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Guadalcanal Campaign- Part I: Consolidation
by Michael J. Canavan, Sr
Command Sergeant Major
US Army (retired)

Background

On 2 July 1942, Allied forces in the Pacific were ordered to begin a limited offensive to halt Japanese advances toward the lines of communication between the United States, Australia and New Zealand. Simultaneously, the US was committed to building up forces in Great Britain to launch an offensive in Europe in 1942 or 1943. Resources were so limited that an offensive in the Pacific, with most of the forces provided by the US, would also have to be limited in scope. It was imperative that Japanese advances towards Allied communications lines be halted. On July 2nd, 1942, a decision was made that led to the long, bloody struggle for a steamy, malaria-ridden, rain-soaked Solomon Island. Discounting the first Phillipines campaign, this was the first real test of land strength between Japan and the United States. The primary tactical objective for the Allies was to secure the unfinished airfield near Laguna Point and prevent Japanese occupation of Guadalcanal.

Command of the operation was given to Vice Admiral Ghormley, C-in-C South Pacific Area. Tactical command was given to Vice Admiral Fletcher. Major General Alexander Vandergrift commanded the reinforced 1st Marine Division, an amphibious force of some 19,000 men. The landings were hastily planned and executed, ignoring basic amphibious warfare doctrine by failing to isolate the landings from Japanese attack and leaving lines of communication unsecured. Little was known about the British owned island and available maps were so inaccurate as to be useless. Additionally, little intelligence was available about the Japanese order of battle. Compounding the Allies’ problems was the swift Japanese reaction, although the initial landings on Guadalcanal were essentially unopposed. Japanese aircraft and a strong naval force were dispatched from Rabaul and managed to defeat the Allied naval screening force near Savo Island. This action convinced Fletcher that his fleet was vulnerable, so he withdrew the carriers along with the partially unloaded transports. This left the Marines without reserves and essential supplies. Success for the ground campaign on Guadalcanal would hinge on success at sea.

Troops of the 17th Army under the command of Lieutenant General Hyakutake Haruyoshi were deployed to re-take Guadalcanal from the Americans. Unfortunately for the Japanese, Haruyoshi commited his force piecemeal and grossly underestimated the Marine’s strength on the island. Guadalcanal is ninety miles long on a northwest/southeast axis. It has forbidding terrain that include mountains and dormant volcanoes up to eight thousand feet high, steep ravines and deep streams. Many streams run north out of the mountains making east-west travel difficult. Its coastline is generally even with no natural harbors. The southern shores are protected by miles of coral reefs and only the northern central coast had suitable invasion beaches. All of these features offered the defenders a distinct advantage. The hot humid climate supported malaria and dengue carrying mosquitoes. There was a continuous threat of fungal infection and the onset of various fevers to those not acclimated to the area and properly prepared. The Melanesian population was generally loyal to Westerners.

The Japanese had not tried to fortify all terrain features, but concentrated on the north plain area and prominent peaks. They had begun construction on an airfield near Lunga Point and constructed many artillery positions in nearby hills. At 1,514 feet, Mount Austen stood out as the most important objective to anyone trying to hold or take the north coast. By August, General Hyakutake Haruyoshi had a force of some 8,400 men, most in the 2d Division, to hold the island and build airfields. Japanese naval superiority in the theater assured him of sufficient troop inflow to realize his plans for a two-division corps.

The Village Skirmish

The Allies believed Japanese forces on Guadalcanal in August of 1942 were concentrated near Lunga Point between the Matanikau River and the native village of Kokumbona. Prisoners captured on 12 August seemed to confirm this belief and implied that some of the Japanese soldiers, many believed to be wandering aimlessly and starving, might be willing to surrender. A plan was formulated by 1st SGT Stephen A. Custer to take a patrol by boat to the Matanikau area to make contact with the Japanese and offer them an opportunity to surrender. Colonel Frank Goettge, the division Intelligence officer, decided to lead the patrol himself. The patrol left from Kokum around dusk. Goettge planned to land between the Matanikau River and Point Cruz, just west of the river. In the darkness, he landed at an unknown spot west of the river. The patrol made contact with the Japanese but instead of surrendering; the Japanese attacked the patrol and killed all but three of the men. The survivors managed to escape by swimming down river. Four officers including Col. Goettge and 1st SGT Custer were among the Allied dead.

One week later, an effort to clear the villages of Matanikau and Kokumbona villages met with greater success. B, L, and I Companies of the 5th Marines attacked the villages from three sides. I Company took landing craft to the beach west of Kokumbona, landed, and pushed east through the village of Kokumbona while B and L Companies attacked Matanikau from the east and south. L Company crossed the river about 1,000 yards upstream from its mouth. It then attacked northward following a brief artillery preparation by the 2d, 3d, and 5th Battalions of the 11th Marines. As L Company advanced, it met with rifle fire from enemy emplacements on the ridges to its front and left flanks. By 1400 the company had reached the outskirts of Matanikau village. Meanwhile, enemy fire had prevented B Company from crossing from the east bank over the sand bar at the river mouth. B Company engaged the Japanese in the village with rifle and machine-gun fire while L Company pushed through the village. The three companies kill about sixty-five enemy soldiers, themselves losing four killed and eleven wounded, before returning to Lunga Point.










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