Chapter VI: Development of the Perimeter and Actions to the West
PATROLLING INTENSIFIED as it became evident that this was the only effective method of divining Japanese intentions under Guadalcanal jungle cover. This Marine unit is crossing the Matanikau River footbridge.
Immediately following the battle of the Ridge, active patrolling from the perimeter was resumed to the south, the east, and the southwest. It had been shown once again that it was possible for a determined enemy to bring large bodies of troops practically to the Marine perimeter without detection from the air or from observation posts, and once again it was realized that the only safeguard against such movements was a program of patrolling designed to keep under constant inspection all feasible avenues of approach to the airfield.
These patrol activities ranged from short
reconnaissances carried out by small parties, to combat missions involving the use of a full battalion or more.1 Indeed, all the offensive blows struck by the Division prior to its first tentative advances to the northwest in November may be classed as patrol actions, even those which involved movement by boat to points up or down the coast, since no one of them was undertaken with the idea of altering the perimeter or increasing the area actually under occupation by the 1st Marine Division.
The Battle of the Ridge was a greater victory, perhaps, than had been realized at the moment. The large numbers of Japanese dead spoke unmistakably of a strong and well equipped force. The fact that it had withdrawn to the southward, moreover, indicated that for the moment there was to be a respite.
To verify this, and to harry the retreating enemy, a patrol of two company strength was sent out from the 1st Battalion, 1st Marines in the early morning of 14 September, just after the last spasm of the attack upon Edson's positions had subsided. Following the right bank of the Lunga River, the patrol made contact at about 1100 when it came upon a bivouac several thousand yards south of the scene of the previous night's struggle. Fire from light machine guns killed one and wounded three of Cresswell's men, and the patrol withdrew to the perimeter.
Three days later, on 17 September, a similar patrol from the same battalion consisting of Companies A, B, and Headquarters Company, with a platoon of Company D attached, followed the same route. At 1330 it found proof that Kawaguchi, badly mauled through he had been, was still full of fight. A burst of fire from machine guns cut off one platoon of Company B, in the lead, and in spite of all efforts, the remainder of the patrol could not extricate them. A fire fight continued until the group received orders from division to retire at 1600. The movement back to the perimeter was accomplished after dark, and the patrol reported three men wounded and brought back, and 18 missing in action. It was not until a week later when a third patrol was led into the area by Major Marion Fawcett that the fate of the 18 was definitely learned. They had fallen during the fire fight.2
Coming of the Seventh Marines
On 18 September, the defensive problem of the perimeter took on a somewhat different aspect, for on that date the 7th Marines (reinforced) landed, 4,262 strong, and returned to Vandegrift's control. The return of this well equipped and highly trained unit had been accompanied by vicissitudes already familiar to other units of the division. On 20 June, before plans for an offensive had begun to take shape, King had advised Nimitz by dispatch that the regiment would be returned to he 1st Division on 1 September. On 20 August, Turner issued his plan for the occupation of Ndeni, for which task he chose the 7th Marines, since the 2d Marines were currently employed at Tulagi and Espiritu Santo. Then, as we have seen above, they were diverted from this operation and sent on their way to provide the amphibious troops that MacArthur needed for the balancing of his Southwest Pacific force.
While the regiment was en route, two commanders connected with the operation come to the same conclusion, namely, that the proper place for all available combat troops at the moment was at the scene of actual fighting. On 2 September, Vandegrift sent a strongly worded dispatch to Turner, in which he pointed out that the enemy was building up his land strength, the he (Vandegrift) did not have a well balanced force and needed planes and surface craft, and that he wanted the 7th Marines turned to his command.
Ghormley, by this time, was beginning to be alarmed at the situation, as we have seen. The result of his alarm and Vandegrift's request was that the 7th Marines once more were diverted from their current objective and landed at the perimeter.
By that time also, still further units were on the way across the straits from Tulagi. On 14 September, the 3d Battalion, 2d Marines were ordered across by Vandegrift3 and two days later completed the passage. Reinforcing detachments that had been attached to the various rifle regiments began to return to their parent division units, and Vandegrift, for the first, time, was able to alter his original plans and consider expanding the scope of his operations.
In this change, he was aided greatly by the fact that Geiger could now almost guarantee him at all times an operating force of about 60 planes. The unit designations of Geiger's mixed CACTUS Air Force--Marine, Navy, and Army--by this time had begun to take on a kaleidoscopic quality that was never quite lost during the remainder of the campaign. Planes, pilots, and carrier "flights" came and went with a bewildering informality that defeats every effort to sort them out.4 The great and outstanding quality of the local aviation, however, was that with it, the defenses of Henderson Field were deepened, and the enemy, whether he came by air or by surface craft, could be met far to the north of the field, and could only reach it after having fought his way to it.
In the words of the General's Final Action Report,This accretion of force required us to re-examine and readjust our plans in accordance with improved circumstances and in the light of lessons learned from the bitter fighting of mid-September. Ten infantry battalions and one raider battalion were now available on Guadalcanal. These were supported by four battalions of artillery, a nearly complete defense battalion, a small provisional tank battalion, and a growing air force.
Operation Order 11-42, issued on 19 September, set forth the details of a complete perimeter defense, a defense which consisted of utilizing special units for beach defense and of employing rifle battalions for the more vulnerable inland defenses. The perimeter itself was divided into ten sectors, of which seven were manned by rifle battalions. It was found to be possible, as a result of the increase
ADVANCED BASE AIR OPERATIONS, always much less formal, were carried on by BrigGen Geiger's CACTUS Air Force with an economy of means which set records even for Marine aviation.
Map 10: Perimeter Following Battle of Edson's Ridge
in force, to arrive at a more satisfactory assignment of combat and administrative functions, for the nature of the beach defenses made it possible for those groups manning it to be employed in administrative duties by day and to be deployed tactically by night.
Furthermore, the concept of the perimeter was changing. Whereas the shortage of men, equipment, and supplies, together with the inadequacy of surface and air support, which had characterized the early days of the operation had dictated the policy of regarding the perimeter as both the initial and the final defensive position--and it will be remembered that two considerable battles had been fought on the perimeter--the greatly improved supply and support situation now made possible a change in that policy. The presence of an extra Marine regiment, and the knowledge that some Army ground troops (the 164th Infantry) were finally to be forthcoming, enabled General Vandegrift to contemplate a shift to a more active and aggressive type of defense.
Experience along the rivers, and particularly the experience gained on the night of 20-21 August at the mouth of Alligator Creek, indicated clearly that the initial defensive line could be extended in two directions to the Matanikau on the west, and the Tenaru on the east. In the case of the Matanikau, the immediate surroundings were such that crossings could be made only at highly localized points, and the terrain adjacent to those points afforded considerable advantage to the defending force. From its points of origin, far back in the jumbled foothills, the river flows through a deep, narrow valley, flanked on each side by steep ridges, and for the last mile of its course it becomes a deep and sluggish lagoon in a narrow, gorge-like valley. Only at a relatively short distance from the mouth do the hills flatten out in the narrow coastal plain.
An entirely different, but no less favorable, picture was presented by the Tenaru, at the opposite (east) side of the defensive positions. Here again a large river rises in the foothills, but instead of winding through precipitous and difficult country, it runs through plains land and jungle flats for almost all that part of its course which had a bearing on the problems of defense. On the far side, away from the perimeter, lies a succession of broad grassy plains, country admirably suited to the tactical deployment of troops and to the type of coordinated maneuver in which tanks and artillery could be used to greatest advantage.
Even the attitude of the commanding general toward the great difficult southward stretch of country between the inner flank extensions of the perimeter had changed. It had been seen that it was impossible to form and maintain a continuous line of defense, for the length of the sector and the character of the terrain which it crossed prevented any such development. It was rightly apprehended, also, that an enemy moving with some degree of caution could assemble large forces south of the airfield and could achieve some measure, at least, of surprise. This fear had been realized during the Battle of the Ridge.
That battle, however, had demonstrated another fact, which was that any enemy force coming into position for an attack upon that sector would have, perforce, to travel far inland and across terrain of a nature which virtually forbade the carrying of artillery or heavy crew-served weapons. The logistic aspect of such a movement presented problems far less capable of solution that were those which arose from a consideration of the defending of the area. Time-distance factors were so distorted by the chaotic nature of the terrain that planning with any degree of confidence was out of the question for an attacking force.
As it finally developed, two distinct types of defensive positions were used in defense of the sector. Along the grassy ridges to the west of the Lunga, it was possible to arrange defenses in depth, taking advantage of high bare ground along the hills. To the east of the Lunga, where the land falls to the jungle flats which border the upper reaches of the Tenaru, defense in depth was not feasible because of the sheer impossibility of cutting fields of fire for mutually supporting positions.
Here, in effect, a cordon was established, based upon a series of foxholes and weapons emplacements behind a continuous wire barrier--two parallel bands of double apron fence with trip wires between the bands. Great pains were taken to make this line self-sustaining in the event that sections of it became isolated as a result of enemy penetration. Food and ammunition were stored at the line, and small mobile groups were placed at frequent intervals for use as reserves.
Action on the Matanikau, 24-26 September
Strong patrol activity continued, as a result of which previous intelligence estimates were confirmed. There was a dearth of enemy activity to the southeast and very little of an alarming nature to the south and the southwest. In the territory among the foothills of the upper Lunga, occasional bands of survivors of the Kawaguchi detachments were moving gradually to the westward and the northwest in search of their fellows. To the west and the northwest, however, patrols found that there was evidence of gradually increasing numbers of Japanese. The same portentous kind of contacts began to be made that had preceded the battles of the Tenaru and the Ridge.
Enemy reinforcement were still being brought in. By the end of September, for example, the rest of the 4th Infantry and the entire 29th Infantry had been landed. About 600 replacements had also arrived for the badly mauled 124th Infantry, which had lost almost its entire 1st (Ishitari) Battalion in the assault on the positions of 3rd Battalion, 1st Marines.5
These reinforcement efforts were not being made without some hardship. On 21 September the destroyer Kagero was strafed by fighter planes from Henderson Field as she disembarked troops in the Kamimbo Bay area. Three days later, the destroyers Kawakaze and Umikaze were bombed and strafed at the same place, likewise by planes based on Henderson Field, and both were damaged.6 A night attack, with flares was made 22 September, on other destroyers near Visale. Damage was not determined.7
In spite of the contacts made with small enemy groups, however, and in spite of other items of intelligence brought in by patrols, there was still a wholly inadequate knowledge of the enemy situation. This was due, in part, to the fact that the enemy main bodies were far removed from the perimeter and therefore beyond the areas that could be covered by patrols. In part it was due also to the fact that heavy rain forest, such as that which covers the greater part of the island, offers almost perfect concealment from aerial observation.8 Whatever the cause, however, there was a lack of adequate intelligence, a fact that was brought out unequivocally in the following letter (quoted in part):It can be said that we had most faulty intelligence of Japanese strength and dispositions. No orders would ever have been given for a battalion to go up to Kokumbona and patrol from there had there been any realization that there were several thousand Japanese between the Matanikau and Kokumbona. Faulty intelligence was the cause of the whole breakdown at that time.9
Colonel Griffith here had reference to an action which came as near being a defeat as anything undertaken by the Marines during the entire campaign.
The action along the Matanikau during the period of 24-26 September was planned initially as two separate, though related, operations.10 In order to disrupt whatever plans the enemy might have for gathering a strong force in the area lying between the Matanikau River and Kokumbona, a reconnaissance in force by the 1st Battalion, 7th Marines, was to be conducted from 23 to 26 September in the territory lying in the hills between Mambulo and Kokumbona. On the latter date the 1st Raider Battalion was to strike west across
HEAVY PRESSURE ON THE 1st BATTALION, 7th MARINES, made it evident that retirement would be necessary.
Map 11: Operation Along the Matanikau, 23 to 27 September
the mouth of Matanikau toward Kokumbona, with the idea of establishing, if possible, a patrolling base at that village.
The 1st Battalion, 7th Marines, set out from the perimeter on the 23d, which passed without incident. The D-3 Journal contains no messages from that unit until late in the evening of 24 September, when, at 2030, Lieutenant Colonel Lewis B. Puller, commanding the battalion, reported that in the afternoon he had met and engaged an enemy force in bivouac, and that, in the resulting action, which had broken off at nightfall, he had suffered casualties of seven killed and 25 wounded, of whom 18 were stretcher cases. he requested air support for continuation of the action on the 25th and stretchers for removal of his wounded. An unknown number of casualties had been inflicted upon the Japanese, who had withdrawn.11
It was apparent to General Vandegrift that evacuation of the wounded and dead would reduce the force by about 100 men--movement by stretcher being an exhausting process--and the knowledge that there was, in the neighborhood, an enemy force capable of inflicting such punishment after having been surprised, made it obvious that the battalion would have to be reinforced. It was also desirable, under the circumstances, to allow Puller--a veteran jungle-fighter of long Nicaraguan experience--to make his own decision as to continuing or withdrawing from his assigned mission.
Accordingly, at 2230, Colonel Puller was notified that, in addition to his requests for water, stretchers, and air support, an additional rifle battalion would report to him the next day, and that he was free to continue or to return, depending upon his situation in the morning.12
The action had resulted from the battalion's coming first upon a small party of enemy (an observation post of the Oka Detachment, in position nearby) on the northwest slopes of Mambulo (Mount Austen), busy at their rice fires. This group was struck and destroyed, but the noise alerted the main body, with whom contact had not as yet been made. The ensuing action continued until nightfall, when the enemy withdrew.13 It was impossible to tell what enemy casualties had been, although numerous fresh graves seen the next day indicated that the Japanese had suffered more heavily than had the Marines.
The 2d Battalion, 5th Marines (Reaves) was sent out at 0500 on 25 September in accordance with the decision of General Vandegrift. It reported to Colonel Puller for duty at 0845. With this increase in force, Puller decided to continue the assigned mission, with minor changes.14 Companies A and B of the 7th Marines therefore returned to the perimeter with the casualties, under command of Puller's executive officer (Major Otho L. Rogers) while Company C and a portion of his headquarters, together with the reinforcing battalion from the 5th Marines began the advance westward, toward the Matanikau. The night passed without incident, with the Marines in bivouac east of the river.
The force did not reach the river itself until the 26th,15 the day originally set for the completion of the first phase of the operation. Immediately upon reaching the banks of the river, it began advancing northward toward the coastal road. At about 1400,16 while moving down the valley some hundreds of yards from the mouth of the river, the main body began receiving fire from enemy mortars in position near the village of Matanikau, on the opposite bank and near the coast, and from automatic weapons. It was apparent that the ridges west of the river were held in some strength by the enemy.17
THE JAPANESE HAD THE ADVANTAGE of prepared positions and dominating terrain.
The 2d Battalion succeeded in working its way to the mouth of the river, but an attempt on the part of Company G, 4th Marines, supported by fire from Company E of the same regiment, to force a passage of the river mouth and engage the enemy on the far bank, was unsuccessful. A few men made their way to the overhang of the opposite bank, but the main body was pinned down by fire from automatic weapons.18 Casualties here amount to 25 by 1600 on 26 September.19 The Japanese force had the advantage of prepared positions plus dominating terrain, in the shape of ridges , and to continue the attempts in the face of such opposition would have been to court disaster of exactly the type which the 1st Marines had visited upon the Ichiki Unit over a month before at the mouth of Alligator Creek.
The 1st Raider Battalion, meanwhile, had set out from the perimeter upon its assigned mission of making its way up the coast to Kokumbona. Developments at the mouth of the Matanikau, however, made accomplishment of such an objective completely out of the question.
Thereupon began what was called by General Vandegrift20 a series of "piecemeal commitments."21 It was decided that the Raiders would go up the east bank of the Matanikau, cross at the fork which lies some 2,000 yards inland, and strike toward the right flank and the rear of the enemy force. The Puller group (elements of the 1st Battalion, 7th Marines, plus the 2d Battalion, 5th Marines), from its position at the mouth of the river, would hold to that line and engage the enemy by launching an attack across the river in support of the Raiders. Air support would be forthcoming, and the artillery, which, from positions around the airfield and slightly west of the Lunga, could reach as far up the coast as the base of Point Cruz, would support the river-crossing.
The action began early on the 27th with the movement of the Raiders to the point of their intended crossing. As the battalion approached the fork, however, it found that since the previous day a sizeable force of enemy had crossed to the east bank and had taken up strong positions, whence approach could be denied the Marine force. Heavy fire from mortars and from automatic weapons
IN A TIGHT SPOT, the 1st Battalion, 7th Marines, withdraws from its dangerously exposed position west of Point Cruz under cover of naval gunfire and artillery support.
fell upon the advancing battalion, and the early salvos wounded Colonel Samuel B. Griffith, II, now commanding officer of the battalion, and killed his executive officer, Major Kenneth D. Bailey (who had earlier won the Medal of Honor for his action on Edson's Ridge). This fire, coming both from the front and from either flank, was skillfully delivered and succeeded not only in halting the advance, but in pinning down all subsequent attempts on the part of the Raiders to deploy.22
From this point on, the attempted operation bogged down further and further. A message from the Raiders was either ambiguously worded or incorrectly received at division headquarters, for the latter, under the impression that the Raiders had succeeded in crossing the river before engaging the enemy, supposed that the projected attack upon Matanikau was under way. In order to assist in such a move, it was decided to send out the balance of the 1st Battalion, 7th Marines (Companies A, B, and D, under command of Major Rogers, by boat to the vicinity of Kokumbona, whence it could cut off all retreat by the "defeated" enemy. Support for the movement would be given by the destroyer Ballard. To support the efforts of the Raiders and the 2d Battalion, 5th Marines, moreover, the group could attack eastward, thus developing the attack upon Matanikau Village in to an envelopment.23
As the boats left the beach at Kukum, an enemy air raid developed, with two serious effects. Division communications were disrupted, and fire support from the Ballard was not forthcoming. That ship found it necessary to take evasive action to the detriment of its support mission.24 The landing was made exactly on time, in two waves, and there was no opposition, the battalion having progressed well inland toward the ridges 500 yards away before the first enemy fire began to fall.
The first opposition was in the form of mortar fire, and one of the first shells to fall, just as the leading elements of the battalion reached the ridge line, killed the battalion executive officer, Major Otho L. Rogers, who was in command of the operation in the absence of the battalion commander, and severely wounded the commanding officer of Company B, Captain Zach D. Cox. At almost the same moment, a strong enemy column was observed coming from the direction of the Matanikau, and shortly thereafter it was engaged by the Marines.25
The battalion succeeded in fighting its way to the top of the ridge and in setting up a perimeter defense. As this was being done, the Japanese, with entire freedom of movement, began working their way around the position. Enemy mortar fire was registered upon the small perimeter, and the seriousness of the situation was aggravated by the fact that Company D's 81mm mortar platoon had but one weapon and 50 rounds of ammunition.26 Radio equipment had not been brought ashore, and this circumstance, of course, made it impossible to communicate with division headquarters or with the other units taking part in the operation.
The situation at this time, therefore, was that all three elements engaged were immobilized. At the mouth of the Matanikau, the 2d Battalion, 5th Marines, was held for no gain whatever and had already suffered some casualties in its attempt to cross. The Raiders, confronted by a strong and well emplaced enemy force on the east bank of the river, were in no position to do anything to further the joint effort, while the situation of the 1st Battalion, 7th Marines, was
precarious and rapidly growing worse.
Puller, who had remained with the mixed force along the Matanikau, realized from the situation at that point that his battalion would be in serious difficulties as a result of the miscarriage of plans. He therefore returned to the perimeter and secured permission to go by boat up the coast and to evacuate the unit. Shortly before this, Lieutenant Dale M. Leslie, the pilot of an SBD plane circling in the vicinity of the now beleaguered group, saw the word "Help" spelled out in white upon the ground within the perimeter atop the ridge. He immediately passed this word to the 5th Marines, with which unit he was in radio contact.27
The Ballard, with Puller on board, passed up the coast in company with the landing craft that had carried the battalion and thereupon began a movement of withdrawal characterized by brilliance of improvization and by individual heroism.
The battalion was, as we have seen, out of communication with its companion units28 and with the perimeter. The fact that the enemy was in force between the ridge and the shoreline made it necessary that fires be laid down by the destroyer for the purpose of cutting a path through which the battalion could run the gantlet to the beach. Communication therefore was established by the only means available--semaphore signals from the ridge.
Here occurred the first of several deeds of individual heroism. In order to send and receive the vitally important messages, Sergeant Robert D. Raysbrook voluntarily exposed himself, while semaphoring, to heavy enemy fire. His effort, which was rewarded by the Navy Cross from the United States as well as a comparable award from the British Government, was a complete success. Instructions were given and received, the necessary naval fires were delivered, and the battalion began making its way to the beach and the landing craft.
In the meantime, fire from 2d Battalion, 11th Marines, directed by observers on high ground on the right bank of the Matanikau, was laid down near the base of Point Cruz, impeding enemy movement from the mouth of the river. This artillery battalion was in position west of the Lunga, on open terrain near Kukum.28
Withdrawal was executed under the severest difficulties. Company A, which led the movement, had set out, followed by Company B, when fire from enemy artillery emplaced to the northwest began registering on the battalion, causing several casualties. A second deed of heroism occurred here when Platoon Sergeant Anthony P. Malinowski, Jr., of Company A, singlehandedly covered the retreat of his company with a Browning automatic rifle until he was killed. The Navy Cross was awarded him posthumously.
A hasty defensive position was set up on the beach while the approach of the landing craft was being awaited.29 The boats, however, were having a difficult time carrying out their part of the movement. Heavy Japanese fire, interlocking from the vicinity of Point Cruz to the east and Kokumbona somewhat to the west, disrupted the first wave and caused casualties among the defenseless but persistent Coast Guard and navy personnel manning them. The remaining craft, discouraged by the reception thus afforded the first wave, were uncertain as to how to proceed, and once again the same SBD pilot who had taken an outstanding part in the maneuvering, Lieutenant Dale M. Leslie, of VMSB-231, demonstrated his courage and initiative. Flying low over the faltering craft he herded them in to the beach, meanwhile strafing the enemy positions on the shore.30
ACTION ON THE MATANIKAU from 7 to 9 October enabled General Vandegrift to establish forward positions in that area during the balance of the campaign.
The battalion was evacuated, after having suffered 24 killed and 23 wounded.31 All wounded were removed and all materiel was taken out. The return to Kukum was without further incident.
The enemy force which had held the Marines immobile during the operation and which had nearly succeeded in cutting off and destroying one battalion, was a strong one, and during the operation it had given the impression of having been well led and intelligently directed. Its size was estimated to be about 1800 men, and there was no indication that contact had been made with the entire enemy strength west of the Matanikau. No accurate information of the casualties inflicted upon the enemy was to be had, although it was felt that he had suffered something less than the 60 killed and the 100 wounded32 which was the total cost exacted from us for the lessons learned during the operation.
Actions on 7-9 October
The destruction of the Japanese west of the Matanikau continued to be the ultimate objective of the Marines. An immediate objective, and one that could be attained while sufficient strength was building up for the final blow, was that of so disrupting enemy plans that his forces would be kept off balance and that he would not be able to launch a coordinated attack upon the perimeter. Operation Plan 2-4233 was issued in accordance with this train of thought. The force employed was to consist of something in excess of five rifle battalions--5th Marines (less 1st Battalion); 3d Battalion, 2d Marines (plus Scout-Sniper detachment); and 7th Marines (less 3d Battalion)--with strong and carefully coordinated artillery and air support. The operation was to be carried out directly under division control, and there was a reserve force of one battalion--3d Battalion, 1st Marines. The plan contained a hint that the latter unit would be used in a shore-to-shore movement, for there was provision for a boat group, and the reserve was ordered to be prepared to move out on 30 minutes' notice.
The plan for the attack followed roughly that for the unsuccessful affair which had preceded it. There was to be a force (5th Marines) along the east bank of the river for a distance of 1800 yards upstream from the mouth, while the main assault force's 3d Battalion, 2d Marines plus Scout-Snipers (called the "Whaling Group" form the name of the officer commanding the Scout-Snipers, Colonel William J. Whaling)34, and the 7th Marines, operating to the left of the 5th Marines would cross the river at the point of the unsuccessful attempt of the previous week and attack northward across the high ground to the south of Matanikau village with the village as the objective. The formation for this attack would consist of the Whaling Group advancing across the ridges with its right flank along the river, while the 7th, following across the river, would operate on its left, seizing the high ground to the southwest of Point Cruz and cutting off the retreat of the enemy. October 8th was designated as D-day.
October 7th saw the advance begun from the perimeter by the assigned groups.35 By midmorning the leading element--3d Battalion, 5th Marines--had made contact with
an enemy force of approximately one company strength in the coastal area immediately east of the Matanikau, and a short distance inland from the mouth. (In this vicinity the coastal plain narrows down to a restricted corridor and save for an extremely narrow coconut grove along the beach, it is thickly overgrown with typical lowland jungle.)
In the face of pressure from the advancing battalion, the enemy group fell back slowly, finally going into position in a prepared area containing foxholes, emplacements for machine guns, and standing trenches. Beginning at a point about 75 yards inland from the mouth of the river, and extending along its right bank for 150 yards upstream, the enemy position was in fact a well prepared bridgehead. A few of the enemy force, upon retreating, had passed across the sand bar at the mouth of the river. Approximately 150 remained at the east bank strong point.
By late afternoon of 7 October, the battalion was containing the bridgehead with Company I on the right, at the mouth of the river, Company L in the center, and Company K on the left. Several attempts were made by the beleaguered force to cut its way out and retreat across the river; these attempts were turned back by the right flank elements of Company I.
During the afternoon, Edson had requested reinforcements.36 In compliance, Vandegrift ordered to 1st Raider Battalion forward by companies to report to him. At 1530, Company A was ordered to pass up the coastal road with a machine gun section of Company E attached and report to Edson for duty.
During the night, the enemy made several strong attempts to break out of the encirclement and gain the bar at the mouth of the river. All these blows were delivered down the bank of the river, and all of them entailed hand-to-hand fighting on the part of Company I and its supporting troops from Company M. None of the sallies was successful, but by morning it was necessary to relieve the company.
At 0500 the Raider company was ordered into the positions, with Company I passing to the rear. At the same time, Company C, Raiders, was ordered up from its bivouac on the western edge of the perimeter. By early afternoon, the remainder. By early afternoon, the remainder of the Raider Battalion was ordered up and passed to the command of Major Walt, of the 5th Marines.37
By nightfall, the enemy position was encircled by Companies A and B, Raiders, on the right, Companies K and L, 5th Marines on the left, and the 3d platoon, Company M, 5th Marines, still in position commanding the mouth of the river. At 1830 there was a final determined effort on the part of the enemy to break free, and their rush struck at the Raiders' positions. Heavy hand-to-hand fighting took place again, with the elements of Company M involved again.
The enemy force was wiped out, 59 bodies being counted the next day. The Raiders suffered most heavily during the last stages of the engagement, losing 12 killed and 22 wounded.38
It is indicative of the intensity of the struggle that the commanding officer of the 5th Marines, in an endorsement to the report of the Raider Battalion, suggested that the latter group be cited for their conduct during the action.
Torrential rains prevented launching of the attack on 8 October,39 and the fact that postponement until the 9th was inevitable
HORSESHOE DEFENSE ALONG THE MATANIKAU was established by General Vandegrift in October in order to keep the Japanese at arm's length from Henderson Field and the perimeter itself.
caused some disquiet to General Vandegrift, who realized that a good shore of the element of surprise would be lost thereby. The patent impossibility of movement could not be disputed, however, and the postponement accordingly was authorized.
During the day it was learned, from intelligence sources which included aerial observation and information from coastwatchers, that a strong and concerted attack against the Marine positions was impending.40 Concentrations of ships in Rabaul and signs of accelerated activity in that port indicated that the attack would be strongly supported and might take the form of an assault landing on the perimeter.41 There was also the possibility that the enemy landing might be delivered at a point which would cut off the forces operating to the westward, since there was no continuous defensive position between that area and the perimeter.
This information impelled General Vandegrift somewhat to alter his plans for the offensive. It had been projected that, in the event the operation to the northward was successful, the 5th Marines would attack across the river mouth, pass through the Whaling Group, and drive westward through Kokumbona. If, in turn, this movement was successful, it was planned to leave a permanent garrison at the latter village to prevent future gathering of strong enemy forces in the area.42
The impending operation from Rabaul, however, made such a step impractical in the extreme, for the withdrawal of the number of men necessary to its accomplishment would weaken the defenses of the perimeter itself. Therefore, it was decided that the attack on Matanikau would be launched as originally planned, and the village and the enemy force in it would be destroyed. Immediately thereafter, the assault force would withdraw in successive echelons along the coastal road, which goes through the village.
The attack, therefore, went forward, and was attended by success in every way. The Whaling Group, attacking toward the sea with its right flank on the left bank of the Matanikau secured the western bank of the river all the way to the mouth. Immediately on its left, the 2d Battalion, 7th Marines, meeting somewhat stronger resistance in the neighborhood of the village, drove through it to the base of Point Cruz, while still farther west, in the left zone of the advancing force, the 1st Battalion, 7th Marines engaged in one of the most spectacular of the actions of the campaign.43
The territory over which the 1st Battalion was operating consisted of the usual grassy ridges interspersed with overgrown ravines, and in this area some resistance had been encountered in the advance toward the coastal plain. It was not until it reached the last ridges overlooking the plain, however, that the battalion met a strong concentration of enemy troops.
At this point, Puller received orders from Colonel Sims, commanding officer of the regiment, to reconnoiter the coastal road toward Kokumbona, and to refrain from becoming involved in large actions. Puller advised Sims of his situation and was given permission to carry on.44
On the left and to the front, the high ground on which the battalion found itself was bounded by deep and thickly forested ravines, in which were strong bodies of enemy, elements of the 4th Infantry. Puller immediately called for artillery fire upon the ravine to his front while he brought fire from all available mortars on that lying on his left. Then began a period of scientific extermination.
The enemy troops, unable because of the demoralizing effect of the artillery and mortar concentrations to assemble for counterattack, broke and attempted to flee over the ridges beyond the ravines. As they did so, necessarily coming into the open and within range of effective flat-trajectory fire from
automatic weapons, they were subjected to such fire and cut to pieces. The survivors attempted to regain the illusory shelter of the ravines, and, once again, the rain of fire from artillery (1st, 2d, and 5th Battalions, 11th Marine) and mortars drove them out.45
This process of extermination was carried out until mortar ammunition began to be exhausted and it was time for withdrawal. The battalion commander, having no way of estimating enemy losses, could only say that they had been heavy. It remained for an enemy officer himself to supply the missing details, for, later in the campaign, a diary was found that had been kept by an officer of the enemy regiment involved, the 4th Infantry. An entry told of the loss of 690 men from that regiment alone in the encounter with the 1st Battalion, 7th Marines.
One detail of the battle deserves mention here as being yet another example of the degree to which the element of good fortune entered into the picture. Documents found on the body of a Japanese officer who died during the operation were translated, and confirmed what had been surmised by the Marine planners, namely, that the presence of Japanese forces to the east of the river, and the concentration immediately west of Matanikau which had been struck and cut to pieces by the 1st Battalion, 7th Marines, indicated that the enemy, when attacked, had himself been on the point of launching an offensive. A Japanese operation had been planned against the perimeter and the date set for the beginning of the attack was exactly that which had been set for the Marine assault--8 October. A curious part of the enemy plan was that the tactics to be used were essentially the same as those used by the Marines. A crossing near the fork of the river was to be accompanied by an attack at the mouth of the river, which was designed to allow artillery to be displaced forward to a spot whence the airfield could be brought under fire. Other attacks were to be launched from inland, at unspecified points.46
LTCOL HAROLD W. BAUER, whose VMF-212 had shielded Efate and Espiritu Santo months before Guadalcanal,
won a posthumous Medal of Honor for his prowess as a fighter pilot and squadron commander after reaching the island.
The Battle of Cape Esperance
On 7 October, the day which marked the beginning of the series of actions along the Matanikau, a small naval task force sortied from Espiritu Santo to take up position near the Russell Islands. Its mission was to disrupt the enemy's supply and reinforcements from the Northern Solomons and Rabaul, as well as to protect the convoy which was
bringing the first units of the Americal Division. Commanded by Rear Admiral Norman Scott, the force consisted of heavy cruisers San Francisco and Salt Lake City, light cruisers Helena and Boise, and destroyers Buchanan, Duncan, Farenholt, Laffey, and McCalla.
Three forces were now operating in the Lower Solomons. One, formed around the carrier Hornet, was generally in position to the west of Guadalcanal, while a second, with the new battleship Washington as its main strength, was on station east of Malaita. Admiral Scott's cruiser force was the third, and it was destined to meet and inflict a definite defeat upon a comparable enemy force.47
At 1345, 11 October, enemy forces were reported on the way down the "Slot", the stretch of water lying between the parallel chains that form the Solomons Islands Group. This report came as Scott's task force was cruising south of Guadalcanal, our patrol planes advising that the enemy consisted of cruisers and destroyers 210 miles northwest, on a course that would bring them to the island.48 At 1810 a second report placed it 110 miles distant, and Admiral Scott immediately set out for the Cape Esperance area in order to intercept about midnight.
By 2200 the converging forces were nearing each other, and at this time the cruisers catapulted their float-planes for local search. One plane from the Salt Lake City crashed and burned in the water some distance from its parent ships, and the enemy, apparently taking the resulting glare for a signal light from shore, answered it with searchlights. At 2230, search planes reported one transport and two destroyers close inshore near Tassafaronga, but these craft were ignored and departed the area at 0230 the next morning.
About two minutes after this report, radar contact was made with the enemy force by the Boise and the Helena, at a range of about 18,000 yards. Fourteen minutes later the Helena opened 6-inch fire on the leading targets, and the enemy was taken completely by surprise. The Aoba, was struck heavily by the first salvo, suffering severe damage and many casualties, Goto himself being mortally wounded. The destroyer Fubuki likewise was struck at this time. Cruiser Furutaka was struck shortly afterward and suffered damage which resulted in her sinking within two hours.
Admiral Scott's force had succeeded in performing the classic maneuver of crossing the T, and the enemy force was thereby put at a disadvantage whence it could not extricate itself. Individual enemy ships were successful in inflicting casualties on Scott's force, which included the sinking of the destroyer Duncan and major damage forward to the Boise and the Farenholt. Light damage was suffered by the Salt Lake City.
Enemy losses were more severe. The cruiser Furutaka and the destroyer Fubuki were sunk, and heavy damage was suffered by flagship Aoba and minor damage by Kinugasa. As an aftermath, the destroyers Murakumo and Natsugumo, the only units to emerge unscathed from the engagement, were sunk the next day.
They fell prey to a mixed force of planes from Henderson Field, which found them north of the Russell Islands. Leaving the airstrip at 0515, five SBDs led by Lieutenant Commander Eldridge, 11 led by Lieutenant Colonel Cooley, escorted by 16 F4F-4s and eight newly arrived P-39s attacked the pair and inflicted visible damage. Three hours later, another flight (four Navy and two Marine SBDs, six torpedo bombers, and 14 F4F-4s) came up with them 170 miles from the field. This time one of the ships was left dead in the water, victim of a torpedo hit from one of the TBFs. During the afternoon, a final strike by still another mixed force accounted for another destroyer.49 Enemy Cruiser Division 6 ceased to exist as a tactical unit after this defeat.50
1. The larger patrols generally included artillery forward observers, and direct artillery support was called down when needed. Letter, LtCol Louis A. Ennis to Commandant Marine Corps, 10 February 1949.
2. Report of Actions, 1st Battalion, 1st Marines. Entries 14, 17, and 26 September.
3. D-3 Journal, entry 14 September.
4. History of Marine Aviation in World War II.
5. USAFISPA Report.
6. Robinson ms, p. 5.
7. WD, MAG-1, 22 September.
8. On 23 September, a newly arrived F4F-7 began flying photographic missions. WD, MAG-1, 23 September.
9. Letter, Colonel Samuel B. Griffith, II, to Captain Clifford Morehouse. Undated, but written and received in the autumn of 1945.
10. Final Report, Phase V, p. 5.
11. D-3 Journal, 24 September, message 12.
12. Ibid., message 13.
13. D-3 Journal, 25 September, Message 1 from Puller advised of the withdrawal of the enemy during the night.
14. Ibid., message 4, at 1815, Puller to Vandegrift, says, "Am taking C and Hq companies with 2d Bn 5th and moving on. . . . A and B Companies with casualties are returning to bivouac."
15. Final Report, Phase V, pp. 5 and 6.
16. Second Battle of the Matanikau. In Summary of Operations, 1st Battalion, 7th Marines. The point, consisting of a part of Company E, 5th Marines, was not fired on. Letter, Connor to CMC, 14 February 1949.
17. Final Report, Phase V, pp. 5 and 6.
18. Letter, Connor to CMC, 14 February 1949. "E-2-5 suffered its heaviest casualties of the campaign."
19. D-3 Journal, 26 September, message 18.
20. Final Report, Phase V, p. 8.
21. Final Report, Phase V, p. 6.
22. Colonel Edson, who had been given command of the 5th Marines on 21 September (Record of Events, 5th Marines) had been placed in command of the joint force composed of 2d Battalion, 5th and the Raiders at 1640 26 September. D-3 Journal, 26 September, message 21.
23. Final Report, Phase V, p. 6.
24. Record of Events, 5th Marines, entry of 27 September. Summary of Operations, 1st Battalion, 7th Marines, p. 3.
25. Summary of Operations, 1st Battalion, 7th marines, pp. 3 and 4.
26. Mortar fire was laid on the enemy at a range of 200 yards. This made it necessary for the barrel of the weapon to be nearly vertical. One crew member lay on his back, feet braced against the weapon to keep it upright. Ibid.
27. Summary of Operations, 1st Battalion, 7th Marines, p. 5. Undershirts had been used as ground panels.
28. Letter from LtCol Louis A. Ennis, to CMC, dated 10 February 1949.
29. Final Report, Phase V, p. 8.
30. Summary of Operations, 1st Battalion, 7th Marines, pp. 6 and 7. According to this account, the performance of certain Coast Guard personnel in the evacuating landing craft was outstanding. One of them, Signalman 1st Class Douglas Munro, who was killed during the action, was awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously. Two Navy Coxswains, Walter T. Bennett and Samuel B. Roberts, both of whom were wounded, received Navy Crosses.
31. Record of Events, 7th Marines, "Puller's Patrol."
32. Final Report, Phase V, p. 9. War Diary, Commander, Task Force 62, September, gives the casualties as 42 killed and 129 wounded, but it is felt that the 1st Marine Division was somewhat closer to sources and its report somewhat more accurate.
33. Ibid., Annex D.
34. Colonel Whaling had been promoted from lieutenant colonel after his arrival on the island, and immediately there arose the question of a proper command for him. Instead of leaving the island, where there was no opening for one of his rank, he remained to select and train a body of men as scouts. This valuable work was undertaken because patrolling in the early days of the campaign had been somewhat less than satisfactory and because the colonel himself was an accomplished woodsman with a flair for work of the kind. The groups subsequently referred to in the narrative consisted generally of his highly trained scouts plus a battalion assigned him for the task of the moment.
35. Final Report, Phase V, p. 10.
36. D-3 Journal, 7 October, message 17.
37. Report of Operations, 7-9 October, 1st Raider Battalion. The Raider Battalion now consisted of Companies A, B, C, and E, and battalion headquarters. Company D, as we have seen, had been used as a replacement source, and by this time had disappeared entirely save as an administrative nucleus. The battalion strength at the time was in the neighborhood of 200 men--casualties and illness, with no replacements, had reduced the strength of all units on the island. Letter from LtCol William H. Barba to Commandant Marine Corps, 29 January 1949.
38. Details of the operation have been taken from the Final Report, Phase V; Report of Operations, 7-9 October, 1st Raider Battalion; and letters from individual officers involved in the affair--in particular the detailed letter submitted by LtCol Barba, quoted above.
39. Final Report, Phase V, p. 11.
40. Final Report, Phase V, p. 11.
41. Ibid., pp. 12 and 13.
42. Ibid., p. 12.
43. Final Report, Phase V, p. 12.
44. Summary of Operations, 1st Battalion, 7th Marines, 7-9 October.
45. Final Report, Phase V, p. 12. During this operation, the artillery batteries were manned by double crews; 2188 rounds of 75mm ammunition were expended by the pack howitzers and 1063 round of 105mm by the heavier weapons. Ibid., Annex R.
46. Final Report, Phase V, p. 13.
47. Information gained from translation of enemy documents captured on 9 October was of great value to Admiral Scott. Final Report, Phase V, Annex N.
48. The enemy force consisted of the heavy cruisers Aoba, flying the flag of Rear Admiral Goto, Furutaka, and Kinugasa, and the destroyers Fubuki and Hatsuyuki. Robinson ms.
49. WD, MAG-23, and History of Marine Corps Aviation in World War II.
50. Robinson ms.
Compiled and formatted by Patrick Clancey, HyperWar Foundation