Chapter 6: Action Along the Matanikau

Retreat of the Kawaguchi Force promised the Marines of the Lunga perimeter another breathing spell from ground attacks, but there was not time for relaxation or relief from concern about the future. Air and naval strikes continued to pound the Henderson Field defenders, and aerial reports of a continued Japanese build-up at Rabaul forecast additional attempts to retake the Guadalcanal area. patrolling schedules were stepped up; it was disquieting to know that both the Ichiki and Kawaguchi Forces had landed on the island and moved into attack positions without the Marines once being completely sure of their exact locations.

At the conclusion of the Battle of the Ridge on 14 September, the Marines had been ashore for 38 days without receiving either reinforcements or additional ammunition. For most of this period the men could be fed only two meals a day, and part of this food came from captured Japanese supplies. Malaria was beginning to add its toll to battle casualties, and although defensive emplacements were continually improved, the Marine force was wearing itself down while the Japanese ground strength continued to mount in staging areas in the Bismarcks.

In these lean early days in the Pacific, the problem of new strength for the Guadalcanal effort was a thorny one. The Solomon Islands position was merely a salient, and still not a strong one, which made a questionable contribution to the safety of other Allied positions farther to the south. So these areas could not be stripped of defenders, and even if some spare troops could be found there still was another operation slated. From the first, the plan for this initial Allied offensive in the Pacific had included an occupation of Ndeni Island in the Santa Cruz group southeast of the Solomons.

The 2d Marines first had been scheduled for this job, but Vandegrift had been allowed to keep this regiment when the opposition became so bitter on Tulagi. Later the general requested that his division's third organic infantry regiment, the 7th Marines, come over from its Samoan garrison duty with its supporting artillery, the 1st Battalion, 11th Marines. But Admiral Turner demurred; he still saw a need fro the Ndeni operation, and the reinforced 7th Marines was the only amphibious force readily available for such an undertaking. On 20 August the admiral published his Ndeni plan, and on 4 September the 7th Marines with its artillery and part of the 5th Defense Battalion sailed from Samoa for Espiritu Santo.1


But by 9 September, with the 7th Marines' convoy still en route, Turner agreed with Vandegrift's August request for control of this infantry regiment, and he requested Admiral Ghormley's permission to divert the regiment from the Ndeni operation. The issue still was not won for the Marine general, however. Turner believed this fresh unit should set up coastal strong points outside the Lunga perimeter, while Vandegrift held that a reinforcement of his perimeter was the more pressing need. Turner relayed this question to Ghormley on 12 September, the same day the 7th Marines arrived in the New Hebrides, and Ghormley next day ordered the reinforced regiment to move as soon as possible to the Guadalcanal perimeter.

After unloading the 5th Defense Battalion units at Espiritu Santo, the ships bearing the infantry regiment and the artillery battalion departed for Guadalcanal on 14 September, the same day that the 3d Battalion, 2d Marines was brought across Sealark Channel from Tulagi. Operating with three cruisers plus the destroyers and mine sweepers of the newly-formed Task Force 65, the transports spent four days at sea skirting enemy naval forces in the Solomons waters. The convoy finally anchored off Kukum early in the morning of 18 September.

The trip cost the Navy dearly. Carriers Hornet and Wasp, then the only flattops operational in the entire South Pacific (both the Saratoga and the Enterprise were under repair) ranged southeast of the Solomons with other escort support for the convoy, and the Japanese had just sown the area with a division of submarines. The Wasp caught two torpedoes, burned and sank; the battleship North Carolina was damaged as the destroyer O'Brien, which later broke in two and went down while heading back to the U.S. following temporary repairs.

But for Henderson Field there was advantage even from such grim disasters as this; pilots and planes that otherwise would have been flying from their carriers could now come up to give the Cactus Force and hand. On 18 September six Navy TBFs arrived in the Lunga area, and on 28 September 10 more planes, some SBDs and the other TBFs, flew in. Although enemy raids dropped off somewhat after the defeat of the Kawaguchi Force, operational losses still drained Geiger's air power, and such reinforcement managed only to keep the Cactus Force at a 50-to-70-plane level, but for this Lunga was most thankful.

September 18th was a red-letter day for the Guadalcanal defenders. While the reinforced 7th Marines unloaded its 4,262 men, three other transports which were not part of TF 65 entered the channel with an emergency shipment of aviation gasoline. In all, this shipping put ashore 3,823 drums of fuel, 147 vehicles, 1,012 tons of rations, 90 per cent of the 7th Marines supplies of engineering equipment, 82.5 per cent of the organizational equipment, and nearly all of the ammunition.2 Turner's force then took on board the 1st Parachute Battalion, 162 American wounded, and eight Japanese prisoners and departed for Espiritu Santo at 1800.

After this successful unloading, men on Guadalcanal began to draw more adequate


THE PAGODA AT HENDERSON FIELD, headquarters of Cactus Air Force flyers throughout the first months of operations from the captured airfield. (USMC 50921)

CACTUS AIR FORCE spreads in all its variety across Henderson Field during a lull in the battle; in the foreground are Marine scout-bombers. (USMC 108580)


rations, and General Vandegrift was able to adopt new defensive concepts for his force of some 19,200 men now at Lunga. Local air power made a counterlanding less likely, and the attack pattern set by Ichiki and Kawaguchi indicated that more attention should be given to the inland rim of the perimeter. On 19 September, Vandegrift's Operational Plan 11-42 provided for the new concept by dividing the defenses into new sectors with increased all-around strength.

Relieving special troops such as the engineers and pioneers, infantry battalions filled the yawning gaps that previously had existed south of the airfield and along the southern portions of the new inland sectors. The pioneers ,engineers, and the amphibian tractor personnel now were able to perform their normal functions during the daylight hours and at night bolster the beach defenses where fewer men were needed. Each infantry regiment maintained a one-battalion reserve, one or all of which could be made available as a division reserve if necessary.3

Gaps still existed in the perimeter. Generally the lines followed the high ground of the ridges, but intervening stretches of low jungle often could not be occupied in mutually supporting positions. Barbed wire had become available in increasing quantity, and in most sectors double apron fences stretched across the ground in front of infantry positions of foxholes and logged and sand-bagged machine-gun emplacements. Colonel Robert H. Pepper's 3d Defense Battalion, with the 1st Special Weapons Battalion attached, retained responsibility for antiaircraft and beach defense, and Colonel Pedro A. del Valle's 11th Marines, bolstered by its 1st Battalion, remained in a central position supporting all sectors.

The 1st Marines retained responsibility for the east side of the perimeter, from an area near the mouth of the Ilu River inland to a point beyond the former right flank where McKelvy's battalion had fought the Japanese across the grassy plain. The fresh troops of the 7th Marines joined the 1st Marines at that point and extended across Edson's Ridge to the Lunga River. Beyond that river the 3d Battalion, 2d Marines built up a line that tied in on the right to the positions of the 5th Marines, and this latter regiment closed the perimeter with its right flank which connected with the left flank of the 3d Defense Battalion at the beach.

Tentative plans in the reorganization also included extending the perimeter with strong points of one- or two-battalion strength to he mouth of the Matanikau on the west and the Tenaru on the east. Such positions would take advantage of the natural defensive potential of the two rivers and aid the Marines in blocking Japanese movements in strength toward the main battle positions. These strong outposts were not established at this time, however. (See Map 21)

The first order of business seemed to require aggressive attention to the west.


Map 21: Matanikau Action, 24-27 September 1942

Patrol actions had confirmed intelligence estimates that a strong enemy force was operating from the Matanikau village area on the west bank of the river, but that from the southeast or east there seemed little danger of an attack. With the Henderson Field side of the Lunga perimeter thus reasonably safe from an attack in force, the division planned a series of actions to clear the Matanikau sector. Japanese troops there included elements from the 4th Infantry Regiment of the 2d Division, and other personnel of the Kawaguchi Force. The 4th Infantry had been reinforced by new Japanese landings of mid-September.

The first action against this enemy force sent Lieutenant Colonel Lewis B. Puller's 1st Battalion, 7th Marines into he Mount Austen area on 23 September. The Marines were to cross the Matanikau upstream and patrol between that river and the village of Kokumbona. The action was to be completed by 26 September at which time


the 1st Raider Battalion4 was to advance along the coast to Kokumbona where a permanent patrol base was to be established.

After passing through the perimeter on 23 September, Puller's battalion next day surprised a Japanese force bivouacked on the Mount Austen slopes, and scattered the enemy in a brief clash that ended shortly after nightfall. The action cost Puller 7 killed and 25 wounded, and the commander requested air support for a continuation of his attack the next day (25 September) and stretchers for 18 of his wounded men.

Realizing that a prompt evacuation of 18 stretcher cases over the rugged terrain would take at least 100 able-bodied men, General Vandegrift sent Lieutenant Colonel Rosecrans' 2d Battalion, 5th Marines out to reinforce Puller. With this new strength to back him up, Puller sent a two-company carrying and security force back with the wounded and pushed on toward the Matanikau.

The general's 24 September communications with Puller also gave the colonel the prerogative of altering the original patrol plan so that he could conform to the termination date of 26 September. Accordingly, when 1/7 and 2/5 reached the Matanikau on 26 September they did not cross but patrolled northward along the east bank toward the coast.

At about 1400 the two battalions reached the mouth of the river and there began to draw fire from strong Japanese positions in ridges on the west bank. Companies E and G of 2/5 attempted to force a crossing but were repulsed, and soon were pinned down by fire from automatic weapons. Puller called in artillery and air, but the enemy positions remained active. By 1600 the combined forces of Puller and Rosecrans had sustained 25 casualties, and the action was broken off while the Marines strengthened their positions for the night.

Meanwhile the raider battalion, on its way to establish the patrol base at Kokumbona, had reached the vicinity of the fire fight, and division directed Griffith to join with 1/7 and 2/5 and to prepare for a renewal of the attack next day. With this large provisional group now formed, Vandegrift sent Colonel Edson up to take command. Puller would act as executive officer. Edson's plan for the coordinated attack next day (27 September) called for the raiders to move some 2,000 yards inland, cross the Matanikau, and envelop the enemy right and rear while 1/7 supported by fire and 2/5 struck frontally across the river near its mouth.

The attack began early on 27 September, but failed to gain. Marines of 2/5 could not force a crossing, and the raiders' inland maneuver stopped short when Griffith's battalion encountered a Japanese force which had crossed the river during the night to set up strong positions on high ground some 1,500 yards south of the beach. First fire from mortars and automatic weapons wounded Griffith and killed his executive officer, Major Kenneth D. Bailey, one of the heroes of the Battle of the Ridge.

A raider message reporting this action unfortunately was confusing, and from it Edson concluded that the battalion had succeeded in gaining the enemy right flank beyond the river and that the fight was in progress there. Thus misinformed, the colonel ordered the raider battalion and


2/5 to resume their attacks at 1330 while the 1st Battalion, 7th Marines (less Company C) made an amphibious envelopment west of Point Cruz to strike the Japanese Matanikau line from the rear.

Under the command of Major Otho Rogers, the 1/7 troops left Kukum in landing craft just as a strong bombing raid came over from Rabaul. The division command post took heavy hits which wrecked communications, and the destroyer Ballard, supporting the landing, had to slight her mission while taking evasive action. The landing at 1300 was unopposed, however, and the companies pushed rapidly inland toward a high grassy ridge about 500 yards from the beach.

But as the leading elements reached the top of this ridge, they were taken under mortar and small-arms fire. Major Rogers was killed by a mortar round and Captain Zach D. Cox, Company B commander, was wounded. Captain Charles W. Kelly, Jr., acting second in command, took charge of the battalion just as the enemy cut the Marines off from the beach. Kelly found that he could not communicate with the perimeter, and the close-in fight with the surrounding enemy grew rapidly more desperate. The Company D mortar platoon had only one of it weapons and about 50 rounds of ammunition, and to bring this weapon to bear on the pressing Japanese a mortarman had to lie on his back with his feet supporting the nearly perpendicular tube from the rear while Master Sergeant Roy Fowel called the range down to 200 yards.

Fortunately, Second Lieutenant Dale M. Leslie flew over at about that time in his SBD. As pilot of a plane incapable of dogfighting in the bomber pack. Leslie was hunting likely targets while staying clear of the field and air engagements. As he circled overhead, the Marines below spelled out the world "Help" in white undershirts laid on the hillside, and Leslie managed to make radio contact with Edson at the mouth of the Matanikau and relay this distress signal.

That was summons aplenty for Puller, chafing in Edson's provisional command post while his battalion went off to battle without him. The combined attack at the river mouth and inland clearly had miscarried, and his men in 1/7 stood exposed to me full wrath of the Japanese west of the river. With characteristic directness, the lieutenant colonel collected the landing craft and churned out to board the Ballard. The ship and her skipper, soon under the Puller spell, steamed to the rescue close ashore, the landing craft in the wake ready to be used for a withdrawal.

It was a day for heroic action. When the force trapped ashore saw the ship coming down the coast, Sergeant Robert D. Raysbrook stood out on a hillock of the ridge and semaphored for attention. From the bridge of the Ballard Puller ordered his men to pull out to the beach. Raysbrook still exposed to the enemy fire, flagged back the information that their withdrawal had been cut off. The ship then asked for fire orders, and with Captain Kelly relaying his signals through the sergeant, batteries on the Ballard began to blast out a path to the beach.

Supporting fire from the ship was a deciding factor in the action, but the companies still had a fight ahead of them. Japanese artillery began to take casualties as the Marines withdrew fighting through the enemy infantry still pressing from the flanks and rear. Platoon Sergeant Anthony


P. Malanowski, Jr. took a Browning automatic rifle from a man dropped in action and covered the withdrawal of Company A until he himself was overrun and killed by the Japanese. But by then his company had reached the beach where it set up a hasty defense into which Company B and elements of Company D drew shortly thereafter.

With the Marines fighting off the enemy at their rear, the landing craft now moved shoreward to begin their evacuation, and thereby exposed themselves to heavy Japanese fire from the high ground above the Marines on the beach and from the projecting terrain of Point Cruz to the east. The Japanese were determined not to allow a thwarting of their trap, and the stiffening crossfire drove the craft back offshore where they bobbed in ground swells and indecision.

This was observed by Lieutenant Leslie, still keeping a watchful eye on the action from his SBD, and he came down again to lend a hand. The pilot strafed the Japanese positions and then turned to make a few swooping passes over the landing craft to herd them on they way. Thus heartened and hurried along, the coxswains went back in to the beach.

The fire from the beach, although dampened by the strafing SBD, still was heavy, but Signalman First Class Douglas A. Munro of the Coast Guard, coxswain of the craft, led the other coxswains through it and maneuvered his Higgins boat to shield the others. The Marines loaded on board with their wounded while Munro covered them with the light machine guns on his boat. He ordered his boat away when the other craft were clear, and still firing, was making his own withdrawal when he was killed by fire from the beach.

The miniature flotilla, returned to the perimeter landing site at Kukum by nightfall. The action had cost this battalion 24 killed and 23 wounded. The raiders and 2/5 likewise withdrew after 1/7 go safely clear of the Point Cruz area, and their casualties added another 36 dead and 77 wounded to the tally for the operation.

Action of 7-9 October

Costly as this action at the Matanikau had been, it confirmed the data being collected by intelligence agencies, and these over-all were as important as they were disquieting. Japanese ships still entered Guadalcanal waters nearly every night, barges beached along the coast indicated many new landings, air attacks had picked up again since a comparative lull following the Battle of the Ridge, and now it was clear that the Japanese troops assembling on the island were concentrating just beyond the Matanikau. Another and a stronger Japanese counteroffensive loomed, and although defeat of the Ichiki and Kawaguchi Forces gave the Marines a new confidence in their ability to hold the perimeter, there was yet another factor. Late in September the Japanese began to land 150mm howitzers, and these weapons would be capable of firing on Henderson Field from the Kokumbona area.

Cactus fliers continued to hold their own against enemy air attacks of the field; Japanese gunfire ships had to come late and leave early to avoid the U.S. planes in daylight encounter, and the frequent night raids of Washing-Machine Charlie were more damned than damaging. But big howitzers were something else. The Marines had no weapon that could reach a 150mm in counterbattery, and they had no sound-flash equipment to locate such firing positions, anyway. If the Japanese could


Map 22: Matanikau Offensive, 7-9 October 1942

add the effective fires of these weapons to air raids and naval shelling, it might be just enough tip of balance in their favor to hold down the Cactus fliers while a large force mounted to dislodge the Americans from the Lunga.

Accordingly, an attack was scheduled to trap the enemy force and drive survivors beyond artillery range, and a success in this would be followed by establishment of a permanent patrol base at Kokumbona which could make sure the long-range field pieces stayed out of range. The plan of attack was similar to that of the operation which had just failed, but this new effort would be made in greater strength. The 5th Marines (less one battalion) would engage the enemy at the river mouth while the 7th Marines (also less one battalion) and the 3d Battalion, 2d Marines, reinforced by the division scout-sniper detachment, would cross the river inland and then attack north toward Point Cruz and Matanikau Village. (See Map 22)


Colonel William J. Whaling,5 who commanded 3/2 and the scout-snipers on this special mission, was to lead the envelopment by crossing the Matanikau some 2,000 yards upstream and then attacking north into the village on the first ridge west of the river. Whaling would be followed by the 7th Marines battalions which would also attack north abreast and to me left of the Whaling group.

The 1st Marine Aircraft Wing, with its composite Cactus Force, was to provide planes for infantry liaison, close air support, and artillery spotting. In the artillery plan, 1/11 would support the 7th Marines; 2/11, the 5th Marines; 5/11, the Whaling Group; and 3/11 would be in general support of the Lunga perimeter. If all went well, Whaling's assault of Japanese positions near the coast would be followed by a 5th Marines river crossing, a passage of Whaling's lines, and a pursuit of the enemy toward Point Cruz where the 7th Marines on Whaling's left would close the trap in front to the withdrawing enemy. The 3d Battalion, 1st Marines provided the division reserve for the operation,6 and Vandegrift's command post would coordinate the entire operation. Movements of the forces were to get underway on 7 October, and the coordinated attack would jump off on 8 October.

From recent experience with this growing Japanese force, the Marines expected a stiff fight with all the usual and unusual obstacles encountered in battle. But in this case there was to be one large factor they had no reason to suspect. By an unfortunate coincidence the Japanese also had set 8 October as the date for an attack of their own, and their scheme could hardly have been a better counter against the Marines had they been looking over the shoulders of Vandegrift's staff. Rabaul had ordered Colonel Tadamasu Nakaguma to cross the Matanikau on 8 October with his 4th Infantry and establish artillery positions which could support the new counterattack then in planning. To accomplish this mission, Nakaguma sent an enveloping force inland across the Matanikau on 6 October while he slipped the cautious first echelon of a bridgehead across the river near the coast. There the Japanese forces met the Marines who moved from the Lunga perimeter at 0700 on 7 October.

Whaling's Group scrapped for several hours with the inland Japanese force which confined its opposition to sniping and harassment, but by the middle of the afternoon Whaling decided to bypass the enemy. At nightfall the envelopment force bivouacked on high ground south of the Matanikau's fork, the designated assembly area for the 8 October attack, and the Japanese did not pursue. Meanwhile the 5th Marines met with greater difficulty from Nakaguma's men near the river mouth.


The advance guard of the 3d Battalion, 5th Marines came under fire from this enemy at about 1000, and the battalion deployed forward in an attack while the 2d Battalion swung to the left around the action and reached the river without opposition. The Japanese gave ground to previously prepared positions, but 3/5 was unable to push them beyond this line in spite of flanking assistance from 2/5. Vandegrift reinforced Edson with an understrength raider company, but the Japanese continued to hold their confined bridgehead some 400 yards inland from the beach, and the Marines drew up for the night. They held a 1.500-yard front which extended inland from the coast and bowed around the Japanese pocket on the river's east bank. During the night the 5th Marines and some amphibian tractors simulated noisy preparations for a tank-supported river crossing to divert Japanese attention from the Whaling-7th Marines envelopment force.

Heavy rains which began that night, and continued into the 8th, made trails and hills slick, muddy, and treacherous, and grounded the Cactus fliers. The attack had to be postponed, but the 5th Marines and raiders continued to reduce the Japanese positions on the east bank. At about 1830 the Japanese, under pressure all day from the Marines, made a final effort to break out of their nearly surrounded bridgehead and retreat across the river mouth. Running abreast, the enemy troops charged from their foxholes against the thinly-held Marine right flank where the raiders faced them. Front rank attackers engaged the Marines with small-arms fire while succeeding ranks pitched hand grenades into the raider positions. Some hand-to-hand fighting resulted, and casualties were high on both sides. Twelve raiders were killed and 22 wounded, while counted enemy dead numbered 59. Some of the surviving Japanese managed to escape across the river, and the bridgehead was completely reduced.

While the coordinated Marine attack waited out the rain, division was warned by higher intelligence sources that the expected strong Japanese counteroffensive appeared close at hand; aerial observers and coastwatchers to the north reported increased troop activity and a shipping concentration around Rabaul. General Vandegrift accordingly scaled down his planned attack to merely a raid in force so that no major troop strength would be beyond a day's march of the perimeter.

This decision did not alter the basic envelopment maneuver, however, and on 9 October Whaling and the 7th Marines moved across the Matanikau and attacked rapidly northward to raid the Point Cruz and Matanikau village areas. Whaling's Group moved along the first high ground west of the river; lieutenant Colonel Herman H. Hanneken's 2/7 moved north on a ridge some 1,000 yards off Whaling's left flank, and Puller with 1/7 attacked along another ridge west of Hanneken.

Whaling and Hanneken reached the coast without serious opposition while 1/7 on the extreme left encountered a strong force of Japanese in a deep ravine about 1,500 yards inland from Point Cruz. Puller brought artillery and mortar fire down on the Japanese, and his men picked off the enemy with rifle and machine-gun fire as they climbed the far side of the ravine to escape the indirect fire. A few enemy escaped up the steep slope, but most of them were either killed by small-arms fire or driven back down the hill into the mortar and artillery concentration.


It was a most effective arrangement for methodical extermination, and Puller and his men kept it up until mortar ammunition ran low. Then they withdrew to join the Whaling Group and Hanneken, and by 1400 the combined raiding force had retired east of the Matanikau through the covering positions of the 5th Marines and the raiders.7 The three-day operation had cost the Marines 65 dead and 125 wounded. A Japanese diary found later by Marines placed the 4th Infantry losses at 700 men.

Rain and the threat of a new counter-offensive had thwarted the Marines' attack plans, but the action could still go down in the gain column. The raid had tripped up the attack Colonel Nakaguma had planned for the same period, and it had done away with a great number of his men. And in the short time that men of the 7th Marines had been ashore on the island, they had earned a right to identification as veteran troops. So with a completely combat-wise division on hand--and Army reinforcements on the way--Vandegrift and his staff now made plans to meet the strong Japanese attack that was bearing down upon them.


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[1] Turner and Vandegrift often disagreed on conduct of the Guadalcanal operation shore and on preogress of the Solomon Islands action in general. Turner found fault with Vandegrift's perimeter concept of defense. His idea was to disperse the Marines along the Guadalcanal coast and set them upon the task of mopping up the remaining Japanese.

[2] This was the first ammunition Marines had received since the landing. It included about 10 units of fire with additional hand grenades and 81mm mortar shells. Final Rept, Phase V, Annex Z, 10.

[3] All large trucks were called in to a division pool each night to stand by in case a division reserve had to be trucked quickly into action. Although many additional vehicles had been landed on the day the 7th Marines arrived, the division still was critically short of motor transport. The supply of large trucks never topped a bare 30 per cent of the allowance. In rear areas there was a mistaken idea that one-and-a-half ton and larger trucks could not be used on Guadalcanal. Ibid., 1.

[4] Now commanded by LtCol Samuel B. Griffith, II. Edson, the former commander, had recently advanced to the rank of colonel to take over the 5th Marines on 21 September. Edson succeeded Col Leroy P. Hunt who had departed for the U.S.

[5] Whaling had been promoted to the rank of colonel shortly after the Guadalcanal landing, and although there was no billet for an additional colonel in the division, he stayed on to train scouts and snipers in practical, combat skills. Graduates of the course returned to their outfits to pass on their knowledge and thus increase the division's general proficiency in patrolling; other replaced these graduates and Whaling's schooling continued. As a unit, the scout-snipers normally operated independently, but sometimes, as in this case, joined other commands during a special mission.

[6] There was in indication that this unit might be employed in an amphibious envelopment. Arrangements had been made for a boat group, and McKelvy's battalion was on a 30-minute standby. Final Rept, Phase V, Annex D.

[7] Positions at the river mouth were retained to guard against a new Japanese crossing.

Transcribed and formatted for HTML by Patrick Clancey, HyperWar Foundation