After the defeat at The Battle of Savo, US Navy pulls back; Marines cut rations.
Continuing Marines Land on Guadalcanal,
our selection from First Offensive: The Marine Campaign for Guadalcanal by Henry I. Shaw, Jr. published in 1962. The selection is presented in six easy 5 minute installments.
Previously in Marines Land on Guadalcanal.
Time: August 7, 1942
Place: Guadalcanal Island
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.
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’ rations — after counting captured Japanese food — and 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.
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 3rd. 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 “Washing 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 signaled to the bombardment ships. But the harassed Marines used the names interchangeably.
Even though most of the division’s heavy engineering equipment had disappeared with the Navy’s transports, the resourceful Marines soon completed the airfield’s runway with captured Japanese gear. On 12 August Admiral McCain’s aide piloted in a PBY-5 Catalina flying boat and bumped to a halt on what was now officially Henderson Field, named for a Marine pilot, Major Lofton R. Henderson, lost at Midway. The Navy officer pronounced the airfield fit for fighter use and took off with a load of wounded Marines, the first of 2,879 to be evacuated. Henderson Field was the centerpiece of Vandegrift’s strategy; he would hold it at all costs.
Although it was only 2,000 feet long and lacked a taxiway and adequate drainage, the tiny airstrip, often riddled with potholes and rendered unusable because of frequent, torrential downpours, was essential to the success of the landing force. With it operational, supplies could be flown in and wounded flown out. At least in the Marines’ minds, Navy ships ceased to be the only lifeline for the defenders.
While Vandegrift’s Marines dug in east and west of Henderson Field, Japanese headquarters in Rabaul planned what it considered an effective response to the American offensive. Misled by intelligence estimates that the Marines numbered perhaps 2,000 men, Japanese staff officers believed that a modest force quickly sent could overwhelm the invaders.
On 12 August, CinCPac determined that a sizable Japanese force was massing at Truk to steam to the Solomons and attempt to eject the Americans. Ominously, the group included the heavy carriers Shokaku and Zuikaku and the light carrier Ryujo. Despite the painful losses at Savo Island, the only significant increases to American naval forces in the Solomons was the assignment of a new battleship, the South Dakota (BB 57).
Imperial General Headquarters in Tokyo had ordered Lieutenant General Haruyoshi Hyakutake’s Seventeenth Army to attack the Marine perimeter. For his assault force, Hyakutake chose the35th Infantry Brigade (Reinforced), commanded by Major General Kiyotake Kawaguchi. At the time, Kawaguchi’s main force was in the Palaus. Hyakutake selected a crack infantry regiment — the 28th. — commanded by Colonel Kiyono Ichiki to land first. Alerted for its mission while it was at Guam, the Ichiki Detachment assault echelon, one battalion of 900 men, was transported to the Solomons on the only shipping available, six destroyers. As a result the troops carried just small amounts of ordnance and supplies. A follow-on echelon of 1,200 of Ichiki’s troops was to join the assault battalion on Guadalcanal.