|Guadalcanal Campaign - Part III: Cracking the Gifu Line|
|by Michael J. Canavan, Sr|
Command Sergeant Major
US Army (retired)
The machine-gun fire which had halted the attack on Mount Austen came from the strongest Japanese defensive position on Guadalcanal called the Gifu strong point. Its garrison, approximately five hundred men from Oka's forces, had given it the name of a prefecture in Honshu.
The Gifu lay between Hills 31 and 27 and west of the summit of Mount Austen. The strongest part of this area was a horseshoe-shaped line of about forty-five inter-connecting pillboxes between the two hills. Arranged in a staggered formation, the positions were mutually supporting. The pillboxes were constructed of logs, dug into the ground and revetted inside and out with earth. The roofs were three logs thick; the walls, two logs. Earth and foliage concealed and protected the pillbox tops, which rose less than three feet above the surface of the ground. Each pillbox contained at least one and sometimes two machine guns, plus two or three riflemen. Prepared positions were located outside the bunkers under the bases of surrounding mahogany and banyan trees and were occupied by supporting riflemen and machine-gunners. The heavy jungle foliage made the camouflaged pillboxes almost invisible. Interlocking bands of fire covered all approaches so that enemy infantrymen would have great difficulty discerning each pillbox’s exact position. If one machine-gun was knocked out, the Japanese would quickly redistribute their automatic weapons.
Mortar fire usually has little effect on the Gifu. The 105-mm. howitzer was much more effective, but only direct hits could damage the pillboxes. Fuzed charges of high explosive could destroy the pillboxes but soldiers were unable to get close enough to place them. Flame throwers were unavailable at this time.
The attacking Allied troops did not possess exact knowledge about the Gifu. Whenever they moved into the jungle, heavy fire forced them down before they can close in to locate the pillboxes. The American 132d Infantry had tried (in December) to assault the Gifu. The Japanese rifle and machine gun positions around the pillboxes had prevented the attackers from getting near the positions. Patrols sent out to locate the Japanese flanks were also halted. The Gifu was still intact, but the 132d now held a line between the Gifu and Hill 31, from which the enemy could no longer observe the Lunga area.
While the rest of the 25th Division was advancing, the 2d Battalion of the 35th Infantry on Mount Austen had the slow, grueling task of clearing the Japanese out of the Gifu. LtCol Ernest Peters commanded the 2d Battalion, which left its positions east of the Lunga River on 7 January and followed the 3d Battalion in an advance toward the 132d Infantry’s line. Battalion HQ, G, and H Companies infiltrated directly into the 132d ‘s line while E and F Companies followed a back trail south of Hill 27 to get into line. The main body reacheed the line without difficulty but E and F Companies have to traverse through thick jungle. Using telephone wires to pull themselves along while struggling over a rough muddy trail, they reached Hill 27 by nightfall and bivouaced on its southeast slope. The 2d Battalion and Cavalry Reconnaissance Troop completed the relief of the 132d Infantry on 9 January. The 132d returned to the Lunga perimeter while the 2d Battalion of the 35th Infantry occupied a front of over 2,000 yards. There was no Battalion reserve.
General Collins and Colonel McClure, the regimental commander, first observed the Gifu from Hill 27 and discussed the possibility of enveloping it from the west sides of Hills 27 and 31. Convinced that the terrain was impassable, they agreed on a frontal assault to hold the Japanese while the 3d and 1st Battalions made their flanking movement. On 10 January, the 25th Division began its advance with the 2d Battalion executing a reconnaissance in force. After an artillery and mortar preparation, two combat patrols from each company attempted to move forward but Japanese fire halted their progress. The battalion commander requested that tanks be sent up to Mount Austen to crack the pillbox line. The only tanks on Guadalcanal at that time were under Marine control. After halting the patrols, the 2d Battalion estimated that the enemy forces facing it consisted of 400 men and 20 machine guns. The battalion would eventually capture 40 machine guns from the Japanese positions.
On 11 January, patrols again met heavy fire from the Gifu Line. The 3d Battalion of the 182d Infantry completed its southward move to close the gap between the right flank of the 2d Battalion, 35th, and the 27th and 161st Regiments. By the end of 11 January, the 3d Battalion of the 182d Infantry, holding more than 1,500 yards of front, was blocking the valleys northwest of the Gifu, the portion of the Matanikau just east of Hill 50, and the southwest Matanikau fork. This move, coupled with the capture of the Sea Horse, encircled the Gifu, but its pillbox line still remained unbroken. More patrols were sent out in subsequent days and were unsuccessful in locating the Japanese flanks.
Colonel McClure relieved the 2d Battalion commander on 16 January and placed the battalion under the command of Lt. Col. Stanley R. Larsen. Colonel Larsen reconnoitered his front and correctly concluded that mutually supporting pillboxes lined the easternmost three-fifths of the Gifu Line and that individual combat groups of riflemen and machine-gunners held the western areas. The enemy positions could not be bypassed and the Japanese in the Gifu apparently had no intention of escaping.
The enemy position in the Gifu was strong but not invulnerable. It was a fixed position, but the Japanese were unable to supply or reinforce it. The attacking American forces had plenty of artillery support, while the Japanese could seldom use artillery on Mount Austen because of their depleted ammo supplies. The west side of the Gifu was weak. By not incorporating Hill 27 into the perimeter of the strong point, the Japanese had left the Gifu open to eventual envelopment.
General Sano, commander of the Japanese 38th Division, tried to raise morale with an "Address of Instruction" on 25 December. He assures his men that the Americans had lost their fighting spirit and promised that patient endurance of starvation by the Japanese would soon be rewarded by air, ground, and naval reinforcements. Sano urged his troops to resist with "desperate determination."
The situation of Colonel Oka's troops in the Gifu had become very serious by December. Despite this, the majority of the trapped Japanese, who are without food or reinforcements, were ready to fight to the death. The Japanese ate their last rations sometime between 10 and 17 January. Col. Osaka was reported to have abandoned his troops around 14 January, later sending orders to the Gifu defenders to evacuate and infiltrate through American lines to the coast. The troops chose to fight to the end rather than desert their sick and wounded.
The Mission: Crack the Gifu Line
Tanks were finally available on 21 January. Breaking the enemy lines was now greatly simplified. Three Marine Corps light tanks, manned by soldiers from the 25th Division’s Cavalry Reconnaissance Troop, started toward Mount Austen. Enroute two of the tanks broke down in the tough terrain but one finally made it to the top. As the tank drew near the Gifu Line, infantrymen fired mortars and machineguns to drown out the sound of its engine and tracks. Infantry then preceded the tank, cutting down trees to allow the tank to approach the Japanese front lines.
Sixteen infantrymen supported the tank as it advanced on the Gifu line. It destroyed three pillboxes with high explosive shells and raked the defending soldiers with canister and machinegun fire. The tank broke through the east end of the Gifu and then made another attack, destroying another five pillboxes. The tank, in just a few hours, tore a 200 yard hole in the line which had stood against multiple infantry assaults for a month.
This scenario depicts the attack which finally cracks the Gifu line.