GUADALCANAL (part 2)
By 18 January XIV Corps had pushed two miles west of the Matanikau River and over
four miles inland. In taking the major objectives of Galloping Horse, Sea Horse, the Gifu,
and the coastal strip beyond Point Cruz, the XIV Corps killed 1,900 Japanese while losing
fewer than 200 killed and 400 wounded. Enemy survivors not yet immobilized by malaria
or starvation were reeling back toward their last stronghold on Guadalcanal, Seventeenth
Army headquarters at Kokumbona.
To complete the destruction of Japanese forces on Guadalcanal, General Patch planned a
follow-up offensive to begin on 2 January. The renewed attack involved a reorientation of
XIV Corps toward a point on the coast three miles west of the new perimeter: the village
of Kokumbona. To bring his forces to bear on Kokumbona, Patch planned to swing the
25th Division from a direct westerly axis to a northwesterly heading. Then, as that division
neared the coast, the 2d Marine Division and other Army units between it and the 25th
would have to reduce their front. Thus, by the time the Americans reached Kokumbona,
XIV Corps would be pushing a spearpoint only two regiments wide into Japanese
Because every division in his corps had suffered substantial losses from combat and
malaria, Patch also had to reorganize his remaining regiments. The result was the
Composite Army-Marine (CAM) Division, consisting of two Army regiments, the 147th
and 182d, and one Marine, the 6th, plus artillery battalions from both the Americal and 2d
Marine Divisions. Other support would come from Navy destroyers offshore and the 2d
Marine Air Wing. The remaining regiments from the Americal and 2d Marine Divisions
would man the American perimeter east of the Matanikau River. The CAM Division
would advance west along the coast on a 3,000yard front while the 25th Division
executed its more involved swing to the northwest toward Kokumbona.
Finally, early in January, even before his renewed offensive began, Patch assembled a
small force in an effort to ensure that no Japanese escaped Guadalcanal to fight another
day. Consisting of Company I, 147th Infantry, reinforced by one platoon from Company
M and antitank, heavy weapons, and engineer detachments and commanded by Capt.
Charles E. Beach, the unit had the mission of cutting off a possible enemy withdrawal
over a 20-mile-long native trail to the Beaufort Bay area. Part of Beach's force sailed
aboard Navy landing craft around the western end of the island, while the remainder took
a trail network into the hills; the unit assumed its blocking force position on the trail by
After a heavy artillery and naval gunfire bombardment, XIV Corps moved out toward
Kokumbona at 0630 on 22 January. On the corps left, the 25th Division's 161st Infantry
soon bogged down in deep jungle. On the corps right, the CAM Division ran into a heavy
enemy machine-gun concentration after moving only 1,000 yards. Only the 27th Infantry
(25th Division), between the 161st Infantry and the CAM Division, made good progress,
covering nearly two miles in less than three hours.
Shortly after his division had begun its attack, General Collins noticed the Japanese
offered much less opposition than expected in his 27th Infantry sector. Showing the
initiative that would later bring him a corps command and after the war lift him to the
chief of staff's office, Collins jumped in a jeep, raced to the front, and changed his plan of
attack. Despite the danger of allowing one regiment to advance far ahead of its
neighbor-the enemy could easily surround the forward unit-Collins perceived the Japanese
were incapable of taking advantage of his vulnerability, and he told Colonel McCulloch to
push 27th Infantry as far and as fast as possible. The 27th had already outrun its
communications wire and would soon leave its artillery support fan, but Collins still saw no
reason to wait. With signalmen frantically laying new wire and artillerymen scrambling to
displace batteries forward, the men kept going. By nightfall the 27th Infantry had gained
over three miles and occupied the high ground overlooking Kokumbona.
Along the coast the CAM Division began its attack at the same time with a
three-regiment front: the 6th Marines on the beach, the 147th Infantry in the center, and
the 182d Infantry abreast of 25th Division on the left. For the first 1,000 yards terrain
posed the main problem, but soon the marines came under heavy machine-gun and
antitank fire from an estimated 250 Japanese on Hills 98 and 99.
On the morning of the 23d McCulloch's 27th Infantry pushed out of the jungle to the
beach immediately east of Kokumbona, a move which trapped the enemy pocket holding
up the CAM Division column. Then, while the CAM Division hammered the trapped
Japanese, two 27th Infantry columns, one from the east, the other from the south, broke
into Kokumbona in midafternoon. The Japanese, now more interested in escaping farther
west of the village, offered little resistance, and by late afternoon the Americans were
examining hastily abandoned Seventeenth Army documents and equipment. The next day
CAM Division troops killed over two hundred enemy and captured three 150-mm. guns, a
light tank, and other weapons in claiming Hills 98 and 99 and moving into Kokumbona.
Anxious to destroy the remaining Japanese before they could prepare defensive
fortifications similar to those of Gifu, General Collins sent the 27th Infantry in pursuit
beyond Kokumbona. By late afternoon on the 25th McCulloch's men had fought through
rearguard actions of varying effectiveness to reach the Poha River, a mile west of
Kokumbona. Now the campaign became a race between Japanese survivors trying to
reach possible evacuation at Cape Esperance, seventeen miles west of the Poha River,
and XIV Corps attempting to trap and annihilate them. McCulloch's victorious but
exhausted 27th Infantry stopped at the Poha while the CAM Division moved through to
join the chase. Alternating the lead attack position, the 147th Infantry, the 182d Infantry,
and the 6th Marines progressed from one to three miles a day through weak resistance.
By 8 February these units had reached Doma Cove, nine miles beyond the Poha River
and the same distance short of Cape Esperance.
Despite the fact that Captain Beach's Beaufort Bay trail-blocking force had seen no
Japanese since January, General Patch still saw the possibility of an enemy escape from
the west end of the island. In a second effort to deny the enemy that option, Patch
assembled a task force around the 2d Battalion, 132d Infantry, and sent it around the west
end of the island by Navy landing craft to Verahue, ten miles southwest of Cape
Esperance. Commanded by Col. Alexander M. George, the force began moving north
along the coast on 2 February with the intention of meeting the CAM Division sometime
in the next few days. Though the Japanese discovered George's troops and surmised their
mission, they offered little opposition; George's men had more trouble pushing their supply
trucks through mud and jungle. But on 7 February a Japanese rifleman found a prime
target, wounding Colonel George. Lt. Col. George F. Ferry took over, and by the 8th his
men stood less than two miles from Cape Esperance. The next day the 1st Battalion,
161st Infantry, swept over six miles west through fast dissolving opposition while Ferry's
battalion moved over three miles up from the southwest. The two units met at Tenaro on
Cape Esperance but found only a few stragglers. Abandoned enemy equipment and
landing craft on the beach explained the empty trap: the Japanese had evacuated most of
those who had reached Cape Esperance, about 13,000 troops in all, according to prisoners
Victory on Guadalcanal brought important strategic gains to the Americans and their
Pacific allies but at high cost. Combined with the American-Australian victory at Buna on
New Guinea, success in the Solomons turned back the Japanese drive toward Australia
and staked out a strong base from which to continue attacks against Japanese forces,
especially those at Rabaul, the enemy's main base in the South Pacific. Most important
for future operations in the Pacific, the Americans had stopped reacting to Japanese
thrusts and taken the initiative themselves. These gains cost the Americans 1,592 killed in
action and 4,183 wounded, with thousands more disabled for varying periods by disease.
Entering the campaign after the amphibious phase, the two Army divisions lost 550 killed
and 1,289 wounded. For the Japanese, losses were even more traumatic: 14,800 killed in
battle, another 9,000 dead from disease, and about 1,000 taken prisoner. On Guadalcanal
General Hyakutake's troops gave American fighting men a chilling introduction to the
character of the Japanese soldier: willing to fight to the death rather than surrender. Both
navies lost twenty-four ships during the campaign but with a smaller industrial base to
replace them, Japanese losses were more significant. Even more costly to Japan was the
loss of over six hundred aircraft and pilots.
U.S. Army-Navy coordination began poorly due in part to different views of the
campaign's purpose. Ground commanders saw the campaign as an amphibious operation
with the normal division of joint responsibilities. That is, naval forces would secure the
seas around the objective for as long as it took ground forces to clear Guadalcanal of
enemy. But higher Navy commanders viewed the operation as more of a raid than a
formal amphibious campaign. They reserved the right to react to enemy naval operations
as they saw fit without offering uninterrupted fire support to forces ashore, and they acted
on that view by leaving Guadalcanal waters twice, in August and October. Later, Army
and Navy commanders in the theater arrived at methods of operation generally
satisfactory for the initial effort in a major war. For Army tactical leaders, Navy support
proved most valuable when ground units operated close enough to the coast that
destroyers' guns could reach into the jungled ravines so well fortified by the Japanese.
Navy and Marine air support was always welcome but not always well aimed. On one
occasion a dive bomber dropped ordnance on an infantry unit advancing toward Galloping
Horse. Fortunately, such incidents proved the rare exception in close air support missions.
Intelligence about the island of Guadalcanal and Japanese forces on the island proved
inadequate throughout the campaign. Before the effort began, the best information on
terrain and soil conditions came from missionaries and planters expelled by the Japanese.
But the recollections of these sincere but untrained observers were often of dubious
quality, most of them more impressionistic than factual. As a result, ground commanders
had to fight on Guadalcanal without accurate maps.
Once the fighting began, information continued to come from a jerrybuilt system of the
most and least sophisticated methods available. At one end of the spectrum was the
highly developed effort to intercept and to decipher enemy naval radio traffic. At the
other was a network of "coastwatchers," native and Western informers in the jungle
notifying the Americans by radio of Japanese ship and troop movements. In between,
Generals Harmon, Vandegrift, and Patch could apply a number of military methods,
including aerial photographic reconnaissance. On Guadalcanal the coastwatchers
performed valuable service, but they could not be permanently integrated into military and
naval intelligence systems. While no one doubted the courage of the coastwatchers, their
communications with the ground commanders were indirect and intermittent, and they
often had little more than an extremely localized view of the situation.
Even in their estimates of the situation on the ground, the four American division
commanders in the campaign frequently underestimated the forces they faced, either in
size or strength of fortification. The most grievous example occurred at the Gifu, where
an enemy pocket originally estimated at 100 men with 10 crew-served weapons turned
out to contain over 500 with 52 large weapons. The defenders ultimately held off five
American battalions for a month, delaying the advance west long enough for the Japanese
to evacuate 13,000 men from the island.
In their first combat experience, XIV Corps infantrymen carried out their missions with
the mix of enthusiasm, hesitation, and incompetence characteristic of inexperienced
troops. In the early stages of the campaign the troops allowed the Japanese to pin them
down too often with light weapons. Compounding the error, commanders on the scene
showed reluctance to resume the attack without a heavy artillery barrage. While this
pattern of behavior may have faithfully conformed to contemporary doctrine, it played to a
particular strength of the enemy. Artillery delays used up daylight hours, and the Japanese
soon learned that American commanders did not like to initiate assaults in the last two or
three hours before sunset. In contrast, the Japanese seemed to relish the onset of
darkness and relied extensively on night movement to mount counterattacks and to
position assault units and supporting arms for the next day. Until American soldiers
stopped viewing sunset as the end of the tactical day and gained more expertise in night
operations, they would continue to take unnecessary losses at the hands of their more
Sloppy execution of routine infantry techniques cost some units unnecessary casualties.
While approaching the Sea Horse on 10 January, Company K of the 35th Infantry began
crossing a stream before properly checking the site or placing covering weapons on the
flanks. With half the company on one bank and half on the other, the Japanese fired on
the disorganized and vulnerable unit. Careful application of the basic principles of tactical
movement, a responsibility of company grade officers and NCOs, would have prevented
this disaster. Instead, it took two posthumous Medal of Honor performances to save the
day for this company.
On another occasion a badly handled communication cost the 25th Division valuable time.
During attacks on the Gifu strongpoint on 15 January, the executive officer of the 2d
Battalion, 35th Infantry, ordered one platoon of Company G to withdraw. The order
rapidly spread by word of mouth, and soon the entire battalion withdrew, costing the unit a
full day's advance.
The jungle environment of Guadalcanal forced Americans to fight at very close quarters,
a difficult but realistic adjustment to make, for subsequent campaigns in the Pacific would
present the same conditions. Enemy positions usually were not visible until attacking
troops had closed within fifty feet. The Japanese proved masters of using natural
materials found in the jungle to build strong, as well as nearly invisible, fortified positions.
Units which thought they had discovered one or two machine-gun positions often found
themselves attacking half a dozen or more. And once a network of positions was
identified, the bunkers-some with reinforcing logs up to two feet in diameter-proved
impermeable to all but direct hits by the largest caliber ordnance. Nevertheless, XIV
Corps troops did not hesitate to attack such positions and in so doing innovated effective
techniques against them, including flamethrowers to reach into narrow openings.
Fire support in various forms-air, naval, and field artillery-remained plentiful throughout
the campaign, although in the early weeks air squadrons were occupied with enemy
aircraft. Japanese survivors expressed surprise at the duration of preparatory fires. Even
a single battalion attacking a minor position on the way to a major objective could call for
as much as half an hour's fire. Especially effective in disorienting enemy troops was
time-on-target artillery fire, which made extremely difficult the detection of American
battery locations, essential for counterbattery fire missions. But American infantrymen found that plentiful artillery support did not translate into an immediate reduction in enemy
opposition. Elimination of enemy bunkers required direct hits, a low percentage result for
most types of fire support, including air strikes even when pilots could see targets. As
assaults moved deeper inland, the terrain of Guadalcanal began to affect fire support.
Artillery fire frequently overshot enemy positions in deep ravines or on steep hillsides. A
field expedient proved partially effective: propping antitank weapons and pack howitzers
against steep slopes to achieve higher angles of fire.
One type of fire support-tanks-did not play a major role on Guadalcanal. Although the few
tanks present occasionally proved valuable in reducing enemy bunkers, neither Marine nor
Army forces had enough tanks on the island to mount sizable tank-infantry assaults. Nor
did the terrain of Guadalcanal permit the maneuver of armored columns. Army
commanders and troops would have to find more level battlefields to learn armorinfantry
coordination. Another type of tracked vehicle-the bulldozerperformed more valuable
service for the XIV Corps in the long run by assisting the engineers in airfield and road
Supply proved a major problem throughout the campaign, although the character of the
issue changed as the battle continued. In the early stages of the campaign the perennial
military problem of supply volume threatened to limit operations. But once the
Army-Marine invasion force secured the Henderson Field perimeter and began to move
inland, the delivery of supplies became the larger difficulty. Without port facilities, supplies
reached the troops only after a series of timeconsuming and labor-intensive equipment
transfers. Supplies were first unloaded from Navy ships offshore into lighters for the trip
to the beach. There American service support personnel transferred the tonnage to trucks
that hauled it inland to several dumps on roads under construction. From the dumps
supplies had to be hand carried, by both Americans and native laborers, to using units. As
the fighting moved farther inland the distance between dumps and front line lengthened
and road building could not progress as fast as assault units advanced, especially when
Japanese forces began to withdraw to their evacuation points.
American troops temporarily solved the distribution problem by using the many streams
and rivers on the island. Loading supplies into small boats, some of them captured
Japanese craft, Americans pushed the craft through the water as close to the tactical
units as possible. Not described in any field manual, the transport expedient called forth a
linguistic innovation: "pusha-maru," combining an English verb and the Japanese suffix
attached to ships' names.
Several troublesome aspects of Army performance on Guadalcanal could not be
addressed by more training or troop innovation. Improvements in some areas would have
to wait on technological and organizational developments. Ship-to-shore logistics did not
keep up with operations ashore because of a shortage of amphibian tractors and landing
craft equipped with drop-down bow ramps. Reserving such craft for assault echelons
forced the laborious series of unloadings and reloadings that delayed receipt of essential
supplies at the fighting fronts. Solution of this multifaceted problem called for a high
degree of joint cooperation, for it touched on Navy procedures of embarkation and
debarkation as well as Army methods of land transportation and road building. An
improved technological base for combat operations in the Pacific held the promise of
significantly reducing the cost in time and casualties of taking enemy-held islands.
The greatest single factor reducing troop effectiveness on Guadalcanal was disease,
particularly malaria. For every man who became a casualty in combat, five fell to malaria.
Until a more effective prophylaxis became available, tropical diseases would continue to
degrade the efficiency of ground operations in tropical areas.
The Guadalcanal Campaign also made clear that whether subsequent fighting in the
Pacific took place in an Army or a Navy theater, success would depend on a high degree
of interservice cooperation. The early stages of the campaign were dominated by
Navy-Marine components of the interservice team. But as the battle continued, Army
units assumed the burden of interservice coordination and, in the end, secured the
American victory on the ground. The campaign also made clear the scale of operations
the Americans would have to mount to take sizable island outposts from the Japanese:
between fifty and one hundred thousand troops, at least half a dozen air squadrons of
high-altitude bombers, dive bombers, and fighters, and between two and three hundred
Navy ships and smaller craft of all types. In coming months fresh Army divisions would
form new interservice teams and, applying techniques demonstrated by the XIV Corps,
continue the island march to Japan.
The Guadalcanal Campaign is one of the most extensively written about of all in World
War II, with more than one volume published in each of several categories: official
histories, journalistic views, and personal accounts. The authoritative treatment remains
John Miller, jr. Guadalcanal: The First Offensive (1949)
a volume in the series United
States Army in World War II. Two accounts published during the war have attracted
readers from three generations: Richard Tregaskis, Guadalcanal Diary (1943) and Ira
Battle for the Solomons (1943)
More recent works include Robert Edward Lee
Victory at Guadalcanal (1981)
Herbert C. Merillat Guadalcanal Remembered (1982)
Richard B. Frank, Guadalcanal (1990).