FIRST OFFENSIVE: The Marine Campaign for Guadalcanal
by Henry I. Shaw, Jr.
The Landing and August Battles (continued)
Throughout the night, the Japanese swarmed from
hillside caves in four separate attacks, trying to penetrate the raider
lines. They were unsuccessful and most died in the attempts. At dawn,
the 2d Battalion, 2d Marines, landed to reinforce the attackers and by
the afternoon of 8 August, the mop-up was completed and the battle for
Tulagi was over.
The fight for tiny Gavutu and Tanambogo, both little
more than small hills rising out of the sea, connected by a hundred-yard
causeway, was every bit as intense as that on Tulagi. The area of combat
was much smaller and the opportunities for fire support from offshore
ships and carrier planes was severely limited once the Marines had
landed. After naval gunfire from the light cruiser San Juan
(CL-54) and two destroyers, and a strike by F4F Wildcats flying from the
Wasp, the 1st Parachute Battalion landed near noon in three
waves, 395 men in all, on Gavutu. The Japanese, secure in cave
positions, opened fire on the second and third waves, pinning down the
first Marines ashore on the beach. Major Williams took a bullet in the
lungs and was evacuated; 32 Marines were killed in the withering enemy
fire. This time, 2d Marines reinforcements were really needed; the 1st
Battalion's Company B landed on Gavutu and attempted to take Tanambogo;
the attackers were driven to ground and had to pull back to Gavutu.
After a rough night of close-in fighting with the
defenders of both islands, the 3d Battalion, 2d Marines, reinforced the
men already ashore and mopped up on each island. The toll of Marines
dead on the three islands was 144; the wounded numbered 194. The few
Japanese who survived the battles fled to Florida Island, which had been
scouted by the 2d Marines on D-Day and found clear of the enemy.
The Marines' landings and the concentration of
shipping in Guadalcanal waters acted as a magnet to the Japanese at
Rabaul. At Admiral Ghormley's headquarters, Tulagi's radio was heard on
D-Day "frantically calling for [the] dispatch of surface forces to the
scene" and designating transports and carriers as targets for heavy
bombing. The messages were sent in plain language, emphasizing the
plight of the threatened garrison. And the enemy response was prompt and
characteristic of the months of naval air and surface attack to come.
LVT(1) The 'Amtrac'
While the Marine Corps was developing amphibious
warfare doctrine during the 1920s and 1930s, it was apparent that a
motorized amphibian vehicle was needed to transport men and equipment
from ships across fringing reefs and beaches into battle, particularly
when the beach was defended.
In 1940, the Marines adopted the Landing Vehicle,
Tracked (1), designed by Donald Roebling. More commonly known as the
"amtrac" (short for amphibian tractor), the LVT(1) had a driver's cab in
front and a small engine compartment in the rear, with the bulk of the
body used for carrying space. During the next three years, 1,225 LVT(1)s
were built, primarily by the Food Machinery Corporation.
The LVT(1) was constructed of welded steel and was
propelled on both land and water by paddle-type treads. Designed solely
as a supply vehicle, it could carry 4,500 pounds of cargo. In August
1942, the LVT(1) first saw combat on Guadalcanal with the 1st Amphibian
Tractor Battalion, 1st Marine Division. Throughout the Solomon Islands
campaigns, the LVT(1) provided Marines all types of logistical support,
moving thousands of tons of supplies to the front lines. At times they
also were pressed into tactical use: moving artillery pieces, holding
defensive positions, and occasionally supporting Marines in the attack
with their machine guns. They also were used as pontoons to support
bridges across Guadalcanal rivers.
The LVT proved to be more seaworthy than a boat of
comparable size; it was able to remain afloat with its entire cargo hold
full of water. However, defects in the design soon became apparent. The
paddle treads on the tracks and the rigid suspension system were both
susceptible to damage when driven on land and did not provide the
desired speeds on land or water. Although the LVT(1) performed admirably
against undefended beachheads, its lack of armor made it unsuitable for
assaults against the heavily defended islands of the central Pacific.
This weakness was apparent during the fighting in the Solomon Islands,
but LVT(1)s with improvised armor were still in use at the assault on
Tarawa, where 75 percent of them were lost in three days.
The LVT(1) proved its value and validated the
amphibious vehicle concept through the great versatility and mobility it
demonstrated throughout numerous campaigns in the Pacific. Although
intended solely for supply purposes, it was thrust into combat use in
early war engagements. In its initial role as a support vehicle, the
LVT(1) delivered ammunition, supplies and reinforcements that made the
difference between victory and defeat.Second Lieutenant Wesley
L. Feight, USMC
At 1030 on 7 August, an Australian coastwatcher
hidden in the hills of the islands north of Guadalcanal signalled that a
Japanese air strike composed of heavy bombers, light bombers, and
fighters was headed for the island. Fletcher's pilots, whose carriers
were positioned 100 miles south of Guadalcanal, jumped the approaching
planes 20 miles northwest of the landing areas before they could disrupt
the operation. But the Japanese were not daunted by the setback; other
planes and ships were enroute to the inviting target.
On 8 August, the Marines consolidated their positions
ashore, seizing the airfield on Guadalcanal and establishing a
beachhead. Supplies were being unloaded as fast as landing craft could
make the turnaround from ship to shore, but the shore party was woefully
inadequate to handle the influx of ammunition, rations, tents, aviation
gas, vehiclesall gear necessary to sustain the Marines. The beach
itself became a dumpsite. And almost as soon as the initial supplies
were landed, they had to be moved to positions nearer Kukum village and
Lunga Point within the planned perimeter. Fortunately, the lack of
Japanese ground opposition enabled Vandegrift to shift the supply
beaches west to a new beachhead.
Immediately after assault troops cleared the beachhead
and moved inland, supplies and equipment, inviting targets for enemy
bombers, began to litter the beach. Marine Corps Personal Paper
Japanese bombers did penetrate the American fighter
screen on 8 August. Dropping their bombs from 20,000 feet or more to
escape antiaircraft fire, the enemy planes were not very accurate. They
concentrated on the ships in the channel, hitting and damaging a number
of them and sinking the destroyer Jarvis (DD-393). In their
battles to turn back the attacking planes, the carrier fighter squadrons
lost 21 Wildcats on 7-8 August.
The primary Japanese targets were the Allied ships.
At this time, and for a thankfully and unbelievably long time to come,
the Japanese commanders at Rabaul grossly underestimated the strength of
Vandegrift's forces. They thought the Marine landings constituted a
reconnaissance in force, perhaps 2,000 men, on Guadalcanal. By the
evening of 8 August, Vandegrift had 10,900 troops ashore on Guadalcanal
and another 6,075 on Tulagi. Three infantry regiments had landed and
each had a supporting 75mm pack howitzer battalionthe 2 and 3d
Battalions, 11th Marines on Guadalcanal, and the 3d Battalion, 10th
Marines on Tulagi. The 5th Battalion, 11th Marines' 105mm howitzers were
in general support.
That night a cruiser-destroyer force of the Imperial
Japanese Navy reacted to the American invasion with a stinging response.
Admiral Turner had positioned three cruiser-destroyer groups to bar the
Tulagi-Guadalcanal approaches. At the Battle of Savo, the Japanese
demonstrated their superiority in night fighting at this stage of the
war, shattering two of Turner's covering forces without loss to
themselves. Four heavy cruisers went to the bottomthree American,
one Australianand another lost her bow. As the sun came up over
what soon would be called "Ironbottom Sound," Marines watched grimly as
Higgins boats swarmed out to rescue survivors. Approximately 1,300
sailors died that night and another 700 suffered wounds or were badly
burned. Japanese casualties numbered less than 200 men.
The Japanese suffered damage to only one ship in the
encounter, the cruiser Chokai. The American cruisers
Vincennes (CA-44), Astoria (CA-34), and Quincy
(CA-39) went to the bottom, as did the Australian Navy's HMAS
Canberra, so critically damaged that she had to be sunk by
American torpedoes. Both the cruiser Chicago (CA-29) and
destroyer Talbot (DD-114) were badly damaged. Fortunately for the
Marines ashore, the Japanese forcefive heavy cruisers, two light
cruisers, and a destroyerdeparted before dawn without attempting
to disrupt the landing further.
When the attack-force leader, Vice Admiral Gunichi
Mikawa, returned to Rabaul, he expected to receive the accolades of his
superiors. He did get those, but he also found himself the subject of
criticism. Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, the Japanese fleet commander,
chided his subordinate for failing to attack the transports. Mikawa
could only reply, somewhat lamely, that he did not know Fletcher's
aircraft carriers were so far away from Guadalcanal. Of equal
significance to the Marines on the beach, the Japanese naval victory
caused celebrating superiors in Tokyo to allow the event to overshadow
the importance of the amphibious operation.
The disaster prompted the American admirals to
reconsider Navy support for operations ashore. Fletcher feared for the
safety of his carriers; he had already lost about a quarter of his
fighter aircraft. The commander of the expeditionary force had lost a
carrier at Coral Sea and another at Midway. He felt he could not risk
the loss of a third, even if it meant leaving the Marines on their own.
Before the Japanese cruiser attack, he obtained Admiral Ghormley's
permission to withdraw from the area.
90mm Antiaircraft Gun
At a conference on board Turner's flagship transport,
the McCawley, on the night of 8 August, the admiral told General
Vandegrift that Fletcher's impending withdrawal meant that he would have
to pull out the amphibious force's ships. The Battle of Savo Island
reinforced the decision to get away before enemy aircraft, unchecked by
American interceptors, struck. On 9 August, the transports withdrew to
Noumea. The unloading of supplies ended abruptly, and ships still
half-full steamed away. The forces ashore had 17 days'
rationsafter counting captured Japanese foodand only four
days' supply of ammunition for all weapons. Not only did the ships take
away the rest of the supplies, they also took the Marines still on
board, including the 2d Marines' headquarters element. Dropped off at
the island of Espiritu Santo in the New Hebrides, the infantry Marines
and their commander, Colonel Arthur, were most unhappy and remained so
until they finally reached Guadalcanal on 29 October.
Ashore in the Marine beachheads, General Vandegrift
ordered rations reduced to two meals a day. The reduced food intake
would last for six weeks, and the Marines would become very familiar
with Japanese canned fish and rice. Most of the Marines smoked and they
were soon disgustedly smoking Japanese-issue brands. They found that the
separate paper filters that came with the cigarettes were necessary to
keep the fast-burning tobacco from scorching their lips. The retreating
ships had also hauled away empty sand bags and valuable engineer tools.
So the Marines used Japanese shovels to fill Japanese rice bags with
sand to strengthen their defensive positions.
ships carrying barbed wire and engineering tools needed ashore were
forced to leave the Guadalcanal area because of enemy air and surface
threats, Marines had to prepare such hasty field expedients as this
cheval de frise of sharpened stakes. Department of Defense (USMC) Photo
The Marines dug in along the beaches between the
Tenaru and the ridges west of Kukum. A Japanese counter-landing was a
distinct possibility. Inland of the beaches, defensive gun pits and
foxholes lined the west bank of the Tenaru and crowned the hills that
faced west toward the Matanikau River and Point Cruz. South of the
airfield where densely jungled ridges and ravines abounded, the
beachhead perimeter was guarded by outposts and these were manned in
large part by combat support troops. The engineer, pioneer, and
amphibious tractor battalion all had their positions on the front line.
In fact, any Marine with a rifle, and that was virtually every Marine,
stood night defensive duty. There was no place within the perimeter that
could be counted safe from enemy infiltration.
Almost as Turner's transports sailed away, the
Japanese began a pattern of harassing air attacks on the beachhead.
Sometimes the raids came during the day, but the 3d Defense Battalion's
90mm antiaircraft guns forced the bombers to fly too high for effective
bombing. The erratic pattern of bombs, however, meant that no place was
safe near the airfield, the preferred target, and no place could claim
it was bomb-free. The most disturbing aspect of Japanese air attacks
soon became the nightly harassment by Japanese aircraft which singly, it
seemed, roamed over the perimeter, dropping bombs and flares
indiscriminately. The nightly visitors, whose planes' engines were soon
well known sounds, won the singular title "Washington machine Charlie,"
at first, and later, "Louie the Louse," when their presence heralded
Japanese shore bombardment. Technically, "Charlie" was a twin-engine
night bomber from Rabaul. "Louie" was a cruiser float plane that
signalled the harassed Marines used the names interchangeably.