Chapter 5: The Securing of Guadalcanal

On one of the last days of October 1942, the U.S. Navy's submarine Amberjack slipped cautiously into Tulagi. Her mission, cargo, and passengers were not usual for a submarine, but well attuned to the Solomons campaign, in which almost anything was more than likely to happen. The Amberjack's spare fuel tanks carried aviation gasoline--Henderson still suffered from insufficient gas. She carried torpedoes for the Tulagi-based PT boats--Guadalcanal still suffered from the visits of the Express. She carried, in addition, Army Air Forces personnel, 15 airplane mechanics and armorers for the worn 67th Fighter Squadron--which had always suffered from lack of manpower.

After their big push the Japanese had receded somewhat and the situation on Guadalcanal showed some improvement. The Express still ran, although harassed by the two dozen submarines COMSOPAC operated in the area and by the pilots from Henderson, whose two strips had recovered from the ravages of October.

General Vandegrift's Marines celebrated by striking across the Matanikau on 30 October. For a change, American warships, the light cruiser Atlanta and four destroyers, stood offshore in support. By 3 November, the Marines were beyond Point Cruz. However, on the night of 2 November, the industrious Japanese landed 1,500 men east of Koli Point and the American push to the west was checked. On 4 November, the San Francisco, Helena, and Sterett obligingly shelled this force, which because of subsequent attentions by the Marines never seriously threatened American positions.

The 67th was carrying the war to the enemy in its own way. On the 3d of November, for instance, two pilots bombed AAA emplacements at Kokumbona. Two more were up over the hills on reconnaissance, and, since intelligence had reported Japanese troops east of the Tenaru, the afternoon was devoted to bombing and strafing this region. The pilots went out in pairs, dropping 100- and 500-pound bombs, and returning with numerous bullet holes in their craft.

The routine was not light. Usually 4 or 5 missions were run, but on some days the total might rise to 12 or more. As the newer P-39's arrived, they were frequently dispatched to escort Marine strike forces, or as dive bombers in company with the SBD's. One of the missions


VETERAN. The P-400 that went throught the entire Guadalcanal campaign is shown here just before it was sent to the United States for display. The officers, reading left to right, are Majors G.W. Phillips, C.E. Allard, and A.W. Price, respectively Intelligence Officer, Adjutant, and Executive Officer of the 67th Fighter Squadron.


of 3 November had the following participants: 15 SBD's, 4 P-39's, 2 P-400's, 1 TBF, and 7 F4F's--all out after the Japanese who had come ashore near Koli Point. Such conglomerations constituted the primary weapon against the Express.

The afternoon of 7 November, 11 southbound Japanese warships were sighted northeast of Santa Isabel and the composite force went into action. Out from Henderson flew 7 SBD's with 1000-pounders, 3 torpedo-laden TBF's, and 8 P-39's lugging 500-pound bombs, the whole escorted by 22 Wildcats. The Army pilots' instructions specified they were first to bomb the warships, identified as 1 light cruiser and 10 destroyers, pull out, and join the Grummans as high cover. However, the P-39's were held up on the take-off and were overtaking the rest of the formation when they saw 3 float Zeros and 2 float biplanes about to attack 2 F4F's. Jettisoning their bombs, the P-39's shot down all 5. Ahead, the strike was succeeding. The TBF's put 2 torpedoes into the cruiser and 1 into a destroyer, while the SBD's planted a 1,000-pounder on the cruiser. In the air battle, the enemy lost 15 float planes, the Marines 4 F4F's.

The B-17's continued their searches from Espiritu Santo. Daily six were out, occasionally eight to provide a broader coverage. Air opposition had for the time diminished, but to vary the routine there might be a surfaced sub to strafe or a flight of float Zeros to dispute the passage. So far as bombing was concerned, without the necessary fuel at Henderson the B-17's could not get up to the Buin-Tonolei from where the Japanese would mount any further offensive.

Japs Plan Offensive

That the Japanese were contemplating such an offensive was obvious. By 9 November, reports of concentrations began to come in. As of 12 November, when the battle was already under way, estimates put the enemy's strength at two carriers, four battleships, five heavy cruisers, and all the escort and shipping needed for a major attempt on Guadalcanal. Against such a force, Admiral Halsey's resources were slim, his principal units being the apparently indestructible Enterprise, under repair, the Washington and the South Dakota.

Additional complication was the fact that COMSOPAC was required


not only to turn the Japanese thrust but to put Army and Marine reinforcements on Guadalcanal. To aid the Guadalcanal garrison, these reinforcements had to be landed on the island and unloaded before the Japanese boiled down from Buin in any great strength. Moreover, the transports had to be safely removed again. Time was extremely short and the whole operation distinctly ticklish. Fortunately, Admiral Turner, in charge of supplying Guadalcanal, had developed a fairly accurate estimate of the chronology of Japanese moves. The predicted enemy timetable ran somewhat like this: land-based bombing of Henderson starting on 10 November; naval bombardment on the night of the 11th; a carrier air attack on the field on the 12th, with naval bombardment and landings that night. The invasion force was expected on Friday the 13th.

Since the U.S. transports had to clear Guadalcanal by Thursday night, cargo vessels were to be off Lunga Point at dawn of Wednesday, the 11th; transports from Noumea would arrive Thursday morning. The escorts of these groups, combined under Rear Adm. Daniel J. Callaghan, were to deal with any Japanese naval force poking around in Sleepless Lagoon. A great deal depended on the speed of unloading and on the Japanese doing nothing unexpected.

The cargo vessels moved in on schedule and commenced unloading. At 0935, they were attacked and slightly damaged by divebombing Aichi 99's, the Marines losing six planes in the fight with bombers and escort. At 1127 the high- level raid occurred; eight of the 67th's pilots were forced to sit this one out at 12,000 feet while the Marines went up to destroy six of the raiders. That night, Admiral Callaghan swept Savo Sound without incident.

The American transports anchored off Kukum beach at 0530 on Thursday the 12th, screened by cruisers and destroyers. At 1340, on warning of an approaching enemy formation, the ships got under way and formed in antiaircraft disposition. High above the island, concealed in a cloud, waited Capt. Joe Foss and his Grummans. Not far below cruised eight P-39's ready, after their bombing and strafing routine, for aerial combat. The combination of naval antiaircraft guns and Henderson's fighters proved lethal to the Japanese airmen.

At 1405, upwards of 20 torpedo bombers appeared low from behind Florida Island. In a long line abreast, they headed for the transports, eight Zeros covering. Diving into the combat, the P-39's found their


canopies covered with mist as warmer air was reached, and one pilot, blinded, continued down into the sea. He was the 67th's only loss as against one Zero and one torpedo bomber to its credit. Altogether, three Zeros and one torpedo plane got away; none of the American ships sustained serious damage.

Scout planes up The Slot, meanwhile, had discovered that the Japanese were moving down a task force, probably with the intention of attacking the transports off Guadalcanal, and towards evening the latter were accordingly withdrawn. Then Admiral Callaghan headed back for Savo, where he fought against odds, one of the wildest night actions in naval history. Both sides suffered heavily, the Japanese more heavily, and Henderson took no shelling that night.

Air Reinforcements

Thus far the defense had succeeded, but the main Japanese onslaught had not yet been met. To counter it, the Enterprise, South Dakota, and Washington had moved out from Noumea on the 11th. COMSOPAC began to concentrate land- based aircraft on Guadalcanal. Fresh SBD's, TBF's, and Wildcats were flown in and on 12 November, at 1530, something new was added. Eight Lightnings landed on the fighter strip just east of Henderson.

There is a pleasant story about the advent of these P-38's. It holds that as the Marines on the field spotted the Army pilots climbing out of their formidable fighters they cheered wildly and rushed out to greet them--with reason, for old friends had come. Leading the flight was Maj. Dale Brannon, who back in August had brought the first P-400's, the "klunkers," into the strip the Japanese had begun. With him were other former 67th pilots, veterans of the Jagdstaffel.

The eight P-38's belonged to the 339th Fighter Squadron. Late in August it had been decided to activate a fighter group in New Caledonia, to comprise the 67th, 68th, and 70th Fighter Squadrons and another yet to be activated. By the end of September the orders had gone out; on 3 October, the 347th Fighter Group and the 339th Fighter Squadron were officially in existence. As cadre for the 339th, the old 67th provided 29 officers and 106 enlisted men, with Major Brannon in command. With him to the new organization passed the four lieutenants who had accompanied him on the pioneer hop


to Guadalcanal. Command of the 67th went to Capt. John A. Thompson, who had headed the second flight Of P-400's from New Caledonia.

In September, General Harmon acquired P-38's diverted from General Kenney's command. These were assigned to the 339th. During October the Lightnings were held in New Caledonia; training was not yet complete and frequency of naval bombardments of Henderson too high to risk the new fighters on Guadalcanal. By mid-November, however, they were ready to move.

On the morning of the 12th, the P-38's had left Tontouta at 0700, escorted by a B-17. Upon landing at Espiritu Santo Island after 31/2 hours' flight, mechanics discovered that low fuel consumption would have permitted a non-stop flight to Guadalcanal. The pilots, however, already showed fatigue. En route to Henderson, radio report of an enemy attack was received, and the B-17 carrying the ground personnel turned back at the southern end of San Cristobal. Consequently, when the planes landed, the Marines turned to and serviced them. On the 13th, additional AAF reinforcements arrived: eight more P-38F's from the Fifth Air Force, flying in nonstop from Milne Bay.

Dawn of Friday, the 13th found the Japanese battleship Hiyei limping northwest of Savo. A casualty of the encounter with Admiral Callaghan, she became the main preoccupation of the American planes in the combat area. First blood was drawn by the Enterprise, which was cruising south of Guadalcanal with a damaged No. 1 elevator. The carrier decided to ease operations by sending some of her planes to Henderson Field. Nine TBF's and six fighters flew off and at 1100 sighted the Hiyei, a light cruiser, and four destroyers headed for Guadalcanal, perhaps to finish off the Portland, lying off Lunga Point. The TBF's promptly put three fish into the battleship.

Shortly afterward 17 Forts arrived. These had departed Espiritu Santo at 0500 and had subsequently been ordered to attack a carrier and a battleship reported by a search B-17. The indicated targets were out of range and the bombers proceeded to Guadalcanal, where they found the Hiyei, circling slowly with her escorts. Despite heavy AAA fire, one sure hit was obtained and five probables. All day long Marine and Navy aircraft at Guadalcanal hammered the Hiyei, the 67th providing top cover with four of its planes. By evening, however, the battleship was still afloat.


It is probable that the Hiyei was towed into position to assist in the bombardment of Henderson Field that night. The shelling, carried out by destroyers and cruisers as well, lasted 80 minutes until interrupted by the PT boats from Tulagi. On the field, one SBD and two F4F-4's were destroyed and 17 F4F-4's damaged. The 67th seemed to be the main target, every salvo but one landing near its camp at the north end of the fighter strip. Sixteen planes had been in commission the evening before; only one now remained, "the Resurrection, the oldest, most beat-up klunker on the field." Affording some consolation, nothing but an enormous oil slick suggested the Hiyei on the 14th. Whether at this point the Japanese supposed Henderson Field had been knocked out, as it had virtually been knocked out by similar shellings in October, or thought that the American Navy was too weak to interfere, or accepted a combination of these hypotheses, is unknown. At any rate, Japanese transports which had been hovering in the Upper Solomons finally reversed course and came on for Guadalcanal.

Concentrate on Jap Convoy

On the 14th COMSOPAC directed Enterprise to attack these transports and as additional striking power the B-26's of the 70th Squadron were sent up to Guadalcanal. Under Maj. Leroy L. Stefanowicz, ten Marauders, in company with four P-38's, left Plaines des Gaiacs at 0800 . At Espiritu, the bombers were refueled and took off, disappearing in the clouds before the P-38's could be readied for flight. Meanwhile, during the morning, the planes of the Enterprise and Marine flyers from Henderson struck at the warships, now retiring to the north, whose shells had wrought such havoc with the 67th the previous night.

At 0830, General Harmon had reported that his search B-17's had sighted the Japanese convoy--cargo ships and transports, twelve of them 20 miles north of New Georgia. The escort consisted of a near-dozen warships never positively identified. In addition, there was an advance group of vessels including at least one battleship. Among the B-17's making contact was "Typhoon McGoon." "Typhoon McGoon" came back to Espiritu with tall surfaces entirely shot away. It had fought off seven Japanese aircraft, shooting down 3 of these


DIRECT HIT. B-17's of the 11th Bombardment Group halted Japanese battleship of the Fuso class when one Fortress obtained a hit with a 500-pound bomb. Following B-17's obtained additional hits and when last seen the ship was burning furiously. The action occurred north of Savo Island on 13 November 1943.


and perhaps two more. First Marine Air Wing at Guadalcanal heard "Typhoon McGoon's" report and the dive and torpedo planes were readied.

The convoy, carrying a force which General Vandegrift put at 30,000 to 35,000 troops, had been sighted and hit during the morning by SBD's from the Enterprise. At 1018, sixteen B-17's were ordered to attack from Espiritu. While the B-17s were making their way northward, Marine and Navy planes from Henderson carried out two damaging strikes on the Japanese armada. The B-17's arrived in two flights, the first securing one hit on a transport from 17,000 feet; the second straddling a seaplane tender from 20,000 feet. Of fifteen land-based Zeros intercepting, at least five were shot down. The bombers suffered only minor damage. Throughout the day the destruction of the transports, now separated from their escort, continued. The 67th, able to put only four planes in the air, helped provide high cover for the TBF's and SBD's. By nightfall, eight of the twelve vessels were either sunk or gutted.

In the early morning hours of Sunday, 15 November, the U.S. Navy task force, commanded by Rear Adm. Willis A. Lee, sailed past Island with the South Dakota and the Washington and slugged the Japanese hard. The enemy had come down with a force including two battleships and six cruisers he left for safer waters minus the Kirishima, the Hiyei's sister ship. Two cruisers, one heavy and one light, may also have been sunk.

With daylight of the 15th, one of the 67th's P-39's was out looking for breakfast fires, new tracks through the jungle, any sign of enemy activity. It was no routine patrol. Along the shore at Tassafaronga, about 18 miles west of Lunga Point, the pilot saw a beached vessel; two more were in process of beaching and another was heading for shore. Here were the survivors of the 12-ship convoy which had been worked over the afternoon before. To make sure, the pilot flew over at 800 feet with the AAA literally bursting under his nose, then back to Henderson with his discovery.


Abetted by the Navy and Marine flyers, the 67th and 70th Bombardment Squadrons played havoc with the beached vessels. By 0700 the 67th had in commission five planes which went out with the


SBD's and the B-26's. All five dived on the last ship to reach the beach, scoring two direct hits, setting the vessel afire. The B-26's dropped a 1,000-pounder on the third ship from 8,000 feet; two more 1,000-pounders burst among small craft attempting to unload supplies. At 0900, the 67th returned with seven aircraft, to put four bombs on the only vessel not then burning.

When the Japanese vessels were reported off Tassafaronga, 14 B-17's left Espiritu to attack. The first flight, arriving over the beach to find the destroyer Meade shelling ships which were already on fire, did not bomb. The second flight continued on up to the Russell Islands, made two hits on a burning transport--one of four derelicts abandoned by the Japanese in that area.

The Marines meanwhile had been able to bring a 105-mm battery to bear on one of the ships, in addition to the 600 rounds the Meade had expended. Marine or Navy aircraft attacked all day, and at 1045 four P-39's made a hit on the least damaged of the blazing hulks. On their return the flight spotted the bow of a sinking warship. Heads bobbed in the water nearby, whether friendly or enemy the pilots did not know. Returning to the Meade, the flight strung out in line, flew across the destroyer's bow, waggling wings--out to the survivors and back. Three of these circuits convinced the destroyer and she went to investigate. The bobbing heads were American.

The ruined vessels off Tassafaronga burned for four days, their twisted hulks symbolic of the blasted Japanese hopes. A phase of the Solomons campaign was at an end: Guadalcanal and Tulagi were now secure and the American forces could give some thought to an offensive. the decision in November, unlike that of the previous month, had been obtained in two short but intense naval actions. The 67th, chief victim of the only Japanese shelling during the critical period, had been unable to strike heavy blows. Nor, in the nature of the case, could the B-17's based 640 miles (1,185 km) away at Espiritu Santo. Admirals Scott and Callaghan, killed in action, and Admiral Lee deservedly garnered the greater part of the glory.

After their decisive beating in mid-Nov, the Japanese made no major effort to recover Guadalcanal. During December and January the Express continued to run, putting small forces ashore and a


rather large one on 14 January. These increments, however, were in the nature of replacements. Henceforth, the enemy was forced to content himself with a tenacious defense; never again did he mount a sustained threat to Henderson Field.

For the Americans, the defensive period on Guadalcanal was over by December. The 1st Marine Division had borne the brunt of the Japanese assaults on Henderson Field. With the exception of the 8th and 2nd Marine Regiments, it was withdrawn on 9 December to be replaced during December and early January by two Army divisions. These were the Americal, which began arriving in November, and the 25th. These units, plus the fresh 6th Marine Regiment and the 2nd Battalion of the 10th Marines, now proceeded to the offensive on Guadalcanal. On 9 December, Maj. Gen. Alexander M. Patch, USA, succeeded General Vandegrift, USMC, as island commander.

With more abundant fuel and supplies, air operations proceeded on a more extensive scale. The pattern remained the same. The Marines still directed air activity, but the USAAF was more heavily represented. The AAF now was able to send up additional fighter units, its heavy bombers moved forward to base on Guadalcanal, and all forces struck regularly at the Express on its trips down The Slot. Buin was in easy range of the B-17's and the new Japanese base at Munda Point received constant attention.

On 17 December a preliminary offensive to the west was initiated. When the 25th Division, under Maj. Gen. J. Lawton Collins was brought into position, a determined drive up Guadalcanal's north coast was undertaken. The XIV Corps' push, opened on 10 January, proceeded amid bitter fighting, and finally freed Henderson from the menace of Pistol Pete. On 9 February organized Japanese resistance was eliminated. On the 8th, a search plane sighted 15 enemy destroyers heading up the channel, the last run of the famous Express. It had apparently evacuated the remaining officers and active troops and left hundreds of sick, wounded, and starving Japanese to be swept up by the Army.

AAF units on Guadalcanal worked with the ground forces in much the same manner as had the old 67th Fighter Squadron. Better planes were available: P-38's for escort, P-40's for the middle air, and P-39's for escort and ground strafing. If a particularly stubborn enemy strongpoint were encountered, the B-17's might be called on


to clear the way. The 67th had retired from Guadalcanal for a well-deserved rest, but pilots of the 44th, 68th, 70th, and 339th Fighter Squadrons took up the burden.

Most significant among these encouraging events was the activation of the Thirteenth Air Force, occurring, appropriately enough, on 13 January 1943. Although operational control remained with COMSOPAC, AAF units henceforth were trained and administered by a theater air force, under General Twining. It was this air force, evolved from such pioneer units as the 11th Groupand the 67th Fighter Squadron, that was destined to move up through the Solomons until it rested on the Admiralty Islands beyond Rabaul, then to swing along the north coast of New Guinea, through successive forward strides, anticipating the day when its mission reports would come in headed--Tokyo


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