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


A long succession of failures led the Japanese high command to abandon its efforts to push the Americans from Guadalcanal. The roots of this decision date back to October and November of 1942 when the defeats experienced by the Japanese became the concern of the Imperial General Headquarters. The successful defense by the 1st Marine Division of the Laguna airfields against the 17th Army reduced the number of Japanese troops available for a Japanese campaign in New Guinea. The Solomons and New Guinea campaigns were integral pieces within ongoing Japanese war plans. The failed attempt to reinforce Guadalcanal at the expense of New Guinea resulted in the Japanese being defeated in both campaigns.

Japanese ship losses in the Solomons forced Imperial General Headquarters to cancel a proposed counter offensive on 31 December. On 4 January, the evacuation of survivors from Guadalcanal was ordered as well as an additional order to hold final defensive positions in New Georgia. Knowing that he could no longer maintain troops in the Kokumbona area, General Hyakutake ordered his troops to withdraw westwards to Cape Esperance where they were to offer “desperate resistance”.

The task facing the XIV Corps was to pursue and destroy the retreating remnants of the 17th Army before they could reach Cape Esperance. Once there the Japanese could escape or dig in for a suicidal final stand like that of the determined defenders of the Gifu. The American offensive, which began on 10 January, had torn great holes in the Japanese front lines. General Patch was no longer convinced that the Japanese would attempt a landing to recapture the airfields. They were known to be withdrawing supplies from Dome Cove, and Patch expressed his belief that the Tokyo Express was evacuating the remaining Japanese soldiers. Aerial photographs of Cape Esperance and the surrounding area were not available. They would have shown conclusively whether the Japanese were withdrawing their troops or reinforcing them but the reconnaissance squadron had neither the required filters for the camera lenses nor paper to print photographs.

The XIVth Corps reaches the Poha River on 25 January and was now ready to begin the final phase of the operation – the pursuit of the retreating enemy. The Americans did not expect to meet a formidable Japanese force, but did expect to the enemy to defend the beach road and the Bonegi River line. Wishing to locate and destroy the remaining Japanese forces, General Patch orders his troops to "effect the kill through aggressive and untiring offensive action."

In the end, the American troops could feel justly elated over the end of Japanese resistance on Guadalcanal. According to the Japanese, however, the American forces let approxiamately 13,000 Japanese troops slip through their hands. The western pursuit and the shore-to-shore envelopment had been boldly conceived but was executed too slowly to achieve their purpose—the complete destruction of the enemy.

Allied Situation

On 29 January, General Patch detached the 147th Infantry from the Composite Army – Marine (CAM) Division. To that regiment he attached the 75-mm. pack howitzers of the 2d Battalion, 10th Marines, and of A Battery of the 87th Field Artillery Battalion. This composite force, under General De Carre's command, was to pursue the enemy. The 147th Infantry passed through the lines west of the Nueha to attack about 0700, 30 January. On the beach, the 1st Battalion advanced against light opposition to the mouth of the Bonegi River, about 2,000 yards west of the Nueha. Inland on the left flank, Japanese machine guns stopped the 3d Battalion 1,000 yards east of the Bonegi. The 147th Infantry again attacked on 31 January with the intention of crossing the Bonegi to capture the high ground west of the river. Both battalions were assisted by artillery preparations and gunfire from an American destroyer stationed offshore. In the inland zone, the 3d Battalion crossed the Bonegi and captured part of the ridges on the west bank, about 2,500 yards inland from Tassafaronga Point. The enemy was defending the river mouth in strength and Japanese patrols infiltrated to the east bank to harass the 1st Battalion. Despite the Destroyer's fire and the help of two artillery barrages, the 1st Battalion could not corss the river and held in place about 300 yards east of the Bonegi.

Axis Situation

General Hyakutake recognized that he could no longer maintain troops in the Kokumbona area. In December the Japanese front line troops had been ordered to hold their positions until the last man was dead, but sometime after the XIV Corps attacked, Hyakutake changed his mind. He ordered his troops to withdraw west to Cape Esperance, where they were to offer "desperate resistance." The Japanese planned to remove their troops from Cape Esperance at night by destroyers, cramming 600 men aboard each vessel. The Japanese landed 600 replacements ashore near Cape Esperance on 14 January to cover the withdrawal.

The Japanese tried to buy as much time as possible at the Bonegi River. The Japanese unit holding the west bank was a delaying force from the covering battalion which the Japanese had landed on 14 January. This delaying force consists primarily of infantry. The terrain favored a strong defensive position, but the intent was to delay the Americans just long enough to allow escape.

The Mission: Desperate Resistance

West of the Poha River the terrain is similar that of the Point Cruz-Kokumbona area. The coastal corridor was narrow with the distance from the beach inland to the foothills ranging from 300 to 600 yards. The coral ridges ran north and south and the coastal flats were cut by a great many streams. The lack of room for maneuver limited the size of the pursuing force, and allowed, in most areas, only enough space for the deployment of one regiment. The Japanese were defending the west bank and mouth of the river in strength in hopes of delaying the enemy. They had to stay in place long enough to delay the Americans, but not too long as they would be killed or captured.

The Americans have to cross the river and pursue the retreating Japanese. If they can

eliminate the covering force, the CAM will swiftly overtake the retreating enemy and eliminate him before he can remove his forces from Guadacanal

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