On the afternoon of 8 August 1942, the expeditious unloading of war material from the hulls of the Pacific Amphibious Force freighters continued under the direction of Rear Admiral Richmond Kelly Turner, who watched the action from the bridge of his command flagship McCawley. However, the circumstances of the whole amphibious event were giving him a lot to worry about at the moment. Worst of all was the fact that, based on a statement by the commanding admiral, F. J. Fletcher on 26 July, he had to reckon with the probability of losing carrier support and cover within the next few hours, for Fletcher, in a briefing on his flagship Saratoga on 26 July, had announced that, in view of the threat of enemy submarines, surface forces, and especially aircraft launching from Japanese land bases, he intended to leave the area within the next 24 hours. Although Turner hoped that Fletcher would still reverse his decision, he did not. This decision deprived Rear Admiral Turner's expeditionary force of air cover, aircraft launching from the decks of Fletcher's carriers. In doing so, it was clear to Rear Admiral Turner that he would need at least another 72 hours to successfully complete the unloading of war materials and supplies for Vandegrift's Marines, who would be without resupply for an extended period of time after Turner's force departed.
At 1800 hours on 8/8, after the Saratogy, Enterprise and Ghormley, the area commander, "Number of fighter aircraft reduced from 99 to 78. Due to the large number of enemy aircraft in the area, I recommend the immediate withdrawal of my carriers from the area. I request the immediate dispatch of tankers due to dwindling fuel supplies." This dispatch was also picked up by the radio station on McCawley, and a few minutes later the liaison officer, presented a deciphered recording of it to Turner. Turner was furious. To the last moment, in fact, he had hoped that Fletcher would eventually, despite his proclamations, give him time to complete the unloading, but this did not happen, and Fletcher, without waiting for confirmation from Ghormley, sailed immediately. The exasperated Turner now made it indiscriminately clear what he thought of this move by his immediate superior. Moreover, he considered it inexcusable that Fletcher had not seen fit to inform either him or General Vandegrift of his move at all. At the time, he literally said, "That bastard left us bare-assed at Guadalcanal!"
After the withdrawal of Fletcher's carrier group, Rear Admiral Turner was left in an unenviable position, and the first problem that required immediate solution was the organisation of the defence. Above all, the questions of where, by what means and when the enemy might attack had to be answered. To the first question there was a fairly definite answer. If the Japanese decided to attack the Expeditionary Force, they would certainly do so in the area of their concentration, that is, in the space between the islands of Guadalcanal, Tulagi, Florida, and Savo, in the waters which the Americans soon named "Ironbottom sound," that is, the Ironbottom Strait, or Iron Channel. They were led to do so by the tragedy of many ships whose burnt and shot-up wrecks sank beneath the surface in these very places during the fierce fighting that followed. But the answer to the second question was not so easy. The Japanese could use aircraft, surface forces and submarines to attack, either alone or in combination. Since at this time the Americans could not read Japanese encrypted dispatches, as they had during the Battle of Midway, since the Japanese had changed the method of encryption, effective and well-organized reconnaissance remained the only option. The following options were available to Turner for reconnaissance after the carriers departed:
1. The Australian Coastguard Patrol Service, but it was not within its power to observe ships moving on the high seas or at night.
3. Submarines, however, in the Solomon and Bismarck Islands area the Americans had only six submarines at the time, so an insufficient number.
4. The long-range aircraft of the Australian Armed Forces.
5. Flying forts reporting directly to General MacArthur in the South Pacific.
Each of the aforementioned components was assigned designated sectors for patrol and reconnaissance activities, but because of the vastness of the South Pacific, these sectors could not overlap.
It was still necessary to organize the protection of only half-unloaded transport ships. Turner had at that time, after the departure of Fletcher's Union, the following surface forces:
The cruiser and destroyer convoy under the command of British Rear Admiral Victor Crutchley, which consisted of the heavy cruisers : Australia, Canberra, Chicago, Vincennes, Astoria, Quincy. The light cruisers San Juan and the Hobart and destroyers Monssen, Buchanan, Helm, Wilson, Patterson and Bagley.
Heavy Cruiser Vincennes
Turner, whose flagship, McCawley, was anchored off the Luz Point on the north side of Guadalcanal, called a meeting for 20.00 on 8 August 1942, at which Rear Admiral Crutchley informed him of the deployment of his convoy on the approaches to the expeditionary vessels' anchorage. This deployment later proved to be very unfortunate. But the blame for the impending debacle cannot be attributed to the two admirals alone, but also to many other factors that intervened in the course of the battle.
On the morning of August 7, 1942, the Japanese, informed of the American landings on Tulagi and Guadalcanal, were deciding how to strike the American expeditionary force. The area commander, Vice Admiral Gunichi Mikawa, acted immediately. He hastily assembled a group of six transport ships at the port of Rabaul on the island of New Britain, had several hundred men and supplies embarked on them, and promptly dispatched the group to Guadalcanal in the inadequate escort of one destroyer. Shortly before midnight on August 7-8, 1942, the Japanese convoy was spotted 14 miles west of Cape St. George by the patrolling submarine S-38 of Corvette Captain H. G. Munson. He quickly decided to attack, choosing as his target the Meijo Maru, the largest of the transport ships with a displacement of 5,600 tons. The submerged submarine closed to within 900 meters and fired two torpedoes. Both found the target and the Meijo Maru sank within minutes with all the crew and troops embarked. Although the escorting destroyer attacked the submarine with depth charges, she managed to escape and returned to her base in Brisbane, Australia on 22 August 1942. Only later did the crew of S-38 learn that the sinking of the Meijo Maru, prompted Admiral Mikawa to call the remaining five transport ships back to Rabaul. The dispatch of reinforcements, which ended in failure, was not Mikawa's only attempt to quickly reverse the situation and bring the islands in the southern Solomons back under Japanese control. At the same time that six transport ships were hastily preparing to leave Rabaul, five heavy cruisers, three of them bound for the Admiralty Islands and two for Rabaul, were leaving Kawieng Naval Base on New Ireland Island. On Mikawa's orders, all five headed for Rabaul. In the afternoon, one of them, the Chokai, escorted by a destroyer, arrived in Rabaul harbor, took Vice Admiral Mikawa on board, and together with two light cruisers Tenryu and Jubari, which were then stationed at the base, immediately proceeded onward to a designated assembly point in the St. George's Channel between New Ireland and New Britain. From there, Vice Admiral Mikawa intended to form a strike force and immediately attack the American Expeditionary Force in the waters lapping the islands of Guadalcanal and Tulagi.
But the voyage of Mikawa's ships did not remain a secret to the Americans. The first report of the five cruisers and escort vessels heading for Rabaul came from General MacArthur's Flying Fortress, which spotted them south of New Ireland in the midday hours of 7 August. In the evening of the same day the Japanese ships were sighted by Captain Munson's S-38 submarine, but due to the high speed of the passing ships, she was unable to attack. On 8 August, the Japanese were spotted and briefly followed by two Hudson reconnaissance aircraft of the Royal Australian Air Force. But unfortunately their pilots did not pass on the important news of the enemy's course and composition until late in the afternoon, due to an afternoon siesta and a cup of tea! Since the report spoke of two cruisers and two seaplane supply ships, the Americans were not alarmed, assuming that the Japanese were trying to resupply their crews in the Northern Solomons. Mainly for the above reasons, the later Japanese attack by the Mikawa Alliance came as a complete surprise to the Americans and ended in a crushing defeat for the American surface force.
Vice Admiral Gunichi Mikawa
On the night of 8/9/1942, Vice Admiral Mikawa's convoy penetrated undetected into the vicinity of Crutchley's vessels. In this nighttime battle of cruisers, the Japanese, well informed of the disposition of the American forces, were able to surprise and subsequently shoot almost all of Crutchley's vessels. I will not elaborate further on the rest of the battle, which was named "Battle of Savo Island", as it has already been treated here at www.valka.cz. For the purposes of further narrative, it will suffice to recapitulate the outcome of the battle.
The Battle of Savo Island was not a clash of major importance; in its strategic implications it was far from comparable to, for example, the Battle of Midway. It did, however, result in the Japanese succeeding in temporarily depriving the Allies of naval superiority in the southern Solomons, and the immediate consequence was the need to withdraw unloaded cargo vessels from Guadalcanal and Tulagi as soon as possible. The enemy could strike again by aircraft, submarines, or even surface forces, and yet of the five heavy cruisers which were to provide for the unloading of the carriers, four were resting on the bottom of the Iron Strait and one was badly damaged. Rear-Admiral Turner, however, realising the desperate situation in which the Marines would be left if he sailed back with a considerable part of his armament, food and equipment, made a bold decision in the early hours of 9 August. He ordered the landing, interrupted by the night attack by Mikawa's squadron, to continue. And so hundreds of men went to work, and by the afternoon the rear admiral had received reports that supplies of food with which the Marines could last 37 days and ammunition for 4 days of continuous fighting had been unloaded. He again considered how far he could push the limit of risk and concluded that without proper cover from air and sea, he must now sail, even though more than half of the war material still remained unloaded.
And Turner did not yet know how much luck was with him that day. The commander of the 25th Japanese Air Force had already dispatched a strong group of bombers in the early hours of 9 August, with the mission of attacking primarily the American carriers of the Fletcher Alliance, which the Japanese still believed to be in the southern Solomons area, and, failing that, to attack the expeditionary force. The pilots, however, searched too long for Fletcher's Union, by then already heading for New Caledonia for many hours, and in the process used up so much fuel that they could not reach Turner's ships. At 1600 on 9 August the transport ships, accompanied by the pitiful remnants of the battleships - the cruisers Australia, Hobart, San Juan, the sloop Chicago, and several destroyers - headed east in two groups. They passed through the Channel of Lenz and headed, like Vice Admiral Fletcher, for Nouméa in New Caledonia. Major General Vandegrift's nearly 18,000 naval infantrymen on Guadalcanal and Tulagi were now left to fend for themselves, and the only meagre consolation they could take was Turner's promise to get reinforcements and other war material as soon as possible.
And so ended the first phase of the bloody struggle for control of a small island in the South Pacific that neither the Americans nor the Japanese really wanted, but neither side could afford to cede to the enemy. Those on the Allied side who, after the initial easy landing, had thought that everything would continue to go smoothly quickly sobered up after the night battle of 8/9/08. The Japanese, on the other hand, who had been emboldened by the Battle of Savo, were yet to sober up. Although Vice Admiral Mikawa was hailed as a hero in public after the victorious battle, he was secretly blamed for not striking hard at Turner's expeditionary force, especially the transport ships carrying essential war material, after the Allied defeat. Although the Battle of Sava was a major Japanese victory, the Japanese still failed to do the main thing, namely destroy the American expeditionary force and regain Guadalcanal.
After Turner's ships sailed on Sunday, August 9, 1942, the Marines on Guadalcanal and Tulagi Islands sensed that nothing good awaited them in the days ahead. Most of the soldiers were making it indiscriminately clear what they thought of the Navy's "betrayal". General Vandegrift was also under no illusions about the situation, quite the opposite. He knew full well that even the best of soldiers could not long hold a beachhead on an island surrounded by waters controlled by the enemy, who were free to reinforce and resupply their own troops, who had for the time being withdrawn westward into the interior of the island. Moreover, not only could the Japanese almost risklessly invade from the sea, but they could do so from the air as well.
Marine General A.A. Vandegrift on Guadalcanal in August 1942
But unlike the temperamental Marines, the cool-headed Vandegrift had no doubt that Allied commanders Turner, Commander of the South Pacific Air Forces McCain, and Area Commander Vice Admiral Ghormley would do all they could to support the landing troops as quickly as possible. The question mark, however, was whether they would hold out and defend their precarious position until then.
On the morning of 9 August Vandegrift summoned the regimental commanders and briefed them on the critical tasks for the immediate future:
Henderson Field, Guadalcanal, photographed from the USS Saratoga in the second half of August 1942, after American aircraft began using the airfield. The view is looking approximately northwest, with the Lunga River flowing at the top of the image. Iron Bottom Sound is just out of view at the top of the image. Several aircraft are parked on the left and numerous bomb and missile craters are visible.
The commissioning of the airstrips was of paramount importance to Vandegrift, as he knew that once Mc Cain's bombers and fighters could operate from them, he was half won! Almost immediately a feverish work effort reigned. Trenching, forward firing positions, a signal system made of ordinary wire and empty cans were built. Since Turner had had almost no time to land any of the heavier guns, including the coastal guns, Vandegrift had several 75mm self-propelled semi-automatic guns deployed along the coast. 37mm field guns and even one captured Japanese 76mm field gun were placed in firing positions. The infantry built a set of small forts, which were manned by small forward detachments armed with automatic weapons. As far as air defense was concerned, Vandegrift had two batteries of 90mm anti-aircraft guns stationed in the airfield area to guard the skies from enemy aircraft. For the next few days, fortification work continued and combat activity was limited to patrolling. The Japanese garrison, hiding in the jungle, had not yet made any appearance, waiting for reinforcements.
American positions on Guadalcanal
The first action did not begin until Aug. 12. On that day, an American patrol captured a Japanese naval officer, who, after much interrogation, was able to deduce that west of Kukum, across the Matanikau River, there were several hundred Japanese soldiers, helpless and starving, and, more importantly, willing to surrender. Of course, it was only a Japanese ruse. On the night of 12-13 August, Vandegrift sent a reconnaissance party under the command of the division's intelligence officer, Colonel F. B. Goette, numbering 32 men. This crossed the Matanikau River in rubber boats during the night hours. As soon as it landed on the west bank of the river it was immediately attacked by overwhelming small arms fire and scattered. Only 3 men survived and returned to the American lines the next morning. Colonel Goette and his men were never heard from again. From then on, as historian General Griffith records, it was a major problem for intelligence officers to convince Marines to take a live Japanese prisoner. Work on Henderson Airfield progressed apace, so that as early as 12 August the first Allied aircraft, a seaplane Catalinalanded at the makeshift airfield with Rear Admiral McCain's aide on board. Mc Cain sent one of his closest associates to personally investigate the situation and give him an accurate report on the state of the airfield, the importance of which was well understood by all. The engineer troops and other infantrymen performed a miracle in a few days. In doing so, heavy machinery was left unloaded, and so most of the work was done with the resources left behind by the Japanese. The Americans had landed only one bulldozer, which was now saving the day. At that time, the entire airfield consisted of one 900-metre runway with a surface of packed dirt that turned into a strip of slushy mud in the rains, which were a daily occurrence on Guadalcanal. Fortunately, the fierce tropical sun always managed to dry it quickly. This serious problem was not finally solved until later, when transport ships brought in light and strong metal pieces, called wires, with which to cover the runways.
Supplying the island crew did not give Admirals Ghomley and Turner any peace of mind. Both knew that without shore guns, ammunition, construction machinery, medical supplies, and food, Vandegrift could not hold out for long. The Marines were packing only two meals a day, for Vandegrift, not knowing when more supplies would arrive, ordered rations reduced to the minimum necessary from the start. And the situation would have been even worse if the Japanese had not left many sacks of rice behind during their hasty retreat. Also, the moment was fast approaching when the planes could begin operating from Henderson Airfield, and yet the island was completely short of supplies of aviation gasoline, bombs, ammunition for the planes' on-board weapons, and other materials necessary for the planes' combat operations. Unfortunately, the few transport ships which Admiral Ghormley had at his disposal at that time were too valuable to be put at risk on a voyage to Guadalcanal without adequate provision. It was therefore the opinion of Ghormley's staff to use a few older destroyers for this purpose, which, after the necessary modifications, constituted a temporary solution. They had the advantage of considerable speed, characteristic of this type of vessel, and manoeuvrability, which enabled them to successfully counter both submarine and aircraft attacks. The first four of these vessels - Colhoun, Little, McKean and Gregory - arrived at Guadalcanal on 15 August. In addition to gasoline, bombs, and ammunition, they brought Major Charles H. Hayes, Henderson's first peration officer, and Second Lieutenant George W. Polk with 120 men of technical personnel necessary for the operation of the air base. That same day, Vandegrift notified Ghormley that Henderson Airport could receive aircraft in dry weather! The date of 20 August 1942 became a memorable day for the Guadalcanal crew, for it was then that the first group of fighter planes brought in by the escort carrier Long Island landed at Henderson Airfield. They were 19 Grumman F4F fighters (fighting name Wildcat) and 12 Douglas SBD-2 bombers (fighting name Dauntless) of the Marine Corps Air Station. The entire group was commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Charles F. Fike, the fighters by Major John L. Smith, and the bombers by Lieutenant Colonel Mangrum.
The Japanese literally wasted the first ten very valuable days after the Battle of Sava. At this time, when they were absolute masters in the air and at sea, they lost a unique opportunity to move new forces to Guadalcanal and destroy the American landing force. It was not until the second week of August 1942 that Tokyo headquarters decided to transfer further control of operations on Guadalcanal from the Navy to the ground forces. Shortly thereafter, the newly appointed commander of the 17th Army, Lieutenant General Harukichi Hyakutake, arrived in Rabaul from Tokyo, charged with the task of recapturing Guadalcanal and Tulagi. Unlike the flexible tactician Vandegrift, Hyakutake was the type of theorist for whom the highest law of military science was a set of relevant manuals and orders. And the imperial manuals said that "the character of the American is simple, lacking in tenacity and fighting prowess, and in failure tends to abandon one plan for another." Hyakutake studied the situation and got the impression from inaccurate reports that there were about two thousand enemy troops on Guadalcanal. The High Command of the ground troops had indeed assigned him two reinforced regiments and an infantry brigade for the recapture of the island, but since these troops were for the time being scattered over several islands in the southwest Pacific, Hyakutake concluded that he would make do with the unit that was easiest to reach. Colonel Kyano Ichiki's infantry regiment. Ichiki's regiment was originally intended to take Midway. However, after the defeat of the Japanese naval forces, the landing understandably did not take place, and so the regiment was temporarily stationed on Guam Island in the Marianas. From there, a detachment of 916 men was embarked on six of Rear Admiral Raizó Tanaka's destroyers, and on 18 August the men landed at the headland of Taivu, 30 kilometres east of the American defensive zone. To divert attention, a unit of Naval Special Airborne Forces landed west of the American positions at Tassafaronga the day before. The rest of Ichiki's regiment, about 1,500 men in all, was to be at Taiwo within a week. As it turned out later, however, Colonel Ichiki, an able and courageous officer, became a victim of the blunders characteristic of most Japanese senior officers at this time of the war, still suffering from the so-called "victory sickness." Ichiki, who had been informed by Hyakutake's staff that there were no more than two or three thousand Americans on the island at most, and furthermore convinced by Japanese propaganda of their inferior fighting qualities, concluded that with his thousand "tigers" he could destroy the enemy without having to wait unnecessarily for reinforcements. This confidence and rashness, however, proved fatal to him.
American machine gunner at battle station, Guadalcanal, August 1942
The Marines learned of the Japanese reinforcements very early. Firstly, from Coastguard patrolman Martin Clemens, and secondly, they had the opportunity to see for themselves. On the morning of 19 August, Captain Charles Brush's reconnaissance party set off east. Around noon, his advance patrol spotted a Japanese reconnaissance party belonging to Ichiki's force near Koli. Captain Brush took up a position of advantage with his men, and when the unsuspecting Japanese came within a hundred yards, he showered them with heavy small arms fire. Of the 34-man Japanese patrol, only three men were rescued, the rest died instantly. A search of the fallen enemy revealed that they were not the Navy personnel that made up the troops staying on the island prior to the American landing, but ground troops who looked nothing like they had been hiding in the jungle for two weeks. The dead soldiers and officers wore clean uniforms, were freshly shaved, and in their pockets Brush's men found many maps, notes, and diaries, which they collected and turned over to the division's intelligence department upon their return. A search of the captured documents only confirmed that a new Japanese force had arrived on the island. Moreover, they had a pretty good idea of the location of American defenses and artillery. In practice, this meant only one thing, an enemy attack could be expected in short order. This was confirmed by a message found among supplies dropped by parachute to Japanese soldiers west of the Matanikau River. Several of the parcels had been carried by the wind into territory occupied by American troops, and one of them contained the message, "Hold on! Help is on the way!"
Lieutenant General Hyakutake at Rabaul Base, August 1942
From previous events, it was clear to Vandegrift that an enemy attack would most likely come from the east. Therefore, Vandegrift used the remaining time to strengthen the defensive line on the left bank of the Tenaru River. There, at its mouth, was the most suitable terrain to penetrate westwards to Henderson's airfield. Therefore, two battalions of the 1st Marine Regiment dug in. Barbed wire barricades were set up, 37 mm guns equipped with anti-personnel ammunition were installed, and patrols manned forward posts. The fighting began at 00.30 on 21 August 1942. A narrow sandbank at the mouth of the river ran against the positions of the 2nd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Edwin A. Pollock, with the war cry of "Banzai" at two hundred Japanese soldiers, bayonets mounted on rifles and samurai swords brandished by the officers in the front. They were greeted by a barrage of rifles, machine guns, Thompson machine guns, hand grenade bursts and were joined by 37mm cannons. Within minutes, the war cries of the attacking Japanese turned into death grunts of the dying and screams of horror and pain. The Japanese soldiers took no cover at all, rushing forward with hysterical screams, stumbling over the dead bodies, and some even managed to penetrate the American positions. The Marines literally fought back in man-to-man combat with rifle butts, bayonets, machetes, and assault knives. It was the first of a series of bloody land engagements that took place on Guadalcanal. The carnage continued with incredible hatred and ferocity. When an American machine gunner jammed his machine gun, two of the gunner's comrades held the encroaching Japanese at bay with bayonets until the malfunction was found and repaired. Shortly before dawn, all the Japanese soldiers who had attempted to cross the river on the shallow sandbar were dead. According to Colonel Ichiki's plan, the Japanese frontline troops were to break through the American lines. Now, because the repulsed attack had failed to do so, the Japanese were confusedly regrouping in a grove of coconut palms on the east bank of the Tenaru River, where many were falling victim to American snipers. Yet Ichiki did not feel defeated, and it was only a matter of time before he attacked again. General Vandegrift decided not to give him another chance. He ordered a swift counterattack to surround the enemy and destroy him. Therefore, all available fire from all weapons was concentrated in the area of Japanese troop concentration, and the aircraft that had arrived on the island the previous day were attacked. Cresswell was ordered to move south, up the Tenaru River. To cross the river at a safe distance and cut off Ichiki's retreat to the east and south. To the north was the sea and to the west was Pollock's battalion. At 1400, Creswell's troops moved out. The Japanese responded with unprecedented ferocity. Almost immediately they launched a bayonet counter-attack and Cresswell had to call for the deployment of another, reserve battalion before he could dislodge them from their position. Then the Japanese began to flee. Most of them were shot by the Marines, some attempted rescue at sea where they drowned, and some tried to fight their way east. At 1600, Vandegrift engaged a platoon of light tanks. The tanks pushed their way through the trunks of coconut palms, and the impacts on them shook off the Japanese hidden in their canopies. Just before sunset, it was all over. Thirty-five Marines had been killed and 75 wounded in the battle. Many of the American casualties were inflicted only during mopping up operations, when some of the wounded Japanese soldiers smeared themselves with blood, feigned death, and stood up with a pistol or grenade in hand when the Americans approached. It is interesting to note that Maj. Gen. A. Vandegrift sent to the USMC commander, Lieutenant General Holcomb: "Mr. General, I have never heard or read of such a method of fighting. These people refuse to surrender. A wounded man waits for someone to come and look at him and then tears himself and the other man apart with a hand grenade." Japanese casualties were catastrophic. Only about 30 soldiers managed to be rescued in the jungle. When Colonel Ichiki, with a few men in a frenzied state, finally reached his starting position at the outcrop of Taivu, he burned the regimental flag in despair and committed suicide. It was not until much later that his personal diary came into American hands. The entries in it are really interesting: "August 18 - landing and landing - August 20 - night movement and battle - August 21 - joy of victory...!" It must be said that the Japanese colonel was somewhat ahead of events, the anticipated joy of victory was not enjoyed.
After the Battle...
In conclusion, the significance of the Battle of the Tenaru River did not lie in the number of troops or equipment deployed, but was very important in another respect: for the first time, American Marines faced elite Japanese units, which were then rumored to be the ones that no one could stand against in the tough terrain of the Pacific jungles. It is true that the legend suffered its first noticeable crack!
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