Hyakutate’s remnant, men now scourged beyond belief by malaria and beriberi, men who were now clinging, as the Marines had clung, to the hope of reinforcement. It had been often promised in propaganda leaflets tucked inside those pitiful few sacks of rice or cases of bullets air-dropped to them from the skies:
“The enemy is collapsing before your eyes.”
“We are convinced of help from Heaven and Divine Grace. Respect yourself and by no means run away from the encampment.”
“We, too, will stick to it.”
But they did not. Though there had been bitter conferences between the Army High Command and the War Ministry, though staff officers came to blows in the quarrel over whether Guadalcanal should be reinforced or evacuated, it was the War Ministry’s resolve to evacuate that carried.
Once again swift destroyers swept down The Slot. On three February nights 20 destroyers skillfully took off Haruyoshi Hyakutate and most of the 13,000 men remaining in his 17th Army. On the afternoon of February 9, 1943, at a village west of the Tenamba River, a patrol of soldiers from the 132nd Infantry joined with another patrol from the 161st Infantry. They had reached the island’s west coast and found no enemy.
Guadalcanal was secured.
But not until October 27, 1947, did the last of those most tenacious Japanese soldiers surrender. He came out of his cave, his hair long and matted, his uniform in tatters, a broken Australian bayonet stuck in his belt, a shovel in one hand, a water bottle in the other. His feet were bound in rags and wire, and as he approached a member of the British constabulary, he bowed deeply from the waist.
He inquired about the war and about the Americans, those ferocious Marines whom Tokyo Rose always called “the butchers of Guadalcanal.” He was told that they had sailed away nearly five years ago.
And gone charging on to westward.
Once a jolly swagman camped by a billabong
It was a great tune to march to, a rollicking one to bellow at top voice while rolling merrily home through the quiet broad streets of Melbourne—that spacious airy Australian city where the First Marine Division had begun to recuperate from Guadalcanal.
The Marines arrived in Melbourne in early January, 1943, and were at once clasped to the hearts of its people. They were looked upon as the saviors of Australia, for they had preserved the country’s lifeline to America. They were treated as saviors, in spite of their being men of another nation as well as mere human beings inclined to take advantage of the savior status. But there seemed to be nothing that these Marines could do to outrage their hosts, and gradually, after the Marines’ inevitably exuberant response to the delights of civilization became contained, there developed between host city and guest army a friendship so warm and understanding as to be unique.
Australian soldiers or “Diggers” who might have been miffed, at first, to find the pubs closing early a few times weekly because the Yankee Marines had again drunk the town dry, also found that they were perpetually welcome at the wet canteens or “slop-chutes” of the Marine camps. Complaints that the Americans’ voracious appetite for steak-and-eggs was making beef hard to come by were tempered by the realization that the Yanks were generous with their coveted cigarettes and that they frequently arrived at Australian homes bringing a pound of precious butter. Soon the Aussies were saying “okay” for “good-o” and their movie theaters played “The Marines’ Hymn” as often as “God Save the King,” while over in the Marine camps—where the band often played “Waltzin’ Matilda” on ceremonial parade—the Yanks called their friends “cobber” and spoke of riding a “tram” to keep a date with some “shiela.” Before the division departed Melbourne there was many a Yankee ring on an Australian finger, and during the nine months of that truly remarkable rest the Marines thought less and less of the alternating hell of fear and fire which they had left behind them, remembering it only when a comrade looked up from a Melbourne newspaper account of the war in North Africa or New Guinea and exclaimed:
“I wonder what it’s like back on the ‘Canal?”
Back on the ‘Canal in that early January of 1943 the war had lost its spectacular quality. Over at Tulagi there was a sign which, in letters two feet high, proclaimed Bull Halsey’s battle creed: KILL JAPS, KILL JAPS, KILL MORE JAPS. But most of the killing would have to be done farther north, for Hyakutate’s men had already pulled back preparatory to their evacuation and Japanese naval strength no longer ventured south.
The coastwatchers who occupied the lonely high peaks of Guadalcanal were being called in. Among them was the erstwhile planter K. D. Hay, a veteran of World War One and easily the fattest man in the South Pacific. Yet he had hung on to his station at the mountain mining camp known as Gold Ridge. But now, in January, he was coming down, bringing with him the aged nun who was the sole survivor of a Japanese mission massacre and whom Hay had cared for. Melanesian bearers brought the nun down. Hay made his own panting descent. By the time he had reached the coastal road he was near collapse. He sent word to the Americans requesting a jeep. He explained that he was “knocked up,” innocently unaware that the Australian slang for being exhausted was also American slang for being pregnant.
A puzzled U. S. Army officer drove up the road. He saw Hay. He saw his belly. He clapped his hand to his forehead and swore:
“My God, it’s true!”
In mid-January Japanese aerial attacks on Henderson Field began to increase, giving Captain Joe Foss his chance to break Captain Eddie Rickenbacker’s record.
Foss was back on Guadalcanal. He had recovered from the malaria which had stricken him November 24, the day after he had shot down his twenty-third plane. He had been evacuated to Sydney, but now he was back with Squadron 121 with only a few weeks to go on his tour of duty. And all the talk was whether or not Joe would equal the 26 kills which had made Rickenbacker the American ace-of-aces in World War One.
On January 15 Captain Joe Foss became the ace-of-aces in the new war. On that day he tore into a formation of Zeros and shot down three of them. Foss’s score stayed at 26, while his squadron went on to record 164 kills against 20 of its own pilots lost. At the end of January Joe Foss’s tour of duty was over.
He went home to receive the Medal of Honor, the path of his homegoing convoy crossing that of those carriers and convoys coming out with a new weapon and a new outfit for the Marines’ war against Japan: the peerless Corsair fighter and the Third Marine Division.
The first of the Corsairs arrived at Guadalcanal on February 12. They came to Henderson Field with a bad reputation, for many Navy pilots swore they were “full of bugs” and at least one carrier commander refused to permit them aboard his ship. But the Marines made the Corsair their own, forgetting the stubborn Wildcat which had won the air battle of Guadalcanal in their jubilation at the range and staying power of this gull-winged, paddle-bladed killer. The big Corsairs could fly faster than anything Japan had, could climb nearly 3,000 feet a second, and range twice as far as the Wildcats. If they were difficult aboard ship they were not so ashore—and the Marine fliers would be landlocked for most of the rest of the war.
The Third Marine Division which entered the Pacific Theater almost simultaneously with the Corsair was not only new but also novel. It was a weld of raw recruit and battle-blooded. veteran. It made manifest the fact that the rewards of the Solomons offensive were not all strategic. Unlike Guam, Wake or the Philippines, Guadalcanal had ended in a victory that produced thousands of veteran warriors to drill and lead America’s cadres. Even the lowest ranks of the Third Division included men who had fought the Japanese on Guadalcanal. Having recovered from the wounds or malaria which had brought them home, they had been assigned to the Third. Many of the new division’s officers and top NCO’s were also veterans. They had been promoted and detached from the First to command in the Third.
Never again would a Marine division go into battle as green as the First had been at Guadalcanal. Every outfit would have its heavy quota of officers and men who knew the difference between the myth of the superman of the jungle and the fact of the tenacious enemy who fought so much with his heart, so little with his head. They could tell the boots and Ninety-Day Wonders of the Third that though the enemy was indeed “a tricky little bastard,” his tactics were so tied to trickery that he sometimes confused his means for his ends.
By April all of the Division’s units—the Third, Ninth and Twenty-First Marines, the Twelfth Marine Regiment of artillery, the Nineteenth of engineers—had been assembled in New Zealand. They began training at twenty-two separate camps in the vicinity of Auckland.
South of them, down at the capital of Wellington, was that older brother division, that angriest and most stridently war-like of all Marine divisions—the Second.
The Second Marine Division had come to Wellington from Guadalcanal with a chip on its shoulder. The chip was there for the First Marine Division to knock off. For the Second was sore. Its Second Regiment had been at Tulagi-Guadalcanal since the August 7 landings, had in fact been the first unit to take enemy soil in World War Two, and though it had not been in the thick of it thereafter, it had been forced to stay on Guadalcanal for more than a month after the glory-hounds of the First Division shoved off. The Eighth Marines and Tenth Marine Artillery had come onto the island in November. The Sixth had arrived in January. All had joined General Patch’s offensive without benefit of publicity, for no newspaper in the States seemed to have heard of the Second Marine Division. It was always the First that got the headlines.
So the Second Marine Division was sore and it was going into training to prove its superiority to those headline-hunters up in Australia. Its men were also determined to “pitch a liberty” that would even outdo what was already being called “The Battle of Melbourne.”
What Melbourne already was to the First, Wellington was becoming to the Second. It was another love affair, the only variations being Maori music supplanting “Waltzin’ Matilda” and the steep hills and canyons of North Island substituting for the featureless Victorian plain. In Wellington there were also steak-and-eggs and long-haired girls learning to jitterbug to an American beat—and there were also marriages. And though both New Zealander and American would exchange monuments and plaques on Aotea Quay after the war, the bond that now existed would be manifested by that odd tradition with which United States Marines would henceforth memorialize the people of the Antipodes. Hereafter they would go into battle on a breakfast of steak-and-eggs.
So the Marine Corps took a deep breath in the first quarter of 1943 while the war rolled elsewhere, while Australian and American soldiers drove the Japanese invaders north and west up the New Guinea coast, while the Allies in North Africa began the offensive which doomed Germany’s Afrika Korps, while the Third Reich caught its mortal cold in the Russian snows— and while Fleet Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto plotted a flaming revenge for the loss of Guadalcanal.
It was called the “I” operation. It was intended to blast American bases to rubble, to sink American shipping, to set the American land forces back on their heels while the Japanese strengthened their defenses in the upper Solomons, New Guinea and New Britain. And it was meant to console Emperor Hirohito for the loss of Guadalcanal.
At the end of March—about a month after the Third Marine Raiders and Army units had moved into the undefended Russell Islands about 60 miles northwest of Guadalcanal—Admiral Yamamoto came down to Rabaul to put “I” into effect. He assembled 96 fighters, 65 dive-bombers and a few torpedo bombers aboard four carriers, and to this he added a land-based force of 86 fighters, 27 dive-bombers, 72 twin-engined bombers and a few more torpedo bombers. That was roughly 350 planes—a big force even by the standards of 1945, by those of 1943 enormous.
Yamamoto was going to hurl this thunderbolt at Guadalcanal, where his scout planes reported growing naval strength, and later at New Guinea. During the first week of April the land-based forces were built up at Rabaul and the carrier planes fleeted down to Buka, Kahili and Ballale in the Bougainville area. On April 7, with an early-morning report that four American cruisers, seven destroyers and 14 transports were in Iron Bottom Bay, Yamamoto let fly.
The first of four waves of Vals and Zeros roared aloft from Rabaul. Coastwatchers spotted them and flashed the word. At noon the task force standing out of Tulagi heard the warning and went streaking for the open sea at full steam ahead. But more than 30 smaller vessels were still in the Bay.
By one o’clock the planes from Rabaul had been augmented by three other waves and there were now 67 Vals and 100 Zeros roaring over The Slot. On Segi Point in New Georgia the coastwatcher Kennedy, the man who had rescued Joe Foss and many others, gaped in astonishment at their numbers. He couldn’t count them all. He could only signal “hundreds headed yours.”
By two o’clock the massive Japanese aerial armada was thundering over the Russells, turning the radar screens milky with pips, changing the earlier warning of “Condition Red” to an alert never made before or since.
“Condition Very Red!”
And then the Japanese swept over Tulagi, the dive-bombers making for the ships in the harbor, the fighters taking on the 76 Marine, Army and Navy planes that had been scrambled aloft in readiness. Among them was a Marine boot pilot named Jimmy Swett, the most amazing greenhorn of World War Two.
Twenty-two-year-old Lieutenant Swett had never been in combat before. At three o’clock that afternoon, he and three comrades flew their Wildcats toward Tulagi, their own yelps and rebel yells contributing to that crackling cacophony of “Heigh-ho Silver!” or “Tally-ho!” then drowning out the fighter director’s frantic plea of “Protect your shipping!—Protect your shipping!”
Fifteen minutes later Jimmy Swett had shot down seven enemy bombers. He flamed them so fast he had no recollection of their destruction. He shoved his Wildcat over and dove into the storm of antiaircraft fire flowing up from Tulagi and shot down three Vals at three separate levels of his dive. He cut down to pick-up speed, climbed, and roared after four more Vals and blasted them into the treetops of Florida Island. Then, with his cooling system destroyed, his face bloodied by flying bits of glass from his shattered windshield, he crash-landed in the Bay.
Swett was rescued. He received the Medal of Honor, and the nickname “Zeke,” for this is what Zeros were now being called since the cataloguing of enemy fighters with male nicknames, bombers with female ones. He would fly again, but in the cockpit of a Corsair, and he would shoot down seven more planes before he was through. But on that afternoon he had done more than anyone else to stagger Fleet Admiral Yamamoto’s “I” operation, and henceforth all boot Marine pilots would fly out to maiden combat determined “to do a Jimmy Swett.”
In all, 39 Japanese planes were shot down that wild afternoon of April 7, and 28 of these were destroyed by Marine flyers at a cost of seven of their own aircraft, with no pilots lost. In their elation, pilots of all services claimed kills all over the lower Solomons, and many of the antiaircraft gunners on those little merchant ships were already proudly painting red balls on their gun mounts, their prows, their sterns, so that all claims taken together would surely have meant the destruction of more planes than Yamamoto possessed.
The Americans were not the only Munchausens abroad in the Solomons that day and the next, when the “I” armada thundered over New Guinea. Japanese pilots, having sunk only a destroyer, a tanker and a corvette at Guadalcanal and a small Netherlands transport in New Guinea, returned to base with such glowing reports of success that Yamamoto put an end to “I” and sent the carrier pilots back to their ships.
The Marine air arm thereupon countered with an offensive of its own, striking at Munda Airfield on New Georgia about 190 miles up the Solomons ladder. The field had been cleverly hidden beneath a fake forest. The Japanese had cut away trees but had kept the treetops in place with wires. Beneath them they had built the base which became a thorn in the side of the Americans.
On April 13, 16 Corsairs left Guadalcanal to escort 12 Avengers on a strike at Munda Airfield. Young Bill Coffeen flew one of the Corsairs. He was that rarity in air combat, a flying staff sergeant. He was also a veteran, and when he took off that early morning, nearly blinded by a guide light at the end of the runway, narrowly missing the trees at the edge of the airfield, he guessed that he had begun a bad day.
By the time he had passed over Munda and the Avengers had flashed down, Coffeen’s engine was smoking and his oil line leaking. He was losing altitude rapidly, coming down very fast over The Slot between Choiseul and Kolombangara. At 3,000 feet his motor was so hot he feared it would explode.
Coffeen jumped. His parachute opened.
A few seconds later he had slammed into the water. He surfaced and pulled the cord on his life jacket, his “Mae West.”
It had a hole in it and could not be inflated.
He pulled out his rubber raft and inflated that.
The paddle was missing.
Then a storm broke over The Slot and a wave capsized Coffeen’s rubber boat, carrying off his shoes, his medical supplies, his food. Coffeen now had his rubber raft, the clothes he wore, a hunting knife and a pistol—but he also had hope, for he had heard the sound of approaching motors.
It was his flight returning to Guadalcanal. Coffeen waved the raft’s white sail happily. The planes flew on. He fired his pistol. Two Corsairs came in low. Coffeen fired again and waved the sail. The Corsairs flew on. They had not seen him. There were shark fins sliding by and it was getting dark on the waters of The Slot.
The Americans had broken the Japanese code and they had discovered that Fleet Admiral Yamamoto was preparing to visit bases on Bougainville.
Intelligence was queried: Would it be wise to kill Yamamoto? Would his death hurt Japan or would it make room for a commander better than he? The answer was that Isoroku Yamamoto was the best military mind in Japan, and so his doom was sealed.
On Henderson Field, Rear Admiral Marc Mitscher, air commander for the Solomons, rounded up a squadron of triggermen. He chose the Army Air Corps for the job, for their twin-tailed Lightnings were the longest-ranging things aloft. Sixteen pilots of the 339th Squadron under Major John Mitchell were alerted for the day of Yamamoto’s departure from Rabaul on April 18.
On April 18 Sergeant Bill Coffeen decided that if he stayed where he was he would die.
He had spent two days paddling by hand, burned by sun and salt. He had spent two nights sleeping upright for fear of falling, for fear of sharks. At last he paddled to a tiny island. It was uninhabited. It had no fresh food, no water—only coconuts. After three days of eating coconuts, with the growling of approaching dysentery already audible within his stomach, Coffeen looked at a larger island in the distance and made up his mind to try for it.
He floated his boat. He got in, pulled out his automatic pistol, found it rusted beyond use—and threw it away. With a stick for a paddle, he moved out on The Slot. He paddled and rested, paddled and rested, judging the time and his progress from the position of the sun. At somewhere around nine o’clock he rested and heard the sound of motors. He glanced up eagerly.
They were too high, much too high to see him. They looked like Lightnings.
There were 16 of them.
At thirty-five minutes after nine o’clock on the morning of April 18, two twin-engined Betty bombers arrived over Kahili airdrome. They carried Fleet Admiral Yamamoto, his chief of staff, Vice Admiral Ugaki, and the most important officers of his staff. It was as though Admiral Chester Nimitz had flown up to Guadalcanal from Pearl Harbor, collecting Bull Halsey and other top aides along the way.
A cover of nine Zeke fighters patrolled the skies above the Bettys, watching them drop down to land. Just as the Zekes turned for home, 12 white-starred, twin-tailed killers struck at them from above. Four more Lightnings went flashing down on the helpless Bettys.
Captain Tom Lamphier shot one of the bombers down in the jungle. Lieutenant Rex Barber sent the other spiraling into the sea.
Up above, Major Mitchell’s covering Lightnings shot down three of the horrified Zekes who had wheeled to slam the door left so helplessly open. Only Lieutenant Raymond Hine was lost.
The remaining 15 triggermen flew back to Guadalcanal to make the report which would send wild but highly-secret elation sweeping eastward over the Pacific until it spread through the offices of the Pentagon. But the jubilation had to remain guarded; it would be foolish to let the enemy suspect that his cipher had been cracked. Thus such cryptic vaunts as Bull Halsey’s message to Marc Mitscher: “Congratulations to you and Major Mitchell and his hunters. Sounds as though one of the ducks in their bag might be a peacock.”
It was. On May 21 Tokyo announced that the great Yamamoto was gone. He had been in the plane which Lamphier sent crashing into the jungle and he had been killed with a half-dozen staff officers. Admiral Ugaki had been badly hurt, but he had survived.
That brilliant proud leader who had arrogantly told the world of his intention to dictate peace terms in the White House, the Emperor’s “one and only Yamamoto,” was now dead.
Bill Coffeen knew that he was dying.
He had reached that larger island two days after he had seen the returning Lightnings flying high above him and had noticed that there were only 15.
But the larger island had no food or water either. Nor did a third island to which he had made a laborious three-day voyage.
A mosquito bite on his left hand had become infected. A red streak ran from the hand to his shoulder. On the morning after he had reached the third island, Coffeen’s arm was twice its normal size. He seized his knife and cut open the festering sore which was poisoning his blood. He bathed the wound in sea water, and discovered that his right foot was also infected.
He moved on to another island.
He paddled on, coming ashore on another lifeless rock, eating coconuts, sleeping on beaches, scratching in the sand for anything edible, moving on repeatedly while the weeks turned two and moved toward three.
Around the twentieth day he saw a red-roofed house a mile or more ahead of him on the shore of the island he was coasting. But Coffeen was too weak to paddle farther. He went ashore to rest through the night, hoping to reach the house next day. Beaching his raft, he found that he had stumbled on an abandoned copra plantation. There were outbuildings. But he saw no sign of life or food. Then he heard the cackling of a hen.
He staggered toward a rotting henhouse. He found an aged hen nesting inside. He poked her with a stick. She clucked in outrage and scampered away—exposing twelve beautiful white eggs to the starving eyes of Bill Coffeen. He broke them open and gulped them down. He found some little tropical limes and squeezed the tart juice into his mouth.
He felt certain that he would live and he refloated his boat and made it to the plantation house in another day. He lay on the floor that night and prayed to God for the strength to keep him going.
In the morning he was paddling again, keeping carefully close to the shoreline. At dusk four days later a storm broke over The Slot and swept his raft out to the open sea.
Night fell. Black water swept over Coffeen’s burning flesh, and it was then that he began to scream.
It was mid-May. The campaign in North Africa had ended in victory. The new-style landing boats that had brought the soldiers ashore at Casablanca and Oran were now coming to the Pacific in great numbers.
The old wooden Higgins boats from which the Marines were accustomed to leap into boiling surf were now discarded. Replacing them were the new LCVP’s (Landing Craft, Vehicle, Personnel) which the Marines would simply call “landing boats.” They were 36 feet long, could move at nine knots and could carry 36 Marines or a three-ton vehicle or 8,000 pounds of cargo. They had ramps which were lowered at the moment of impact with the beach, enabling the Marines to run ashore and make one of those ladylike “dry landings” for which they were forever ribbing the dogfaces. Many months later, when the Marines saw the famous pictures of General MacArthur wading ashore on his return to the Philippines, they hooted in wild derision, for they knew nobody need wade with a landing boat around.
There was also the landing boat’s big sister, the LCM (Landing Craft, Medium) which would always be called that. It was 50 feet long and 14 feet wide, and could carry a Sherman tank or 30 tons of cargo or 69 men. The LCM’s were ideal for small forays. They mounted a pair of 50-caliber machine guns and the ramp could be lowered just enough to allow the Sherman’s cannon to fire. Roaring inland, with this armament blazing, the LCM’s were a terrifying sight for enemy riflemen to behold and they could provide excellent supporting fire for those Marines swarming down the ramp.
And the old amtrack was coming into its own. The Marines had had the LVT (Landing Vehicle, Tracked) at Guadalcanal and called it the Alligator. Excellent though it was for crossing swamps or sailing up navigable jungle rivers, it had been erratic in salt water. The tracks corroded and became stuck. Now there was an improved amtrack coming out to the Pacific, and soon there would be amtracks with ramps to the rear, amtrack tanks—or amtanks—and even amtracks mounting flame-throwers which could spew tongues of liquid fire a hundred feet long.
There were bigger boats, such as the bargelike LCT (Landing Craft, Tank) which was 122 by 32 feet and could carry four Shermans or 150 tons of cargo. There was also the LCI (Landing Craft, Infantry), a sleek, swift little ocean-going troop-carrier. The diesel-powered LCI’s were 148 feet long and could hit 16 knots and cruise for 8,000 miles. They had quarters for nine officers and 196 men, with cargo capacity of 32 tons. When the boat beached, twin ramps to either side of the bow could be lowered for the Marines to run ashore. The LCI’s were eventually converted into rocket ships, for which purpose they were admirably suited, and the Marines were not sorry to see them go. They were hot, airless and crowded, with the most rudimentary provision for washing and eating, and they were far from stable.
The LST (Landing Ship, Tank) was stable. Many Marines said that LST stood for Large Stationary Target, for these pin-headed monsters were indeed slow and indeed large. The LST was 328 feet long and could carry 2,100 tons. Her most unusual feature was the enormous high bow composed of two huge doors which swung open the moment the shallow-draft LST’s ran up on the beach, or which could be opened at sea to allow amtracks to roll down a ramp into the water. Through these great yawning jaws ran, rode and rolled all the men and munitions of Mars. To sit in the cavernous belly of an LST on the morning of battle was to be sailing to war within the Lincoln Tunnel—trucks, jeeps, tanks, field guns, ambulances, amtracks, everything wheeled or tracked was lined up nose-to-end behind hundreds of combat-loaded Marines crouching forward for the moment when the doors swung open to reveal the forts of the enemy.
The Marines hated their LST’s with a flippant fierce hatred. Very few men enjoyed the luxury of sleeping in the bunks provided for them below. Most of them slept on deck, usually on field cots placed underneath LCT’s lashed to the deck on blocks so they could be launched over the side on D-Day. Being nine-knot cows, LST’s had to leave for combat earliest, for they took the longest, and this meant that the chances of their being bombed, torpedoed or shelled were more prolonged, and that their food supply would inevitably give out, along with the fresh water, forcing the troops to live off the rations in their packs and to wash in salt water.
No, the LST’s were not popular, any more than had been the M-1, or Garand, semiautomatic rifle when it was first issued. The Marines had fought with the bolt-action, five-shot Springfield rifle on Guadalcanal. This was the famous ‘03 which had made the United States Marines the sharpest shooters in the world. They hated to exchange it for the less-accurate M-1, even though the Garand fired an eight-round clip as fast as a man could pull the trigger. Burning powder gases operated the M-1’s loading mechanism, thus providing the greater firepower, to which the Marines reluctantly yielded.
But at least they had gotten rid of the Reising gun, that slovenly substitute for a Thompson submachine gun which they had taken onto Guadalcanal. The Reising gun was useless, and the Marines swore that the only Japanese hurt by them were those hit by the ones being thrown away. In the Reising’s place came the tommy gun, firing 20- or 30-round clips. For officers and machine-gunners and other Marines assigned to crew-served weapons there was the new M-1 carbine. It was light, firing a clip of 15 30-caliber bullets at semiautomatic. It provided firepower, but it wasn’t tough enough to withstand the corrosion of the jungle. It would break down when fired too long, and then anyone who carried a carbine would search frantically for a rifle-still the best gun to have around when things were getting sticky.
There was also the bazooka, that long-tubed rocket-launcher which a man rested on his shoulder and fired like a rifle, and there was the flame-thrower. Both were new and untried.
They would soon be tested, however, as would all those other weapons and ships now flowing to the three Marine divisions training in the Antipodes and to the Raider battalions on Noumea in mid-May of 1943.
It was May 15 and Bill Coffeen had the foolish notion that someone was cradling him like a baby.
He opened his eyes. He was being carried. He was in the arms of a husky Melanesian and he was being lifted from his raft.
“You allasame ‘Merrican?” the man asked, “or you allasame Jap?”
“I’m American,” Coffeen gasped.
The Melanesian’s white teeth flashed in his dark face.
“’Merrican good fella,” he said, and gathered Coffeen in his powerful arms and took him to a village inland from the beach. Coffeen was puzzled at first over how the Melanesian could mistake a tall Westerner for a short Japanese. But then he understood. He had shrunk to a hank of bone and shriveled skin, his flesh was like burnished copper, his head was a mop almost as fuzzy as his rescuer’s, but plastered down with dried salt, as was the heavy beard covering half his face.
At the village, Coffeen ate. He was saved. Next day his infected foot was lanced, the ulcers covering his body were bathed in an antiseptic—and then Coffeen fell ill with malaria.
There were now four airfields on Guadalcanal and Fleet Admiral Mineichi Koga was determined to succeed where his predecessor, Yamamoto, had failed. He was going to destroy Guadalcanal air power.
In mid-May he shifted his aerial strength from Truk to Rabaul and in early June the Zekes and Vals and Bettys swept south again.
On June 7, 112 of them collided with American and New Zealand planes high above the Russell Islands in one of the Solomons campaign’s biggest dogfights. At 22,000 feet, Lieutenant Sam Logan’s Corsair was turned into a torch by the 20-millimeter cannon of a Zeke.
Logan bailed out. His parachute opened and he began to float seaward.
The Zeke returned. Its pilot made pass after pass at the helpless Logan, and then, failing to hit him, drove at him with whirling propeller blades in an attempt to chop him to pieces. He had cut off part of Logan’s right foot and left heel and was coming again to finish the job when a New Zealand pilot drove him off. Logan hit the water and was rescued. But his right foot had to be amputated. Even so, Logan flew again, for this indomitable Marine was the first American to receive permission to continue to fight and fly with what the Marines called “a store leg.”
So also would Lieutenant Gil Percy live to fight again, even though on that same afternoon of June 7 he had fallen into the sea from a height of 2,000 feet. Percy’s elevator control and wing tanks were shot out when he was flying at that altitude. He leaped from his cockpit and pulled the parachute cord. The chute didn’t open. It merely trailed after him to mark his plunge. Percy was certain he was dead in that obliterating instant when life seemed to be blotted out, but then he tasted salt water. He opened his eyes. There were bubbles all around him and then his head had burst into the light of day and the only things he had to worry about now were sharks and how to swim to a nearby island with a broken back, two sprained ankles and cannon wounds in one arm and both legs.
He began back-stroking toward an island a mile distant. Three hours later he reached an offshore reef. He dragged himself up on it and lost consciousness. At dawn the tide floated him into shore and he crawled up on the sand to be found by three Melanesians. One of them stood guard over Percy while the others went for help. Soon a motor launch with two doctors aboard came to the island. Percy went back to Guadalcanal, and then to a hospital in Auckland. One year later he was back in action.
Admiral Koga lost 23 pilots that day of June 7, and he lost 107 more when he sent 120 planes south on June 16. After the sixteenth, Guadalcanal was never again attacked by daylight.
The Japanese had had enough of Captain Donald Kennedy.
Among the most daring of all the coastwatchers, Captain Kennedy had kept most of the Melanesians on New Georgia hostile to the Japanese, using them to hide downed American flyers while he signaled for small boats or the big flying ships called Dumbos to come get them. Kennedy had also harried the Japanese on New Georgia incessantly-bursting from his mysterious jungle lair to strike swift blows, then melting back into the green tangle again—and he had repeatedly waylaid barges loaded with Japanese soldiers and massacred them.
Kennedy had only attacked when it became likely that Japanese patrols or barge movements might stumble on his Segi Point hideout and thus reveal the entire coastwatching apparatus, of which the Japanese still had no suspicion. Though he had only killed to keep his secret, he had done so with customary vigor and efficiency. Now Colonel Genjiro Hirata was going to use the entire First Battalion of his 229th Regiment to get rid of him.
Kennedy ambushed the first force sent against him and captured the inevitable diary describing Colonel Hirata’s plans for Captain Kennedy. Kennedy called for help.
At dusk of June 20 two companies of the Fourth Raiders boarded the destroyer-transports Dent and Waters and sped from Guadalcanal to New Georgia. By dark the two ships were gingerly picking their way through the shoal-filled channel to Segi Point. Kennedy lighted bonfires ashore to guide them in and cheerfully radioed, “Okay here.” It was not quite okay in the channel, for both ships had scraped bottom. But they worked free, and in the morning the Marines came ashore to seize the beachhead which opened the campaign in the Central Solomons. The long breathing spell between the end of fighting on Guadalcanal and the resumption of the American offensive was ending.
It was June 25 and a Dumbo had come for Staff Sergeant Bill Coffeen. The big PBY landed offshore from the native village and Coffeen went out by canoe to climb aboard.
The Melanesians had saved his life. They had nursed him through malaria. Their food had restored half of the roughly 40 pounds Coffeen had lost during the thirty-two days he had paddled about The Slot on his raft. They had even given the young American a pet parrot to take back to Guadalcanal with him. Coffeen waved his farewell and they waved back gaily, smiling warmly.
Then Bill Coffeen flew back to Guadalcanal, only to start “beating his gums” not ten minutes after his return.
It was not that Bill Coffeen was not grateful for his life, not that he minded the hunger or ulcers or sunburn or malaria so much, it was only that while he had been 72 days missing in action his buddies of Squadron 213 had finished their tour of duty, had “pitched one helluva liberty” in Sidney, and were now back on the ‘Canal ready to start their second tour with good old Bill Coffeen back aboard.
“We told the Aussie gals all about you, Bill,” his buddies said solemnly. “Usually while we were walking down to the pub.”
Take me somewhere east of Ewa
It was the song of the Solomons and it had a chorus descriptive of the changed character of the aerial war against Japan. It went:
Hit the road to Gizo Bay