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Posted on Dec 26, 2005 in Front Page Features, War College

Edson’s Ridge – Guadalcanal

By Wild Bill Wilder

Ashore and Alone

Once ashore, the Marines proceeded to consolidate their position. Even though the capture of the airfield was without major incident, the Marine capture of nearby Tulagi Island was another matter. Here the Japanese put up a fierce, suicidal resistance against Lieutenant Colonel Merritt (Red Mike) Edson’s First Marine Raider Battalion. Edson was a slender man, with an iron set to his jaw and cold pale eyes that could pierce a man’s soul. His voice was soft, but the authority it carried was enough.

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Edson’s men leaped from the Higgins landing craft, splashed through the surf and moved inland. One battalion skirted to the northeast and overran quickly the northern third of the island. The First lined up three companies abreast and moved across the tiny piece of coral and dank earth, killing Japanese as they went. By dusk, against intense sniper fire that seemed to come from every tree and building, the Marines owned all but one corner of the island. From there on that night the Japanese conducted the first Banzai attack of the war. Filled with liberal amounts of Saki and whiskey, the charged through the darkness into American lines, shouting obscenities in Japanese or using what limited English they knew.

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“Banzai!” They shouted. “Hurrah!”

“Japanese boy drink American boy’s blood!”

Marine replies were even more obscene, punctuated with machine gun and Springfield rifle fire that ripped enemy ranks apart. Grenades spiraled through the air, punching holes in the pitch-blackness with flashes of red and yellow. Five times they charged, and five times they were cut to ribbons. By dawn of the 7th, there was little left with which to resist. By the afternoon of the 8th, the only living Japanese on Tulagi were less than a half-dozen badly wounded enemy soldiers.

The other smaller islands, Tulagi, Florida Island, and the twin islands of Gavutu and Tanambogo were for the most part free of any Japanese intervention. On the main island, the Marines continued to advance and established a strong defensive perimeter well south of the airfield, now named after Major Lofton Henderson, a Marine Pilot who had given his life at the battle of Midway. It was now known as “Henderson Field.”

On the second day, an enemy air raid of twenty-four torpedo bombers was observed by coast watchers and driven off by intense anti-aircraft fire. Even during the attack, sailors worked frantically to off load the equipment and get the rest of the division onshore. Time was working against them. Another attack on the 8th claimed the transport George F. Elliott, the first American ship among many allied vessels that would eventually line the bottom of Iron Bottom Sound.

With Fletcher’s carrier forces withdrawn and no protection for his transports, Admiral Kelly was forced to withdraw. Many vital necessities had as yet to be unloaded, but now the Marines on Guadalcanal would have to fend for themselves. They were on their own.

As the days passed, the Japanese went into action. A series of naval engagements around Savo Island proved disastrous for the allied fleet. The waters around Guadalcanal now belonged to the Japanese, but only at night. The arrival of F4F wildcats, SBD Dauntlesses, P39 Aircobras and the twin-boomed P-38 Lightnings of the Army gave the defenders hope in a very dark hour. The first Japanese attack took place at the Ilu River, when the “Ichiki” Force was virtually annihilated.

Angry at this failure, General Hyakutake ordered into battle what remained of the “Ichiki” Group, 1,000 Marines of the Yokasuka Fifth Naval Landing Force and Major General Kawaguchi’s Brigade of 5,000 Borneo veterans to eliminate this insidious western cancer. Faulty intelligence had estimated Marine strength at 2,000. Actually, there were nearly 11,000 on the island.

Japanese Reinforcements Arrive

The reinforcement effort would be protected by a large Japanese naval force, including three carriers and three battleships. Using the small carrier Ryujo as bait (the same strategy had been used with the Shoho in the Battle of the Coral Sea), Nagumo lured Fletcher’s force into action.

The Ryujo was attacked and sunk. Then planes from the Zuikaku and Shokaku struck the US forces, damaging the Enterprise with three bomb hits. American forces nearly sank the seaplane tender Chitose and then withdrew. Nagumo was unable to relocate them.

Meanwhile, the Cactus Air Force launched vicious attacks against the Japanese landing force and drove it away. It would have to return in landing barges under the cover of darkness to arrive safely. The bulk of the force landed to the east of Henderson Field on September 6th at Taivu Point and immediately proceeded inland.

The bigger artillery pieces and most of the supplies were left at Tasimboko. Two days later, the Marine Raiders discovered the Japanese cache, attacked its defenders and wreaked havoc. They hauled the big guns into the sea, hurling their breechblocks into deeper water. They availed themselves of canned crabmeat, confiscated British cigarettes, and anything else of value to them. The rest of the material was burned or destroyed.
 
The ultimate insult was the taking of General Kawaguchi’s dress uniform. The Japanese commander had specifically brought it with him for the surrender ceremonies when his glorious troops recaptured Henderson Field and drove the impudent Americans back into the sea. Now his fancy pants had been taken prisoner and the General would have to continue in his khaki field dress.

A Long, Hard Journey

The Japanese plan included a three-pronged attack, all to be conducted simultaneously. The Ilu force would strike from the east, the Matanikau force from the west, while Kawaguchi’s main force of 3,000 would strike from the south, over a large ridge that bordered the southern end of the Marine defensive perimeter. The two flanking attacks were a diversion. Kawaguchi would take the bulk of his force and secure the major triumph. His men used as a rallying cry “Remember the Ichiki Suicide” (Ichiki had taken his life when his earlier attack across the Ilu river failed) 

Led by Kawaguchi himself, the long, arduous march around the American perimeter began on September 7th. It was a nightmare.  Hacking their way through dense, rain-soaked jungles, struggling up and down hills with heavy equipment, wading through treacherous swamps, they perspired profusely. They received scratches and cuts that quickly festered. The mosquitoes were unrelenting in their attacks. They staggered with fatigue and dysentery, but on they came.

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The discovery of Kawaguchi’s supply dump revealed to the Marine leaders the presence of the enemy reinforcements, but no one was sure from where they would strike. Something big was in the wind, but when and where? A careful study of maps and the terrain pointed out the most likely spot as a rugged, relatively barren ridge rising from the jungle about a mile south of Henderson. The Marines as yet had not occupied it. In fact, the entire southern perimeter was very weak.

Vandergrift had placed his greatest strength on the flanks and along the coast. The only available force to occupy the area was Red Mike’s First Raider Battalion and units of the Marine Parachute Battalion (command by Captain Harry Torgerson, who had the seat of his pants blown off in the fighting at Gavutu). Edson, ever the optimist, told his men they were headed to a quiet rest area. They were ready for it. Weeks of combat and jungle marches had left them exhausted. But it was to be far from an area of rest for the Raiders!

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