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The Marines on Guadalcanal

Starvation Island

Converted for the Web from "Into The Rising Sun: In Their Own Words, World War II's Pacific Veterans Reveal the Heart of Combat" by Patrick K. O'Donnell

Some people wonder all their lives if they've made a difference.
The Marines don't have that problem.


On Guadalcanal, the Marines gained a foothold after their landing on August 7, but the Japanese built up their forces. The 1st Raider Battalion and 1st Parachute Battalion were recalled from Tulagi and Gavutu and placed in reserve near Guadalcanal's Henderson Field at Lunga Point. The airfield, dubbed an "unsinkable aircraft carrier," became the focus of Japanese attacks. As long as Allied squadrons operated from the airfield, they could use airpower to protect their convoys and attack Japanese reinforcements.

The Raiders put their specialized training to the test by conducting two raids in defense of Henderson. The first occurred on Savo Island, where two Raider companies encountered no enemy soldiers. The second was on the key Japanese supply base at Tasimboko. Both the Raiders and parachutists participated, and the raid was a resounding success: several Japanese artillery pieces and a large cache of supplies were destroyed. More important, it provided an intelligence windfall that revealed the size of the Japanese force that was converging on Henderson Field.

After the raid, Colonel Edson was convinced that the Japanese would attack Henderson from the south, which was lightly guarded. After consulting with division personnel, he moved his men (including the attached 1st Parachute Battalion) to a broken grassy north-south ridge about a mile from the airfield. The ridge was shaped like a giant centipede, with leglike spurs extending on each side. Edson's men hastily dug in and strung their limited supply of barbed wire along the ridge. The spine of the ridge provided a rough dividing line. Paratroopers were dug in on the east side, and the Raiders manned the west.

By dusk on September 12, 1942, over two thousand Japanese soldiers, led by Major General Kiyotaki Kawaguchi, lay coiled in front of Edson's 840 paratroopers and Raiders. A breakthrough along the ridge would result in the capture of the landing strip and lead to the loss of Guadalcanal, a major blow to the American war effort. As Kawaguchi prepared for the assault, he realized only one of his battalions had reached its assigned jump-off point and tried to delay the attack, but faulty communications prevented him from relaying the order. After a bombardment from Japanese cruisers and destroyers, the Japanese launched piecemeal attacks that isolated several Raider platoons stationed near the lagoon side of the ridge, forcing them to withdraw. By dawn, the Japanese broke off the attack and regrouped their forces in the jungles around the grassy hogback.

Edson pulled his line back along the ridge, forcing the Japanese to cross open ground. As darkness fell, the Japanese surged forward again with more men, striking B Company's right flank near the lagoon. At 10:00 P.M., Kawaguchi struck all along the ridge, buckling the center of the Marine line. About sixty Raiders from B Company, now cut off and exposed on both flanks, nevertheless held steady before Edson ordered a general withdrawal to a small knoll, the last defensive position before Henderson Field. There, about three hundred men formed a horseshoe-shaped line around the knoll to make the final stand. When a few men started moving farther toward the rear, the officers rallied them for the final stand, shouting, "Nobody moves, just die in your holes!"

The Japanese continued their advance, threatening to envelop the left flank of the ridge, but they were checked by two companies of parachutists who launched a bold counterattack. Marine artillery continued taking a toll on the attackers, and the men lobbed cases of grenades at the Japanese. At about 4:00 A.M. on September 14, Kawaguchi launched two more attacks on the ridge. Both failed. A small group of Japanese soldiers did reach the western fringe of the airfield (Henderson's Fighter One), but men in the 1st Engineer Battalion and Headquarters Company turned them back. Dawn revealed the broken bodies of seven hundred Japanese attackers, along with scores of Marines, on the hogback the Marines appropriately named Bloody Ridge. But Henderson Field remained in American hands.

More than half the men in the 1st Parachute Battalion were wounded or killed in action during their month and a half of fighting on Guadalcanal. Shortly after the battle for the ridge, the survivors departed for much-needed rest and an infusion of replacement troops. The Raiders lost 163 men on Bloody Ridge but would endure another month of combat.

Not content to remain on the defensive, General Vandegrift tried to dislodge the Japanese from the west side of the Matanikau River (several miles west of Henderson) where they were building up their forces. The area had been a battleground in August, and three U.S. battalions began the Second Battle of the Matanikau with an assault in the last week of September. The exhausted Raiders were joined by the 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines. They would pressure the Japanese near the mouth of the Matanikau, while the bulk of the 1st Battalion, 7th Marines made an amphibious assault farther west at Point Cruz in an attempt to cut off a potential Japanese withdrawal. The attack failed when Raiders and the 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines ran into heavy opposition from the Japanese defenses near the river and had to withdraw. While the 1st Battalion, 7th Marines was surrounded, and nearly annihilated after making its amphibious landing, most of the men were safely evacuated in a mini-Dunkirk. It was the only defeat the Marines suffered during the Guadalcanal campaign.

Intelligence reports soon suggested that the Japanese were making preparations for another offensive, and on October 7, the 5th and 7th Marine Regiments (each less one battalion) and the weakened 1st Raiders were sent to deal with the threat. This Third Battle of the Matanikau was a U.S. success: the Marines mauled a Japanese infantry regiment and disrupted their offensive by capturing assembly and artillery positions on the east bank of the Matanikau.

On October 13, the Raiders embarked by transport to New Caledonia for rest and reinforcements. The Guadalcanal campaign had taken a heavy toll on the 1st Raider Battalion. Only about five hundred men from the battalion's original strength of around nine hundred would board the transports.

On November 4, the rested 2nd Raider Battalion was sent to Guadalcanal. They landed at Aola Bay, about forty miles east of Henderson Field. The battalion's commander, Colonel Evans Carlson, was ordered to pursue about three thousand Japanese troops under the command of Colonel Shoji. Shoji's regiment had retreated to the eastern part of the island after the final failed Japanese offensive on Henderson in late October. Marine units from Henderson Field already were pursuing the retreating regiment, and Carlson's 2nd Raider Battalion was dispatched to harass it from the rear. The mission would be called the Long Patrol, as the Raiders trekked through the rain forest for a month pursing Shoji and whittling away at his unit. The battle casualty figures were lopsided: 488 Japanese soldiers killed, compared to 16 Raiders killed and 17 wounded. The figures don't tell the whole story, however: an additional 225 Raiders were plagued with malaria, dysentery, dengue fever, and other maladies.

As 1943 approached, the fighting on the island entered a new phase. In early December, the 1st Marine Division left, replaced by U.S. Army units. The 2nd Raider Battalion followed on December 15, returning to Espíritu Santo. The Marine Corps authorized the formation of two new Raider battalions, the 3rd and the 4th, and the four battalions were eventually placed in two Raider regiments.

The Marine elite infantry had played a key role in many of the major battles on Guadalcanal, America's first toehold in the Pacific. Yet it was just the beginning of a long journey west; sadly, it was the last that many of the men would make.

Copyright © 2002 by Patrick O'Donnell. All rights reserved. Converted for the Web with the permission of Simon & Schuster.

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