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Guadalcanal: A Real Hot Potato By Lieutenant Colonel Merrill L. Bartlett, U.S. Marine Corps (Retired)

Guadalcanal: A Real Hot Potato | Proceedings - November 2007 Vol.  133/11/1,257

Captain Dickson, adjutant of the 5th Marines at Guadalcanal, painted this scene of night combat along Bloody Ridge in September 1942. More hard fighting was to come.

A perceived lack of Navy support for Marines on Guadalcanal led one Marine officer to have an irreverent medal cast in commemoration of the event. But did the Navy really abandon the Marines?

By late November 1942, the tide had turned for American forces on Guadalcanal. If Marine and Navy aircraft were not exerting air superiority, they at least had air parity. Navy ships were interrupting Japanese attempts to land additional forces ashore, and Soldiers and Leathernecks had begun arriving to reinforce the gaunt malaria-ridden Marines already there.

Lieutenant Colonel Merrill B. Twining, the operations officer of the 1st Marine Division, resolved to commemorate the Leathernecks’ participation in the ill-conceived and poorly supported naval campaign. He thought an appropriate medal was required and turned to Captain Donald L. Dickson, a talented artist serving as the adjutant of the 5th Marines.

Who above Twining in the chain of command approved the medal, and its obvious criticism of the senior Navy officers involved in Operation Watchtower, is unknown. But when the division redeployed to Australia in early 1943, a local metal craftsman was hired to cast it.

The image on the front shows a hand and the sleeve of an admiral—obviously Vice Admiral Robert J. Ghormley, Commander, South Pacific, or Vice Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher, commander of the invasion force—dropping a hot potato into the arms of a Marine. The inscription on the front reads simply Faciat Georgius (Let George Do It).

Faciat Georgius - Wikipedia

Faciat Georgius - Wikipedia

The reverse of the medal shows a Japanese soldier with his breeches pulled down and the inscription “In fond memories of the happy days spent from Aug. 7th 1942 to Jan. 5th 1943. U.S.M.C.” Ribbons for the medal were fashioned from the herringbone twill of Marine field uniforms, supposedly washed in the fetid waters of the Lunga River on Guadalcanal.

The appearance of the medal illustrated the frustration Marines felt for what they saw as a lack of Navy support in the Guadalcanal campaign.

With the fresh taste of victory in earlier encounters at the Coral Sea and Midway, naval leaders pressed to continue the initiative in the Pacific. Vice Admiral Chester A. Nimitz, Commander, Pacific Fleet, proposed sending a Marine Raider battalion to destroy a Japanese seaplane base located on Tulagi in the Solomon Islands. But in Washington, Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Ernest J. King proposed a much larger operation, arguing successfully with the other members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and then the President, to maintain momentum in the Pacific.

Intelligence reports of an enemy airstrip under construction on Guadalcanal reinforced King’s argument that further Japanese threats in the region be stymied. Thus, Operation Watchtower came into being.

The 1st Marine Division began to arrive in New Zealand in June 1942. Its commander, Major General Archer A. Vandegrift, had been told by Commandant of the Marine Corps Lieutenant General Thomas Holcomb not to anticipate any combat operations before 1943. In his first conference with Ghormley on 26 June, a dismayed Vandegrift learned of Operation Watchtower with a proposed D-day of 1 August. He reminded Ghormley that his division was grossly understrength. Undeterred, Ghormley ordered it reinforced with the 2d Marines, 1st Raider Battalion, 1st Parachute Battalion, and the 3d Defense Battalion, which increased Vandegrift’s strength to approximately 19,000 men. The Joint Chiefs approved changing D-day to 7 August; reports of the airfield on Guadalcanal prevented further delay of the invasion.

Because Ghormley’s headquarters were in Noumea, on New Caledonia, some distance from the Solomons, he invested command of the expeditionary force with Fletcher. It consisted of the carrier force (3 carriers, 1 battleship, 6 cruisers, 16 destroyers, and 3 oilers) and Rear Admiral Richmond Kelly Turner’s amphibious force, supported by 5 cruisers and 9 destroyers. Accurate maps of the amphibious objective area (AOA) never appeared, even long after the invasion began, and estimates of Japanese ground forces on Guadalcanal and nearby Tulagi remained uncertain. Later, it was determined that no more than 3,457 were stationed in the Guadalcanal-Tulagi area. Aerial photographs revealed the construction of the airfield and no extensive defenses on Guadalcanal’s north shore.

To the Solomons

The forces rendezvoused in the Fijis on 26 July, conducted a disappointing rehearsal, and steamed toward the Solomons three days later. B-17 bombers flying from the New Hebrides began striking targets on Guadalcanal and Tulagi on the last day of July. Reflecting on the exigency precipitating the operation, King provided a droll comment that proved to be the understatement of the entire operation: “Because of the urgency of seizing and occupying Guadalcanal, planning was not up to its usual thorough standard.”

Few of the Navy commanders gave serious thought to the resupply and support for the Marines about to be dumped onto a hostile shore. Most disconcerting was Fletcher’s decision to depart the amphibious objective area after just 48 hours; reluctantly, he agreed to keep his precious carriers in the AOA for a third day, but Vandegrift argued for at least four days.

The commander of the invasion force had grown fearful of exposure to enemy bombers. Without the support of Fletcher’s aircraft, Turner decided to withdraw the ships of the amphibious force whether unloaded or not. When Fletcher left the AOA, Turner followed with ships still half full; they hauled away part of one infantry regiment along with most of the supplies and equipment necessary to sustain the division in combat ashore for a minimum of 30 days.

Meanwhile, senior Japanese officers in Rabaul and as far away as Imperial General Headquarters in Tokyo remained convinced that the amphibious invasion consisted of nothing more than a reconnaissance in force. By nightfall on D-Day, Vandegrift had more than 11,000 troops ashore. By then, the Marines had overrun the Japanese airfield and advanced to the banks of the Lunga River. The unit of the Special Landing Force, an estimated 430 Japanese Marines, had fled inland with 1,000 Korean laborers when the preassault bombardment began.

But on nearby Tulagi, the Leathernecks found that the Japanese Marines intended to fight a vicious, no-surrender battle. After two days of ferocious combat, the 1st Raider Battalion and 2/5 had maneuvered to outflank and overrun pockets of die-hard defenders. Earlier, strikes by carrier-based aircraft destroyed the seaplane base that had provided the stimulus for the operation.

In response to the audacious incursion, Japanese headquarters in Rabaul opted for the quick fix of air power. On the morning of D-day, an Australian coastwatcher reported a sizeable formation of enemy bombers. Flying from Fletcher’s carriers, positioned 100 miles south of Guadalcanal, fighters destroyed or chased away the Japanese planes before any of them could disrupt the landing. Inexplicably, enemy pilots focused on the amphibious ships and ignored the beaches crammed with troops and supplies. But on the evening of 8 August, an enemy naval force responded to the American invasion with a stinging response.

In the Battle of Savo Island, the Japanese shattered the covering force with no casualties to themselves; four cruisers went to the bottom, and another lost her bow. Fortunately for the Marines ashore, the Japanese naval force departed without attempting to disrupt the landing further. Nonetheless, the victory caused celebrating superiors in Tokyo to allow the event to overshadow the importance of the amphibious operation. A Japanese journalist proclaimed euphemistically that “the Marines in the Solomons were like summer insects which have dropped into the fire by themselves.”

The Ichiki Detachment Lands

Senior officers in Rabaul and Tokyo concluded that the Japanese Army should drive the Marines from Guadalcanal and ordered the 17th Army to undertake the mission. For this assault force, its commander chose a crack regiment commanded by a notorious firebrand. Colonel Ichiki Kiyonao had once scoffed that it only required swords and sabers to defeat the Americans. On the evening of 18 August 1942, the Ichiki Detachment landed at Taivu Point just 22 miles east of the Marine perimeter; the remainder of the 35th Infantry Brigade followed. The Japanese force deployed ashore with characteristic smugness for the fighting ability of their occidental foe: “Westerners—being very haughty, effeminate, and cowardly—intensely dislike fighting in the rain or mist or in the dark,” snarled one strategist.

Ghormley had warned both Nimitz and King that the Japanese might recapture Guadalcanal unless more carrier support and troop reinforcements were forthcoming. Apparently, his pessimism failed to reach the Oval Office. On 19 August, President Franklin D. Roosevelt informed Soviet leader Josef Stalin that, “We have gained, I believe, a toe-hold in the Southwest Pacific from where the Japanese will find it very difficult to dislodge us.” Closer to the scene, senior officers remained less sanguine. After returning from the South Pacific, an Army Air Forces officer advised Lieutenant General Henry H. “Hap” Arnold that “there’s another Bataan coming and so you’d better get ready for it.”

Meanwhile, on 20 August Vandegrift greeted the arrival of Marine Air Group 23’s two squadrons at Henderson Field: 19 Grumman F4F-4 Wildcat fighters and 12 Douglas SBD-3 Dauntless dive-bombers. Two days later, five Army Bell P-400 Airacobras flew in to add to the lethality of air assets positioned on Guadalcanal. One grizzled observer was overheard to mutter, “Now let the bastards come!” And they did, with a vengeance.

During the night of 20-21 August, Ichiki’s troops stormed the Marines’ lines in a screaming, frenzied display of the “spiritual strength” that they had been assured would sweep aside their occidental enemy. As the Japanese charged across a sand bar astride the Ilu, the Leathernecks cut them down. Trapped between two Marine battalions and the sea, Ichiki burned the regimental colors after soaking them in his blood and then committed sepuku. Tanks rolled over the bodies, grinding them into their treads; Crocodiles fed on the dead that clogged the river.

Reflecting on the defeat, a senior Japanese officer concluded that the attack was shear folly. “This tragedy should have taught us the hopelessness of bamboo spear tactics,” he remarked to a confidant. More than 800 Sons of Nippon died in the abortive attempt to breach the Marines’ lines, while the defenders suffered only 44 killed and another 71 wounded. Undeterred, the 17th Army headquarters in Rabaul planned another ground assault.

Meanwhile, the remainder of Major General Kawaguchi Kiyotake’s 35th Infantry Brigade had landed. Incredibly, the Japanese continued to believe that no more than 2,000 Marines were ashore with significant air assets supporting them. As plans for an assault on 13 September unfolded, Kawaguchi voiced his misgivings: “Wouldn’t you think that the destruction of the Ichiki Detachment would be a lesson to us? [Imperial General Headquarters] belittles the enemy on gadarukanaru [starvation island, or Guadalcanal] and declares that once we land successfully, the Marines will surrender.”

Edson Holds

A captured map revealed that the Japanese intended to attack across the ridge separating the jungle from the airstrip and then burst onto the Lunga Plain only a mile from Henderson Field. Vandegrift predicted the main point of attack and positioned a combined force of raiders and paratroopers commanded by Colonel Merritt A. “Red Mike” Edson to block it.

Enemy bombers and artillery pummeled the ridge as a prelude to the ground assault. Enemy ships fired flares over the area, and naval gunfire added to the cacophony. The first blow came during the night of 12-13 September. In desperate hand-to-hand combat, Edson’s force held the ridge as the Japanese made two more attempts to overrun it.

The next night, two of Kawaguchi’s battalions, led by sword-wielding officers shouting “Totsugeki [Charge]” attempted to breach the Leatherneck lines in 12 separate attacks. At first light, the defenders—a total of 840 Marines—counted more than 600 Japanese bodies strewn across the landscape. The survivors of Kawaguchi’s force retreated to the west, dropping the most seriously wounded of their comrades to die along the jungle trails.

Meanwhile, Japanese ships began disgorging the Sendai Division on 7 October without hindrance from Navy ships. On 13-14 October, bomber strikes preceded an intense artillery and naval gunfire bombardment of Henderson Field; the shelling left the vital airstrip in shambles and destroyed most of the facility’s aviation fuel. Vandegrift described his predicament in sober terms to Ghormley and Turner: While his force exceeded that of the enemy, intelligence estimates indicated more than 15,000 Japanese troops assembling in the hills.

In Need of Navy Support

More than half of Vandegrift’s men were in no condition to undertake a protracted land campaign because of malaria. He repeated the requirement for the Navy to control the sea lanes offshore to prevent further Japanese reinforcement and naval gunfire bombardment. He also stressed the need for an increase in his troop strength with the addition of the remainder of the Americal Division from New Caledonia, along with the 2d Marines and 8th Marines from the 2d Marine Division.

As news of the thousands of Japanese pouring ashore spread, a senior Marine officer noted that “the Japs had the run of the waters” and added scornfully, “Where is the Navy, everyone wants to know?” Another disappointed observer noted that “they are landing faster than we can kill ’em.”

After the Sendai Division had massed in the hills east of the ridge bordering the Marine lines, it began to deploy toward Henderson Field. The dense jungle foliage over the 15-mile trek concealed the force, which was buoyed with its commander’s exhortation: “The forthcoming attack on Guadalcanal, which is under the focus of the entire world, is the decisive campaign on which the fate of the Japanese Empire depends.”

Meanwhile, Nimitz had replaced the overcautious Ghormley with the determined and aggressive Vice Admiral William F. Halsey. During the previous ten weeks of the campaign, neither Ghormley nor his chief of staff had bothered to even visit Guadalcanal; Halsey flew there just four days after assuming command. Vandegrift told Halsey that he had no intention of evacuating Guadalcanal but required more active support; Halsey promised Vandegrift “everything I’ve got.”

In Washington, optimism in the South Pacific was matched with guarded pessimism. When a journalist asked Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox, “Do you think we can hold Guadalcanal?” he received a waffling response that could hardly encourage any Marine there: “I will not make any prediction, but every man will give a good accounting of himself. There is a good, stiff fight going on—everybody hopes we can hold out.”

In late October, the Sendai Division attempted to overrun Leatherneck positions but failed. Correctly predicting that the Japanese would again attempt to take what had become “Bloody Ridge,” Vandegrift positioned the 7th Marines and the 164th Infantry to hold the vital terrain. The defenders blunted the enemy attack, and the remnants of the Sendai Division fled into the jungle; another 3,500 enemy troops were killed.

Unknown to the Japanese, Vandegrift’s situation had improved considerably by then. An additional airstrip, “Fighter One,” had been completed by the 6th SeaBee Battalion; the 7th Marines had redeployed from Samoa, and the 2d and 8th Marines from the 2d Marine Division were ashore; the first elements of the Americal Division had redeployed from New Caledonia; and both fighters and torpedo aircraft from carriers had begun to reinforce Leatherneck aviation units at Henderson Field.

Once again, Turner took his “field marshal’s baton” out of his briefcase. The amphibious task force commander opined that the 7th Marines should be positioned in little groups all over Guadalcanal’s coast. Vandegrift simply waived that preposterous notion aside, but then Turner suggested that additional raider battalions could be formed out of the 7th and 8th Marines, along with any “spare” Marines.

Fortunately, Nimitz visited Guadalcanal at about that time and, after Vandegrift spoke to him, put Turner on a short leash. By then, Vandegrift and his staff had grown increasingly impatient. His operations officer even interrupted a visiting admiral who started to say, “What you need . . .” by exclaiming, “What we need is an end to arbitrary decisions by people who don’t know what they’re doing!”

In Hawaii and Washington, the war in the Solomons grew increasingly worrisome. A sharp increase in Navy losses fueled the trepidation; severe damage to a carrier and a battleship left only one carrier and a single battleship on station to support the Marines on Guadalcanal. On 9 November, the first elements of the 38th (Hiroshima) Division landed to reinforce the dwindling number of Japanese on the island.

When its remaining 12,000 men and ten tons of supplies sailed from Shortland Island (just south of Bougainville in the Solomons), the U.S. Navy’s surface forces rose up to smash the reinforcement effort. On 13 and 13-14 November, Navy vessels turned back efforts by Japanese warships to bombard Guadalcanal prior to landing the Hiroshima Division. On the 14th, Navy and Marine aircraft sank seven transports packed with division troops. Only four transports managed to offload.

Happy Thanksgiving

By late November, enemy forces in the region had been defeated or isolated. Halsey brought welcome gifts to the haggard, malaria-ridden, and exhausted Marines on Thanksgiving Day: a turkey dinner with cranberry sauce, and orders to redeploy from Guadalcanal to Australia. As the battle-weary Leathernecks ate their holiday meal, few if any knew or even cared that more than 100 Japanese soldiers died of starvation each day in the jungles of Guadalcanal.

In late December, Imperial General Headquarters concluded that the cost to re-take Guadalcanal had become too great. By that time, all of the elements of the Americal Division were ashore. The 25th Infantry Division and the headquarters of the 2d Marine Division had arrived along with the 6th Marines to constitute XIV Corps.

More than 23,000 Japanese died attempting to eject the Marines from the southern Solomons. Each side lost 24 ships. Leatherneck casualties numbered 1,052 killed, 2,799 wounded, and 8,580 cases of malaria. In more than six months of aerial combat, 94 Marine pilots lost their lives, but they earned an impressive kill ratio of 3:1 against the Japanese pilots.

The Marines at Guadalcanal destroyed the myth of the Japanese as infallible jungle fighters. Emperor Hirohito’s royal decree of 31 December 1943, ordering no further attempts to retake Guadalcanal, foreshadowed the end of the war in the Pacific with an American victory. Japan had entered a war of attrition on Guadalcanal that it could not win.

By the time Imperial General Headquarters concluded that its military and naval forces could not eject the Americans from Guadalcanal, their fruitless efforts had sufficiently eroded Japanese strengths such that General Douglas MacArthur’s campaign to recapture the Philippines and Nimitz’ drive through the Central Pacific could not be stopped.

As one distinguished historian of the Japanese Navy, Paul S. Dull, noted, “At first by accident, later by pride, and then finally in desperation, Guadalcanal became the place the Japanese wanted at all costs to hold.” A Japanese admiral who commanded a surface force in the Solomons reflected, “There is no doubt that Japan’s doom [in the Pacific War] was Guadalcanal.”

The Leathernecks succeeded in spite of lackluster support from Washington and senior Navy commanders on the scene. Years later, the reflections of Merrill Twining (the brains behind the George Medal) placed the epic confrontation in perspective: “You just can’t conceive of the conditions under which that operation came off—the greatest luck, the unbelievable ineptness of the Japanese, everything in the world conspired to make it succeed at all.

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For a generation, Marine veterans of the campaign to seize Guadalcanal-Tulagi remained embittered by the seeming lack of Navy support. Hence the inspiration behind the irreverent commemorative medal. A balanced assessment of the Navy’s support for Operation Watchtower, however, suggests that it deployed all available resources. After the battles of the Coral Sea and Midway, the Navy could not afford the loss of another aircraft carrier. The disaster at Pearl Harbor left few ships available to control the waters off Guadalcanal. In any event, the Navy was fighting a two-ocean war. Planners in Washington demanded more from the Bluejackets and Leathernecks in Operation Watchtower than could be supported with the meager assets available.

Lieutenant Colonel Bartlett is a frequent contributor to Naval Institute publications. He is coauthor with Jack Sweetman of the new edition of the upcoming Naval Institute Press book, Leathernecks: An Illustrated History of the U.S. Marine Corps

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