|Guadalcanal Campaign- Part I: Consolidation|
|by Michael J. Canavan, Sr|
Command Sergeant Major
US Army (retired)
On 30 November 1942, the 25th Division, under the command of Maj Gen J. Lawton Collins, was sent to the South Pacific to relieve the 1st Marine Division. Staff officers of the Americal Division, having arrived in November, were working closely with the Marine Division staff and familiarizing themselves with the unique problems encountered on Guadalcanal. Supply sections from the Americal Division took inventory of the stocks on the island and then assumed responsibility for supply on 1 December. By 8 December, Army staff officers assumed complete responsibility for operations on Guadacanal. Maj Gen Alexander Patch was chosen to direct tactical operations on Guadalcanal and relieved General Vandergrift on 9 December. The mission given General Patch was clear and direct: "Eliminate all Japanese forces" on Guadalcanal.
The months of October and November on Guadalcanal consisted mostly of stubborn defensive actions interrupted by occasional short, violent, and local offensive operations. December was spent transitioning and organizing for large scale offensive operations while waiting for reinforcements. The departure of the 1st Marine Division lowered troop strength to such levels that no offensive operations could be launched by the Allies. The only ground forces on Guadalcanal in November were the Americal Division, the 147th Infantry, the reinforced 2d and 8th Marines of the 2d Marine Division, and the Marine defense battalions, which were needed to hold the ground already taken by American forces. Most of the American ground forces were in rough shape by December, suffering from battle fatigue, diseases, and casualties. Reinforcements eventually arrived in the form of the 25th Infantry Division and by January of 1943, Allied ground forces numbered over 50,000 troops in three divisions. As a result of the buildup of forces, the XIV Corps was formed, consisting of the Americal and 25th Army Divisions with the 2d Marine Division and other Marine units attached. The Corps was commanded by General Patch. By January 1943, the Allies had enough resources to begin large scale offensive operations.
Capturing Mount Austen was necessary to enable a full scale Corps offensive against the Japanese west of the Manitakau River. General Patch was ready to initiate preparatory operations for a Corps offensive by 16 December by seizing the mountain. The 132 Infantry, commanded by Colonel Leroy E. Nelson, was given the task and ordered to occupy Mount Austen at once. These operations were supported by artillery and some air support. As a side note, this was probably one of the first attempts by the US artillery to perform a division Time on Target (ToT) mission in World War II. Repeated attempts to take Mount Austen began on December 17th but were ineffective, although they did result in an almost continuous contact between Axis and Allied forces.
The American commanders began to realize that Mount Austen was heavily defended and that they had underestimated Japanese troop strength on Guadalcanal. Although other military operations were conducted simultaneously, it was decided that the enemy must be cleared from Mount Austen immediately. The commanding terrain provided by Mount Austen allowed the Japanese to observe flights leaving from the airfield and warn Japanese command of possible attacks on Rabaul and other Japanese targets. The Japanese were also able to launch limited harassing attacks from the area and actually succeeded in penetrating the Allied perimeter and destroying equipment on the airfield itself. Allied intelligence efforts failed to reveal Japanese defenses on Mount Austen, particularly the strongpoint known as the Gifu. Japanese resistance successfully stalled the Allied attack and by late December American patrols were searching for new avenues of attack on Mount Austen. The patrols were tasked with trying to determine the flanks and front of the Japanese defense, numbers of defenders, and other relevant information.
Japanese air, surface, and troop strength had deteriorated by January of 1943 because resources were committed piecemeal and because of the long term effects of malnutrition and disease. Repeated attacks against the Allies were executed without adequate artillery support and against superior numbers, resulting in high Japanese losses which could not easily replaced. Most of the 17th Army combat forces were kept between Point Cruz and Cape Esperance. Japanese lines ran from the Point Cruz area to high ground approximately 4500 yards inland then curved east about 3000 yards to include Mount Austen. Japanese forces consisted of what was left of the 2d Division under General Mauyama, the 38th Division under General Sano and forces under Kawaguchi and Ichiki.
The Allies were not aware of all Japanese dispositions and strength, particularly around Mount Austen and the hills to its west. Total troop strength had dropped from 30,000 to 25,000 and many Japanese units were under strength and unfit for duty because of starvation and disease. Japanese forces were incapable of mounting any real offensive actions. Adequate food supplies had become a serious problem for the Japanese because of interdiction by U.S. air and naval forces. In desperate attempts to deliver food, the Japanese on Rabaul packed rice into fifty gallon drums, roped them together, and put the bundles on the deck of destroyers. The destroyers cruised down the Slot at night and jettisoned the drums, hoping they would drift to the beaches on the morning tide. The destroyers delivered over 20,000 drums, but less than 30 percent were recovered by Japanese troops on Guadalcanal. In addition to food, the Japanese resupply efforts failed to get most of their heavy equipment and all but 10% of their ammunition delivered to their troops on Guadacanal. The Japanese were weak from hunger and disease, but determined to fight on, to the death if necessary.
The Mission: Capture Hill 27
Mount Austen was key to securing Guadalcanal. This scenario depicts part of the preparatory offensive operations designed to force Japanese elements from Mount Austen and destroy the key Japanese strong point on the island. Mount Austen was not a single peak but the apex of a confusing jumble of steep and rocky ridges with sections of heavy jungle. The main ridge jutted abruptly upwards from surrounding foothills about two miles south of the beaches and east of the Manitakau River. A dense forest covered the summit while the foothills were covered by grass. Bare grassy spaces, although not technically separate hills, were assigned numbers for identification. The actual summit, 1,514 feet, of Mount Austen appeared to be lower than the surrounding open grassy areas.
Hill 27 was a separate rocky mound which was southwest of the summit and reached a maximum elevation of 920 feet. General Patch intended to move one division over the hill masses north and northwest of Mount Austen in a major offensive to push the Japanese from the island. It was imperative that Mount Austen be captured. This would deny its use to the enemy as well as help locate the enemy’s eastern flank. By late December, patrols had found a clear route to Hill 27. This hill flanked the Japanese defense and would prove to be the key to taking Mount Austen and cracking the defensive strongpoint known as Gifu. The 132d Infantry Regiment was tasked with capturing the hill. A coordinated attack by the 1st Battalion from the east and the 3d Battalion from the north, in conjunction with a wide envelopment maneuver to the southwest by the 2d Battalion would take Hill 27. The 2d Battalion was tasked with executing the main attack. H-Hour was 0630, 2 January. Surprisingly, elements of the regiment were able to capture the hill with little opposition.
Unfortunately for the Japanese, they had failed to incorporate Hill 27 into their defensive perimeter. The Allies occupied the hilltop with little effort and then positioned themselves on the military crest to await the inevitable Japanese counterattack. The Japanese had to recapture Hill 27 to prevent their defenses from being flanked. Mustering whatever resources they could from the Mount Austen area, the Japanese set out to recapture this key piece of terrain.