Innovation and Determination Ashore

By Richard B. Frank

Marine officers proceeded to systematically analyze the components of an amphibious operation. They concluded that the Gallipoli fiasco stemmed not from a fundamentally unsound concept, but from a series of correctable errors in execution. With important assistance from naval officers who recognized indispensable need for a viable amphibious doctrine and tactics to seize advanced bases, the Marines worked out practical solutions to the myriad details of modern amphibious warfare. Moreover, the U.S. Navy's annual training exercises incorporated amphibious operations. As modest and unrealistic as these exercises in many respects appear, they still yielded tremendous value. 2

Just how impressive this work remains can be measured by contrasting the success of the prewar development of critical new doctrine among the American armed services. The U.S. Army's version of armored warfare earns a very mixed grade. Like the Germans, and unlike the British, the Army correctly deduced the theoretical importance of combined arms, but its Soldiers faltered practically in the balancing of arms. Further, unlike German and Soviet doctrines, U.S. doctrine never encompassed the deep-penetration, mobile concepts of what is now called the operational level of war. The bedrock Army Air Forces doctrine of unescorted, long-range heavy bomber raids fared even worse. It proved untenable in the face of first-class defenses.

The Marine-Navy amphibious assault doctrine, however, proved fundamentally sound in principles as well as many details and even withstood an extremely severe test at Tarawa in November 1943. Moreover, the amphibious doctrine grappled with a problem of significantly greater complexity since it involved coordination of arms and services in three dimensions. The moral here is that Marine and Navy officers worked systematically through the issues raised by the new doctrine and tested their theories more rigorously than did the Army and Army Air Forces officers. 3

Paradoxically, if the deep foundation of the Guadalcanal campaign was sound, its immediate planning and prospects prompted official Marine historians to comment with notable understatement, "Seldom has an operation begun under more disadvantageous circumstances." 4 It remains astounding that the directive for the operation was issued on 2 July 1942 and the landings took place on 7 August. This 37-day span included at least 16 days of transit time for components of the assault and support forces that sortied from the West Coast, Hawaii, and the South Pacific to assemble, rehearse, and reach the objective area. Further, Washington ordered merely the seizure of "Tulagi [site of a seaplane base] and adjacent positions"; Guadalcanal, where the Japanese were constructing an airfield, was not mentioned.

These exigencies resulted in an inversion of doctrine: Key decisions—none more vital than the emphasis on Guadalcanal, not Tulagi—were made not from the top down, but from the bottom up by Vandegrift and his staff. Extreme haste, however, sowed the potential seeds for disaster. The theater commander, Vice Admiral Robert Ghormley, began the operation confused about its character and doubtful of its prospects. Planning its coordination on the fly proved grossly defective. The haste left unsettled vital issues about logistics and the provision of air units for Guadalcanal.

This haste, however, did yield a huge dividend: The Guadalcanal campaign provides an emphatic example of the value of surprise. Chance in the form of a cloud cloak over the assault forces approaching the targets provided tactical surprise. But the deliberate daring of the whole enterprise secured strategic surprise, and Tokyo did not exploit tremendous American vulnerability during the early, critical weeks because Japanese leaders failed to recognize the importance of events on Guadalcanal.

Details of the Ground Campaign

Whenever feasible, Marine commanders avoided direct assaults into prepared defenses. The initial objectives involved not only securing Guadalcanal's airfield site, but also seizure of the islands of Tulagi and Gavutu-Tanambogo, about 25 miles north of the beachhead on Guadalcanal. Both at Guadalcanal and Tulagi, Marines initially landed at undefended locales and then maneuvered to their ultimate objectives. The twin islets of Gavutu and Tanambogo essentially comprised two hills surrounded by reefs that funneled the attackers into one approach. There remained no alternative to a costly direct assault into dominating defenses. The initial pattern of avoiding frontal attacks whenever possible remained a hallmark of 1st Marine Division operations for the rest of the campaign. In fact, the only real defeat the division sustained, in an action along the Matanikau River in September 1942, stemmed from an overindulgence in this method (see sidebar below). 5

The withdrawal of the last of the Navy covering forces on 9 August following their defeat at the Battle of Savo Island left the Marines stranded. Not only were supplies short, the Marine maneuver units were poorly distributed for the new task at hand of holding Tulagi and the airfield site on Guadalcanal. Among the 6,075 Marines in and around Tulagi were six rifle battalions, while there were only five rifle battalions among the 10,819 Marines on Guadalcanal. Vandegrift reckoned the most dangerous Japanese threat was a counterlanding on Guadalcanal to retake the airfield. Consequently, he secured the Lunga River mouth area with its airfield site, about a mile inland, by stationing his battalions to protect his lodgment from attacks by the sea, or along the immediate coast from east or west. He had only one reserve battalion. 6

Such vigor as the Japanese mustered in their reaction to the landing was not matched by tactical astuteness. The Marines alone could not hold Guadalcanal. They had to be resupplied and hopefully reinforced. Victory depended entirely on the ability to operate fighters from Guadalcanal that could secure local air superiority and thus permit resupply efforts, supplemented by the ability to operate attack planes from Guadalcanal that would bar the Japanese from winning a race to build up forces on the island. Operating aircraft from Guadalcanal demanded not only unhindered access to a useable runway, but depended ultimately on the American ability to keep the Japanese from interdicting Henderson Field with direct or indirect fire. Thus, the critical terrain on Guadalcanal was not simply the soil of the runways but also a perimeter thousands of yards away from the airfield to keep it beyond effective small-arms or artillery range.

Fortunately for the Marines, the Japanese Army officers failed to appraise this situation correctly. Ironically, Japanese Navy officers began kibitzing on the operations ashore in October when units of Special Naval Landing Forces were scheduled to supplement the army units. The naval officers immediately proposed using long-range artillery to block American use of the airfield. By then, Japanese logistics were too desperate to permit such measures, which in August or September might have been decisive.

The Japanese Strike Back

Faulty intelligence and gross overconfidence spawned the tactical folly marking the first Japanese effort to re-establish their hold on Guadalcanal. Japanese commanders persuaded themselves that only 7,000 to 8,000 Marines were around Guadalcanal, that their morale was low, and that they may have been bent on withdrawal. Initially, a mere 917 men under Colonel Kiyoano Ichiki were sent against the Americans. Each Japanese soldier carried only 250 rounds of ammunition and seven days' rations.

Ichiki's orders granted him discretion either to await reinforcements if he believed the Americans were in strength or to attack. The virtual annihilation of an advanced party provided him a tangible and honorable reason for prudence, and Marines later learned from a captured map that Ichiki was aware that the American inland flank was undefended. Nonetheless, Ichiki recklessly thrust his men into an assault in the early hours of 21 August, straight into the prepared defenses along the coast at what the Americans thought was the Tenaru River (it was actually Alligator Creek). Ichiki's detachment was nearly wiped out, and after burning the regimental colors, he committed suicide. By the global standards of World War II, this "Battle of the Tenaru" was a trifling affair. But its ramifications were wholly out of proportion with the modest size of the forces engaged.

Much has been made about race as the key to the savagery of the Pacific war. This interpretation glosses over the fact that it was American outrage over Japanese aggression in China that caused the war. Racism hardly explains why white Americans would risk war over what one group of Asians did to another. But the racial explanation also overlooks the patently more critical fact that the savagery in the Pacific stemmed fundamentally from a cultural clash.

In the early 20th century, Japanese militarists perverted the country's military code of Bushido by stripping away its elements of honor and chivalry to opponents. In their places, they inculcated a counterfeit battle ethic of death before surrender and contempt for enemy prisoners of war. Under this doctrine, Japanese armed forces forged a record unmatched by any modern nation-state of fighting virtually to annihilation in every skirmish, battle, and campaign of the Pacific war. Thus, Japanese leaders demanded effectively a war of extermination. The U.S. defeat in the Philippines left no institutional understanding of the terms under which the Pacific war would be fought. It was at the Tenaru that intimations gleaned on Tulagi and Gavutu-Tanambogo crystallized first for the Marines and then for U.S. armed forces as a whole regarding what the war would demand. Judged by its psychological impact, the Tenaru was one of the most important battles of the Pacific war. 7

By the time Ichiki killed himself, imperial headquarters already had ordered the 35th Independent Brigade, under Major General Kiyotake Kawaguchi, to Guadalcanal. Kawaguchi proved a difficult personality as well as the most insightful Japanese ground commander of the campaign. Like the Marines, he instinctively favored flanking movements to frontal attacks. He marched the main body of his brigade deep into the jungle on an indirect approach from the south aimed for an undefended sector of the Lunga perimeter. Kawaguchi came within an ace of success.

General Vandegrift had initially resisted the urging of his staff and Colonel Merritt Edson to station Edson's command, the amalgamated 1st Raider and 1st Parachute Battalions, along a ridge south of the airfield that provided a natural avenue of approach. Worse yet, Vandegrift had just moved the division headquarters from its frequently bombed location by the airstrip to the northern end of this ridge—right in Kawaguchi's attack path. Vandegrift fortunately consented to the proposed deployment of Edson's unit to the ridge. Along this piece of terrain, ever after known as Edson's Ridge, Marine raiders and parachutists, backed by artillery, barely stymied Kawaguchi's attack over 12-14 September. 8

The ambush of two Marine companies pursuing Kawaguchi became the catalyst for an enduring innovation. Vandegrift ordered the formation of a special unit under Colonel William J. Whaling dubbed the "Scout-Snipers." Volunteers with exemplary skills in navigation and field craft (or, as one Marine officer described them, "the weirdest characters you've ever seen") took responsibility for long-range patrolling and guiding units through the jungle. These men were ancestors of Force Reconnaissance units. 9

The defeat of Kawaguchi coincided with the realization in Tokyo of the full stakes at issue at Guadalcanal. Not only did the Japanese Army halt its Port Moresby offensive in New Guinea, it committed the excellent 2nd (Sendai) Division as part of a concerted effort on land, sea, and in the air to retake Guadalcanal.

An Unconventional But Pragmatic Solution

The Marine command on Guadalcanal now made its most important—and most brilliant—decision. Following Kawaguchi's defeat, the 7th Marines landed, bringing U.S. maneuver elements on the island to ten rifle battalions, one raider battalion, and four artillery battalions. The 1st Division created for the first time a complete perimeter defense. This represented, as the Marine leaders admitted, a "cordon defense of the worst type." Since Napoleonic times, a taboo was attached to such dispositions because of their extreme vulnerability to an enemy who massed his artillery and infantry against one point. For the tactical problem facing the division, the conventional staff-college solution was a series of fortified "horseshoes" along dominant terrain, and large reserves for "defense in depth."

Vandegrift and his staff boldly rejected the conventional course. Their primer was practical experience. They reasoned that American airmen would prevent a direct assault from the sea. The Japanese had displayed a preference for inland flanking movements. The cordon defense would not just block all such flanking maneuvers, but also deliver the bonus of denying the enemy its preferred infiltration tactics. Vandegrift lacked the resources to push the perimeter beyond Japanese artillery range, but he did hazard a detached blocking position west of the perimeter along the east bank at the Matanikau River to keep Japanese artillery at arm's length. Even the details of the disposition jettisoned orthodoxy. Vandegrift was now supremely confident that his young Marines would maintain their positions even if surrounded. Accordingly, positions were prepared for all-around defense, and Vandegrift broke up his reserves into smaller contingents arrayed close to the front lines.

Japanese commanders proved less successful in their effort to pragmatically work out a solution to their problems. Senior leaders reasoned shrewdly that a thrust near the coast would turn into a firepower contest they were sure to lose. Therefore, staff officers gained acceptance of a scheme based on the erroneous conclusion Guadalcanal's inland jungle west and south of the American perimeter would serve as a concealed but passable route of advance for the Sendai Division to strike the lightly defended Marine rear.

The Japanese correctly deduced that a feint along the coastal area would distract the Marines but fumbled in coordination when terrible jungle terrain delayed the bulk of the Sendai Division. In theory, on the night of 24-25 October, the Japanese should have launched nine infantry battalions to strike at a sector of the perimeter near Edson's Ridge held by Lieutenant Colonel Lewis "Chesty" Puller's 1st Battalion, 7th Marines. In reality, the confused and exhausted Japanese attacked by companies, not battalions. Supported by timely reinforcements from a U.S. Army battalion, Puller's men blocked them. 10

With success at sea in November, the Americans finally gained the upper hand in the seesaw contest. In December, Japanese leaders in Tokyo finally decided to evacuate their remaining forces. The U.S. commanders realized the 1st Marine Division was exhausted, as was the 2d Marines of the 2d Marine Division, which had been committed from the outset. The 1st Marine Division was therefore withdrawn. While the remaining regiments of the 2d Marine Division replaced Vandegrift's men, the U.S. Army now fielded both the Americal and the 25th Infantry divisions on Guadalcanal. Overall command shifted on 9 December from Vandegrift to Major General Alexander M. Patch, former commander of the Americal Division and now leading XIV Corps. 11

The Army Takes Over

American leadership during the final phase of the campaign to clear the island garners varied marks. Thanks to a failure of American radio, photographic, and tactical intelligence, the Japanese succeeded in concealing their intention to withdraw until the last days. What remains inexplicable is the failure of U.S. patrolling to disclose both the thinness of Japanese forces on the front line and the totally debilitated state of the vast majority of the Japanese soldiers, who were perched right on the edge of starvation.

With a weak grasp of current Japanese intentions and capabilities, and the admittedly powerful example of four successive Japanese counteroffensives between August and November, Patch cautiously kept the Americal Division and a separate infantry regiment in reserve to protect the airfield complex. He deployed the 2d Marine Division along the coast with the 25th Infantry Division inland for a westward thrust to clear the remaining Japanese enclave, on the northwest corner of Guadalcanal. These resource allocation decisions, however, left Patch without the ability to mount both the push against the Japanese front and a large-scale landing in the Japanese rear. 12

A bright star during the subsequent offensive was 45-year-old Major General Joseph Lawton Collins, whose rocket ascent to the job of Army chief of staff began on Guadalcanal. Collins, like his 25th Infantry Division, lacked any combat experience. Nonetheless, he crafted a sophisticated battle plan to outflank Japanese defenses and then rapidly exploit any breakthrough. Moreover, Collins demanded and got a degree of logistical support unmatched by any other U.S. or Japanese unit. His supply officers merged jeep trails, human carriers, aerial trolley lines, air drops, and man-propelled boats into a network that permitted the division to deploy heavy combat power deep into the interior.

The gem of the final American operations on Guadalcanal involved engineering. The Japanese awesomely fortified the Gifu, heights named after the home station of the Japanese unit defending it. For weeks the defenders resisted attacks while inflicting serious losses on two American infantry regiments. In a masterpiece of field work, engineers carved a trail that permitted a light tank to reach the position. On 22 January 1943, the tank smashed through the Japanese bunkers and ended resistance. 13

When Collins' initial attacks penetrated Japanese defenses, he demonstrated great agility in adjusting his plans and shuffling units to swiftly seize the opportunity. Collins did something else that bolstered his reputation. After the campaign, he orchestrated a searching analysis of the performance of his units. This review featured great candor about mistakes and failures. A written version of the critique was forwarded to, and no doubt made a powerful impression on, his superiors. Based on Collins' performance at Guadalcanal and later on New Georgia in 1943, Army Chief of Staff George Marshall transferred him to Europe, and he is widely considered the most outstanding corps commander of the final Western campaign against Germany. 14



1. This quote came back to the mind of Rear Admiral Richmond Kelly Turner on the eve of the landing. Vice Admiral George C. Dyer, The Amphibians Came to Conquer: The Story of Admiral Richmond Kelly Turner, Vol. 1 (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1969), p. 318.

2. Edward Miller, War Plan Orange (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1991) pp. 117-9, 194-6, 350-1; Thomas C. Hone and Trent Hone, Battleline: The United States Navy 1919-1939 (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2006), Chapter 9; Norman Friedman., U.S. Amphibious Ships and Craft: An Illustrated Design History, (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2001), Chapters 1—4. Miller remains the standard account. The other three volumes provided detailed examples of development of doctrine and equipment.

3. Timothy K. Nenninger, "Organization Milestones in the Development of American Armor, 1920-40," and George F. Hoffman, "Army Doctrine and the Christie Tank: Failing to Exploit the Operational Level of War," in George F. Hoffman and Donn A. Starry, eds., Camp Colt to Desert Storm: The History of U.S. Armored Forces (Lexington: KY: University Press of Kentucky, 1999) pp. 37-66, 92-143; Ronald Specter, "The Military Effectiveness of the U.S. Armed Forces, 1919-1939," Allan Millet and Williamson Murray, eds., Military Effectiveness, Vol. II: The Interwar Period (Boston: Unwin Hyman, 1988) pp. 70-97.

4. Frank D. Hough, Merle E. Ludwig and Henry I. Shaw, History of United States Marine Corps Operations in World War II, Vol. 1, Pearl Harbor to Guadalcanal (Washington, DC: Historical Division, Headquarters, Marine Corps, U.S. Government Printing Office), p. 248.

5. Richard B. Frank, Guadalcanal (New York: Random House, 1990), pp. 607-08 [hereafter Frank, Guadalcanal].

6. Ibid., pp. 124-6.

7. Ibid., pp. 141-158

8. Michael T. Smith, Bloody Ridge: The Battle That Saved Guadalcanal (Novato: Presidio Press, 2000); LGEN Merrill B. Twining, USMC, No Bended Knee (Novato: Presidio Press, 1996) pp. 88-102 [hereafter Twining, No Bended Knee]; COL Joseph H. Alexander,USMC, Edson's Raider's: The First Marine Raider Battalion in World War II (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2001), pp. 135-97. Smith provides an excellent detailed study of the battle, and Twining provides an insider's account of critical command decisions. Alexander provides an almost cinematic portrait of what the battle looked like to individual Marines.

9. Frank, Guadalcanal, p. 264.

10. Twining, No Bended Knee, pp. 104-8, 128-29; Frank, Guadalcanal, pp. 337-66.

11. Ibid., pp. 521-3, 534-9.

12. Ibid., pp. 550-2.

13. Ibid., pp. 563-7.

14. 25th Division Operations Report (Guadalcanal), Record Group 407, National Archives and Records Administration; Forrest C. Pogue, George C. Marshall, Organizer of Victory (New York: The Viking Press, 1973), pp. 377-78.

A Failed Flanking Maneuver

By mid-September, the Marines on Guadalcanal were certain Japanese reinforcements were being landed on the island, but how many was unclear. To discern enemy strength to the west, Lieutenant Colonel Lewis "Chesty" Puller's recently arrived 1st Battalion, 7th Marines, set off on 24 September along an inland route to cross the Matanikau River. The 2d Battalion, 5th Marines, soon joined Puller's force. Meanwhile, Colonel Merritt Edson's 1st Raider Battalion advanced along the coast to cross the Matanikau near its mouth.

But on the 26th the Marines ran headlong into Japanese troops dug-in near the river and were turned back. An attempt the next day to cross the river and advance on the village of Matanikau from the south was also bloodily repulsed. Marine headquarters, however, received a garbled message from the Raiders that created the impression that the Marines were across the river and attacking the village. A plan was quickly hatched to land three companies from the 1st Battalion, 7th Marines, just west of Point Cruz to cut off retreating enemy soldiers.

That afternoon, landing craft crewed by U.S. Coast Guardsmen ferried the Marines past the point and they went ashore. But the Leathernecks, not the Japanese, were soon surrounded. Machine-gun crewman Private First Class Ed Poppendick recalled:

After we had gotten in about 25 or 30 yards, the Japs came in; we had no idea they were coming in behind us to attack. I heard gunfire and the platoon sergeant, [Bucky] Stowers, his gun was shot right out of his hand. He was right there, a couple of feet away from me when it happened. The next thing I knew, this kid next to me was shot in the head, his name was Dick. . . . I could have touched him he was that close to me when he got shot. . . . Corpsmen would pick up the wounded and evacuate them out, so often you never knew what happened to the guys who were hit. The guys in my squad all got shot so quickly . . . seven guys in the squad, and I was the only one left.

Poppendick hugged the ground, and after things quieted down a bit he heard his lieutenant:

He was behind a log about ten or 15 feet away from me, and when he realized I was still alive, he started hollering, "Do you think you can make it back here?" I yelled back, "I'll try it." I just took the ammunition, the spare parts, grabbed my rifle, and throom—I must have looked like Jesse Owens running. I hit that log and went over, and all I could hear was a machinegun going, the leaves coming down, and Lieutenant Richards shouting, "Oh boy this is it!"

The guns of the USS Monssen (DD-436) had blasted an escape route back to the beach, and the landing craft soon returned to retrieve the surviving Marines. Armed with Lewis guns, Signalmen First Class Douglas Munro and Raymond Evans Jr. provided cover fire from on board one of the vessels, escorting several others at a time to and from the beach.

Since joining the Coast Guard in 1939, Munro and Evans had became such close friends that shipmates in the USCGC John C. Spencer (WPG-36) nicknamed them the "Gold Dust Twins," after siblings on the label of Gold Dust soap. The pair had volunteered for the hazardous mission off Point Cruz.

Evans recalled that as the last landing craft full of Marines headed out to sea, "we fell in after them and were at full power when I saw a line of water spouts coming across the water . . . and realized it was machine-gun fire. I don't think Munro saw the line of bullets since he was facing forward and did not at first react to my yelling over the engine noise."

One of the bullets hit Munro in the neck, mortally wounding him. His dying words were "Did they get off?" The Marines did get off, due in no small measure to the Gold Dust Twins' heroism. Munro earned a posthumous Medal of the Honor for his actions—to date the only Coast Guardsman to receive the award. For his part, Evans earned a Navy Cross and a battlefield promotion to chief petty officer. Fighting along the Matanikau River, meanwhile, continued for more than a month.



Sources:

Ed Poppendick oral history interview conducted by Kim Kovarik, The Ohio State University, and edited by Dr. Fred Allison, History Division, U.S. Marine Corps. CDR Ray Evans, USCG (Ret.) oral history, http://www.uscg.mil/history/WEBORALHISTORY/Ray_Evans_Video_Interview.html .

 

See the full Naval Institute guide to The Pacific.

 

 
 

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