FIRST OFFENSIVE: The Marine Campaign for Guadalcanal
by Henry I. Shaw, Jr.
December and the Final Stages
he tells it, "Too Many, Too Close, Too Long," is Donald L. Dickson's
portrait of one of the "little guys, just plain worn out. His stamina
and his spirit stretched beyond human endurance. He has had no real
sleep for a long time ... And he probably hasn't stopped ducking and
fighting long enough to discover that he has malaria. He is going to
discover it now, however. He is through." Captain Donald L. Dickson,
On 7 December, one year after the Japanese attack on
Pearl Harbor, General Vandegrift sent a message to all men under his
command in the Guadalcanal area thanking them for their courage and
steadfastness, commending particularly the pilots and "all who labored
and sweated within the lines in all manner of prodigious and vital
tasks." He reminded them all that their "unbelievable achievements had
made 'Guadalcanal' a synonym for death and disaster in the language of
our enemy." On 9 December, he handed over his command to General Patch
and flew out to Australia at the same time the first elements of the 5th
Marines were boarding ship. The 1st, 11th, and 7th Marines would soon
follow together with all the division's supporting units. The men who
were leaving were thin, tired, hollow-eyed, and apathetic; they were
young men who had grown old in four months time. They left behind 681
dead in the island's cemetery.
The final regiment of the Americal Division, the 132d
Infantry, landed on 8 December as the 5th Marines was preparing to
leave. The 2d Marine Division's regiments already on the island, the 2d,
8th, and part of the 10th, knew that the 6th Marines was on its way to
rejoin. It seemed to many of the men of the 2d Marines, who had landed
on D-Day, 7 August, that they, too, should be leaving. These took slim
comfort in the thought that they, by all rights, should be the first of
the 2d to depart the island whenever that hoped-for day came.
General Patch received a steady stream of ground
reinforcements and replacements in December. He was not ready yet to
undertake a full-scale offensive until the 25th Division and the rest of
the 2d Marine Division arrived, but he kept all frontline units active
in combat and reconnaissance patrols, particularly toward the western
The island commander's air defense capabilities also
grew substantially. Cactus Air Force, organized into a fighter command
and a strike (bomber) command, now operated from a newly redesignated
Marine Corps Air Base. The Henderson Field complex included a new
airstrip, Fighter Two, which replaced Fighter One, which had severe
drainage problems. Brigadier General Louis Woods, who had taken over as
senior aviator when Geiger returned to Espiritu Santo, was relieved on
26 December by Brigadier General Francis P. Mulcahy, Commanding General,
2d Marine Aircraft Wing. New fighter and bomber squadrons from both the
1st and 2d Wings sent their flight echelons forward on a regular basis.
The Army added three fighter squadrons and a medium bomber squadron of
B-26s. The Royal New Zealand Air Force flew in a reconnaissance squadron
of Lockheed Hudsons. And the U.S. Navy sent forward a squadron of
Consolidated PBY Catalina patrol planes which had a much needed
American Division commander, MajGen Alexander M. Patch,
Jr., watches while his troops and supplies are staged on Guadalcanal's
beaches on 8 December, the day before he relieved Gen Vandegrift and his
wornout 1st Marine Division. U.S. Army Signal Corps Photo SC164898
The 'George' Medal
The George Medal is legendary among 1st Marine
Division veterans of Guadalcanal. Only about 50 were cast, in Australia,
before the mold gave out.
The medal commemorates the difficult situation of
the division during the early days on Guadalcanal, when ammunition,
food, and heavy equipment were short and the Japanese plentiful. When
the issue was no longer in doubt, Marine had time to reflect on the
D-plus-3 Navy withdrawal in the face of increasing Japanese air attacks
and surface action which left the division in such a tight spot.
In the recollection of then-Captain Donald L.
Dickson, adjutant of the 5th Marines, the Division G-3, then-Lieutenant
Colonel Merrill B. Twining, resolved to commemorate the occasion.
Twining told artist Dickson in general terms what he had in mind.
Dickson went to work designing an appropriate medal using a fifty-cent
piece to draw a circle on a captured Japanese blank military postcard.
Dickson's design was approved and when the division
got to Australia a mold was made by a local metal craftsman and a small
number were cast before the mold became unserviceable. Those wanting a
medal paid one Australian pound for it and received a certificate as
well. The medals are now an even greater rarity than at the time. In
recent years, reproductions have been cast, and can be identified by the
different metal and a poor definition of details.
The obverse design shows a hand and sleeve dropping
a hot potato in the shape of Guadalcanal into the arms of a grateful
Marine. In the original design the sleeve bore the stripes of a vice
admiral intended to be either Vice Admiral Robert L. Ghormley, ComSoPac,
or Vice Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher, Commander Joint Expeditionary
Force, but the final medal diplomatically omitted this identification.
Also on the obverse is a Saguaro cactus, indigenous
to Arizona, not Guadalcanal, but representing the code name for the
island, "Cactus." The obverse inscription if Facia Georgius, "Let
George Do It." Thus it became known as the George Medal.
The medal's reverse pictures a cow (the original
design showed a Japanese soldier with breeches down) and an electric
fan, and is inscribed: "In fond remembrance of the happy days spent from
Aug. 7th 1942 to Jan. 5th 1943. U.S.M.C."
The suspension ribbon was made, appropriately, of
the pale green herringbone twill from some Marine's utility uniform.
Legend has it that to be authentic the utilities from which the ribbons
were made had to have been washed in the waters of Guadalcanal's Lunga
River. Some medals were provided with the oversized safety pin used to
identify laundry bags in Navy shipboard laundries.
Such unofficial commemorative mementos are not
uncommon in military circles and recall, among other, the Soochow Creek
medals recognizing the defense of Shanghai's International Settlement
during the Japanese invasions of 1932 and 1937 which were inspired by
the Military Order of the Dragon medals of veterans of the China Relief
Expedition or Boxer Rebellion. Brooke Nihart
The aerial buildup forced the Japanese to curtail all
air attacks and made daylight naval reinforcement attempts an event of
the past. The nighttime visits of the Tokyo Express destroyers now
brought only supplies encased in metal drums which were rolled over the
ships' sides in hope they would float into shore. The men ashore
desperately needed everything that could be sent, even by this method,
but most of the drums never reached the beaches.
Still, however desperate the enemy situation was
becoming, he was prepared to fight. General Hyakutake continued to plan
the seizure of the airfield. General Hitoshi Immamura, commander of the
Eighth Area Army, arrived in Rabaul on 2 December with orders to
continue the offensive. He had 50,000 men to add to the embattled
Japanese troops on Guadalcanal.
Before these new enemy units could be employed, the
Americans were prepared to move out from the perimeter in their own
offensive. Conscious that the Mt. Austen area was a continuing threat to
his inland flank in any drive to the west, Patch committed the
Americal's 132d Infantry to the task of clearing the mountain's wooded
slopes on 17 December. The Army regiment succeeded in isolating the
major Japanese force in the area by early January. The 1st Battalion, 2d
Marines, took up hill positions to the southeast of the 132d to increase
By this time, the 25th Infantry Division (Major
General J. Lawton Collins) had arrived and so had the 6th Marines (6
January) and the rest of the 2d Division's headquarters and support
troops. Brigadier General Alphonse De Carre, the Marine division's
assistant commander, took charge of all Marine ground forces on the
island. The 2d Division's commander, Major General John Marston,
remained in New Zealand because he was senior to General Patch.
With three divisions under his command, General Patch
was designated Commanding General, XIV Corps, on 2 January. His corps
headquarters numbered less than a score of officers and men, almost all
taken from the Americal's staff. Brigadier General Edmund B. Sebree, who
had already led both Army and Marine units in attacks on the Japanese,
took command of the Americal Division. On 10 January, Patch gave the
signal to start the strongest American offensive yet in the Guadalcanal
campaign. The mission of the troops was simple and to the point: "Attack
and destroy the Japanese forces remaining on Guadalcanal."
Halftrack Mounting a 75mm Pack Howitzer and a .50-Caliber Air-Cooled
The initial objective of the corps' attack was a line
about 1,000 to 1,500 yards west of jump-off positions. These ran inland
from Point Cruz to the vicinity of Hill 66, about 3,000 yards from the
beach. In order to reach Hill 66, the 25th Infantry Division attacked
first with the 35th and 27th Infantry driving west and southwest across
a scrambled series of ridges. The going was rough and the dug-in enemy,
elements of two regiments of the 38th Division, gave way
reluctantly and slowly. By the 13th, however, the American soldiers,
aided by Marines of the 1st Battalion, 2d Marines, had won through to
positions on the southern flank of the 2d Marine Division.
On 12 January, the Marines began their advance with
the 8th Marines along the shore and 2d Marines inland. At the base of
Point Cruz, in the 3d Battalion, 8th Marines' sector, regimental weapons
company half-tracks ran over seven enemy machine gun nests. The attack
was then held up by an extensive emplacement until the weapons company
commander, Captain Henry P. "Jim" Crowe, took charge of a half-dozen
Marine infantrymen taking cover from enemy fire with the classic
remarks: "You'll never get a Purple Heart hiding in a fox hole. Follow
me!" The men did and they destroyed the emplacement.
All along the front of the advancing assault
companies the going was rough. The Japanese, remnants of the Sendai
Division, were dug into the sides of a series of cross compartments
and their fire took the Marines in the flank as they advanced. Progress
was slow despite massive artillery support and naval gunfire from four
destroyers offshore. In two days of heavy fighting, flamethrowers were
employed for the first time and tanks were brought into play. The 2d
Marines was now relieved and the 6th Marines moved into the attack along
the coast while the 8th Marines took up the advance inland. Naval
gunfire support, spotted by naval officers ashore, improved measurably.
On the 15th, the Americans, both Army and Marine, reached the initial
corps objective. In the Marine attack zone, 600 Japanese were dead.
Final Phase: 26 January9 February 1943
(click on image
for an enlargement in a new window)
The battle-weary 2d Marines had seen its last
infantry action of Guadalcanal. A new unit now came into being, a
composite Army-Marine division, or CAM division, formed from units of
the Americal and 2d Marine Divisions. The directing staff was from the
2d Division, since the Americal had responsibility for the main
perimeter. Two of its regiments, the 147th and the 182d Infantry, moved
up to attack in line with the 6th Marines still along the coast. The 8th
Marines was essentially pinched out of the front lines by a narrowing
attack corridor as the inland mountains and hills pressed closer to the
coastal trail. The 25th Division, which was advancing across this rugged
terrain, had the mission of outflanking the Japanese in the vicinity of
Kokumbona, while the CAM Division drove west. On the 23d, as the CAM
troops approached Kokumbona, the 1st Battalion of the 27th Infantry
struck north out of the hills and overran the village site and Japanese
base. There was only slight but steady opposition to the American
advance as the enemy withdrew west toward Cape Esperance.
The Japanese had decided, reluctantly, to give up the
attempt to retake Guadalcanal. The orders were sent in the name of the
Emperor and senior staff officers were sent to Guadalcanal to ensure
their acceptance. The Navy would make the final runs of the Tokyo
Express, only this time in reverse, to evacuate the garrison so it could
fight again in later battles to hold the Solomons.
Receiving intelligence that enemy ships were massing
again to the northwest, General Patch took steps, as Vandegrift had
before him on many occasions, to guard against overextending his forces
in the face of what appeared to be another enemy attempt at
reinforcement. He pulled the 25th Division back to bolster the main
perimeter defenses and ordered the CAM Division to continue its attack.
When the Marines and soldiers moved out on 26 January, they had a
surprisingly easy time of it, gaining 1,000 yards the first day and
2,000 the following day. The Japanese were still contesting every
attack, but not in strength.
By 30 January, the sole frontline unit in the
American advance was the 147th Infantry; the 6th Marines held positions
to its left rear.
The Japanese destroyer transports made their first
run to the island on the night of 1-2 February, taking out 2,300 men
from evacuation positions near Cape Esperance. On the night of 4-5
February, they returned and took out most of the Sendai survivors
and General Hyakutake and his Seventeenth Army staff. The final
evacuation operation was carried out on the night of 7-8 February, when
a 3,000-man rear guard was embarked. In all, the Japanese withdrew about
11,000 men in those three nights and evacuated about 13,000 soldiers
from Guadalcanal overall. The Americans would meet many of these men
again in later battles, but not the 600 evacuees who died, too worn and
sick to survive their rescue.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt presents Gen Vandegrift
the Medal of Honor for his heroic accomplishments against the Japanese
in the Solomons. Looking on are Mrs. Vandegrift, and the general's son,
Maj Alexander A. Vandegrift, Jr.
National Archives Photo 208-PU-209V-4
On 9 February, American soldiers advancing from east
and west met at Tenaro village on Cape Esperance. The only Marine ground
unit still in action was the 3d Battalion, 10th Marines, supporting the
advance. General Patch could happily report the "complete and total
defeat of Japanese forces on Guadalcanal." Nor organized Japanese units
On 31 January, the 2d Marines and the 1st Battalion,
8th Marines, boarded ship to leave Guadalcanal. As was true with the 1st
Marine Division, some of these men were so debilitated by malaria they
had to be carried on board. All of them struck observers again as young
men grown old "with their skins cracked and furrowed and wrinkled." On 9
February, the rest of the 8th Marines and a good part of the division
supporting units boarded transports. The 6th Marines, thankfully only
six weeks on the island, left on the 19th. All were headed for
Wellington, New Zealand, the 2d Marines for the first time. Left behind
on the island as a legacy of the 2d Marine Division were 263 dead.
The total cost of the Guadalcanal campaign to the
American ground combat forces was 1,598 officers and men killed, 1,152
of them Marines.
The wounded totaled 4,709, and 2,799 of these were
Marines. Marine aviation casualties were 147 killed and 127 wounded. The
Japanese in their turn lost close to 25,000 men on Guadalcanal, about
half of whom were killed in action. The rest succumbed to illness,
wounds, and starvation.
At sea, the comparative losses were about equal, with
each side losing about the same number of fighting ships. The enemy loss
of 2 battleships, 3 carriers, 12 cruisers, and 25 destroyers, was
irreplaceable. The Allied ships losses, though costly, were not fatal;
in essence, all ships lost were replaced. In the air, at least 600
Japanese planes were shot down; even more costly was the death of 2,300
experienced pilots and aircrewmen. The Allied plane losses were less
than half the enemy's number and the pilot and aircrew losses
temporary resting place of a Marine killed in the fighting at Lunga
Point is shown here. The grave marker was erected by his friends. The
Marine's remains were later removed to the division cemetery on
Guadalcanal, and further reburial at war's end either in his hometown or
the Punchbowl National Cemetery in Hawaii with the honors due a fallen
President Roosevelt, reflecting the thanks of a
grateful nation, awarded General Vandegrift the Medal of Honor for
"outstanding and heroic accomplishment" in his leadership of American
forces on Guadalcanal from 7 August to 9 December 1942. And for the same
period, he awarded the Presidential Unit Citation to the 1st Marine
Division (Reinforced) for "outstanding gallantry" reflecting "courage
and determination ... of an inspiring order." Included in the division's
citation and award, besides the organic units of the 1st Division, were
the 2d and 8th Marines and attached units of the 2d Marine Division, all
of the Americal Division, the 1st Parachute and 1st and 2d Raider
Battalions, elements of the 3d, 5th, and 14th Defense Battalions, the
1st Aviation Engineer Battalion, the 6th Naval Construction Battalion,
and two motor torpedo boat squadrons. The indispensable Cactus Air Force
was included, also represented by 7 Marine headquarters and service
squadrons, 16 Marine flying squadrons, 16 Navy flying squadrons, and 5
Army flying squadrons.
The victory at Guadalcanal marked a crucial turning
point in the Pacific War. No longer were the Japanese on the offensive.
Some of the Japanese Emperor's best infantrymen, pilots, and seamen had
been bested in close combat by the Americans and their Allies. There
were years of fierce fighting ahead, but there was now no question of
When the veterans of the 1st Marine Division were
gathered in thankful reunion 20 years later, they received a poignant
message from Guadalcanal. The sender was a legend to all "Canal"
Marines, Honorary U.S. Marine Corps Sergeant Major Jacob C. Vouza. The
Solomons native in his halting English said: "Tell them I love them all.
Me old man now, and me no look good no more. But me never forget."