by Eric Hammel
Copyright © 1987 by Eric Hammel
The Guadalcanal invasion--August 7-8, 1942--had gone of almost without a hitch. But the Imperial Navy had soundly defeated the Allied invasion fleet in a daring night action off Savo Island, and the U.S. transports a warships had fled.
The prize at Guadalcanal for both sides was Henderson Field, the only airstrip within 600 miles of the main Japanese regional base at Rabaul. While Marines dangled the end of an inadequate supply line, Japan achieved mastery of the seas around Guadalcanal and was thus able to land infantry forces almost with impunity. The first large infantry force, accidentally goaded by Marines into a premature assault in late August, had been defeated. A second, much larger, Japanese infantry force had been landed east of the Marines' Lunga Perimeter. It had marched overland to deliver what its commanders believed would an overwhelming assault against the thinly held Marine line south of Henderson Field.
September 12, 1942, was a red-letter day for Lieutenant Colonel Merritt "Red Mike" Edson's 1st Marine Raider Battalion, which received its first mail from home in several months. For a few hours in the afternoon, the troops were left alone to think and talk about a life only a few could actually believe they had once lived.
In the rain forest south of the T-shaped ridge occupied by Edson's Raiders, the tired, hungry soldiers of the Imperial Army's 35th Infantry Brigade were winding up their preparations for retaking the airfield. It was only after dusk that the brigade commander, Major General Kiyotake Kawaguchi, first learned that the jumbled ridge manned by Marines lay between his assault force and Henderson Field. Kawaguchi decided that he would have to press on over the defended ground as there was no time to maneuver his exhausted troops around the area. Last- minute work parties were organized and scouts fanned out to blaze trails and observe the enemy.
An afternoon patrol by the Raider battalion executive officer, Lieutenant Colonel Sam Griffith, and two riflemen brought news to Red Mike Edson that there was a large force of Japanese to the front. Griffith had been unable to determine how many Japanese there were, nor where they were heading. Edson decided to mount several strong combat patrols next morning. He called his company commanders and staffers to his command post for an evening planning session.
Most Marines turned in for the night.
The T-shaped ridge rises out of the rain forest about a mile south of Henderson Field. Its stem runs in a north-south direction for about 1,000 yards parallel to the Lunga River, which is about 600 yards to the west. The crossbar is high, clear, fairly broken ground dominated by four distinct spurs, two each on either side of the stem. Steep gullies and jungle-choked ravines isolate the bare ridge in most directions; the only feasible path from south of the ridge to the Lunga Plain is down the long axis of the spurs and stem.
B Company, 1st Parachute Battalion--about seventy effectives--was deployed east (left) of the center of the stem, which served as the boundary between the Raiders and 'Chutes; A and C Companies, 'Chutes, were bivouacked in the woods just below the stem, and the small battalion headquarters was to the rear, near Red Mike Edson's command post. The Raiders had two companies on the line: B Company was on clear, high ground, its left flank tied in with B Company, 'Chutes, and its right flank tied in with C Company, Raiders, which was extended out to the right with its own right flank dangling off into the low-lying woods beside the Lunga River. A and D Companies, Raiders, were in reserve positions backing the main line, and the battalion headquarters and elements of E Company, the weapons unit, were bivouacked several hundred yards to the rear, on the stem of the T.
It started just as Edson was ending his command briefing. Just before 2100, as the leading elements of Kawaguchi Butai sought the first line of Marine listening posts in the jungle flats below the ridge, Japanese artillery east of Alligator Creek opened fire on Marine positions facing the creek. Immediately, a Japanese naval floatplane flew in over Lunga Point and dropped a parachute flare just south of the main runway. Two Japanese cruisers and a destroyer then opened fire on the T-shaped ridge. Several "overs" killed a number of Kawaguchi's infantrymen as they advanced to mount their initial thrust.
Shouts of "Japs!" and "Here they come!" intermingled with screams of "Totsugeki!"--"Charge!"
Several Marine listening posts were swept away in the opening rush, then the Japanese crunched up against the main line, manned at the points of impact by platoons from B and C Companies, Raiders. As the Japanese spread left and right, they screamed and yelled, and hurled firecrackers to rattle the defenders.
The most hard-pressed of the C Company platoons slowly gave way from its position overlooking the river. Communications became unglued all along the line as attackers and defenders intermingled under the eerie glow of shellbursts and parachute flares. Before any Marines could effectively react, Japanese soldiers were methodically cutting fire lanes through the dense underbrush and firing along them at the stunned Raiders. Within minutes, a second C Company platoon was isolated by a human wedge of oath-screaming Japanese. The disorganized remnant slowly withdrew.
Severely disabled in the opening minutes of the fight, C Company, Raiders, was forced to give ground. This, in turn, obliged adjacent B Company to pull back in order to refuse its now- dangling right flank. Fearful that the Japanese would immediately exploit too precipitous a withdrawal, many B Company troops took only several quick rearward steps at a time, then turned to put out rounds to keep the Japanese down. This tactic was repeated until the move had been completed, by which time the company's right platoon was bent far back, holding a north-south line. The Japanese did not press their assault on the main body of B Company, for they had their hands full chipping away at isolated individuals and pockets of Raiders who would not or could not withdraw with the herd.
General Kawaguchi was loath to press his initial advantage in the face of unexpected, stiff opposition. The fighting tapered off immediately after the first successful rushes had been driven home. Heavy skirmishing ensued through the long night, but the Japanese had all withdrawn by sunrise.
As the first in a series of day-long air actions unfolded over Henderson Field, the Raiders moved to recover lost ground. Japanese snipers abounded, so the advance by elements of B and C Companies was cautious and slow. B Company riflemen who succeeded in reclaiming fighting holes lost in the night found that the mail and gear they had abandoned had been rifled by the Japanese. All the food they had left behind was gone.
A Company, 'Chutes, had had no contact with the Japanese during the night, so was ordered down to the jungle flats to support the Raiders' attempts to regain their original positions. The company advanced only a bit before it was stopped by fire from concealed emplacements. Unwilling to risk a major fight while deployed on so narrow a front, Captain Bill McKennan ordered his unit to back away from the Japanese. Once clear, however, McKennan pushed in from another direction, this time with some artillery support. The second attempt brought forth a few Japanese snipers, but they did little to impede the 'Chutes, who accomplished their mission by mid-afternoon.
C Company, Raiders, which had been badly mauled in the night fighting, was withdrawn from the front. A Company, the only Raider unit anywhere near full strength, and the remnants of D Company, which had been cannibalized days earlier to fill out the ranks of the other companies, were sent to hold the military crest on the Raider right flank.
Red Mike Edson decided to shorten the line somewhat, and pull it back nearly 100 yards to force attackers to cross open ground in the face of his grazing automatic-weapons fire. Improved fields of fire were cut, and much of the line was wired in. Deeper fighting holes were dug, and automatic weapons were respotted, hopefully to better advantage.
When Major General Archer Vandegrift, the 1st Marine Division commander, asked Edson what he thought of the night action, the grim, unflappable battalion commander allowed as it had been a test. Then he smiled his peculiar, bloodless smile and guessed that the Japanese would be back.
The commanding general ordered up his reserve battalion--the 2d Battalion, 5th Marines--which had to march across Henderson Field from its bivouac; it was not expected to arrive at the ridge until dusk. The Raiders and 'Chutes would have to hold until then.
Lieutenant Colonel Bill Whaling, 5th Marines' executive officer, arrived at Red Mike's command post during the afternoon with the company commanders of 2d Battalion, 5th, to have a look at the ground. The reserve battalion was delayed in its hike across the main runway by the day's busy air activities, and it would not arrive before sunset. Whaling's was a wise precaution.
Late in the afternoon, all three four-gun 105mm batteries of Lieutenant Colonel Hayden Price's 5th Battalion, 11th Marines, were moved with the aid of prisoners from their forest revetments to firing positions in the open south of the main runway. The eager cannoneers quickly plotted general- and direct-support concentrations on their maps, and zone registrations were fired before dark. The registration fire caused some excitement along the ridge, where Marines paused to see if they were under attack.
Once the howitzers were registered, everyone except the gunners needed to man them were moved back into the woods to defend a secondary line; if the Japanese broke through the Raiders and 'Chutes, they would certainly overrun the howitzers. There was nothing between the artillery technicians and the airfield except possibly aircrews and grounderews.
The 1st Raider Battalion mustered just over 400 effectives, the result of debilitating tropical illnesses suffered over the past month and injuries suffered the previous night. It held an 1,800-yard line anchored on the southern slope of a high, projecting knob to the right of the center of the crossbar of the T. B Company held the left portion of the Raider line, and A Company, bolstered by the remnants of D Company, held the right. C Company, the battalion headquarters, and elements of E Company were the reserve.
The 250-man 1st Parachute Battalion had yet to come in contact with Kawaguchi Butai. B Company, mustering no more than seventy-five effectives, was tied in at the ridge's center with B Company, Raiders. C Company, 'Chutes, which fielded no more than fifty, was to B Company's left rear, holding about 200 yards of a knob overlooking the jungle flats. A Company, 'Chutes, the battalion reserve, was in the woods right behind C Company.
General Kawaguchi reckoned that he had about 1,000 organized effectives for the coming assault, a number far exceeding the combined strength of the two battalions holding the ridge. Despite casualties suffered the previous night, and the fact that many stragglers had not rejoined their companies, Kawaguchi decided early in the day to remount his attack.
With the onset of darkness, Raiders and 'Chutes could hear more and more talk from the woods to the front. The Japanese started with taunts, and the Raiders replied in kind. Bullets sporadically flew as each side psyched itself up.
B Company, Raiders, took it on the nose at 1830 hours, September 13. The Japanese struck most heavily on the right, just where they had hit C Company the night before. A rifle platoon was quickly sheared from the rest of the company and surrounded. Then B Company fell apart under repeated hammer blows. The Raiders were driven back, but they reformed just behind the crest of the ridge and surged forward. They regained some lost ground, but the Japanese were pouring through a 200-yard gap in the line. Within minutes, B Company's front had been reduced to a series of tiny, isolated pockets and strongpoints manned by desperate young men.
A Company, Raiders, was isolated by the Lunga River on one flank and the gap torn at its juncture with B Company, but it was not seriously molested by Kawaguchi Butai's main effort, which was bent upon gaining the stem of the ridge, a direct path to Henderson Field.
Shortly after B Company collapsed, Red Mike Edson moved his command post to the high knob dominating the southern end of the ridge, only several yards behind the most advanced machine-gun emplacement. As Edson sought to steady his rattled troops, Corporal Walter Burak, his runner, scuttled to the rear in search of communications wire, which was spliced in to the battalion message center and run back to the division command post, where the senior staff was anxiously awaiting news of the fight. Edson was coldly determined to stand his ground, though he, as every man around him, could barely lift his head for fear of having it blown to the neckline by the sheets of fire the Japanese were putting out. The Raider chief presented a terse rundown to Lieutenant Colonel Jerry Thomas, the division operations officer, who was directing the overall effort from his operations center, just north of the ridge. Edson would leave his exposed command post only once that long night, and then only to briefly spring to the rear to alleviate some of the confusion experienced by his superiors at Division.
It was totally dark where there were no detonations or flares to brighten the scene. Individual Marines drifted out of the blackness from overrun positions while others crept forward.
As the life-and-death struggle raged across the killing ground, Red Mike called on C Company to defend the knob on which he had established his forward command post. Then beleaguered B Company was allowed to withdraw. Only sixty men responded, though other B Company Marines were fighting individually and in small groups on other parts of the battleground.
The 5th Battalion, 11th, was having the most active night in its brief history. The 105mm howitzers had been brought so close to the ridge during the late afternoon that the crews had had to dig pits beneath the breech blocks in order to take up the recoil when they fired at extreme high angle. Initial fire missions consisted of individual concentrations under the direction of trained artillery forward observers with the Raiders and 'Chutes or infantry officers and noncommissioned officers who had open lines to the battery fire direction centers.
All that separated the howitzers from the Japanese was the line of Raiders and 'Chutes on the ridge.
Communication between the artillery forward observers and the firing batteries was disrupted early in the action. When Edson requested an urgent replacement at dusk, Major Charles Nees, the 11th Marines' assistant operations officer, volunteered to take the job. This was first combat, and the thirty-three-year-old Reservist was extremely excited. He worked his way forward and, at about 2000 hours, found a spot from which he could observe the front and adjacent positions. He reported to Red Mike simply by shouting that he had arrived, was in position, and had established communication with the 105mm fire direction center. Nees immediately began calling the pinpoint fires the Raiders and 'Chutes needed to survive. At about the time Nees went forward, an aristocratic, silver-haired older private first class named Tom Watson, left his job as a clerk with 5th Battalion, 11th's Headquarters Battery to serve as a forward observer. Watson would be a second lieutenant by morning, so telling was his superb direction of the guns.
By 2100, the howitzer crews shifted from called fire to box barrages, then to rolling barrages, which entailed firing a salvo at maximum elevation and subsequent salvos outward at 50-yard increments to 300 yards, then pulling the fire back 50 yards at a time. Amazed gunners could not believe that Raiders and 'Chutes were calling for such close support, but they complied. The only time the guns stopped firing was when the battery executive officers ordered individual tubes swabbed and cooled.
Much of the artillery's success devolved from Japanese assault tactics. Every time Japanese soldiers were about to launch a new assault, they lofted a red flare from their starting position. Those who managed to breast the curtain of steel usually stopped to pitch calcium flares at the American lines, and that drew down the wrath of riflemen and artillerymen alike.
The tiny parachute battalion, which had been spared the previous night, bore the brunt of a vicious head-on assault. The action on the 'Chutes's front began when two mortar rounds landed in C Company's lines, killing one trooper and wounding another. The 'Chutes responded by pitching hand grenades down the steep slopes at the sound of voices. As the action heated up and the Japanese routes of advance were revealed, Captain Bill McKennan's A Company was ordered forward from its reserve position to man a secondary line on the reverse slope of the ridge, behind B and C Companies.
Fearful that a powerful attack might breach his weak line, Captain Justin Duryea, whose B Company, 'Chutes, was holding the cleared area in the center of the ridge, directly beneath Edson's forward command post, ordered smoke pots ignited to screen his front. A red flare burst overhead at the moment of ignition, and its light was reflected off the smudgy black curtain.
Someone yelled, "Gas attack!"
Sure enough, the widening circle of smoke oozed over the red-lighted ground. Blood ran cold, for gasmasks had been among the first gear to be discarded by nearly everyone.
The Japanese struck as additional flares were lofted into the red sky. They surged down the spurs and wildly charged along the protruding spine and the dark edges of the low jungle flats. They punched through from dead ahead, officers waving swords aloft while yelling "Totsugeki!" and "Banzai!" at the tops of their lungs. Riflemen fired their rifles and Nambu light machine- guns from their hips, hurled grenades, and fired their strange little "knee mortars."
B Company held firm and the Japanese rolled away to their right front, hitting Captain Dick Johnson's platoon-size C Company. The Japanese were momentarily halted when a C Company machine gunner cradled his gun in his arms and charged forward, firing a long, long burst. But the attackers were held for only a moment, for the gunner was shot dead in his tracks.
The unremitting, repeated hammer blows finally forced Duryea's B Company to give ground. That in turn, obliged Johnson's C Company to withdraw. While troopers from the forward companies moved through toward the rear, Captain Bill McKennan's A Company revealed itself to the Japanese by opening a powerful defensive fusillade centered on three well-emplaced machine guns. Japanese Nambus, whose muzzle-flash suppressors made them extremely hard to spot at night, reached out from the dark to duel the Marine machine guns. American machine gunners were going down, one after another, but volunteers from the rifle squads replaced them, one after another. A Company held its line.
Private First Class Larry Moran, of B Company, withdrew nearly 1,000 down the stem of the ridge before he found 1st Sergeant Donald Doxey reorganizing B Company stragglers in a stand of trees. Doxey ordered the 'Chutes to take back the lost ridgeline. As Moran worked forward, he could hear bellowing voices from the Raider lines, exhorting the troops to keep the machine guns firing.
Elements of B Company regained the summit, but Private First Class Moran was soon blasted over the side by a concussion grenade. Uninjured, he collected his wits and scrabbled uphill to rejoin the fight. Suddenly, a challenge was hurled through the night. Moran recognized the voice as belonging to Marine Gunner Bob Manning, but he could not recall the password. "Mr. Manning, it's Moran. I can't remember the password."
"Okay, come on up."
Another voice suddenly called Manning's name and said that reinforcements were coming up on the right, that he should have his troopers hold fire. Manning expected no help from any direction so he alerted the men around him, then shouted approval for the move. The attempted penetration was easily repulsed.
At 2200 hours, three-and-one-half hours into the battle, Red Mike Edson informed Lieutenant Colonel Jerry Thomas, the 1st Marine Division operations officer, that his force had dwindled to about 300 organized effectives and that the Japanese had yet to ease the pressure. Isolated groups and individuals continued to contribute to the success of the effort by stalling rushes and confusing Japanese troop leaders by firing from odd places at odd moments. Nevertheless, though many Japanese were down, the Marines were increasingly outnumbered.
Private First Class Larry Moran was culled when a searing sliver of shrapnel knifed into his thigh. He fought on until a lull allowed him to hobble with another injured Marine to an aid station about 100 yards to the rear.
Captain Bill McKennan was working right behind the forwardmost machine guns when he and his first sergeant saw a Japanese hand grenade sputter out of the darkness. The first sergeant dived one way and McKennan went the other, right into the orbit of a second grenade he never saw. McKennan was thrown down the hill and came to rest by the roadway running parallel to the base of the ridge, tangled up with a rifleman who had been knocked down by the same blast. The two staggered to their feet and tried to regain their bearings, then felt their way along the trees beside the road until they reached the aid station. Both men were placed in a jeep and bounced rearward. An infiltrator hurled a grenade from out of the darkness, but the jeep rolled through the blast. The two groggy, injured Marines were carried into a tent, where their wounds were swabbed with sulfa compounds. McKennan dropped off as morphine combined with the ravages of forty-eight hours on the go.
In a conversation with Lieutenant Colonel Jerry Thomas at 0230, Red Mike Edson said that he was out of the woods. While the Japanese had not yet begun to acknowledge defeat, it was apparent that they had spent their strength. Thomas informed Edson that the 2d Battalion, 5th, was manning a secondary line behind the 5th Battalion, 11th, and would soon be closing on the ridge.
G Company, 5th, moved up the left side of the stem of the T at 0400, but it was soon pinned by heavy fire from the woods to its left. It sustained numerous casualties before arriving behind the 'Chutes and pressing forward against heavy opposition. In all, G Company lost thirty dead and wounded by dawn. E Company, 5th, which attacked on the right of the stem, lost five killed and nine wounded to snipers firing into its rear.
The Japanese mustered one final assault at first light, but they ran directly into the guns and bombs of three Army Air Forces P-400 fighter-bombers. The three pilots turned out of their high-power takeoffs and dipped over the ridge, wreaking unbelievable destruction upon Kawaguchi Butai, which put out enough return fire to force two of the aircraft to make deadstick landings.
More than 600 Japanese corpses were counted on and about Bloody Ridge, as it came to be called. A large number of dead or missing soldiers was never found, not even by American patrols that for days combed the jungle flats south of the ridge. Perhaps 2,500 Japanese officers and men followed their general away from the beaten zone, westward across the Lunga River.
There was neither food nor medical supplies. The march was thus too much for many of the injured. Scores of them were left by the wayside. Of 3,100 souls General Kawaguchi had led to the foot of Bloody Ridge on September 12, just over 2,000 survived.
The Raiders lost 31 killed and 104 wounded, and the 'Chutes lost 18 killed and 118 wounded. Several Marine engineers and cannoneers died and several more were wounded in behind-the-lines action.