(Archive - Week of August 13, 2005)
UNITED STATES MARINE CORPS

WAR IN THE PACIFIC
Invasion of Guadalcanal

The invasion of Guadalcanal
was the FIRST offensive Pacific (Asian) land battle of World War II.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Herman Shirley
I dedicate this story to my Marine friend, Herman Shirley, who survived the battle of Guadalcanal as a member of (B-1-1) B Co. 1st Bn. 1st Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division. This great US Marine hero also survived the fighting on the islands of Cape Gloucester, and Peleliu. Please click on the gold bar on my Previous Articles page and go to "Autobiography of WWII Marine Herman Shirley."

"I have just returned from visiting the Marines at the front, and there is not a finer fighting organization in the world!"

General Douglas MacArthur, US Army

 

During the months following Pearl Harbor, the Japanese realized that the Allies did not have enough forces to protect the many islands stretching southeast from Rabaul, the main Japanese naval and air base on New Britain. Because of this, they were in no big hurry to occupy any of these islands. The Japanese commanders sent small detachments to Tulagi Harbor on 26 Apr 1942 and within weeks they had a radio station built.

Less than a month later patrols were sent out to Guadalcanal to look for food as well as native laborers for the Tulagi garrison. It was at this time that they realized that an airfield could be built. The second week of July saw 3000 Japanese from different construction battalions at work on the airfield.

Because the Japanese were busily building an airfield on Guadalcanal, the Americans launched the first phase of "Operation Watchtower", to occupy the Santa Cruz Islands and recapture Tulagi and Guadalcanal. The 1st Marine Division, under the command of Major General Alexander A. Vandegrift, was given the task to carry out the invasion.

D-day was set for 7 Aug 1942 despite the lack of training for this mission. General Vandegrift was not pleased that the Marines did not have enough information about the coral reef around the landing area, or the little knowledge of the interior jungle of the island. Vandegrift also felt that the Marines needed more training at amphibious landings.

However, the landing was achieved on 7 Aug, as planned. The landing force involved 24 transports and cargo ships carrying 19000 Marines, screened by 54 warships, including three carriers. Marines pushed ashore, unopposed, as the landing caught the Japanese completely by surprise. Marines pressed on to achieve their first day objectives, mainly reaching the airfield. Back at the beach the main problem was the small number of men in the shore parties unloading the transports. Chaos was abound as naval personnel just dumped supplies all over the beach in no particular order.

Gavutu Island

The 1st Battalion, 2nd Marines, landed on Florida Island and met with little resistance. The 1st Raider Battalion assaulting Tulagi didn't have such an easy time. Nor did the 1st Parachute Battalion at Gavutu. The Raiders ran into a heavy barrage of mortar and machine gun fire. During the 7-8 of August they beat back several major frontal attacks before the Raiders were able to clear out the caves of surviving Japanese and secure the island by dusk.

When the Japanese at Rabaul learned of the landing on Guadalcanal they sent several sorties of enemy bombers to attack the transports. However, none did any damage and several planes were shot down.

Despite the easy landing on the 'canal it wasn't to be so easy the rest of the operation. Especially for the US Navy. In preparation for the battle of Salvo Island on 9 Aug Vadm Gun'ichi Mikawa, commander of the 8th Fleet sent five heavy cruisers, two light cruisers, and a destroyer down the 'slot' during a daylight run. Poor communication misidentified the Jap force as two seaplane tenders.

Because of this, the Allies were caught by surprise in the early morning of 9 Aug and the end result saw the Allies lose 3 American and one Australian cruisers. Other US ships were damaged or disabled, and the US carrier force was withdrawn for fear of further Japanese attacks leaving the Marines and Sailors ashore on their own. The Japanese ships suffered minor damage and withdrew before attacking the vulnerable troopships standing off Guadalcanal.

On 17 Aug US Marine Raiders, led by Lt. Colonel Evans Carlson were landed on Makin Island in the Gilbert Islands by two navy subs. The 221 man force destroyed all installations, including a newly completed seaplane base, on the Japanese held island and killed all 90 gooks. Carlson's Raiders lost 30 men and 14 were wounded.

The Japanese made several attempts to reinforce their own troops on Guadalcanal. The early attempts failed, however Admiral Tanaka realizing he owned the waters from dusk to dawn began sending troops via the "Tokyo Express" after dark.

On 21 Aug the Japanese launched a counterattack on Marine positions along the Tenaru River. They sent 900 Japanese Infantry against LtCol Al Pollock's 2nd Battalion, 1st Marines. The Marines had a platoon of machine guns and a 37mm gun crew. The Japs kept attempting to cross the river but were driven back. When they did get across the river and set up a machine gun it was silenced by grenades. Flanking the Japs from the Ilu was the 1st Battalion, 1st Marines commanded by Lt. Col Lenard Cresswell. Wildcats and M-3 light tanks strafed and fired on the retreating enemy. When the battle was over the Japs suffered 800 casualties. The disgraced Jap Commander Col Ichiki went off and committed suicide. Marines lost 34 dead, 75 wounded.

Even though the Japanese were able to get soldiers ashore and muster an attack they were not prepared for the terrain and climate. Japanese commanders planned a very complex attack on Henderson Field. The main thrust was from the south by a force of 3000 men. The route led the soldiers thru the putrid jungle where heat and humidity slowed their advance as well as malaria, malnutrition, and dysentery. It took six days to march to their destination. It gave Colonel Merritt Edson's Raiders plenty of time to dig in, coordinate artillery support, and wait for the battle on "Edson's Ridge". The first Japanese thrust came at 2100hrs against Edsons left flank. Two Japanese cruisers and a destroyer opened fire on the ridge. Boiling out of the jungle, the enemy soldiers attacked fearlessly into the face of rifle and machine gun fire, closing to bayonet range. They were thrown back. The Japanese came again, this time against the right flank, penetrating the Marines' positions. Again the Marines held the enemy back. They attacked one more time, only to be thrown back once again. After the third attack ended at 0230 Edson radioed Vandegrift that his Marines could hold. And they did.

The enemy attacks the next night were as fierce as any man had seen. The Japanese were everywhere, fighting hand-to-hand in the Marines foxholes and gunpits and filtering past forward positions to attack from the rear. Colonel Edson appeared wherever the fighting was toughest, encouraging his men to their utmost efforts. Artillerymen from the 5th Battalion, 11th Marines, as they had done the previous night, fired their 105mm howitzers at any called target. The range grew as short as 1600 yards from tube to impact. The Japanese finally could take no more. They pulled back as dawn approached. Each of the attacks by Major General Kiyotake Kawaguchi's 35th Brigade failed with the loss of more than 600 killed. Another 600 were wounded. Edson's force lost 59 dead, 194 wounded. Another 10 were missing. Both Colonel Edson and Captain Kenneth Bailey, commanding the raiders Company C, were awarded the Medal of Honor for their heroic and inspirational actions. With Kawaguchi's failure brought crisis at Rabaul as the Japanese high command made Guadalcanal their number one priority in the South Pacific.

In the meantime, on 18 Sept, General Vandegrift was finally able to secure the necessary supplies of tanks, rations, ammunition, aviation fuel, and reinforcements in the form of the 7th Marine Regiment. Vandegrift was also presented 3000 men of the 164th RCT. Also included in the new arrivals was the commander of 1st Battalion, 7th Marines, one Lt. Colonel Lewis "Chesty" Puller.

On 7 Oct, Vandegrift launched a five-battalion attack against the Japanese positions along the Matanikau river. Lt. Colonel "Chesty" Puller's 1st battalion, 7th Marines, surprised a large Japanese force in bivouac. He set up a defense line along a ridge, called in artillery and mortar fire down on the enemy, who were caught in a ravine. When the mortar fire drove the Japanese up the slopes of the crater, they emerged into the fields of fire from his machine guns, which cut down scores of the enemy. When the Japanese retreated back inside the crater Puller called in his deadly mortar fire which ended the Japanese threat quickly. In all, more than seven hundred Japanese were killed. General Maruyama was forced to pull back his line two miles.

Enemy documents found on dead nips revealed how the Japanese felt about US Marines "The Americans on this Island are not ordinary troops, but Marines, a special force recruited from jails and insane asylums for blood lust. There is no honorable death to prisoners, their arms are cut off, they are staked on this airfield, and run over by steamrollers." Ooh-rah!!!!

Admiral Yamamoto who was in charge of the main Japanese fleet north of the Solomons, sent a major strike force built around the battleships Kongo and Haruna whose task was the destruction of planes and equipment at Henderson field. With the addition of cruisers and destroyers, they bombarded the airstrip for two hours. They damaged or completely destroyed all of the fighters and most of the torpedo bombers. In addition, the shelling killed 60 Marines.

Matanikau River

The bombardment by Japanese artillery preceded a large troop buildup along the Matanikau river of about 20,000 Japanese. Another attack force of 7000 Japanese was marching toward the airfield from the South. This was the main force led by General Maruyama. However, the march was through very rough jungle terrain, and the heat and humidity slowed the Japanese and they were forced to leave a large number of their weapons in the jungle and the attack was postponed for two days. The Japanese Reports of the delayed assault did not reach the Japanese attacking across the Matanikau. General Sumiyoshi sent his tanks across the river ahead of the infantry. They were all destroyed by antitank guns and the infantry was once again dispersed by artillery fire. Meanwhile, Gen Maruyama had rescheduled his assault for 1700 on 24 Oct, however heavy rain turned the jungle into a swamp, broke down communications, and prevented the right flank from being in the correct position to attack. Instead of waiting, Gen. Maruyama attacked with just the left flank up Edson's Ridge. Once again "Chesty" Puller and his 1st Battalion, 7th Marines, were waiting. When the Japanese began to cut through the barbed wire on the outer perimeter the order was given to 'open fire'. The front erupted with blazing tracer fire and over their heads the artillery shells sliced through the rainstorm. Explosions in the jungle halted Japanese columns before they could get moving, However, the enemy at the front continued to cut through the wire using grenades and getting fired upon by Marine machine guns.

Japs were dying on front of Marine positions so persistently that the stacks of dead bodies had to be removed to open up the fields of fire.

Colonel Puller had all his weapons firing. 37 anti-tank gun erased columns of Japanese at the edge of the jungle. There was several 50 & 30 caliber guns, two anti tank guns, 18 bars, and a 60 mortar battery. The mortar fired 600 rounds during the night until the barrel was red hot. Barrels of 105's were white hot from intense firing. Colonel Puller's battalion was down to 500 men and reinforcements were on the way in the form of the 3rd battalion of the Army's 164th Regiment. The soldiers fit in perfectly with their new M-1 rifles.

The Japanese continued to attack relentlessly and was able to drive a wedge into the Marine line some 75 yards deep and 50 yards wide. Mortars fired a flurry of fire which closed the breach.

A party of about 40 Japanese were discovered sleeping near the 80 millimeter mortar position. They were armed with land mines and dynamite apparently to use on the mortars that had been terrorizing their positions all night. The Japanese were wiped out. There were so many dead Japanese that bulldozers were brought in to bury the corpses in pits.

While turning back every assault by the Japanese that evening more than 1400 dead Japanese were stacked in front of the Marines' lines.

On 8 Nov luck ran out for Colonel 'Chesty' Puller. For the first time in his 23 year military career Puller was hit by enemy fire. Shell fragments tore into his legs and lower body. After getting back on his feet Puller was felled once more by a Japanese sniper as rounds hit him in the arm. Although he had been hit seven times with bullets and shrapnel, Puller was still in command and was able to call in an artillery attack that silenced the Japanese guns. Eventually Puller was removed to the field hospital for proper medical attention which laid up the Colonel for 8 days. On January 2, Colonel Puller left Guadalcanal for Washington DC.

On 12 Nov U.S. Marines closed the Gavaga Creek pocket having killed 450 nips.

On 15 Nov five Sullivan brothers were killed when the cruiser Juneau was sunk off of Guadalcanal. They had all enlisted together in Waterloo, Iowa only eleven months before. The Sullivans, a destroyer, was named in their honor in April 1943.

Gen. Maruyama attempted one more futile attack against the marines on Edson's Ridge. However, as the slaughter of his men continued, even Maruyama realized it was time to retreat.

It was the courage and fighting spirit of both the Marines and Army soldiers that won the Battle of Guadalcanal. Overconfidence and rigidity by Japanese commanders were two of the reasons for the collapse of the Japanese forces on Guadalcanal. The Japanese set out on a plan of attack, but there was no room for alterations to the plan. If a Japanese soldier attempted to go off and try another avenue of attack, he risk the chance of getting shot in the back by his own commanders. Surely the Japanese felt contempt for the Allies and believed that the raw courage of their infantry combined with aerial and naval superiority would assure an easy victory. However, poor reconnaissance of the jungle and terrain, launching frontal attacks with weary and out of position troops contributed to the destruction of one of the Japanese finest infantry divisions for absolutely no gain. Also it is this webmasters opinion that the Japanese hadn't experienced a good butt kicking in a long time. Thus, they didn't know how to lose.

Carlson's Raiders completed a month long trek from Aola Bay to lunga Point, losing 17 Marines while killing 400 Japs.

Fighting continued for the Allies on Guadalcanal into 1943 although the weary 1st Marine Division was evacuated at the end of Dec 1942 and replaced by elements of the 2nd Marine Division. In all the fighting the 1st Marine Division suffered 774 killed and 1,962 wounded. Another 5,400 suffered from malaria.

Of the estimated 36,000 Japanese who fought on the 'canal more than 14,000 were killed and another 9,000 perished from disease. American infantry causalities were set at 1,600 killed and 4,300 wounded.

The Japanese expended so much energy on Guadalcanal that they failed to improve their situation on New Guinea. Japanese expansion in the Pacific stopped at Guadalcanal...

Picture Perfect At End Of War
BY BILL HUTCHINSON
DAILY NEWS STAFF WRITER
Originally published on May 30, 2005

If a picture is worth a thousand words, a newspaper photo of a battle-hardened Marine can tell how agony turned to nationwide ecstasy on May 8, 1945.

New Jersey World War II veteran Zigmund Gasiewicz shows medals he earned for fighting on island of Guadalcanal

A Daily News photographer snapped the shot of Sgt. Zigmund Gasiewicz and four other servicemen and women walking arm in arm on Park Ave., celebrating the end of World War II in Europe. "That was a great day. Everybody was happy," Gasiewicz, 83, of Belleville, N.J., said.

This Memorial Day, Gasiewicz said his thoughts and prayers will be for the soldiers fighting in Iraq.

"I think of the battles that I was in, and the men that died - good buddies of mine," he said. "On Memorial Days now, I think of it a lot more than I used to."

Born and raised in the coal-mining country of Pennsylvania, "Ziggy" Gasiewicz was 17 when he joined the Marines in 1940. When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, he was among the first U.S. troops shipped to the Pacific.

His 1st Marine Division artillery unit landed on the steamy beaches of Guadalcanal Aug. 7, 1942.

"There they go," he wrote in his diary. "Machine guns going like hell, about 400 yards in front of us. We were at them all night." Recalling that "jungle of blood" six decades later, his voice cracks with emotion. "Most of us thought that we weren't going to make it out of Guadalcanal," said Gasiewicz.

After Guadalcanal, where he caught malaria, he spent the next two years fighting in New Guinea and Cape Gloucester, New Britain, before circling back to Guadalcanal and finally home. "When I got off the ship in San Francisco, I kissed the ground. I said, 'Thank God I'm home,'" said Gasiewicz.

He married his sweetheart, Lucille, raised two children, and now has two "very smart" grandkids. He worked for 37 years installing elevators.

Gasiewicz again glanced at his album of yellowing newspaper photos, and began to recite names of buddies who didn't make it home. "I'm still a Marine," he declared. "I'll always be a Marine."

Contact Noah at:
Noah@SemperFidelisNoah.com

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